Five hundred years have now passed since the Protestant Reformation first took root, and so it’s fair to say we’ve had ample time to assess and judge the tree by its fruit. And certainly the small seed of Luther’s protest has become like “a large tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” But are all the branches of this thing called Protestantism healthy branches? Sure, our roots are of a different stock from that of Rome’s theology, distinguished by our five solas. We still want to affirm that Rome preaches a different gospel. But what of those who identify as Protestant? What about our modern “Spiritualists” as Calvin would call them?
Five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation changed the theological and ecclesiastical landscape forever. And yet, was that something that only made sense in their historical context? Is the Reformation over, a quirk of history, only brought up in Church History classes? Perhaps we should we put down our picket signs and end the long forgotten protest? No one cares anymore; the world has moved on to other things. But the more I read Calvin, the more I see the need for reclaiming that forgotten motto of Protestantism, semper reformanda (always reforming).
One of John Calvin’s great reformation insights was his insistence that the word and Spirit always go together. This was a theological dictum aimed at the twin errors of Rome on the one hand and Zwickau on the other. Roman Catholic theology had institutionalized the Holy Spirit, “locking him up”, says Sinclair Ferguson, “in the institutions and instruments of the church.” With their doctrine of ex opere operato and the magesterium, the blessings of the Holy Spirit given to all believers were now hijacked by the priests and the pope of the church.
“The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.7.4).
Opposite Rome’s cold institutionalizing of the Holy Spirit, Calvin saw on the other extreme the charismatic chaos of the Anabaptists. To them the Christian life was to be solely focused upon and preoccupied with the Holy Spirit. If Rome denied any assurance of faith by the Spirit, the Anabaptists sought assurance only in “the leading” of the Spirit.
But sadly, this was completely subjective. Any thought, dream, feeling, or fancy was claimed to be the leading of the Spirit. What was missing was the objective guiding of the Spirit-inspired word. Anabaptists were just not regulated by “all Scripture [which] is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Hence Calvin would insist that the correct balance between both errors was the keeping together of the Spirit and word. The truly Spiritual church was one which was submitted to and regulated by the word of God, properly preaching the word of God. And likewise, true catholicity was not invested in the institution of the magesterium, but rested upon the illumination and persuasion of the Holy Spirit through the authority of God’s word alone.