There is no Surprise
The notion of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) may sound Roman Catholic, but properly speaking the phrase is not their sole property. Contrary to what they assume, Rome does not own church history. What is their property is how they currently understand the phrase as expressed in their authoritative documents (see below).
To say Calvin retained the "Catholic" belief of of extra ecclesiam nulla salus would be akin to saying something like Calvin retained the "Catholic" belief in the communion of saints. Some of the main Reformed confessions comment on extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It wasn't that they were retaining a Roman Catholic belief, they were commenting on an expression used throughout the history of the church.
The Belgic Confession states:
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God. (Belgic Confession, Article 28)The Westminster Confession of Faith states:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.So, if extra ecclesiam nulla salus is a surprising belief of Calvin's, it certainly shouldn't be surprising to someone with a basic grasp of Reformed theology. It appears it's Rome's defenders and those who seriously read their materials who qualify as the surprised.
John Calvin: There is No Salvation Outside the Church
The above alone serves well enough to demonstrate the folly of presenting Calvin's statement as surprising. On the other hand, exploring Calvin's view is interesting as well. Calvin did indeed say there is no salvation outside the visible church in book IV of the Institutes:
The Visible Church as Mother of BelieversTaken at face value, John Calvin is saying that in order to have salvation, one must be in the visible church in order to have salvation. My comments below are primarily based on two studies:
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify. Ezekiel agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people [Ezekiel 13:9]. On the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem [cf. Isaiah 56:5; Psalm 87:6]. For this reason, it is said in another psalm: “Remember me, O Jehovah, with favor toward thy people; visit me with salvation: that I may see the well-doing of thy chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, that I may be glad with thine inheritance” [Psalm 106:4-5 p.; cf. Psalm 105:4, Vg., etc.]. By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.
David N. Wiley, "The Church as the Elect in the Theology of Calvin, " [Timothy George, ed. John Calvin and the Church (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 96-117]
Dennis W. Jowers, "In What Sense Does Calvin Affirm 'Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus'?" [Eddy Van der Borght, Garard Mannion, ed. John Calvin Ecclesiology (New York: T and T Clark, 2011) 50-68].
Wiley provides an interesting analysis of the developments of Calvin's view of the church in the different editions of the Institutes and other writings. He identifies election as basic to Calvin's understanding of the church with "an increasing tendency" to "stress the visible church" (p. 96). He notes Calvin's preface to the King of France that the church need not be visible to exist:
Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. [Battles translations 74].Wiley notes that this sense of invisibility was later downplayed in later editions of the Institutes (p. 103). The author then demonstrates that Calvin came more and more to speak of the importance of the visible church, still with election as the foundation of the church. Wiley (p. 106) cites Calvin's Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1542) [Calvini Opera, 6:39-41 (pdf)]:
93 M. What is the Church?In regard to the visible church, the 1543 version of the Institutes is cited as stating we are "commanded to hold this visible church in honor and to keep ourselves in communion with it" (p. 108). Of the 1559 Institutes, Wiley views Calvin as saying in essence that the church is the ordinary means of bringing "the elect to their salvation" (p. 110). When Calvin appealed to extra ecclesiam nulla salus Wiley states, "properly speaking he means not outside the visible church but outside the church of the elect" (p. 110). Wiley makes such a statement (that appears to contradict what Calvin explicitly stated) because he argues the ultimate foundation of the church is election. Overall, Wiley presents an interesting overview of the development of Calvin's view of the visible church, noting that Calvin knew that the church existed beyond the visible Genevan church as God's invisible elect scattered throughout the world.
S. The body and society of believers whom God hath predestined to eternal life.
96 M. In what sense do you call the Church holy?
S. All whom God has chosen he justifies, and forms to holiness and innocence of life, [Romans 8:29-30] that his glory may be displayed in them. And this is what Paul means when he says that Christ sanctified the Church which he redeemed, that it might be a glorious Church, free from all blemish. [Ephesians 5:25.]
Q100 M. Can this Church be known in any other way than when she is believed by faith?
S. There is indeed also a visible Church of God, which he has described to us by certain signs and marks, but here we are properly speaking of the assemblage of those whom he has adopted to salvation, by his secret election. This is neither at all times visible to the eye nor discernible by signs.
Dennis Jowers tackles Calvin and extra ecclesiam nulla salus head on. His basic argument is that "Calvin does teach that faith in Christ and membership of the visible church are prerequisites of salvation" but "he does so with considerable nuance and disowns some of the most harshly exclusivistic conceptions of the impossibility of salvation outside the church" (p. 50). Jowers presents an argument alluded to by Wiley, that the visible church is the normal means of bringing the elect to salvation. On the other hand, there are exceptional cases: "unbaptized infants, children who die in their infancy and adults on the margins of the visible church" (p. 54). These may not use the normal means. There are those though who are not included as obtaining salvation outside the church: "Calvin, then, is no advocate of the 'wider hope' as to the salvation of the unevangelized, which became fashionable in the nineteenth century" (p. 64).
Calvin articulates a version of the classic Christian conviction, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, then, that neither closes the kingdom of God to those who lack access to the church's sacraments nor expands the sense of ecclesia so radically as to render persons who have never heard the gospel, intra ecclasiam for the purpose of salvation. Calvin charts something of a via media: allowing for the salvation of persons relatively isolated from the visible church without blunting the radicality of Reformation Christianity's exclusive claims. (p. 65)
Rome: There is No Salvation Outside the Church
It is true that Rome adheres to a version of "there is no salvation outside the church" (extra ecclesiam nulla salus), and by that, they mean... the Roman Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.But this statement has further qualifiers, so that being "outside the church" really isn't what one would think it plainly means. It ventures into the radicality mentioned by Jowers:
The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."And also:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.Some years back we documented how the American infallible Magisterium (Catholic Answers), held out the hope that atheists could be saved:
It’s also possible for a person to die in God’s friendship even if the person didn’t consciously know God during life. Someone could, through no fault of their own, be unaware of God or not have ever been given sufficient evidence that they concluded God is true, through no fault of their own, and if they otherwise cooperated with his grace, then God won’t hold their ignorance of him against them. So, it’s possible for an atheist to be saved, it’s still through Jesus Christ and through God’s grace, but they can still die not knowing God and still be on their way to heaven as long as they otherwise cooperated with his grace.But was this the same Roman Catholic Church that Calvin knew? Calvin was probably more familiar with the Roman Catholic Church that said things like this:
It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart "into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. (The Council of Florence,
While Rome's defender mentioned no overt intended purpose other than the surprise value of Calvin's comment, such similarities between Rome and Calvin may be an intended polemic beyond surprise. Calvin may be being presented to suggest that he agrees with distinctive Roman beliefs that modern Protestants do not. As demonstrated above, the Protestant tradition to which Calvin belongs doesn't find extra ecclesiam nulla salus surprising at all. Along with Calvin, I seriously question the Christian pedigree of those people who see no need to be a member of a visible church. Like the later Reformed confessions, the church is the normal means God uses to nurture his elect. Louis Berkhof points out,
It is very important to bear in mind that, though both the invisible and the visible Church can be considered as universal, the two are not in every respect commensurate. It is possible that some who belong to the invisible Church never become members of the visible organization, as missionary subjects who are converted on their deathbeds, and that others are temporarily excluded from it, as erring believers who are for a time shut out from the communion of the visible Church. On the other hand there may be unregenerated children and adults who, while professing Christ, have no true faith in Him, in the Church as an external institution; and these, as long as they are in that condition, do not belong to the invisible Church. Good definitions of the visible and invisible Church may be found in the Westminster Confession. (Systematic Theology, 627)The extra ecclesiam nulla salus of Calvin and Rome are in essence quite different. If the analysis of Jowers is correct, Calvin's view has a narrow scope of people saved outside the church, whereas Rome ventures into a severe radicality. The surprising belief is not that John Calvin held to extra ecclesiam nulla salus, but rather that Rome has qualified the statement in such a way as to make it say it's opposite: outside the church there is salvation for just about everyone.