John Calvin’s Distinction Between the Visible and Invisible Church
|John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, 1960), Book IV, Chapter 1, pp. 1016, 1021-1024.|
THE VISIBLE CHURCH AS MOTHER OF BELIEVERS
because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us
learn even from the simple title “mother” [Footnote 10] how useful,
indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other
way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us
birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her
care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the
angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed
from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away
from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any
salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify. Ezekiel
agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from
heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people [Ezekiel 13:9]. On
the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are
said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem [cf. Isaiah
56:5; Psalm 87:6]. For this reason, it is said in another psalm: “Remember
me, O Jehovah, with favor toward thy people; visit me with salvation: that
I may see the well-doing of thy chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the joy
of thy nation, that I may be glad with thine inheritance” [Psalm 106:4-5
p.; cf. Psalm 105:4, Vg., etc.]. By these words God’s fatherly favor and
the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that
it is always disastrous to leave the church.
. . .
visible church: its membership and the marks by which it is recognized,
INVISIBLE AND VISIBLE CHURCH
we are to judge the church visible, which falls within our knowledge, is,
I believe, already evident from the above discussion. For we have said
that Holy Scripture speaks of the church in two ways. Sometimes by the
term “church” it means that which is actually in God’s presence,
into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by
grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy
Spirit. Then, indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently
living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world. Often,
however, the name “church” designates the whole multitude of men
spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ. By
baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord’s
Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love; in the Word of the
Lord we have agreement, and for the preaching of the Word the ministry
instituted by Christ is preserved. In this church are mingled many
hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance.
There are very many ambitious, greedy, envious persons, evil speakers, and
some of quite unclean life. Such are tolerated for a time either because
they cannot be convicted by a competent tribunal or because a vigorous
discipline does not always flourish as it ought. Just as we must believe,
therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, [Footnote 14] is
visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep
communion with the latter, which is called “church” in respect to men.
THE LIMITATION OF OUR JUDGMENT
the Lord by certain marks and tokens has pointed out to us what we should
know about the church. As we have cited above from Paul, to know who are
His is a prerogative belonging solely to God [2 Timothy 2:19]. [Footnote
were indeed thus taken to restrain men’s undue rashness; and daily
events themselves remind us how far his secret judgments surpass our
comprehension. For those who seemed utterly lost and quite beyond hope are
by his goodness called back to the way; while those who more than others
seemed to stand firm often fall. ‘Therefore, according to God’s secret
predestination (as Augustine says), “many sheep are without, and many
wolves are within.” [Footnote 16] For he knows and has marked those who
know neither him nor themselves. Of those who openly wear his badge, his
eyes alone see the ones who are unfeignedly holy and will persevere to the
very end [Matthew 24:13]—the ultimate point of salvation.
on the other hand, because he foresaw it to be of some value for us to
know who were to be counted as his children, he has in this regard
accommodated himself to our capacity. And, since assurance of faith was
not necessary, he substituted for it a certain charitable judgment whereby
we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith,
by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same
God and Christ with us. [Footnote 17] He has, moreover, set off by plainer
marks the knowledge of his very body to us, knowing how necessary it is to
THE MARKS OF THE CHURCH AND OUR APPLICATION OF THEM TO JUDGMENT
this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes.
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the
sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is
not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Ephesians 2:20]. [Footnote
18] For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in
my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]. But that we
may clearly grasp the sum of this matter, we must proceed by the following
steps: the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it
is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth
of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under
it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages
according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority
of the church. Individual men who, by their profession of religion, are
reckoned within such churches, even though they may actually be strangers
to the church, still in a sense belong to it until they have been rejected
by public judgment.
is, however, a slightly different basis for judgment concerning individual
men and churches. For it may happen that we ought to treat like brothers
and count as believers those whom we think unworthy of the fellowship of
the godly, because of the common agreement of the church by which they are
borne and tolerated in the body of Christ. We do not by our vote approve
such persons as members of the church, but we leave to them such place as
they occupy among the people of God until it is lawfully taken from them.
we must think otherwise of the whole multitude itself. If it has the
ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the
sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church.
For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we
preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have
always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those
lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs.
10: Note that the church, here called “Mother,” is the visible
church, and that the mother function of the church, bearing and nourishing
believers, is necessary to salvation. Cf. Cyprian, Letters 4. 4;
lxxiii. 21 (CSEL 3. 2. 477, 795; tr. ANF V. 282, 384); Augustine, Enchiridion
17. 65; “the church, . . . without whom there is no forgiveness of
sins” (MPL 40. 262 f.; tr. LCC VII. 377); Augustine, Sermons lvi.
4, 5 (MPL 38. 379; tr. LF Sermons I. 69 f.); First Epistle of
John 3:1 (MPL 35. 1998; tr. NPNF VII. 476). In Comm. Ephesians 4:13,
Calvin says, “The church is the common mother of all the godly, which
bears, nourishes, and brings up children to God, kings and peasants alike;
and this is done by the ministry.” Cf. Wendel, Calvin, p. 224.
14: The concept of the invisible church of all the elect is present in
Augustine and was habitually employed by Wycliffe. Cf. Augustine, City
of God, passim; On Baptism III. xix. 26 (MPL 43. 152; tr. NPNF IV.
445); Wycliffe, De ecclesia, Wyclif Society edition, p. 37: “Universitas
fidelium praedestinatorum”; so also Hus, De ecclesia 1, ed.
S. H. Thomson, pp. 2 f., 8; tr. D. S. Schaff, The Church by John Hus, pp.
3, 6; J. T. McNeill, “Some Emphases in Wyclif’s Teaching,” Journal
of Religion VII (1927), 452 IT.; Unitive Protestantism, pp. 25
f. The idea is also familiar to such conciliarists as Dietrich of Niem
(see LCC XIV. 150 f.). Luther employs similar language frequently, e.g.,
in his Preface to Revelation (Sammtliche Schriften XIV [St. Louis,
1898]; tr. Works of Martin Luther VI. 488). Other citations from
Luther and Zwingli are found in OS V. 12, note 1. Cf. J. Courvoisier, La
notion d’Eglise chez Bucer, pp. 68 fl.; Wendel, Calvin, pp.
225 f.; H. Strohl, La Pensge de la Reforme, pp. 174-181; McNeill, Unitive
Protestantism, pp. 39-45; Augsburg Confession, articles vii, viii.
15: Section 2, above.
16: Augustine, John’s
Gospel xlv. 12 (MPL 35. 1725; tr. NPNF VII. 253 f.).
17: Cf. Luther, Enchiridion
piarum precationum (1529) (Werke WA X. ii. 394). Cf. section
20, note 30, below.
Footnote 18: Cf. Augsburg Confession, art. 7, where the church is defined as “the congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered.” Important as discipline is for Calvin, he does not distinctly make it one of the notae, or marks, by which the church is recognized, as does Bucer, Scripta Anglicana, p. 36. Cf. Wendel, Calvin, p. 228. The First Scots Confession, chapter xviii, makes discipline the third “mark,” as does the Belgic Confession, art. xxix.
John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill,
trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics,
XX-XXI. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.