Reflections on Calvin, part 12

Chapter 15, “On the Power of the Church,” maybe one of the most important chapters in the Institutes for today. If Calvin does not adequately defend his theory about whether or not the Church can decide doctrine, then he might as well become Roman Catholic for one might say that everything hinges upon this single fact. It seems (though this is said with limited knowledge), that there is little obligation to believe some of the tenets of Roman Catholicism outside of such an understanding of Church authority. Indeed, there is evidence that such things are happening today as some Reformed intellectuals are becoming Roman Catholic because they have become convinced that the Roman Catholic Church has such an authority (cf. calledtocommunion.com).

One important point within this issue is that of Apostolic Succession. On page 641, Calvin represents his opponents position as follows: “The truth does not remain in the church if it does not lie in the pastors, and the church itself could not exist if it did not manifest itself in general councils. Though this is not Apostolic Succession per se, it does touch on the idea that the continuity of the Church lies in its visible leaders. Calvin’s response is to point out many passages in the Old Testament (641-642), which show the continuity of the people of Israel through the idea of a faithful remnant and not through the leadership. Some respond (642) that that was true for the Jews, but he then points to some New Testament passage which also convey the same idea of a corrupt leadership (2 Pet. 2:1; Matt. 24:11, 24; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, 4:3-4). Calvin does not think this diminishes the authority of the leaders in the church, but in order to bypass this predicament, he calls for great scrutiny in selecting pastors. So, it seems that Calvin is combining the view of Augustine and Donatist in that he does not place the holiness of the people in the holiness of the pastor, but he still holds high standards.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Calvin, part 12

  1. “The truth does not remain in the church if it does not lie in the pastors, and the church itself could not exist if it did not manifest itself in general councils.” Sorry, I enclosed the quote as I figured that was where it ended.

    If this is truly what Calvin has to say about the issue, and his point is that Apostolic Succession has broken down given that the church officials have become corrupted and morally decadent, then I’m afraid that he has fallen for a fairly simple and blatantly obvious fallacy. That is, the fallacy of composition. A whole is ALWAYS more than the sum of its parts. Just because some of the parts of a whole have some feature X it does not follow that the whole has that feature, or property, X. And so, while the continuity of the church lies in the People of the church, and especially in the Bishops, the authority of the Church does not rest on the rising or falling of their moral character. I seem to remember an early heresy claiming much the same as Calvin does here, addressed around the fourth century (concerning the efficacy of the priest and the Eucharist). [Ahh, now that I finished the rest of your post I see that you were thinking along the same lines – the Donatists].

    Further, I don’t see what the idea of a faithful remnant has to do with the issue. Of course there will always be a faithful remnant, otherwise the Church will go out of existence on earth. But, for some reason we often think that the remnant must be a small minority group or persecuted hidden church, etc. I don’t think so at all: it is perfectly consistent to assume that the faithful remnant is the larger body of believers that has a historical continuity throughout the ages. To appeal to a small, faithful, hidden, persecuted church that was not visible is to show ones’ desperate hand; and further, is to have a severely mistaken view of the church. Is not the Church intended to be visible? Ostendo!

    • You can’t just do away with Remnant Theology (as I will call it for brevity’s sake) by a swipe of the hand. I think Calvin has picked it up from Paul who used it to understand how God’s could keep his promises to Israel if most of Israel has rejected Jesus (cf. Rom. 9-11). Can the same paradigm be applied to the Church? Well, how distinct do you want to make Israel and the Church. If you’re a dispensationalist (which you are not), then you can say no; if you are not a dispensationalist (which is the case), then you can say yes. So, to rephrase the issue: How can God’s promises to the Church give in Jesus Christ remain true if most of the Church has “abandoned” them? Answer: there is a faithful remnant preserved by God (=election for Calvin). You can see from Calvin’s perspective why he would appeal to that idea.

      Honestly, I don’t remember all the details from a month ago. I just know that I had to say something against what you said. 🙂

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