Book 4 - Chapter 1 (Parts 1-4)
The focus of Book 4 of the Institutes is the church. In this book, Calvin will discuss all aspects of the church including its unity, its worship, its sacraments and all the means the church uses to draw people to Christ. Chapter 1 covers some of the basics.
Summary: Calvin opens with the reminder that we come to faith by the preaching of the Gospel, and that God “…deposited this treasure (the Gospel) in the church” (pg. 1012). In addition, God “...instituted ‘pastors and teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11) through whose lips he might teach his own;” (pg. 1012). God also made sure that the church was equipped with all that it needed for its life together including, but not limited to, the sacraments, government, orders (ministers, teachers, etc.) power and civil order. Calvin examines each of these aspects of the church in Book 4.
Calvin begins his discussion of the church by examining the references to the church in the Apostles’ creed. “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
He wants his readers to understand two general things about the church. The first is that “the church” in the creed refers “…not only to the ‘visible’ church but also to all of God’s elect, in whose number are also included the dead” (pg. 1012). For those unfamiliar with the term ‘visible’ church, it refers to all of those who are members of the church here on earth at any given moment; the people we see in church if you will. Calvin extends the term church to go beyond those presently in the church to include all of those whom God has elected (even if they are not yet in the visible church) as well as those who once were part of the church and have since died. The church then becomes a community that stretches across time and space.
Second, Calvin wants people to be clear that the church is composed of those elected for salvation, and those not so elected (the Biblical image of wheat and tares (i.e., weeds)/sheep and goats). However, only God knows the who is in and who is out. “But because a small contemptable number are hidden in a huge multitude and a few grains of wheat are covered by a pile of chaff, we must leave to God alone the knowledge of his church whose foundation is his secret election” (pg. 1013). In other words, we are never to assume that we have the wisdom to decide who are among the elect and who are not.
Calvin then moves on to the term catholic. “The church is called ‘catholic’ or ‘universal’ because there could not be two or three churches unless Christ be torn asunder- which could not happen…they are made truly one since they live together in one faith, hope and love, and in the same Spirit of God” (pg. 1014). For many people this is one of the surprising aspects of Calvin, that, he is willing to acknowledge that churches do not have to believe exactly as he believes, in order to be the church.
Next, he looks at the phrase, the communion of saints. Calvin applies this phrase to both the visible church and the entirety of the elect. He suggests that in terms of the visible church it reminds us that we should act “…as one flock” (pg. 1014). In terms of the elect, it reminds us that God will never forsake those with whom God is in communion.
Reflection: Christians across the ages have tended to claim, for their particular church, the title “the church.” Calvin rejects this concept and embraces the radical idea that all Christians are bound together in a single, worldwide community. This has been the basis for our worshiping and working with other churches, of other denominations; that even though we do not agree on all things (sacraments, worship style, theology, etc.) we are still a single body, called to a single purpose.
Summary: Calvin begins this section by discussing the importance of Christian education. He quotes the Apostle Paul who wrote that Christ, “…appointed some to be ‘apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until all reach the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to perfect manhood, to the measure of the full mature age of Christ’” (pg. 1017). And God does so because God, “…desires them (God’s people) to grow up into (full faith) solely under the education of the church” (pg. 1017). In other words, God desires that all people become more and more Christ-like with each passing day and that they are to become more and more like Christ through the education they receive from the church.
While Calvin acknowledges that God could teach us individually, he argues instead that God chooses to teach us as a community. “For although God’s power is not bound to outward means, he has nonetheless bound us to this ordinary manner of teaching...Surely…believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step” (pg. 1019). Calvin’s point is that the church is the God given vehicle for the transmission of the faith. This is so because not only is there a benefit of the collective wisdom of the church but that the church is led by those who have been gifted by God for the transmission of the faith. So, when people remove themselves from common worship, they risk wandering off into beliefs and actions that do not build them up as followers of Jesus.
Next, Calvin returns to his discussion (from an earlier chapter) of the invisible and visible churches. To understand these terms, we need to recall Calvin’s doctrine of Election that states that God chooses some, but not all people, and some but not all church goers, to be God’s adopted children. The invisible church then is composed of those whom God has chosen to be God’s own children. The visible church is the church that consists of all of those who happen to be members of churches around the world even though they may not then be actual children of God. Calvin understands that this differentiation will often lead people to try to discern which people are in the invisible church and which people are not. So, Calvin issues a stern reminder that we, as human beings, cannot figure this out. And in fact, we might often get it wrong. Calvin puts it this way. “For those who seemed utterly lost and quite beyond hope are by his goodness called back to the way; while those who more than others seemed to stand firm often fall” (pg. 1022). And because of this, we are to “…recognize as members of the church those who by confession of faith, by example of life and by partaking of the sacrament, profess the same God and Christ with us” (pg. 1023).
Reflections: One of the great Biblical themes is that God calls communities and not simply individuals. This is true with Abraham (called to be a great nation), with Jesus (who called multiple disciples) and with the church (at Pentecost where the church is created as a community of mutually supportive believers). This sense of the importance of community can be lost in the American context. As a people of “rugged individualism,”, we often see our faith as a personal one in which we do not need the church. It’s just me and Jesus. The problem with this individualized faith is that it often becomes no more than a faith that places our wants, needs and desires at the center of our religious universe; rather than the command and call of Christ to love God and neighbor.
Summary: In the opening of this section, Calvin offers us the marks of the true church, meaning those things which make a true church, a true church. “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (pg. 1023). This is one of the most important concepts in the Institutes. By using these two actions and these two actions alone as the marks of the true church, it allows for a wide variety of expressions of liturgy and practice within churches. Calvin goes even further to say that while there may be churches that we do not think ought to be thought of as the true church because they do things differently from the way we do them, that as long as they rightly preach the word and administer the sacraments, then they are the true church.
At this point, Calvin reminds his readers of the importance of the church (something we dealt with in the previous article). Because the church is the place where people grow in their faith and receive God’s blessing, then God “…counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who…leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of the Word and sacraments. He (God) so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated (by someone leaving it) he believes his own diminished” (pg. 1024). Though this attitude may appear a bit extreme to us, it reflects Calvin’s belief that the true church is the very body of Christ, and so for someone to wander away from it is tantamount to someone leaving Christ. As he writes, “From this it follows that separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ. Hence we must even more avoid…a separation” (pg. 2024-5).
After this warning, Calvin returns to his reasons for accepting a wide variety of churches as being true churches. The first, he notes again, is the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. Second he states that there are only a handful of essential doctrines (the unity of God, the divinity of Christ, and salvation through grace) that churches need to adhere to, meaning churches can disagree about other non-essential doctrines, and still be a true church. Third, Calvin notes that all churches are sinful (he uses the church at Corinth as an example) and thus no one church can be the perfect church. Calvin then spends some time unpacking the idea that all churches are sinful. Calvin writes, “…if we are not willing to admit a church unless it be perfect in every respect, we leave no church at all” (pg. 1031). With that in mind, Calvin believes that churches ought to try to be as holy as possible through the exercise of discipline (meaning they try to exclude from their midst those who are obviously evil), but that they ought to do so with the greatest of humility and caution. And, discipline, when exercised, ought to be exercised in an orderly fashion by the entire church and not by a single individual.
Reflection: Calvin’s idea that the true church exists wherever there is right preaching and
right administration of the sacraments is one of his great gifts to the church. This is what allows us to work and worship with churches of all denominations knowing that they don’t have to be just like us. It also allows us, as Presbyterians to experiment with liturgy and practices as well as expand our understanding of how God works in the world, including the full inclusion of all people into the life and work of our church.
Summary: We pick up Calvin’s discussion of the church as he examines what it means to call the church holy. He believes this examination is important because if we define holy as being perfect in every respect then there will be “…no church at all” (pg. 1031). Holiness for Calvin is not a static state in which the church is supposed to find itself, but it is instead “…the sense that it is daily advancing and is not yet perfect: it makes progress from day to day but has not yet reached its goal of holiness…” (pg. 1031). To be holy then is to be the church at work striving to live the Christ-like life, knowing that while it cannot obtain absolute perfection, it ought to still strive after it. In addition, while the church is not perfect, it is forgiven and thus lives in a new, holy relationship with God. Calvin puts it this way, “…but because they…aspire to holiness and perfect purity, the cleanliness (perfection) that they have not yet fully attained is granted them by God’s kindness” (pg. 1032), meaning God sees us as forgiven and holy people.
Calvin defends this view of holiness by referencing the history of the people of God in that there was never a perfect community, either in the Old Testament or in the New. The church was always composed of imperfect people. Some of whom were more faithful and others who were less faithful. Even so, “…neither the vices of the few or the vices of the many in any way prevent us from duly professing our faith…” (pg. 1033), meaning that even as a community of imperfect people the church could still profess what it believes, even if it cannot fully live it. Also along the way, Christians are to be humble and not “…to be cocksure of our perfection” (pg. 1034). They are simply to give thanks that they are admitted into the church and the Kingdom of God through forgiveness of sins. “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once and for all into the church but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (pg. 1035). As many have said, Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.
At this point, Calvin moves into a discussion of the “keys of the church” (pg. 1035). This is a reference to the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus gives to Peter, the keys of the Kingdom, which include the forgiveness of sins. The Roman Church claimed that it alone possessed this power to forgive. Calvin disagrees and sees it instead as a gift for the true church (whatever brand it might be) to “…perpetually discharge this office among believers” (pg. 1035) in order that sins be continually forgiven. It is to be offered not by a priest, but by “…the preaching of the gospel or by the administration of the sacraments…” (pg. 1036). In other words, wherever the Good News of Christ’s forgiving love is preached and demonstrated in the sacraments, there is the invitation for all to be forgiven regardless of the severity of their sins. He sums up how generous the church is to be with offering forgiveness. “Therefore, let us not by our unkindness bar the way to God’s mercy, which manifests itself so generously” (pg. 1040).
Reflections: One of the great statements about the church is that it is a hospital for sinners and not a hotel for saints. This the way we view the church; that it is composed of people on both individual and collective journeys, striving to follow Jesus as best they can. The role of the church is to give guidance and forgiveness, so that when we mess up, and lose our way, we can once again find the path that God has set for us in Christ. We are a community of imperfect people, working together to profess our faith in order that Spirit can guide as best it can.