Calvin’s thoughts on the sacraments were shocking. Unlike Evangelicals, who treat the theology of the sacraments as one of the “non-essentials,” Calvin thought they were of the utmost importance. In fact, he taught that a proper understanding of the Eucharist was necessary for salvation. This was the thesis of his very first theological treatise in French (Petit traicté de la Sainte Cène, 1541). Frustrated by Protestant disagreement over the Eucharist, Calvin wrote the text in an attempt to unify the movement around one single doctrine.
Evangelicals are used to finding assurance in their “personal relationship with Christ,” and not through membership in any Church or participation in any ritual. Calvin, however, taught that the Eucharist provides “undoubted assurance of eternal life.”5 And while Calvin stopped short of the Catholic, or even the Lutheran, understanding of the Eucharist, he still retained a doctrine of the Real Presence. He taught that the Eucharist provides a “true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord” and he rejected the notion that communicants receive “the Spirit only, omitting flesh and blood.”6.
Calvin understood baptism in much the same way. He never taught the Evangelical doctrine that one is “born again” through personal conversion. Instead, he associated regeneration with baptism and taught that to neglect baptism was to refuse salvation. He also allowed no diversity over the manner of its reception. Anabaptists in Geneva (those who practiced adult baptism) were jailed and forced to repent. Calvin taught that Anabaptists, by refusing the sacrament to their children, had placed themselves outside the faith.
Calvin once persuaded an Anabaptist named Herman to enter the Reformed Church. His description of the event leaves no doubt about the difference between Calvin and the modern Evangelical. Calvin wrote:
Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.7
Evangelicals don’t understand this type of language. They are accustomed to treating “the Church” as a purely spiritual reality, represented across denominations or wherever “true believers” are gathered. This was not Calvin’s view. His was “the true Church,” marked off by infant baptism, outside of which there was no salvation.
Making Sense of Evangelicalism
Studying Calvin raised important questions about my Evangelical identity. How could I reject as unimportant issues that my own founder considered essential? I had blithely and confidently dismissed baptism, Eucharist, and the Church itself as “merely symbolic,” “purely spiritual” or, ultimately, unnecessary. In seminary, too, I found an environment where professors disagreed entirely over these issues and no one cared! With no final court of appeal, we had devolved into a “lowest common denominator” theology.
Church history taught me that this attitude was a recent development. John Calvin had high expectations for the unity and catholicity of the faith, and for the centrality of Church and sacrament. But Calvinism couldn’t deliver it. Outside of Geneva, without the force of the state to impose one version, Calvinism itself splintered into factions. In her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism, historian Janice Knight details how the process unfolded very early in American Calvinism. 8
It is not surprising that by the eighteenth century, leading Calvinist Churchmen on both sides of the Atlantic had given up on the quest for complete unity. One new approach was to stress the subjective experience of “new birth” (itself a novel doctrine of Puritan origins) as the only necessary concern. The famous revivalist George Whitefield typified this view, going so far as to insist that Christ did not want agreement in other matters. He said:
It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it.9
Since the eighteenth century, Calvinism has devolved more and more into a narrow set of questions about the nature of salvation. Indeed, in most people’s minds the word Calvinism implies only the doctrine of predestination. Calvin himself has become mainly a shadowy symbol, a myth that Evangelicals call upon only to support a spurious claim to historical continuity.
The greatest irony in my historical research was realizing that Evangelicalism, far from being the direct descendant of Calvin, actually represents the failure of Calvinism. Whereas Calvin spent his life in the quest for doctrinal unity, modern Evangelicalism is rooted in the rejection of that quest. Historian Alister McGrath notes that the term “Evangelical,” which has circulated in Christianity for centuries, took on its peculiar modern sense only in the twentieth century, with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (1942). This society was formed to allow coordinated public action on the part of disparate groups that agreed on “the new birth,” but disagreed on just about everything else.10
A Calvinist Discovers Catholicism
I grew up believing that Evangelicalism was “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” I learned from Protestant Church history that it was hardly older than Whitefield, and certainly not the faith of the Protestant Reformers. What to do? Should I go back to the sixteenth century and become an authentic Calvinist? I already knew that Calvin himself, for all his insistence on unity and authority, had been unable to deliver the goods. His own followers descended into anarchy and individualism.
I realized instead that Calvin was part of the problem. He had insisted on the importance of unity and authority, but had rejected any rational or consistent basis for that authority. He knew that Scripture totally alone, Scripture interpreted by each individual conscience, was a recipe for disaster. But his own claim to authority was perfectly arbitrary. Whenever he was challenged, he simply appealed to his own conscience, or to his subjective experience, but he denied that right to Bolsec and others. As a result, Calvin became proud and censorious, brutal with his enemies, and intolerant of dissent. In all my reading of Calvin, I don’t recall him ever apologizing for a mistake or admitting an error.
It eventually occurred to me that Calvin’s attitude contrasted sharply with what I had found in the greatest Catholic theologians. Many of them were saints, recognized for their heroic charity and humility. Furthermore, I knew from reading them, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis de Sales, that they denied any personal authority to define doctrine. They deferred willingly, even joyfully, to the authority of Pope and council. They could maintain the biblical ideal of doctrinal unity (1 Corinthians 1:10), without claiming to be the source of that unity.
These saints also challenged the stereotypes about Catholics that I had grown up with. Evangelicals frequently assert that they are the only ones to have “a personal relationship with Christ.” Catholics, with their rituals and institutions, are supposed to be alienated from Christ and Scripture. I found instead men and women who were single-minded in their devotion to Christ and inebriated with His grace.