The Genevan Reformer's Attempts At Unification
"Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity … My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy church."
– John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto.
John Calvin was a passionate advocate of church unity, and for much of his life worked hard to seek unity among the churches of the Reformation. Making extensive reference to his writings and personal correspondence, this paper especially explores his attempts to unite the Calvinistic Reformation with the Zwinglians and Lutherans, as well as documenting his other efforts, such as his support of a proposal for an ecumenical synod among Reformed churches.
This paper was initially prepared in April 1997 for a church history course at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The topic was chosen by the author in order to give some perspective on contemporary discussions about ecumenicity. When facing modern problems about church unity, perhaps we as Reformed churches can learn from the way in which our spiritual forefather John Calvin dealt with other Reformed churches. May it serve in giving us a greater appreciation of our Reformed heritage, a greater desire to see the unity of Christ’s churches attain a visible expression, and a greater understanding of how we can work towards that goal.
CALVIN AND ECUMENICITY
The Genevan Reformer's Attempts At Unification
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT
THE DESIRE FOR UNITY
THE ATTEMPTS FOR UNITY
2. UNITY WITH THE ZWINGLIANS
Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord (1541)
Correspondence with Bullinger
The Tigurinus Consensus (1549)
3. UNITY WITH THE LUTHERANS
The Augsburg Confession
Correspondence with Luther and Melanchthon
The Second Sacramentarian Controversy
Representatives to Germany
Letters to the English in Germany
4. UNITY WITH OTHERS
Cranmer's Conference Plan
Advice for the Holding of a Council (1560)
THE CONDITIONS FOR UNITY
1. FUNDAMENTAL AND SECONDARY DOCTRINES
2. PURE DOCTRINE
Primary Sources on Calvin
The mention of John Calvin in connection with church unity might strike some as unusual. Calvin was, after all, one of the Reformers who had consolidated the position of the Reformation as a definite break from the Roman church. Although he had not been the first to declare a breach with Rome, he certainly was instrumental in making this break an irreversible fact. The splintering of the Roman church into various factions such as the Anabaptist radicals, Lutherans, Zwinglians and Calvinists, to name a few, served to divide a church that had been unified for centuries. The Reformational movement in which Calvin was a key figure, it has been argued, paved the way for the ecclesiastical pluralism of our own day.
However, despite his role in the break from Rome, Calvin was in fact a passionate advocate of unity. The break with Rome was one that had been necessary, though undesirable, and for Calvin it was largely an accomplished fact rather than a personal choice - there was no other way. Yet for Calvin the splintering of the church constituted a sad and undesirable state of affairs that could not be reconciled with his doctrinal affirmation of the unity of the catholic church. Throughout his life, he was a tireless advocate of the unity of the church, particularly working for the restoration of the church's visible unity amongst the Reformed churches.
In Calvin's time, the Reformational movement revolved around the three centers of Wittenberg (Luther and Melanchthon), Zurich (Zwingli and Bullinger), and Geneva (Calvin and Beza). Calvin never ceased to work at uniting these three strands of the Reformation, and these efforts have led him to be regarded as an ecumenical pioneer among the Reformers.1
The topic of this paper primarily concerns Calvin's attempts at uniting the different strands of the Reformational movement.2 Firstly I shall make some preliminary remarks illustrating Calvin's desire for unity and the origin of this. Secondly I shall outline his attempts for unity, particularly his efforts at achieving reconciliation with the Zwinglians and Lutherans. Thirdly I shall briefly attempt to discern what Calvin perceived as the conditions for unity.
My primary concern is with the second section, namely to relate Calvin's quest for unity with the other Reformational movements. The danger of such a study is ever present that one colours Calvin with one's own perspective. For example, attempts have been made to marshal Calvin onto the front-lines of the contemporary Ecumenical Movement. Not only does this do injustice to the distinctives of the historical situation in which Calvin found himself, but it also fails to present an accurate representation of the Genevan Reformer's quest for unity. This I want to avoid. In order to do justice to Calvin and gain an accurate opinion of his attempts for unity, it is necessary to quote extensively from his writings, particularly his correspondence.3 This is not done to tire the reader, but in order to collate as comprehensively as possible the relevant sections of Calvin's writings, and so provide an accurate picture of Calvin's practical approach to the question of unity by uncovering the original sources, so retaining the personal flavour of his correspondence and writings.
THE DESIRE FOR UNITY
Already in the face of his conflicts with Rome, Calvin exhibited a strong desire for unity. As early as 1539, in his Reply to Sadoleto, Calvin wrote: "Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity ... My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy Church."4 Throughout his struggle, Calvin did not want to found another church, but restore the church to its ancient state, "that ancient form of the Church." Consequently he wrote to Sadoleto:
You well know, Sadoleto...not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterward flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction.5
Calvin's desire for unity was the result of an acute sense of the catholicity of the church, a vivid consciousness of the continuity with the apostolic church of all ages, times and places. It thus originated in his theology, a theology based on the Scriptural teaching that the church is one, and so must be united in one body. This is particularly evident from his Institutes IV. i., which has the title "The True Church with Which as Mother of All the Godly We Must Keep Unity." In Institutes IV. i. 2 Calvin wrote:
It is not sufficient, indeed, for us to comprehend in mind and thought the multitude of the elect, unless we consider the unity of the church as that into which we are convinced we have been truly engrafted. For no hope of future inheritance remains to us unless we have been united with all other members under Christ, our Head. The church is called "catholic," or "universal," because there could not be two or three churches unless Christ be torn asunder [cf. 1 Cor. 1:13] - which cannot happen!6
In speaking about the sin of schism in Institutes IV. i. 10 Calvin warned that one must not spurn the authority of the church,
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 ... 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.7
It is thus clear from Calvin's Institutes that Calvin was convinced of the Scriptural truth of the unity. It was the confession of this Scriptural truth that fostered Calvin's desire that the church be one, and that this unity also receive a visible manifestation.
The same desire for the unity of the church is evident also in Calvin's commentaries. In his commentary on Ephesians 4:4, Calvin remarked:
He expresses more clearly how perfect should be the unity of Christians ... How much we should hate all quarrels, if we duly reflected that all who separate from their brethren, estrange themselves from the Kingdom of God! And yet, strangely enough, while we forget our mutual brotherhood, we go on claiming to be the sons of God. Let us learn from Paul that none are at all fit for that inheritance who are not one body and one spirit.8
On 1 Corinthians 14:36 Calvin gives the following commentary:
For no church ought to be turned in on itself, to the neglect of others. But, on the contrary, all of them should be extending the right hand to each other, to promote their fellowship with each other; and, as the concern for unity demands, they should be adjusting themselves to one another ... That is why it does not necessarily follow that churches, which are later in origin, must be forced to adopt, in every detail, the practices of those which were set up earlier ... Let there be no self-promotion, no stubbornness, no pride or contempt for other churches; but, on the contrary, let there be an eagerness for upbuilding, let there be moderation and common sense; and, when that happens, even where there are a great many different practices, there will be nothing calling for reproof.9
For Calvin, then, the doctrine concerning the unity of the church had to lead to a practical expression of this unity. In this expression, there was even room for "different practices".
Calvin's desire for the unity of the church thus had its root in his theology. It was precisely the recognition of the Scriptural truth that the church was one that led Calvin in an ongoing struggle to unite the brothers of the Reformation, particularly the Zwinglians and Lutherans.
THE ATTEMPTS FOR UNITY
1. BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT
The controversy in the Reformed camp revolved particularly around the question of the Lord's Supper. "The Sacramentarian Controversy", as it came to be known, found a visible expression in 1529 at the Marburg Colloquy. Arranged by Philip of Hesse, the Marburg Colloquy was held between Luther and his friends Melanchthon, Jonas, Osiander, Brenz, and others on the one hand, and Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Hedio on the other hand.
There was practically unanimous agreement on all issues except one, namely the question of the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper. Luther emphasized the words "This is my body". This resulted in the concept of consubstantiation, which affirmed the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine. In contrast, Zwingli emphasized the words "Do this in remembrance of me." This resulted in a stress on the memorial character of the Lord's Supper, which affirmed the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament.
The dispute proved to be unresolvable. Luther was particularly adamant about the truth of his position, and refused to hold out to Zwingli the hand of fellowship, declaring "We are not of the same spirit."10 The resulting formulation of fifteen articles expressed general agreement, but the fifteenth and last article betrayed the lack of unanimity on the issue of the Lord's Supper.
Even though we were presently unable to agree on the question of knowing whether the true body and the true blood of the Lord are corporally (leiblich) present in the bread and the wine of the Supper, each side will however testify Christian charity to the other, as much as its conscience will permit.11
In this conflict, Calvin's position appeared to be that which mediated the extremes of Luther and Zwingli, and reflected the true intention of both.12 With Zwingli Calvin objected to Luther's idea of corporal presence. Consequently Calvin objected to the manner in which Bucer had achieved a consensus with Luther in the 1536 Wittenberg Concord, since this had involved making too many concessions to Luther's position.13 On the other hand, with Luther Calvin objected to Zwingli's idea of the Lord's Supper as a memorial. Consequently Calvin wrote on May 19, 1538 that Zwingli was "far too concerned to refute the superstitious belief in a physical presence of Christ, and at the same time destroying, or at least clouding, the true power of communion with Christ."14
Calvin's position on the Lord's Supper thus was indicative of his role that ensued with respect to the sacramentarian controversy. His view combined elements of Luther over against Zwingli, and elements of Zwingli over against Luther. For unity between Lutherans, Zwinglians and Calvinists to be successful, it would seem that this unity would have to be framed in Calvinistic terms acceptable both to Lutherans and Zwinglians. It was such a unity that Calvin tirelessly pursued, since it was in the framework of his conception of the Lord's Supper that Lutherans and Zwinglians could also be reconciled. Calvin seemed to have realized this, and thus the initiative was mostly his in attempting unity in the events that ensued. It is noteworthy that both Luther (Wittenberg) and Bullinger (Zurich) were not very optimistic about the possibility of unity with one another, and mostly resigned themselves to the fact that their positions were irreconcilable. It was Calvin, however, who understood that reconciliation was possible, and it was this that he endeavoured to achieve throughout his life.
2. UNITY WITH THE ZWINGLIANS
It was especially with the Zwinglians that Calvin successfully endeavoured to have unity with. Especially significant is the amount of correspondence he engaged in with the Zwingli’s successor Bullinger, and the agreement reached in 1549.
Calvin's interest in church unity may have been fostered as a result of extensive contacts with Bucer in Strasbourg during his stay there between 1538 and 1541.15 However, already on February 21, 1538 he made a proposal to Bullinger, Zwingli's spiritual heir, that a public synod be held in order to reach a common consensus with regard to discipline and other issues.
How I wish that we could have a single day for free communication together, for from such a meeting we could not depart without much advantage!....Oh, if a pure and sincere accommodation could be agreed upon at length among us! What, then, would hinder the assembling of some public Synod, where individuals might propose whatever they may conceive to be most for the benefit of the churches. A way might be found out of going to work by common deliberation, and if need be, that the cities and princes also should assist in this undertaking by mutual exhortation and counsel, and also confirm by their authority; but in so great perplexity, the Lord is rather to be inquired of, that himself may open up a way ... Pellican has informed us that you have received a kind and friendly reply from Luther, from which Grynee affirms that he entertains much hope of seeing peace established.16
Calvin evidently felt a kinship spirit between himself and Bullinger, and was desirous of attaining a broad peace among the churches of evangelical character.
Not long after, Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva. When they went to Berne, a synod was convened in Zurich in order to decide on their case.17 Representatives from Zurich, Berne, Basel, and other churches considered their actions, and on April 28, 1538 gave their approval to Calvin and Farel, subsequently commissioning Berne to attempt to bring about their reinstatement in Geneva. Although this proved to be unsuccessful, the good will shown to Calvin by Zurich and the other Swiss churches was indicative of a favorable attitude towards the Genevan Reformer, and afforded the hope of future peace and unity.
Calvin's ultimate objective was not only to reconcile Geneva with Zurich and Wittenberg, but especially to arrive at a concord between the Lutherans and Zwinglians. He thus expressed disappointment that the Zurichers had failed to attend a conference on the question of achieving agreement between the Lutherans and the Swiss. He wrote to Farel regarding this in October, 1538.
We have reason to lament that good and otherwise right-hearted men are not more earnestly affected by the desire of promoting the public peace. For if they no longer need to care for the establishment among themselves of a godly union, they ought at least to consider it a duty to endeavour to come to a good mutual understanding with the churches. Luther, with whom I do freely acknowledge that I am not satisfied, may have been to blame. But what will it at length come to, if thus of set purpose we contend with each other, which can exceed the other in sin?18
Bucer had already expressed his openness towards the Lutherans, but had consequently been received unfavorably in Zurich. Addressing this issue in an attempt to remove the differences between Strasbourg and Zurich, in a letter of March 12, 1540, Calvin appealed for Bullinger's "brotherly friendship", since
We see how much it concerns not our church alone, but all Christianity, that all to whom the Lord has entrusted any charge in his church should agree in true concord. ... We must therefore purposefully and carefully cherish association and friendship with all ministers of Christ ... in order that the churches to which we minister the Word of God may faithfully agree together. ... As for me, as far as in me lies, I shall always labour to this end."19
Luther was indeed partially the cause of the hesitation of the Zurichers. In 1539 he had portrayed Zwingli as a Nestorian in his Von den Konzielien und Kirchen. In his Ermahnung zum Gebet wider die Turken of 1541 he listed Zwingli with the Anabaptists and rebels. Calvin was shocked by the ferocity of Luther's uncompromising and unconciliatory attitude towards the Zwinglians. His irenic Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord was the result.
Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord (1541)
Calvin's Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord was written from Strasbourg in French in 1541. In it, Calvin insisted that the dispute between Luther and Zwingli was the result of confusion and misunderstanding. There can be no doubt that Calvin was saddened by the development of conflict between the different parties of the Reformation. Under "Recent Disputes on the Supper" (53) he wrote:
Now, as it is an unhappy business - the devil, no doubt, having stirred it up to impede, nay altogether to interrupt the course of the gospel - so far am I from taking pleasure in referring to it, that I could wish the remembrance of it were altogether abolished.20
Under "God Sometimes Allows His own People to Fall into Error" (54), Calvin stated that such differences should not surprise us. God sometimes allows His servants to go into ignorance, and so "take away all ground of glorying from men, in order that he might alone be glorified."21
Calvin observed that Luther's view leaned more to an assertion of the corporal presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper.
....for while condemning transubstantiation, he said that the bread was the body of Christ, inasmuch as it was united with him. Besides, he added similitudes which were somewhat harsh and rude; but he was in a manner compelled to do so, as he could not otherwise explain his meaning (55).22
In contrast, Zwingli and Oecolompadius reacted against the abuse of this sacrament in the Roman church, and so thought it was idolatry to worship Christ in the bread. They removed this terrible Roman error, and thought they detected it also in Luther.
Meanwhile, while engrossed with this point, they forgot to show what presence of Jesus Christ ought to be believed in the Supper, and what communion of his body and blood is there received (56).23
Calvin contended that Luther's antagonism to the Zurichers was based on a misunderstanding of the Zwinglian conception of the Lord's Supper. Under the heading "Luther Impugns Their Views" (57), he wrote:
Luther thought that they meant to leave nothing but the bare signs without their spiritual substance. Accordingly he began to resist them to the face, and call them heretics. After the contention was once begun it got more inflamed by time, and has thus continued too bitterly for the space of fifteen years or so without the parties ever listening to each other in a peaceful temper. For though they once had a conference, there was such alienation that they parted without any agreement. Instead of meeting on some good ground, they have always receded more and more, looking to nothing else than to defend their own view and refute the opposite.24
In Calvin's view, guilt lay on both sides. Under the heading "Attempted Reconciliation - Cause of Failure" (58) he wrote "We thus see wherein Luther failed on his side, and Zuinglius and Oecolompadius on theirs."25 Calvin realized that Luther wanted to show that he did not establish a local presence as the Papists did, and did not mean to have the sacrament adored instead of God. But Luther went too far.
For instead of explaining himself in such a way as to make it possible to receive his view, he, with his accustomed vehemence in assailing those who contradicted him, used hyperbolical forms of speech very difficult to be borne by those who otherwise were not much disposed to believe at his nod.26
But the Zwinglians were also at fault. They were so intent in opposing the papists
that they laboured more to pull down what was evil than to build up what was good; for though they did not deny the truth, they did not teach it so clearly as they ought to have done. I mean that in their too great anxiety to maintain that the bread and wine are called the body of Christ, because they are signs of them, they did not attend to add, that though they are signs, the reality is conjoined with them, and thus protest, that they had no intention whatever to obscure the true communion which the Lord gives us in his body and blood by this sacrament.27
Calvin thus believed that unity was possible, if both parties would take the time to understand each other and listen, rather than make concord impossible by their antagonism and vehemence. Under the heading "Duty of the Servants of God in Regard to the Advancement of Truth" he asserted:
Both parties failed in not having the patience to listen to each other in order to follow the truth without passion, when it would have been found....since at last God, after having thus humbled them, has in mercy been pleased to put an end to this unhappy disputation, or at least to calm it preparatory to its final settlement. I speak thus, because no formulary has yet been published in which concord is fixed, as is most expedient. But this will be when God will be pleased to assemble those who are to frame it in one place.28
Calvin's solution was to frame the doctrine of the Lord's Supper in terms that would be agreeable to all. He insisted that there was essential agreement on this issue, and that by focussing on Christ, unity was possible. Under his final heading "Fraternal Concord Among the Churches" (60), he concluded:
Meanwhile it should satisfy us, that there is fraternity and communion among the churches, and that all agree in so far as is necessary for meeting together, according to the commandment of God. We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. How that is done some may deduce better, and explain more clearly than others. Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements; and, on the other hand, not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, this being the reason why it is called spiritual.29
Calvin's Short Treatise on the Supper of our Lord is thus primarily conciliatory and irenic in character. To a large extent this treatise was successful. Unfortunately, it was only translated into Latin in 1545, so Luther only had access to it for the first time just prior to his death. According to Luther's confidant Christopher Pezel, Luther now realized the wisdom of Calvin's conception of the Lord's Supper. He even acknowledged that if the Zwinglians had expressed themselves in the terms of Calvin, the sacramentarian controversy would not been the dispute that it was. Pezel claims that when Luther had read Calvin's treatise, he said concerning Calvin:
This is certainly a learned and pious man; I could have, at the beginning entrusted to him the whole affair in this debate. For myself, I recognize that, if the opposing party had done the same, we could have soon come to an agreement. For if Oecolampadius and Zwingli had thus expressed themselves at the beginning, we would never arrived at such a long dispute.30
Calvin's treatise did, however, pave the way for further dialogue with the Zwinglians, particularly Bullinger.
Correspondence with Bullinger
Calvin clearly had a high regard for the leader of the Zwinglians in Zurich. In a letter to Bullinger dated November 8, 1542, Calvin said:
Indeed, I take you to be well aware of my respect for you, how much I honour you, how much, to sum up the whole in a word, from the heart I love you.31
The problem, however, was Luther. Luther continued his unrelenting tirade of criticism upon the Zwinglians with another violent pamphlet in September 1544, Kurzes Bekenntnis vom Abendmahl. Even Melanchthon was disturbed by Luther's harshness, and wrote to Bullinger on August 30, 1544, saying that he was deeply affected by the great violence with which Luther had renewed the controversy over the Lord's Supper, and by which the peace of the Church would be permanently disturbed.32
Calvin was also deeply concerned about the conflict between Luther and the Zwinglians. In a letter to Farel on October 10, 1544, Calvin said of Bullinger and the Zwinglians:
For at present the danger arises not so much from them as from Luther. He must be pacified.....Let us, therefore, make known our request unto the Lord, who alone can apply the healing remedy to this disease. It will certainly occasion a serious and ruinous conflagration, but let us await the issue.33
Calvin also corresponded personally with Bullinger on November 25, 1544, urging him to give a moderate reply. He spoke highly of Luther, speaking of him as an "illustrious servant of God", a "most distinguished servant of Christ" who has done much "to overthrow the reign of the Antichrist". Bullinger was urged to bear with his "serious faults" and "to decline the contest" rather than increase needless controversy, which would result in "the general shipwreck of the Church." The relevant section of Calvin's irenic letter to Bullinger follows.
I hear that Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us. On the present occasion, I dare scarce venture to ask you to keep silence, because it is neither just that innocent persons should thus be harassed, nor that they should be denied the opportunity of clearing themselves; neither, on the other hand, is it easy to determine whether it would be prudent for them to do so. But of this I do earnestly desire to put you in mind, in the first place, that you would consider how eminent a man Luther is, and the excellent endowments wherewith he is gifted, with what strength of mind and resolute constancy, with how great skill, with what efficiency and power of doctrinal statement, he hath hitherto devoted his whole energy to overthrow the reign of Antichrist, and at the same time to diffuse far and near the doctrine of salvation. Often have I been wont to declare, that even although he were to call me a devil, I should still not the less hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues, he labours at the same time under serious faults. Would that he had rather studied to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is so apt to boil over in every direction. I wish, moreover, that he had always bestowed the fruits of that vehemence of natural temperament upon the enemies of the truth, and that he had not flashed his lightning sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord. Would that he had been more observant and careful in the acknowledgment of his own vices. Flatterers have done him much mischief, since he is naturally too prone to be over-indulgent to himself. It is our part, however, so to reprove whatsoever evil qualities may beset him, as that we may make some allowance for him at the same time on the score of these remarkable endowments with which he has been gifted. This, therefore, I would beseech you to consider first of all, along with your colleagues, that you have to do with a most distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are all of us largely indebted; that, besides, you will do yourselves no good by quarrelling, except that you may afford some sport to the wicked, so that they may triumph not so much over us as over the Evangel. If they see us rending each other asunder, they then give full credit to what we say, but when with one consent and with one voice we preach Christ, they avail themselves unwarrantably of our inherent weakness to cast reproach upon our faith. I wish, therefore, that you would consider and reflect on these things rather than on what Luther has deserved by his violence; lest that may happen to you which Paul threatens, that by biting and devouring one another, ye be consumed one of another. Even should he have provoked us, we ought rather to decline the contest than to increase the wound by the general shipwreck of the Church.34
It is clear that Calvin was very disturbed by the ongoing progress of the sacramentarian controversy, and was eager to see its end. Just prior to the Council of Trent, Calvin expressed his anxieties in a letter to an unknown person, dated January 1545.
Were we only well agreed among ourselves, I would be much less anxious; but in the midst of those hostile preparations on the other side, that certain persons should find leisure enough for senseless quarrelling with one another, looks rather portentous.35
He mentions a renewed attack upon Osiander, who himself
insults the Zwinglians in every third line. It is even after such a sort as this that we seem to have hired ourselves, both hand and tongue, to the ungodly, that we may afford them sport and pastime by tearing one another to pieces.36
Bullinger finally published his reply to Luther's hostile treatise in 1545, entitled Absoluta de Christi et ejus Ecclesiae Sacramentis Tractatio. He sent a copy to Calvin for his judgment, to which Calvin responded immediately. When Calvin got no response, he wrote again to Bullinger on September 19, 1547, in an attempt to continue the discussion.
It is now six months since I returned your book, with annotations, such as you had requested me to make. I am surprised that I have received no reply from you since that time. When I was in your quarter, you reminded me that there was to be frequent interchange of letters between us. ... Should an opportunity of writing be at any time afforded you, I earnestly request you will not allow it to pass without availing yourself of it.37
This was followed by another letter to Bullinger on March 1, 1548, in which he wrote:
It would certainly not be the last of my wishes that there should be perfect harmony between us. But in whatever way I may hold the firm persuasion of a greater communication of Christ in the Sacraments than you express in words, we will not, on that account, cease to hold the same Christ, and to be one in him. Some day, perhaps, it will be given us to unite in fuller harmony of opinion...38
Calvin continued to be optimistic of such a unity. But as yet some disputes still needed to be resolved. Bullinger had refused to permit young men from Zurich to participate in the Lord's Supper in Strasbourg, even though they were asked to assent only to the Swiss confession. Calvin gently chastised Bullinger for this in a letter of June 26, 1548, saying "I indeed see no reason why the churches should be so rent asunder on this point."39
In November 1548, Calvin sent 24 propositions on the sacraments to Bullinger, to which Bullinger responded with general approval.40 These would become the basis of the Tigurinus Consensus in 1549. Calvin continued to engage in correspondence with Bullinger, and in a letter of January 21, 1549, observed his affection for Bullinger despite their differences.
If you love a free declaration of the truth, I never had any mind to bend what I wrote, so as to receive its acceptance with men. If there be any who have flattered Luther and others, I am not of that number. ... Although, however, I differ from you in opinion, that does not imply the least severance of affection; just as I cultivate the friendship of Bucer, and yet am free to dissent occasionally from his views.41
On March 12, 1549, Calvin sent another set of articles, this time to a synod of pastors that would be convened in Berne. In the accompanying letter, he urged agreement on the Lord's Supper. The letter is addressed "To the pastors of the Church of Berne", and Calvin mentions, "among other matters, regarding the peace of the Church, of which the peculiar bond is harmony in purity of doctrine". Since Calvin supposed that there would be some discussion about sacraments, he thought it was his duty to bear testimony on this.
For since we both preach the same Christ, both profess the same gospel, are both members of the same church, and have both the same ministry, there ought not to be that diversity of authority among us to which we have been subject, either to break up the unity of our faith, or to hinder from flourishing amongst us so many rights of holy fellowship consecrated to the service of Christ.42
Calvin thus favoured a union between Geneva and Berne.
By this stage, Bullinger and Calvin were ready to come to agreement on the issue of the Lord's Supper, which was formalized with the Tigurinus Consensus of 1549.
The Tigurinus Consensus (1549)
Not long after the death of his wife, Calvin set out for Zurich on May 20, 1549. Farel joined him at Neuchatel, and they arrived together in Zurich. In a session that lasted just two-hours, an agreement with Bullinger was reached, undoubtedly on the basis of the articles Calvin had previously sent to Bullinger.43 This agreement came to be known as the Tigurinus Consensus, also called the Zurich Agreement or the Accord de Zurich.
The 26 articles of the Tigurinus Consensus were essentially in agreement with Calvin's earlier treatise on the Holy Supper. The notion of the sacraments as a bare memorial was rejected, since it was affirmed that the sacraments represent to the senses what is announced in the Word, namely, what God accomplishes by His Spirit. At the same time, extreme Lutheran and Roman Catholic interpretations were explicitly rejected. The words "This is my body" are to be taken figuratively and involve no transfusion of substance (23), and thus transubstantiation is to be regarded as a gross and absurd fiction (24).
The Tigurinus Consensus was a significant development for the Reformational movement. It was promptly accepted by Zurich and many other Swiss churches, and within two years also by Basel, Berne, and other cities. It also gained the approval of Bucer, John a Lasco, and John Hooper. Previously, the Protestant movement had gravitated around Wittenberg, Zurich, and Geneva, but the Tigurinus Consensus had achieved the desired result of reconciling Zurich with Geneva. As Nijenhuis astutely observes,
By Calvin's efforts the streams of Zwinglianism and Calvinism were brought to flow in the same channel; as Doumergue noted, three Protestantisms had now been made into two: no small contribution to the unity of European Protestantism.44
It was thus a landmark achievement for the Reformation, by achieving a unity between Zurich and Geneva. Calvin continued to correspond to Bullinger, whom he addressed as his "brother in the Lord, and most honourable and accomplished man."45 What remained, however, was an attempt to achieve reconciliation with the Lutherans.
3. UNITY WITH THE LUTHERANS
Calvin hoped to achieve a similar agreement with the Lutherans, by bringing about a union between the German and the Swiss Reformation. "Unfortunately the opposing current in German Lutheranism proved too strong."46 This was certainly not due to a lack of contact between Calvin and the Lutherans, as the following survey will demonstrate.
During his stay in Strasbourg (1538-41), Calvin participated in several conferences aimed at achieving reconciliation between the Protestants and the Roman church. In fact, his involvement in the Colloquies of Hagenau, Worms, and Regensburg placed him alongside the Lutherans over against the Roman theologians. It was here that Calvin developed many friendships with the Lutheran theologians, especially Melanchthon. His close friendship with Melanchthon continued until Melanchthon's death in 1560, and is evident, for example, from what Calvin wrote to Melanchthon on February 16, 1543:
we may cheer each other with that blessed hope to which your letter calls us, that in heaven above we shall dwell for ever, where we shall rejoice in love and in continuance of our friendship.47
Calvin's involvement in these Colloquies was significant in that it placed him among the Lutheran cause. Calvin was only informally involved in the meeting at Hagenau (June 25 - July 28, 1540). He was, however, the official delegate sent by Strasbourg to the meeting at Worms (January 14 - 18, 1541). Here, however, due to problems over the number of representatives, he appeared in the assembly as the representative of the Duke of Luneburg. This Duke had signed the Augsburg Confession (Invariata) in 1539 and was known as "the Confessor". Calvin's involvement as part of a delegation in the name of this North German Lutheran ruler shows that there was a close knit unity among the evangelicals, and no serious division between Calvin and the Lutherans.
The Augsburg Confession
Calvin's involvement in the Colloquies in Germany not only resulted in friendships, but also required that he show his allegiance to the Lutheran confession, the Augsburg Confession. The nature of Calvin's relationship to the Augsburg Confession is a matter of dispute, particularly since it is questionable whether Calvin expressed his allegiance not only to the Confessio Augustana Variata of 1540, but also to the original Confessio Augstana Invariata of 1530, which was distinctly more Lutheran in its formulation of the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Willem Nijenhuis' article "Calvin and the Augsburg Confession" is helpful in this regard.48
Nijenhuis points out that although the Augsburg Confession functioned as a Lutheran confession, it was intended to be a catholic confession when presented at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. The name "Lutherans" was first employed by their opponents, and Melanchthon opposed this term, saying "We ought all to be catholic."49
Nonetheless, the Augsburg Confession came to be identified with as a Lutheran confession. In 1540 Melanchthon made a significant change to the wording of the Augsburg Confession regarding the Lord's Supper in Article 10, softening the Lutheran elements.50 The Variata was closer to Calvin on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, and Calvin was probably one of those who had urged Melanchthon to make this change. It is undisputed that Calvin expressed his approval of the Variata as explained by Melanchthon.51 This is stated clearly in his Ultima Admonitio to Westphal.
My words are: in regard to the Confession of Augsburg my answer is, that (as it was published at Ratisbon) it does not contain a word contrary to our doctrine. If there is any ambiguity in its meaning, there cannot be a more competent interpreter than its author.52
The question that remains, however, is whether Calvin was compelled to assert a similar support to the Invariata as a condition for his participation in the Colloquies in Hagenau, Worms, and Regensberg. Nijenhuis provides convincing evidence that Calvin did not sign the Invariata at this time.53 Calvin's involvement would have only required that he sign the Augsburg Confession for the Colloquies in Worms and Regensburg. However, these Colloquies were both after 1540, and so by this time the constitutional document at both Worms and Regensburg was the Variata, and not the Invariata.
No extant copy of the Augsburg Confession has Calvin's signature. Some have appealed to a letter that Calvin wrote to Martin Schalling on March 15, 1557 as evidence that Calvin did sign it:
nonetheless I do not reject the Augsburg Confession which I long ago willingly and with pleasure subscribed to as the author himself explained it.54
Nijenhuis doubts that this refers to an actual signing of the Augsburg Confession. The verb "subscribere" can mean "to sign", but Calvin frequently uses this word in the metaphorical sense of "to subscribe to, to support, to agree with." The addition "as the author himself explained it" probably indicates Calvin's agreement with the Augsburg Confession particularly as it was explained and defended by Melanchthon in the oral discussions with Eck at Regensburg. Even so, it is not unreasonable to assume that Calvin signed the Variata as a delegate at both Worms and Regensburg. In Nijenhuis' opinion, thus, Calvin did not formally sign the Invariata during the Colloquies.
However, this does not mean that Calvin never signed the Invariata or was required to express his agreement with it. When Calvin first arrived in Strasbourg in 1538, the official doctrinal formula of the church had since 1530 been the Tetrapolitan Confession. But when Strasbourg joined the Schmalkaldic League, one of the conditions was that they had to agree to sign the Augsburg Confession, the Invariata. In a sense, the church of Strasbourg officially endorsed two confessions, with the Augsburg Confession Invariata alongside the Tetrapolitan Confession. This was also the situation when Calvin arrived in Strasbourg in September 1538. Although there is no evidence of a formal obligation to sign both the Tetrapolitan Confession and the Augsburg Confession Invariata, Nijenhuis affirms that the authorities certainly would not have tolerated any preaching in conflict with either of them.
It is certain, however, that the authorities would not have tolerated any preaching which might have conflicted with these confessions. The minister of the French community too was thus obliged to preach according to the official confessions. Although Calvin was not obliged formally to sign the Augsburg Confession, he had to recognize it as the official confession of his community. This was, before 1540, the C.A. Invariata.55
Nijenhuis also refers to an instance when the council of Strasbourg demanded that the minister of the French community, Jean Garnier, should sign the confession unconditionally without any further interpretation. Garnier apparently asked for Calvin's advice, who responded: "I fail to see why you hesitate to sign the Augsburg Confession."56
Thus it can be affirmed with reasonable certainty that Calvin lived and worked as a supporter of the Invariata for at least two years. Yet there is good reason not to press this point too far. Calvin was very thankful that Melanchthon changed the formulation of the Augsburg Confession in 1540 with regard to the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. From this point on he repeatedly affirmed his substantial agreement with the Variata.
Calvin's agreement with the Variata was not unconditional, however. Particularly in his dialogue with Westphal, he repeatedly stated that nothing in it conflicted with his own teaching, as long as it was interpreted in the way that Melanchthon explained it. This attitude is evident also in what Farel wrote:
here is but one controversy, namely that concerning the eucharist. If, on the question of the eucharist, the Augsburg Confession contains that which can be admitted with a sensible explanation and in accordance with the intentions of the author, what then should prevent us from accepting it and coming together in a holy manner?57
Correspondence with Luther and Melanchthon
We have already dealt with Calvin's involvement in the sacramentarian conflict between the Lutherans and Zwinglians from the perspective of his correspondence with Bullinger. We now consider this from the perspective of Calvin's correspondence with Luther and Melanchthon.
After Luther's fierce treatise against the Zwinglians in November 1544, Calvin wrote to Melanchthon on January 21, 1545. He submitted a copy of his two treatises against the so-called Nicodemites, the faint-hearted reform-minded Christians in France who from fear still took part in the Catholic mass.58 Calvin valued the judgment of both Melanchthon and Luther, and their approval would be instrumental in gaining credence to Calvin's own views.
But since the question seems to them to be perplexed, they remain somewhat in doubt as to this point, until they shall be confirmed by your authority and that of Dr. Luther. ... I feel thoroughly persuaded that you will give them faithful and wholesome counsel according to your sincerity, and in conformity with your singular prudence.59
Part of the reason why Calvin had sent them to Melanchthon and Luther is that he wished them to know his opinion on this issue, and the reasons for it, and he had them translated into Latin for this very purpose.
Because, moreover, I concluded, that it would be of great importance that you should know accurately what my views are, but also, that the reasons which have induced me to come to these conclusions might not be unknown to you, I have taken care to have the treatise turned into Latin...I would request you as a friend, that you do not refuse to submit to the trouble of perusing them. So highly do I esteem your judgment, as indeed is proper, that to me it would be very disagreeable to set about anything which you would not be likely to approve.60
In this letter Calvin expressed his heartfelt desire for unity:
Certainly I do desire that we were so entirely agreed, that not even in the most trifling expressions there may seem to be any disagreement.61
The problem, however, was Luther's fierceness against the Zwinglians. Calvin also wrote to Luther, but wanted Melanchthon to decide whether or not it would be best for Luther to see the letter and accompanying treatises.
With regard to Dr. Martin there will be somewhat more of difficulty. For so far as I could understand by report and by letters from different persons, the scarcely pacified temper of the man might, on very slight occasion, break out into a sore. On that account, therefore the messenger will shew you the letter which I have written to him, that on examination of the contents, you may proceed as you think advisable, that nothing may be attempted therein either rashly or unadvisedly, which may hereafter produce unpleasant consequences.62
Calvin expressed his disappointment at the division which was apparent, saying "When I reflect how much, at so unseasonable a time, these intestine quarrels divide and tear us asunder, I almost entirely lose courage."63 He also mentions the fact that the radical Lutheran Osiander had made another unnecessary attack on Zwinglians:
but I would like that he might abstain from contemptuous reproaches of those men whose memory ought to be held in honourable esteem by all the godly....I desire to see in himself some moderation and prudence, or rather a more sound and correct judgment. O God of grace, what pleasant sport and pastime do we afford to the papists, as if we had hired ourselves to do their work!64
Calvin signed off, addressing Melanchthon as "most excellent sir, and my ever to be respected friend". Calvin evidently had a very amicable relationship with Melanchthon, and was hoping that Melanchthon would play a key role in moving the Lutheran camp towards reconciliation with the Swiss.
Along with his letter to Melanchthon, Calvin also submitted a letter to Luther, subject to the approval of Melanchthon. It is Calvin's only known to Luther. As it turned out, Melanchthon did not dare to present Calvin's letter to Luther, and so Luther never read it, as Melanchthon wrote to Calvin:
I have not shewn your letter to Dr. Martin, for he takes up many things suspiciously, and does not like his replies to questions of the kind you have proposed to him, to be carried round and handed from one to another.65
Calvin addressed Luther as "the very excellent pastor of the Christian Church, Dr. M. Luther, my much respected father".66 With the letter, Calvin had included copies of his two treatises,
wherein, if it shall not be troublesome to you to glance over them, you will more clearly perceive both what I think, and the reasons which have compelled me to form that opinion.67
Luther's opinion was highly esteemed, and thus sought on the matter.
And because I thought it was of very great consequence for them to have the benefit of your authority, that they might not fluctuate thus continually, and I myself stood besides in need of it, I was unwilling to refuse what they required. Now, therefore, much respected father in the Lord, I beseech you by Christ, that you will not grudge to take the trouble for their sake and mine, first, that you would peruse the epistle written in their name, and my little books, cursorily and at leisure hours, or that you would request some one to take the trouble of reading, and report the substance of them to you. Lastly, that you would write back your opinion in a few words.68
Calvin ended the letter with an expression of his desire to speak with Luther, and the confident hope that they would obtain the opportunity to converse in heaven.
Would that I could fly to you, that I might even for a few hours enjoy the happiness of your society; for I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others, to converse personally with yourself; but seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God. Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever-honoured father. The Lord himself rule and direct you by his own Spirit, that you may persevere even unto the end, for the common benefit and good of his own Church.69
In 1545, the ministers of Zurich published an Apology in defense of their doctrine on the Lord's Supper, which had been vehemently attacked by Luther in his Short Confession upon the Supper.70 This reply served only the irritate the radical Lutherans further. Calvin took the opportunity to write once again to Melanchthon on June 28, 1545, in support of the Zurichers over against the fierceness of Luther.
If the matter stands as the Zurichers say it does, then they have just occasion for their writing. Your Pericles allows himself to be carried beyond all due bounds with his love of thunder, especially seeing that his own case is by no means the better of the two. We all of us do acknowledge that we are much indebted to him.71
Calvin did not want the conflict to be resolved by giving in to a single individual, Luther, and bewailed Luther's tyranny.
Where there exists so much division and separation as we now see, it is indeed no easy matter to still the troubled waters and bring about composure. But were we all of that mind we ought to be, some remedy might, perhaps, be discovered; ... But, you will say, his disposition is vehement, and his impetuosity is ungovernable; - as if that very vehemence did not break forth with all the greater violence when all shew themselves alike indulgent to him, and allow him to have his way, unquestioned. If this specimen of overbearing tyranny has sprung forth already as the early blossom in the springtide of a reviving Church, what must we expect in a short time, when affairs have fallen into a far worse condition? Let us therefore bewail the calamity of the Church, and not devour our grief in silence, but venture boldly to groan for freedom.72
Calvin hoped that this would serve to make Melanchthon provide a "fuller confession" on the issue of the Lord's Supper.
Consider, besides, whether the Lord may not have permitted you to be reduced to these straits in order that you may be brought to a yet fuller confession upon this very article. ... Perhaps, therefore, it is now the will of God thus to open up the way for a full and satisfactory declaration of your own mind, that those who look up to your authority may not be brought to a stand, and kept in a state of perpetual doubt and hesitation.73
Although some differences remained, Calvin was convinced that there was essential agreement.
Howbeit, let us wait patiently for a peaceable conclusion, such as it shall please the Lord to vouchsafe. ... I do not cease, however, to offer my chief thanks to God, who hath vouchsafed us that agreement in opinion upon the whole of that question about which we had both been examined; for although there is a slight difference in certain particulars, we are, notwithstanding, very well agreed upon the general question itself.74
The Second Sacramentarian Controversy
The completion of the Tigurinus Consensus in 1549 appeared to have been a major step in the direction of a united Protestantism in Europe. Calvin, it seemed, was hoping that with the Tigurinus Consensus, Zurich's doctrine of the Lord's Supper was sufficiently orthodox in that it was compatible with that of Geneva. However, the language of the Tigurinus Consensus was unmistakably critical not only of the papist doctrine of transubstantiation, but also of radical Lutheranism. Article 24 affirmed "We deem it no less absurd to place Christ under the bread or couple him with the bread, than to transubstantiate the bread into his body."75 Luther's disciples spared no measure in criticizing the Tigurinus Consensus, and were perhaps more uncompromising than their teacher.
Calvin's acquiescence to such language obviously unfriendly towards the Lutherans has been difficult to explain, particularly if it was his intention to win them over. Several reasons have been advanced as possible solutions. Firstly, Nijenhuis suggests that Calvin only intended to use the Tigurinus Consensus as a means to unite the Swiss Reformed in one stream, and so make Zurich palatable to the German Lutherans.76 In this way, Zurich theology would be elevated to a level acceptable to the Lutherans, since it would be clear that they regarded the sacraments as more than just bare signs. McNeill agrees with this assessment.77 Secondly, McNeill attributes the language to Bullinger's "habitual disinclination to move in the direction of Lutheranism".78 Thirdly, the Tigurinus Consensus was never intended to function as a document for negotiation with Lutherans, but merely to introduce the Zurichers to the Wittenbergers. McNeill points out that from this perspective the Tigurinus Consensus was largely successful, for Melanchthon even remarked that prior to reading it he had never really understood the Swiss position.79 Finally, Nijenhuis believes that Calvin abandoned his own principles and had given in to compromise.
The impression cannot be avoided that, driven by his burning desire for the unity of the European Reformation, Calvin had let himself be led astray into adopting methods he had earlier condemned in Bucer, seeking compromise at any price. In doing so, he abandoned notions which were crucial to his own understanding of the Lord's Supper, such as those of the `substantia corporis', the `virtus e substantia', the `caro Christi vivifica'. And this same shift distanced him from Luther's followers, with whom he really had more in common than he had with Bullinger.80
This is tenuous, however, and it is doubtful that Calvin made such concessions to the Zwinglians. It is rather the case that since the Tigurinus Consensus was intended to function in the Swiss churches, there was no need to be careful on points with which there was disagreement with the Lutherans, as he had been in his earlier treatise on the Lord's Supper in 1541.
Nonetheless, the Tigurinus Consensus did serve to attract a barrage of criticism from the Lutheran camp. The radical Lutheran Joachim Westphal published his Farrago in 1552, and his Recta fides in 1553. At the request of Bullinger, Calvin answered with an apology entitled Defensio in 1555, a subsequent Secunda Defensio in 1556, and a Ultima Admonitio in 1557. There can be no doubt that the conflict served to increase the gulf between the Swiss and the Lutherans. Provoked by Westphal's inflammatory tactics, Calvin also fell "into expressing himself in an increasing caustic language."81
Even so, Calvin was optimistic of the possibility of union, and did not cease to hold hopes of a unity, despite the attempts of Westphal to destroy any such alliance. Calvin prefaced his Secunda Defensio with an epistle to the pastors of Saxony, dated 26 January 1556, where he dealt with his ideas about the unity of European evangelical Christianity. He urged them to use their powers for the peace and unity of the church.
Whatever procedure is proposed towards a union, I am not only inclined to accept it, but I would follow it with joy ... what, then, do I say about myself? It is rather a case of considering the holy alliance with so many churches which this Westphal is seeking to destroy. Whatever he may babble to the contrary, we may be sure of one thing: that, out of the wretched scattering of the papacy, we have not been joined merely humanly in such a unison of faith. Everywhere we all can and do proclaim the same doctrines of the one God and the true and right way to serve Him, the depravity of human nature, salvation by grace, the way to attain righteousness, the ministry and operation of Christ, repentance and its results, faith founded on the promises of the Gospel which gives us the assurance of salvation, prayer to God, and all other principal points. We also call on the one God our Father, trusting in the same Mediator, the same Spirit of divine adoption is the pledge of our future inheritance, by the same sacrifice Christ has atoned for us all, our hearts all trust in the same righteousness gained for us by Him, we all glory in the same Head. It would therefore be astonishing if Christ whom we extol as our peace, who has made an end of all strife, and has disposed God in heaven to be gracious to us, did not cause as to have as well brotherly love also on earth. Is it not, then, our task to fight every day under the same banner against the tyranny of Antichrist, against the vile distortions of Christianity, and against godless superstition and the desecration of all that is holy? To set at naught such pledges of solidarity and such agreement, clearly brought about, as they have been, by God, and to provoke divisions amongst those who follow the same Captain in the field, is a dismemberment of those who belong to Christ, as heartless as it is godless.82
Calvin was very desirous of removing all conflict, writing in his Secunda Defensio:
Were there any hope of mollifying those men, I would not refuse to humble myself, and by supplicating them, purchase the peace of the church. But to what lengths they are borne by their violence is notorious to all.83
The conflict, however, grew in intensity, and so Calvin wrote to Bullinger in March 1556 that "the Lutherans have conspired to snow us under with a mass of polemical pamphlets". Yet Calvin continued the dialogue, constantly affirming his agreement with Luther and the Augsburg Confession. In the Ultima Admonitio he wrote
But as long as any hope of pacification appears, it will not be my fault if mutual good-will is not maintained. Though from being unworthily provoked I have been more vehement in this writing than I was inclined to be, still were a time and place appointed for friendly discussion, I declare and promise that I will be ready to attend, and manifest a spirit of lenity which will not retard the desired success of a pious and holy concord. I am not one who delights in intestine dissension ...84
Calvin speaks of "this calamitous rending of the Church", concluding:
Meanwhile, I will beseech my Saviour, whose proper office it is to gather together all that lies scattered throughout the world, that while our adversaries give no hope, he himself would find a remedy for this unhappy dissension.85
However, Calvin's hope of protestant unity began to recede as there was no progress. His appeals that Melanchthon assist by stating his opinion fell on deaf ears. Already in a letter of June 18, 1550, Calvin began to express dissatisfaction with Melanchthon, writing "Yet, forgive me if I do not consider you altogether free from blame."86 Believing that he is "discharging the duty of a true friend" and yet affirming his "old affection and esteem" for Melanchthon, Calvin found it necessary to reprove Melanchthon.
But I at present accuse you before yourself, that I may not be forced to join those who condemn you in your absence. This is the sum of your defence: that provided purity of doctrine be retained, externals should not be pertinaciously contended for. And if it be true that is confidently asserted everywhere, you extend the distinction of non-essentials too far. ... If you are too facile in making concessions, you need not wonder if that is marked as a fault in you by many. Moreover, several of those things which you consider indifferent, are obviously repugnant to the word of God.87
Calvin was critical, for example, of the fact that Melanchthon has retained the use of the linen vesture, "with many other fooleries".
And, indeed, good and pious men everywhere deplore that you should have countenanced those corruptions which manifestly tend to destroy the purity of all doctrine, and to undermine the stability of the church. ... You alone, by only giving way a little, will cause more complaints and signs than would a hundred ordinary individuals by open desertion.88
Calvin suspected that Melanchthon had been influenced and weakened by goadings such as
What? Is it the part of a wise and considerate man to rend the Church for the sake of minute and all but frivolous matters? Must not peace be purchased at any tolerable amount of inconvenience? What madness it is to stand out for everything to the last, to the neglect of the entire substance of the Gospel!89
On 28 November 1552, Calvin wrote again to Melanchthon, expressing an earnest desire to continue their friendship. Calvin had heard that Melanchthon had torn to pieces one of Calvin's letters, but a recent letter from Melanchthon had confirmed his continuing friendship.
Wherefore I have learned the more gladly that up to this time our friendship remains safe, which assuredly, as it grew out of a heartfelt love of piety, ought to remain for ever sacred and inviolable.90
Calvin acknowledged that Melanchthon does not always agree with him, yet declared that to end their friendship would result in great injury to the church.
I know and confess, moreover, that we occupy widely different positions ... there is no reason for my concealing that our friendship could not be interrupted without great injury to the Church. ... Meanwhile, Satan is busy scattering here and there the seeds of discord, and our folly is made to supply much material. At length he has discovered fans of his own, for fanning into a flame the fires of discord.91
Calvin referred to those who had liberal views on "the free election of God" and the "bondage of the human will", and had appealed to the authority of Melanchthon as a support of their view. Calvin believed that "all my colleagues and myself openly professed to hold the same opinion on that doctrine which you hold", and wanted Melanchthon to speak candidly.
I, for my part, am well aware that, if any weight is due to the authority of men, it were far more just that I should subscribe you opinions that you mine. But that is not the question; nor is it even a thing to be desired by the pious ministers of Christ. This, in all truth, we ought both to seek, viz., to come to an agreement on the pure truth of God.92
Consequently, Calvin was somewhat critical of Melanchthon's view of election and free will,
But, to speak candidly, religious scruples prevent me from agreeing with you on this point of doctrine, for you appear to discuss the freedom of the will in too philosophical a manner; and in treating of the doctrine of election, you seem to have no other purpose, save that you may suit yourself to the common feeling of mankind.93
Calvin deeply desired to discuss this with Melanchthon.
Would that we might have an opportunity of talking over these matters face to face! ... Therefore, this whole question would be easily, as I hope, arranged between us; wherefore, if an opportunity should present itself, I would desire nothing more than to pay you a visit.94
Melanchthon is addressed in the conclusion as "most distinguished sir and heartily esteemed brother."
Melanchthon did not cooperate, however, and his silence was increasingly annoying to Calvin. On August 27, 1554, Calvin again begged for Melanchthon to break his silence and express his opinion on the sacramentarian controversy.
I do not express myself thus, as doubting of your friendship towards me, which indeed has always been unbounded, but because your silence, as I esteem it to be detrimental to the Church of God, cannot for that reason but be painful and annoying to me. ... You see that the manifest discordance which is certainly remarked between our writings has a pernicious tendency. Nor do I prescribe this law for the removal of our discrepancy that you should assent to me, but at least let us not be ashamed to subscribe to the sacred oracles of God. And, indeed, whatever method of reconciling our differences it shall please you to adopt, that I will gladly embrace. Behold how illiterate and turbulent men are renewing the Sacramentarian quarrel from your quarter. All good men lament and complain, that these same individuals are encouraged by your silence.95
In 1555 he corresponded several times again with Melanchthon. In a letter of March 5, Calvin expressed gratefulness that Melanchthon has again corresponded with him, but disappointment that he still had not written about the sacramentarian controversy.
About the worship of the bread, your most intimate opinion has long been known to me, which you do not even dissemble in your letter. But your too great slowness displeases me, by which not only is kept up, but from day to day increased, the madness of those whom you see rushing on to the destruction of the church. ... That I might restrain their tumults, I have again comprised the summary of our doctrine in a short compendium. All the Swiss churches have subscribed to it. Those of Zurich gave it their unqualified approbation. Now I long to have your opinion; what also the rest of your countrymen think and say I am very desirous to know.96
After again requesting Melanchthon to give his opinion about the Tigurinus Consensus, Calvin concluded with the wish that God "always keep us in holy union, till at length he gather us into his heavenly kingdom."
In another letter the same year on August 23, Calvin emphasized the importance of seeking the approbation of God rather than that of men, and not trying to avoid the hatred of the world. "But for more important I hold it to follow the rule prescribed by our Master."97 By this time Calvin's patience is beginning to wear thin.
I entreat you to discharge as soon as you can, the debt which you acknowledge you owe to God and the church. ... Reflect moreover that if this warning, like a cock crowing rather late and out of season, do not awaken you, all will cry out with justice, that you are a sluggard.98
A year later, Calvin was still impatiently awaiting Melanchthon's response. In a letter of September 17, 1556, he thus wrote:
I have been dragged hither [Frankfort] by the dissensions with which Satan has rent, for nearly two years, the little French church established here ... I am continually distracted up to this moment, in appeasing those dissensions which, from the long lapse of time, have struck deep root ... Though indeed I am less anxious about soliciting your pardon, because from your silence I conclude that you feel no great desire to receive a letter from me.99
Calvin also took the opportunity also to express the need for a conference to end the religious differences of Germany, and referring to a Synod assembled at Nuremberg which condemned the exaggerations of Westphal, wrote:
And a convention is so much the more to be desired by us, as these men more obstinately reject it, or rather as they with greater rage recoil from it. ... I wish you had gone to the Palatine, for it would have been highly expedient that he had been directed in the beginning by good and sound counsels. But should an opportunity present itself, it is better late than never.100
This final appeal to Melanchthon still did not bear fruit, and the following year on August 3, 1557, Calvin again wrote to Melanchthon, complaining of his long silence.
How it has happened that for more than a space of three years, you have not given me one word in reply to my letters, I know not. As moreover from so long a silence I might well conclude that they were not very agreeable to you, and even that my affection for you was repudiated by you, I should not have ventured at present to write to you, were I not informed by this excellent old man that you still entertain the same disposition of mind towards me, a thing I should otherwise have had some difficulty in believing ... Because from time to time I perceived that my adversaries made use of your name to give a plausible colour to the representations which they employed to deceive the ignorant, that I might not seem in so clear a matter to tergiversate, (which would have been far from candid,) I did not hesitate more than once to appeal to your testimony. ... But, in one word, you should maturely consider whether your too obstinate a silence may not leave a stain on your reputation in the eyes of posterity. ... I do not think you need to be reminded in many words how necessary it is for you to hasten to wipe out this blot from your character. If a means of pacification is sought for, our only hope lies in a conference; which I doubt not but you desire, but which I could wish that you called for more courageously ... Reflect then that this task now depends on you, viz., that influenced by your discourse the princes should invite the men of our party to a conference, and a convenient place for assembling might be either at Strasbourg, or Tubingen, or Heidelberg, or even at Frankfort. If you could only obtain this, that both parties would come forward prepared for peaceable discussion, I trust there would be a better result than many suspicious men conjecture.101
Calvin made a similar appeal to Melanchthon in his Ultima Admonitio of 1557, again insisting that his words were in harmony with the Augsburg Confession and Melanchthon, and that Melanchthon was in agreement with Calvin. He urged Westphal to attempt to gain any word from Melanchthon to support his case, confident that this was not possible.
As the Confession of Augsburg has obtained favour with the pious, Joachim, with his faction, began long ago to do as is common with men destitute of argument, to obtrude it upon us as a shield of authority. ... To free ourselves from the prejudice thus craftily sought to be excited, I appealed, I admit, to the author of the Confession and I do not repent having done so. ... My words are: in regard to the Confession of Augsburg my answer is, that (as it was published at Ratisbon) it does not contain a word contrary to our doctrine. If there is any ambiguity in its meaning, there cannot be a more competent interpreter than its author, to whom, as his due, all pious and learned men will readily pay this honour. To him I boldly appeal; and thus Westphal with his vile garrulity lies prostrate.....If Joachim wishes once for all to rid himself of all trouble and put an end to the controversy, let him extract one word in his favour from Philip's lips. The means of access are open, and the journey is not so very laborious, to visit one whose consent he boasts so loftily, and with whom he may thus have familiar intercourse. If I shall be found to have used Philip's name rashly, there is no stamp of ignominy to which I am not willing to submit....The only thing I said, and, if need be, a hundred time repeat, is, that in this matter Philip can no more be torn from me than he can from his own bowels. But although fearing the thunder which threatened to burst from violent men, (those who know the boisterous blasts of Luther understand what I mean,) he did not always speak out so openly as I could have wished, there is no reason why Westphal, while pretending differently, should indirectly charge him with having begun to incline to us only after Luther was dead. For when more than seventeen years ago we conferred together on this point of doctrine, at our first meeting not a syllable required to be changed....But if there is still any doubt as to Philip, do I not make a sufficient offer when I wait silent and confident for his answer, assured that it will make manifest the dishonesty which has falsely sheltered itself under the venerable name of that most excellent man?102
Calvin's final letter to Melanchthon was dated November 19, 1558, and still contained exhortations to a fraternal union.
The partisans of Westphal, though they hurl their darts from a distance, nevertheless, in their wickedness, take far more impudent liberties with me. I shall not for all that cease to press towards the mark at which I had begun to aim; in the controversy respecting the Lord's Supper, not only your enemies traduce what they calumniously style your weakness, but your best friends also, and those who cherish you with the pious feelings which you deserve, would wish that the flame of your zeal burned more brightly, of which we behold some feeble sparks, and thus it is that these pigmies strut like giants. Whatever happens, let us cultivate with sincerity a fraternal affection towards each other, of which no wiles of Satan shall ever burst asunder the ties ...But by no slight shall my mind ever be alienated from that holy friendship and respect which I have vowed to you.103
Even towards the very end, Calvin did not despair of Melanchthon's friendship, even though he occasionally received reports that Melanchthon had spoken ill of him.
However, Calvin was to be disappointed, and Melanchthon's failure to publicly vocalize his position chiefly contributed to the failure of Calvin's plans for unity. Calvin himself was convinced that if Luther had lived longer, he would have assented to the Tigurinus Consensus, as he wrote to Marbach, pastor in Strasbourg, on August 25, 1554.
If Luther were now alive - that illustrious servant of God, and faithful teacher of the church - he would not be so bitter nor implacable as not willingly to admit of this confession; that those things are really imparted to us in the sacraments, which are there symbolically represented; and that it is for that reason that in the holy Supper we are made partakers of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. For how often did he profess that he had no other motive for his contestation, unless that it should be clearly recognized, that the Lord does not mock us with empty signs, but that he fills us inwardly with what he represents to our eyes, and that so the effect is connected with the visible sign!104
As the conflict increased, Calvin grew tired, and believed that only a few genuine followers of Luther had remained. Thus he wrote in 1560 to Rector Matthias Schenck of Augsburg:
Wittenberg has produced, I confess, several pious and courageous personalities. But the majority believe themselves to be faithful imitators of Luther by inflating themselves with pretentious arrogance instead of the openness of mind which this man possessed. The same thing came about in Jerusalem, when, at the time of the apostles, true piety was flourishing and esteemed. For there were no worse enemies of the Gentile-Christian communities than those who came from Jerusalem and pretended to be the true disciples of James and of the others.105
There is much truth to Calvin's assessment. Luther's hostility was primarily directed not against Geneva as such, but the Zwinglians. A month before his death Luther wrote:
That one beatitude from the Psalm is sufficient for me, the most unfortunate of men: Blessed is he who does not walk in the council of the Sacramentarians, nor stand in the way of the Zwinglians, nor sits in the seat of the men of Zurich.106
But even at the very end of life, Luther realized that he had gone too far, and so Calvin may well have been right in asserting that Luther would have agreed with the Tigurinus Consensus. According to Christopher Pezel, Luther's confidant, Luther apparently said to Melanchthon before setting out on his last journey: "In this matter of the Sacrament we have gone much too far...I will commend the thing to the Lord. Do something after my death."107
Calvin, at any rate, saw himself in essential agreement with Luther and Melanchthon, of whom he wrote:
I always accept serious and sensible teachers among them who not only behave quietly and with self-control but who also, even though their opinions may differ slightly from our own, are nonetheless not averse to a fraternal communion; and since we agree in substance, they gladly favour and maintain peace with us: so much do they desire reconciliation and friendship between the churches.108
The struggle which did result over the Tigurinus Consensus seems indeed to have been the result of the vehemence of radical and intolerant Lutherans who were completely hostile to the Swiss conception of the Lord's Supper. Although Calvin himself saw that reconciliation between the Swiss and the Germans was possible if the Augsburg Confession was interpreted as Melanchthon did, these extremist Lutherans regarded the difference between their teacher and the Swiss as irreconcilable. Calvin's attempts at unity, thus, were thwarted by such radicals who understood neither the true reality of the Swiss perspective, nor the true intention of Melanchthon with the Augsburg Confession.
Representatives to Germany
In 1557, a year after the Westphal controversy had reached its height, Calvin sent William Farel and Theodore Beza on a reconciliatory mission to Strasbourg and Heidelberg. The goal, according to Richard Stauffer, was "to prove to the Lutherans that the Reformed see in the supper something other than a symbol; to show them that they there receive the body and the blood of Christ, and having proved this to them, to ask them to consider the Reformed as brothers."109
Upon their return, they set out again, this time for Worms. Beza and Farel met here with Melanchthon and other Lutherans. On October 8, 1557, Beza presented a new confession in the name of the French Reformed churches, which was intended to function as a basis for a later conference. It affirmed "We hold that we and you are one true Church of the Son of God."110 The confession itself was phrased very carefully, particularly with respect to the Lord's Supper. The French teaching was carefully distinguished from the position in which the sacrament was regarded as a mere sign. The Lutherans responded by recommending that their princes send commissioners to France as the French had requested. When the sending of the commissioners was delayed, the impatient Calvin sent Beza on a third mission.111
Beza visited the Germans a third time in 1558. On March 19, the Lutherans and Reformed together wrote a letter to Henry II, who asked them to stop troubling him on this issue. Since this visit also bore little fruit, Beza was commissioned a fourth time, and visited the German cities again in 1559. His attempt to seek a consensus with the Lutherans met with a favorable response only in Strasbourg. The reconciliatory missions thus also ended in failure.
Letters to the English in Germany
Calvin's attitude to the Lutherans in Germany is also illustrated by his advice to the English members of the Lutheran congregation in Wesel. These English had to leave England under Bloody Mary because of their evangelical convictions, and took refuge in Germany. Here they were tempted not to attend the Lutheran worship service because it had retained the use of candles and the communion wafer. At the height of his conflict with Westphal, Calvin wrote to these English in Wesel on March 13, 1554. He urged them to praise God that "he has granted you a place of refuge in which you are at liberty to serve and worship him."112 Calvin admitted that there was some validity to their concerns "With regard to the form to be observed in receiving the sacraments, it is not without reason that you entertain doubts and scruples." Indeed, deviating from the ordinance of Christ and usage of the apostles by mixing it with "human invention" was "a corruption."
But Calvin regarded these English in Germany as a special case: "But it seems to us that your condition is different from that of the pastors of the place and the great body of the people." As a rule, it is indeed necessary to exterminate all residue of Popish superstitions, but these English must exercise a certain amount of tolerance.
But in your capacity of private individuals, not only you may lawfully, but what is more, you should support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct. We do not hold lighted candles in the celebration of the eucharist nor figured bread to be such indifferent things, that we would willingly consent to their introduction, or approve of them, though we object not to accommodate ourselves to the use of them, where they have been already established, when we have no authority to oppose them. If we were called upon to receive such ceremonies, we should hold ourselves bound according to the position in which God hath placed us, to admit of no compromise in resisting their introduction, and in maintaining constantly the purity which the church confided to us already possesses. But should our lot be cast in some place where a different form prevails, there is not one of us who from spite against a candle or a chasuble would consent to separate himself from the body of the church and so deprive himself of the use of the sacrament. We must be on our guard not to scandalize those who are already subject to such infirmities, which we should certainly do by rejecting them from too frivolous motives. And then it would be for us matter of deep regret, if the French church which might be erected there should be broken up, because we would not accommodate ourselves to some ceremonies that do not affect the substance of the faith. For as we have said, it is perfectly lawful for the children of God to submit to many things of which they do not approve. Now the main point of consideration is, how far such liberty should extend. Upon this head let us lay it down as a settled point, that we ought to make mutual concessions in all ceremonies, that do not involve any prejudice to the confession of our faith, and for this end that the unity of the church be not destroyed by our excessive rigour or moroseness. ...But we are far from advising you to abandon the advantage of having a christian church in that place, from the mere consideration of difference in ceremonies. The important consideration is, that you do not yield to a faulty pliancy in the confession of your faith, and that you make no compromise as to doctrine.... be on your guard to exclude the errors with which it is possible that some persons may be entangled, who go farther than that confession.113
Calvin obviously did not see certain liturgical differences, although he was personally opposed to them, as a sufficient ground from breaking from the church.
Calvin's advice to the English in Frankfort was similar. He urged the Puritan objectors to the Prayer Book among the refugees not to desert the Lutheran services there. In a letter of January 13, 1555, he wrote:
This indeed grievously afflicts me and is highly absurd, that discord is springing up among brethren who are for the same faith exiles and fugitives from their country; and for a cause indeed which in your dispersion should like a sacred bond have held you closely united. For in this sad and wretched calamity, what could you do better, torn as you were from the bosom of your country, than adopt a church which received into its maternal bosom, those who were connected with you in minds and language? Now, on the contrary, that some of you should be stirring up contentions about forms of prayer and ceremonies, as if you were at ease and in a season of tranquillity, and thus throwing an obstacle in the way of your coalescing in one body of worshippers, this is really too unreasonable...Though in indifferent matters, such as are external rites, I shew myself indulgent and pliable, at the same time, I do not deem it expedient always to comply with the foolish captiousness of those who will not give up a single point of their usual routine. In the Anglican liturgy, such as you describe it to me, I see that there were many silly things that might be tolerated. By this phrase I mean that it did not possess that purity which was to be desired. The faults, however, which could not straightway be corrected on the first day, if there lurked under them no manifest impiety, were to be endured for a time.114
It would be too much to conclude from this that Calvin regarded such liturgical matters as matters of indifference. Calvin clearly wanted to remove such abuses also, but firmly believed that such reasons could not constitute lawful grounds for breaking the church.
4. UNITY WITH OTHERS
Calvin had extensive contact with others in the Reformed camp throughout Europe. We shall limit ourselves to two striking examples of his desire and attempts for unity.
Cranmer's Conference Plan
After 1540, the Anglican church began to grew in a direction leaning towards Calvinism. Several influential continental theologians of a Reformed persuasion were compelled to take refuge in England on account of persecution, and exerted a great influence there. Among them were John a Lasco (1548) and Martin Bucer (1549).
In 1552 archbishop Thomas Cranmer began planning an ecumenical synod. His aim was to establish agreement in the Reformed doctrine, and so lay the foundation for further unity amongst the different Reformed churches. Cranmer wrote to Calvin concerning this plan, requesting his opinion on the plan. Calvin concurred with Cranmer's proposal with great enthusiasm, replying as follows in April, 1552:
Your opinion, most distinguished sir, is indeed just and wise, that in the present disordered condition of the Church, no remedy can be devised more suitable than if a general meeting were held of the devout and the prudent, of those properly exercised in the school of God, and of those who are confessedly at one on the doctrine of holiness.... Yet the Lord, as he has done even from the beginning of the world, will preserve in a miraculous manner, and in a way unknown to us, the unity of a pure faith from being destroyed by the dissensions of men. And those whom he has placed on his watch-tower he wishes least of all to be inactive, seeing that he has appointed them to be his ministers, through whose labours he may preserve from all corruptions sound doctrine in the Church, and transmit it safe to posterity....And would that it were attainable to bring together into some place, from various Churches, men eminent for their learning, and that after having carefully discussed the main points of belief one by one, they should, from their united judgments, hand down to posterity the true doctrine of Scripture. This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute amongst us, far less that Christian intercourse which all make a profession of, but few sincerely practice...Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding. So much does this concern me, that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it....Now, seeing that a serious and properly adjusted agreement between men of learning upon the rule of Scripture is still a desideratum, by means of which Churches, though divided on other questions, might be made to unite, I think it right for me, at whatever cost of toil and trouble, to seek to obtain this object.115
Calvin mentions Melanchthon and Bullinger, wishing that he himself could help obtain this, and says that he wishes "not only to encourage, but also to implore you to increase our exertions, until something at least shall have been accomplished, if not all that we could desire."
Due to a combination of circumstances, the intended meeting never took place. Calvin's interest in the project, however, is confirmed by the fact that in 1561 he wrote to Archbishop Matthew Parker to renew the proposals originated by Cranmer in the reign of Edward VI, the broad project being "a general assembly of all the Protestant clergy wherever dispersed" as prelude to the forging of a union of "all the Reformed and Evangelic churches".116
Advice for the Holding of a Council (1560)
The treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559) had stipulated "the convening of a general council for the reformation of abuses and the re-establishment of religious unity in Europe."117 In connection with this Calvin sent to the Reformed Churches of France in December 1560 a Advice on the Holding of a Council which began with the words:
To put an end to the divisions which exist in Christendom, it is necessary to have a free and universal council.118
Amongst the conditions required for this council, Calvin listed several conditions. As to the place, it should be possible that all delegates could be ensured safe conduct to and from the council. As to the persons, even bishops could be allowed. Delegates should be elected persons, and proponents of reformation
should yet be empowered to oppose all resolutions repugnant to the word of God, and they should be entitled to be heard in all their protestations, while demonstrating by solid reasons the grounds of their opposition to the things which the bishops might be inclined to enact.119
In his concluding remarks, Calvin says:
Now, it would not be enough to hold a council, unless it were to be universal; that is to say, if the object of it were not to appease all the troubles of Christendom. ... Wherefore, it is indispensably necessary that those who demand a reformation, should accept the council which will be held, in order that all Christendom may be united, or that those who shall be unwilling to range themselves under the banners of unity and concord be declared and held for schismatics.120
Calvin intended to go to Poissy to confer with the French bishops, but friends who feared for his life prevented him, and so Beza went instead. Nonetheless, this confirms Calvin's ever-pressing desire for the unity of the church, and his relentless efforts to secure the practical expression of this unity.
THE CONDITIONS FOR UNITY
In the discussion on church unity in John Calvin, it is fitting also to pay some brief attention to what Calvin conceived as the conditions for unity. In this connection, many scholars appeal to his distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines, to which we now give some attention.
1. FUNDAMENTAL AND SECONDARY DOCTRINES
Richard Stauffer asserts that Calvin was able to make many and even dangerous concessions on the basis of his distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines, concluding that "ecclesiastical unity is not necessarily doctrinal uniformity to the smallest detail."121 This is a common understanding of Calvin. In support of this theory, appeal is made to various places in Calvin where the distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines is alluded to.
Calvin touched on this matter on several occasions in his Institutes. It is first apparent in Institutes IV. i. 12.
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 to 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 should upon leaving bodies fly to heaven; while another, not daring to define the place, is convinced nevertheless that they live in the Lord. What churches would disagree on this 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" [Phil. 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? ... 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.122
Calvin also dealt with this further in Institutes IV. ii. 1 when dealing with the basic distinction between the false and the true church.
...wherever the ministry remains whole and uncorrupted, no moral faults or diseases prevent it from bearing the name "church". Secondly, it is not weakened by trivial errors as not to be esteemed lawful. We have, moreover, shown that the errors which ought to be pardoned are those which do not harm the chief doctrine of religion, which do not destroy the articles of religion on which all believers ought to agree; and with regard to the sacraments, those which do not abolish or throw down the lawful institution of the Author.123
Calvin also mentioned this distinction in his commentaries. On 1 Corinthians 1:2, Calvin remarked concerning the Corinthian church:
Although some defects had crept into the administration of the Supper, discipline and moral tone had greatly declined, the simplicity of the Gospel was despised, they had surrendered themselves to ostentation and display, they were broken up into various parties through the ambition of their ministers; nevertheless, because they held on to the fundamental teaching - the One God was worshipped by them and was invoked in the name of Christ - they rested their confidence of salvation in Christ, and they had a ministry that was not wholly corrupt. For those reasons the Church still continued to exist among them. Hence wherever the worship of God is unimpaired, and that fundamental teaching, of which I have spoken, persists, there, we may without difficulty decide, the Church exists.124
On 1 Corinthians 3:11, Calvin commented:
On the other hand the fundamental doctrine, which it is forbidden to overthrow, is that we might learn Christ. For Christ is the one and only foundation of the Church.125
Richard Stauffer also mentions Calvin and Farel's expulsion from Geneva in 1538. Calvin instructed his followers, the Guillermins, who were opposed to new pastors named by the magistrate, to remain in the communion of the Reformed Church, even if certain changes were introduced, as long as the fundamental principles of the Christian religion were still taught.126
From the above we can draw some important conclusions. However, the idea that fundamental and secondary doctrines was Calvin's criterion for church unity is not one of them.
Firstly, when speaking about the distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines, Calvin was not dealing with the question of unity.127 Rather, Calvin was dealing with the question of separating oneself from the church, and estranging oneself from the communion of the church. This is explicit from Institutes IV. ii. 13, where Calvin made explicit reference to Donatist tendencies. It is also evident from the fact that in IV. ii 12 Calvin spoke about "estrange us from communion with the church" and "we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions." In his commentary in Corinthians also, Calvin was concerned with the identity of the Corinthian congregation as church. Calvin was not addressing the question of uniting different Reformed churches, but of removing oneself from a church in which certain doctrines are not agreeable.
Secondly, Calvin allowed no room for compromise in doctrine under the banner of "indifferent matters." For Calvin the boundary of tolerance is the boundary drawn by the Word of God, namely, true doctrine. This is clear from his reproving of Melanchthon with the words "several of those things which you consider indifferent, are obviously repugnant to the word of God." In his letter of June 18, 1550 to Melanchthon, Calvin had admonished his Lutheran friend as follows:
This is the sum of your defence: that provided purity of doctrine be retained, externals should not be pertinaciously contended for. And if it be true that is confidently asserted everywhere, you extend the distinction of non-essentials too far. ... If you are too facile in making concessions, you need not wonder if that is marked as a fault in you by many. Moreover, several of those things which you consider indifferent, are obviously repugnant to the word of God.128
Whatever is contrary to the Word of God is necessarily not indifferent. Calvin was insistent that one must continually strive for pure doctrine and allow no room for that which is contrary to Scripture.
Thirdly, as long as the true doctrine is maintained, there can be toleration toward differences in ceremonial matters. Such differences are not a legitimate ground for breaking from the church, and thus Calvin insisted that the English in Wesel remain in the church, despite differences in opinion regarding ceremonial matters. In his letter to the English in Wesel on March 13, 1554, Calvin contended that there be some tolerance with respect to certain matters such as using lighted candles and wafers in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
But in your capacity of private individuals, not only you may lawfully, but what is more, you should support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct. We do not hold lighted candles in the celebration of the eucharist nor figured bread to be such indifferent things, that we would willingly consent to their introduction, or approve of them, though we object not to accommodate ourselves to the use of them, where they have been already established, when we have no authority to oppose them. ... And then it would be for us matter of deep regret, if the French church which might be erected there should be broken up, because we would not accommodate ourselves to some ceremonies that do not affect the substance of the faith. For as we have said, it is perfectly lawful for the children of God to submit to many things of which they do not approve. Now the main point of consideration is, how far such liberty should extend. Upon this head let us lay it down as a settled point, that we ought to make mutual concessions in all ceremonies, that do not involve any prejudice to the confession of our faith, and for this end that the unity of the church be not destroyed by our excessive rigour or moroseness. ...But we are far from advising you to abandon the advantage of having a christian church in that place, from the mere consideration of difference in ceremonies. The important consideration is, that you do not yield to a faulty pliancy in the confession of your faith, and that you make no compromise as to doctrine.... be on your guard to exclude the errors with which it is possible that some persons may be entangled, who go farther than that confession.129
Although Calvin did not approve of such ceremonies, they "do not affect the substance of the faith" and so they must and can be tolerated. As long as there is "no compromise as to doctrine", concessions can be made so as to preserve the unity of the church. In practical terms, this meant that the English in Wesel had no good ground to separate themselves from the Lutheran church there. As long as the pure doctrine was maintained, they should be willing to tolerate many other matters of difference.
2. PURE DOCTRINE
For Calvin, then, the fundamental criteria for the union of the church was not the distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrine. Rather, the criteria was that of pure doctrine. To confirm this, consider the following extracts from Calvin's writings.
In his Reply to Sadoleto (1539), Calvin wrote:
Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity. But if I desired to be at peace with those who boasted of being the heads of the Church and pillars of faith, I behooved to purchase it with the denial of thy truth. I thought that anything was to be endured sooner than stoop to such a nefarious paction. For thy Anointed himself hath declared, that though heaven and earth should be confounded, yet thy Word must endure for ever (Matt. xxxiv. 35). ... My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of thy Church, provided thy truth were made the bond of concord...Thou, O Lord, knowest, and the fact itself has testified to men, that the only thing I asked was that all controversies should be decided by thy Word, that thus both parties might unite with one mind to establish thy kingdom.130
For Calvin, then, the criterion for unity is the Word, and unity is possible only with a common confession of the truth. Clearly, Calvin was championing the principle of sola scriptura, and the principle of sola scriptura was also normative for the practice of church unity. Anything that abandoned this principle was thus intolerable. On Ezekiel 13:9, Calvin remarked:
Nothing is less tolerable than when God's truth is turned into a lie, because this is like reducing him to nothing. God is truth; if, therefore, that is abolished, what else will remain behind?131
In his dedication to his Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1541), he wrote:
that the variety in the mode of teaching is such, that we all directed to one Christ, in whose truth being united together, we may grow up into one body and one spirit, and with the same mouth also proclaim whatever belongs to the sum of faith.132
Calvin thus insisted that the key to the process of unity is the truth. The church can only be united when it is built on the solid foundation of Scripture, the pure doctrine. Unity must indeed be striven for, but never at the cost of truth.
In his attempts for church unity, it is clear that the Calvin also implemented "pure doctrine" as the criteria. On the one hand, this meant a rejection of the Roman church as well as the Anabaptists radicals. In both cases, unity was impossible because both the Roman church and the sectarian Anabaptists failed to confess the truth of Scripture. In both cases, the principle of sola scriptura had been abandoned, as Calvin said in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539).
We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly as not in some measure to betray himself, the principle weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods.133
On the other hand, this also meant that where there was a confession of the truth, concessions could be made in other areas. Calvin's advice to the English in Wesel can be cited as an instance of this, as can his response to a questioner in France.
the rule which I would propose for your observance, while you continue to live there, is that those [ceremonies] ... which are not stamped with impiety you may observe, soberly indeed and sparingly, but when occasion requires freely and without anxiety ... Those which bear the smallest impress of sacrilege, you are no more to touch than you would the venom of a serpent.134
There is thus room for flexibility on ceremonies which are not prescribed by God's Word.
In short, Calvin's struggle for unity with the Zwinglians and the Lutherans was the result of his perception that these Reformatory movements, together with him, confessed the truth of God's Word. As far as Calvin was concerned, there was a common confession of the truth, and this constituted a sufficient basis for unity. At the same time, wherever the truth of God's Word was compromised, unity was impossible. It is thus correct to say that Calvin gave priority to the question of truth over the question of ecclesiastical unity.
Attempts have been made to marshal Calvin into the contemporary Ecumenical Movement. Cadier, for example, portrays Calvin as an ardent supporter of the Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches:
Calvin had a very firm vision of the union of the church. In our day he would certainly have been on the side of the movement towards the uniting of the churches, the Ecumenical Movement; not the ecumenism of Roman Catholicism which he would abhor, and which is unthinkable for a son of the Reformation, for it consists in a return to a church in which the power of the Papacy has hardened still more than in the sixteenth century; but non-Roman ecumenism, that of the World Council of Churches, in which the Reformed Churches hold an important place because of their faithfulness to the will for reunion which they derive from their founder.135
Certainly it is true that Calvin was an ardent advocate of union, but Cadier goes too far in regarding him as a forefather of today's Ecumenical Movement. Champions of contemporary ecumenism would do well to go back to Calvin, and consider whether or not they have abandoned one of the chief components of Calvin's approach to unity, namely, an uncompromising attitude to toleration of false doctrine. Calvin's own articulation of this sums up his whole approach: "I burned for the unity of thy Church, provided thy truth were made the bond of concord."136
In conclusion, the findings of this study can be summarized with the following ten theses:
- The basis for Calvin's desire for the unity of the church was his theological conviction that the church was a single body united in Christ. His ecclesiology thus motivated his practice.
- Calvin was very disturbed by the disunity which he perceived among the different parties of the Reformation, notably the Zwinglians and Lutherans.
- Calvin regarded himself as a mediator between Luther and Zwingli with regard to their doctrines of the Lord's Supper. In his view, the Luther-Zwingli chasm was largely based on misunderstanding.
- Calvin's desire for unity with the Zurichers bore fruit with the Tigurinus Consensus of 1549.
- Calvin consistently endorsed the Augsburg Confession, on the condition that it was interpreted in the line of Melanchthon, and not Westphal.
- Calvin regarded both Luther and Melanchthon as brothers, despite their differences, and constantly endeavoured for unity with them.
- Calvin's attempts to heal the breach between the Lutherans and Zwinglians were hindered by Luther's vehemence, Melanchthon's silence, and Bullinger's hesitation.
- Calvin sent Beza and Farel on several unsuccessful reconciliatory missions to Germany to move towards unity with the Lutherans.
- Calvin supported plans for an ecumenical council of Reformed churches, particularly as this was proposed by Thomas Cranmer.
- For Calvin the fundamental criterion for unity was pure doctrine. The common confession of the truth with Lutherans and Zwinglians was a sufficient condition for unity, and thus ceremonial differences were tolerable.
The question of church unity is one that faces us today just as much as it did Calvin, despite the historical differences. Certainly those who regard themselves as Calvinists would do well to consider well their heritage in John Calvin, and his ardent desire to see a church united in the truth.
At the same time, sorrow over the overwhelming religious pluralism that dominates our own ecclesiastical scene should not give way to despair. Calvin's encouragement to an unknown person in a letter in 1545 was just as much an encouragement for the recipient then as it is for us today:
Who is there that would not lose heart entirely where so many stumblingblocks are thrown in the way? I do most readily acknowledge, that there is no one so iron-hearted who would not be utterly cast down, unless he look continually unto the Lord. And, therefore, I so read the meaning of all this, that it appears to be the Lord's will, by every possible means, to try us whether our dependence is placed on men; and, for my own part, it is so far from overwhelming me, that, on the contrary, no slender confirmation thence arises of my faith. For while I see the Church marvelously steered by the Lord in the midst of those mighty waves, so that it cannot be overwhelmed; while these very tempests are at their height, until everything would seem as if about to mingle in wild disorder, yet I see that the noise of the waves is stilled, and in a moment they are calm; wherefore, then, may I not thence conceive good hope of the future?137
When we, like Calvin, keep looking to the Lord of the Church, then we can be ever confident that on the marriage feast of the Lamb the bride will be presented to Christ without spot or wrinkle, as one body united in the one faith. Already now, like Calvin, we must labour toward that goal.
- W. Nijenhuis, "Ecumenical Calvin: Calvin, Luther, and Lutheranism" in Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation II. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994) 50.
- See, for instance, Jean Cadier, "Calvin and the Union of the Churches" in G.E. Duffield (ed), John Calvin. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966).
- Wherever possible, I have endeavoured to use primary sources only, using standard texts (see bibliography). However, not all of Calvin's works are easily available in English translation, and on occasion where the primary source was not mentioned by secondary sources or was not available, it has been necessary to resort to using the quotations provided by secondary sources.
- John C. Olin (ed), A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto's Letter to the Genevans and Calvin's Reply. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) 85-86.
- Ibid, 62.
- John T. McNeill (ed), Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) 1014.
- Ibid, 1024.
- John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974) 172.
- John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979) 307-8.
- Cadier, 123.
- Richard Stauffer, "Calvin, Advocate of Evangelical Catholicity" in The Quest for Church Unity: From John Calvin to Isaac d'Huisseau. (Allison Park: Pickwick Publications, 1986) 6.
- Ibid, 7.
- Nijenhuis, "Ecumenical Calvin: Calvin, Luther, and Lutheranism", 64.
- The letter was written to Zebedee. Ibid, 55.
- John T. McNeill, "Ecumenical Outlook and Unitive Effort in the Calvinist Reformation" in Ruth Rouse & Stephen Charles Neill (eds), A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948. Second edition. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968) 49.
- Jules Bonnet (ed), Letters of John Calvin. Vol 1 (New York: Burt Franklin Reprints, 1972) 66-67.
- John T. McNeill, "Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman" in John T. McNeill & James Hastings Nichols, Ecumenical Testimony: The Concern for Christian Unity Within the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974) 17.
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 89.
- McNeill, "Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman", 17-18.
- John Dillenberger (ed), John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. (New York: Anchor Books, 1971) 537.
- Ibid, 538.
- Ibid, 539.
- Ibid, 539-540.
- Ibid, 540.
- Ibid, 540-1.
- Stauffer, 7.
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 362.
- Nijenhuis, "Ecumenical Calvin: Calvin, Luther, and Lutheranism", 62.
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 429.
- Ibid, 432-434.
- Ibid, 445.
- Bonnet, Vol 2, 143.
- Ibid, 160.
- Ibid, 171.
- McNeill, "Ecumenical Outlook and Unitive Effort in the Calvinist Reformation", 51.
- Bonnet, Vol 2, 211.
- Ibid, 214.
- McNeill, "Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman", 21.
- W. Nijenhuis, "Church Unity in Luther and Calvin" in Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation II. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994) 46.
- Letter to Bullinger, 13 August 1549, Bonnet, Vol 2, 245.
- W. Nijenhuis, "Calvin's Life and Work in the Light of the Idea of Tolerance" in Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation I. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972) 120.
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 374.
- W. Nijenhuis, "Calvin and the Augsburg Confession" in Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation I. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972).
- "Omnes debemus esse Catholici, id est, amplecti hoc verbum, quod tenet Ecclesia recte sentiens, aliena a sectis, seu non implicita sectis pugnantibus cum illo verbo". Ibid, 97-98.
- To the text of the 1530 Invariata "De coena Domini docent, quod corpus et sanguis Christi vere adsint et distribuantur vescentibus in coene Domini" Melanchthon substituted in the 1540 Variata "De coena Domini docent, quod cum pane et vino vere exhibeantur corpus et sanguis Christi vescentibus in coena Domini." Stauffer, 9. There were also other changes in articles 5 and 18 which reflected the development in Melanchthon's thinking on free will, and which would not have been more acceptable in Calvin's eyes.
- W. G. De Vries, "Calvijns Oecumenische Betekenis" in Reformatie. Vol. 34, No. 40 (11 July, 1959) 329.
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church. Vol 2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1958) 355.
- Nijenhuis, "Calvin and the Augsburg Confession", 104-110.
- "Nec vero Augustanam confessionem repudio, cui pridem volens ac libens subscripsi, sicuti eam autor ipse interpretatus est." Ibid, 109.
- Ibid, 112-113.
- "Augustanae Confessioni cur subscribere dubites, non video." Ibid, 113.
- Ibid, 114.
- Traite de fuir les Superstitions (1544) and the subsequent apology Excuse aux Faux Nicodemites (1544).
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 435.
- Ibid, 435-436.
- Ibid, 436.
- Ibid, 436-437.
- Ibid, 437.
- Ibid, 438.
- Ibid, 440.
- Ibid, 441.
- Ibid, 442.
- The Apology was entitled "Orthodoxa Tigurinae Ecclesiae Ministrorum Confessio, una cum aequa et modesta responsione ad vanas et offendiculi plenas D. Martini Lutheri calumnias, condemnationes et convitia, etc ..."
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 466.
- Ibid, 467.
- Ibid, 467-468.
- Ibid, 468.
- Stauffer, 9.
- Nijenhuis, "Ecumenical Calvin: Calvin, Luther, and Lutheranism", 67.
- McNeill, "Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman", 21.
- John T. McNeill, "Union Activities of Calvin and Beza" in Unitive Protestantism: The Ecumenical Spirit and Its Persistent Expression. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964) 198.
- Ibid, 200.
- Nijenhuis, "Church Unity in Luther and Calvin", 46-47.
- Nijenhuis, "Ecumenical Calvin: Calvin, Luther, and Lutheranism", 70.
- Ibid, 71-72.
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, Vol 2, 248.
- Ibid, 493-494.
- Ibid, 494.
- Bonnet, Vol 2, 271.
- Ibid, 272.
- Ibid, 273.
- Ibid, 274.
- Ibid, 376.
- Ibid, 377.
- Ibid, 379.
- Ibid, 380
- Bonnet, Vol 3, 61.
- Ibid, 157-158.
- Ibid, 219.
- Ibid, 219-220.
- Ibid, 293.
- Ibid, 294.
- Ibid, 336-338.
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, Vol 2, 355-356.
- Bonnet, Vol 3, 484.
- Ibid, 56.
- Cited in Stauffer, 9.
- Nijenhuis, "Calvin and the Augsburg Confession", 100.
- McNeill, "Union Activities of Calvin and Beza", 194.
- Nijenhuis, "Calvin and the Augsburg Confession", 102.
- Stauffer, 10.
- McNeill, "Ecumenical Outlook and Unitive Effort in the Calvinistic Reformation", 53.
- McNeill, "Union Activities of Calvin and Beza", 207-208.
- Bonnet, Vol 3, 30.
- Ibid, 30-32.
- Ibid, 117-118.
- Bonnet, Vol 2, 346-348.
- McNeill, "Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman", 25-26.
- Stauffer, 14.
- Bonnet, Vol 4, 158.
- Ibid, 159.
- Ibid, 160-161.
- Stauffer, 15-18.
- McNeill, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, 1025-1026.
- Ibid, 1041.
- John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, 33-34.
- Ibid, 74.
- Stauffer, 16. I have been unable to verify this. Stauffer's reference is to Calvini Opera, Vol 10b, 352ff.
- N. H. Gootjes, "The Doctrine of the Church in John Calvin", Dogmatics 4410 Lectures (Fall, 1994).
- Bonnet, Vol 2, 272.
- Bonnet, Vol 3, 30-32.
- Olin, 85-86.
- John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989) 32.
- Paul Woolley, "Calvin and Toleration" in John H. Bratt (ed), The Heritage of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1973) 152.
- Olin, 61.
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, Vol 3, 379.
- Cadier, 128-129.
- Olin, 86.
- Bonnet, Vol 1, 445.
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