John Calvin’s agenda: Issues in the separation from Rome
Garry Williams - Director of the John Owen Centre
Garry Williams - Director of the John Owen Centre
For the first time almost 20 years I attended the Westminster Conference. It was a bit like stepping back in time, spotting faces in the crowd I recognised from all those years ago. But there were also a good number of younger people in attendance. For various reasons I was only able to be there for Tuesday's sessions. Here are some notes on the first of the day's three papers.
I. Calvin's anti-Roman writings
Key works: Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto, The Necessity of the Reformation of the Church & Reply to the Council of Trent.
Controversy with Rome a necessity because of Roman idolatry. Avoidance of controversy tantamount to 'rocking the world in a sleep of death'. Idolatry has eternal and temporal consequences. Temporal judgements on Corinthians because of abuse of the Lord's Supper - 1 Corinthians 11. Blasphemy of the Mass far worse than Corinthian error. Encroachment of the Ottoman Empire on Christendom a judgement for abuse of the Lord's Supper.
Concern for worship & doctrine.
Christian religion summed up under two headings:
a) Knowledge of true worship
b) Source of salvation
Church order is comparable to the body and doctrine to the animating soul of the Christian faith. The Reformation aimed at reforming the church and doctrine. Justification of primary importance - the soul of Christianity. The right ordering of the church also important. Unlike Zwingli Calvin believed that God uses external things as means of grace. Not that the sacraments have power in themselves, but when received by faith the Holy Spirit uses the Lord's Supper to strengthen the believer's union with Christ. Christ is given with the signs when they are received by faith.
While we might agree with Calvin's priority on right doctrine, especially justification by faith, do we also share his concern for the reformation of worship? Are our concerns more individualistic with little thought being given to the form and content of Christian worship?
1. The New Testament is concerned with the right ordering of public worship - 1 Corinthians 11.
2. Public worship has an evangelistic purpose - 1 Corinthians 14.
3. Corporate worship in all its parts is meant to be educational, grounding Christians in the Word of God.
II. Calvin's actions in defence of the faith
Attention was drawn to his preaching, teaching, writing, polemical work and correspondence. Herculean labours wielding the club of the Word in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel. Calvin fostered Evangelical unity, seeking to forge links between Lutheran and Reformed camps. Not like Luther who treated Christians who disagreed with him as his enemy. Calvin had a more Conciliatory spirit when it came to controversy with other Evangelicals, but was clear that there could be no reunion with Rome unless Rome was radically reformed. Evangelicals and Catholics Together misguided. GAFCON too willing to side with Anglo-Catholics against Liberals. But we need to work harder to encourage friendly relations with other Reformed Evangelicals across the Anglican/Nonconformist divide. Church Society Anglicans not ecumenically compromised. Not that areas of disagreement don't matter, but we should be governed by a disposition towards unity.
III. The centre of Calvin's vision of reality
His vision focused on the physical body of Christ to which everything else in the world is related. The Christian has been brought into saving union with Christ's body by the Spirit. The life of God flows through the body of the risen Christ to his people. The Roman Catholic teaching of the intercession of the saints robs Jesus of his unique dignity as Saviour. The Roman Catholic bishop attempts to 'strip Christ bare and give the spoils to the Pope'. Christ is 'deformed' by doctrine of the Mass. That is why Calvin has no option but to enter into controversy with Rome. Saving doctrine is at stake - the need to understand what it truly means to eat Christ's flesh and drink his blood, John 6:53-54. The Reformation was about being near to Jesus rather than far from him as in the Roman system.
From Calvin's disagreement with Rome we are reminded of the vital importance of three things: The ongoing reformation of the worship of the church in accordance with the Word of God. The need to cultivate unity among Reformed Evangelicals. A Christocentric vision of reality.
Discussion of this stimulating paper ranged mainly around the theme of worship. The Moore College view that Christians meet on a Sunday simply for instruction was criticised. It was argued that there is such a thing as public worship on the Lord's Day. The New Testament specifies the elements of public worship. The introduction of worship groups and the informality of some church services was kicked around. We need to carefully think through the form and content of our Sunday services. Are they biblical in form and content? Are they reverent and yet joyful? Is there a sense of expectation that in worship we are gathering to meet with the living God? Also, given Calvin's stress on right doctrine, especially of justification by faith, there was a some discussion of the influence of N.T. Wright's views.