Friday, August 10, 2007

Calvin on the Church

I've enjoyed writing the blogger at the God Fearin' Fiddler today. He left the PCA to become a Roman Catholic. Below I've summarized some comments I made on his blog about some reading of Calvin I've done recently:

Book IV of Calvin's Institutes (The External Means Or Aids By Which God Invites Us Into The Society Of Christ And Holds Us Therein) is fascinating and prescient for me as I attempt to refute (or accept) Catholicism. It is clear that we have seen a tremendous drift from Calvin's vision, and equally clear that Calvin appreciated the Pandora's Box that the Reformers may have opened.
Calvin writes with incredible respect for the God-ordained role of "pastor" to preach the word (i.e., the preacher sets the normative standard for Scripture's meaning). He writes with boldness on the need for submission to whatever is a properly constituted church, which he defines as any one that preaches the word and attends to Christ's instituted sacraments.

In Calvin's view, the Catholic Church does not fit his two-part rule above as it: 1) is led by anti-Christ (a conclusion he reaches from Dan. 9:27 and II Thess. 2:24), and 2) practices transubstantiation, the "greatest sacrilege".

Regarding Christ's promise to sustain his church, Calvin reaches the conclusion that it was either in vain (if "Rome" is right because, as they had become contaminated with "idolatry, superstition, and ungodly doctrine", Christ's church has not been sustained), or else it is not in vain and true church must be viewed as what preaches the word and attends to the sacraments.

On the act of ordination, Calvin believed that the holy spirit worked a grace through it, but it was a ceremony only (and not a sacrament). He noted that the precept for the ceremony was unclear, but the biblical testimony of the practice by the apostles is so strong that it serves as justification for the practice IN LIEU OF a known precept. Calvin gives practical benefits of the act, but recognizes its origins or ultimate purpose to be obscure. I've heard similar talk of the James account of anointing the sick with oil (see my first post) - some PCA pastors will do it because it was done in Scripture, even though they have to admit we don't know the precept for it or its inner meaning.

Calvin determined that the selection of pastors was to be by the people, based on his reading of Acts 14:23. This verse uses the Greek verb ‘cheirotoneO’ (“hand-stretching”), which is usually translated in English as 'ordaining' or 'appointing', but was translated by Calvin as “voting” (see In this debate (whether the stretching of hands was up to vote, or out to ordain) hangs a major tenet of Presbyterianism polity. If the Presbyterian view is right, I note that it is not the perspicuous reading of the text. A persuasive Catholic comment on this exegesis holds that it would be odd for new believers, still ill formed and on spiritual milk to choose their leaders. Most odd to me, if I choose my authority, I am the authority. God has given clear examples of authorities in the divine nature whose selection is outside of our control. My children did not choose to be under my authority, and yet they are. The Jews of the Old Covenant did not choose to be under God through His prophets. When they demanded a King, a divine Prophet identified who would be the first. A force can act authoritatively only when it has a subject to act in submission. If I choose my leader, I can choose one with my beliefs, so am in submission to nothing but my own will. Voting on our ordained pastors seems to conflict with this principal.

Calvin works hard to hold the tension in his view of church between a flock that needs to be in submission to authority and the seeming impossibility that authority flows from the Apostles through their successors.


Joseph said...

Thank God that you are at least taking an objective approach to understanding Catholicism. Wherever the path you are on leads you, know that this Roman Catholic is very appreciative of your charity.


Thos said...

Joseph, I know that to many people "Ecumenicity" is a dirty word. In some contexts (uses), it is to me too. Thank you for your note - I believe we're on to something. If Christians try to debate as objectively as possible, we should come to a closer appreciation of truth. In reading on the Catholic/Protestant debate, I've been frustrated by a stark lack of charity by many on my side of the aisle.