The Anti-litugical Effect of Immediacy and Individualism in Modern American Calvinistic Soteriology #2
At least one-third of Calvin’s Institutes is devoted to the doctrine of the church (Book IV). The doctrine of God, of man, of Christ, and of Salvation all culminate in the mystical body of which Christ is the Head. This “high” ecclesiastical theology can be found in all of the 16th century Reformers (see Paul D. L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) and especially in early 16th century Reformed theology (see the wonderful exposition of this in Geddes MacGreggor, Corpus Christi: The Nature of the Church According to the Reformed Tradition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958). It is in this community of flesh and blood saints, oral speech, material rituals, and physical sacraments that we meet with God. Calvin warns:
Therefore, he who would find Christ, must first of all find the Church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where His believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit and ask of the same. . . for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.If this sounds odd or just plain wrong to us, it is because we have been infected with a gnostic mentality. The Spirit speaks through the Bride (Rev. 22:17). When Jesus calls on the seven churches to hear the Spirit, he wants them to listen to the voice of their pastor/messenger as he reads the letter addressed to them (Rev. 2-3).
Calvin’s first section in Book IV is on “the necessity of the church.” Speaking of the “visible,” very material body of believers on earth, Calvin says,
. . . because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn 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. 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” (Inst. 4.1.4).We should note that Calvin is not talking about an invisible, “spiritual” church, but the very physical community of believers who gather to serve one another and be the means by which God serves by speaking, hearing, singing, and praying for and to each other. In some sense, the church is the preeminent ordinary means of grace (see Peter Leithart’s “Against ‘Christianity’: For the Church” as well as his “Sociology of Infant Baptism,” both of which are in Biblical Horizons: Christendom Essays, No. 100 [Dec. 1997]: 29-50 and 86-106).
So why are so many so afraid of this? One of the most harmful notions ever foisted upon Reformed Christianity is this idea that God normally communicates his presence immediately to the soul of man, by-passing all outward, physical means. Yes, it is true, and it is part of the genius of Reformed theology, that the Lord is free to work outside of his constituted means in extraordinary cases. But this only means that the Lord ordinarily works just as he has promised through his appointed instruments to communicate his grace, that is through the instrumentality of the audible words of his ministers, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Communion. There are, of course, extraordinary circumstances where we will not limit the power and grace of the Lord. But why must we always do "theology by exceptions." Baptism can not be allowed to do anything because what about the thief on the cross? Or what about the baby who dies before getting to the font? Doing theology by appeals to exceptions leaves one with a very impoverished understanding of the sacraments.
We should as Reformed pastors affirm that the Lord’s ordinary, normal means of delivering his gifts is indeed through his constituted means and not beside them or around them or without them! This is God’s normal modus operandi. The Lord’s Spirit normally works through the human and physical instrumentalities that he has ordained! Otherwise, the promises that are attached to these means are misleading and even deceptive.
To understand the Holy Spirit’s promise to use the Lord’s appointed means as instruments to deliver the gifts of the kingdom is the hallmark of Calvin’s Reformed sacramental ecclesiology. Why do we not believe what God has promised? Why are we offended to think that God actually delivers on his promise in Baptism? Or in the Lord’s Supper? Or in the service of the Word through the men he has given the church in the Ministry? One of my professors at Concordia says it like this: “We modern people no longer find the Holy Spirit where he is to be sought. . . we no longer understand the promised bond of the Holy Spirit with the external means of grace and perhaps do not want to even hear it anymore” (Norman Nagel, “Externum Verbum,” Logia 6 [Trinity 1997]: 27-32). Calvin says it like this when he comments on John 20: 23 and the commissioning of the disciples as ministers of the gospel:
We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, trans. by William Pringle [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], p. 272).