Thoughts on Church and Culture: Calvin’s Catholic Church

by Aaron Dunlop

religion-politics_wideIn 1544 John Calvin wrote a letter to the Emperor Charles V to be presented at the Imperial Diet at Spires. In that letter he defended the work of Luther and the Reformation and identified a number of corruptions that necessitated reform “without delay.” This was a call for reform in both “doctrine and the Church.”

For Calvin it was not only the doctrines taught in Scripture that he cared about but also the government of the church and how the Church relates to diverse cultures and political environments. The Roman Church had become “a species of foul and insufferable tyranny” led by one man, the pope, and located in one place, Rome. It was this centralisation of the “vaunted power of the Church.”  The apostolic commission to take Christ freely to the nations was replaced by a “tyrant [who] ever so monstrously abused the patience of his subjects as to insist that everything he proclaimed should be received as a message from heaven.” The gospel had lost its simplicity and the worship of God its universal application. The church was only recognised as it appeared in the external form prescribed by the leadership at Rome. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church had ceased to be catholic.

Gene Osterhaven wrote:

The Reformation was needed and continues to be needed because of the lack of catholicity in the church. The Reformers’ work was necessary because the church had become too “Roman” in some areas, and too “Greek” in others. The church was no longer “catholic,” or universal, in its breadth, outlook, and teachings, but had become provincial and errant. The Reformers sought to restore it to true catholicity. (The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition, Eerdmans, 1971)

In his reform of the church Calvin was careful to retain the word Catholic and he was known as “the most catholic of the Fathers of the Church in the Reformation era.” The entire fourth book of his Institutes is a treatment “Of the Holy Catholic Church.” With the pure ministry of the Word and the true celebration of the sacraments Calvin concluded that “we may safely recognise a church in every society.”

For Calvin, Reformation meant more than theological exactness and purity of worship. To be truly “separated unto the gospel” Calvin and the Reformers realised that they had to step outside the box of cultural and sectarian traditions if the church was going to be recognised “in every society.”

This is an important little phrase—“in every society”—and I have to wonder if we have followed Calvin’s model for the New Testament church or have we returned to the provincialism condemned by our Reformed forebears. We speak today of churches from a particular country or culture—“black,” “Hispanic,” “Dutch,” etc., and we speak of forms of Church government and denominations more in terms of little ecclesiastical subcultures, often making them the standard for all Christendom. The spirit of Scripture—and of the Reformers—is the spirit of catholicity, and the spirit of catholicity is the spirit of moderation and accommodation. The real art of defending the faith with moderation and accommodation requires true spirituality and wisdom; of the sort that Paul prayed for in Philippians 1:9-10.

 

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