Previous article in this series: February 1, 2008, p. 196.
The heritage of the great sixteenth- century Reformation is a profound awareness of the unity of the church that compels Reformed believers to strive for a manifestation of unity in the local church and among true churches of Jesus Christ. Luther was not alone in his desire for unity among the churches that were separated from Rome; Calvin earnestly pursued the same, even though it sometimes brought him grief and reproach.
As noted earlier, one of the bitterly divisive issues of the Reformation was the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, specifically the question of the bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. Calvin recognized that this issue should not have divided the churches that together rejected the idolatry of the Romish mass. Concerning these Reformation churches he wrote in 1541:
We must be satisfied that there is brotherhood and fellowship between the churches, and that all are in agreement in so far as it is necessary in order to be united according to God’s commandment.
Calvin did more than express his opinion on unity; he worked for it. With Bullinger, he crafted a document on the Lord’s Supper that found agreement in the churches both in Zurich and Geneva. He made an attempt to do the same with Luther, but Melanchthon wrote Calvin that he dared not show Calvin’s work to Luther for fear of eliciting a violent reaction. For his pains to express the truth clearly, Calvin incurred the hatred and reproach of the radical Lutherans after Luther died.
Until the Lutherans became impossible to deal with, Calvin encouraged the French not to write their own creed, but to be satisfied with the confessions of the nearby Lutherans—for the sake of unity. Calvin and the Genevan ministers counseled the believers driven out of England into the continent to worship with the Lutherans of the country where they settled. Even significant differences over worship must not be reason for division. They wrote:
But in your capacity of private individuals, not only may you lawfully, but what is more, you should support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct. We do not hold lighted candles in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper nor figured bread to be such indifferent things, that we would willingly consent to their introduction, or approve of them, though we object not to accommodate ourselves to the use of them, where they have been already established, when we have no authority to oppose them….
A significant ground for this advice is the unity of the church, as the letter demonstrates.
There is not one of us who from spite against a candle or a chasuble would consent to separate himself from the body of the church, and so deprive himself of the use of the sacrament. We must take care not to scandalize those who are still held in such infirmities, which we should certainly do by rejecting them upon inadequate grounds.
Luther and Calvin were illustrious proponents of church unity. But hardly were they alone. Virtually every reformer pursued unity among the churches. They preached, wrote treatises and books, attended conferences, and crossed land and sea to teach in foreign seminaries and universities for the sake of spreading the truth, the basis of unity. They wrote thousands upon thousands of letters to encourage, instruct, and counsel fellow believers and ministers, and in this way promoted unity in churches all over Europe.
Two powerful expressions of this desire for unity among the churches of the Reformation come to light in an exchange between John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. In March of 1552, Cranmer wrote to Calvin with a proposal that he was making also to Bullinger in Zurich and Melanchthon in Wittenberg—a conference. Cranmer writes:
As nothing tends more injuriously to the separation of the Churches than heresies and disputes respecting the doctrines of religion, so nothing tends more effectually to unite the Churches of God, and more powerfully to defend the fold of Christ than the pure teaching of the Gospel and harmony of doctrine. Wherefore I have often wished, and still continue to do so, that learned and godly men, who are eminent for erudition and judgment, might meet together, and, comparing their respective opinions, might handle all the heads of ecclesiastical doctrine, and hand down to posterity, under the weight of their authority some work not only upon the subjects themselves, but upon the forms of expressing them. Our adversaries are now holding their councils at Trent, for the establishment of their errors; and shall we neglect to call together a godly synod, for the refutation of error, and for restoring and propagating the truth?
Calvin gives his wholehearted endorsement to the concept, writing:
Your opinion, most distinguished sir, is indeed just and wise, that in the present disordered condition of the Church, no remedy can be devised more suitable than if a general meeting were held of the devout and the prudent, of those properly exercised in the school of God, and of those who are confessedly at one on the doctrine of holiness.
He expresses dismay at the attacks of Satan against the truth. He also decries the disunity of the church, ascribing much of it to the sinfulness of the leaders. He writes:
This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute amongst us, far less that Christian intercourse which all make a profession of, but few sincerely practice. If men of learning conduct themselves with more reserve than is seemly, the very heaviest blame attaches to the leaders themselves, who, either engrossed in their own sinful pursuits, are indifferent to the safety and entire piety of the Church, or who, individually satisfied with their own private peace, have no regard for others.
And the result, writes Calvin, “is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding.” Calvin expresses his deep, personal desire for unity. “So much does this concern me, that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it.”
This is the heritage of every Reformed and Presbyterian church. Every believer who will be faithful to the Reformation will seek the unity of the one church of Jesus Christ.
And yet disunity prevails among the churches of the Reformation.
In spite of all the prayers for unity, in spite of the devoted activity of such giants as Luther, Calvin, and the host of notable theologians of the Reformation era, in spite of untold effort in the last 400 years, the church remains divided. If Calvin saw the church as a bleeding body with members “being severed,” today one can scarcely see a body, so scattered and divided is the church. There is no need to document this obvious reality.
But, why this division?
From the viewpoint of the creature, the cause is sin. Sins of men, plots of Satan, pride, heresy, party spirit, rejection of the Bible, all contribute to this resulting disharmony.
And yet there is another reason, one that every Reformed believer will confess, namely, God has so willed it. Acknowledging that God is omnipotent and knowing that His counsel is both complete and sovereign, we can only conclude that God planned that the church on earth be divided.
History demonstrates God’s determinative will. God determined division in the church in the Old Testament—the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of the ten tribes. God determined that the Western (Europe) and the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) branches would divide in 1054. God planned the Reformation, and the expulsion of Luther. God determined that the Anabaptists would leave the Reformation churches, and that the Lutherans and Swiss Reformed would go their separate ways. The fact that the followers of Calvin would further divide into Reformed and Presbyterian was not outside of God’s plan. And the host of divisions in the last 400 years that resulted in hundreds of different Reformed and Presbyterian churches—all of it is in God’s sovereign counsel.
And may we again ask why? May we reverently inquire into the counsel of God and be so bold as to ask what purposes God has in these divisions? To a degree, that is, to the degree that Scripture guides us, we may.
First, let us be careful to note that while God sovereignly wills divisions, and is in full control of the factors that cause them, God does not approve of the sin of dividing His church. God determined that Israel would divide into two kingdoms, to be sure. But clearly God disapproved of Jeroboam’s rebellion. He disapproved of the ten tribes forsaking the temple and the house of David, which desertion ultimately resulted in the ten tribes being scattered among the nations.
From this history of Israel, we learn some lessons. We learn that God may bring division as a judgment on a church that is not zealous for the truth. When a church no longer loves the truth, she may begin to dally with the lie. God eventually visits that folly upon a careless church, so that she officially adopts heresy. That grievous sin guarantees that such a church will continue to apostatize— she has, in principle, forsaken Christ, the truth of God. She will soon put out of her midst the faithful who call her to repent and return to the truth.
This brings out another purpose of God in church reformation, namely, to preserve His truth in a faithful remnant. Those expelled continue by God’s grace to proclaim the truth. Such church reformation has occurred time and again.
History demonstrates that God uses not only reformation, but division to preserve His truth. Luther and Calvin agreed on the doctrines of grace. If the Lutheran churches had continued in the doctrines of Luther, concord should have prevailed between the Reformed churches and the Lutherans. But the Lutheran churches became infected with the disease of synergism— that man can contribute something to his salvation, and God and man cooperate in this work. God determined that the Lutherans would repudiate Calvin and his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and that the two churches would go their separate ways—in order to preserve the truth of sovereign grace in the Reformed branch!
Other church divisions are due not to adoption of false doctrine, but to geography and history—also as controlled by God. The divide between Reformed and Presbyterian was not caused by schism. Nor was it true that a church adopted false doctrine, so that faithful believers, repudiating the heresy, left to form a new church. No, both (Presbyterian and Reformed) desired the doctrine developed by John Calvin. Yet their geographic separation (Presbyterians in the British Isles and Reformed on the European continent) and historical circumstances resulted in diverse development—in church government and liturgy, as well as in doctrinal perspective and emphases reflected in different confessions.
Let us appreciate the fact that God wills the very historical and geographical circumstances that bring about the diversity that we see in the church today. This may be illustrated by the differences that exist in and among Christians. Each believer lives out the Christian life in the calling and circumstances in which God places him or her. For example, a mother in the home seeks to fulfill her calling as a Christian, as does a carpenter, and as a does a Christian schoolteacher. All will develop, in the course of their respective lives, in how best to serve God. They will see implications of their faith and ways to live out their faith in harmony with their calling. In the way of faithfulness, each will become more adept in living the Christian life in his respective sphere and calling.
That is but one aspect of the differences among believers. Compare those three Christians to three others with the same respective callings, but in a communist land, and consider the implications for their Christian life and development. And then add race to the differences— Chinese, African, or British. Obviously, each Christian will develop, grow, and live out his or her faith differently—each seeking to live in harmony with the Bible.
So also the church. God has determined that the church live in many different lands and cultures. God has determined that His church be composed of Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, Australian, indeed, of every tribe and race. God has determined that the church of the Reformation be Reformed and Presbyterian. God has determined division for the sake of development, for varied emphasis, and to bring out different aspects of His one, glorious truth. Such development would not occur if the church were one body—one race, one denomination—in one land.
The discerning reader will see immediately one of the rich benefits of seeking unity across the lines of race, culture, and church tradition. But that must wait. The point here is: God has determined division for the sake of His truth.
And yet, God delights in His one church, His unified church.
Thus we must return to the Divine demand to seek unity in this diversity. And to do that, we must have firmly in view what is the only basis for unity, namely, the truth of God. Next time.