The True Church

A friend recommended that I read an article by Sinclair Ferguson titled, “John Calvin on the True Church” – you can click on the title above to read it for yourself if you would like. He also thought that I might have some thoughts regarding the article, and surprise, surprise, I do! To set the stage for you, the article essentially asks the question,

“How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ?”

And it’s a great question. It is, in point of fact, a question all too often neglected by the modern Protestant, many of whom are blissfully unaware that reformers such as Calvin and Luther not only considered it a question of vital importance, but also asserted that there was no salvation outside of the “true Church.”

Consider the following quotes from Calvin for example:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, …Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, …hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.”1

And fundamentally, the Catholic Church would agree. The Church has always taught the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus or, outside the Church there is no salvation. Indeed, until very modern times this was the consistent teaching of all Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. It is only in our modern milieu of relativism (i.e. all paths lead to God, there are no absolutes, etc.) that it has fallen out of favor. And yet, it is only in the light of this central teaching of Christianity that the question, “How do we recognize the true Church of Jesus Christ?” has any significance whatsoever.

A Redefinition of Church

Interestingly enough, Ferguson would seem to disagree with Calvin himself on this very point when he writes, “The unity of the church, therefore, is not a formal, historical reality made concrete in an institution …Rather it is a dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with the one true bishop of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

But notice what Calvin writes in a letter to a friend, “Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us.”2 Calvin’s church was clearly a concrete institution, localized and hierarchal. Herman’s return to it required both a submission to it’s authority and a declaration of it’s superiority over all other churches. In other words, obviously it was not merely a dynamic reality born out of living union and communion with Christ alone.

One of the problems with the article is that Ferguson essentially seeks to redefine the word “church” in a way that is utterly foreign to the historic use of the word. This modern definition of “church” which sees it as a mere invisible and mystical body, somehow loosely aligned with the person of Christ, is a concept entirely out of step with historic and orthodox Christianity – including the Christianity of the fathers of the reformation! Again, in the quote from Calvin above he specifically references the “visible Church,” not an invisible one of modern day imagination.

But, as I said earlier, it is only in light of the universal Christian teaching that outside of the Church there is no salvation, that the question of, “How do we recognize the true Church of Jesus Christ?” makes any sense.

If “church” is merely a “dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with Jesus.” then who cares which Christian church you attend? Why does it matter whether you identify as Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, or even …gasp! …Catholic?

It should be noted in passing; the historic understanding that, “outside of the Church there is no salvation” does not mean that all who find themselves outside of the visible bounds of the Church are therefore damned. In the article the author notes, “Calvin acknowledges, that there are believers–however confused–within the pale of Rome.” and similarly the Catholic Church notes in her catechism, “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”3

But Ferguson doesn’t stop at redefining for John Calvin what “church” means. He’s also not afraid to take a stab at rewriting history itself stating, “This is why Calvin’s departure from the community of physical succession was not schism. …If the truth be told, not Geneva but Rome is schismatic.” But this is patent nonsense!

Regardless of whether you feel that Calvin and the fathers of the Protestant Reformation were theologically correct or not, it is still a historical fact that the reformers broke from unity with the Catholic Church and not vice versa. It would be akin to someone stating that because they believe the United States of America was justified in fighting it’s revolutionary war to gain independence from England and found its own nation, that therefore it was England who seceded from the United States rather than vice versa!

Calvin on the “True Church”

These issues aside, Ferguson states John Calvin’s answer to the question of, “How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ?” as, “essentially: the ministry of the Word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the hallmarks of the true church. Where these are lacking, ‘surely the death of the church follows.'” You’ll note that even this definition is more institutional and visible than the definition he switches to just a couple of paragraphs later. Calvin’s definition involves the ministry of the word and the sacraments; Ferguson’s is merely a, dynamic reality, a living union and communion with Christ that somehow results in a unified church without the need for structure or hierarchy.

He goes on to state somewhat surprisingly, “Why should this be so? Because the church is built on the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). They have a primacy of role in person in the course of redemptive history; but their teaching is the foundation for every generation of Christian faith. Substitute another foundation for the church and the whole building will crumble.” And, of course as a Catholic, I would wholeheartedly agree.

The real problem comes in the very next paragraph however, when he effectively neuters the apostles, removing half of their teaching office when he writes, “But in Calvin’s eyes Roman Catholic theology failed to grasp this, and effectively transferred the authority of the once-for-all written apostolic word to the questionable strength of a chain of bishops of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability. Physical succession may be attractive, but it guarantees nothing. That is precisely why we have the written Scriptures, so that the truth of God may be carefully preserved and passed on intact from believing generation to believing generation.” 

The Case for an Apostolic Church

Ah yes. Silly me. It is only the written word of the apostles which is authoritative. Obviously their spoken words count for naught. Never mind that St. Paul addresses this very issue when he writes, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”4 Obviously, the apostle Paul was mistaken. Obviously, it is only the written apostolic word which is authoritative, not the oral words of the apostles, and certainly not any authority which they may have passed on to those who succeeded them! Certainly this so-called apostolic succession, this “chain of bishops” of varying reliability, isn’t Scriptural? Certainly physical succession (while perhaps attractive) isn’t necessary?

Well… actually in the very first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter references the book of Psalms and declares of Judas,

‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.5

If even Christ’s betrayer Judas held an office that was intended to be filled after his death, how much more so that of St. Peter or St. Paul?

Of course, Ferguson contradicts his very own position in the very first paragraph of his post. The idea that the ministry of the Word, and the two sacraments which Calvin recognized (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are the hallmarks of the true church is nowhere to be found in Scripture. The idea that without these things, “surely the death of the church follows.” is merely Calvin’s personal assertion. Nowhere will you find a Scriptural reference to back this assertion. Now he may or may not be right in these assertions, but let’s be clear – these are not Scriptural assertions, they are merely the personal assertions of a man. A man of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability, not to put too fine a point on it.

On Whose Authority?

All of this leads to an objection I made in my post, “Why I’m Catholic ~ Catholicism and the Reformation” where I wrote:

You have men arguing against the authority of the Catholic Church and for the authority of Scripture alone, but ultimately all they are saying is that they have the right to authoritative interpretation and the Church doesn’t. This requires us to believe that God didn’t work through His Church to teach right doctrine and properly interpret Scripture, but instead we must believe that God has worked through Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other “Reformers” to teach right doctrine and properly interpret scripture.

Of course Christ works through fallible men to lead and guide His Church. The question is which ones? Do we trust in the men whom Christ commissioned and gave His very authority to, and to the successors of those men; or do we look to the reformers some 1,500 years later? Ultimately, this is still following the tradition of men – just men of much more recent descent.

And to be clear, bishops in the Catholic Church are not impeccable. Look at Judas. Look at St. Peter for that matter! Our very first pope committed the sin of apostasy by denying Christ three times! Nevertheless, it is not upon these fallible men that we rely, but rather on Christ who promised that He would preserve His Church from the very gates of hell.

And here I would like to end with a point of agreement between myself and the author of the article when he writes, “The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man’s but Christ’s.” He’s more right than he knows, for the bishops (episkopos) minister to their flock in persona Christi – in the very person of Christ.

It is not their holiness on which we rely, but rather Christ’s working through them. In the same way that God was able to make use of very fallen and fallible men to pen His inspired and infallible Word, so too He can work through very fallen and fallible men in order to ensure that His Church is preserved free from error.

For truly, “The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man’s but Christ’s.” and in Him, and with Him, and through Him, His bishops, the successors of the apostles, maintain His Church in unity. Truly the Catholic Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles – a claim which John Calvin’s Reformed church simply can’t make.

The Catholic Church is founded by Christ on His apostles. It is a foundation which continues to support His Church two millennia after it’s inception. It is a foundation with Christ Himself as the corner stone.

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  1. John Calvin, Institutes Book IV, 1:4 

  2. John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111 

  3. CCC 818 – 819 

  4. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 

  5. Acts 1:23b-26 

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