“Have you been Born Again? Catholic Reflections on a Protestant Doctrine, or How Calvin’s view of Salvation destroyed his Doctrine of the Church”Mar 14th, 2012 | By David Anders | Category: Featured Articles
When I first began to study Calvin in earnest, I was puzzled by what seemed a glaring omission in his writings and sermons. He never counseled his readers and listeners to be “Born Again.” This struck me as odd because I knew our denomination (PCA) considered Calvin to be our true founder. I also knew that the evangelical doctrine of “New Birth” (regeneration), understood as the moment of personal, conscious conversion, was the linchpin, the central dogma of our congregation. As an Evangelical Presbyterian, I had grown up constantly hearing these exhortations to be “Born Again.” My pastors and teachers revered evangelistic luminaries like Billy Graham and Bill Bright right along with the great Lion of Geneva.
It was simply inconceivable to me that the great John Calvin did not know how to be saved! Nevertheless, as I kept studying, a clear but shocking picture emerged. Calvin knew no conversionistic account of Christian initiation. His was a vastly more ecclesial, sacramental view of the Christian life – one begun in baptism, and nourished through the Eucharist. It was not conversion but the Eucharist, Calvin held, which “brings an undoubted assurance of eternal life.”1
Ultimately, these discoveries – along with renewed study of Scripture and the Church Fathers – led me away from evangelicalism and the PCA, and into the Catholic Church. (See How John Calvin Made me a Catholic.) And today, I realize that I am not the first one to note these incongruities in the Reformed tradition. There is, in fact, a vast literature playing off Calvin against his heirs, or alternately defending them against the charge of innovation.2 Within the Reformed world, there is ongoing disagreement over the extent and implications of these tensions.3 What few historians dispute, however, is that modern evangelicalism breathes a different air from traditional Calvinism.4 Mark Noll’s assessment of the emerging evangelicalism of the 19th century is not far off the mark:
It is not an exaggeration to claim that this nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged.5
For my own purposes, it became something of a passion to trace this evolution in Protestant doctrine. How did we get from an ecclesial, sacramental view of Reformation (what Philip Schaff would call The Principle of Protestantism) to an ideology of denominationalism in which the form of Church is seen as accidental to Christian identity and only “new birth” counts as important?
There are many factors in this evolution of doctrine, of course, and probably no one has done more work on this question than Mark Noll. I highly recommend his book America’s God for those who want a detailed analysis. In this article, I want to highlight only one factor that I think has poignancy for Reformed/Catholic dialogue and readers of this website. My goal is simply to identify key moments in the evolution of the Reformed understanding of being “Born again.” My thesis: that Calvin’s view of salvation was ultimately destructive of his ecclesiology, particularly in the Anglo-American context. I would not go so far as to say that it was necessarily destructive. Obviously, Reformed doctrine evolved differently in France than in England, differently in Hungary than in Holland. But, subjected to particular historical pressures, Calvinism’s great weak point (as I see it) could not hold.
Calvin saw regeneration in an ecclesiological context, united to liturgy, sacraments, and authority. Ecclesiology was to some extent constitutive for his understanding of regeneration. Eventually, however, regeneration came unhinged from this context. The Reformed doctrine of new birth became, instead, constitutive of Reformed ecclesiology. Once this happened, Calvin’s high ecclesiology became impossible.
Understanding Calvin’s Theological Context
Calvin’s theological concerns were different from Luther’s. Luther’s major preoccupation was to ease his troubled conscience. Calvin’s major concern was to unify the nascent Protestant movement in doctrine and liturgy, and to purify Christian worship of “superstition.” As a young man, he was also exercised by social disorder, for which he blamed Papal “Tyranny and superstition.” He believed that submission to proper theological authority and a purified liturgy would bring social equity.6
It is difficult to overestimate how important liturgy and worship were to this view of Reformation. Controlling the administration of and access to the sacraments was probably Calvin’s single greatest concern in his practical ministry from the 1530s to the 1550s. Major controversies in Geneva, such as the explosion over baptismal names, are almost inconceivable to modern Protestants, but were issues of the greatest moment for the time.7
Early Calvinist attempts to control prayer and devotion sound almost ludicrous today, but must be judged against Calvin’s horror of disorder and “superstition.” Consider the following account of an altercation between a 17th century Calvinist pastor and one of his flock:
Curiosity led a [Reformed] minister into [the church of] Saint André [in Bordeaux] … As he entered a little before vespers, he looked around the hall and noticed a man of his acquaintance praying in a corner of the chapel on his knees … The minister, therefore, seeing one of his flock, whom he noticed in the corner of the church, called him before the Consistory … where he asked him, “You know well what I saw you doing in the church yesterday? Aren’t you ashamed?” “If you saw me there,” the other replied, “weren’t you there too?” “Yes,” answered the minister, “but I was not praying to God like you were.” “Certainly,” he replied, “I had not known until now that it was bad to pray to God.”8
Calvinists today likely cannot even understand the pastor’s concern. He worried that praying in a church when there was no liturgy suggested superstition. It was too reminiscent of the Catholic practice of hallowing shrines and sacred spaces. When one studies the records of the Genevan consistory under Calvin, cases like this emerge with some frequency.
Calvin on Baptism and Regeneration
We need to keep this context in mind when considering Calvin’s doctrine of regeneration. Calvin understood quite well the Patristic doctrine of baptismal regeneration. (See Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration.) Luther, too, affirmed that regeneration comes through baptism. Calvin had no intention of departing from the traditional view that salvation is communicated in and through the Church and her sacraments. What he objected to was an unthinking, “superstitious” reception of the sacraments.
For Calvin, baptism was the normative means of salvation. “It is true,” Calvin writes quite bluntly, “that, by neglecting baptism we are excluded from salvation.”9 “All these graces,” Calvin writes, “are conferred on us, when it pleases him to incorporate us into his kingdom by Baptism. “[T]he truth and substance of baptism is comprised in [Christ] … as he communicates his riches and blessings by his word, so he distributes them by his Sacraments.”10 God, regenerating us in baptism, ingrafts us into the fellowship of His Church, and makes us His by adoption.11
There were two challenges for Calvin in this close identity between the Church and salvation. The first was to make the sacraments intrinsically efficacious without denying the need for personal understanding or appropriation. In this, he was guided by his fear of unthinking “superstition.” His solution was ultimately to limit the efficacy of the sacraments to those who put forth no obstacles. Commenting on Titus 3:5, Calvin writes:
Although by baptism wicked men are neither washed nor renewed, yet it retains that power, so far as relates to God, because, although they reject the grace of God, still it is offered to them. But here Paul addresses believers, in whom baptism is always efficacious, and in whom, therefore, it is properly connected with its truth and efficacy.12
The second challenge, to Calvin, involved the issues of predestination, perseverance, and assurance. The key innovation in Reformed soteriology is the claim that regeneration is co-extensive with election. In Calvin’s soteriology, all the regenerate will necessarily persevere.13 He also taught that “certainty of election” was possible and desirable.14 It is manifest, however, that not all the baptized persevere. How to unite a high doctrine of baptism’s efficacy with a doctrine of perseverance, election, and assurance of salvation? Calvin’s solution was typically ecclesiological. Communion with the Church and reception of the sacraments are signs of election. Those who do not persevere are those who ultimately break fellowship with the Church or refuse her discipline. (It should be obvious that this ecclesiological emphasis poses difficulties for any absolute assurance of salvation. Calvin never resolved this tension.)]15
The case of Pierre Mygerandi and his sister Jane provides a good example. On April 20, 1542 Pierre and Jane were called before the Genevan Consistory about a domestic conflict. In the course of the investigation, Jane was asked both whether she had received communion, and why. She responded appropriately that she received Communion “for the love of Our Lord.” However, she must also have revealed some scruples, because the Consistory admonished “that she not go looking for her damnation, considering that she has received and confesses having received Holy Communion.”16
Calvin was very sensitive to the charge that his doctrine of election might be a threat to his doctrine of the sacraments. In his Secunda defensio piae et orthodoxae de sacramentis fidei contra Ioachimi Westphali calumnies (1556), Calvin responds to this charge, stating quite explicitly that the faithful are not to find their assurance in election, but rather to find their election in the liturgical ministry of word and sacraments. He writes:
He [Westphal] says, that the effect of baptism is brought into doubt by me, because I suspend it on predestination, whereas Scripture directs us to the word and sacraments, and leads by this way to the certainty of predestination and salvation. But had he not here introduced a fiction of his own, which never came into my mind, there ‘was no occasion for dispute. I have written much, and the Lord has employed me in various kinds of discussion. If out of my lucubrations he can produce a syllable in which I teach that we ought to begin with predestination in seeking assurance of salvation, I am ready to remain dumb. That secret election was mentioned by me in passing, I admit. But to what end? Was it either to lead pious minds away from hearing the promise or looking at the signs? There was nothing of which I was more careful than to confine them entirely within the word. What? While I so often inculcate that grace is offered by the sacraments, do I not invite them there to seek the seal of their salvation?17
The problem that Calvin did not anticipate or fully appreciate was this: what of those who, through no fault of their own, are excluded from the “proper” celebration of the sacraments? As we shall see, this was precisely the issue that began the dissolution of Calvinist ecclesiology.
The Puritan Innovation
Puritanism began as an attempt to reform the liturgy and sacraments of the Anglican Church along Calvinist lines. When this failed, English Calvinists were faced with a dilemma: how to confront questions of assurance and election without the “proper” ecclesiological context? Patrick Colinson summarizes the development of Puritanism this way:
The theological achievement of the Puritans, from William Perkins onwards, can be roughly interpreted as the adaptation and domestication of Calvinism to fit the condition of voluntary Christians, whose independence of the ordered, disciplined life of the Church Calvin would have found strange and disturbing.18
Their solution was a turn inward. “Self contemplation,” as Newman would later call it, or introspection, became the principle method for discerning regeneration and election. Hence, Perry Miller’s famous quip: “Protestantism liberated men from the treadmill of indulgences and penances, but cast them on the iron couch of introspection.”19
It is important to realize that this Puritan turn inwards corresponds in no way to the revivalistic, “pray-to-receive-Christ” type of Born-Againism of modern evangelicalism. Instead, Puritan writers produced a slew of publications designed to aid in this discernment of spirits. They were intended to identify the interior signs of regeneration and election. Pastors like Richard Greenham, Richard Rogers, Arthur Dent, William Ames, and the indomitable William Perkins produced works with titles like A treatise Tending unto a Declaration Whether a Man be in the Estate of Damnation or Salvation, The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, or A Christian and plaine treatise of the manner and order of predestination. A few generations later Jonathan Edwards would produce highly sophisticated works in this vein, his most famous being Religious Affections.20
Different authors listed different criteria, but by the time of the Westminster Confession (1646), there was a consensus that interior experience could convey infallible knowledge of election. The confession speaks of:
[A]n infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption. (WCF XVIII).
The question of assurance was certainly not unfamiliar to Calvin, but the frame of reference Puritanism suggested was very foreign to his way of thinking. Nowhere was this difference more in evidence than New England.
New England Ecclesiology
The Calvinists of New England drew out the ecclesial consequences of this new emphasis on interior experience and assurance. Puritan separatists sought to overcome their exclusion from the national church by “covenanting” with fellow “saints” to form autonomus congregations. The key to this ecclesiology was the conviction that one could reliably identify “the saints.” The novelty of “the New England Way,” therefore, was to make regeneration the condition of Church membership, rather than initiation into the Church the condition of regeneration. By 1636, most of the congregations of New England restricted membership to “visible saints.” This led ultimately, and ironically, to denying baptism to the children of those who could not “prove” their election. Authorities in Massachusetts created a concession in the form of the “half-way covenant,” allowing baptism for the children of the “unregenerate.” However, this was not universally accepted.
The insistence on assurance and interiority did not immediately destroy either objective church polity or morality, but the seeds were sown. The Antinomian controversy of the 1630s spoke directly to this issue. Anne Hutchinson and her supporters denied that legal evidences or “duties” could be of any value in ascertaining the state of one’s soul. They preferred immediate religious experience. Although Hutchinson’s position was condemned as heretical, it would later become the norm.
The death knell of traditional, Reformed ecclesiology sounded with the brilliant work of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Edwards synthesized the best in Puritan thought with a keen philosophical sense, and produced one of the most profound set of reflections on religious experience. However, his strong advocacy of interior experience finally turned Reformed ecclesiology on its head. Breaking with the logic of the half-way covenant, Edwards insisted that the sacraments be denied to all who could not attest to their conversion. Edwards’s doctrine led directly to the logic of the First Great Awakening: above all, work for discernible “conversions.”21
In the work of Edwards’s co-laborer and revivalist George Whitefield (1714-1770), the logic of “conversionism” finally bears its fruit. The destruction of any distinctive ecclesiology follows as a matter of course. Whitefield insisted on offering communion to any who showed the signs of conversion, regardless of their ecclesial affiliation. His position is telling:
I saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church [i.e., Anglican] folks — all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship: and who can tell which is the most evangelical.
It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it.22
New England Puritanism insisted on discerning the marks of election/regeneration, and saw this as essential to constituting a true, visible Church. However, the half-way covenant still allowed for the possibility of a mixed congregation, one containing both”Tares and Wheat.” Edwards rejected the half-way covenant, and pushed Puritan ecclesiology closer simply to identifying “true Church” with the discernibly regenerate. By making the marks of regeneration essentially interior (“religious affections”) rather than sacramental, he prepared the way for a radical, redefinition of “true Church.” Whitefield’s denominationalism now follows logically. The true Church is simply the one containing all those possessing the (self-attested) interior marks of regeneration.
Innovations of the Second Great Awakening
The innovations of the First Great Awakening led directly to the innovations of the second. If signs of regeneration can be reliably discerned apart from any normative conception of Church or sacrament, then why cannot any type of means be employed to produce them? The leaders of the Second Great Awakening applied this exact argument, holding that men could be brought to show these signs of regeneration through deliberate, revivalistic measures. Institutions like the “anxious bench” and the altar call were the direct results of this thinking.
These new measures led to further refinements in the concept of regeneration itself. Edwards and the Puritans held that regeneration, as the fruit of the Spirit, is ultimately mysterious and dependent on the sovereign mercies of God, even if the signs of regeneration are readily apparent. Theologians of the Second Great Awakening, by contrast, saw that the new measures worked. They could reliably produce these signs. What does this signify for the meaning of regeneration itself?
The Premier theorist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney, inventor of the “anxious bench,” reasons as follows:
I remark, then, that regeneration must consist, doubtless, in a change of the disposition of the mind — a voluntary consecration to God . . . I remark, again, in other words, that regeneration consists in a change in the ultimate intention, or end of life. The mind, in regeneration, withdraws itself from seeking, as the ultimate disposition and end, the gratification of self, and choose a higher end than itself. Its disposition is changed from supreme selfishness to an entire devotion of the whole being to the great end for which God lives, and for which he made man to live. Regeneration, then, consists in ceasing to live to sin and for selfishness, and to live to and for God.23
This is a far cry from the Patristic notion of regeneration, or even Calvin’s doctrine, in which regeneration is brought about by our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit through baptism and incorporation into the visible Church. Finney’s “measures” moved the concepts of regeneration and Christian initiation in a distinctively individual and psychological direction, even if many Protestants were unwilling to follow all his theological conclusions. Most importantly, Finney defended the idea that regeneration is something that can be chosen and effected immediately entirely through mental processes. And while he may have relied on quasi-liturgical methods – like the anxious bench – to influence those processes, there is no reason, given his premises, that any method at all be normative.
Finney placed a strong emphasis on the ethical component of conversion. Others influenced by him preferred to emphasize the more Calvinist elements of assurance and grace. What they inherited from the era of Finney, then, was the emphasis on personal decision and instantaneous change – leading, in this case, to assurance more than ethical transformation. A simple, unemotional, voluntary consecration to God – even the recitation of a formula – privately, apart from church – now counts as Christian initiation. Thus, the birth of “the sinner’s prayer.”
Paul Harrison Chitwood has identified D. L. Moody (1837-1899) as the evangelist who first used such formulaic methods to define Christian conversion and initiation.24 After Moody, however, the practice and the doctrine it implies became commonplace. Billy Graham presents a version of this in his book Peace with God. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, makes this doctrine central to his famous pamphlet The Four Spiritual Laws. The website of Campus Crusade, for example, explains that one receives Christ, and experiences regeneration, immediately through an act of the will. It suggests a specific prayer to effect this, and follows it with the exhortation: “Now that you have received Christ . . .”25
Calvin made regeneration depend upon the ministrations of the Church. In Puritanism, we saw ecclesiology depend upon regeneration. However, the Puritans maintained belief in an objective polity and sacramental life. In modern evangelicalism, the revivalist thesis is carried to its logical conclusion. The Church, the bride of Christ, with which one must be in communion, is redefined as an entirely invisible affair, merely the set of those redeemed by Christ through personal conversion. Visible schism thus becomes a conceptual impossibility. Denominationalism is affirmed as a matter of principle.
Consider the Amsterdam Declaration, issued by Amsterdam 2000 (organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association):
The one, universal church is a transnational, transcultural, transdenominational and multi-ethnic family of the household of faith. In the widest sense the church includes all the redeemed of all the ages, being the one body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space. Here in the world, the church becomes visible in all local congregations that meet to do together the things that according to scripture the church does.26 (Emphasis mine)
The National Association of Evangelicals provides an even more interesting example. In its statement of faith, the NAE does not even include an article on the Church, but rather this nebulous declaration: ” We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.”27
In its most extreme form, this evangelical ecclesiology devolves into popular rants against any Church. This is not new. We find essentially the same thing in the well-known revivalist Billy Sunday (1862-1935):
Jesus said: “Come to me,” not to the Church; to me, not to a creed; to me, not to a preacher; to me, not to an evangelist; to me, not to a priest; to me, not to a pope; “Come to me and I will give you rest.” Faith in Jesus Christ saves you, not faith in the Church.28
They key innovations in Reformed soteriology were the identification of election with regeneration, and the claim that absolute assurance of salvation was possible. (Catholic tradition, by contrast, has always allowed that the regenerate may lose sanctifying grace. Catholics, therefore, profess to having assurance and hope, but not absolute assurance.) Calvin tried, furthermore, to unite this view of election and assurance with a high view of church and sacrament.
The great difficulty with Calvin’s view, as I see it, is that you can have either an absolute (though ultimately subjective and spurious) assurance of salvation or an objective certainty in the nature of a visible Church, the means of grace, and the content of revelation. You cannot have both.
If I am inwardly and infallibly assured of my union with Christ, then I must by definition disregard any possible “defeaters” arising from my contingent, historical relationship to the visible church. By contrast, if my assurance can be potentially marred by any judgment of the Church regarding my own worthiness to be admitted to communion or by any disagreement over dogma or morals, or even by my own apparent perseverance or defection, then my assurance by definition cannot be absolute and infallible.
The history of Geneva is very interesting in this regard. Throughout the 1540s, as opposition to Calvin grew more and more vociferous, Calvin evidenced an increasing willingness to link the exercise of church discipline and authority to his doctrine of predestination. The Genevan populace, by contrast, was increasingly insistent that the ministers could not read their hearts. The tension inherent in Reformed theology was playing out.
Calvin was deeply concerned with the question of visible unity, “denominationalism,” authority and sacraments. In his Petit Traicté (1540), he depicts the inter-Protestant disputes about the Eucharist as positively injurious to salvation. His solution to doctrinal disagreement was for the laity to submit with implicit faith to the teaching authority of the Reformed “Magisterium.” He was also quite clear that a verdict of excommunication should be an infallible “defeater” to any false assurance of salvation. He repeatedly taught that the excommunicated were “estranged from the Church, and thus, from Christ.”29
As early as 1537, Calvin had described those who resist ministerial authority as heretics.30 The Institutes, likewise, describes submission to the Church as a sign of election. The elect are “joined and bound together by such great agreement of minds that no sort of disagreement or division may intrude.” “We cannot disagree with our brethren,” Calvin adds, “without at the same time disagreeing with Christ.” The elect are “bent to obedience,” but the reprobate are “obdurate” and “unteachable.” The purpose of discipline, therefore, is to restrain those who “rage against the doctrine of Christ.”31
Calvin eventually went so far as to teach that the judgment of pastors effectively defines the limits of God’s election:
We see that those who have charge of the word of God, their office is to discern what is good in order to approve it and what is bad in order to condemn it. And when men submit themselves to the doctrine that we preach, we [should] regard them as those in whom God is working [i.e., the elect]. On the contrary, those who draw themselves back, we [must] hold them in derision.32
The response of Geneva’s laity is telling. Between 1541 and 1546, there were no mass protests against Calvin’s authority or theology. However, there were numerous individuals who opposed the new ministers on theological grounds. The 1541 Ordonnances of Geneva had forbidden “dogmatizing against the received doctrine.” Both the pastors and magistrates felt it necessary to restate this prohibition in 1546. Legislation from that year identified “contradicting the word of God” as an offense specifically meriting censure before the consistory.33
The consistory also leveled numerous undefined charges of “blasphemy” and “words against the ministers” throughout this period.34 Any statement against “God, the word, or the ministers” could qualify for the indictment.35 Moreover, though many of those summoned to the consistory were inarticulate, they seem to have taken great offense at the notion that the ministers could read their hearts. To state the case more theologically, they rejected the idea that the consistory could accurately define the boundaries of God’s election.
A certain Jane Pertennaz, for example, protested to the consistory that she “is not excommunicated and separated from the church … and no one will ever know her faith but God.” On February 18, 1546, similarly, Jehan Bosson protested, “that he had the Gospel in his heart as much as the ministers, and as many books.” In one of the most striking statements, a woman protested before the consistory on March 4, 1546 “that she did not hold at all to this [new] law, and wanted only the law of God.”36
My personal favorite: Jane Pignier had no scruples about the church and denied calling Calvin a false prophet. However, she did want to know “whether it is necessary to believe if the preachers say there is no water in the Rhône.”37
The practical problem with Calvinist doctrine, evidenced throughout its history, is that it creates an insoluble division between “real Christians” and Christians in name only. Thus, it potentially marginalizes the objective elements of Church, faith, and sacraments that all Christians visibly share. It sets up a conflict between subjective, interior “evidences” of grace and those that are objective. It pits “those of us who know we have the Spirit” against everyone else.
Calvin sought to resolve these conflicts through the exercise of Church discipline and an insistence on the objective efficacy of the sacraments.38 The Puritans took a similar approach, restricting Church membership to those who were “really” Christians. The Evangelical tradition has sought to resolve the tension by denying or severely limiting the significance of the visible Church altogether.
It was precisely this division that led the young John Henry Newman to abandon his Calvinism. In considering Sumner’s Apostolical Preaching¸ he realized that Scripture does not divide the Church in this way. While Catholics believe that the Church contains both wheat and tares (those who will ultimately be saved, and those who will not), the identity of these parties is not presently revealed to us. Both wheat and tares, moreover, are truly members of the Church militant. With his characteristic clarity, Newman sums up this difference between Calvinism and the Catholic Church:
Calvinists make a sharp separation between the elect and the world; there is much in this that is parallel or cognate to the Catholic doctrine; but they go on to say, as I understand them, very differently from Catholicism, — that the converted and the unconverted can be discriminated by man, that the justified are conscious of their state of justification, and that the regenerate cannot fall away. Catholics on the other hand shade and soften the awful antagonism between good and evil, which is one of their dogmas, by holding that there are different degrees of justification, that there is a great difference in point of gravity between sin and sin, that there is the possibility and the danger of falling away, and that there is no certain knowledge given to any one that he is simply in a state of grace, and much less that he is to persevere to the end.[xxxiv]39
Newman realized, as well, that the Calvinist system, at least as practiced in the Church of England in the nineteenth century, was utterly destructive of ecclesiology and objective truth. It placed a priority on the subjective experience of grace, rather than focusing on the objective content of revelation and the means of grace. Nineteenth-century Calvinism was, thus, something of the stepsister to nineteenth century liberalism:
So now we have the two views of doctrine clearly before us: — the ancient and universal teaching of the Church, which insists on the Objects and fruits of faith, and considers the spiritual character of that faith itself sufficiently secured, if these are as they should be; and the method, now in esteem, of attempting instead to secure directly and primarily that “mind of the Spirit,” which may savingly receive the truths, and fulfil the obedience of the Gospel.40
I once doubted Newman’s conclusions. After all, my evangelical Church had insisted upon both doctrinal clarity and the assurance of faith. Indeed, the leading theologian of twentieth century Evangelicalism, Carl F. H. Henry, vociferously argued that the evangelical doctrines of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy were the only remedy for liberal subjectivism. His multi-volume God, Revelation, and Authority was an extended defense of that thesis. Henry also co-founded Christianity Today to provide a rigorous, ongoing critique of theological liberalism.
In view of CT‘s origins, I found it ironic and sad when senior CT writer Mark Galli gave up the fight for doctrinal certainty. He effectively ceded Henry’s signature issue to liberalism. In a recent article, Galli rejected the motives of those who turn to Rome for doctrinal certainty. Unlike Henry, however, he argued that the search for doctrinal certainly is fundamentally illusive. He strongly implied that issues like “homosexuality, the nature of the atonement, the prosperity gospel, the place of women in church leadership, [and] the historicity of Adam” simply cannot be answered clearly. When forced to choose between doctrinal certainty and Evangelical spirituality, he chose the latter.
I now believe that Galli’s kind of skepticism is ultimately inevitable if one insists on subjective assurance of the Spirit as an absolute priority. Objective certainty about identity of the Church and the content of revelation, or subjective (and spurious) assurance of salvation. You cannot have both. Calvin was unable to hold them together. The history of Evangelicalism, in part, is the unfolding of this tension.
This article has surveyed the development of a theme in Reformed theology: the progressive destruction of ecclesiology as it conflicts with the peculiar Reformed accents given to regeneration and assurance. I argue that Calvin sought to unite two conflicting priorities: an absolute assurance of salvation and the absolute necessity of visible Church and sacrament. The working out of this tension in the Anglo-American context resulted in the victory of the former over the latter.
I have not sought to touch on all the nuances of assurance, election, predestination, or the sacraments, but merely to highlight key moments in the evolution of Anglo-American Calvinist theology. Nor would I argue that these contingent, historical facts are somehow necessarily implied by the themes of Calvin’s theology. Both Lutheranism and the wider history of Calvinism evidence other ways of resolving the conflict.41 Nevertheless, I would claim that the conflict itself is necessary, even if its resolution is not.
For the Reformed reader, I would now ask, “How do you feel about the convoluted continuity between Calvin and Billy Graham? What does it mean to be born again? And how do you know? What role do sacraments play? What do you make of the inability of the Reformed tradition to make consistent sense of Scripture on these issues?”
As a very young child, I believed that salvation came through recitation of a mantra: the sinner’s prayer. As I grew older, I learned to nuance this with a more thorough understanding of the doctrines of grace, justification, and election. Eventually, the question of sacraments arose. And then the relationship between assurance and the moral life. As I surveyed the Reformed tradition, I learned that there was literally no consistent way of framing these issues. As clear as I once thought salvation was, I learned that there was simply no universal Protestant answer to the question, “How do I get to Heaven.” Now I thank Heaven for the clarity of the Catholic Church.
- Inst. 4.15.5; 4.17.1; 4.17.32. [↩]
- R.T. Kendall would be representative of the discontinuity thesis; Richard Muller of continuity. See, for example, R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: OUP, 1981), and Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988). [↩]
- The current doctrinal controversy in the PCA over the Federal Vision Theology is another witness to these tensions in Reformed theology. [↩]
- Some helpful introductions to evangelicalism and its emphasis on “born again” spirituality include David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1989); Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); Alister McGrath,. Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995. [↩]
- Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 3. [↩]
- There have been numerous studies of Calvin’s social concern. Among the more important are Marc-Edouard Chenevière, La pensée politique de Calvin (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1937); André Bieler, La pensée économique et sociale de Calvin (Geneva: Librairie de l’Université, 1961); Josef Bohatec, Calvin und das Recht (Feudingen in Westfalen: Buchdruckereri uverlagsanstalt, 1934); Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971); Elsie Anne McKee, John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. (Geneva: Droz, 1984); Jeanine Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse Française. (Sellingsgrove, PA: Susquehana University Press; London: Associated University Press, 1989). Calvin’s condemnation of popular superstition as a cause of disorder recurs throughout his corpus. For specific examples, however, see Joannis Calvini Opera Selecta. Edited Petrus Barth. 4 vols. (München: Chr. Kaiser, 1926) 1: 467 (cited hereafter as OS); Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia. Edited by Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss, for the Corpus Reformatorum. 59 vols. (Brunswick: 1863-1900), 6: 472-473 (cited hereafter as CO). [↩]
- Karen Spierling, Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2009). [↩]
- Florimond de Raemond, Histoire de la naissance, progrez et decadence de l’hérésie de ce siècle (Rouen: Chez P. La Motte, 1628-1629), 999; cited in Thomas Lambert, “Preaching, Praying and Policing the Reform in Sixteenth-Century Geneva.” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1998.), 280. [↩]
- Comm. John 3:5; CO 47: 55. [↩]
- CO 6: 187. Incorporation into Christ is incorporation into the church, for Calvin, although this creates a tension in his theology concerning those who leave the Church. Egil Grislis, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Baptism,” Church History 31 (1962): 47, 56. [↩]
- Inst. 4.17.1 [↩]
- Comm. Titus 3:5; CO 52: 431. [↩]
- Inst. 3.21.7 [↩]
- Inst. 3.24.4 [↩]
- “We are taught . . . that call and faith are of little account unless perseverance be added.” Inst. 3.24.6. “Yet it daily happens that those who seemed to be Christ’s fall away from him again, and hasten to destruction.” Inst. 3.24.7. [↩]
- Registres du consistoire de Genève au temps de Calvin I: 42-43 (cited hereafter as RCG); Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the time of Calvin I: 46-47 (cited hereafter as RCGT). [↩]
- CO 9: 118-119; CTS 2: 343. [↩]
- Collinson, Godly People: Essays in English Protestantism and Puritanism (London, 1983), 539, cited in Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 318. [↩]
- Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, (New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), 207. [↩]
- Benedict, Christ’s Churches, 318-320. [↩]
- Noll, America’s God, 41-44. [↩]
- Journals (London: Banner of Truth, 1960), 458, Cited in Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 13-15. [↩]
- Paul Harrison Chitwood, “The Sinner’s Prayer: An Historical and Theological Analysis,” (Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2001). [↩]
- (http://www.campuscrusade.com/fourlawseng.htm) [↩]
- Cited in J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 207. [↩]
- http://www.nae.net/about-us/statement-of-faith [↩]
- Edwin Scott Gaustad and Mark Noll, A Documentary History of Religion in America: Since 1877 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 283. [↩]
- Inst. 4.12.9. [↩]
- OS Vol. 1: 390-391, 397, 411-415; See also Inst. 4.3.1 [↩]
- Inst. 3.24.14; 4.12.1; 4.17.33; 4.17.38. [↩]
- CO 6: 48: “En cela nous voyons que ceulx qui ont charge de la parolle de Dieu, leur office est de discerner ce qui est bon pour l’approuver et ce qui est meschant pour le condampner. Et quant les hommes se rengent à la doctrine que nous portons que alors nous les regardions comme ceulx en qui Dieu besogne. Au contraire ceulx qui s’en retirent que nous les ayons en mespris.” [↩]
- Registres de la Compagnie des Pasteurs de Genève 1: 12, 17 (cited hereafter as RCP). [↩]
- RCG II: 8, 11, 20, 21, 22, 29, 33, 51, 57, 108, 132, 142, 155, 202, 229. [↩]
- RCG II: 21. [↩]
- RCG I: 26-27, 85-86, 198, 205, 283; RCGT I: 30-31, 92, 142, 209, 216, 301; RCG II: 142: “qu’il avoit autant d’Evangile en son cueur que led. ministres, et autant de livres que luy.” RCG II, 154: “qu’elle n’estoyt point de ceste loy, mail volloyt estre seulement de celle de Dieu.” This last remark should not necessarily be taken as an affirmation of the principle of sola scriptura. Throughout the consistory records, dissidents contrast the phrase “cette loi” with the previous regime, not with the “Law” of God. [↩]
- RCG I: 102, 210, 293; RCGT I: 108-109, 222, 313; RCG II, 18, 229. [↩]
- This is a very involved topic. In sum, however, Calvin ended up appealing to the same kind of subjective, illusive criteria that he decried in popular resistance to his theology. In the final analysis, he “knew” that his interpretation of Scripture was correct, and therefore, authoritative. His was literally a divine, prophetic authority. On this topic, see Max Engammare “Calvin: a Prophet without a Prophecy.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 67 (1998): 643-661. [↩]
- http://www.newmanreader.org/works/apologia/part3.html [↩]
- http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume2/sermon15.html [↩]
- On this topic, see Randall Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005), 7. [↩]