Calvin to Cranmer on Church Unity

Thomas Cranmer desired a general council of the Protestant churches to unite them in confession and form a western, Protestant Church. Oh that it would have happened! God in his providence did not see fit for that to occur. But here is Calvin’s response to Cranmer on the subject:

I know moreover, that your purpose is not confined to England alone; but, at the same moment, you consult the benefit of all the world. The generous disposition and uncommon piety of his Majesty, the king, are justly to be admired, as he is please to favor this holy purpose of holding such a council, and offers a place for its session in his kingdom. I wish it might be effected, that learned and stable men, from the principal churches, might assemble in some place, and, after discussing with care each article of faith, deliver to posterity, from their general opinion of them all, the clear doctrines of the Scriptures. It is to be numbered among the evils of our day, that the churches are so divided one from another, that there is scarcely any friendly intercourse strengthened between us; much less does that holy communion of the members of Christ flourish, which all profess with the mouth, but few sincerely regard in the heart. But if the principal teachers conduct themselves more coldly than they ought, it is principally the fault of the princes who, involved in their secular concerns, neglect the prosperity and purity of the church; or each one, contented with his own security, is indifferent to the welfare of others. Thus it comes to pass, that the members being divided, the body of the church lies disabled.
Respecting myself, if it should appear that I could render any service, I should with pleasure cross ten seas, if necessary, to accomplish that object. Even if the benefit of the kingdom of England only was to be consulted, it would furnish a reason sufficiently powerful with me. But as in the council proposed, the object is to obtain the firm and united agreement of learned men to the sound rule of Scripture, by which churches now divided may be united with each other, I think it would be a crime in me to spare any labor or trouble to effect it. But I expect my slender ability to accomplish this will furnish me with sufficient excuse. If I aid that object by my prayers, which will be undertaken by others, I shall discharge my part of the business. Melancthon is so far from me, that our letters cannot be exchanged in a short time. Bullinger has perhaps answered you before this. I wish my ability was equal to the ardency of my desires. But what I at first declined, as unable to accomplish, I perceive the very necessity of the business now compels me to attempt. I not only exhort you, but I conjure you, to proceed, until something shall be effected, if not every thing you could wish.

Perhaps we will see more unity built from the confusion of our day, although it now seems doubtful.

6 thoughts on “Calvin to Cranmer on Church Unity”

  1. That was really fascinating. Interesting how he mentioned the physical separation and also the neglect of the political authorities. The second is sort of a foreshadowing of how the secular state became so much more important in the period after the Reformation.

  2. It also kind of makes me wonder if a united Protestant church could have drawn in the Anabaptists and what they would have done with them if they couldn’t be reconciled.

  3. We are never told what would have happened.

    As a Christian historian, I love the Reformation. I am in tune with almost all of the Reformers, despite being a Greek Orthodox. I am not saying I agree with everything they believed or wrote, but I believe they were on the right track, and I love and respect them for their desire to follow Christ.

    The Orthodox Church wants to convene an ecumenical council called “The Great Council” but it may never occur, because the whole Church must be present, and some Orthodox don’t accept the non-Orthodox as Christians, and so would not tolerate their presence.

    We Christians are still stuck in a historical rut. Since the First Council, we have our hearts set on being right in doctrine instead of right with God.

    Is there a difference? I think so. We do not have to agree with everyone on the matters of churchly ordinance, customs and what not, to be in fellowship with each other, but we do have to agree on who Jesus Christ is. We don’t even have to agree on every little point about who He is, but we do have to agree that He is who He says He is, the Son of God, and Savior. To agree in this way is to agree to love one another as He has loved us, overlooking our folly and praying for each other, just as Christ intercedes for our folly before His Father.

    This thing of having councils and making everybody agree on everything is the biggest “pie in the sky” expectation I have ever heard of. Sure, it would be nice. But are all of you ready to become Greek Orthodox? (Just joking!) If this ever happened it would be the greatest miracle. But such a miracle could be feigned by the evil one; hence the fear latent in the idea of the Super Church.

    Let’s consider a much smaller, much more manageable miracle. That would be the miracle of you and me being in seamless and uncritical fellowship, regarding each other’s faith as sufficient unto salvation, and just living and working together (if not worshiping formally together) for the gospel of Jesus Christ in a united witness. This is, in fact, how I live now. That’s what’s behind my saying “I witness for Christ, and Christ witnesses for the Church.”

    If non-Christians saw us, of all different denominations, working together, even defending each other, as though there were no divisions among us, as we went about evangelizing the nations, what would they think? It would blow them away, literally.

    Just as when I witnessed together with my Baptist co-worker by reading the gospels aloud (and the book of Revelation too) cover to cover in public, people were surprised when they found out we were not members of some sect, and that we were even of different “denominations” (their perception, not mine; I don’t believe in denominations).

    For us Christians to love each other as brothers and members of one household, the family of God in Christ, without criticising each other, as I said, that would be a miraculous start, small, but promising. This is not an attitude of “I’m OK, you’re OK” so much as an affirmation that “He is (more than) OK, and in Him we are OK.”

    Stuck in a historical rut, we believe that unity comes by councils and declarations. That is not the unity that Christ prays for in the gospel of John. The unity He prays for is much deeper than that. “I pray that they may be one, as You and I are One.” He prays for humanity, following Him, to become as the Holy Trinity, one in essence, but many persons, all in a love which transforms even our wills into one.

    To have only one will.
    To love as we have been loved.

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