Something I noticed rather prominent in the writings of various 17th century Anglicans as I was reading from them early this year was that they never referred to the “Roman Catholic Church.” Romans, Papists, but never Catholics. The reason for this is important, and I wish more of us still did this: the Reformers believed that they were preserving the Catholic Faith, and that the Roman Church had strayed from it. Thus, if anyone was to be called “catholic”, it was the Protestant Reformers, not the errant Papists. Thus the Creeds continue to be read in our liturgies, and we unabashedly proclaimed belief in the “holy catholic church”.
Today, of course, the situation is reversed. Most of us call the Romans “Catholics”, and only a relatively small number of us, Anglican or otherwise, use “Catholic” to describe ourselves. In popular parlance, at least, we’ve conceded the concept of catholicity back to the Papists, whom our forebears accused of having departed from true catholicism!
In this light it should not be much surprise that old-school “catholic” language and ideas can be found in the writings of the earlier reformers in ways that may not be so obvious in the writings of later generations, up to our own. One Roman Catholic (ahem) article recently compiled a list of “Catholic” beliefs held by John Calvin. They are billed as “surprising beliefs,” but I would hope most of these would not be too surprising to anyone who subscribes to a Calvinist theology, or even to a closely-related position such as Arminian or Luthern or Classical Anglican. Anyway, let’s get the short version of that article:
1. Calvin thought that the Church had the power of excommunication: (Institutes, IV, 11:2)
2. Calvin believed that there was no salvation outside the Church: (IV, 1:4)
3. Calvin thought weekly Holy Communion was the minimum frequency: (IV, 17:43)
4. Calvin believed in the primacy of St. Peter, as leader of the apostles: (IV, 6:8)
5. Calvin accepted the primacy of the Roman Church in early Christian history: (IV, 6:16)
6. Calvin believed in the indefectibility of the Church: (IV, 9:13)
7. Calvin utterly detested denominations and sectarianism: (IV, 1:2)
8. Calvin thought that sacraments produce real, beneficial effects: (IV, 14:7, 17:10)
9. Calvin taught that there was such a thing as a holy, sacred place: (IV, 1:5)
10. Calvin believed that human beings could be distributors or mediators of salvation: (IV, 1:6)
11. Calvin seemingly accepted the notion of baptismal regeneration: (IV, 15:4)
12. Calvin approved of bodily mortification as spiritually beneficial: (IV, 12:17)
13. Calvin believed that there was a profound causal connection between Holy Eucharist and salvation: (IV, 17:32)
14. Calvin held that contraception was gravely sinful: (Commentary on Genesis [38:10])
15. Calvin accepted the Catholic and scriptural belief of the perpetual virginity of Mary: (Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, Geneva, 1562, Vol. I, p. 107)
Now it might be arguable that Roman terminology is being forced into Calvin’s mouth. Point 4 (about the primacy of Peter) certainly does not imply to Calvin the Papacy that Rome has promulgated for the past thousand years. Point 9 (about sacred locations), for example, is probably going to mean different things to the Roman and to the Calvinist. But the basic respect for the presence of our Lord is in common. Point 11 (about baptismal regeneration) is certainly set into different theological contexts in the Roman and Calvinist systems.
But on the whole this kind of list is very helpful and refreshing to read. It reminds us that, even though different traditions carry different emphases and prefer different talking points and centerpieces for their systematic theology, there remains a great deal in common.
This kind of study also highlights what one might call “theological drift” – a slow change of view over time. Today, hardly any Protestant alive gives the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary the light of day; it’s entirely out of the question. But according to Calvin, “No man will obstinately keep up the argument [against it], except from an extreme fondness for disputation.” As far as he was concerned, the belief was sound and there was no reason to dispute it. His view of the Sacraments, too, has become quite a minority view among our contemporary Protestants. He believed that “the very flesh in which [Christ] resides he makes vivifying to us, that by partaking of it we may feed for immortality.” Although high-churchmen like myself feel like Calvin is missing a great deal from his sacramentology, he does at least affirm that Holy Communion is indeed an actual holy communion between Christ and the recipient of the consecrated bread and wine.
With Reformation Day behind us and All Saints’ Day arrived, let’s take this moment to celebrate the Catholic Faith, to the extent that it is still shared between Protestants and Papists alike. And let us pray, with the Communion of Saints gone before us, that the Church militant (on earth) may be one as it is in heaven.