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The Promise of Catholic Calvinism

By April 16, 2004 No Comments
In 1536, a 27 year old exile from France addressed Roman Catholic King Francis regarding a new religious movement that Francis opposed. This exile takes pains to deny that the teaching of the movement is, in fact “new” and “of recent birth.” To the contrary, says the humanist scholar, the gospel preached in this movement is as “ancient” as Paul’s gospel.

WinchesterMoreover, “if the contest were to be decided by patristic authority, the tide of victory would turn to our side.”1 For the young Jean Calvin, the reform of the church entailed a rediscovery of the scriptures–and a rediscovery of the scriptural theology of the patristic writings from the church’s first five centuries.

Thus, it is not surprising that as Calvin’s ministry and thought developed, he went to great lengths to deepen his knowledge of patristic theology and spread this knowledge to others. In a move that would please today’s Anglo-Catholics, Calvin promoted the radical idea that John Chrysostom’s sermons should be made available in the vernacular French. Not only scholars should read the church fathers, but ordinary Christians–just as Christians should also be reading the Bible. Of course, Calvin did not agree with everything he read in patristic works–indeed, this would have been impossible, given the diversity of thought in the patristic period. But the Reformation was a restoration of the scriptural theology of the early centuries of the church–and until the end of his life, publishing The True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ–Calvin continued to draw deeper and deeper upon the “ancient fathers” of the first five centuries, who were “of a better age of the church.”2

The “Catholic” of “Catholic Calvinism”

In our day, the Reformed tradition is in dire need of recovering the Catholic dimension of our heritage. Calvin and other Reformers did not, in fact, seek radical revision of a Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and a Chalcedonian Christology; moreover, the sacramental theology of Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli was much closer to the patristic theology of Augustine, for example, than the highly cognitive memorialism that takes place in many of today’s Reformed churches.

The Reformed confessions–especially the Belgic in the Dutch tradition and the Second Helvetic in the Presbyterian tradition–give a prominent place to affirming key patristic teachings about the Trinity and Christ. This is no accident. It is not as if the Reformers were mainly concerned about issues of salvation and grace, and so they unthinkingly affirmed patristic orthodoxy on God and Christ. To the contrary, the Reformers–and Reformed scholasticism in the following centuries–knew about other alternatives; they did not simply affirm the early ecumenical councils because they were “part of the tradition” and thus “orthodox.” They affirmed them because they believed–in contrast to some ardent challenges from their contemporaries–that the creeds of the councils were scriptural, and that these creeds were, in fact, true. In addition, for early Reformed theologians like Calvin, these Trinitarian and Christological confessions helped to undergird a high sacramental theology, to nourish and empower Christ’s body, the church.

The Loss of the “Catholic” in American Christianity

American Christianity has become preoccupied with issues that–intentionally or not–tend to marginalize these “Catholic” elements. On the one hand, some churches continue the influence of American revivalism, placing the doctrine of salvation at the heart of Christian worship (and lay theology): Are you saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are you continuing to experience the signs of this salvation? Salvation, grace, and theologies of sanctification represent the “mere Christianity” that really matters. Do you believe that the Lord’s Supper is a “sacrament” and “means of grace?” It is best to keep such “non-essential” beliefs to yourself, we are told. Do you believe in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ? On the one hand, these Christians are unlikely to explicitly deny patristic orthodoxy on the Trinity or Christology. Yet, it is frequently assumed that these are “doctrines” that have little impact upon the worship, spirituality, and life of the ordinary Christian.

In response to this first group of churches, other churches center their focus upon social justice–a vision of the faithful as ones who work for the shalom of God in our world. While this response has a potent critique of the narrow focus on the salvation of souls, many of these churches downplay “controversial” or “particularist” teaching about God as Trinity and Christ as the God-human. The creed is not important– but the practical effects of the creed, like love and justice, are. In the end, many of the ecclesial “left”–just like America’s ecclesial “right”–have a “mere Christianity” which is a reduced Christianity. The Trinity, the sacraments, and the mystery of Christ are made into a means to an end; the desired end is talking about what really matters: personal salvation or social justice.

The Promise of Catholic Calvinism

In contrast to the distinctly American polarity between personal salvation and justice, a Catholic Calvinism remythologizes the Christian worldview by retrieving the core beliefs and practices of the first centuries of the church. Just as Calvin never used sola scriptura to reinvent the Trinitarian and Christological core of the Christian faith, Catholic Calvinists refuse to concede that a “relevant” church must push this theological core to the sidelines. Moreover, just as Calvin sought to highlight the importance of the sacraments as a means of grace for the ordinary Christian, Catholic Calvinists seek to restore the nourishing mystery of these Christordained practices to their central place in the life of the church.

What would it look like to restore the Trinitarian core to Reformed Christianity? Such a Christianity would understand that the gospel itself has a Trinitarian logic: as sinners, it is not until we encounter Jesus Christ that we know that God is a gracious Father who pardons our sin; by faith, we are united to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, who forms us deeper and deeper into the image of Christ. When we come together for worship, we are not simply giving God his “due,” or acting in obedience to the divine command (though we are also doing that), we are encountering life as it really is: we are sinners who find ourselves gratuitously adopted, freely taken by God, filled with the Spirit, participating in Christ. We confess our sins, receive the nourishment of the Word and Sacrament, and go out to love God and neighbor in gratitude. In all of these, we are empowered by the Spirit to partake of Christ, to encounter a gracious, pardoning Father and simultaneously go and serve the neighbor and the stranger.

Thus, we do not serve a self-enclosed God from a distance, or a domesticated God from up close, but we serve a God who has sought us out and taken us up into the very Triune life. We bring our broken selves and relationships to the perfect communion of the Triune God, being filled with the Spirit as adopted children of the Father. God has not given us a world and then left us to ourselves. We are not generic theists, serving a nondescript almighty God. We are caught up into the mystery of the Triune love of God, who chooses to exist in communion with a broken, sinful people that he has claimed.

This Triune love shows itself most fully in the mystery of Christ–the incarnation of the Word, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In recovering the incarnational logic of Catholic Calvinism, we see how it is wrong to set divine agency in stark opposition to human agency. God and humanity are not opposites. Rather, in the mystery of the union of divinity and humanity of Christ, we see how being fully human is, in fact, concordant with being fully God. We see how as persons who are “in Christ,” dying to our old selves, we are not losing our true identity, or losing our humanity as we grow in godliness. Rather, we are discovering who we were created to be–people in communion with God. Indeed, the Reformed doctrine of election can be seen as a profound outworking of this incarnational mystery: only through the gracious work of the Spirit can human capacities function how they ought to function, because humanity is only enlivened and energized when it is in communion with God.

Moreover, the high sacramental theology of the 16th century, as represented by Calvin, gives a way to live this profoundly Trinitarian and Christological theology. The Word is read, the Word is preached. Then, in the Lord’s Supper, believers partake of Christ the Word by the Spirit. The Lord’s Supper is not simply about memory. On the one hand, at the Lord’s Supper believers do remember the sufficient sacrifice of Christ’s cross for the pardon of sin. Yet, the Lord’s Supper is also about eating, about nourishment–receiving that which Christ has promised by the power of the Spirit. In order for this to be intelligible, key features of Reformed Christology must be operative–that Christ is a person with divine and human natures, ascended to heaven and glorified. In the Lord’s Supper, believers taste heaven, not as solitary mystics, but in the love of the community and toward the neighbor in need. Not only did Calvin desire for communion to be celebrated weekly, he and Bucer desired for alms to be given to the poor with each celebration of the Lord’s Supper.3 Why? Because the Supper–like the Christian life–is about participation in Christ; in light of Matthew 25:31-46, this participation means seeing Christ in the stranger and the outcast.4

Thus, the ascent of believers to heaven in receiving the Eucharist–participating in the ascent of the God-human–is not a flight from this world. A high Eucharistic theology brings us back to the world, back to the neighbor in need. Moreover, in this Eucharistic ascent, the church discovers who she is. As Augustine wrote, “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving!”5 The church is the body of Christ on earth–that is precisely what believers receive in the Supper: food to be who they are, Christ’s body in the world.

Trinitarian theology is no less central to the sacrament of baptism. In baptism, believers are united to Christ by the Spirit to serve the Father. This act of baptism is not just a one-time act caught in time–it spans time, for the whole lives of believers are responses to the Spirit’s initiative in baptism. Thus, key to Calvin’s theology of baptism was Romans 6:3-8–that baptism is an image for our old self being cruci- fied with Christ so that we are made “alive to God in Christ Jesus;” as ones who live baptized lives, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is not just a discrete past event, but it is a daily mystery that we experience. As we die to sin and live to Christ we become the covenant people we were created to be. Just as in the Lord’s Supper we turn away from our false identity to our true identity–in Christ, caught up in the Triune life–in baptism we daily turn away from our false selves, to our true selves. Thus, we participate in God’s covenant plan: to elect a people by the Spirit to be in Christ, bearing the gospel to the world.

In conclusion, why speak of a “Catholic Calvinism”? I choose to speak this way because it highlights what is missing in many understandings of Reformed Christianity: the Trinitarian, Christological and sacramental theology about which classical Reformed theology owes great debts to patristic reflection. The term “Catholic” captures some of what has been lost by Reformed churches on the “left” and “right” that have fallen into a “mere Christianity” that is a reduced Christianity. If Reformed Christianity in America is to recover from the paralyzing reductionisms of the Enlightenment, it must retrieve riches from the premodern Reformed tradition– from the patristic theological tradition that Calvin and many later Reformed theologians so admired.

1Calvin, Institutes, 1536 edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986, 5-6.
2 Ibid.
3 See Elsie McKee, John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. Genève: Librairie Droz, 1984. On the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, Reformed and Roman Catholic practices have undergone an ironic reversal: in the 16th century, most Roman Catholics only received Communion once a year, and then in only one kind. Calvin and Bucer advocated a weekly celebration to restore the centrality of the actual reception of the sacrament for the ordinary believer. Today, the tables are turned. Roman Catholics celebrate the Mass weekly, while Reformed churches usually celebrate quarterly or monthly.
4 See McKee, 50.
5Translation of Augustine by Nathan Mitchell in Assembly 23 (1997) 14.

J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and author of six books, most recently, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, 2020).