The Reformation: Not so much moving house as clearing away

By Prof. L. Floor

Two forms of Reformation

From the history of the church we know that we have to distinguish two forms of Reformation. There is the German Reformation under Luther and the French Reformation under Calvin.

It is important to be able to pinpoint the difference between the two forms of Reformation.

The Lutheran churches came into being in various states in Germany. Under the protection of the Elector it was possible to adapt to the existing order. Certain specific functions in society that the church had previously had under (the jurisdiction of) the bishop, such as management and judicature were entrusted to the government or the social order. The church of the Reformation from its inception stood under the protection of the Elector. This had both advantages and disadvantages.  One great advantage was that the church could develop within a protected and sheltered atmosphere. A disadvantage, however, resided in the fact that the church of the Reformation in Germany was inextricably linked to the government and could never really extricate itself from the influence of the state.

The Reformation under Calvin constituted a minority throughout Western Europe. There was no protection by governmental office or local authorities.  The government was hostile rather than protective. For that reason there had been, in the countries where the Reformation was brought about under the auspices of Calvin, no opportunity to adapt to the existing order.  Ecclesiastical life had to be organized immediately, from the beginning, under the pressure of persecution – without the protection of sympathetic governments. This also had advantages and disadvantages.  One of the disadvantages was that the church of the Reformation at once became the victim of the persecution. From the very start the Reformational churches in Western Europe had to be on the defensive.  This threatening situation, however, also had its positive side. Ecclesiastical life in the French Reformation immediately had to be worked out more fully and designed more radically that had been the case with the Lutheran Reformation in order to be able to survive.  This is the real reason why the French Reformation under Calvin had been so much more radical than that of the German Reformation under Luther.

It was the great merit of Calvin that he provided the spiritually roofless under once more with an ecclesiastical roof. His churches in the various countries became meeting-places for the refugees.  There were refugee congregations in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Geneva, London and Emden.

In South Africa we are reformational Christians in the French reformational tradition, and for that reason it is good, upon the annual commemoration of the Reformation, to reflect once more upon the French version of the Reformation.

Pomp and splendour as opposed to simplicity

When we read books on ecclesiastical history, or in historical novels about the refugee congregations of Calvin in the time of the Reformation, we tend to think of the period as a moving of the whole household.

We are reinforced in this view if we were to pay a visit to France and if we were to drop in on the simple members of the French Reformed churches. Should one visit the impressive cathedrals in France and listen to the liturgy in the French Roman-Catholic church with its imposing organs and its massed choirs one is irresistibly impressed.

Compare these, for example, with the simple church buildings of, for example, the Eglise Reformée Evangéligue, the Reformed Evangelical church, of which there are quite a few in the Lot Valley and in the Garonne and the Cevennes. Calvin visited these congregations and preached in their simple little churches. One can still see the pulpits on which Calvin stood. One finds there the hard, uncomfortable benches on which people sat, with at the back the painted names of those who had their fixed seats: well-known surnames such as Naudé, Fouché, Durand, Malherbe.  They sing the Psalms of the well-known rhymed version of Clément Marot. A sermon is preached. That is all.

When one compares the great Roman-Catholic cathedrals with the small, shabby and penurious buildings of the Reformed churches there, one is moved to say: the Reformation was like moving house. The Reformational Christians, moved from a beautiful, smart house with wall-to-wall carpets, expensive furniture and striking paintings to a small street in the slum area of a city, to a house with broken windows and tumble-down walls.

The Reformation was a removal – this is the way in which this is often represented in history. The Reformation was not an enriching but an impoverishing experience: the impoverishment of the divine service, a sobering down of life, a decrease in wealth, pomp and splendour. The adherents of the Reformation, who followed Calvin, it is often said, left the highway of the Catholic Church, the Church for all places and all times and wandered off at a tangent, on a side road that was also a cul-de-sac.

It does in fact look like a removal when we look only at the outward appearances. In order, however, to really notice the difference between the impressive  Roman-Catholic Church and the simple Protestant Church, it is necessary not only to look but also to listen. A well-known theologian has said that: “The ear fulfils more of a spiritual function than the eye. And a civilization in which the latter attempts to eliminate the former is in the process of creating distance between itself and the Gospel, in which eternal value is accorded to the soul as the inner world as opposed to the world as the outward force. A negation of this Word, in any form, damages the sanctifying of the inner man” (Noordmans, O. Geloven op gezag. In Zoeklichten, 1949, p. 19). This statement is also applicable to the relationship between Rome and the Reformation. In Rome there is a great deal for eye. In the Reformation one has, above all, to listen.

In that simple Reformational church where the congregation of Jesus Christ can therefore gather without any pomp and ceremony, the Bible is read once again and we can hear how the Word of God is preached.  The elders once again take their seats.

The return to the Bible

The Reformation in both the German Lutheran and French Calvinist form signified a return to the Bible.  The Word of God was reinstituted in the central position in the divine service and in the everyday lives of the people.

When we look at the Reformation as Calvin brought it about, then we have to say: the Reformation was no moving of the house, but only a cleaning-up operation. The dust of the Roman-Catholic tradition was wiped from the Bible. An unbiblical doctrine of the sacraments under which the doctrine of the Holy Spirit had been suffocated was removed. The church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church as it had been in the first centuries after Christ, mad its appearance again.

Even though there had been a change of venue, a moving from one building to another, the essential quality of the Reformation had been a cleaning-out.

The church that emerged from the Reformation was the Reformed Church (“Hervormd” or “Gereformeerd”), but we always have to keep in mind that it was the Catholic Church which became a Reformed church.

The Reformed Church is the Catholic Church in her Reformed manifestation. We are not Roman-Catholic, but we are Reformed-Catholic.  But we are Catholic. This we tend far too often to forget. We confess, after all, on our Apostolic Confession of Faith: “I believe in holy, general Christian church”. (Genereal = Catholic.)

The Church of Jesus Christ is Catholic

It was, precisely, characteristic of the French Reformation that the Church of Jesus Christ would shine forth again in all its Catholic splendour.  Calvin never tired of pointing out: we are not a new church, we have not moved , we have always been, and we are again, the Catholic church.  Here we find the cause for the fact that the Reformation accepted the old church dogma and that it functioned again in preaching and in theology (Cf. Koopmans, J. 1983: Het oudkerkelijk dogma in de Reformatie, bepaaldelijk bij Calvijn, pp. 23, 45, 88,ff).

Thus through the Reformation, through the cleaning that took place, the Catholic character of the church could shine through once again in all its lustre and glory.

A.A. van Ruler has pointed out that this is true also of Reformed theology.  According to Van Ruler the Reformation constitutes as moment in the tradition of the “catholica”, and for that reason it is the most ecumenical form of Christianity, and thus best-equipped to guard the church against rigidity or revolution (Van Ruler A.A. 1971: Perspective voor de gereformeerde theologie. (In Theologisch werk II, pp 78, 80, 97. Cf. also Velema WH., 1976: De zaak waarvoor wij staan. p.9 ff.)

By returning to the Word of God the church of the Reformation once again revealed the catholic character of the church.

The catholicity of the church

The word Catholic is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Reformed Church (“Gereformeerd” or “Hervormd”).  This expression has become known trough the Apostolic Confession of Faith.

This word was in reality taken over from the Eastern, Greek-speaking section of the Church. In c. 350 A.D. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem had already explained the word Catholic to his catechists.

It is probable that Bishop Cyril followed Bishop Ignace of Antioch, who, in his well-known Epistle to the congregation of Smyrna, wrote the famous line: “Wherever the Bishop appears, there the multitudes have to be, as wherever Jesus Christ is, there one finds the catholic church (Ignatius (Ignace), Epistula ad Smurnaeos VIII, 2).

Ignace here meant catholic in the geographical sense. The Catholic church is therefore the prevailing church throughout the inhabited world.

Apart from the geographical meaning of the word Catholic we soon find, in Antiquity, a more qualitative meaning.  In a letter from the Church Father Augustine to Vincent of Cartenna, for example, there is a usage of the word indicating that “Catholic” is not used to mean the whole of the inhabited world, but the whole of the revelation (Quoted by Berkhof H., 1962: De katholiciteit der kerk. P. 12, note 5).

Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem gave a much more stronger and more comprehensive description of the word “Catholic”.  He imparts various meanings to the word.

In the first place he is concerned with the quantitive meaning. “The church is Catholic, because the church exists over the whole world.” But very soon he adds the qualitative meaning when he utters the following words: “The church is Catholic because she teaches everything that man needs to know to be saved.” Cyril then further adds to the meaning of this word when he elaborated : “The church is also Catholic because she fully (he literally says: catholically) heals all the kinds of sin which might be committed by the body and the soul” (Cyril, Catecheses XVIII, 23).

According to the Bishop of Jerusalem, therefore, “Catholic” has the meaning of the full truth for the entire man. A Catholic church is therefore a church preaching the full counsel of God to the salvation of man in all-encompassing relations.

In the Middle Ages there is once again a narrower meaning of the word Catholic. Then the emphasis falls much more on the geographical meaning. The Roman Catholic Church is Catholic, because it disseminates the Word of God throughout the inhabited world.

In the Reformation of the sixteenth century the word Catholic  started emerging anew and it also gained a new connotation. We know from Luther’s writings that he was not overly fond of this word.  To his mind it was too much of a tained term. Luther was of the opinion that the word “Catholic ” was too closely linked with the Roman vision of the geographical meaning of the word. Calvin, however, was not afraid to use the word “Catholic” for the church.  Luther removed the word “Catholic ” from the Confession of Faith and substituted “Christian” for it. But Calvin, both in his Catechism of Geneva (Zondag 15. Cf. De Catechismus van Calvijn. Translated from the French by Buskes JJ, p. 21) and in his Institutes (IV, 1,2) uses the word “Catholic ”, and in contrast to the Roman Church he linked the concept “Catholic ” with the invisible church as the communion of the elect.  Calvin did, true, have the geographical extensiveness of the church in mind, but then always as the obverse side of the coin of the invisible church, the communion of the elect of which Christ is the Head.

In his Reformation of the church Calvin had the catholic  character of the church in mind – Catholic  in the sense that Cyril of Jerusalem had imparted to it. This emerges from various things.

In the first place Calvin reverted, behind the Roman Church, to the church of the first centuries.  He did, after all, deliver a strong plea that the Reformed churches should take over, accept and acknowledge the old confessions, the Catholic  or ecumenical symbols, as the confession of the church. Calvin was this primarily concerned with the unity of the church across the centuries.

In the second place Calvin – and this too was a “Catholic ” deed – once again restored the elder, the presbyter, to a central position. Somebody has observed that Calvin, on the chessboard of the struggle with Rome, placed the Pope in checkmate with the pawn of the elder (Noordmans O, 1937/8: Kerkorde en beroep op die Schrift (Church order and appeal to the Scriptures; In: Kerkopbouw 6, p. 50).

In the third place Calvin once again restored the entire Bible to the centre in his sermons, his commentaries and his correspondences.

In the fourth place Calvin had the whole man in view, man created as body and soul to the glory of God, and who had to live for the greater glory of the Creator. Calvin noticed what O. Noordmans expressed so strikingly about the church: “The church has the dual task: preaching and ordering life with a view to eternity.  True catholicity consists in both these aspects.  The Reformed [Calvinists] understood this better than did the Lutherans (Quoted by Paul, GJ. 1959: Schepping en Koninkrijk, p. 151).

For that reason, then, the Reformation cannot be regarded as having been a question of moving house. To a far greater extent it meant a clean-up operation. The dust of many centuries was removed from the Bible by the Reformers.  The Word of God, in its full comprehensiveness, in its Catholicity, was once again preached to mankind – a mankind caught in its own corruption.

For that reason the Reformed church is the Catholic  church in its fully reformed manifestation.  The Reformed church is Catholic because the Lord and the Head of the church is a catholic, complete Saviour.

The Reformed church is Catholic  because man, the adherent of the church, is a Catholic , complete sinner.

The Reformed church is Catholic  because the salvation encompasses the whole life of man.

This Calvin noticed. It was the shattering impact of the message of Calvin that man, utterly corrupted by sin, could be totally redeemed by the encompassing redemptive work of Christ, and that redeemed man could completely absorbed in the service of God.

For that reason Calvin was above all a Catholic  reformer. In this sense too he saw the church as the church for all nations and for all countries.  That is also the reason why he worked so hard at promoting the Reformation in other countries such as Scotland and the Netherlands.

For that reason too he made the light of God shine on political matters and affairs of state.

For that reason too Calvin spoke about capital en interest.

For that reason Calvin worked towards the establishment of a school of science, and in 1559 he could found the famous Academy of Geneva.

Calvin unmistakeably showed his character as a Catholic  reformer when he stressed the Catholic character of the church, and linked the concept Catholic  with the church as the body of Christ, the body under the one Head, Christ.

Calvin here executed a Biblical coup of which we are only now beginning to understand the implications. The newer exegesis, the contemporary explication of the Scriptures, all these testify to this.

The pleroma of Christ

What Calvin meant by the word “Catholic” is expressed by the apostle Paul (in his twin epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians) by means of the word pleroma, or fullness.

In Ephesians 1:23 Paul calls the church the fullness of Christ which fulfils everything in everybody. These are difficult words and the true meaning of this text has been investigated for a long time.

Newer research has indicated that the word pleroma really means fullness: sphere of power, of domain or dominion (Berkhof H, quoted word, p. 57). Herman Ridderbos has called this concept “een almachtsteorie” (Ridderbos, HN. 1966: Paulus, ontwerp van zijn theologie, p. 434. Note 95) – a category of omnipotence. The context also clearly indicates the power and the dominion of Christ.

Paul really wants to say here that: the church is the domain of Christ, where He is dominant, the sphere where he possesses the power. The church is fulfilled through the omnipotence of Christ (Du Plessis IJ, 1962: Christus as Hoof van kerk en kosmos, pp. 74 ff.).

In reality we could translate Ephesians 1:23 as follows: The church is the dominion of Christ, governing everybody and everything. This means that somewhere in the world there is an area, a territory, within which the authority of Christ is visible, and that is in the church. Whatever is still invisible in this world, becomes visible in the church: Christ rules, he governs heads, hearts and hands. People are subjected, heart and soul, gloriously to his Will. The whole of life should be devoted to Him. This is Catholic!

What happens in the church is an example for the world. The full acknowledgement of the authority of Christ, the unconditional surrender to Jesus Christ, has to have wider impact in the world. Christ, after all, is the Head of the church and of the cosmos. He has received all power in heaven and on earth.

For that reason there has to missionary work. The call of the church to the nations to subject themselves to the dominion of grace of Christ.

For that reason too there should be evangelical work: the recall of the unfaithful to return to the fold and be governed again by Christ.

For the same reason too there must be Christianisation of life.

Everything, from education to politics to social issues must brought under subjection to Christ.

This will not happen without a struggle.  This cannot be fully realized without the end days. Over and against the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, there will also be the coming and the development of the realm of the anti-christ.

The catholic character of the Reformation as stressed by Calvin

When we study the works of Calvin we cannot but be struck by the fact that the reformer from Geneva had a clear insight in the all-encompassing dominion of Christ. This we can only explain through Calvin’s very deep and utter involvement with the Word of God.

The Reformation in its Calvinist manifestation is especially characterized by the exegesis of the Bible.

Apart from the Institutes, which could also be called a monument of precision exegesis, there is the impressive collection of Calvin’s commentaries.  Apart from the second and the third Epistles of John and the Revelation of John Calvin supplied a commentary to all the Books of the Bible.

In his Acta Synodi Tridentini cum antidoto Calvin even makes a comparison between Reformational and Roman Scriptural exegesis and then he says in all humility: “We have done more for the comprehension of the Scriptures than al docotores since the inception of the papacy in the Roman Church” (Acta Tridentini cum antidote, ed. Schipper, pp. 231, 232).

In many places in his commentaries Calvin points to the all-encompassing meaning of the Kingdom of Christ. According to Calvin the Kingdom of God already started here on earth with the incarnation of the Word, the cross and the resurrection of Christ, but fullness has not yet come.  In the meantime Christ governs us through the sceptre of the Gospel. God governs, according to Calvin, in such a way that He predestines people to the life eternal, and He brings them to that point, so that it is good for man to subject himself to the rule of God. In the humility of bending under his sceptre , that is, under the preaching of the Gospel, the elevation to heavenly salvation will be fulfilled (Commentary on Matthew, 28:18). Calvin continually points out the preparatory nature of the Kingdom of God in this disposition.  The full realization of the Kingdom will only take place with the advent of Christ.

Full attention has to be given to the fact that Calvin involved the kingly dominion of Christ in this disposition with the church (Schellong, D. 1969: Calvins Auslegung der synoptischen Evangelien, p. 313, note 40).  The Kingdom of God has come, and according to Calvin this consists in the spiritual renewal of the congregation. In his commentary on Luke 17:20 Calvin states that the Kingdom of God is nothing other than the inner and spiritual renewal of the soul (interior et spiritualis animae renovation).

The Kingdom of God is there where the forgiveness of sin and the acceptance of people as children of God is preached. And then Calvin calls the church the regnum Christi spiritual (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In Calvin, however, one can also speak of a dominion of Christ over the world, but then it is really striking that Calvin does not see the dominion of Christ over the world as being dependent on the dominion of the elevated Christ, but he links it with the second person of the Divine being, the Logos. We find this concept, to be exact, in Calvin’s addresses and sermons on the book of Daniel. That Christ is also King of the world, then, according, to Calvin, is valid not only from the Ascension onwards, because He had already been King of the world at the time of the destruction of Nineveh (Sermon on Daniel 2:40 ff.)

Calvin does involve the dominion of Christ also in the world, but then it is his government through Word and Spirit. Subjection of the world, according to Calvin, does not yet take place according to the full involvement of his divine omnipotence, but through the inviting call of the Gospel to obedience in faith, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables one to come to faith and obedience.

Here we see how, in Calvin’s exegesis, Catholicity is stressed.  The pleroma of Christ, his dominion over the church and the world, is clearly outlined by the Reformer from Geneva.

Our catholic vocation

Seeing that the Reformation then amounted more to cleaning up than to moving a house, a cleaning up of the church, so that the church could once again be truly Catholic, with a Catholic confession and called upon to offer Catholic service, for that reason the Reformation has remained significant and meaningful for us.

As Reformational churches in South Africa we have to watch out that we do not lose our Catholic character, so that it does not amount to a moving house without our being fully aware of it. It has become so cosy in our own church, with our own traditions and our own people our own way of doing things, that we are not aware of the fact that that we can easily lose the vision of the Catholicity of the church which the Reformation has taught us anew.

The true vision on the Reformation should make us grateful and keen to offer service. We should be grateful to God who has given us the Reformation, but also willing to serve in the cause of the great vocation which comes to us from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reformational Christians and Reformational churches are Christians and churches who would want to bow under the omnipotent dominion of Christ, they are the Christians and churches who have once been made aware of the Catholicity of the church and want to live according to its tenets.

They believe,  they know that they are members of the Catholic church which has become reformed again, which has emerged as a Catholic Reformed church from the struggle with Rome and the Anabaptists.

What does this mean for us today? Four things could be mentioned in this regard.

In the first place this has meaning for our personal lives. To be a Catholic Christian means to be a member of the Catholic church which has come to reformation, and it means that we stand under the authority of Christ. We are not here on earth for our own sakes, but we have a vocation, a calling, that is the vocation to live in complete devotion to Christ. This inculcates sobriety, discipline and obedience in our lives. This has always been the hallmark of the Calvinists. Their lives have been sober, there has always been a readiness towards sacrifice, sanctification and struggle.  Growth in spirit and struggle against sin, a quest to live more and more fully under the dominion of Christ.

In his book Ethiek en pelgrimage W.H. Vellema wrote some highly significant things in this regard. Calvin’s formulation might well sound very harsh and negative, as Vellema rightly indicates (Vellema, H. 1974L Ethiek en pilgrimage, p. 35), and yet one can hardly deny that Calvin very strongly sees the life of the believer in the light of the dominion of Jesus Christ and the divine vocation to live for the greater glory of the Lord (Vellema, W.H. quoted work, p. 27).

In the second place the acknowledgement of the Catholicity of the Reformation also has significance for ecclesiastical life.

Calvin was willing to cross the seven oceans to reunite churches and Christians who had been separated from each other.

In this regard the concept of pleroma or of fullness is very important. In the New Testament fullness is at one and the same time a gift and a purpose. In Ephesians 4: 10-16 we find the coherence between fullness as a gift and as a command.  Christ grants fullness. He will bring everything to fullness (verse 10). He will bring his power to revelation in ever-widening circles. But at the same time He exhorts his congregation to grow to the fullness, to be ever more faithfully subjected to the dominion of mercy (verse 15). Growth towards fullness at the same time brings growth in unity (verse 13).

In this one finds the secret of the truly ecumenical.

The strength which links the congregation to the truth of the doctrine of the gospel is the way towards the keeping and the practice of the unity.

The combined struggle of the torn churches to come to agreement about the truth of the doctrine of the gospel will have to precede the reuniting of churches otherwise there will be no visible unity (Cf. Neill, J.T. 1954: The History and Character of Calvinism).

When we as churches and as Christians of whatever denomination would only move closer to Christ, then we also come closer to each other. Growth in faith and sanctification of life in which we regard the truth in all love and humility (Ephesians 4:1) bind us closer to Christ and closer to each other.

It is the same as with the spokes of a wheel. The nearer the spokes come to the axle the closer they are to each other.

Unity between churches of the Reformational confession who have become estranged from each other cannot be organized. It has to grow and it will grow from a deeper experience of the communion with Christ.

In the third place the realization that we as church of the Reformation have not moved house but have only cleaned up extensively will have significance for social and communal life.

Here too we find in Calvin and in Calvinism many examples about how marriage, the family, labour, relaxation, education, teaching and science may not be withdrawn from the sphere of the authority of Christ (Cf, Neill, J.T. 1954: The History and Character of Calvinism).

In the fourth place this also has significance for political aspects. It will influence our politics. Over and against revolution we set the Gospel. The national is influenced by the Christian. In our relationships between the national groups, the practice detente, in the contacts in Africa we go out from the confession that Christ is the King and that we have been called to be his servants.

As Calvin dedicated his Biblical commentaries to bring the Word of God to them, so we, as Reformational Christians, come to the nation and the authorities in our prophetic calling with the Word of God.  Calvin saw this: it is not only a matter of our personal lives and the church having to be cleaned, but the world also.  The world also needs to be cleansed, because it is the world of God over which Christ received all authority.

Calvin, however, was also keenly aware of the incompleteness in the sanctification of life and of the church. He was deeply aware too that in this world we have to struggle strenuously against the forces of the anti-Christ which we will inevitably encounter.

Therefore one finds in Calvin the deep longing for the advent of Christ, the expectation that Christ will return as the King.

Each Reformational Christian who knows that he stands under the dominion of grace of Jesus Christ, and who knows the conflict engendered by sin in and around him, looks forward to the advent of Christ, an expectation that is strikingly expressed: “Therefore we expect the great day with great longing, to partake fully of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Article 37, Belgic Confession of Faith).


Our Reformational Tradition. A Rich Heritage and Lasting Vocation. 1984. Series F: Institute for Reformational Studies F3 Collections, Number 21.  Potchefstroom: Potchefstroom University for Higher Education.

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