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The Reformers & The Church (Part II)

Calvin and Anabaptists

We pick up with Systematic Theology III and Ecclesiology today with a final look at how key Reformers understood the Church. It is important to understand, because their works continue to exert influence on the modern, Western church.

Today, we will focus on John Calvin and a small amount on the Anabaptists.

- John Calvin -

Marks of a true church:

The Word of God should be preached and received.

This is a radical departure from the RCC who greatly diminished any role of the Bible in everyday living. What was important to the RCC was submission to the pope and those who represented him. 

For Calvin, and Luther, it would instead be marked by a submission to the Word of God, which instantly creates a real tension between them and the RCC.

It is not only the preaching/teaching of the bible, but the actual reception of it by the people.  This would distinguish between some guy randomly preaching from someplace, but no one cares. The people had to receive, understand, and put into practice.

The sacraments should be rightly administered.

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were what Calvin would call “the visible Word.” They brought to life the meaning and essence of the gospel.

Since the Roman Catholic Church did not conform to these basic standards, the Protestants were justified in leaving it and not seeking its Reformation anymore.

However, if a church conformed to these basic standards, then they should be received as being part of the Church and no further fragmentation should occur.

Now, with that in mind it is important to note that Calvin would not consider a baptist or evangelical church to be a true church simply because we would fail, in his thinking, on the second point.

External form for the Church:

Calvin saw the need to now clearly define an ecclesiastical order for the Church since it was no longer possible to return to the Roman Catholic Church.

He saw that a specific form of church structure and administration was set forth in the bible.  He referred to this as being the “order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed.”

This is key because he believed that if the sacraments were to be rightly administered, they had to be administered through a proper ecclesiastical form.  This left the radical reformers out in the cold.

(Four distinct groups: Minister, Elder, Deacon, and People/Laity.)

He also defined the Visible/Invisible Church:

This is the community of the saints here on earth.  This can refer to the Church as a whole or in a specific place—the local church.

This body of people includes the good, the evil, the elect, and the reprobates.

The visible church represents our current experience.

All believers are to remain committed to the visible church even in the midst of her weaknesses and struggles.

The way we know that a gathering of people makes up the visible church is if it complies with the two basic standards: The Word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.

This is important because it is not merely the presence of true believers that make up the visible church.  These two aspects must be present as well.

Invisible church:

This is made up of the invisible number of the elect.  They are known only by God.

The invisible church is not something we can see or experience now, it is a matter of faith and hope.

It is eschatological in its nature since it will not fully come into being until the end of time.

The importance of the Church:

The Church is the institution by which believers are sanctified.  This is the means by which God has ordained us to work out our salvation while on earth.

Calvin agreed with Cyprian of Carthage by saying, “You cannot have God as your father unless you have the church for your mother.”  And, “Outside the church there is no hope of remission of sins nor any salvation.”

This sort of statement will grate on many in the Western, Modern Church but it would do us well to ask why. We frequently press upon our congregations the corporate nature of the Church as revealed in the NT. Seldom is the individual in view.

The avoidance of schism:

Now this one will again grate on people but it is worth considering.  But also it is important to see why this became an issue for Calvin.  The Reformation was fully involved and the bible is being read by the masses. And with this there are many competing ideas.

There is no justification for leaving a church that “cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacrament.” To have disagreement on non-essential doctrines provides no excuse for leaving it.

We all suffer from some measure of ignorance, and so we must "condone delusion on those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation” (Institutes, 4.1.12).

If we are not willing to admit a church unless it be perfect in every respect, we leave no church at all...” (4.1.17).

However, if the sum of necessary doctrines is overturned and the use of the sacraments is destroyed, the death of the church follows (4.2.1).

So, since this happened to the Roman church, separation from it is not schism.

Even so, Rome is not completely dead. “If they cannot be given the title of church, "we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them.  In these churches "Christ lies hidden” (4.1.12).

- Anabaptists -

This movement that occurred with the Reformation is so broad that it is almost impossible to give any view as the prevailing view.  However, one key element within the movement was the belief that the Magisterial church movement (Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin) was wrong and still clung to too much of the error of Rome.

In addition, they were fiercely persecuted by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Many of their writings were destroyed and their beliefs are often defined by those criticizing them rather than from their own hands. As a result we will only give some broad sketches of this group, though many of us owe our faith and theology to their labors.

The name, anabaptist, simply means “re-baptized.”  They were also known as catabaptists, something Zwingli called them, meaning “anti-baptists.” However, they did not use these terms themselves.  They preferred the word “brethren.”

In addition Garrett notes: “Sixteenth century Anabaptist, who shared with most radical Reformers the belief that the true church had fallen during the patristic age, committed themselves to the church as restored and gathered on personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ, symbolized by the covenant sign of believer’s baptism—a church separated from government and worldly society, living under its discipline, suffering persecution, and seeking to fulfil the Great Commission” (Garrett, Jr., James, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 517-18).

- The visible/invisible church:

For the Anabaptists, the Church is made up of only believers and therefore only those who can show this faith should belong.  Accordingly, only believers can participate in baptism and communion.

So this made them a rather closed community as a whole where you had to show evidence of your faith. But it also meant you must have been “re-baptised” as a professing believer, something any true Baptist will heartily agree with.

A broad sweep of how they viewed the church. Notice how many of these points you would agree with and maybe your view of them might change a bit.

An appeal to the New Testament as the ultimate authority for the Church.

Primitivism, or the principle of restoration of the apostolic pattern in faith and practice of the Church. So they would look at the NT for direction on what a service or church would look like.

The concept that the local gathering was a fellowship of regenerate believers and church discipline.

Believer’s baptism:

The concept of ordinances as opposed to sacraments. This involved an acceptance of theology based on the ancient symbols/ordinances with a rejection of all creeds. Realize that this was mostly due to how corrupt the church had become so they were essentially seeking to do a whole restart for the sake of purity in the Church.

- A rejection of unqualified Calvinism which varies from slight modifications to total rejection. Again this shows the great variety of the various groups labeled as

- A rejection of a church hierarchy.

An affirmation of religious liberty with the rejection of an established state church. It is worth noting how radical this was. In that day almost no one could conceive of a separation of the State and the Church.  For most, they were two sides of the same coin.

- Salvation through faith in Christ.

A concept of discipleship that includes evangelism, ethics and true social concern.

It seems useful to see a unifying principle in the desire for a true church.  However, there were considerable disagreements as to the nature of that church.


There you go, a whirlwind tour of the Reformation and its effects on the Church.

We hope that you take away a bit of an appreciation of these people and groups as they still exert a lot of influence on us all.  Hopefully, you also come to see that you might have greater agreement with some of these than you may have expected.

Regardless, we will get back into formal theology next episode.


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