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Thoughts from John Calvin on Differences among Christians

Stephen D. Doe

How do we deal with the differences among Christians? There are different views and various practices within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, between the OPC and other Reformed churches, and, most broadly, between Reformed churches and other Christian churches. How do we handle these differences? How do we gage the relative importance of doctrines and practices which exist in Christianity?

Not surprisingly, John Calvin, the devout servant of Christ and devoted son of the church, thought about these things. Calvin makes three key distinctions in his writings which can be very helpful to us.[1] He spoke of "the essential," "the important," and "the indifferent." This schema helps to explain many things about Calvin's reactions to people who differed from him on a variety of points.

First of all Calvin spoke of "the essential," dogmas which are essential or fundamental for salvation. These are the things most certainly believed among us (Luke 1:1), the things received as of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3). For Calvin these essential matters cohere to three points[2]: (1) the only authority is the Word of God (Eph. 2:20), (2) Jesus Christ must be confessed as the Son of God and the object of faith to those who are saved (1 Cor. 3:11, 1 John 2:22), (3) the church is the place where faith is to be expressed as the pillar of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Only errors which deny "the essentials" may truly be called heresies for rejection of any of the above three endangers one's eternal salvation.

Secondly, Calvin spoke of "the important." His understanding of this category is significant. It encompasses things which are often lumped in the final category of the "indifferent." By the "important" Calvin meant anything that is taught in Scripture, certainly "the essentials," but also whatever God has seen fit to record in his Word. We cannot be unconcerned about any biblical revelation, but not all things revealed in Scripture are essential for salvation, so men may differ on the "the important" without endangering their eternal salvation. Calvin, for instance, would have put church polity in this category.

The third category for Calvin was that of the "indifferent" (adiaphora). These are matters which are not dealt with in Scripture and therefore cannot be made a matter of church discipline. Fundamentalists, like the Anabaptists of Calvin's day, have too often taken those things which are not discussed in Scripture like attending movies, and elevated them to the status of disciplinary matters. Heresy cannot be defined nor schism justified with the matters in this category.

There are implications here for our relations with those with whom we disagree. Calvin would warn us not to be dogmatic about such things as are not addressed in Scripture directly. One man's "good and necessary" consequence from Scripture is not always another's. It was the category of "the important" in which Calvin saw the greatest possible room for the development of unity among the churches. Those things which are "essentials" are not subject to negotiation or compromise. Those things which are "indifferent" are never obstacles to church unity because they are not grounded in Scripture and therefore cannot be reasons for separation or schism. Frequently division has come in the area of "the important". Calvin, never one to seek vacuous organic unity, nonetheless saw the need to discuss "the important" doctrines of Scripture, reach the greatest possible degree of clarity in understanding, and then recognize that even disagreement over "the important" does not end the fundamental unity of churches where "the essentials" are held.

We deal best with the disagreements within the churches by attempting to see things in their "proper proportions."[3] As Reformed believers we must be careful that we not forsake what we believe to be the teachings of Scripture such as are summarized in the Reformed creeds. Perhaps, however, we must also give renewed attention to Calvin's approach to what is important and what is essential if we, like Calvin, value the peace, purity, and unity of the church.[4]

The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.

What is more, some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion [the "essential"]. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God's mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith [the "important"]. Suppose that one church believes—short of unbridled contention and opinionated stubbornness—that souls upon leaving bodies fly to heaven; while another, not daring to define the place, is convinced nevertheless that they live to the Lord. What churches would disagree on this one point? Here are the apostle's words: "Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be of the same mind; and if you be differently minded in anything, God shall reveal this also to you" [Phil. 3:15]. Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians? First and foremost, we should agree on all points. But since all men are somewhat beclouded with ignorance, either we must leave no church remaining, or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation.

But here I would not support even the slightest error with the thought of fostering them through flattery and connivance. But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound and the use of the sacraments ordained by the Lord is guarded. In the meantime, if we try to correct what displeases us, we do so out of duty...we are neither to renounce the communion of the church nor, remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline."[5]

Endnotes

[1] This is fully developed in an unpublished doctoral dissertation by David Anderson Bowen, John Calvin's Ecclesiological Adiaphorism: Distinguishing the "Indifferent," the "Essential," and the "Important" in His Thought and Practice, 1547-1559 (Vanderbilt University, 1985), which first attracted my attention. Cf. Martin I. Klauber, "Calvin on Fundamental Articles and Ecclesiastical Union," Westminster Theological Journal, 54 (1992), 341-48.

[2] Ibid., 71-108.

[3] Ibid., 138.

[4] Anyone wishing to see how Calvin handled his doctrinal disagreement with Melanchthon may contact the present writer.

[5] The Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.12 (Battles translation).

The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 9.2, October 2000.

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