I have pasted below a selection from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapters 1-2, translated by Henry Beveridge in 1599, found at the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Interspersed within the selection is a commentary of my own attempting to bring out some of Calvin's views regarding the authority and unity of the church that I think are particularly useful to bring out today in light of certain trends in modern Reformed circles that are contrary to Calvin's thought (and for which I think Calvin provides a good, biblical, and historic Reformed corrective).
In the last Book, it has been shown that by the faith of the gospel Christ becomes ours, and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness procured by him. But as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation, God, in accommodation to our infirmity has added much helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church. He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people, (Eph. 4: 11;) he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith, and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith. For seeing we are shut up in the prison of the body, and have not yet attained to the rank of angels, God, in accommodation to our capacity, has in his admirable providence provided a method by which, though widely separated, we might still draw near to him.
Wherefore, due order requires that we first treat of the Church, of its Government, Orders, and Power; next, of the Sacraments; and, lastly, of Civil Government; - at the same time guarding pious readers against the corruptions of the Papacy, by which Satan has adulterated all that God had appointed for our salvation.
I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined let not man put asunder (Mark 10: 9:) to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. This was true not merely under the Law, but even now after the advent of Christ; since Paul declares that we are the children of a new, even a heavenly Jerusalem, (Gal. 4: 26.)
When in the Creed we profess to believe the Church, reference is made not only to the visible Church of which we are now treating, but also to all the elect of God, including in the number even those who have departed this life. Here is the classic distinction between the "invisible" and the "visible" church. And, accordingly, the word used is "believe," because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd. The particle "in" is often interpolated, but without any probable ground. I confess, indeed, that it is the more usual form, and is not unsupported by antiquity, since the Nicene Creed, as quoted in Ecclesiastical History, adds the preposition. At the same time, we may perceive from early writers, that the expression received without controversy in ancient times was to believe "the Church," and not "in the Church." This is not only the expression used by Augustine, and that ancient writer, whoever he may have been, whose treatise, De Symboli Expositione, is extant under the name of Cyprian, but they distinctly remark that the addition of the preposition would make the expression improper, and they give good grounds for so thinking. We declare that we believe in God, both because our mind reclines upon him as true, and our confidence is fully satisfied in him. This cannot be said of the Church, just as it cannot be said of the forgiveness of sins, or the resurrection of the body. Wherefore, although I am unwilling to dispute about words, yet I would rather keep to the proper form, as better fitted to express the thing that is meant, than affect terms by which the meaning is ceaselessly obscured.
The object of the expression is to teach us, that though the devil leaves no stone unturned in order to destroy the grace of Christ, and the enemies of God rush with insane violence in the same direction, it cannot be extinguished, - the blood of Christ cannot be rendered barren, and prevented from producing fruit. Hence, regard must be had both to the secret election and to the internal calling of God, because he alone "knoweth them that are his," (2 Tim. 2: 19;) and as Paul expresses it, holds them as it were enclosed under his seal (Eph.1:13), although, at the same time, they wear his insignia, and are thus distinguished from the reprobate. But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation. Nor is it enough to embrace the number of the elect in thought and intention merely. By the unity of the Church we must understand an unity into which we feel persuaded that we are truly ingrafted. For unless we are united with all the other members under Christ our head, no hope of the future inheritance awaits us. Salvation is dependent upon our communion in the invisible church.
Hence the Church is called Catholic or Universal, (August. Ep. 48,) for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible. All the elect of God are so joined together in Christ, that as they depend on one head, so they are as it were compacted into one body, being knit together like its different members; made truly one by living together under the same Spirit of God in one faith, hope, and charity, called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but to participation in one God and Christ. For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment. Thus it was said to Elijah, "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel," (1 Kings 19: 18.)
The invisible church is one. There cannot be "two or three" because Christ cannot be divided.
Moreover this article of the Creed relates in some measure to the external Church, that every one of us must maintain brotherly concord with all the children of God, give due authority to the Church, and, in short, conduct ourselves as sheep of the flock. And hence the additional expression, the "communion of saints;" for this clause, though usually omitted by ancient writers, must not be overlooked, as it admirably expresses the quality of the Church; just as if it had been said, that saints are united in the fellowship of Christ on this condition, that all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other. This, however, is not incompatible with a diversity of graces, for we know that the gifts of the Spirit are variously distributed; nor is it incompatible with civil order, by which each is permitted privately to possess his own means, it being necessary for the preservation of peace among men that distinct rights of property should exist among them. Still a community is asserted, such as Luke describes when he says, "The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul," (Acts 4: 32;) and Paul, when he reminds the Ephesians, "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling," (Eph. 4: 4.) For if they are truly persuaded that God is the common Father of them all, and Christ their common head, they cannot but be united together in brotherly love, and mutually impart their blessings to each other.
It is an absolute duty that we remain united to the "external"--that is, to the "visible"--church. Believers have an absolute duty to respect the authority of the church, to be united with each other in brotherly communion, to share their gifts with each other in the one body, etc. It is impermissible for true believers to be out of visible communion with one another.
Then it is of the highest importance for us to know what benefit thence redounds to us. For when we believe the Church, it is in order that we may be firmly persuaded that we are its members. In this way our salvation rests on a foundation so firm and sure, that though the whole fabric of the world were to give way, it could not be destroyed. First, it stands with the election of God, and cannot change or fail, any more than his eternal providence. Next, it is in a manner united with the stability of Christ, who will no more allow his faithful followers to be dissevered from him, than he would allow his own members to be torn to pieces. We may add, that so long as we continue in the bosom of the Church, we are sure that the truth will remain with us.
Lastly, we feel that we have an interest in such promises as these, "In Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance," (Joel 2: 32; Obad. 17;) "God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved," (Ps. 46: 5.) So available is communion with the Church to keep us in the fellowship of God. In the very term, communion, there is great consolation; because, while we are assured that every thing which God bestows on his members belongs to us, all the blessings conferred upon them confirm our hope.
But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is not necessary, as I have observed, to see it with our eyes, or feel it with our hands. Nay, rather from its being placed in faith, we are reminded that our thoughts are to dwell upon it, as much when it escapes our perception as when it openly appears. Nor is our faith the worse for apprehending what is unknown, since we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, (this belongs not to us, but to God only,) but to feel firmly assured in our minds, that all those who, by the mercy of God the Father, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, have become partakers with Christ, are set apart as the proper and peculiar possession of God, and that as we are of the number, we are also partakers of this great grace.
But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Matth. 22: 30.) For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa. 37: 32; Joel 2: 32.) To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, "They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel," (Ezek. 13: 9;) as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, "Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance," (Ps. 106: 4, 6.) By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.
There is no salvation out of the visible church.
But let us proceed to a full exposition of this view. Paul says that our Saviour "ascended far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ," (Eph. 4: 10-13.) We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose. Isaiah had long before given this as the characteristic of the kingdom of Christ, "My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever," (Isa. 59: 21.) Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, "Faith comes by hearing," (Rom. 10: 17.) God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.
With this view, it pleased him in ancient times that sacred meetings should be held in the sanctuary, that consent in faith might be nourished by doctrine proceeding from the lips of the priest. Those magnificent titles, as when the temple is called God's rest, his sanctuary, his habitation, and when he is said to dwell between the cherubim, (Ps. 132: 13, 14; 80: 1,) are used for no other purpose than to procure respect, love, reverence, and dignity to the ministry of heavenly doctrine, to which otherwise the appearance of an insignificant human being might be in no slight degree derogatory. Therefore, to teach us that the treasure offered to us in earthen vessels is of inestimable value, (2 Cor. 4: 7,) God himself appears, and as the author of this ordinance requires his presence to be recognised in his own institution.
Accordingly, after forbidding his people to give heed to familiar spirits, wizards, and other superstitions, (Lev. 19: 30, 31,) he adds, that he will give what ought to be sufficient for all, namely, that he will never leave them without prophets. For, as he did not commit his ancient people to angels, but raised up teachers on the earth to perform a truly angelical office, so he is pleased to instruct us in the present day by human means. But as anciently he did not confine himself to the law merely, but added priests as interpreters, from whose lips the people might inquire after his true meaning, so in the present day he would not only have us to be attentive to reading, but has appointed masters to give us their assistance. In this there is a twofold advantage. For, on the one hand, he by an admirable test proves our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as we would to himself; while, on the other hand, he consults our weakness in being pleased to address us after the manner of men by means of interpreters, that he may thus allure us to himself, instead of driving us away by his thunder. How well this familiar mode of teaching is suited to us all the godly are aware, from the dread with which the divine majesty justly inspires them.
Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares. Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous. But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions. Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by his institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which he so highly recommends. None, even among the most petulant of men, would venture to say, that we are to shut our ears against God, but in all ages prophets and pious teachers have had a difficult contest to maintain with the ungodly, whose perverseness cannot submit to the yoke of being taught by the lips and ministry of men. This is just the same as if they were to destroy the impress of God as exhibited to us in doctrine. For no other reason were believers anciently enjoined to seek the face of God in the sanctuary, (Ps. 105: 4,) (an injunction so often repeated in the Law,) than because the doctrine of the Law, and the exhortations of the prophets, were to them a living image of God. Thus Paul declares that in his preaching the glory of God shone in the face of Jesus Christ, (2 Cor. 4: 6.)
The more detestable are the apostates who delight in producing schisms in churches, just as if they wished to drive the sheep from the fold, and throw them into the jaws of wolves. Let us hold, agreeably to the passage we quoted from Paul, that the Church can only be edified by external preaching, and that there is no other bond by which the saints can be kept together than by uniting with one consent to observe the order which God has appointed in his Church for learning and making progress. For this end, especially, as I have observed, believers were anciently enjoined under the Law to flock together to the sanctuary; for when Moses speaks of the habitation of God, he at the same time calls it the place of the name of God, the place where he will record his name, (Exod. 20: 24;) thus plainly teaching that no use could be made of it without the doctrine of godliness. And there can be no doubt that, for the same reason, David complains with great bitterness of soul, that by the tyrannical cruelty of his enemies he was prevented from entering the tabernacle, (Psalm 89.) To many the complaint seems childish, as if no great loss were sustained, not much pleasure lost, by exclusion from the temple, provided other amusements were enjoyed. David, however, laments this one deprivation, as filling him with anxiety and sadness, tormenting, and almost destroying him. This he does because there is nothing on which believers set a higher value than on this aid, by which God gradually raises his people to heaven.
God has given pastors to his people, and we are required to learn from their preaching, to be trained by them.
For it is to be observed, that he always exhibited himself to the holy patriarchs in the mirror of his doctrine in such a way as to make their knowledge spiritual. Whence the temple is not only styled his face, but also, for the purpose of removing all superstition, is termed his footstool, (Psalm 132: 7; 99: 5.) Herein is the unity of the faith happily realised, when all, from the highest to the lowest, aspire to the head. All the temples which the Gentiles built to God with a different intention were a mere profanation of his worship, - a profanation into which the Jews also fell, though not with equal grossness. With this Stephen upbraids them in the words of Isaiah when he says, "Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the Prophet, Heaven is my throne," &c., (Acts 7: 48.) For God only consecrates temples to their legitimate use by his word. And when we rashly attempt anything without his order, immediately setting out from a bad principle, we introduce adventitious fictions, by which evil is propagated without measure.
It was inconsiderate in Xerxes when, by the advice of the magians, he burnt or pulled down all the temples of Greece, because he thought it absurd that God, to whom all things ought to be free and open, should be enclosed by walls and roofs, as if it were not in the power of God in a manner to descend to us, that he may be near to us, and yet neither change his place nor affect us by earthly means, but rather, by a kind of vehicles, raise us aloft to his own heavenly glory, which, with its immensity, fills all things, and in height is above the heavens.
Moreover, as at this time there is a great dispute as to the efficacy of the ministry, some extravagantly overrating its dignity, and others erroneously maintaining, that what is peculiar to the Spirit of God is transferred to mortal man, when we suppose that ministers and teachers penetrate to the mind and heart, so as to correct the blindness of the one, and the hardness of the other; it is necessary to place this controversy on its proper footing.
The arguments on both sides will be disposed of without trouble, by distinctly attending to (1) the passages in which God, the author of preaching, connects his Spirit with it, and then promises a beneficial result; or (2), on the other hand, to the passages in which God, separating himself from external means, claims for himself alone both the commencement and the whole course of faith.
(1) The office of the second Elias was, as Malachi declares, to "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Mal. 4: 6.) Christ declares that he sent the Apostles to produce fruit from his labours, (John 15: 16.) What this fruit is Peter briefly defines, when he says that we are begotten again of incorruptible seed, (1 Pet. 1: 23.) Hence Paul glories, that by means of the Gospel he had begotten the Corinthians, who were the seals of his apostleship, (1 Cor. 4: 15;) moreover, that his was not a ministry of the letter, which only sounded in the ear, but that the effectual agency of the Spirit was given to him, in order that his doctrine might not be in vain, (1 Cor. 9: 2; 2 Cor. 3: 6.) In this sense he elsewhere declares that his Gospel was not in word, but in power, (1 Thess. 1: 5.) He also affirms that the Galatians received the Spirit by the hearing of faith, (Gal. 3: 2.) In short, in several passages he not only makes himself a fellow-worker with God, but attributes to himself the province of bestowing salvation, (1 Cor. 3: 9.)
(2) All these things he certainly never uttered with the view of attributing to himself one iota apart from God, as he elsewhere briefly explains. "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but (as it is in truth) the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe," (1 Thess. 2: 13.) Again, in another place, "He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles," (Gal. 2: 8.) And that he allows no more to ministers, is obvious from other passages. "So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase," (1 Cor. 3: 7.) Again, "I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me," (1 Cor. 15: ]0.) And it is indeed necessary to keep these sentences in view, since God, in ascribing to himself the illumination of the mind and renewal of the heart, reminds us that it is sacrilege for man to claim any part of either to himself.
Still every one who listens with docility to the ministers whom God appoints, will know by the beneficial result, that for good reason God is pleased with this method of teaching, and for good reason has laid believers under this modest yoke.
The judgement which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church which comes under our observation, must, I think, be sufficiently clear from what has been said. I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God - the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world. Often, too, by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord's Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. Note that the members of the visible church "profess unity in true doctrine and charity" and "observe the ministry which Christ has appointed." They are not to exist in separation from each other, and the true ministry is to be recognized by all of them. This implies one, visible, organic body with official officers. In this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men, some also of impure lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because their guilt cannot be legally established, or because due strictness of discipline is not always observed.
Definitions of the "invisible" and "visible" church.
Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion.
Accordingly, inasmuch as it was of importance to us to recognise it, the Lord has distinguished it by certain marks, and as it were symbols. It is, indeed, the special prerogative of God to know those who are his, as Paul declares in the passage already quoted, (2 Tim. 2: 19.) And doubtless it has been so provided as a check on human rashness the experience of every day reminding us how far his secret judgements surpass our apprehension. For even those who seemed most abandoned, and who had been completely despaired of, are by his goodness recalled to life, while those who seemed most stable often fall. Hence, as Augustine says, "In regard to the secret predestination of God, there are very many sheep without, and very many wolves within," (August. Hom. in Joan. 45.) For he knows, and has his mark on those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those again who openly bear his badge, his eyes alone see who of them are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere even to the end (Matt.24:13) , which alone is the completion of salvation.
We cannot know who the true elect are. There are many sheep without and many wolves within the visible church. Thus, while communion with the visible church is an absolute duty and is not optional, and therefore communion with the visible church is necessary for salvation (for those who would reject it are rejecting God), yet at the same time it is also the case that those outside the formal visible church can end up being saved by the secret working of God's grace. Here, Calvin may have in mind those of the elect who have not yet been brought to receive the gospel and to unite with the visible church. Later on, when he discusses the Roman church, he will bring in other aspects of this principle. Union with the visible church is required, and thus cannot be willingly rejected without forfeiting salvation, but sometimes extra-ordinary circumstances occur in which the "wondrous workings" of God's grace (as Calvin will put it later) can bring salvation to those who are not in full communion with the legitimate visible church. More on this later.
On the other hand, foreseeing that it was in some degree expedient for us to know who are to be regarded by us as his sons, he has in this matter accommodated himself to our capacity. But as here full certainty was not necessary, he has in its place substituted the judgement of charity, by which we acknowledge all as members of the Church who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ.
Here are the qualifications of those who would be recognized as members of the visible church. They are united together by "confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments."
The knowledge of his body, inasmuch as he knew it to be more necessary for our salvation, he has made known to us by surer marks.
Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," (Matth. 18: 20.)
Here are the marks of the true visible church: the Word of God sincerely preached, and the sacraments rightly administered.
But that we may have a clear summary of this subject, we must proceed by the following steps: - The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrines and are bound together by the tie of a common religion. In this way it comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages, according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the Church; and also comprehends single individuals, who by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches, although they are in fact aliens from the Church, but have not been cut off by a public decision.
The catholic (universal) church (visible) consists of all visible believers who unite in the true doctrines of the true religion. The catholic church is divided up into separate congregations, which all are rightly called churches and have ecclesiastical authority. Individual members of the church are members of these congregations.
There is, however, a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and of churches. For it may happen in practice that those whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers, we yet ought to treat as brethren and regard as believers on account of the common consent of the Church in tolerating and bearing with them in the body of Christ. Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the Church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it.
With regard to the general body we must feel differently; if they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church, because it is certain that these things are not without a beneficial result. Thus we both maintain the Church universal in its unity, which malignant minds have always been eager to dissever, and deny not due authority to lawful assemblies distributed as circumstances require.
We have said that the symbols by which the Church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot any where exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God. I say not that wherever the word is preached fruit immediately appears; but that in every place where it is received, and has a fixed abode, it uniformly displays its efficacy. Be this as it may, when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity; and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity, (see Chap. 2 sec. 1, 10, and Chap. 3. sec. 12.) For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion. So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired.
Here we see Calvin's strong emphasis on the absolute duty of ecclesiastical unity. Whenever we come across a true visible church, recognized by true preaching and administration of the sacraments, we have an absolute duty to remain in communion with her. We are absolutely forbidden to "revolt from her, and violate her unity," or to "spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures." It is never permissible to be out of communion with a true visible church, or to spurn the ecclesiastical authority of such a body.
Calvin clearly rejects the idea of "denominationalism"--that it is sometimes permissible for true visible churches to be out of communion with each other and to refuse to submit to each others' authority. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) today exist in denominational separation from each other. They are not in formal communion, and they do not submit to each other in mutually-binding councils. Within each of these denominations, members are under sessions, sessions are united under presbyteries, and presbyteries are united under a common General Assembly; but between the denominations, there is no such formal unity, only an occasional working together. Calvin would have seen such separation as necessarily implying that the OPC and the PCA reject each other as being true visible churches (with some nuance--see Calvin's discussion of the papists further down), for such separation is unthinkable between true churches.
For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, "the house of God," "the pillar and ground of the truth," (1 Tim. 3: 15.) By these words Paul intimates, that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself to us as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation. Moreover, no mean praise is conferred on the Church when she is said to have been chosen and set apart by Christ as his spouse, "not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing," (Eph. 5: 27,) as "his body, the fulness of him that fillets all in all," (Eph. 1: 23.) Whence it follows, that revolt from the Church is denial of God and Christ. Wherefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God's truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us.
Wherefore let these marks be carefully impressed upon our minds, and let us estimate them as in the sight of the Lord. There is nothing on which Satan is more intent than to destroy and efface one or both of them - at one time to delete and abolish these marks, and thereby destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church; at another, to bring them into contempt, and so hurry us into open revolt from the Church. To his wiles it was owing that for several ages the pure preaching of the word disappeared, and now, with the same dishonest aim, he labours to overthrow the ministry, which, however, Christ has so ordered in his Church, that if it is removed the whole edifice must fall. How perilous, then, nay, how fatal the temptation, when we even entertain a thought of separating ourselves from that assembly in which are beheld the signs and badges which the Lord has deemed sufficient to characterise his Church! Again we see that for Calvin, separation from a true visible church or between true visible churches is an utterly unthinkable and abominable sin. We see how great caution should be employed in both respects. That we may not be imposed upon by the name of Church, every congregation which claims the name must be brought to that test as to a Lydian stone. If it holds the order instituted by the Lord in word and sacraments there will be no deception; we may safely pay it the honour due to a church: on the other hand, if it exhibit itself without word and sacraments we must in this case be no less careful to avoid the imposture than we were to shun pride and presumption in the other.
There are true churches and false churches. A true church must be honored as such by us, but a false church must be rejected by us.
When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exists our meaning is that we are never to discard it so-long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.
Nay, even in the administration of word and Sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith ; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord? The words of the apostle are, "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you," (Phil. 3: 15.) Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.
Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord. Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, "If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace," (1 Cor. 14: 30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order. In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged.
Calvin here acknowledges that a church can be a true church even though it is not perfect. He will discuss moral scandal below, but in these paragraphs he speaks of errors in doctrine and in the administration of the sacraments. He makes a distinction between doctrine that is necessary to be known, essential to salvation, in which the "safety of piety consists," and doctrine that is not such, doctrine that is "the subject of controversy among the churches." While in the essential matters the church is to be completely intolerant of error, in these lesser matters of doctrine the church is to tolerate diversity. It is to avoid "any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising."
In our modern age which has become accustomed to "latitudinarianism"--the idea that only the central or most important doctrines of the Bible are to be insisted upon by the church while the less important doctrines can be left to various opinions--it may seem that Calvin is endorsing a latitudinarian way of thinking here. But I suspect that this is to misread what he means. Notice that the "lesser doctrines" that Calvin allows diversity over are to be held by all without any "perverseness in dogmatising." No individual or church is to insist that his opinion is the only right way to believe and to judge others on the basis of it. These issues are to be looked at as not entirely decided, as unclear. But how can we treat any revealed doctrine of God's Word as unimportant or obscure? If God's Word teaches something, surely we are to believe it and insist upon it. I think the best reading of what Calvin is talking about here is that these "lesser doctrines" are not less important but clear teaching of God's Word but are rather matters on which God's Word does not speak clearly. Since God's Word does not speak clearly on them, we should not be dogmatic about them or make them a cause of division in the church.
This attitude is essentially different from the latitudinarian attitude which holds that among the clear teachings of Scripture there are doctrines that we can basically ignore or not insist upon in our church life. Calvin seems simply to be saying, rather, that we are not to insist upon our own opinions and make these grounds for division without the clear warrant of God's Word. But those doctrines that are clearly revealed in God's Word are essential and necessary for salvation, in the sense that God requires us to believe them, and we cannot disobey God's commands without danger of his wrath. If we live in unrepentant rebellion against anything that God has commanded, no matter how "important" or "unimportant" we may deem it relative to other commands of God, we cannot expect salvation, for we have cut ourselves off from Christ by rejecting his Word. (Does this mean that all those who reject any doctrine of Scripture, even in ignorance or in extraordinary extenuating circumstances, cannot be saved? I don't think that Calvin would say this. His position on this is, I think, further clarified when he discusses the papists below.)
If our reading of Calvin is correct, he gives no sanction to those who would have the church unite by "agreeing to disagree" about some "less important" Scriptural doctrines. There is to be toleration with regard to reasonably disputed opinions upon which God's Word does not speak clearly, but with regard to the clear teaching of God's Word the basis for unity is agreement in doctrine. (Some modern Reformed people practice a non-latitudinarian attitude within their own denominations while exercising latitudinarianism between denominations as those denominations enjoy an acceptance of each other as true churches without full formal unity. But this simply adds the sin of schism to the sin of latitudinarianism.)
Continued in Part II.