I have not read the whole of Calvin’s corpus…nor even all of his Institutes (though I sure hope to some day). But there was once a time when I did a thorough reading in Book IV on the ‘marks of the church.’ I was awestruck. Not by the depths of his insight, although they are pretty stunning. Not by the vast command of the body of Scripture, which may well define “vast.” Instead, I was overwhelmed by his gracious approach.
Just think about the ecclesial context into which Calvin was writing. By the time of the final edition of the Institutes the ‘us versus them’ of Rome trying to crush the Protestants was in full swing. Zwingli had been killed in Protestant/Catholic wars almost 30 years before…Cranmer burnt at the stake just three years prior. One would expect those lines which Calvin drew to distinguish between true and false church to be heavy, black, and nailed down with spikes…and they would be surprised. At least I was.
Calvin is a ‘two marks’ guy. For him the marks of the church are the preaching of the Word and faithful administration of the sacraments. And in Book IV he spends a lot of time bending over backwards to make sure his reader knows how imperfect that preaching and administration can be, yet still find a church wrapped around them. What he concludes, at the end of the day, is that Rome did not possess even imperfect marks, but that the marks did not exist.
I am not here to write about Rome, and whether or not it is a ‘church.’ I am here, instead, to write about Calvinists. Better, perhaps, to muse about ‘Calvinists.’ Ecclesially, I hang out in a certain corner of the Reformed (say “Calvinist”) world. And because of that corner I hang out in, I end up ‘listening’ to a particular group of folks in the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Some of what I ‘hear’ troubles me.
I may be, as one puts it, ‘squishy.’ I read Calvin, and how surprisingly gracious he is in what are really life and death issues of his time, potentially for him, and certainly for the Protestant churches. It is apparent (at least to me it is apparent) that he is inclined to err on the side of the darnel, in favor of not uprooting the wheat. (Matthew 13:24ff) And I read some of writings of those who claim the epithet “Calvinist” and see little such grace. It seems instead that in an effort to be ‘bold,’ or ‘edgy,’ or ‘Kuyperian,’ or ‘prophetic,’ or whatever, the theological answers of Calvin are frequently somehow excised from the irenic spirit of Calvin’s theology.