Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Calvin on Ecumenical Unity

John Armstrong is arguing on his blog that modern day Presbyterian and Reformed believers are too schismatic and not looking to the whole body of Christ enough. In one respect he is right. We all have tendencies to make mistakes and to think too much of ourselves. To deny that this is a bent to sin among the Presbyterian and Reformed would be foolish. But that does not mean that Rev. Armstrong is right. In fact, he is provably wrong in his recent series of posts.

What has Rev. Armstrong so upset is that a Presbyterian or Reformed pastor wrote a letter to man who had left the Protestant church for an Eastern Orthodox church and in that letter stated that the man had left the Christian Faith. This would indicate that Rev. Armstrong believes the Eastern Orthodox Church part of the Body of Christ and the Christian Faith. Whatever Armstrong believes the essentials of the Christian Faith, the EO church has them. Armstrong then goes on in his next post to make the claim that John Calvin was on his side. The third post, after noting Calvin’s desire to be unified despite disagreement on non-essentials, goes on to note that Calvin tried to get meetings with a goal of unity with Lutherans and even have a meeting with Romanists in Poissy in 1561, after Trent. For some reason Armstrong believes these facts make his case. Let me show the obvious as to why the do not.

I agree that Calvin thinks only essentials should divide the Christian Church. In non-essentials liberty. Fair enough. Now, Calvin tried to hold talks with even Romanists to seek unity. A grant the point. But that should make it clear that Calvin clearly thought that Lutheranism and Romanism were not worthy to unify with now. Calvin left the Romanist church after all. And if he had thought he could unify with the Lutherans, he probably would have done it. Why need to have talks to work things out if nothing stands in the way. Which means Calvin clearly thought them deficient in some “essential” of the Christian faith. The same can be said of the Anabaptists. Calvin thought them truly deficient or he would have unified with them.

What is the real difference between the Romanist that Calvin so clearly thought were outside of the Christian pale and deficient in essentials? The Eastern Orthodox do not submit to the Pope and reject that the Holy Spirit comes from Christ. It is highly likely that Calvin would have also rejected union with them and viewed them as deficient in essentials. After all, Calvin must have known of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and yet he did not join them. He rejected union with them as well. So, Armstrong seems to have proven the letter stating that the Eastern Orthodox convert had "left the Christian Faith" is exactly what Calvin would have written.

I am sure that Armstrong is not quite done, but I am waiting for him to make an argument that helps his cause. It will be interesting to see what exactly the "essentials" of the Faith are.


Andy McIntyre said...


I think I understand what you are saying, but I am not sure it is completely relevant to the issue. It is true, for instance, that the Reformed and the Lutherans perceived that their differences were too great to reach formal unity. However, neither side anathematized the other. Calvin did not perceive Lutherans as beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith. The question is not whether Orthodoxy has theological problems which disallow unity. The question is whether or not their problems are tantamount to apostasy. I am not saying they are or are not, as it is a question for which I do not have a completely coherent answer. I will say we should keep in mind that if the shoe were on the other foot (i.e. someone left EO for Protestantism) the EOs would unequivocally consider that apostasy. Behold the irony. These Presbyterians who are condemned as closed minded would accept EO baptism, although the reverse is not true.