"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The catholicity of the Reformation

The more I read about the Reformation, the more I am interested in what I would call the second-generation Reformed ecumenism. The Reformed and Lutheran camps were at odds in the first generation between Zwingli and Luther, but second generation reformers John Calvin, Phillip Melancthon, Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer and Bullinger all made moves towards uniting the Reformed, Lutheran and Anglican streams in one Reformation confession. Often the starting point was the Augsburg Confession, especially as explained by Melancthon. Tragically, the more ardent Lutherans rejected Melancthon's efforts as compromise and liberalism, the Church of England went from the golden age of Protestantism under Edward VI to the brutal rule of Catholic Bloody Mary in which Cranmer was burned at the stake, and so reconciliation was thwarted, despite its Biblical mandate.

I recently encountered an interesting article online I thought I would recommend. It is not a published article, but most of the article consists of cited quotations of documents and correspondence. It highlights the efforts of John Calvin towards unity, but this was not at the expense of purity, as the author concludes:

"For Calvin the fundamental criterion for unity was pure doctrine."


M. Jay Bennett said...

Very good article!

Early on in the article Calvin's pastoral wisdom comes through loud and clear. He believed unity was of absolute importance in the Christian church, much too important to be based on institutional pretense amidst fundamental doctrinal aberrations.

Calvin writes to Sadoleto:

"Nothing is less tolerable than when God's truth is turned into a lie, because this is like reducing him to nothing. God is truth; if, therefore, that is abolished, what else will remain behind?"

Andrew said...

"one holy catholic and apostolic"...

Calvin and others might have believed that their 'true' doctrine was so essential to Christianity that it merited dividing the body of Christ, however when it did so for the sake of doctrinal purity, it destroyed the True doctrine of Ecclesiology. The doctrines of the unity and visibility of the church, and thus took on a pseudo-donatist view of the Church and splintered it irrepairably.

So while I do believe Calvin desired One Church (as does anyone who reads John 17), it seems he didn't desire it enough, in my personal and fallible opinion.

Jared Nelson said...

Andrew - when my great-grandfather would get worked up, he said he "got his German up." I do believe that last comment may have "gotten my Luther up." :)

There are so many issues involved there: the church, purity of doctrine, the unity of the church, the holiness of the church, the relation of the church and the Word, Donatism. Let me answer with a completely new post. Perhaps even series if I have the extra time. I've been thinking about it, and I just might have to pull the trigger...

M. Jay Bennett said...

If one understands doctrinal purity to be the basis for unity, then a strong argument could be made that the church was already fractured or disunified prior to the Reformation.

That disunity manifested itself in lots of ways. One glaring example is of course the papal schism and its resultant conciliar controversy.

Jonathan said...


Really? It seems to me that, in light of the Scriptural and patristic witness, the Reformers recovered the "true doctrine of ecclesiology" from an "irreparably" schismatic tyranny which had by their day made ecclesial reformation impossible.

And as for the charge of donatism: that is simply nonsense. (And perhaps you meant "neo-donatism"? "Pseudo-donatism" means "false donatism", and would therefore *not* be Donatism.) The heresy of Donatism had/has to do with a denial of the efficacy of the sacraments performed by lapsed catholic priests, and required a certain level of holiness in a minister for the sacraments to be efficacious. This the Reformers, to a man, never did. They called for Reformation in the church, but never said that the sacraments performed by priests and bishops in the Roman communion were invalid. The Reformers were just as opposed to Donatism (at least if we're talking here about real Donatism, and not the paper construction of certain RC pop-apologists) as was anyone in the Roman communion.

Comments like yours make me wonder if you've ever even read, say, book 4 of Calvin's Institutes, or other writings of the Reformers on ecclesiology. Calvin most definitely believed in both unity and visibility, which is quite apparent from his writings. What he rejected was tyranny... this was the basis of his ecclesiological beef with Rome.

To all interested in this subject:

Two book recommendations, if you haven't looked at them already: John T. McNeil's "Unitive Protestantism" and Paul Avis' "The Church in the Theology of the Reformers."


Jonathan Bonomo



Andrew said...

The point I was trying to make about Donatism was that Reformed Protestantism mirrors their beliefs of a pure congregation only. (like the anabaptists) Except in the case of Calvinism it is a 'doctrinally pure' congregation.

I have read Calvin's Institutes on the Church and Calvin clearly believed in a visible Church under his 'orthodoxy' as he executed 'heretics', so in a twisted way he believed in the visibility of the church, but I would challenge his views as in that section he quotes St. Cyprian saying 'you cannot claim God as your father without the Church as your mother' - however was Cyprian really referring to 16th century Geneva? The very proposal that Reformed Protestantism is in any sense 'catholic' 'universal' is idiotic. If the known world only included Europe at the time of Calvin it would never have been catholic. It was in obscure parts of Geneva, France, and Scotland.

That is why I was saying a post on Calvin being a lover of unity and church visibility was a little equivocal, because he failed to understand both concepts so greatly. But I'm starting to sound really arrogant and triumphalistic, when in truth I am but a layman, so I will now shut up, and apologize if I offened you.

Jared Nelson said...

Donatism is fundamentally about separation over morality, not doctrine. The analogy is defective.

Catholicity is not geographical, or else all of Christianity is guilty of this, for instance right after the Great Schism the Latin Church was absent from the middle east and Eastern Orthodoxy was not in western Europe. The catholic faith is not about a particular grouping of Churches or geography but confession of Christ and His gospel.

Jonathan said...


1. You are simply wrong. The magisterial Reformers, to a man, adamantly and vehemently opposed the idea of a "pure" congregation only, even with regard to doctrine. Have you ever read any of their writings against the Anabaptists? Calvin, Bucer, and all the Reformers were quite comfortable to allow liberty on secondary matters. And, please elighten me, are you meaning to assert that Rome was willing to allow for deviation from "pure" doctrine as she saw it in the sixteenth century? I think not. It seems that there is something of a double standard at work here.

2. In what way was the execution of heretics in Geneva different than the execution of heretics in Roman Catholic lands in the sixteenth century, other than that Calvin urged the more humane execution of beheading as opposed to the tradition of burning heretics alive? The answer: None. Except that in Geneva, the executions were fewer than in many Roman Catholic lands. I don't think you want to get into a "who has committed worse atrocities against humanity" debate here... you'll lose.

And your assertion that you've read Calvin on the church seems empty in light of your continued caricature of his views. I don't doubt that you may have read him, but you clearly haven't taken the time to understand him. His conception of the church universal reached far beyond Geneva, and even far beyond Reformed Protestantism. He considered all the churches of Protestant lands to be true churches, including all of Switzerland, Germany, and England, and he even held that the true church remained within the Roman communion, though he distinguished between Rome as an insitution and the true churches which remained under the papal sway. He would even write to Cardinal Sadoleto, "We do not deny, Sadoleto, that the true church remains within your midst." In reality, Rome was the only party in the sixteenth century debates which claimed exclusive catholicity for itself. So, your bold claims here ring quite hollow in light of the actual historical data.

Jared Nelson said...

haha. Sorry, the argument between Jonathan and Andrew made a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail jump into my head: "Let us not bicker and argue about who killed who..."