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.
No True Church
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.”
In Some Sense A Church
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:
- With regard to the second point, our objections are still stronger. For when the Church is considered in that particular point of view as the Church, whose judgment we are bound to revere, whose authority acknowledge, whose admonitions obey, whose censures dread, whose communion religiously cultivate in every respect, we cannot concede that they have a Church, without obliging ourselves to subjection and obedience. Still we are willing to concede what the Prophets conceded to the Jews and Israelites of their day, when with them matters were in a similar, or even in a better condition. For we see how they uniformly exclaim against their meetings as profane conventicles, to which it is not more lawful for them to assent than to abjure God (Isa. 1:14). And certainly if those were churches, it follows, that Elijah, Micaiah, and others in Israel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and those of like character in Judah, whom the prophets, priests, and people of their day, hated and execrated more than the uncircumcised, were aliens from the Church of God. If those were churches, then the Church was no longer the pillar of the truth, but the stay of falsehood, not the tabernacle of the living God, but a receptacle of idols. They were, therefore, under the necessity of refusing consent to their meetings, since consent was nothing else than impious conspiracy against God. For this same reason, should any one acknowledge those meetings of the present day, which are contaminated by idolatry, superstition, and impious doctrine, as churches, full communion with which a Christian must maintain so far as to agree with them even in doctrine, he will greatly err. For if they are churches, the power of the keys belongs to them, whereas the keys are inseparably connected with the word which they have put to flight. Again, if they are churches, they can claim the promise of Christ, “Whatsoever ye bind,” &c.; whereas, on the contrary, they discard from their communion all who sincerely profess themselves the servants of Christ. Therefore, either the promise of Christ is vain, or in this respect, at least, they are not churches. In fine, instead of the ministry of the word, they have schools of impiety, and sinks of all kinds of error. Therefore, in this point of view, they either are not churches, or no badge will remain by which the lawful meetings of the faithful can be distinguished from the meetings of Turks.
- Still, as in ancient times, there remained among the Jews certain special privileges of a Church, so in the present day we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a Church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them amid the dissipation. When the Lord had once made his covenant with the Jews, it was preserved not so much by them as by its own strength, supported by which it withstood their impiety. Such, then, is the certainty and constancy of the divine goodness, that the covenant of the Lord continued there and his faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy; nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to he a true sign and sacrament of his covenant. Hence the children who were born to them the Lord called his own (Ezek. 16:20), though, unless by special blessing, they in no respect belonged to him. So having deposited his covenant in Gaul, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England, when these countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, He, in order that his covenant might remain inviolable, first preserved baptism there as an evidence of the covenant;—baptism, which, consecrated by his lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity; secondly, He provided by his providence that there should be other remains also to prevent the Church from utterly perishing. But as in pulling down buildings the foundations and ruins are often permitted to remain, so he did not suffer Antichrist either to subvert his Church from its foundation, or to level it with the ground (though, to punish the ingratitude of men who had despised his word, he allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place), but was pleased that amid the devastation the edifice should remain, though half in ruins.
- Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine. Daniel and Paul foretold that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God (Dan. 9:27; 2 Thess. 2:4); we regard the Roman Pontiff as the leader and standard-bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. By placing his seat in the temple of God, it is intimated that his kingdom would not be such as to destroy the name either of Christ or of his Church. Hence, then, it is obvious that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his tyranny; churches, however, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half-buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished; where, in short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God. In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the Church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church.
A few main points stand out:
- The Roman Catholic Church, considered as a unified ministerial corporation, cannot be allowed to be a church. Its orders cannot be granted legitimacy, at least not on Rome’s terms, nor can Rome be said to have jurisdiction or authority over any believer.
- God’s own claims over the churches within Roman Catholicism continue to hold true, however, and so their baptisms can be accepted as valid. This is not so much a point of blessing for Rome, however, but rather an abiding testimony of the true gospel which they are suppressing.
- It is possible for individual congregations to be true churches within the Roman Catholic confederation, and these would prove themselves to be such by preserving the proper teaching and preaching of the Word of God, as well as a more faithful (less abominable) understanding of the sacraments. By Rome’s own standards, such churches would have to be “bad catholics,” out of conformity with the magisterium, but their existence is in fact possible–indeed, in the modern chaotic world, their existence is less unlikely than at many earlier times in church history. It is also possible for a large number of true believers to exist within Roman Catholic congregations. These are like the faithful remnant of the past which our Lord has been pleased to preserve.
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.