I began this series of posts by sharing a portion of a letter written by a conservative Reformed minister who told a friend that he had left the Christian faith by joining the Orthodox Church. I believe that this response is not only preposterous but it is fostered by the sin of pride and reflects a divisive spirit that is condemned by the Scripture itself.

Inst I noted that John Calvin distinguishes between essential and non-essential matters of faith. This distinction has been made by teachers and theologians since the early church. Calvin is simply following the long tradition of the faith in making such a point. He says, “A difference of opinion should in nowise be the basis of schism among Christians.” He says, in The Institutes (IV.1.12) that the characteristic core doctrines that are essential are these: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests on God’s mercy and the like.” He adds, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “

[The one fundamental doctrine] which it is forbidden to overthrow, is that we might learn Christ. For Christ is the one and only foundation of the Church.” He is saying that the one final test of a person, or of a church, is that its doctrine must be right concerning Christ. (This, for example, is why all Christians believe the Jehovah Witness movement is not a true church.) Calvin, like Catholic and Orthodox Christians before him, believes everything hinges on this question: “What do you think of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42).

Calvin worked hard to preserve unity in the church. He was conciliatory towards Luther (whom he never actually met) and his followers. The model of his charity can be seen in how he treated Melanchthon, Luther’s principal theologian. Melanchthon was notoriously unstable and held views that Calvin strongly and openly opposed. Within Switzerland Calvin worked with disparate Protestant factions to seek unity as well. In 1549 a union was reached.

Calvin’s correspondence reveals an even deeper concern for true unity. In a letter to Bullinger (Zwingli’s successor and the leader of the German-Swiss Reformed Churches) he says:

What, my dear Bullinger, should more concern us in writing at this time, than to keep up and strengthen brotherly friendship between us by all possible means? We see how much it concerns not our church alone but all Christianity that all to whom the Lord has entrusted any charge in his church should agree in true concord. . . . We must therefore purposefully and carefully cherish association and friendship with all true ministers of Christ . . . in order that the churches to which we minister the Word of God may faithfully agree together. As for me, as far as in me lies, I will always labor to this end.

But there is a rather amazing part of Calvin’s story that I had never heard from those conservative Calvinists who remain steadfastly committed to schism. Following the Council of Trent, which revitalized Roman Catholicism in many excellent ways, Calvin was concerned that the Reformed cause might be lost. In 1557 he tried to persuade Melanchthon to arrange a conference in Germany on behalf of peace and union. In 1560 he made further attempts to renew this project. He proposed an assembly that would renew the union project by “a free and universal council to put an end to the divisions of Christendom.” The very next year, in 1561, he even gave consent to hold a gathering at Poissy which would have included Roman Catholics. He would have attended himself had not his friends prevented it. Adds John Hesselink, “This is all the more remarkable in that his frail body was being wracked by ever more frequent bouts of the painful illness which was to bring him to his death only three years later.”

Many modern conservative Calvinists prefer polemics against other Christians to praying and working for unity. One reason for this stance is that they really do not think other Christians are real Christians. They believe, in other words, what the Reformed minister believes who wrote to his friend and told him he had left the Christian faith by becoming Orthodox. What a sad departure from the true Reformed view of the church.

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  1. Hodge August 19, 2009 at 11:35 am

    The problem is that Calvin saw the doctrine of Christ as including Christ’s salvific work. You seem to want to divorce the two. Hence, your argument for why you reject JW’s is superficially understood.
    You also seem to only present evidence that backs your stance. This is no different than taking Bible verses out of context and prooftexting to substantiate your point.
    Does this clear statement by Calvin reflect what you are arguing here?
    “Insofar as the Mass is a sacrifice, appointed by men for the redemption and salvation of the living and the dead, as their canon bears, it is an unbearable blasphemy by which the passion of Jesus Christ is completely overthrown and set aside, as if it were of no effect whatsoever…Therefore, you can see that one of two things must take place here, either to acknowledge the horrible blasphemy of the Mass, and to detest it; or, in approving it, to trample under foot the cross of Jesus”
    “Popish churches are vessels of errors and heresies, and labor to overturn the Word of God”
    Calvin clearly states that the Church is the pillar and support of the truth, but that he denies the RCC to be that Church. Instead, he sees it as corrupt Israel from which genuine Christians should distance themselves instead of associating with its ravenous wolves and wicked members.
    Just to be clear, this is what Calvin said. If we’re going to make Calvin the authority of what is genuine Reformed Christianity, then let’s let him speak in context, rather than reinterpreting him to say something he never meant to say. Letter after letter, sermon after sermon, he tells true Christians that they are not to partake in RC worship or have anything to do with those churches. So essentials for Calvin includes anything that affects one’s view of the Gospel, not just an empty statement about Christ, stripped of its implications.

  2. John H. Armstrong August 19, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    The simple face is that we can all quote Calvin, and anyone else for that matter, out of context. Did Calvin say the things you cite? Of course he did. He also said what I cited. Fair minded students will attempt to work this out as you suggest. I am simply seeking to do this and clearly have my own perspective (bias). I freely admit this. I am no “neutral” voice in this dialogue. I might be wrong. In the end the issue is really not what Calvin said anyway. He is but one Christian theologian, albeit one I deeply admire. The issue is seeking and knowing Christ alone. None of us perceives the knowledge of God entirely, even on things we think we know so well. All of this underscores why I embrace the apophatic concept and say we must practice a way of via negativa, or negative theology. This way says words fail us and God is beyond all concepts. The west has a hard time with this but needs it now more than ever.
    I urge readers to read from a vast number of serious Calvin scholars who are producing books galore in this 500th anniversary year. There is a gold mine to be discovered. If I am wrong about all of this then I accomplished something very good if some readers actually read and study the great man’s ideas for themselves.
    Friends, don’t miss John Calvin for the Calvinists who debate about his words! He is far more interesting than our disagreements about what he said and meant.

  3. Rick August 19, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Calvin did participate in efforts to unite the Church in his own time. In 1541, at the Colloquy of Regensburg, Cardinal Contarini initiated talks with the reformers in Germany. Among those present were Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin.
    However, after agreeing on every article (including Article 5 on the doctrine of justification), they came to the sacraments and everything fell apart. Both sides refused to budge on their view of the Lord’s Supper. Contarini, though agreeing on the doctrine of justification with the reformers, would not budge from his view of transubstantiation.
    So, we can see that Calvin was no doubt interested in talks of eccumenicity and reunion…but there was a point he would not move beyond for the sake of union (not that you implied this at all, John).
    This also shows us that the sacraments, specifically the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, was more important than justification. For me, that has been a very interesting insight.

  4. Dozie August 21, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    “The very next year, in 1561, he even gave consent to hold a gathering at Poissy which would have included Roman Catholics.”
    This was mere theatrics on the part of Mr. Calvin. The most eloquent statement on unity he could have made was to walk back to the Church he walked away from. What stopped him from doing so? He wanted the entire Church to hold conference with him. We call it arrogance.

  5. Tom Quick August 22, 2009 at 9:27 am

    I agree with you about the theatrics, but Calvin was playing to a pretty small audience. In that period, a much larger form of theatre was playing in Paris for the marriage of Margot and Henri of Navarre.
    The Catholic response to attempted reunification on St. Bartholomew’s Day was much of an encouragement. Calvin could have expected the same treatment at Poissy.

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