John Calvin & the Four Nicene Marks of the Church

One theme that emerges throughout Calvin’s works as well as some Calvin biographies is the importance he places upon ecclesiology. We see this in various ways, for instance in his fight for the unity of the protestant movement, in his emphasis on the proper understanding of the Eucharist, and his constant attempts at establishing church discipline in Geneva, just to name a few examples. In this brief essay I will explain a few themes in Calvin’s ecclesiology by using the four marks of the church as they are put forth in the Nicene Creed. Understanding that this is not necessarily the way Calvin organized his ecclesiology, I believe it is a useful tool for explaining what he thought about the church.[1] Thus in this essay I will address what Calvin might understand what is meant when it is said that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva - Calvin's
St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva – Calvin’s “Home” Church

ONE

            The Nicene creed begins the section about the church by saying “I believe in one…. church.” The oneness of the church is something that Calvin insists upon throughout his career. This might seem to contradict the very nature of the protestant reformation, however in Calvin’s mind it does not present a contradiction, namely because Calvin saw the oneness of the true church as vitally important. This is a theme that emerges in Gordon’s biography of Calvin. Gordon claims that “Calvin understood his destiny to extend far beyond Geneva’s walls: he was a man of the Church, and its unity was his deepest passion.” (Gordon, Kindle Loc 35) One concrete example of how unity was at the forefront of Calvin’s mind can be seen in his attempted ecumenical work on the Eucharist. Calvin saw the dispute between Lutheran and Zwinglian understandings of the Eucharist as the major block towards church unity. Thus Calvin attempted to navigate a way between both positions, a way which could unite the church. He did this by signing the Augsburg Variata and the Consensus Tigurinus, as well as cultivating a relationship with Melanchthon. He even traveled extensively, journeying to Berne, Zurich, Basle, Frankfurt, and Strausbourg in order to cultivate unity. Sadly, the unity he desired was not achieved.

HOLY

            The Nicene creed continues by saying “I believe in one, holy… church.” Regarding the holiness of the church Bruce Gordon says “the power of Calvin and his fellow ministers lay not in their talent for excoriation, but in their ability to create a vision of a godly community.” (Gordon, Kindle Loc 3095) Though he may have done an excellent job of casting vision for what a godly community looked like, one cannot escape his “talent for excoriation.” One can take the incident with the excommunication of Philibert Berthelier as an example. Berthelier had been excommunicated by the Consistory but appealed to the Small Council in order that he may attend the Lord’s Supper. However, Calvin appeared before the council declaring that he would “rather die a hundred deaths than subject Christ to the disgrace of unworthy participation in the Lord’s supper.” (Gordon, Kindle Loc, 3069) However, at the end the city magistrates concluded that church discipline was in their hands and not in the hands of the consistory. This was a defeat for Calvin, who believed that “our Savior set up in his Church the correction and discipline of excommunication.” (Articles Concerning, 50). Nevertheless, Calvin instituted wide spread moral reform. Geneva was transformed from a city filled with immorality, even having a reputation for violence and sodomy, towards a slightly more moral society. Thus in Geneva we see Calvin’s belief that the church ought to be holy and pure.

CATHOLIC

            The third Nicene mark of the church is that it is “catholic.” Interpretations of what is meant by “catholic” are manifold but at the very least we can say that it can refer to that which has universally been believed by the church. A prime example of how Calvin sees protestant churches as being truly catholic (as opposed to the Roman Catholic church) can be seen in how he argues with Sadoleto. In his reply he defends his catholicity by saying “You are mistaken in supposing that we desire to lead away the people from that method of worshiping God which the catholic church always observed.” (Sadoleto, 6) He then claims that the church has always been governed by the Holy Spirit, which God has annexed to the Word, he supports this claim with Scripture and by appealing to Chrysostom. He then argues for the claim that the protestant church represents what has always been believed by appealing to the writings of Basil, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine. Calvin then says “that it [the Church] is the society of all the saints, a society which, spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages, yet bound together by the one doctrine, and the one Spirit of Christ, cultivates and observes unity of faith and brotherly concord.” (Sadoleto, 7) Thus he emphasizes the catholicity of the church, even saying that protestants revere this church, the church which is truly Catholic, as its mother; but he rejects the Roman church as fulfilling this catholic definition of the church.

APOSTOLIC

            The final mark of the church is that it is “apostolic.” Here Calvin rejects apostolic succession in favor of succession of apostolic teaching. One see’s the importance Calvin puts upon apostolic teaching in the way he envisions his own vocation. In one sense we could say that Calvin saw himself as a defender of correct doctrine, this was part of his vocation.  Calvin says regarding this self understanding that “the welfare of this church…lay so near to my heart that for its sake I would not have hesitated to lay down my life.” (McKee, 62) One way he ensured the continuing welfare of the church is through his doctrinal and biblical writings. Much like so many other important figures in the history of the church, Calvin devoted much attention to Romans. There he lays out the Apostolic teaching of the church, especially when it comes to justification. But perhaps even more than in his commentaries or preaching we see Calvin’s understanding of the importance of defending apostolic teaching in the way in which he responds to heretical teaching. Chief among the examples of Calvin’s polemic against those who don’t follow the apostolic teaching is his treatment of Servetus’s work. In Calvin’s mind those who spare heretics and blasphemers are themselves blasphemers (Gordon, Kindle Loc 3157). Though it seems as if Calvin did not want Servetus to die, the Servetus incident shows how seriously Calvin takes the apostolic teaching of the church.

It should be noted that Gordon’s biography sheds light on each of these four marks, but Gordon’s strength in the area of ecclesiology is his contribution to our understanding of the apostolic nature of the church and the unity of the church. In particular, his chapter on Servetus sheds light on Calvin’s motivations to maintain the apostolic teaching of the church, especially within the context of contemporary political and theological thought, in how he treats heretics. Gordon does much to dispel the myth of a bloodthirsty Calvin out to get Servetus. Secondly, his chapter, “European Reformer,” shows how much Calvin did (at times unintentionally) to bring unity to the Reformed churches ranging from churches in Britain to Poland to the Low Countries and even to the Palatinate. Reformed churches throughout these lands were heavily influenced by Calvin and his reforms in Geneva. Many leaders in these countries wrote to Calvin for advice and some, including John Knox, even came to Geneva to learn from Calvin. Thus even though he never achieved the unity in the church he desired, his contributions went a long way towards establishing some sort of unity based upon his Reformed understandings of the faith and church polity.

CONCLUSION

            There are many ways to approach Calvin’s ecclesiology. We could define it in terms of the two marks he mentions (right distribution of the sacraments and the word properly preached), he views on the current state of the church vs. God’s intention for the church, or even his perceived role in building up the church, however we have chosen to examine his ecclesiology in terms of these loci classicus. Hopefully this heuristic has helped to shed light upon Calvin’s understanding of the church within a historical context.


[1] At least given our readings, and my prior knowledge of Calvin’s work I am not familiar with him organizing his ecclesiology in light of these four marks.

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