Calvin on the subject of schism
- We have laid down as distinguishing marks of the church the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. These can never exist without bringing forth fruit and prospering by God’s blessing. I do not say that wherever the Word is preached there will be immediate fruit; but wherever it is received and has a fixed abode, it shows its effectiveness. However it may be, where the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no deceitful or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements—much less to desert it and break its unity. For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished. It is of no small importance that it is called “the pillar and ground of the truth” and “the house of God” [1 Timothy 3:15, KJV]. By these words Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world. For by its ministry and labor God willed to have the preaching of his Word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family, while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation. It is also no common praise to say that Christ has chosen and set apart the church as his bride, “without spot or wrinkle” [Ephesians 5:27], “his body and… fullness” [Ephesians 1:23]. From this it follows that separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ. Hence, we must even more avoid so wicked a separation. For when with all our might we are attempting the overthrow of God’s truth, we deserve to have him hurl the whole thunderbolt of his wrath to crush us. Nor can any more atrocious crime be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only-begotten Son of God deigned to contract with us. [Cf. Ephesians 5:23-32.] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, reprinted 1977), Book IV.1.10, pp. 1024-1025.
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Scott Bushey The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults. What is more, some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith. Suppose that one church believes—short of unbridled contention and opinionated stubbornness—that souls upon leaving bodies fly to heaven; while another, not daring to define the place, is convinced nevertheless that they live to the Lord. What churches would disagree on this one point? Here are the apostle’s words: “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be of the same mind; and if you be differently minded in anything, God shall reveal this also to you” [Philippians 3:15]. Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians? First and foremost, we should agree on all points. But since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation. But here I would not support even the slightest errors with the thought of fostering them through flattery and connivance. But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound and the use of the sacraments ordained by the Lord is guarded. In the meantime, if we try to correct what displeases us, we do so out of duty. Paul’s statement applies to this: “If a better revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent” [1 Corinthians 14:30 p.]. From this it is clear that every member of the church is charged with the responsibility of public edification according to the measure of his grace, provided he perform it decently and in order. That is, we are neither to renounce the communion of the church nor, remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, reprinted 1977), Book IV.1.12, pp. 1025-1026.
John Calvin commenting in 1 Cor 11:19: For there must be also heresies. He had previously spoken of divisions. (1 Corinthians 11:18.) Now he uses the term heresies, with the view of amplifying the more, as we may infer, too, from the word also, for it is added for the sake of amplification. (pro auchesin) It is well known in what sense the ancients used those two terms, and what distinction they made between Heretics and Schismatics. Heresy they made to consist in disagreement as to doctrine, and schism, on the contrary, in alienation of affection, as when any one withdrew from the Church from envy, or from dislike of the pastors, or from ill nature. It is true, that the Church cannot but be torn asunder by false doctrine, and thus heresy is the root and origin of schism, and it is also true that envy or pride is the mother of almost all heresies, but at the same time it is of advantage to distinguish in this way between these two terms. But let us see in what sense Paul employs them. I have already expressed my disapprobation of those who explain heresy as meaning the setting up of a separate table, inasmuch as the rich did not partake of their Supper along with the poor; for he had it in view to point out something more hateful. But without mentioning the opinions of others, I take schism and heresy here in the way of less and greater. Schisms, then, are either secret grudges — when we do not see that agreement which ought to subsist among the pious — when inclinations at variance with each other are at work — when every one is mightily pleased with his own way, and finds fault with everything that is done by others. Heresies are when the evil proceeds to such a pitch that open hostility is discovered, and persons deliberately divide themselves into opposite parties. Hence, in order that believers might not feel discouraged on seeing the Corinthians torn with divisions, the Apostle turns round this occasion of offense in an opposite direction, intimating that the Lord does rather by such trials make proof of his people’s constancy. A lovely consolation! “So far, says he, should we be from being troubled, or cast down, when we do not see complete unity in the Church, but on the contrary some threatenings of separation from want of proper agreement, that even if sects should start up, we ought to remain firm and constant. For in this way hypocrites are detected — in this way, on the other hand, the sincerity of believers is tried. For as this gives occasion for discovering the fickleness of those who were not rooted in the Lord’s Word, and the wickedness of those who had assumed the appearance of good men, so the good afford a more signal manifestation of their constancy and sincerity.” Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XX, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprinted 1979), p. 366.11:53am (2 seconds ago) · LikeReply
Scott Bushey ”I take schism and heresy here in the way of less and greater. Schisms, then, are either secret grudges — when we do not see that agreement which ought to subsist among the pious — when inclinations at variance with each other are at work — when every one is mightily pleased with his own way, and finds fault with everything that is done by others. Heresies are when the evil proceeds to such a pitch that open hostility is discovered, and persons deliberately divide themselves into opposite parties. Hence, in order that believers might not feel discouraged on seeing the Corinthians torn with divisions, the Apostle turns round this occasion of offense in an opposite direction, intimating that the Lord does rather by such trials make proof of his people’s constancy. A lovely consolation! “So far, says he, should we be from being troubled, or cast down, when we do not see complete unity in the Church, but on the contrary some threatenings of separation from want of proper agreement, that even if sects should start up, we ought to remain firm and constant.”
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Scott Bushey John Calvin (1509-1564): If those who profess to return to the right way feel hurt by these requirements, they are greatly mistaken. For it is impossible to accept them as Christian pastors if they have not renounced the papal priesthood in which they were ordained to sacrifice Jesus Christ, which is a blasphemy worthy of the highest detestation. In addition, they must solemnly promise to abstain henceforth from all superstitions and pollutions which are repugnant to the simplicity of the gospel. For how can they administer the Holy Supper unless they have separated from the abominations of the Mass? Moreover, they cannot be ministers of baptism unless they have rejected the confusions by which it has been corrupted. In sum, the church cannot accept them as pastors if they do not feel obliged to do their duty. Letter for Bishops and priests of the Papacy. John Calvin, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, trans. Mary Beaty and Benjamin W. Farley (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), p. 59.
John Calvin (1509-1564): The same principle ought to prevail in the case of baptism. Even if imminent danger is threatening, it still is not permitted to do what God clearly disapproves. We know that baptism in the papacy has been corrupted by many base elements and almost adulterated. If fear were a factor, all the pious would readily agree that it is wrong for parents to bring their infant children to a sinful baptism. It is superficial to seize upon danger as an excuse, as if the baptism itself could change its nature because of that. We know that bearing witness to piety is more precious before God than for piety to yield to threats and fears, at least when fear forces us to a pretense that is a tacit approval of impieties. We grieve with our pious brothers out of affection, but it is not up to us to free them from God’s incontestable law. The Hebrew women in Egypt long ago did not hesitate to put their own lives at risk to save others’ infants [Ex. 1:17]; it is shameful for parents to be so fearful that they defile the souls of their own babies, to the extent that they can. Letter On Certain Controversies Among the Pious Brothers. John Calvin, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, trans. Mary Beaty and Benjamin W. Farley (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), p. 118.
John Calvin (1509-1564): Finally, even though all these things were conceded, a brand-new conflict with them arises when we say that there is no church at Rome in which benefits of this sort can reside; when we deny that any bishop exists there to sustain these privileges of rank. Suppose all these things were true (which we have already convinced them are false): that by Christ’s word Peter was appointed head of the whole church; that he deposited in the Roman see the honor conferred upon him; that it was sanctioned by the authority of the ancient church and confirmed by long use; that the supreme power was always given to the Roman pontiff unanimously by all men; that he was the judge of all cases and of all men; and that he was subject to no man’s judgment. Let them have even more if they will. I reply with but one word: none of these things has any value unless there be a church and bishop at Rome. This they must concede to me: what is not a church cannot be the mother of churches; he who is not a bishop cannot be the prince of bishops. Do they, then, wish to have the apostolic see at Rome? Let them show me a true and lawful apostolate. Do they wish to have the supreme pontiff? Let them show me a bishop. What then? Where will they show us any semblance of the church? They call it one indeed and have it repeatedly on their lips. Surely a church is recognized by its own clear marks; and “bishopric” is the name of an office. Here I am not speaking of the people but of government itself, which ought perpetually to shine in the church. Where in their church is there a ministry such as Christ’s institution requires? Let us remember what has already been said of the presbyters’ and bishop’s office. If we test the office of cardinals by that rule, we shall nothing less than they are presbyters. I should like to know what one episcopal quality the pontiff himself has. The first task of the bishop’s office is to teach the people from God’s Word. The second and next is to administer the sacraments. The third is to admonish and exhort, also to correct those who sin and to keep the people under holy discipline. What of these offices does he perform? Indeed, what does he even pretend to do? Let them say, therefore, in what way they would have him regarded a bishop, who does not even in pretense touch any part of this office with his little finger. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, reprinted 1977), Book IV.7.23, pp. 1142-1143.
John Calvin (1509-1564): No doubt but the Papists will brag enough of their multitude: yea, but we see that the Prophet laugheth all of them to scorn. And why? We must always discern which are the [true] children. For what else are all the Churches of the Papists than Brothel houses of Satan? All things are infected, nothing is there but filthiness, God’s service is there utterly marred, and to be short, there is no soundness at all in them. The Papists therefore for all that ever they can pretend to make themselves God’s Church, are but misbegotten ****s, as they that are tied to the Brothel house with their mother that Synagogue of ****. The Thirtieth Sermon on Galatians, Galatians 4:26-31.
John Calvin (1509-1564): For we see that all the horned Prelates, and all the route of the Popish Clergy, have no more but the bare title. For where is the said word of God? They think that that were a stain to their state: it is enough for them to do their Ceremonies and gewgaws [trinkets, showy trifles], and they bear themselves in hand that they have very well discharged their duty, when they have so played an interlude: and so those Hypocrites do nothing else but fill the world full of their abuses and Illusions. Therefore let us learn to discern God’s true Church, from all the Synagogues that Satan hath builded in the world, and wherewith he dazzleth our eyes nowadays. That is to wit, when God’s word is preached faithfully, let us conclude that God also doth both know and acknowledge the flock that is assembled there. Fortieth Sermon on Galatians, Gal 6:6-8.
John Calvin (1509-1564): On the whole, we conclude that the servants of God never felt themselves obstructed by this empty title of Church, when it was put forward to support the reign of impiety. It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of Church, but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true Church, and what is the nature of its unity. And the thing necessary to be attended to, first of all, is, to beware of separating the Church from Christ its Head. When I say Christ, I include the doctrine of his gospel, which he sealed with his blood. Our adversaries, therefore, if they would persuade us that they are the true Church, must, first of all, show that the true doctrine of God is among them; and this is the meaning of what we often repeat, viz., that the uniform characteristics of a well-ordered Church are the preaching of sound doctrine, and the pure administration of the Sacraments. For, since Paul declares that the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Ephesians 2:20) it necessarily follows that any church not resting on this foundation must immediately fall. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), pp. 127-128.
John Calvin (1509-1564): For both the writings of holy fathers, the acts of councils, and all history, make it plain that this height of power, which the Roman pontiff has now possessed for about four hundred years, was attained gradually, or rather was either craftily crept into, or violently seized. But let us forgive them this, and let them take for granted that primacy was divinely bestowed on the Romish see, and has been sanctioned by the uniform consent of the ancient church; still there is room for this primacy only on the supposition that Rome has both a true church and a true bishop. For the honor of the seat cannot remain after the seat itself has ceased to exist. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), pp. 133-134.
John Calvin: Can she be the mother of all churches, who not only does not retain, I do not say the face, but even a single lineament, of the true church, and has snapped asunder all those bonds of holy communion by which believers should be linked together? John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 135.
John Calvin: We believe that we ought to observe and keep up the unity of the church, and that all those who separate themselves from it are perverse persons whom we ought to shun as deadly pests. Nevertheless we are of opinion that we ought prudently to discern which is the true church, because several falsely abuse this title. We declare then, that it is the society of the faithful who agree to follow the word of God and that pure religion which depends on it, and who profit therein during the whole course of their lives, increasing and confirming themselves in the fear of God, according as they have need to make progress, and tending always to that which is beyond. Moreover, that, whatever efforts they make, it behooves them incessantly to have recourse to Christ for the remission of their sins. Letter 480, To the King of France.
John Calvin (1509-1564): But these he has profaned by his sacrilegious impiety, afflicted by his inhuman domination, corrupted and well-nigh killed by his evil and deadly doctrines, which are like poisoned drinks. In them Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out. In them, briefly, everything is so confused that there we see the face of Babylon rather than that of the Holy City of God. To sum up, I call them churches to the extent that the Lord wonderfully preserves in them a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered, and to the extent that some marks of the church remain—especially those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil’s wiles nor human depravity can destroy. But on the other hand, because in them those marks have been erased to which we should pay particular regard in this discourse, I say that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, reprinted 1977), Book IV.ii.12, pp. 1052-1053.