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Left Behind: John Calvin & the Six Solas of the Reformation

Portrait of Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger. (Public Domain)

By Jon Vickery

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS after Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, many Protestants are setting aside their accustomed distaste for liturgical feast days, and are celebrating the galaxy of sixteenth-century reformer-saints with gusto. Some will limit their celebrations to beer and sausage, peppered with a few anecdotes of Luther’s admirable earthiness. But others will want to savour the Reformation with more care.

To do so, however, is no easy thing. Given the extent of the reformers’ writings (John Calvin’s monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion represents less than ten percent of his total written output), it is a challenge to present the major ideas of the reformers to the average lay person in a way that is both coherent and accessible.

One of the simplest ways has been to gather the reformers’ teachings under the headings of their own repeated slogans, or watchwords, phrases that we now call the Reformation Solas. These Solas (from the Latin word for “only” or “alone”) are often presented in a package of five: by Grace Alone, by Faith Alone, by Scripture Alone, through Christ Alone, and to God’s Glory Alone. These rubrics, faithfully explained in their proper historical context, can convey a good portion of what the major reformers both lived and taught. Unfortunately, these five Solas are not the only Solas. One of the Solas has been left behind.

John Calvin’s stature as a reformer, even in his own day, was nearly unrivalled. By the seventeenth century, the influential Puritan Thomas Goodwin hails him as “that holy and greatest light of the Reformed Churches.” Much of Protestantism today stands upon Calvin’s shoulders. To read Calvin, however, is no small task. Many readers who set out to finish Calvin’s systematic treatment of the Christian faith surrender their attempt before they reach Book Four of the Institutes. Yet it is here in Book Four that Calvin spells out this crucial and neglected Sola: “God breathes faith into us only by the instrument of his Gospel.”

That instrument, for Calvin, is the Church. Calvin unequivocally and unapologetically adopts an early church slogan: “outside the Church there is no salvation,” a teaching that he embraced with no less devotion than did Martin Luther. For Calvin, the Church of Jesus Christ, with its pastoral office that ensures the right preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments, is the only place on earth where a man or a woman can receive salvation, and it is the only place where they can be nourished upon that salvation in Christ unto everlasting life. Accordingly, for Calvin, there are few dangers in this life so perilous as estrangement from the Church: “But how dangerous – nay how deadly – a temptation is it, when one is prompted to withdraw from that congregation.”  

This is a strange word for contemporary Protestantism to hear. In this age, it is not uncommon for “distance from the Church” to be hailed as a theological virtue. It is very easy to comprehend salvation solely in terms of the individual’s appropriation of Christ’s benefits, without necessary dependence upon the Church. Therefore, when Calvin’s words fall upon the ears of the modern Protestant, the result can be like hearing the unintelligible chatter of a foreign tongue. Calvin seems not only strange, but perhaps more alarmingly, he sounds altogether too Roman.

But Calvin is not merely parroting the catholic tradition. He has strong reasons – and he believes biblical warrant – for upholding this doctrine of Sola Ecclesia: Only the Church. And these reasons revolve around union with Christ. Across his writings, in his sermons, his commentaries, and in his Institutes, Calvin develops a compelling picture of what it means to be saved. For Calvin, salvation is much more than having one’s sins forgiven. To be saved is to be delivered from the first Adam who brings us ruin and death, and to be joined to the New and Last Adam who in his perfect Humanity brings us ultimate blessing and everlasting life. Calvin believes that this joining, this union with Christ, is the great mystery of the ages; to become bone of his bone, and to become flesh of his flesh, writes Calvin, is the one thing that ought “ravish our minds with astonishment.”

Calvin rejects the notion that the union of which St Paul speaks in Ephesians 5:30 pertains only to our shared humanity with Jesus Christ. It is much more than this. What Paul means, Calvin writes, is that we are so united to Christ’s physical humanity, by the Holy Spirit, that the resurrected life of Jesus becomes our own. This union to the New Adam, made possible by his atoning death, is our salvation, and this union is only realized in that sphere where Jesus Christ has promised to provide his effectual, saving presence.

This sphere, the Church, Calvin names the mother of believers. She conceives us “in her womb” and nourishes us “at her breast.” And the way that she gives birth to believers and nourishes them is through her two essential features, or marks: “the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.” These marks are both necessary for vital union with Jesus Christ. It is through faith in the preached Gospel (the proclamation that Jesus alone has become our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption), that a man or a woman is joined to Christ. But then Calvin asks how this union is deepened and sustained. His answer points us to the second mark of the true church, and especially the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

For Calvin, faith that receives the Word preached (where Christ comes to us clothed in his Gospel) unites us to the Saviour; faith that receives the Sacrament (where Christ gives us what he promises) nourishes us, in an ever-deepening manner, upon the life of Christ’s triumphant and perfect Humanity. While Calvin denies that the real presence of Christ is locally confined to the elements, he earnestly contends that, by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s body and blood are truly given to us: we must not, he says, “divorce the signs from their mysteries.” And if ever we should doubt that Christ, who is in Heaven, should be our food and drink by his very body and blood, Calvin urges that we should rebuke our folly and rashness “in trying to measure what is infinite.” Here is “high mystery….sacred food….mystical blessing.”

Importantly, Calvin wants to rescue his reader from a spirituality that removes the believer from the very present Saviour. Calvin rejects any faith that beholds a “Christ over there,” that contemplates the merits of a Jesus who died and who rose again “over there.” Christ, to be Saviour, must not be over there; he must be joined to the believer. Salvation consists of being joined to the present, bodily Christ, even as He reigns in Heaven and in His Church: crucified, risen and glorified. And this act of our salvation, specifically our frequent communion with His glorified body and blood in the Eucharist, means that the Eucharist is not limited to an act of remembering the suffering Saviour on Calvary, but beyond this, the New Adam comes to us through bread and wine by His Spirit, and gives Himself to us in the totality of his saving Person. “For my own part,” writes Calvin, “I am overwhelmed by the depth of this mystery.”

As Calvin understands it, there is no other place to receive Christ in this saving way apart from the Church: Sola Ecclesia. Accordingly, he can write that “believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step.” Or as he writes more dramatically elsewhere, the light and heat of the sun do not compare to the necessity of the Church which alone can “nourish and sustain the present life.” This teaching may sound strange to those Protestants who have left this Reformation Sola behind, but really, upon consideration, it should not. For here the great Reformer merely rests his heart and mind, with promptness and sincerity, upon the ancient and enduring confession: “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”   TAP

Dr. Jon Vickery is the Rector at Christ Church Kelowna, a Church Plant with the Anglican Network in Canada. He is also Lecturer in History and English at UBC Okanagan.

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