The question of whether Protestants should regard Roman Catholic churches as “true churches” is very important to all ecumenical endeavors. Usually in reaction to those hardened Protestants who simply say that Rome is apostate and thus “no church at all,” the ecumenically-minded Protestants, who usually call themselves “catholic” in one degree or another, want to say that yes, of course Rome is a true church. And they often claim the Reformers for this position.
The business of ecumenism is complicated, I won’t be getting into that discussion here. But I did want to examine John Calvin’s answer to the question, “Is Rome a True Church?” What you find is that, well, it’s complicated. Rome, considered in the way that it defines itself– as a singular church summed up in its episcopal head– is no church at all for Calvin but rather antichrist. Still, he does recognize the baptisms of Roman Catholic churches, and he does allow for “vestiges” of the true church to appear in their congregations. Thus, there are ways in which Calvin can say that particular Roman Catholic churches are churches, however flawed.
Calvin’s general perspective is that Rome is not a true church. She is like the northern kingdom of Israel after the schism there, and the protestants are like the prophets. Rome possesses a covenantal history, retains certain external marks of the church, and may even have many true believers in its midst, but it has, nevertheless, fallen into idolatry. 1.
Calvin uses this polemic to argue that Rome has no jurisdictional claim over any true believer and that the faithful should, and to an extent must, separate from her. “We cannot scarcely have any meeting with them in which we do not pollute ourselves with manifest idolatry” (Inst. 4.2.9). He adds to this the argument that Roman Catholicism has effectively lost “the ministry of the word” through their manifold heresies and man-made traditions. Since this is the case, they cannot be called churches or else, “No mark will remain to distinguish the lawful congregations of believers from the assemblies of Turks” (Inst. 4.2.10). That is a pretty stark opposition. These arguments are why the 1536 Genevan Confession of Faith can dismiss “the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope” as “synagogues of the devil [rather] than Christian churches.”
All of this would suggest that the case is closed. Roman Catholic churches are not true churches. They are no churches at all. Yet for all that, Calvin does allow for some nuance. While existing in a dangerously deformed way, and thus having no claim to lawful jurisdiction, congregations within the Roman Catholic confederation do have a historical connection to the covenant and possess certain vestiges and forms of the church. There are even, no doubt, many true believers in their midst. And so, there are certain senses in which they can be called “churches,” though the rationale is essential to understanding Calvin’s allowance here.
To understand more, we should consult three sections from the Institutes. These come from chapter 2 of Book IV. Calvin explains:
A few main points stand out:
Those are the primary ways in which Calvin will allow Roman Catholic churches to be churches. Whether this is helpful towards ecumenical endeavors or not, we rather doubt. But the explanation does highlight Calvin’s criteria for what makes an entity a church. It must possess the marks of word and sacrament, and these must be preserved from serious error. Rome cannot be admitted to be a church according to its own self-understanding, but perhaps parts of it can be according to Protestant ecclesiology.