I began this series of posts on Monday by quoting a portion of a letter that a conservative Reformed minister wrote to a friend who had recently joined the Orthodox Church. In that letter this minister told his friend that he had left the Christian faith by becoming Orthodox. I said this response was ludicrous and harmful to both Christians and the well-being of the church. I then turned to the Reformed tradition to show how this type of thinking has impacted churches and denominations and why this approach is not consistent with the better parts of the Reformed tradition. I have particularly looked at John Calvin’s thoughts about unity since he is universally agreed to be the first great theologian of the Reformed faith.

John-calvin1 In 1552 John Calvin wrote to Thomas Cranmer in England. Cranmer had invited Calvin, Melanchthon, Bullinger and others to a meeting at Lambeth Palace for the purpose of writing a creed that would be suitable to all the Reformed Churches. Cranmer’s plan failed because of the death of Edward VI and his own martyrdom under the reign of Mary. But Calvin’s response to Cranmer’s offer is powerfully moving and supportive of what I have been saying. Calvin wrote:

I wish indeed it could be brought about that men of learning and authority from the different churches might meet somewhere and, after thoroughly discussing the different articles of faith, should, by a unanimous decision, hand down to posterity some certain rule of faith . . . . As to myself, if I should be thought of any use, I would not, if need be, object to cross ten seas for such a purpose. If the assisting of England were alone concerned, that would be motive enough for me. Much more, therefore, am I of opinion that I ought to grudge no labor or trouble, seeing that the object in view is an agreement among the learned, to be drawn up by the weight of their authority according to Scripture, in order to unite widely severed churches.

It is no surprise that a Calvin scholar like A. Basil Mitchell observed, “Calvin was mastered by the vision of a world-wide church one in Christ, and he regarded it as one of the great ends of his earthly mission to promote its realization.” This vision was shared by a number of sixteenth century Reformers. It was also shared by some Catholics but their voices were eventually not heard above the din of polemics and fierce loyalty to their own church form. It would thus take centuries for this voice to be heard again. By the early twentieth century the concerns of John Calvin were being raised again and some began to listen.

The confessions of the Reformed churches also underscore this truth and the actual spirit behind it. Article 27 of the Belgic Confession says: “We believe and profess one unique catholic or universal Church, which is a holy gathering of true believers in Christ . .. . This holy church, moreover, is not confined, bound or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and scattered over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will in one and the same Spirit and power.”

The minister who wrote the letter to his Orthodox friend affirms a commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). I often wonder if such conservative Presbyterians have actually read the words of their own confession. In the WCF there is a reference to the communion of saints. There is a significant phrase there that is all too easily missed: “Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus (XX.VI.2). This statement prompted the late John Mackay to say, “Could there be a more decisive testimony to what it means, in a practical sense, to belong to the Holy Catholic Church or a more articulate clarion call to inter-communion?”

It is very obvious, if you study Reformed Christianity carefully, that this tradition had much more to say about the catholic church, and thus about unity and ecumenism, than many advocates of the tradition now seem to believe. The writers of the Reformed confessions, and many of the best advocates of this theology, knew that to be truly Reformed meant that we must always be catholic and evangelical. This is the modern reformation that we need, not the one advocated by modern Reformed polemicists who continually attack other Christians and their church communions.

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  1. Richard Wattenbarger August 20, 2009 at 7:25 am

    John, you are one dangerous dude. You’re actually suggesting that God fulfill Jesus’s prayer in John 17. Can the true church survive so much love?
    Grace and peace!–RW

  2. Gene Redlin August 20, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Still an outsider here…
    Growing up in the LCMS church and being a pretty committed student of all things Christian… I thought; It might shock you to know that John Calvin wasn’t even on the radar screen of Religious landscape, that I didn’t know who he was until I was in my 30’s. Knew NOTHING at all about him, even if he existed or not.
    Of course Luther, Walther and Melanchthon were regularly quoted in our circles.
    Calvin? who’s he?
    Funny how we narrowcast so much in Christianity. We assume everyone knows and understands the importance of those we revere. I hold Smith Wigglesworth in High Esteem. Yet, few would know who he was.
    And, growing up in North Dakota I never even HEARD of a church denomination or group that had REFORMED as part of it’s name.
    Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Catholic and Assembly of God. Now and then an E Free group. Little else.
    Again. Not a blip of Calvin or Reformed. Off the screen. Not till I moved to IL 25 years ago did REFORMED even come into any conversation.
    We have to get out of our box. We (not just Reformed or Calvin) are so busy preaching to our particular choir the world at large, even the Christian World doesn’t even KNOW who we think we are.
    And they don’t care.
    Can there be unity if we don’t even know who each other is?? Or where they came from?

  3. Tom Quick August 20, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Ah, those Reformed confessions, still being used after 400 years to propagate disunity. Barth spares no harsh words regarding Westminster, which was one of the last Confessions of early Calvinism. To paraphrase about 30 pages of commentary: a technically correct epitaph, with predestination front and center.
    Why this need to veer away from the Lutheran Augustana? The Reformed wrote too many creeds IMHO.

  4. Nick Morgan August 20, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Even though I made many mistakes and unknowingly believed and spread false criticisms about the Roman Catholic Church during my years as an Evangelical Protestant; were it not for that experience, I would not have learned about the reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. Also I would not have met and become friends with so many wonderful evangelical Christians like yourself, who have enriched my life and my understanding of Christ and Christianity in ways that I’m only beginning to discover. As I’ve followed the posts and responses over the past few weeks I’ve found the discussions to be interesting, edifying, and for the most part, charitable toward those contributing. As a Roman Catholic who shares your desire for “orthodox ecumenism”, I choose to participate in this process and wait to see where the Holy Spirit will lead this increasingly fascinating movement of loving discourse among my Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant brothers and sisters who truly love our Lord Jesus Christ AND His bride, the Church catholic. Catholic and Protestant Christians can argue polemics back and forth about the nature of the Church, the Papacy, the 7 Sacraments, (which I accept as a RC Christian) but there is much to be learned by all of us by humbly seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit who seems to be doing something very special in the whole church in our day. Keep up the good work John and always remain faithful to what our Lord has called you to do!
    God bless!

  5. Bruce Newman August 20, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    As I’ve said in an earlier post I intend to convert to Catholicism soon. Years ago, the 80’s to be exact, I immersed myself in Reformed theology. Van Til, Murray, Packer, Kuyper and many others, particularly John Owen, liberated me from the world of charismatic foolishness (no offense intended) I’d come to be sick of. I still have these books.
    In the last six months I have dived into Catholic writers, though I’ve been familiar with Thomas Merton, Romano Guardini and Malcolm Muggeridge for years. I just read The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer. It was tightly argued and quite persuasive. Bouyer was once Protestant himself.
    Now that I’m making the second biggest change in my Christian life I don’t want to adopt an attitude of “now I’m on the right side”. I want to incorporate everything I’ve learned and what I’ve yet to learn into sincere Christian service to the kingdom of God. Even if I adopt a label I don’t want to be controlled by a label.
    Paul was able to be all things to all men yet we know that he was the soul of orthodoxy. Just as on the death bed all things but a few shrink in importance, should it not be the same for us if we’ve died in Christ? Should not a few essential things be important to us across all lines that enable us to call one another brother and sister in spirit and truth?
    I’m not smart enough to juggle all the arguments of great souls in history. But I don’t see where that’s a requirement.
    I think that is the spirit of John’s blog.

  6. Chris Criminger August 21, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Hi John,
    I’m not sure if you want to be liberated just from charismatic foolishness (excesses and what some refer to as charismania?) or you want to be liberated from charismatic Christianity all together?
    I will say there is a growing charismatic spirituality and life among Catholics. I know there are some Catholics that are anti-charismatic all the way to charismatic Catholic churches.
    May God’s fullness touch you in the sacramental richness of the Catholic Church.
    PS – I am from Indiana where the charismatic movement started first among Catholics at Notre Dame. It also might be a surprise to many Catholics that John Paul II spoke in tongues . . .

  7. Tom Quick August 21, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    I’m new here too. Today I encountered the term Monergism for the first time. Having wiki’ed it, I find that it describes the Reformed church that I have come to know. The term means “God does all the work”. Synergism, by contrast means “man does part, God does part”.
    I also grew up in an area with no Reformed churches. I have come to find that these churches concentrate in areas which had significant Dutch immigration. Like many of the immigrant churches they have tended to stay in the area where the immigrants were – western Michigan, the south side of Chicago, certain parts of Iowa, northern Washington, for instance.
    They are friendly, open churches in general. The members tend to be on the tall side, and a lot have Dutch surnames.
    But now for the part about Monergism. To a great extent they don’t plant new churches outside their original geographic areas. I don’t know how to be polite about this, but traditionally they have grown by reproduction rather than by outreach. A theology grounded in “God does all the work” – covenant theology – tends to focus inward rather than outward. Like I said earlier, these are not stern forbidding churches – they welcome new members – but they don’t go looking for them.

  8. Dozie August 21, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    “Calvin was mastered by the vision of a world-wide church one in Christ, and he regarded it as one of the great ends of his earthly mission to promote its realization.”
    Was there not already a universal Church before Calvin was born? Are we to suggest that the preferred world-wide Church is the one organized by men instead of the one founded by Christ?

  9. Chris Criminger August 22, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Hi Everyone,
    My last response was directed to Bruce . . . May God’s grace be with you all . . .

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