The Many Faces of Calvin

Alexandre Ganoczy
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, Modern Reformation editors have solicited essays from a number of authorities on Calvin's life and work. Not all of our writers are "Calvinists" (that is, they would not all necessarily agree with him or follow in his theological footsteps), but each has identified a particular point of Calvin's thought that helps contribute to an overall perspective of Calvin's influence in his time and ours. We're grateful to these writers, some of whom might not normally appear in our pages, for lending us their own words as we contemplate the many faces of John Calvin.

It seems appropriate for a Catholic theologian who for many years has studied the history and work of John Calvin to participate in the concert of voices that honor him for the 500th anniversary of his birth. Such a participation seems to me all the more justified as I perceive considerable convergences between his conception of the church and the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, to which I remain-unlike certain traditionalists that have been rehabilitated by Pope Benedict XVI-strongly attached.

In my view, a first point of convergence is established by the role attributed to the Holy Spirit in the walk of God's people in history. Although the church needs sociologically identifiable and effective institutional structures in order to act in our world, the power that allows her to fulfill this task has a divine origin. Calvin follows the apostle Paul in recognizing that the Spirit is the one that "distributes his gifts as he sees fit" (cf. 1 Cor. 12:11). It is also the Spirit that secures the cohesion and cooperation between the diverse members of the ecclesial body (cf. v. 13). The Reformer follows both the apostle and the tradition of the Greek Fathers when he affirms that Christ makes himself present at the Lord's Supper by the work of the Spirit (cf. Inst. IV.17.12). Finally, the comprehension of the true sense of a given biblical text is only possible through "the internal witness of the Spirit" (cf. Inst. I.7.4 and 12). Calvin, however, is not a spiritualist given to ecstatic experiences, or in favor of the "Invisible Church" whose members are known to God alone. His knowledge of Latin theologians of the early church (especially Cyprian and Augustine, who integrated components of Roman law to their ecclesiology as well as his legal training) influenced him toward an ecclesiology that is both spiritual and institutional. Vatican II seems to have achieved a similar synthesis by placing a simultaneous emphasis on the charismatic and hierarchical structure of the church. This is reflected in both the apostolate of the laity and the apostolate given to the priests and bishops. The theme of "common priesthood" to all those who are baptized also signals a movement in the same direction.

For the Reformer, there existed a neotestamental model that could be adapted to the requirements of his time. It consisted of the four ministries of "the reformed Church according to the Word of God": pastors, deacons, doctors, and elders. The first two exercise their functions on the basis of an ordination that is almost sacramental. Pastors secure the ministry of the Word connected to the sacraments, while deacons fulfill the ministry of service and hospitality. Doctors assume the ministry of catechetical teaching, which includes both theological and so-called profane instruction; and elders are responsible for temporal (in effect lay) governance of the community.

However, it is especially in the four ministries' "collegial" method of work that a new analogy between the Calvinian and conciliar models is revealed. These are groups or "teams" for which leadership, or moderating, is provided by a "first among equals" who is elected by all the other members. Their meetings provide an exchange of information and debates, which prepare the way for decisions based on solidarity. Thus the "college" is able to avoid the danger of authoritarian and arbitrary deviation in the governing of the community. This "balance of power" sometimes gave concerns to Calvin himself, but it was especially motivated by a refusal of papal authority.

Regarding the papacy, the very many "antipapal" declarations by Luther and Calvin reflect only one side of the coin. Those who know the Institutes are aware that Calvin's refusal of a functional primacy of the bishop of Rome was far from absolute. He occasionally reflected positively on the matter. Speaking of the church of the first six centuries up to the time of Gregory the Great (540-604), Calvin still recognized the "petrinian" ideal of primacy as both an effective symbol of ecclesial unity and a place of appeal in case of controversies between local churches (cf. Inst. IV.7.12). At that time, the authority exercised by Peter's successor was moral and non-monarchical. Is it then unrealistic for Calvin to think that ten centuries later (i.e., in the sixteenth century) the reestablishment of this view of apostolic succession should be realized? "Had it pleased God," wrote Calvin, "that this succession, for which they boast falsely, would have lasted up to now! We would have gladly given it the honor it deserves" (Opera 7, 611). Following John XXIII, the pope of Vatican II, many Catholics have been able to join their Reformed brethren to say again, "Had it pleased God." In reality, this collegial principle seems to have gradually lost its primordial role in the post-conciliar years. However, should not fidelity to both its Calvinian and conciliar heritage make a departure from Vatican II undesirable? Instead, should we not pursue and complete the work of Vatican II through perhaps a Vatican III?

Confident in the activity of the Spirit, but also in constant ecumenical and conciliar collaborative work (as was meant by Lukas Fischer), today we have the duty not to reserve the title of church to only one Christian confession. Or, at least, we should recognize among our so-called "separated" brethren, the "vestige" of the church, which Calvin noted the presence in non-Reformed communities. These were possible anchor points toward reestablishing Communion. For Calvin, the most important "vestige" was the sacrament of baptism (cf. Inst. 1539; Opera 1, 560; 1559, IV.2.12).

For Calvin, this Communion was not uniform, but catholic. Evidently, the term is not to be taken in its confessional sense where the adjective "Roman" is necessarily added, but in its fundamental meaning of universality. "The Church" wrote the Reformer "is called catholic or universal because we could not speak of two or three without tearing Jesus Christ" (Inst. IV.1.2). Beginning with a similar Christology, Vatican II also advocates, "The catholic unity of the people of God," a unity in perpetual growth and reform, the one "that prefigures and promises universal peace" and to which "men are called […], both the catholic faithful [in the confessional sense] and the others who believe in Christ, and finally […] all men […] called to salvation" (Lumen Gentium 13/3).

More than ever today, where powers of disunity are working in so many areas, the churches that form the universal church are called to overcome what deeply separates them. And this not only by reforming themselves in dispersed order, but also in thinking and acting "conciliarly." This should be accomplished with the courage inherent to a missionary catholicity that, far from retreating into a secure traditionalist ghetto, accepts the risks of modernity.

In spite of some erring by its protagonists, this courage also fueled Luther and Calvin's reform. Likewise, it characterized the reforms of Vatican II. Current fundamentalist tendencies, with their push to conserve gains preceding the council or to revoke its fundamental reforms, must be countered. This is especially true if we, as Reformed and Catholics, want to commemorate Calvin by allowing ourselves to say from both sides, "our Calvin" and "our council."

English translation from the French by Dr. Thomas D. Petter, assistant professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Thursday, June 11th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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