Calvin’s Conception of the Church

In dealing with such a subject as “Calvin’s Conception of the Church” one may well be on his guard against diverse temptations.

He who would be known as a Calvinist is in peril of unduly exalting the person of John Calvin and of ascribing to his teaching a quality approaching infallibility. Perhaps that danger is especially great in this year of our Lord, 1959, when Calvinists the world over are commemorating the birth of the Genevan Reformer in 1509 and the publication of the final edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1559. Hard though Calvin strove to base his teaching on the infallible Word of God, he, of course, was fallible in his interpretation of the Word.

On the other hand, both the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist arc in danger of evaluating Calvin’s teaching by twentieth-century standards. Determined though Calvin was to abide by the timeless Word of God, he, like every other man, was unavoidably a child of his own times. Now, the fact that he was a product of the sixteenth century, and not of the twentieth, was not necessarily to Calvin’s disadvantage. In some respects it may well have been to his advantage. Yet, to ignore that fact is unfair to Calvin and gives evidence of a most faulty sense of history.

Calvin’s doctrine of the church lies scattered throughout all his writings, but it was summarized and set forth in orderly fashion in the twenty chapters of Book IV of the Institutes. In an article such as this it is obviously impossible to reproduce that doctrine in full. I have singled out four aspects which Calvin himself deemed important and to which we do well to give serious thought today.


That Calvin’s view of the church clashed head-on with the Romish view is a matter of common knowledge. According to Rome the church is nothing short of divine. That claim Calvin rejected unqualifiedly.

Roman Catholicism’s avowal of divinity appears in numerous ways one may almost say, in countless ways. A few will be named.

By ascribing infallibility, whether to ecclesiastical councils or–since 1870—to the pope in his ex cathedra pronouncements in matters of faith and morals, Rome arrogates to itself a divine attribute. Rome regards the pope as vicar of Christ and the church as the succession of the incarnate Son of God. Rome brazenly adds its traditions to the Bible and counts them an integral part of the Word of God. In absolution Rome enters upon the role of Him who alone can forgive sin, and when it boasts of imparting saving grace to men in the administration of the sacraments, it equates itself in that respect with the Holy Spirit.

All those claims Calvin rejected emphatically and contented himself with stressing, as does the Apostles’ Creed, that the church is “the communion of saints”; that is to say, the communion of God’s elect, of sinners saved by grace through faith. In other words, the church consists of human beings who even in glory will continue human. Thus Calvin resolutely rejected the basic Romish error of obliterating the distinction between God and man.

Highly significant is Calvin’s discussion of the fact that in the Apostles’ Creed the believer professes faith in God the Father, in God the Son, and in God the Holy Spirit, but not in the church. The Christian simply says: “I believe a holy, catholic church.” Said Calvin: “The particle in is often interpolated, but without any probable ground….We may perceive from early writers, that the expression received without controversy in ancient times was to believe ‘the Church,’ and not ‘in the Church’. This is not only the expression used by Augustine, and that ancient writer, whoever he may have been, whose treatise, De Symboli Expositione, is extant under the name of Cyprian, but they distinctly remark that the addition of the preposition would make the expression improper, and they give good grounds for so thinking. We declare that we believe in God, both because our mind reclines upon him as true, and our confidence is fully satisfied in him. This cannot be said of the Church” (Institutes, IV, I, 2).

It may not be inferred that Calvin held a low view of the church. Contrariwise, his view of the church was decidedly high. Although he denied that the church is divine in its essence, he taught that it is of divine origin. Did not the Son of God declare: “Upon this rock I will build my church”? Although he denied that the church is divine in its essence, he insisted that it is supernatural in its essence, for its living members are such as have been born of the Spirit and are “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4) in the sense that the image of God is restored in them. Believe it or not, Calvin held that there is no salvation outside of the visible church. Said he: “As it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels…Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation can be hoped for…The paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal” (Institutes, IV, I, 4).


There are those who regard Calvin’s teaching that there is no salvation without the visible church as a remnant of Roman Catholicism. They find the same fault wit h Article XXVIII of the Belgic Confession, which likewise affirms of the visible church that “outside of it there is no salvation.” Such critics much prefer the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV, Section 11, that out of it “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

However, beyond all reasonable doubt, Calvin and Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession, meant precisely what the Westminster divines stated. Both Calvin and de Bres were, of course, fully aware that the one and only requirement for salvation is, as Paul told the Philippian jailer, faith in Christ. To ascribe to either of them the opinion that he who today receives Christ in faith and tomorrow dies without having been received formally into membership of the visible church is eternally lost, amounts to the sheerest pettifogging. What they meant to do was to state a rule without regard to rare exceptions.

Calvin’s seemingly absolutistic position on this score was not due to failure on his part to purge all Romish leaven from his view of the church. There is another and much more reasonable explanation. It is found in his conception of the church as strictly one.

Today we are confronted by a multiplicity of denominations. Many of us, perhaps all of us, are confused by that phenomenon. We think there are a great many Christian churches. We recognize as a church almost any group that would be known by that name. A new denomination is founded, let us assume, for a wholly insufficient reason. At first we call it a sect, but it persists in calling itself a church, and soon we fall in line. A denomination, let us say, depart even farther from the truth than does Rome. It denies, or permits its ministers and teachers to deny, such cardinal Christian truths as the infallibility of Holy Scripture, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ, his deity, and the substitutionary atonement, as well as salvation by grace through faith alone, and, instead of courageously, although mournfully, pronouncing that church false, we accuse of lovelessness those who draw that obviously unassailable conclusion. We opine that, all churches being more or less faulty, it does not make a great deal of difference to which of them one belongs. And we find rich comfort in the thought that it really does not mat t e r much whether or not one belongs to any church at all, so long as one is a member of the invisible church of Christ, his mystical body. Thus we have acquired a low view of the visible church. We disparage it.

Calvin faced a radically different ecclesiastical situation. He was not confused by a multiplicity of denominations, for it was non-existent. And he was determined to base his view of the church squarely on Scripture, which teaches most emphatically that the invisible church is one and hardly less emphatically that the visible church ideally should be one. The New Testament knows nothing of denominations. In the apostolic church there were, to be sure, differences among believers in different localities and with different backgrounds, but denominations were out of the question. The visible church was one. And Calvin hew full well that the visible church and the invisible church are not two, but one. Visibility and invisibility are but two aspects of the one Christian church. The visible church is the manifestation of the invisible. Small wonder that he taught the necessity of membership in one as well as the other. In short, the confusion was not Calvin’s; it is ours.

His doctrine—rather, the Scriptural doctrine—of the unity of the church of Christ necessitated three conclusions each of which Calvin embraced willingly.

1. The church of Rome and the church of Protestantism could not both be churches. Because of its ungodly teachings and practices Calvin denominated Rome a false church. It is noteworthy how forcefully, and yet carefully, he expressed himself on that matter. Said Calvin: “While we arc unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them.” Referring to the Roman pontiff, he went on: “We do not at all deny that churches remain under his tyranny; churches, however, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half-buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished; where, in short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God. In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably tom and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols [baptism, for example] of the Church still remain…But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church” (Institutes, IV, 11, 12).

2. Some Anabaptists of Calvin’s day upheld the principle of the “pure church.” Finding serious fault with the Protestant church for what they deemed laxity in the exercise of discipline, they seceded from it and formed communions of their own. It seems not to have occurred to Calvin to recognize those communions as churches. Instead, he designated their members as “schismatics” who had “renounced the communion of the Church.” He rigorously condemned secession for imperfections in the one true church. “Revolt from the Church,” said he, “is denial of God and Christ” and, “No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us” (Institutes, IV, I, 10). In a word, Calvin distinguished sharply between the church and a sect, as did the Belgic Confession when it warned: “All sects that are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church” (Article XXIX).

3. Because of his strong conviction that the church of Christ is one, Calvin labored assiduously toward the assembling of all true believers in one communion. In a letter to Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, he recommended the caning of “an assembly of the most eminent men of learning from all the various churches which have embraced the pure doctrine of the Gospel” in order that they might after careful study of the Word of God draw lip “a true and distinct confession” to which all might subscribe. And he went so far as to suggest that those who would not accept that confession should be pronounced schismatics. (See “John Calvin and Ecumenicity” by John Bratt in The Reformed Journal, March, 1959.) That letter makes it perfectly clear that the unity for which Calvin strove was, like that for which Jesus prayed in John li, unity in the truth. The division of Protestants into Lutheran and Reformed churches grieved Calvin deeply. He was willing to employ the Lutheran Augsburg Confession as a basis of union. Again, his aim unmistakably was the highest possible degree of doctrinal unity.


In his Insistitutes of the Christian Religion Calvin taught that the true church has two marks or notes. These are his words: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence” (IV, T, 9).

Certain as he was that those marks had disappeared from the Romish church of his day, he denounced that organization as a false church. He did not mince words when he wrote: “As soon as falsehood has forced its way into the citadel of religion, as soon as the sum of necessary doctrine is inverted, and the use of the sacraments is destroyed, the death of the Church undoubtedly ensues, just as the the of man is destroyed when his throat is pierced, or his vitals mortally wounded…If the Church is founded on the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, by which believers are enjoined to place their salvation in Christ alone, then if that doctrine is destroyed, how can the Church continue to stand?…In place of the Lord’s Supper, the foulest sacrilege has entered, the worship of God is deformed by a varied mass of intolerable superstitions; doctrine (without which Christianity exists not) is wholly buried and exploded, the public assemblies are schools of idolatry and impiety.” He drew the conclusion: “Since this is the state of matters under the Papacy, we can understand how much of the Church there survives.” And he encouraged the faithful by assuring them: “In declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being severed from the Church of Christ” (Institutes, IV, II, I, 2).

Calvin’s followers have usually spoken of three, instead of two, marks of the true church. To the sound preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments they have added the faithful exercise of discipline. Guido de Bres did that already in 1561. Says the Belgic Confession: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin” (Article XXIX).

The question arises why Calvin omitted the exercise of discipline from his enumeration of the marks of the true church. The answer has already been suggested. He had to contend with the “pure church” notion of the Anabaptists and was determined to give that notion no quarter whatever. In opposition to the extremism of the Anabaptists he found it necessary to insist that the true church is inevitably marred by faults and that no one has the right to secede from the church because it is not perfect.

Pleading for“«indulgence in tolerating imperfection of conduct,” Calvin argued: “There always have been per· sons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness,…spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains. Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress. Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists.” Granting that, sad to say, “the offense is often well founded,” and unqualifiedly condemning all sin, he proceeded: still those of whom we have spoken sin ill their turn, by not allowing how to set bounds to their offence. For where the Lord requires mercy they omit it and give themselves up to immoderate severity. Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they withdraw from a genuine church” (Institutes, IV, I, 13).

Calvin made the obviously correct admission that a measure of doctrinal difference is allowable within the true church. “All the heads of doctrine,” said he, “are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatizing, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively on the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord?…The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation” (Institutes, IV, I, 12).

In his opposition to the “pure church” principle Calvin appealed to Christ’s parable of the tares in Matthew 13. In so doing he was quite right. To infer, as is often done, from the sentence “The field is the world” (verse 28) that this parable has no reference to the church but teaches the inevitable co-existence of the righteous and the wicked in the world until the day of judgment, is truly simplistic. The parable refers unmistakably to the imperfect visible church. The field is indeed the world. Into that field the good seed is sown, and thus the church comes into being. But Satan sows tares among the wheat and thus introduces the children of the wicked one into the church. That is the presentation of this parable. (See G. Vos, The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, pp. 165–168.)

Lest Calvin be misunderstood, he was fully aware that the parable of the tares, while forbidding extremes in church discipline, by no means rules out such discipline. He regarded it as not merely desirable, but necessary. He said: “If no society, nay, no house with even a moderate family, can be kept in a right state without discipline, much more necessary is it in the Church…As the saving doctrine of Christ is the life of the Church, so discipline is, as it were, its sinews; for to it it is owing that the members of the body adhere together, each in its own place. Wherefore, all who either wish that discipline were abolished, or who impede the restoration of it…certainly aim at the complete devastation of the Church” (Institutes, IV. XII, 1). Again he asserted: “It is a great disgrace if dogs and swine are admit· ted among the children of God; much more, if the sacred body of Christ is prostituted to them. And, indeed, when churches are well regulated. they will not bear the wicked in their bosom, nor will they admit the worthy and unworthy indiscriminately to that sacred feast” (Institutes, IV, I, 15).

As for doctrinal error, even of minor departures from the truth, Calvin asserted: “I have no wish to patronize even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery and connivance” (Institutes, IV, I, 12). And as for such cardinal truths as the deity of Christ and salvation by grace, Calvin not only taught that their deniers should be excluded from the church, but insisted that their denial by a church rendered that church false. “If the Church is ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (I Timothy 3:15). it is certain that there is no church where lying and falsehood have usurped the ascendancy” (Institutes, IV, II, 1). And “Since the Church is the kingdom of Christ, and he reigns by his word, can there be any doubt as to the falsehood of those statements by which tho kingdom of Christ is represented without his sceptre, in other words, without hi s sacred word?” (Institutes, IV, II, 4).

We conclude that the inclusion of discipline in the marks of the true church does no violence whatever to Calvin’s conception of the church but, rather, is in complete harmony with it.


That Christ is the sole Head of the church is one of the most emphatic teachings of John Calvin. He stressed that truth more strongly than did Martin Luther. Calvin affirmed: “Heavenly Head is Christ, under whose government we are all united to each other, according to that order and form of policy which he himself has prescribed” (Institutes, IV, VI, 9).

It follows that the church is subject to the law of Christ alone and that no council or pope may add to that law. “Let this then be a sure axiom,” said Calvin, “that there is no word of God to which place should be given in the Church save that which is contained, first, in the Law and the Prophets; and, secondly, in the writings of the Apostles” ( Institutes, IV, VIII, 8). Speaking of the consciences of believers, he declared: “They must acknowledge Christ their deliverer, as their only king, and be ruled by the only law of liberty, namely the sacred word of the Gospel, if they would retain the grace which they have once received in Christ: they must be subject to no bondage, be bound by no chains” (Institutes, IV, X, 1). According to Calvin, God alone is Lord of the conscience, the church is not; and the church has no legislative power, it has but to proclaim the law of Christ.



Today Calvinists generally deduce from the sale headship of Christ over the church that doctrine which is loosely designated as “the separation of church and state.” Specifically they take the position that, although the state must protect the church in its exercise of religious liberty and may properly judge concerning its property rights, the state has no authority over the spiritual affairs of the church. Calvin did not thus limit the authority of the state. On the contrary, he ascribed to the magistrate the task, among others, “to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the pure doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the church” (Institutes, IV, XX, 2).

For that view Calvin has been criticized severely. Most severely has he been taken to task for its application in the execution of the heretic Servetus by order of the Genevan council. While it must, beyond all doubt, be granted that Calvin was in serious error at this point, Henry E. Dosker was right in warning that “in judging this lamentable occurrence we must beware of an anachronism” (Outline Studies in Church History, p. 214).

In the Reformation period practically all Protestants took the position now under discussion. Ramo insisted on a totalitarian church. It arrogated to the church authority over the state in civil affairs. Small wonder that, when rejecting that position, Protestantism swung over to the position of Erastianism, that the state has a measure of authority over the spiritual affairs of the church. Evidently the law of action and reaction was asserting itself. And so it was not strange that Servetus was executed with the advice and consent of all the Reformers, irenic Melanchthon included. Even a century later the Westminster Assembly affirmed that the civil magistrate “hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all .the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIII, III). In short, in the Reformation period the church’s understanding of the Word of God had not yet progressed to the point of its subscription to what we today are wont to denominate “the separation of church and state.” Incidentally it may be remarked that it is highly unlikely that even now the last word has been spoken on that thorny problem.

The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century have been credited w it h denying the authority of the state over the spiritual affairs of the church. As a matter of fact, they did make that denial, and they were right in so doing. It has been suggested that Calvin should have been willing to learn from them. While that suggestion need not be dismissed categorically, it must be observed that Calvin found the background of the Anabaptist denial highly reprehensible. There were among the Anabaptists extremists who virtually rejected all human government. Of them Calvin said: “Some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them” (Institutes, IV, XX, 1). Over against that libertarian view Calvin felt duty bound to uphold the Scriptural teaching, explicit in Romans 13, that the state is divinely ordained and that therefore believers, as well as others, must be subject to it. At bottom Calvin found the Anabaptist view of civil government so obnoxious that his refusal to profit by any deduction from it is not surprising.

Not only are Calvin’s severe critics on the score under consideration guilty of an anachronism; they also are wont to withhold credit due to him.

Calvin taught emphatically that on occasion the Christian must adopt the apostle Peter’s resolve to obey God rather than men. “In that obedience which we hold to be due the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful, that it is not incompatible with obedience to him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow…The Lord, therefore, is king of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all” (Institutes, IV, XX, 32). That courageous teaching, no doubt, helps to account for the observation made by liberal John C. Bennett in his recent book, Christianity and the State, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons; “Calvinism became the inspirer of political revolution in many countries—in Scotland, France, Holland, England and, more indirectly, in America” (p. 71).

Supremely significant is what Herman Bavinck has pointed out in his Gereformeerde Dogmatick (IV, 446) concerning Calvin’s conception of ecclesiastical discipline. In Lutheran churches discipline came to be exercised by the “consistories” in which both church and state were represented. In practice this led to the same result as the teaching of Zwingli, Erastus, the Remonstrants, the Rationalists, and many recent theologians, according to which the state has become Christian and consequently the church must, or at least may, surrender to it the power of discipline. For Calvin, on the other hand, church discipline was a matter of life or death. In Geneva he fought for twenty years for the right of the church to banish evil from its midst. It was not until 1555 that he gained the victory. Here one cannot but recall Calvin’s heroic defiance of the council of Geneva in his barring of libertines from the Holy Supper.

Because of prevalent Erastianism the churches of the Reformation were, generally speaking, “established” or “territorial” churches. That is to say, they were under state control. One of the outstanding characteristics of nineteenth-century church history was the rise of  “free” churches. It was no accident that this trend asserted itself more strongly in Calvinistic countries than in Lutheran lands, for the separation of church and state was implicit in Calvin’s emphasis on the sale kingship of Christ over his church. Although Calvin himself did not become fully aware of that implication, he laid down a principle which in course of lime was bound to assert itself—and did.

In his conception of the church Calvin was indeed a child of his times. That could hardly have been otherwise. Thanks to his exceptionally keen and deep insight into the Word of God, he was also ahead of his times.