By Neil Earle
It was the 1530s in Europe.
War between Protestants and Catholics – and among separatist sects within Protestantism – was raging. Extremism and persecution was in the air. In Spain the rope and the rack awaited Reforming zealots while radical Protestants terrorized the city of Munster in Germany for over a year (1534-1535).
Between 1535 and 1539, Henry VIII of England was to ransack 550 monasteries in England turning their inmates out into the cold as a way of financing the new state church. In 1531, Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, had died in battle while serving as a non-pacifist chaplain amid Swiss civil bloodletting.
Whatever else the 1530s were, they were not the apex of Christian unity and toleration – far from it! There were many at the time who thought, "If this is the church, I want nothing of it!"
In the midst of this horrific religious fanaticism and bigotry, in Basel, Switzerland, a brilliant young French lawyer and humanist who had been recently converted to Protestant principles, set down in writing a treatise that would capture the essence of the Reformation. John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, was first issued in 1536 when the young scholar was only twenty-six years old.
The Institutes contained much that was controversial, even harsh-sounding, but they would nevertheless serve as the supreme handbook of Reformed principles for two hundred years. Above all, it was Calvin's forceful and penetrating meditations on the Church, the invisible body of believers that have spoken to Christians whenever faith in the outward church is shaken.
The young French lawyer showed in Book Four of his Institutes, that when it came to validating the Church, Christ's visible body on earth, he had few equals.
Wrote Calvin: "It is by the faith in the Gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him." This all Christians can agree on – but is that enough? Can we be Lone Ranger Christians and thrive in the faith? No, said Calvin, faith has a social dimension – we are to learn faith from other godly people (Hebrews 13:7) and they are usually found in church.
Calvin did not mince words: "Since, however, in our ignorance and sloth we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us and advance to its goal, God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness."
For Calvin, the most important of these aids was the organized Church, with its teaching ministry and authority to carry out Baptism and to administer such ordinances as the Lord's Supper:
"Shut up as we are in the prison house of the flesh, we have not yet attained angelic rank. God, therefore, in his wonderful providence accommodating himself to our capacity, has prescribed a way for us, though still far off, to draw near to him."
And what is that way?
"I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. "For whatever God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder (Mark 10:9), so that, for those to whom He is Father the Church may also be Mother's Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26)."
Calvin's vision of the church was truly all-encompassing:
"The Church refers not only to the visible church but also to all God's elect, in whose numbers are also included the dead; but we must leave to God alone the knowledge of his church, whose foundation is his secret election. Although the melancholy desolation, which confronts us on every side, may cry that no remnant of the church is left, let us know that Christ's death is fruitful, and that God miraculously keeps his church as in hiding places. So it was said to Elijah, "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee before Baal (1 Kings 19:18)."
In the midst of the horrific spiritual chaos of the 1530s Calvin pleaded as much as possible at the time for religious freedom and toleration. He seemed to possess an understanding of religious diversity under the common headship of Christ that some of his later disciples would tragically ignore. At least in Book Four Calvin is the healing pastor, supplying warm encouragement stemming from the biblical phrase "the communion of the saints."
"In this way our salvation rests upon sure and firm supports, so that, even if the whole fabric of the world were overthrown, the church could neither totter or fall. First, it stands by God's election, and cannot waver or fall any more than his eternal providence can. Secondly, it has been joined to the steadfastness of Christ who will [not] allow his believers to be estranged from him – besides, we are certain that while we remain within the bosom of the church the truth will always abide within us. "God will abide in the midst of Jerusalem forever, that it may never be moved" (Psalm 46:5).
Calvin was convinced that "there is no other way to enter into this life unless this mother conceives us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keeps us under her care and guidance."
Calvin had no doubt that people needed the church: "Many are led either by pride, dislike or rivalry to the conviction that they can profit enough from private reading and meditation; hence they despise public assemblies and deem preaching superfluous – but I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound."
What did he mean by that?
"By baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord's Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love; and for the preaching of the Word the ministry instituted by Christ is preserved."
These are powerful reasons for remaining in fellowship with the body of Christ and its local manifestations. We can't baptize ourselves and we can't ordain ourselves. Faith has a social dimension. Calvin knew that! The Worldwide Church of God at its best has always understood this! For we are a sociable fellowship par excellence.
On matters of doctrinal disagreement Calvin counseled toleration on non-essentials – "For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Here are the apostle's words: "Let us therefore be of the same mind; and If you are differently minded in anything, God shall reveal this also to you" (Philippians 3:15).
Like all religious leaders, Calvin was all too human and his followers would weave some of his other ideas into a sometimes-intolerant system known as "Calvinism." But to the clear-seeing Calvin of the Institutes, Book Four, the Church, in the wonderful providence of God, was necessary to strengthen faith and bring it to fruition. It still is.