John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (II)
For Calvin, the New Testament Church is the fulfillment of the Church in the Older Covenant. Writing the 1536 edition, Calvin believed that there was but one Church from the beginning of time until the end. This notion recurs in the final (1559) edition of the Institutes. How did Calvin arrive at such a conclusion? The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t simply one thing that caused him to reach this conclusion. His doctrine of the covenant of grace was one large predisposing factor in his life, but he also explained his hermeneutic in the early phases of his magnum opus, in Book 2 to be precise.
It is instructive to note some of the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and New Testament in general and with a view to the Church in particular that Calvin identified. In order to get a clear view of Calvin’s concept of the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, we must turn to Book 2, chapters 10 and 11.
We’ll begin with the similarities between the Old and New Testament. Before we do that, however, Calvin gives us the foundation upon which his exposition rests: “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation.” (2.10.2). Here we gain good insights into the manner in which Calvin understood the covenant relationship between God and his Church. The various dispensations of covenant administration—Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—was much like ours regarding both substance and reality. The difference is the “mode of dispensation.” Everything promised in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ so that his threefold office is the hinge upon which this turns.
It is also instructive that in mentioning the covenant, Calvin describes the Church as a covenant community. That is to say, in place of the rampant individualism in our society today and in the modern Church, churches should be seeking to manifest a covenant model above all else. Therefore, rather than a group of more or less loosely connected individuals forming a church—any church—the emphasis should be, first and foremost, on the community aspect of the congregation.
The Similarities Between Old and New
Calvin lists three similarities that exist between the Old and New Testaments, which are the manifestations of the unity that exists between them:
He writes, “First, we hold that carnal prosperity and happiness did not constitute the goal set before the Jews to which they were to aspire. Rather, they were adopted into the hope of immortality; and assurance of this adoption was certified to them by oracles, by the law, and by the prophets.” That is to say, Israel did not set its hope merely on the things of the earth. They were looking for a better city and did not believe that the promises of God would be realized in mere earthly things. They were spiritually minded.
“Secondly, the covenant by which they were bound to the Lord was supported, not by their own merits, but solely by the mercy of God, who called them.” This cuts at the heart of much of modern evangelicalism/Dispensationalism that teaches that the Jews were saved by keeping the Law and that the (parenthesis) Church is now under grace. Their own merits/works did nothing in procuring salvation for them or for putting them in God’s favor—I started to say “graces” but the pun would have been to obvious even for me.
“Thirdly, they had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in his promises.” I will draw four New Testament texts here to make Calvin’s point: In John 8:56, Jesus tells the Jews that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day; he saw it and was glad. Paul’s warning against idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10 recounts God’s redemptive acts as his people wandered in the wilderness and he informs his readers, “For they drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). The last chapter of Luke records Jesus’ conversation with the two men on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24:27 we read, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Moreover, in verse 44 he explains to the men that the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Psalms spoke of him. There is a clear continuity between the Old and New Testaments especially regarding the covenant of grace and the mediatorship of Christ.
The Differences Between Old and New
But Calvin acknowledges that in addition to an overarching continuity between the testaments a certain degree of discontinuity exists as well. He describes the differences therefore in the following manner:
First, “the Lord of old willed that his people direct and elevate their minds to the heavenly heritage; yet, to nourish them better in this hope, he displayed it for them to see and, so to speak, taste, under early benefits. But now that the gospel has more plainly and clearly revealed the grace of the future life, the Lord leads our minds to meditate upon it directly, laying aside the lower mode of training that he used with the Israelites.”
The second difference consists in figures and ceremonies. Calvin explains that “in the absence of the reality, it showed but an image and shadow in place of the substance: the New Testament revealed the very substance of truth as present. This difference is mentioned almost wherever the New Testament is contrasted with the Old, but a fuller discussion of it is to be found in The Letter to the Hebrews than anywhere else.”
But Calvin also cites Jeremiah 31:31-34 in support of position and states, “From these words the apostle took occasion to make a comparison between the law and the gospel, calling the former literal, the latter spiritual doctrine; the former he speaks of as carved on tablets of stone, the later as written upon men’s hearts; the former is the preaching of death, the latter of life; the former of condemnation, the latter of righteousness; the former to be made void, the latter to abide (2 Cor. 3:6-11).”
He informs us that the fourth difference arises out of the third: “Scripture calls the Old Testament one of ‘bondage’ because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of ‘freedom’ because it lifts them to trust and assurance.” All of this, of course, is concentrated in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the fifth difference “lies in the fact that until the advent of Christ, the Lord set apart one nation within which to confine the covenant of his grace.” Therefore, the gospel is now sent to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. The theocracy of the Old Testament is no longer in gear, which means, hermeneutically, that the sword is now given to the civil magistrate and the power of excommunication lies within the power of the Church.
The Church in Book 4 of the Institutes
It is with this as a necessary background that we now move on to discuss what Calvin teaches in Books 4 regarding the Church. The first 4 chapters of Book 4 deal with what legitimately be called “mother Church.” For example, chapter 1 of the 4th is entitled: The True Church with which as Mother of all the Godly We Must Keep Unity.
He opens Book 4 with a section on the necessity of the Church. He writes, “And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the Church.” Notice how he brings the notion of Church and preaching into the closest proximity. Is it the treasure of the gospel or the preaching that Calvin is talking about here? In one sense, the two are inextricably joined together so that they should be taken as one. The essential place of pastors and teachers is secured when he writes that God “instituted ‘pastors and teachers’ [Eph. 4:11] through whose lips he might teach his own; he furnished them with authority; finally, he omitted nothing that might make for holy agreement of faith and for right order.”
In this opening section Calvin lays out his plan for the remainder of Book 4: “Accordingly, our plan of instruction now requires us to discuss the church, its government, orders, and power; then the sacraments; and lastly, the civil order.” Those desiring to investigate this further can simply follow Calvin’s outline.
The Church as “Mother”
Then Calvin adds, “I shall start, then, with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach for the goal of faith…for those to whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother.” This could, in certain circumstances, give the impression that Calvin has not been able to extricate himself from the vestiges of Roman Catholicism. What does Calvin mean by this statement?
In the very least, he is stressing the centrality of the Church in the life of the believer. Christ’s Church is not to be relegated to the periphery of life or seen as a sort of appendage in a long litany of other entities vying for our allegiance. The believer must conceive of the Church as an indispensable aspect of the Christian life. He is not to attend the local congregation for entertainment, but to be nourished and helped in spiritual matters. Truly, this is a far cry from much of what pertains to the modern Church. Calvin speaks of the Church’s motherly care and the aim of maturity. This seems little more than a paraphrase of what Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4:11-12 and equipping the saints.
There is no statistical barometer by which we can ascertain with precision to what degree the saints are being equipping, but it is safe to say that the designation of “little” is sufficient.
The Covenant Community: Communio Sanctorum
Calvin reminds us that this particular article of the Apostles’ Creed also has a great deal to say about both the nature of the Church as well as what the Church is: the “communion of the saints.” He writes, “This article of the Creed also applies to some extent to the outward Church, in that each of us should keep in brotherly agreement with all God’s children, should yield to the Church the authority it deserves, in short should act as one of the flock.”
Calvin’s implicit critique of modern Christianity is scathing, not merely with regard to “brotherly agreement” but also with a view to members yielding to the biblical authority ascribed to the Church. It also pertains to the active participation of each member in acting as one of the flock. The notion of “flock” is another way of stating that the Church is a covenant community, with an emphasis on the facts that it is both a covenant community and a covenant community. The much maligned and forgotten concept of the communion of the saints (communion sanctorum) neglects the essence of God’s Church. The communion of the saints “..very well expresses what the Church is.”
But in order to cement his notion of the Church as Mother among the saints we read, “But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible Church, let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.”
It is impossible to escape the importance of the Church to Calvin. Even though he embraces and teaches the distinction between the visible and invisible Church, he informs us that it is his intention to focus his and our attention upon the visible Church. In fact, his wording points to the truth that the Church must conceive us in her womb, “birth” us, nourish us throughout life, and keep us under her care and guidance until we receive our eternal inheritance. Calvin pushes the Church to the forefront of the entirety of the Christian life. Just a cursory reading of these words indicates how far we have wandered from the necessity of Christ’s Church for us.
After having made the point of the Church as our mother, he appends these words after citing Psalm 87:6; 106:4-5; Isaiah 37:32; 56:5; Joel 2:32; and Ezekiel 13:9 in support of his position: “By these words God’s fatherly favor and the special witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the Church.”
In sections 5-6 Calvin focuses on the education (equipping) of God’s people through the Church by concentrating on both the value as well as its obligation of preaching and teaching in a biblical manner. In the discussion at this point, his emphasis is primarily on preaching. So much so that in 4.1.5 he can say, “…the Church is built up solely by outward preaching, and that the saints are held together by one bond only: that with common accord, through learning and advancement, they keep the Church order established by God (cf. Eph. 4:12).” What is the task, then, of the pastors in preaching? “We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the education of the church. We see the way set for it: the preaching of the heavenly doctrine has been enjoined upon the pastors.”
Identifying the True Church
How can this true Church be identified? What are its “marks” or “notes?” To answer this question, Calvin points us to 1 Timothy 3:15. So important is seeking out, finding, and attaching ourselves to the true church that he contends that separation from the Church is the denial of God and Christ.
The marks or notes of the true Church then are: the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. He will later add church discipline to his list (cf. Inst. 4.12.1ff.).
According to the 1 Timothy 3 text, “…the Church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world. For by its ministry and labor God willed to have the preaching of his Word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family, while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation.”
Calvin makes his comparison of the true and false Church in Inst. 4.2. At the head of his list of differentiating marks is a “basic distinction” between the true and false Church: “Again, if the true Church is the pillar and foundation of truth [1 Tim. 3:15], it is certain that no church can exist where lying and falsehood have gained sway.” It is important to take due note of the fact that for Calvin both churches possess distinguishing marks.
Of primary consideration is the egregious mark that attends the false Church: despite its claims to the contrary, it shows that it does not hear the Word of God (4.2.3). Citing Jeremiah 7:4 Calvin concludes that “For the Lord nowhere recognizes any temple as his save where his Word is heard and scrupulously observed.” Clearly, Calvin is addressing the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, but at this sad juncture in modern evangelicalism we need to reflect upon and ponder whether many of the modern churches, many of our churches are bucking the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God. Despite the many claims to the contrary are modern churches refuses to hear the Word and are a number of pastors refusing to preach it?
The Word is central because the Church is founded upon it (cf. Inst. 4.2.4). Therefore, the true Church must not rest with outward shows and signs, but rather must understand that God’s Word “…is the abiding mark with which our Lord has sealed his own (cf. John 18:37; 10:4-5; 14, 27; 8:47; Eph. 2:20).” In no uncertain terms Calvin sums up the matter in this way: “…since the church Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will not be clear to any man that those are lying words [cf. Jer. 7:4] by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is his most holy Word)?”
To Calvin’s mind finding the true Church is a “no brainer”: “Why do we willfully act like madmen in searching out the Church when Christ has marked it with an unmistakable sign, which, wherever it is seen, cannot fail to show the Church there; while where it is absent, nothing remains that can give the true meaning of the church?
Once this true Church is located and joined it is held together by two bonds: agreement in sound doctrine and brotherly love. It is each member’s and each pastor’s responsibility to ensure that both sound doctrine as well as brotherly love is lives in Christ’s Church.
Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.
Yorba Linda, CA
 Inst. 2.10.2, p. 429. (All pagination is taken from the Battles/McNeill edition.)
 Ibid., 429-430.
 Ibid., 430.
 Inst. 2.11.1, pg. 450.
 Ibid., 453.
 Ibid., 456.
 Ibid., 458.
 Ibid., 460.
 Ibid., 1011-1012.
 Ibid., 1012.
 Ibid., 1014.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine—RG.
 Ibid., 1016. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid. In 4.1.19, 1033, Calvin says, “…he who voluntarily deserts the outward communion of the church (where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered) is without excuse.”
 Ibid., 1019.
 Ibid., 1017.
 Ibid., 1024.
 Ibid., 1042.
 Ibid., 1043-1044.
 Ibid., 1046.