Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why, hello, Calvin.

Recently, I was assigned to read some selections from Calvin's Institutes for my Reformation class. The section was in Book IV, "The External Means or Aims by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein." In other words, it was discussing the Church.

Here are a few snippets I found to be especially meaningful:

 "Although the melancholy desolation which confronts us on every side may cry that no remnant of the church is left, let us know that Christ's death is fruitful, and that God miraculously keeps his church as in hiding places."

"First, [the church] stands by God's election, and cannot waver or fail any more than his eternal providence can. Secondly, it has in a way been joined to the steadfastness of Christ, who will no more allow his believers to be estranged from him than that his members be rent and torn asunder."

On the church as our "mother": "Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives."

He goes on to write that, if we try to find a flawless church on the earth, we will either conclude that there is no true church in existence, or we will overlook error on lesser matters for the sake of upholding what is central. Calvin argues that we shouldn't allow even the slightest errors to be fostered, but we also must not "forsake the church because of any petty dissensions."

Here is the heart of what I think Calvin was saying (and others more knowledgeable, please, feel free to correct me): It may appear to us, as it did to some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century believers, as if the church has been vanquished, but we know that cannot be true, because God has elected that it will not fail. One of the reasons for its perseverance is that it has been joined to Christ's own steadfastness, and we can rest in knowing that He will never allow His own to be torn away from Him.
We need the church because it is the treasure-house of the gospel and the means of grace; no matter how strong we become as Christians, we can never consider ourselves beyond the need of what God has graciously ordained for our good. And we shouldn't be so arrogant as to think we can find some "pristine" body on earth, or that, in our rightful zeal for the church's purity, we should forsake the visible church over relatively minor points of dissension.

There's plenty of room for debate over these points, I'm sure. But that's not why I felt the desire to post them. You see, I had scarcely read a word of Calvin until last week. In other words, studying the Institutes is obviously not what made me a Presbyterian.  What amazed me about reading just these passages is that, not only was it a great solace to me as a member of the Body, but it echoed my experience so far of being a part of it.

I don't think anyone sat me down with excerpts from Calvin and said, "Here is what you should believe about election, and the importance of the visible Church, and submitting yourself to it in humility." But I can think of many ways that has been modeled for me in love, by pastors and other brothers and sisters in the faith. And now that I've had the opportunity to read the theological language behind it, it's such a blessing and encouragement to be able to think, Yes. I didn't know that Calvin had argued this in so many words, but I already knew it, because I've seen it and am beginning to live it, by God's grace.

I hope that makes some sense. I'm not saying that I would agree with Calvin on every single point; I can confidently say that I wouldn't, in fact, because he's John Calvin, not God, and his writings are not the infallible Word of God. Neither am I saying that I think it's sufficient to get all one's theological lessons in an implicit, "it's just in the water" kind of way. (Indeed, I really need to get to work on learning the Catechism; and I am all about meaty theological education for ordinary church members.)

But there's something good, I think, about meeting somebody through what they wrote 500 years ago and realizing, "Hey, I recognize you." It testifies to that very unity sustained by Christ, which He promised us would never be overcome. Not due to our ability to argue correctly or live purely, but because of His perfect faithfulness.

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