Relevance for the Reformed Churches in SA

Coenie Burger

I.  Introduction

Many people outside the church and even some church members may be surprised and puzzled by the title of this paper.  John Calvin’s name is not conventionally associated with the pursuit of church unity and values such as openness, mutuality, ecumenicity.

This is but another example of how this brilliant and deeply pious man is misunderstood not only by his enemies but even by some of his followers.  Calvin indeed had a deep and unwavering commitment to the unity of the church.

Karl Holl, the Lutheran theologian, generously admits that of all the Reformers Calvin had by far the strongest commitment to the unity of the church.  It was apparent right from the beginning that Calvin was intensely uneasy about the lack of unity in the church of his time. This applied in the first place to the churches of the Reformation, but – at least in the beginning – also to the relationship with Rome.  We tend to forget that Calvin was part of a second generation of Reformation leaders and that the break with Rome was already a done fact when Calvin started working in Geneva in 1536. Although Calvin often had to defend the break with Rome, one could at times sense an uneasiness and sadness about this division.

This sadness and inner struggle is evident in Calvin’s letter to Sadolet: “With whom the blame rests it is for thee, O Lord, to decide.  Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity.  Mine, however, was a unity of the Church, which should begin with thee and end with thee.  For as oft as thou didst recommend to us peace and concord, thou, at the same time, didst show that thou wert the only bond for preserving it.” We also hear this pain in his last letter to Westpahl when he explains how the animosity between Luther and Zwingli caused young students like himself to veer away from the two great reformers and stop reading their books for a period of time. We hear this same unease when he admits in a letter to Archbishop Cranmer that he considers the division of the church as one of the greatest evil of their time and that he would be willing to cross ten seas if it could help mend this rift.

In is noteworthy that more and more Catholic theologians are expressing their appreciation for very strong catholic trends in Calvin’s theology and for his ecumenical spirit. They have noted significant parallels between Calvin’s ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of Vaticanum II.  Some have also expressed the hope that Calvin’s theology might provide a link with the growing group of Pentecostal Churches.

II.  A strange discrepancy

If we compare the present state of affairs in the Reformed Family of Churches with Calvin’s deep commitment to the unity of the church the situation is – to say the least – tragic and almost inexplicable.  The truth is that the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches are amongst the most divided confessional groups in the world.  This trend of secession started early on – and just continued through the centuries.  Lukas Vischer’s book The Reformed Family Worldwide tells the story of wonderful growth on the one hand, “where the number of Church members has doubled, tripled and in some place even quadrupled”, but also of a multiplicity of churches – 750 when last counted! – unable to maintain unity and communion in the face of new challenges. Renewal and new insights have almost invariably led to the formation of new churches – a sign of sectarianism.  It is as if the Reformed tradition could not develop bonds of unity strong enough to contain diversity and difference of opinion.  Vischer writes: “The reason for this (the divisions) is that neither in their understanding of the church nor in their spirituality or the structures they have developed are Reformed Churches equipped to locate their ongoing struggles over new insights within a broader unity” (1999:273)

In many ways this is also the story of the Reformed Family in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Family of Churches, taken together, is one of the largest churches in the country.  But we have also seen several divisions – some due to minor theological reasons, some because of political considerations and others attributable to racial factors.  There have been efforts to reunite this family of churches, but there are many stumbling blocks in the way. Although the smaller Presbyterian and Congregational Churches have made some progress in forming united churches and reaching agreements about fundamental issues,  the wider process of bringing together all the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in the country has not even started.

The current situation is embarrassing and shameful. During the past 40 years many of the previous racially divided churches went through unification processes – even some of the larger Pentecostal Churches! While the largest Reformed Church has remained divided.

We need to ask how this is possible – especially in the light of Calvin’s strong commitment to the unity of the church.  Does this have to do with an intrinsic weakness in the Reformed tradition?  Does it have to do with implicit dualities in Calvin’s own theology and ecclesiology?  Or does the reason lie elsewhere – in later developments?

In this paper I argue that the unification process in the DRC might have run a different course had we paid closer attention to Calvin’s theology and more specifically his convictions and views on the unity of the church.  Had the church done that, we might have been led to position ourselves differently on a number of crucial issues concerning unification. In the next paragraph I will refer to several aspects of Calvin’s thinking that I argue were not considered adequately in the positions that DR Church took over the years.  In paragraph four I go a step further and refer to two issues relating to our unification process where I think dualities in Calvin’s thinking may have complicated matters.

III.  Perspectives on the unity of the church from Calvin’s work

The unity of the church was undoubtedly one of the more central motives of Calvin’s theology and pastoral life.  In this paragraph we will look at different aspects of Calvin’s position on the unity of the church which were not adequately recognized in the discussions around the unification process in our own church the past 40 years.

1. Calvin was passionate about the unity of the church and devoted much time and effort to this cause.  In his book Pia Conspiratio Lukas Vischer bemoans the Reformed tradition’s lack of concern about the divisions in the church. “It is ignored or brushed aside as though this were simply a regrettable but ultimately unimportant aspect” (Vischer 2000:5). This is certainly also true in our situation.

Calvin’s commitment to the cause of unity can be seen in his writings, but even more so in his ecumenical endeavors over the years.  He was continually involved in efforts to mediate discussions between church leaders and reconcile conflicting groups.

Jane Dempsey Douglass writes about him: “He had a broad and catholic understanding of the one Church of Jesus Christ, an outreaching pastoral relationship to churches all over Europe that encouraged greater unity amongst them, and a passionate concern to make the worldwide reign of Christ visible” (305).  She claims that his commitment to the unity of the church can be seen on at least six levels: 1) his catholic view of the church together with his belief that the true church can be found under many forms of church order; 2) his struggle against the idols; 3) his reaching out to churches of other traditions; 4) the multinational and multicultural character of the church in Geneva; 5) Calvin’s concern about and ministry to refugees and to the diaspora of Calvinist churches all over Europe; 6) his emphasis on the Christian life as stewardship, service to the neighbor, marked by obedience to God’s command for justice.” (306).

After his stay in Strasbourg Calvin spared no effort to keep in contact with the leaders of other Protestant groups.  He was in conversation with Bucer in Strasbourg, Bullinger in Zurich, several Anglicans, and most of the Lutheran leaders.  He also had contact with the Waldensians, the followers of the Czech Reformer Jan Hus and leaders of the churches in, amongst others, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Hungary and Scotland.

It is known that Calvin was very concerned about the split between Luther and Zwingli around the Lord’s Supper.  He really tried his utmost to reconcile the different groups and it is here that we arguably see Calvin’s commitment to Christian unity at its clearest.  Calvin’s position on the Lord’s Supper could be interpreted not as a third independent view born from disgruntlement with the views of Zwingli or Luther, but as a visionary and inspired effort towards consensus. His deepest motive was not to explain his own viewpoint, but to mend the rift between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation.

His concern for the unity of the church was so profound that Calvin was prepared to sign the Lutheran Confessions of Faith if it could bring about unity between the two groups – this, despite him not being in full agreement with these confessions.  If more people had this attitude and were willing to follow Calvin’s example, unity could become a reality.

It is clear from Calvin’s writings that he recognized that the one church of Jesus Christ shared a common history and a common destiny.  Therefore, he commanded concern not only for the “inside” community but also for the “outside” community (Inst IV,1,19).  In his Corinthians commentary (on 1 Cor 14:36) he makes this point very clear.  He warns against haughtiness and self-complacency with our own customs and views.  We must always remember, he says, that we are not he only Christians in the world. The Gospel did not start with us! We are not the first Christians and hopefully not the last.  “This is a doctrine of general application: for no Church should be taken up with itself exclusively, to the neglect of others; but on the contrary, they ought all, in their turn, to hold out the right hand to one another, in the way of cherishing mutual fellowship, and accommodating themselves to each other, as far as a regard for harmony requires.”

2.  Calvin’s passion for the unity of the church was grounded in his theology.  Much has been written about Calvin’s theology and the absence of one central motive.  Without denying this one, could say that the concept of communio was at least one of the central themes of Calvin’s theology.  Calvin’s theology has various components, but the underlying vision is one of a new communion where God will be honored and humans respected and cared for.  Birmele (2009:2) argues that the idea of communio played a very important role in Calvin’s theology.  He sees this for example in the fact that Calvin from early on replaced the word congregatio as used by the CA by the word communio. The ultimate result of Christ’s work of salvation was the restoration of communion – between God and human beings, but also amongst the believers.

The theme of reconciliation is closely connected to the concept, communio. Opitz (2009:5) maintains that reconciliation played a central role in Calvin’s theology, specifically in his practical theology.  He argues that a large part of Calvin pastoral activity was centered on reconciliation, making peace, and building a just and caring community.  For Calvin this was what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was about.  This is confirmed by the reports we have of the conversations in the consistory.  Seemingly most of these conversations had to do with some or other form of reconciliation. This point is often missed by people faulting Calvin for legalism. He writes: “Das Consistorium stand im Dienst der Wiederherstellung der durch Fehltritte und Konflikte verletzten Gemeinschaft, es war die Instanz der Versöhnung “(Opitz 2009:5).

Against this background it is not difficult to understand why Calvin was deeply troubled by the divisions the church of Jesus Christ – local divisions in the congregation of Geneva, but in a way even more so by the disunity within the churches of the Reformation and even the break with Rome.  There is a close connection between these efforts towards reconciliation in the consistory and Calvin’s passion for the unity of the church.  It was directed at two manifestations of the same problem: resisting the reconciliatory work of the Jesus Christ through the Sprit and failing to understand and trust the power of the Gospel.

There is a further point in Calvin’s way of thinking about theology and doctrine that is very illuminating and helpful for processes of unification in the church. At times Calvin was willing to make a distinction between central matters of faith on which we cannot compromise and more peripheral issues where we can allow for difference of opinion.  In the Institutions he gave a relatively short list of doctrines that could not be tampered with: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God and; our salvation rests in God’s mercy” (Inst IV,1,12).  In his letter to Westphal the list is somewhat longer (see Hesselink 226 fn 20).  But in his Corinthians Commentary (on 1 Cor 3:11) the list is even shorter than the one in the Institutes.  He writes: “The fundamental doctrine which is nowise permissible to break, is that we cleave to Christ; for He is the only foundation of the church”.

If we are really serious about the unity of the church we need to talk about these longer and shorter lists.  In some Reformed Churches – also in our country – there are pastors and members for whom a unification process with for instance Anglicans and Methodists would be unthinkable because they would not be willing to sign our confessions of faith. If we start dreaming of a broader unity of reformed and Presbyterian churches in this country we will have to face the reality that the Presbyterian and the Congregation Churches are already part of a larger group of Protestant Churches discussing church unification (the Church Unification Commission) which includes the Anglicans and the Methodists. We will have to find structures that will allow for more diversity in one church.

3.  A deeper understanding of Calvin’s ecclesiology could also have helped us in the process of unification.

The DR Church’s efforts to move towards unification were hampered by what I believe to be a misunderstanding of two crucial issues relating to ecclesiology. The first problem was that many people did not have a clear understanding of the unique identity of the church.  They did not realize that the church is not ours to command, but that the church is a creation of God, belongs to its Lord Jesus Christ and that He and He alone has the final word in the Church.

It is in a way surprising to see how clear Calvin was on these issues. He had a much higher view of the church than most Calvinists today. Hesselink says correctly that Calvin at times sounds like a Roman Catholic.  He quotes Cyprian and calls the church the “mother of all the godly with which we must keep unity.”  Calvin had no doubts that we need the church for our salvation (Inst IV,1.4,8) and that there was no salvation outside the church.

For Calvin the church was definitely not a community formed by the faithful.  It was not a consequence of human initiative but of God’s election and calling. The church originated in the mind of God and was part of God’s plan of salvation. The church was the community of Christ, His body.  “This is the mark of the true church, by which it is to be distinguished from all other gatherings which falsely claim to speak in the name of God and presume to pass themselves off as churches: where the Lordship and Priesthood of Christ is earnestly recognized” (Comm on Jeremiah 33:17).

Our communion with Christ is also the ultimate foundation for the unity of the church. When we come to faith we are united to Christ and become part of his body. In the church we participate in one God and Christ.  “All the elect are so united in Christ that as they are dependent on one Head, they also grow together in one body, being joined and knit together as are the limbs of one body.  They are made truly one since they live together in one hope, faith and love and in the same Spirit of God”. How serious this unity of the body is and how vital this connection, is clear from the following extract: “For no hope of future inheritance remains to us unless we have been united with all other members under Christ, our Head (IV,1,2).

The second problem had to do with the unimaginative way the church order was used in the whole process.  Although we profess to be Reformed in our ecclesiology we tend to be very legalistic. We rely too much on a literal interpretation of the church order without adequate reference to theology, the Bible and the creativity of the Spirit.  The church order has acquired a life of its own and is often used as a rule book of what can and cannot be done.

This is a sad state of affairs. The idea of the church order was primarily to lead us towards embodiment of our faith. We must be willing to do and practice what we say we believe.  The church order was not intended to inhibit or smother renewal and faithful imagination.

There is a further point of Calvin’s ecclesiology that is noteworthy.  Calvin understood the need for diversity and a certain openness when it comes to customs and practices in the church.  We see that in the way he spoke about the different gifts in the one Body of Christ: through the difference of gifts God has intentionally made us dependent on one another.  But we see it even more clearly in his explanation of the so called adiaphora.  In Inst III,19,7 he writes: “regarding outward things that are of themselves indifferent we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”.  It was very important to Calvin that we honor the freedom we receive from God and not become attached to man-made laws which the Word does not explicitly command.  This applied to certain customs around food and dress, but also to certain liturgical practices and the way churches organized their structures and ministries.

4. There is one specific aspect of Calvin’s ecclesiology that needs special attention.  That is his distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  In South Africa this distinction was not always properly understood and as a consequence it was often misused in the process. The argument was made was that the real unity of the church was given in Christ and part of the invisible church.  Because it was secure in Christ and already part of the invisible church, the imperative to embody it in the visible church lost its urgency.  It was seen as a nice to have not an essential part of the visible church.

This is certainly not what Calvin had in mind with the distinction.  In his early years Calvin admittedly had a strong emphasis on the reality of the invisible church. He got the distinction from Augustine and Luther and it was used initially as a consolation that there was indeed more to the church of Jesus Christ than what could be seen visibly in the Roman institute.  In later years, however, we see that he increasly focused on the visible church as the only church we know and see, with the notion of the invisible church pushed into the background. The way Book IV grew in the later editions of the Institutes is testimony to the fundamental role the visible church played in Calvin’s thinking and his pastoral activity.

This was also related to the vital movement in Calvin’s theology from faith to works, from justification to sanctification, from confession to embodiment, from election to life. If we say we believe in the Gospel, we must be willing to live it – by God’s grace. The same applies to the unity of the church: if we say we believe that the Church is one, we need to embody it in the real life of the visible church. Peter Opitz says that exactly this was the function of the church order: it had to guide the process from “Unsichtbarkeit zur Hörbarkeit und Sichtbarkeit der Kirche”.  Opitz sees this as a very central motive of Calvin’s whole theological exercise. God’s secret decision to reconcile us with himself in Christ and his election of the Church must ultimately be embodied in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the visible communion of the saints (Opitz: 2,5,10). It would therefore be a total misuse of Calvin’s theology and ecclesiology to stifle unification processes in the church with references to the distinction between the visible and invisible church.

5.  There is also much to learn from the way Calvin and the congregation in Geneva embraced foreigners and included them in their fold.  Before the Reformation Geneva was a relatively poor city.  Through the Reformation it became an international trading city.  It also became a safe harbor for refugees – mostly from France, but also from other countries all over Europe.  It is said that at times more than half of the congregation was made up of foreigners.

For Calvin it was not even a question that these foreigners were part of the congregation of Geneva.  In the church of Christ nationality or race does not make a difference.  In the first edition of the Institutes he wrote about the church: “We believe one, holy, catholic church, the sum total of the elect, chosen from people…in whatever country they live or under whatever nation they might be dispersed”.

This attitude is confirmed by very interesting and strong statements Calvin made elsewhere against discrimination of any kind.  He writes:” Now since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term neighbor included even the most remote person, we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships.  …….”We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God and not in themselves.  When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors.  Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of man, we must yet love him because we love God (Inst II,8,55).

Had we read Calvin more carefully, we might have saved ourselves and others much pain and disgrace.

IV.  Complications and open questions

There can be no doubt about Calvin’s commitment to the unity of the church – in theory but also in practice.  It would be totally unfair to blame the inability of the Reformed Churches to take the unity more seriously on Calvin.

There are however at least two dualities in Calvin’s thinking that might have contributed to the Reformed Tradition’s struggle to appreciate the importance of the unity of the church and give adequate expression to it.  The first problem had to do with the duality between truth and unity and the second with the duality between the local church and the broader or universal church.

1.  While most Reformed people will acknowledge the importance of both truth and unity, there is a tendency in Reformed circles to give a certain preference to truth. This tendency can be traced back to Calvin.  Lukas Vischer says that Calvin had a passion for clarity and clear lines of demarcation – especially in situations of conflict (Vischer 2000: 53).  This helpful trait sometimes got out of hand and made Calvin look merciless and “almost unbearably harsh” in his emphasis on truth.  We therefore find a strange contradiction in some of Calvin’s writings.  “The impassioned exhortations to communion and tolerance seem forgotten in the heat of controversy.” While there were mitigating conditions in Calvin’s case and he somehow succeeded in containing the duality, it had “disastrous consequences in the case of lesser minds than Calvin”.  “The result has not been only clarity, but dogmatism and, all too often, division.”  It saddens me to say that in our own process I have seen this more often than I expected or hoped.  This single-minded commitment to truth is an integral part of our tradition – but it may also be undermining unification in a major way.

Although he is willing to concede that this tendency is present in the work of Calvin, Vischer claims that it should be viewed in context: “the underlying intention in all of Calvin’s work is beyond doubt to point to the centre – God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.  This centre takes precedence over all borderlines and demarcations”.

2.  The second problem has to do with the Reformed tradition’s strong emphasis on the local congregation as a full and complete church. While the idea was that the presbyteries and synods would contain the independence of the local congregations, this has in effect proven difficult. In many reformed congregations we find that this strong emphasis on the autonomy of local congregations has bred a stubbornness and obstinacy which is strange to the Gospel.

It would undoubtedly be unfair to blame all this on Calvin. Calvin did not have to establish (or manage) an elaborate system of Reformed Congregation in unity with one another.  As far as I know he was also not the inventor of the unhappy term “complete” church. But there are people who find justification for this kind of thinking in the way Calvin spoke about local congregations. For Calvin a local congregation was a true and full church if the two marks of the church could be distinguished clearly in its life and he had no hesitation in using the word ecclesia also to refer to individual churches. He also thought that local congregations should be free to develop their own standards, church order and liturgy.

Again: in Calvin’s case there always were a number of counterbalances. We see that, for instance, in the fact that Calvin was much more hesitant to use the term “body of Christ” for the local congregation. However, many of these subtleties were not recognised by his peers and followers and consequently his emphasis on the autonomy of the local church often resulted in endless conflict and ultimately divisions.

V.  Conclusion

With Lukas Vischer I have often wondered about the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the unity of the Church. Could it be that our struggle to see and understand the vital importance of the unity of the church (let alone doing it) are somehow connected to the fact that we do not really believe in the power of the sacrament?  Is there perhaps a subtle connection between our preference for truth (over unity) and our preference for preaching (over the sacraments)?  Vischer was convinced that we have a problem on this level: “The Reformation Churches lack the fullness of a sign which, on their own affirmation, is one of the marks of the true church”. Ultimately, we may ask if this sad history of divisions and rifts could have been avoided if Calvin succeeded in convincing the Genevan Church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly as he believed it should be done?


Bauswein, J-J. & Vischer, L. (1999). The Reformed Family Worldwide. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

Beintker, M. (2009). Calvins theologisches Denken als ökumenische Herausforderung.  (unpublished article).

Birmele, A. (2009).  Calvins Kirchenverständnis und die heutigen ökumenischen Herausforderungen. (unpublished article).

Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol I and II (ed McNiell, Battles), Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Calvin’s Commentaries. Wilmington: AP&A

Douglas, J.D. (2004).  Calvin in Ecumenical Context.  In McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge: CUP

Hesselink, I.J. (1997). Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary.  Louisville: WJKP

Hirzel, M.E. & Sallmann, M. (2009)  John Calvin’s Impact on Church and Society 1509-2009. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

McKim, D.K. (2004).  The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge: CUP

McNiell, J.T. (1967).  The History and Character of Calvinism. London: Oxford University Press.

Opitz, P. (2009).  Calvins Begründung der kirchliche Ordnung als Herausfordering und Chance für die Kirchen der Gegenwart.  (unpublished article).

Plasger, G. (2008).  Johannes Calvins Theologie – Eine Einfürung. Göttingen: Vandernhoeck&Ruprecht

Selderhuis, H. (2009).  The Calvin Handbook. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

Vischer, L.  (1999).  “The Church – Mother of the Believers”. In D Willis, Towards the Furture of Reformed Theology (pp. 262-282). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Vischer, L.  (2000).  Pia Conspiratio: Calvin on the Unity of Christ’s Church. Geneva: John Knox Centre.