Saturday, October 21, 2006

John Calvin’s Response to the Doctrine of an “Infallible Church”

Roman Catholics adhere to the infallible Bible, but also contend that an “infallible church” is needed as well. John Calvin took a look at this notion in his treatise, Articles Agreed Upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris, in Reference to Matters of Faith at Present Controverted; with the Antidote.

Argument: Every Christian is bound firmly to believe, that there is on earth one universal visible Church, incapable of erring in faith and manners, and which, in things which relate to faith and manners, all the faithful are bound to obey.

Response from John Calvin:

That there is an universal Church, that there has been, from the beginning of the world, and will be even to the end, we all acknowledge. The appearance by which it may be recognized is the question. We place it in the word of God, or, (if any one would so put it,) since Christ is her head, we maintain that, as a man is recognized by his face, so she is to be beheld in Christ: as it is written,

Where the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together,” (Matthew 24:28.)


There will be one sheepfold, and one Shepherd,”( John 10:16.)

But as the pure preaching of the gospel is not always exhibited, neither is the face of Christ always conspicuous, (1 Corinthians 11:19.) Thence we infer that the Church is not always discernible by the eyes of men, as the examples of many ages testify. For in the time of the prophets, the multitude of the wicked so prevailed, that the true Church was oppressed; so also in the time of Christ, we see that the little flock of God was hidden from men, while the ungodly usurped to themselves the name of Church. But what will those, who have eyes so clear that they boast the Church is always visible to them, make of Elijah, who thought that he alone remained of the Church? ( 1 Kings 19:10.) In this, indeed, he was mistaken, but it is a proof that the Church of God may be equally concealed from us, especially since we know, from the prophecy of Paul, that defection was predicted, ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3.)

Let us hold, then, that the Church is seen where Christ appears, and where his word is heard; as it is written, “My sheep hear my voice,” (John 10:27 ;) but that at the instant when the true doctrine was buried, the Church vanished from the eyes of men. This Church, we acknowledge with Paul, to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3,) because she is the guardian of sound doctrine, and by her ministry propagates it to posterity, that it may not perish from the world. For, seeing she is the spouse of Christ, it is meet that she be subject to him. And, as Paul declares, (Ephesians 5:24; 2 Corinthians 11:2, 3,) her chastity consists in not being led away from the simplicity of Christ. She errs not, because she follows the truth of God for her rule; but if she recedes from this truth, she ceases to be a spouse, and becomes an adulteress.

Let those who tie down the Church to power in its ordinary sense, and to other external pomp, hear what Hilary says on that subject: “We do wrong in venerating the Church of God in roofs and edifices. Is it doubtful that in these Antichrist will sit? Safer to me are mountains, and woods, and lakes, and dungeons, and whirlpools; for in these, either hidden or immersed, did prophets prophesy.”

Source: John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin Vol. 1 (169-171) (Ages digital Library, 2000).

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