See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
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OF THE TRUE CHURCH. DUTY OF CULTIVATING UNITY WITH HER, AS THE MOTHER OF ALL THE GODLY.
6. Her ministry effectual, but not without the Spirit of God. Passages in proof of this.
Moreover, as at this time there is a great dispute as to the efficacy of the ministry, some extravagantly overrating its dignity,
Likely a veiled dig at Catholicism . . .
and others erroneously maintaining, that what is peculiar to the Spirit of God is transferred to mortal man,
Probably a swipe at Protestant radicals and sometimes "fanatics" to the "left" of Calvin (folks that Luther also opposed) . . .
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 the passages in which God, the author of preaching, connects his Spirit with it, and then promises a beneficial result; or, 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. 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).
How interesting that Calvin, after going through several uncontroversial points, affirms that Paul was God's co-worker, who "attributes to himself the province of bestowing salvation." Calvinists today are very wary of such talk as that, because they immediately classify it as semi-Pelagian, or a form of works-salvation, and decry it as "synergism." But Calvin is not averse to speaking in such a fashion, since it is explicitly biblical. I've collected, myself, many passages along the lines of men being the direct instruments of salvation: Biblical Evidence for Human Distribution of Grace and Salvation; also pertaining to the motif of being God's "fellow workers":
Mark 16:20 And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.
John 15:13-15 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.
1 Corinthians 9:22 . . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12,17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.
Ephesians 3:1-2 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles -- assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you,
1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
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 anything, 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. 15:10). 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.
And this is, of course, exactly the same teaching as in Catholicism (I've argued precisely the same way in many of my own apologetics teachings): all these things are completely enabled by the grace of God. But because Calvin has a very poor understanding of Catholic soteriology, and specifically of merit, he wouldn't know that, which is sad. If he had comprehended that there was no disagreement at all on this point, as lot of mutual ill will and misinformation and useless polemics back and forth for almost 500 years now would have been avoided. Alas, that is not what happened, as we all know, and to this day, Calvinists and even Lutherans (per the latter's confessional works) falsely accuse the Catholic Church of teaching semi-Pelagianism. It's the devil's victory: divide and conquer. We have more than enough true disagreement with our Protestant brethren in Christ, without adding on "phantom disagreements," where in fact we actually agree; yet many on both sides don't realize it. I've always found that very troubling, and I do all I can to educate folks, so that we can rejoice in agreements and discover that the disagreements (though many and broad) are less in number than has largely been supposed.
7. Second part of the Chapter. Concerning the marks of the Church. In what respect the Church is invisible. In what respect she is visible.
The judgment 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.
Catholics agree. We have no objection to the "Mystical Body" concept, as long as it isn't pitted against the visible, institutional, historical Church. And Calvin recognizes the "visible Church" once again. He presupposes this whenever he makes an analogy to the Temple and OT priesthood, etc., as relevant to Christianity and Christian ecclesiology.
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. 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 impurer 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. 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.
Calvin (most importantly, in light of later widespread Protestant developments to the contrary; even in some Calvinist circles), does not ditch the notion of "sinners in the Church" and the "visible Church." He knows the Bible too well to do that. I've documented the biblical rationale for believing that (serious) sinners and hypocrites and nominal practitioners will always be in the Church, both in a summarizing fashion, and at some considerable length.
8. God alone knoweth them that are his. Still he has given marks to discern his children.
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 judgments 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, which alone is the completion of salvation.
Calvin again reiterates that no one knows for certain who is in the elect except God, and this ties into the necessity of bearing with rank sinners in the ranks of he church and the body of Christians. The main difference here is that Calvin (and his followers today) would say that those who "fall" had never truly been in God's grace or right with God at any time (or never justified, as Protestants construe that). We would agree with him that they are probably not in the elect if they die with serious unrepented sin, but disagree that eventual outward "falling away" proves that they had never been truly regenerated or justified at any time. Both sides agree that those who have an authentic faith in God and are true disciples, will inevitably manifest fruit and do good works. I've collected Calvin's statements along those lines, that are quite agreeable to Catholics, who want to stress the high importance of good works, while denying that man-produced works can save (the doctrine of sola gratia).
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 judgment 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. 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.In other words, there is a sense of the word "Christian" as defined by outward observances of attending church, partaking of sacraments, and subscribing to creeds. This is another thing that is often poorly understood by many Protestants today. Calvin makes crucial distinctions that too many of them never even consider, let alone grasp, at all. Full certainty of salvation or being in the elect is neither attainable nor "necessary," but the judgment of charity dictates that we acknowledge a brother in Christ if he is conforming at least outwardly. Only God knows the human heart.
9. These marks are the ministry of the word, and administration of the sacraments instituted by Christ. The same rule not to be followed in judging of individuals and of churches.
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” (Mt. 18:20).
Sure, but Calvin presupposes what the entire "word of God" (i.e., correct doctrine) is in the first place. He neglects to see that this "word of God" must be in accord with what has been passed down and received (apostolic tradition and patristic consensus). His own theology, of course, fails this test (though elsewhere he will vigorously argue the contrary); therefore it is impossible for Calvin to successfully contend that his circles constitute the remnant and true Church while Catholicism (for the most part, in his jaded view of the Catholic Church) does not. His form of Christianity is only valid and true insofar as it conforms with received, traditional Christianity (i.e., Catholicism).
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 doctrine, and are bound together by the tie of a common religion.
Protestantism certainly hasn't agreed about "one truth of divine doctrine." Even among Calvinists as a sub-group, there are constant in-fights and institutional splits (which is their only method -- when all is said and done -- of "resolving" disputes). I observe this all the time. What Calvin desires (doctrinal unity) can only be achieved in the Catholic Church.
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. 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.
The "sinners in the Church" motif again . . .
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.
Catholics wouldn't object to these sentiments; only to Calvin's inaccurate and inconsistent, anti-Catholic application of the principles.
10. We must on no account forsake the Church distinguished by such marks. Those who act otherwise are apostates, deserters of the truth and of the household of God, deniers of God and Christ, violators of the mystical marriage.
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 anywhere 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. 8 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.
The unending irony of the revolutionary and schismatic (as Calvin was) commending the nobility and virtue of Christian unity . . . Again, he says the right thing, but does the wrong thing, in deciding to reject the Holy Catholic Church, headed in Rome by the pope, and with an unbroken history of orthodoxy all the way back to Christ.
So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired. 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).
How often do we hear this passage cited by Protestants (or Calvinists)?! These days, it is mostly Catholics who bring attention to it.
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.
I've dealt with this aspect of Calvin's reasoning in past entries. It sounds extraordinarily Catholic, but this consciousness is largely lost to Calvinists today, and Calvin cannot consistently apply this principle in his own domain because he has no authority and because his rule of faith (sola Scriptura and private judgment: exemplified by Luther's intransigence and entirely subjective appeal at the Diet of Worms) undermines it
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 filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Whence it follows, that revolt from the Church is denial of God and Christ.
Indeed. Obviously, the dispute between Protestants and Catholics at this point has to do with determining what the Church is and where to find it. Calvin's rhetoric about the Church, as far as it goes, is not inconsistent at all with Catholic notions. It's what he doesn't say and what he falsely assumes, that are the problems.
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.
Catholics couldn't agree more. If only Calvin and all Protestants had heeded his own sage advice . . .
11. These marks to be the more carefully observed, because Satan strives to efface them, or to make us revolt from the Church. The twofold error of despising the true, and submitting to a false Church.
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,
This is, of course, a self-serving, undemonstrated opinion, that presupposes the familiar "The Catholic Church fell away in [take your pick] 100, as soon as the Bible was completed and the last apostle died / 313 [Constantine] / 900 / with the Inquisition / in the early 16th century / at Trent" mentality. All these arguments fail miserably and are easily shot down. Calvin assumes some form of this throughout the Institutes.
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.
Yet Calvin wars against bishops, popes, priests, continuing ecumenical councils, and maintains only a minimalist clergy.
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! 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.
How profoundly true!
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.
And if it teaches novel, ahistorical doctrines contrary to the ones that have always been believed in the Catholic Church from the beginning, and consistently developed through the centuries, according to the Mind of that same Church, all Christians must avoid it.
12. Though the common profession should contain some corruption, this is not a sufficient reason for forsaking the visible Church. Some of these corruptions specified. Caution necessary. The duty of the members.
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 exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.
In other words, the essentials define it, not the faults and corruptions in practice. Very true.
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.
All things concerning which Catholics and Calvinists are in full agreement . . .
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?
Here Calvin starts to exhibit a fatal flaw in Protestant thinking that has perpetually plagued it from the beginning: this notion of "primary" vs. "secondary" doctrines, where the latter are regarded as "up for grabs", so that Protestants may freely disagree with each other (and other Christians), thus adding a dangerous element of sanctioned doctrinal relativism. Catholics agree that some doctrines are far more important than others in the scheme of things, but they don't take this additional step of throwing all less important doctrines up to individual subjectivism and philosophical relativism.
The general notion of "essential" or "central" and "secondary" doctrines is an unbiblical distinction. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any implication that some things pertaining to doctrine and theology were optional, while others had to be believed. Jesus urged us to "observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19), without distinguishing between lesser and more central doctrines.
Likewise, St. Paul regards Christian Tradition as of one piece; not an amalgam of permissible competing theories: "the tradition that you received from us" (2 Thess. 3:6); "the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit" (2 Tim. 1:14); "the doctrine which you have been taught" (Rom. 16:17); "being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2:2); "stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel," (Phil. 1:27). He, like Jesus, ties doctrinal unity together with the one God: ". . . maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, . . ." (Eph. 4:3-5).
St. Peter also refers to one, unified "way of righteousness" and "the holy commandment delivered to them" (2 Pet. 2:21), while St. Jude urges us to "contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Luke 2:42 casually mentions "the apostles' teaching" without any hint that there were competing interpretations of it, or variations of the teaching.
The words of the Apostle are, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything 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?
But this passage has been yanked out of context and made to apply to supposed doctrinal latitude, when in fact, St. Paul, in this entire chapter of Philippians, is discussing striving towards a salvation not yet certainly obtained. When Paul says "be thus minded" he is referring to his statement immediately prior:
Philippians 3:12-14 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
This has nothing to do with supposed doctrinal disputes, as Calvin oddly seems to think. Elsewhere in the same book (and many other times throughout his letters) Paul makes clear that there is one truth and unchanging set of doctrines that he has passed on, without any shade of variability:
Philippians 1:25,27 Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, . . . Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,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.
Philippians 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.
Protestants have too readily given in to human ignorance and mere subjectivism: that is a huge part of its problem. It lacks authority to maintain unity because its principles undermined Church authority from the beginning.
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.
Again, the problem is that the original "minute" difference (even if we grant that it is, indeed, "minute" and inconsequential) quickly becomes a loophole, then a gaping hole, and finally, a broad highway of mutually contradictory opinions, leading to further dissent, sectarianism, acrimony, and doctrinal uncertainty. Nowhere does Holy Scripture ever envision such an uncontrolled state of affairs.
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 anything 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.
This discipline has become practically impossible in Protestantism-at-large, because if discipline occurs, there is always the option of the person simply going to another denomination and starting afresh, or starting a new denomination altogether. There is no "Church" to speak of, given this absurd institutional division and multiplicity of competing sects.