Book 4 Chapter 2 Section 1-12
Following Calvin’s description of the characteristics of the true church, he now turns his analysis on the Church of Rome. Calvin asks; is it a true church with its fair share of problems or is it actually a false church? It’s important to remember that at this point in history there was only one church and that to leave that church effectively meant being excommunicated from the body of Christ. Notwithstanding the consequences, Calvin concludes that according to the two criteria of the preaching of the word and the institution of the sacraments, the 16th century Roman Catholic church is not a true church.
Calvin says that the corruptions present in Lord’s supper and doctrine had become so bad that the Roman Catholic church had forfeited its status as the true church of God. Thus he argues that it is possible to separate from this false church and yet remain faithful to the true church. He argues that contrary to what the bishops were saying, “in declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being dissevered from the church of Christ.”
How did the bishops respond to such accusations? Well, surprisingly rather than argue on issues of doctrine and practise, they claim that the perpetual succession of the papacy at Rome is evidence of their heritage and authenticity. They appealed to ancient records describing the perpetual succession of bishops from the time of Peter to the present day. They say that history and tradition is on their side and establishes Rome as the centre for ecclesiastical heirarchy. Calvin argues that “the pretence of succession is vain, if posterity did not retain the truth of Christ.” He compares this argument to that of the Jews who believed that as long as the temple and ark of the covenant were present in Jerusalem, then they would be victorious in their battles (Jeremiah 7.4).
Calvin warns them against placing too much emphasis on external evidences as a measure of faithfulness. He says that they should remember the example of Ishmael who was circumcised, and was even the firstborn. And yet for all his outward advantages he was rejected by God in favour of Isaac. Calvin also points to the perpetual succession of the Jewish priesthood as a warning against relying on succession on its own. He argues that “as soon as they are convicted of having revolted from their origin, (they) are deprived of all honour”, that is, unless we are prepared to say that Caiaphas and the first century Sanhedrin also belonged to the true church of God.
As a result of this teaching Calvin was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic. He describes the former as those who “corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas”, the second as those who “even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union.” Does Calvin admit to these charges? Well, he admits that they “preach a different doctrine, and submit not to their laws, and meet apart from them for prayer, baptism, the administration of the Supper and other sacred rites.” Well not surprisingly Calvin does not accept their criticisms. He argues that as communion is held together by “consent in sound doctrine and brotherly charity”, and that this latter element is dependent upon the unity of faith, to leave those who have previously betrayed the faith is not breaking communion, for it has already been destroyed.
Finally Calvin admits that although the Roman Catholic church had disqualified itself from being the true church, there was still some good within it and does not want to discard it root and branch. He recognises that although there was much decay, it retained “those vestiges of a church”, reflected in his comment that “while we are unwilling to simply concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them.”
Its hard to put yourself in Calvin’s shoes and imagine a time when there was only one authority, one church, one ruling power. Like rebelling against George Orwell’s Big Brother in his book 1984, there could be terrible consequences to fighting the establishment. But that is exactly what Calvin did. His language pulls no punches and in these chapters becomes the most direct and vocal against his opponents of anywhere in the Institutes. He has finally come to the most direct point of conflict – the very right of the Roman Catholic church to impose its authority and demands on the people. Calvin discards this right at its very core, not arguing about superficial rituals or unbiblical doctrines, but as a master lumberjack he aims directly for the trunk of the tree and attacks.
It’s important we don’t confuse the 16th century Catholic church with our modern version. I am sure many of my Catholic friends are uncomfortable with Calvin’s language and views in this chapter. But looking back and reflecting on the depth of corruption prevalent at the time, I believe that drastic reformation was inevitable. Perhaps we wish it had been kept within the one church, perhaps we wouldn’t now have the plethora of denominations and branches of the Christian faith if it had been reformed from within. But it is all speculation now, the Reformation swept away the old ways and provided a credible, alternative church; one which had a renewed focus on the bible and practical godliness.
But in the 500 years since Calvin, who can deny that many of the same problems have not crept into the various branches of the protestant church? By God’s grace there have been instances of reformation across the demonination, but some of these branches stand in great need of a new reformation back to the word of God, back to sola scriptura, sola fide etc. If God tarries and the decline continues then may reformation come again, one day.
“If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7.14
Father restore us to a purity of doctrine and practise, reform our ways individually and corporately. Bring times of refreshing back to your people and bring a revival in this land of truth and godliness. For Jesus sake, Amen.