Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (VI)
In our last installment, we began looking at Calvin’s treatise The Necessity of Reforming the Church. It’s my intention to continue along the same lines now and delineate more in detail the contents of Calvin’s doctrine of the Church defined in this writing. It should be noted that he is criticizing many of the practices in the Roman Catholic Church. His concern is concentrated in three main areas:
First, there was Calvin’s concern for the pure and legitimate worship of God.
Second, he was equally concerned about the proper administration of the sacraments.
Finally, the question of true church government was an issue for him.
Let’s listen to what he has to say to us as he defends the Reformers and their liturgy, sacramentology, and form of Church government. We’ll pick it up where he claims, “Since, therefore, in our churches, God alone is adored in pure form without superstition, since his goodness, wisdom, power, truth, and other perfections, are there preached more fully than anywhere else, since he is invoked with true faith in the name of Christ, his mercies celebrated with both heart and tongue, and men constantly urged to a simply and sincere obedience; since in short nothing is heard but what tend to promote the sanctification of his name, what cause have those who call themselves Christians to take us up so ill?”
The Case Against Idolatry
At the top, then, of Calvin’s list of criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church regarding worship is idolatry. He cites the ancient Church in general & St. Augustine in particular as being opposed to images and relics. Impure worship had not merely been introduced, but had taken a foothold in the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin, therefore, defends the Reformers by stating, “we have not laid even a finger on anything which Christ does not discount as worthless when he declares that it is vain to worship God with human traditions.” In a very sense, this is a highly relevant and actual criticism that not merely pertains to the Roman Catholic Church, but also has clear applications in our current ecclesiastical (modern: ecclesial) milieu. It’s more than just a little ironic that the accusations that Calvin leveled at the Roman Catholics now have application for the modern evangelical church.
Stating his case more strongly Calvin explains, “I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even abominates everything devised for worship by human reason.” Sound familiar? Precisely how much of what passes for “worship” today is directly or indirectly derived from Scripture and how much is simply the pragmatic invention of man?
When I say pragmatic, I’m referring to that which will ostensibly keep the members or adherents coming back for more. This can range from the moderately reasonable to the absurd and almost anything in between. Saddleback Church here in Southern California, for example, just added a hula worship service. There must have been a crying need for hula dancers during the gathering. Surely there is something in Scripture about hula dancers and their proper place in worshipping the Lord, isn’t there? Something very similar could also be said about any number of “practices” in the modern Church meant to keep the audience happy.
The Place of Prayer
When it comes to prayer, the Reformers made three necessary corrections to the Roman Catholic practice: First, discarding the intercession of saints, the Reformers brought men back to Christ. This should be clear, Calvin explains because “There is scarcely any subject on which the Holy Spirit more carefully prescribes than on the proper method of prayer.” It goes without saying that an examination of Calvin’s prayers leaves us with the distinct impression that they should be patterned after Scripture and filled with solemnity. As an aside, the longest chapter in Calvin’s Institutes deals with prayer. This might come as a surprise to some who have heard caricatures of Calvin, but you can look it up.
Second, Calvin teaches that no one can invoke God except those who have been taught by the Word of God to pray. In other words, God has distinctly declared “that the Word of God is the only sure foundation for prayer.” In short, Christians are to pray the Bible. If we were to take this more seriously, a great deal of out and out nonsense and irreverence would disappear from what passes as modern worship. Prayers would be more in keeping with what God would have us pray therefore freeing us from will-worship. Speaking on what the Westminster Confession of Faith has to say about this topic of worship, R.J. Gore writes, “In reference to worship, it is the confession’s intent to deny ‘will-worship’ and to bind all legitimate worship to the express command of God.”
In terms of the corporate worship, far too many evangelical churches have dispensed with the longer “pastoral prayer” altogether in order that room might be made for other accoutrements that pass as “worship.”
Third, the Reformers taught the believers in the Reformation churches to pray understandably. “Whereas men generally prayed in an unknown tongue, we have taught them to pray with understanding. Every man accordingly is taught by our doctrine to pray in private so that he understands what he asks of God. So also the public prayers in our churches are framed so as to be understood by all.” Clearly, this has a number of applications to our current situation. Whereas prayer involves our emotions, it must also be viewed as engaging the mind as well (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15).
The Bondage of the Will
Vis-à-vis the grounds of salvation, Calvin inveighs heavily against the freedom of the will of man after the Fall and its powers unto salvation. He summarizes the matter for us this way: “For if man has any ability of his own to serve God, he does not obtain salvation entirely by the grace of Christ, but part bestows it on himself.” Little has been said or written about how both Roman Catholic and evangelical churches are, by and large, semi-Pelagian in theology, but it is true.
Few want to be the ones saying that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but a close inspection of the doctrine of salvation in both Roman Catholic and evangelicalism turns up almost identical results. There are areas where the implications are worked out a little differently and the modern evangelical churches don’t use the various ceremonies, prayers to Mary, veneration of saints, and some other rituals, but the theology of salvation is pretty much the same in both.
The notion of man’s free will is grossly distorted and misunderstood in our time—as it has been in previous centuries. Calvin views free will this way: “Again though we do not deny that man acts spontaneously and of free will when he is guided by the Holy Spirit, we maintain that his whole nature is so imbued with depravity, that of himself he possesses no ability whatever to act aright.” This has long since divided the churches that grew out of the Reformation from those in modern evangelicalism.
What hangs in the balance is nothing less that God’s absolute sovereignty as it is given in Scripture generally and in Romans 9 in particular. Where the notion of free will derails is here: “The point on which the world always goes astray (for this error has prevailed in almost every age), is in imagining that man, however partially defective he may be, still in some degree merits the favor of God by works.” There is truly nothing new under the sun.
Calvin especially dislikes the Roman Catholic notion of the works of supererogation in connection with man’s will. His criticism in this regard is twofold: First, “it is impossible to tolerate the idea of man being able to perform to God more than he ought.”
Second, “That as by the term supererogation they for the most part understand voluntary acts of worship with their own brain has devised, and which they obtrude upon God, it is lost labor and pains; so far are such acts from being expiations appeasing the divine anger.” Allow me a few comments. Evangelicalism does not hold to the Roman Catholic idea of works of supererogation, but there certainly is a strong concept of works righteousness within the evangelical Church. This should really come as no surprise since, as I mentioned above, both Roman Catholics and evangelicals are semi-Pelagian in their respective theologies. This means that some of the ways in which salvation is worked out and a number of the accoutrements are different, but the essence of semi-Pelagianism remains practically unchanged in both.
I make this argument with a view to the type of man-centered “will-worship” that passes for genuine God-centered and God-ordained worship in both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements. While is it totally legitimate to bemoan the histrionics in the past and current mega-churches, the Emergents are taking the silliness in the mega-church a step farther and dabbling in various forms of (Eastern) Mysticism.
The Doctrine of the Sacraments
The Reformers pared down the list of “sacraments” claimed by the Roman Catholic Church from seven to two: Baptism & the Lord’s Supper. The other five are all considered to be ceremonies of man’s devising, except marriage, which is not technically a sacrament anymore than a funeral is. Failing to discriminate between biblical sacraments and the rites originating with man is to confound heaven with earth.
When the sacraments are administered, they are always to be accompanied by the proclamation of the Word. He writes, “Lastly, we have recalled the ancient custom that the administration of the sacraments at the same time be accompanied by doctrine, expounding with all diligence and fidelity both their advantages and their legitimate use…” In this quotation, Calvin gives us insight not only into the nature of his sacramentology, but also into what should be preached. Quoting a well known dictum from Gratian (master of canon law in the 12th century) he reiterates, “If the Word is wanting, the water is nothing but an element.”
With regards to the Lord’s Supper, Calvin states that it was not merely corrupted but nearly abolished in the Roman Catholic Church. This desecration took place in the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His criticisms of the Romish view of the Lord’s Supper can be summarized as follows: “while the sacrament ought to have been a means of elevating pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the Supper were abused for an entirely different purpose, and men, content with gazing upon them and worshipping them, never once raised their mind to Christ.”
With regards to the presence of Christ in the holy meal, Calvin advocates that Christ is truly present as he is in the Word. The Holy Spirit is the chain (Latin: viniculum) between the human nature of Christ and Christ’s congregation. Part of the work of the Spirit is to take everything from the risen and ascended Savior and to impart that unto our hungry and thirsty souls unto eternal life. This is why he says, “First, we exhort all to come with faith, that by means of it they may inwardly discern the thing which is visibly represented, that is the spiritual food by which alone their souls are nourished unto life eternal. We hold that in this ordinance the Lord does not promise or set forth by signs, anything which he does not exhibit in reality.”
The Government of the Church
His final point deals with the government of the Church. He begins with the pastoral office. He argues that the Reformers have restored the pastoral office “both according to the apostolic rule and the practice of the primitive Church, by insisting that every one who rules in the Church shall also teach.”
Pastors are to be elected and not merely appointed to a particular congregation. In addition, they should be seriously examined as to their life and doctrine. “As the Holy Spirit in Scripture imposes on all bishops the necessity of teaching, so in the ancient Church it would have been thought monstrous to nominate a bishop who would not by teaching demonstrate that he was a pastor also.” Hereby, Calvin emphasizes the crying need for pastors to teach only what is in accord with the Word of God. Moreover, pastors should not make distant excursions from their churches; let them not be long absent.
Finally, before Calvin tackles the issue of Christian freedom. Calvin has this to say: “On the subject of ecclesiastical rule, there are laws out of which we readily adopt those that are not snares for the conscience, or that contribute to the preservation of common order; but those which had either been tyrannically imposed to hold consciences in bondage, or contributed rather to superstition than to edification, we were forced to abrogate.” When it comes down to the ruling of the Christian conscience the Reformers held that there was no legislator but God. “This freedom, purchased by the blood of Christ, may not be prostituted.”
Human tradition had wormed itself into the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers had corrected the abuses of Christian freedom in 3 particular areas: 1) the liberty to eat flesh on any day; 2) the marriage of priests; & 3) the rejection of auricular confession. Calvin draws from texts such as Matthew 15:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:4; 1 Timothy. 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Timothy 3:2; and Titus 1:6 to drive home his point.
At the end of his treatise, Calvin reminds the Emperor that for “twelve hundred years this tyranny, for which they contend with us so keenly, was unknown to the Christian world.”
At bottom, Calvin hopes that the Emperor will be satisfied with his apology since “It is certainly just.”
 J.K.S. Reid [ed.], Calvin: Theological Treatises, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), p. 185.
 Ibid., 190. From Augustine he gives us the following quotations: “No man prays or worships looking on an image without being impressed with the idea that it is listening to him.” “Images are more likely to mislead an unhappy soul having a mouth, eyes, ears and feet than to correct it, because they neither speak, nor see, nor hear, nor walk.” “The effect as it were extorted by the external shape is that the soul living in a body thinks a body which it sees so very like it own must be percipient.”
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 195.
 R.J. Gore, Covenantal Worship. Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2002), p. 27.
 Reid, CTT, 196.
 Ibid., 197.
 Two recent misinterpretations can be found in George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism. The Calvinistic Caste System, ((Santa Ana, CA: Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004) & Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free. A Balanced View of Divine Election, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001).
 Reid, CTT, 198. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 199. Calvin gives the Reformed perspective in the following words: “First, we maintain that of whatever kind a man’s works my be, he is regarded as righteous before God simply on the ground of gratuitous mercy; be c, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him as if it were his own.”
 Ibid., 201.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 203.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 210.
 Ibid., 211.
 The Fourth Lateran Council  required this.
 Reid, CTT, 216.