Discovering Calvin’s Ecclesiology

A historical theologian once called the twentieth century “the century of the church.” During this century, the world-wide Christian notion of the church experienced a series of exceptionally challenging crises for its existence and identity. Ecclesiology was naturally a vital focus of the turbulent age in religious discourse. While the church has advanced into the twenty-first century, no univocal discourses on the church seem possible today due largely to the prevalent milieu of relativism and multiculturalism.

Like the so-called “century of the church,” however, the sixteenth century was likewise an exceptional time for Christianity. With Renaissance calls for the renewal of arts, religion, and society, the century began with the rising tides of reform movements and ended in the divided Western Christendom of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Within this upheaval, the ecclesiology of John Calvin (1509-1564) was a small but vital witness, which has much to teach us today as we live in the wake of the twentieth century, and navigate the twenty-first

My forthcoming book Calvin’s Ecclesiology has a double objective, one explicit and the other implicit. As “a study in the history of doctrine,” explicitly, it explores the development of Calvin’s concept of the church against the historical backgrounds of church reform, the fear of a divided Christendom (about which which Erasmus once lamented “No one will undo this universal tragedy except God”), and the schismatic reality of Catholicism and Protestantism. It traces this development in the three periods of his academic and reformatory activities in the 1530s, 1540s, and 1550s. Corresponding to these periods, the study proposes a three stage development of his ecclesiology in what it calls his Catholic, Reformed, and Reformation ecclesiologies. At the same time, implicitly, it tackles an “ad fontes” question; that is, the historical roots and reality of his ecclesiology, which was later to become a principal component of the vital religio-social movement, generally known as Calvinism, in the early modern and modern periods.

A second-generation Reformer, Calvin appeared on the Reformation scene from the humanist background of the French Reformation. Against this background, my study attempts to analyze afresh his early ecclesiological formation, especially in his first Institutes of Christian Religion, and in his first Genevan reforms (1536-38) with Guillaume Farel (1489-1565). Concerning the first Institutes, for example, it focuses on some characteristic features of Calvin’s Catholic ecclesiology, such as his founding of an ecclesiology on the Christological formation of the ancient church, his extraordinary emphasis on the church’s catholicity, and his placement of mainstream Protestantism at the center of the sixteenth century ecclesial spectrum as the church catholic, thus placing both Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism at the spectrum’s two extremes. Likewise, his first Genevan reforms are analyzed in the historical context of the early French humanist reform movements, which the study portrays as polarized between the moderate wing represented by Lefèvre (1455-1536), the Lefèvrians, and others, and the radical wing exemplified by Farel and Calvin. In particular, it notices the importance of Calvin’s leading role in the Caroli affair and his publication of “Two Epistles” in the formation of his Catholic ecclesiology. As a result, it considers his Catholic ecclesiology not only being the third type of church reform in the early French Reformation, distinguishable from those of Lefèvre and even of Farel, but also forming the basic stratum of his entire ecclesiological development.

Calvin’s Strasbourg period (1538-41) is also a subject of focus. Due mainly to Bucer’s (1491-1551) hospitality and friendship, Calvin became both the pastor of the city’s first French congregation and a lecturer of the Bible in the Academy. At the same time, he was exposed to the reality of the European reformatory scenes on both Roman Catholic and Protestant sides, especially in the church unification colloquies sponsored by Emperor Charles V (r.1519-1556). During this short yet important transitional period, he took crucial first steps toward his future reformatory activities. For example: he penned the second Institutes and his Romans as the serial representatives of his later systematic theological works and commentaries; he prepared himself to become a major reformer of the church, of France, and of the European Christian world; upon the basis of his Catholic ecclesiology, finally, he found the two major directions of his reformatory activities, namely, reform of the local church and that of the wider Christian world. These steps also pointed to the two distinctive formations of what the study considers his Reformed ecclesiology and Reformation ecclesiology.

Finally, the book examines the final stage of Calvin’s ecclesiological formation in the long and eventful period of his second Genevan reform (1541-64). While firmly establishing himself as a reformer of Geneva, Calvin had faced two major ecclesiological issues of the period: the issue of schism in connection with church reform and that of the fait accompli of the divided Christendom, mainly in the 1540s and the 1550s, respectively. He vigorously responded to the first issue by formulating an elaborate theory of church government which he called “the legitimate form of the church.” The theory was fully formulated in his third Institutes of 1543 and incorporated in his final Institutes of 1559 as Reformed ecclesiology and was meant to be both a representative of Protestant Evangelicalism and the most elaborate theory countering the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Facing the increasingly volatile Catholic counter-Reformation moves, his response to the second issue of the divided Christendom was characterized by his prophetic and eschatological perspectives. He viewed the divided reality of Europe as the battleground of Christ’s kingdom; he envisioned the Protestant camp as the Reformation church unified, catholic, and orthodox; and he pictured the Reformation church as an eschatological reality of both “the living and visible image” of Christ’s kingdom and the church “under the cross.” As the study concludes, Calvin’s Reformation ecclesiology was the culmination of his ecclesiological formation and was witnessed in his Old Testament commentaries, especially of the Prophetic books, as well as in the final Institutes.

Concerning my book’s implicit objective: first of all, the study focuses on the unique and dynamic character of Calvin’s early academic and religious formation against the background of the early French Reformation. So the young humanist scholar’s so-called “sudden conversion” is viewed as a dynamic transition from the moderate humanist reform of the Lefèvrian mode to the radical humanist position fully compatible with the evangelicalism of Luther and Zwingli. Noticing the importance of the first Institutes, furthermore, the study finds the basics of his early ecclesiology uniquely founded upon his readings of Scripture and the ancient church tradition. In this connection, it notices a parallelism between his doctrines of the church and the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, which was the most controversial issue of the age. With regard to his Christology, which served as the basis of these two doctrines, Calvin began with the ancient church’s Christological formula of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, summarizing the relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity from the position of the Antiochene school (“distinction but not separation”). From this position, he attacked the Catholic teaching of the Mass, which he considered an unorthodox extreme of the Alexandrian school’s theory of “union but not fusion.” In a parallel development, he presented two major definitions of the church, namely, the “holy Catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed as “the whole number of the elect” and the church in history as “the congregation of believers.” As the study theorizes, his understanding of the dynamic relation and tension between these definitions had some significant bearing on the entire scope of his ecclesiology and made his reformatory activities unique in the Reformation era.

The uniqueness of Calvin’s teaching and activities themselves is not a sufficient reason for the success of his reform. Calvin’s Ecclesiology makes no claim of finding the reason, but it consciously suggests some clues. In particular, it emphasizes two unique aspects of his ecclesiology: one, his stance on biblicism and activism; the other, his theory of Christ’s kingdom. The former, what the study calls “consistent biblicism” and “practical activism,” is best illustrated in the Caroli affair and the publication of “Two Epistles” mentioned above, and is pursued in the entire history of his reformatory activities. The consistency of his biblical grounding was exceptional even in the scholarly field of the Protestant Reformation. Wherever the impact of his ideas were felt, either in Geneva or in France or beyond, likewise, his activism was noticed as a reforming force both uncompromising and adaptable to various situations. His theory of Christ’s kingdom was the guiding principle for his ideas of church reform as well as his scheme of church and state. On the one hand, he categorically refused to identify either the Roman Catholic Church or the Munster Anabaptist revolution with Christ’s kingdom on earth; on the other, he elevated the vision of Christ’s church to be the visible image of Christ’s kingdom and considered both church and state to be the kingdom’s ministers.

A telling detail is that, in the final Institutes, Calvin placed his ecclesiology at the end as a summation of his preceding discussions on theology, Christology, and pneumatology. His ecclesiology was a summary manifestation of all that Calvin was as a Reformer, theologian, and biblical commentator.

Calvin’s Ecclesiology: A Study in the History of Doctrine will be published by Eerdmans in May 2022, and is available for pre-order here. If your purchase via this link to, the Davenant Institute will receive a small commission on the sale.

Tadataka Maruyama formerly served as President and Professor of Church History at Tokyo Christian University. In his retirement, he has focussed his research on Reformation studies and John Calvin. He is also author of The Ecclesiology of Theodore Beza: The Reform of the True Church.


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