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.
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.