14 April 2011

Calvin and the Church

In my historical theology class, we were asked the following discussion question(s): 

First, re-read (or read!) the section in McGrath on Calvin and the church (205-6). I'm particularly interested in what you think of Calvin's proposal of the visible and the invisible church and how they relate. For example, in the last paragraph (206), McGrath notes that Calvin stipulated:

"Wherever we see the Word of God preached purely and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, we cannot doubt that a church exists."

McGrath interprets Calvin to mean that, it is "thus not the quality of its members, but the presence of the authorized means of grace [that is, the sacraments], which constitutes a true church."

Where does faith fit into this theological construct? How would a typical Baptist (if there is one!) react to that? Or, how would your faith tradition react? Does election totally outweigh faith? How does McGrath's interpretation of Calvin relate to ethics?  Could we participate in the sacraments, receiving grace as it were, and still be unsaved?

My response was (briefly)-

Calvin's views as summarized in the brief passage in the text are a necessary, but not sufficient, description of the church.

I strongly agree with Calvin on the visible and the invisible church concept.  I have no proof (obviously), and my biases make even a close determination impossible, but I'd guess that somewhere between 20% and 50% of the members of my local congregation are unregenerate.  I imagine the numbers are similar in other congregations.  This is clear empirical evidence that Calvin was right about the two 'churches'.  I am not dogmatic about this...it is my impression based on what I know about biblical descriptions of true believers and about the people in my congregation.  I've talked to a number of pastors, and they think along similar lines (at least, as much as they'll open up about this topic).

Think about the opposite of what Calvin says:  If the Word of God is not preached, and the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer) are not (rightly) administered, do you have a church?  I don't see how.  And, with McGrath, if the local congregation cannot be a true church unless the quality of it's members is universally high (with regard to righteous living), then I don't think there's such a thing as a true church.

As one of my former pastors once told me, "If you ever find the perfect church, don't join it.  You'll mess it up."  He was right.

I don't think the 'typical' Baptist would respond well to this, as the 'typical' Baptist is strongly Arminian in outlook, and has been corrupted by the misuse of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (which, if you ask, they will call, 'the priesthood of the believer').  The typical Baptist is anti-creedal, pro-democratic-control of the church, and more methodistic than a typical Wesleyan (Methodist) in approach to evangelism.

The question, 'Does election totally outweigh faith' is a leading question.  Election is a necessary condition for faith (John 6:44), but we are saved through our faith, not our election (that is logically not clear, but I don't know a better way to say it).

As far as ethics, if we are unsaved, we cannot receive any more than common grace through the sacraments, as I believe 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 makes clear.  In fact, I imagine most (if not all) of us have received the common grace of not dying on the spot when we've taken the Lord's supper in an unworthy manner.  Of course, in many churches today that risk is minimized since many congregations don't observe the Lord's supper more than a couple times a year.  (And in the same vein, some of these churches don't preach the Word either...opting instead for a Joel-Osteen-like best-life-now approach to scripture).  I'll let you draw your own conclusions, based on Calvin's view or not, of whether these are 'true churches'.

I hope was wasn't being unfair to 'typical' Baptists (whatever that may be).  It is accurate according to my experience, at least.

Speaking of historical theology, I recently saw where a new textbook is about to be released.  This book is from Gregg Allison of Southern Seminary in Louisville.  It is a companion volume to Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, with chapters and sections that correspond.  It looks like a great resource, and is on my Amazon wish list.

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