Previous article in this series: January 15, 2008, p. 172.
Believers in all lands confess with one voice that the church of Jesus Christ is one. Confessing this unity, they are obliged to pursue this unity earnestly. The confession of faith—I believe one holy, catholic church—is a dead confession if there is no activity of faith that accompanies it. James condemns the man who claims to have faith, but neglects to demonstrate it in assisting his needy brother or sister (James 2:13-26). So likewise, one who confesses the oneness of the body, but neglects to seek the unity, is at fault.
The previous article asserted that the pursuit of church unity is a heritage of the Reformation. The reformers were, in fact, outstanding models for the church today in their love and labors for the one church of Christ.
Martin Luther, known as the man who started the Reformation that resulted in the division between Protestants and Rome, was in no way responsible for dividing the church of Christ. Schism was the last thing Luther had in mind. Out of love for the church he earnestly desired her reform, to be sure. He and thousands upon thousands of sixteenth-century church members knew that all was not well in their church. But Luther’s love for her cannot be questioned. “The church shall be my fortress, my castle, and my chamber,” he confessed.
Luther went out of his way to stress the unity of the church. In his commentary on Genesis 17, where God promises that one people will come from Abraham and Sarah, Luther comments:
This appellation serves to praise the unity of the church, for God does not want a large number of churches. It is for this reason that He unites all nations in such a manner that one is their father, namely, Abraham, and one is their mother, namely, Sarah, and that thus their descendants, even though they are spread over a very wide area, become indivisible and remain in perfect unity, with the result that just as there is one God, so one church is to be gathered from many kings and peoples, whose father is Abraham and whose mother is Sarah.
In one of Luther’s printed personal prayers, he reflects on the church:
I believe that throughout the whole wide world there is only one holy, universal, Christian church, which is nothing other than the gathering or congregation of saints—pious believers on earth. This church is gathered, preserved, and governed by the same Holy Spirit and is given daily increase by means of the sacraments and the word of God. I believe that no one can be saved who is not in this gathering or community, harmoniously sharing the same faith with it, the same word, sacraments, hope, and love.
In his ninety-five theses and subsequent writings Luther touched on the heart of the Romish error of works righteousness. That he was hardly seeking to divide the church is evident from his humble letters to his superiors, including the pope. His appeals fell on deaf ears. The pope excommunicated Luther while Luther was trying to help the church.
In spite of his ill treatment by the Romish church, when various attempts at reunion were proposed—usually by political rulers—Luther was willing to participate to the extent that he could. In these efforts to heal the schism, Luther wrote documents setting forth the truth that alone could unify. Luther was not alone in these efforts. Luther’s close friend Melanchthon, as well as the reformers Bucer and Calvin, all participated in conferences called by the emperor in 1540-41 for the purpose of peace and reunion of the Protestant and Catholics.
Luther would risk his life for unity in the church. When he was in hiding in the Wartburg castle, fanatics in Wittenberg were forcing radical changes in the church, which resulted in divisions. Luther came out of hiding to restore peace to the church in Wittenberg.
Luther participated in another notable effort to maintain unity within the Reformation—the Conference in Marburg in 1529. A bitter dispute had arisen between Luther and the Swiss theologians led by Zwingli over whether the body of Christ was physically present in the bread of the Lord’s Supper. Increasingly caustic treatises were published by both sides. Nonetheless, when a Protestant prince wanted to make peace for the sake of unity (politically), the Lutheran and Swiss theologians agreed to meet. The proceeding did not go well and threatened to divide the groups even more. The disagreement over the Lord’s Supper was sharp and the exchanges not always cordial. Yet, prevailed upon by the prince, Luther wrote up fifteen articles that, in the end, all the main parties signed. They agreed on fourteen central issues that the Protestants often debated with the Roman Catholics, such as the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and His death and resurrection. They were united on original sin, justification by faith, the operation of the Holy Ghost and of the Word of God, baptism, good works, confession, civil order, and tradition. And in the last article on the Lord’s Supper, Luther presented the main points of agreement before stating their one disagreement. He ended the document:
And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through his Spirit he might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.
In the subsequent years, the consciences of some did not always permit a great show of Christian love, partly because Luther failed to distinguish between the Swiss reformers and the fanatics, and partly because some of the Swiss theologians had a weak view of the sacrament. Still, there were further efforts to heal the breach. One entry of Luther’s “Tabletalk” includes the following (April 22, 1538):
On April 22 the Swiss Master Simon set out with a letter from Luther and the following advice: “Go in peace and pray to God for sincere unity! However, this is my counsel to all who thirst after unity, that they make every effort to put an end to the controversies, that they teach the people as plainly as possible without the noise of disputations and raillery, even as we for our part speak gently, and that they do not stir up strife again under any circumstances, for we have been vehement enough. Let us now grow up!…”
All this makes it plain that Luther loved and desired the unity of the church of Christ.
Luther’s “only truly congenial disciple,” John Calvin, was also a lover of the church and defender of her unity. As noted earlier, when the emperor called conferences with the goal of reunion of Protestants and Rome, Calvin was present to defend the Reformed faith. But by the time that Calvin was a pastor, the separation was established, and Rome was manifesting all the marks of the false church. Calvin could only call the faithful out of her.
The unity of the church was very important to Calvin. This is plain even from the definition he posits in his reply to Cardinal Sadolet. Writes Calvin:
Now, if you can bear to receive a truer definition of the Church than your own, say, in future, that it is the society of all the saints, a society which, spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages, yet bound together by the one doctrine, and the one Spirit of Christ, cultivates and observes unity of faith and brotherly concord. With this Church we deny that we have any disagreement. Nay, rather, as we revere her as our mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom.
Calvin describes the church universal in hisInstitutes (4.1.9). He writes:
The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrine, and are bound together by the tie of a common religion. In this way it comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the Church . . . .
Calvin agreed with Luther that the two key elements of the true church are preaching and the sacraments. “If they have the ministry of the word, and honor the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church” (Institutes, 4.1.9).
Where these are found, Calvin maintained, it is a grievous sin against Christ to forsake her.
“[N]o man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity. For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion” (Institutes, 4.1.10).
Calvin lived in harmony with what he taught. His love for the church is evident from his self denial when he accepted the call to help Farel in Geneva, though he longed only to be a scholar surrounded by books. After less than three years, the Genevan authorities ordered Calvin and Farel to leave. When Calvin’s supporters rejected the new pastors and threatened to withdraw from the church in Geneva, Calvin remonstrated with his backers. He counseled them to maintain the unity of the church in Geneva, so long as the ministers preached the truth and rightly administered the sacraments.
The troubles in Geneva—both in church and city—did not go away, and eventually the city magistrates asked Calvin to return. Calvin initially refused even Farel’s pleas with the reply, “I would prefer a hundred other deaths to that cross, on which I should have to die a thousand times a day.” Yet he relented when letters continued to come insisting that only with his return could peace be restored to the church and city of Geneva.
As we shall see, this desire of Calvin for unity extended to all the churches of the Reformation.
… to be continued.