"Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16)

Calvin: The Church Can Exist
Without Any Visible Appearance


“Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they [the Romanists] contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments. They rage if the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left [1 Kings 19:10, or 14]? How long after Christ’s coming was it hidden without form? How often has it since that time been so oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies that it did not shine forth at all? If they had lived at that time, would they have believed that any church existed? But Elijah heard that there still remained seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee before Baal. And we must not doubt that Christ has reigned on earth ever since he ascended into heaven. But if believers had then required some visible form, would they not have straightway lost courage? Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.”

Yet what does the world today venerate in its horned bishops but to imagine those whom it sees presiding over renowned cities to be holy prelates of religion? Away, therefore, with such a foolish appraisement! Rather, since the Lord alone “knows who are his” [2 Timothy 2:19], let us leave to him the fact that he sometimes removes from men’s sight the external signs by which the church is known. That is, I confess, a dreadful visitation of God upon the earth. But if men’s impiety deserves it, why do we strive to oppose God’s just vengeance? In such a way the Lord of old punished men’s ingratitude. For, because they had refused to obey his truth and had extinguished his light, he allowed their blinded senses to be both deluded by foolish lies and plunged into profound darkness, so that no form of the true church remained. Meanwhile, he preserved his own children from extinction, though they are scattered and hidden in the midst of these errors and darkness. And this is no marvel: for he knew how to preserve them in the confusion of Babylon, and in the flame of the fiery furnace [Daniel 3].

Now I shall point out how dangerous is their desire to have the form of the church judged by some sort of vain pomp. This I shall sketch rather than explain at length lest I endlessly prolong my discourse. The pontiff of Rome, they say, who occupies the Apostolic See, and those who have been anointed and consecrated bishops by him, provided they are distinguished by miters and crosiers, represent the church, and must be taken for the church; therefore they cannot err. Why so? Because, they reply, they are pastors of the church and have been consecrated by the Lord. Were not Aaron and the other leaders of the people of Israel also pastors? Indeed, Aaron and his sons, though designated priests, still erred when they fashioned the calf [Exodus 32:4]. Why, according to this reasoning, would not those four hundred prophets who deceived Ahab [1 Kings 22:12] have represented the church? But the church was on the side of Micaiah, a single contemptible man, yet one who spoke the truth. Did not the prophets who rose up against Jeremiah, boasting that “the law could not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” [Jeremiah 18:18 p.], bear the name and face of the church? Against the whole tribe of the prophets, Jeremiah alone is sent from the Lord to announce that “the law was going to perish from the priest, counsel from the wise, the word from the prophet” [Jeremiah 18:18; cf. Jeremiah 4:9]. Was not such pomp manifested in that council where the priests, scribes, and Pharisees assembled to deliberate concerning the execution of Christ [John 11:47 ff.]? Now let them go and cling to this outward mask—making Christ and all the prophets of God schismatics; Satan’s ministers, conversely, the organs of the Holy Spirit!”

— John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France

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