Book Sale

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Was John Calvin A Continuationist?


Image: Unsplash

When it comes to spiritual gifts like healing and prophecy or leadership gifts like prophets and apostles, there are two main schools of thought: cessationism and continuationism. The former meaning that the gifts have ceased, the latter that they are still continuing today.

So was Calvin a continuationist?

Yes, it appear he was. To a degree at least:

"Section 4. Second part of the chapter, treating of Ecclesiastical office-bearers in particular. Some of them, as Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists, temporary. Others, as Pastors and Teachers, perpetual and indispensable. Those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, are named by Paul, first, Apostles; secondly, Prophets; thirdly, Evangelists; fourthly, Pastors; and, lastly, Teachers; (Eph 4: 11). Of these, only the two last have an ordinary office in the Church. The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires. The nature of the apostolic function is clear from the command, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature," (Mar 16: 15). No fixed limits are given them, but the whole world is assigned to be reduced under the obedience of Christ, that by spreading the Gospel as widely as they could, they might every where erect his kingdom. Accordingly, Paul, when he would approve his apostleship, does not say that he had acquired some one city for Christ, but had propagated the Gospel far and wide - had not built on another man's foundation, but planted churches where the name of his Lord was unheard. The apostles, therefore, were sent forth to bring back the world from its revolt to the true obedience of God, and every where stablish his kingdom by the preaching of the Gospel; or, if you choose, they were like the first architects of the Church, to lay its foundations throughout the world. By Prophets, he means not all interpreters of the divine will, but those who excelled by special revelation; none such now exist, or they are less manifest. By Evangelists, I mean those who, while inferior in rank to the apostles, were next them in office, and even acted as their substitutes. Such were Luke, Timothy, Titus, and the like; perhaps also, the seventy (disciples whom our Saviour appointed in the second place to the apostles, (Luk 10: 1). According to this interpretation, which appears to me consonant both to the words and the meaning of Paul, those three functions were not instituted in the Church to be perpetual, but only to endure so long as churches were to be formed where none previously existed, or at least where churches were to be transferred from Moses to Christ; although I deny not, that afterward God occasionally raised up Apostles, or at least Evangelists, in their stead, as has been done in our time. For such were needed to bring back the Church from the revolt of Antichrist. The office I nevertheless call extraordinary, because it has no place in churches duly constituted. Next come Pastors and Teachers, with whom the Church never can dispense, and between whom, I think, there is this difference, that teachers preside not over discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers. But all these are embraced in the pastoral office” (emphasis added).[i]

Calvin taught that the gifts of apostles, prophets and evangelists (which he overlaps with apostles) were special gifts given for the founding of the church. And also that they are gifts God uses to call the church back to faithfulness in times of great apostasy and need. This is a version of continuationism. John Calvin taught, as with the Scriptures, that these gifts could be manifest in times outside of the 1st century establishment of the church. As the Bible never says that they must cease, and to be wary of discerning false apostles and prophets, which means that there is likely to be genuine ones.

He also tells us in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13.

“9. We know in part This passage is misinterpreted by most persons, as   if it meant that our knowledge, and in like manner our prophecy, is not   yet perfect, but that we are daily making progress in them. Paul's   meaning, however, is -- that it is owing to our imperfection that we at   present have knowledge and prophecy. Hence the phrase in part means --   "Because we are not yet perfect." Knowledge and prophecy, therefore,   have place among us so long as that imperfection cleaves to us, to   which they are helps. It is true, indeed, that we ought to make   progress during our whole life, and that everything that we have is   merely begun. Let us observe, however, what Paul designs to prove --   that the gifts in question are but temporary. Now he proves this from   the circumstance, that the advantage of them is only for a time -- so   long as we aim at the mark by making progress every day.   

10. When that which is perfect is come "When the goal has been reached,   then the helps in the race will be done away." He retains, however, the   form of expression that he had already made use of, when he contrasts   perfection with what is in part "Perfection," says he, "when it will   arrive, will put an end to everything that aids imperfection." But when   will that perfection come? It begins, indeed, at death, for then we put   off, along with the body, many infirmities; but it will not be   completely manifested until the day of judgment, as we shall hear   presently. Hence we infer, that the whole of this discussion is   ignorantly applied to the time that is intermediate” (emphasis added).[ii]

Calvin also appears to teach that the gifts will be necessary until we reach the fullness of knowing Christ in heaven, “Knowledge and prophecy, therefore, have place among us so long as that imperfection cleaves to us, to which they are helps.” Until we are perfected by Christ we need these helps. However, it is not clear whether he means here the fullness of those gifts in individual Christians, or simply the writings and teachings in the Scriptures, which carry the weight of prophecy. Still, again he appears to be a continuationist.

However, this is not always the case. In his commentary on Acts 2:38 he says,

“Ye shall receive the gift of the Spirit. Because they were touched with   wondering when they saw the apostles suddenly begin to speak with strange tongues, Peter saith that they shall be partakers of the same gift if they will pass over unto Christ. Remission of sins and newness of life were the principal things, and this was, as it were, an addition, that Christ should show forth unto them his power by some visible gift. Neither ought this place to be understood of the grace of   sanctification, which is given generally to all the godly. Therefore he promiseth them the gift of the Spirit, whereof they saw a pattern in   the diversity of tongues. Therefore this doth not properly appertain unto us. For because Christ meant to set forth the beginning of his kingdom with those miracles, they lasted but for a time; yet because the visible graces which the Lord did distribute to his did shoe, as it   were in a glass, that Christ was the giver of the Spirit, therefore,  that which Peter saith doth in some respect appertain unto all the   whole Church: ye shall receive the gift of the Spirit. For although we   do not receive it, that we may speak with tongues, that we may be   prophets, that we may cure the sick, that we may work miracles; yet is   it given us for a better use, that we may believe with the heart unto   righteousness, that our tongues may be framed unto true confession,   (Romans 10:10,) that we may pass from death to life, (John 5:24) that   we, which are poor and empty, may be made rich, that we may withstand   Satan and the world stoutly. Therefore, the grace of the Spirit shall   always be annexed unto baptism, unless the let be in ourselves” (emphasis added).[iii]

Here he seems to imply that some of the Spiritual gifts existed to manifest to the authority of the apostles, before the Jews, and are now not necessary. This is a classic teaching of cessationists.  

So, was Calvin a continuationist or cessationist? It appears to be a bit of both. I find this interesting, because I had always thought of him as just a hardcore cessationist, the most famous example. But he appears to recognize that God can raise up prophets and apostles at any time of need. I think we are in one of those times today.

If one of the roles of apostles and prophets is to call the church back to faithfulness, then we really do need this today. If part of their role is to lay or relay foundations for the Church, then this is also necessary in many parts of the West and the rest of the world. If Calvin’s view, and the view I agree with, is that God raises up such people in times of need, then start to look for more and more Christian leaders being raised up to call the church back to repentance. Also, recognize that many fakes will seek to gather attention and followings as well. Though this has always been the case.


[i] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Fig. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Calvin, John. Calvin's Complete Bible Commentaries (With Active Table of Contents in Biblical Order) (Kindle Locations 454176-454190). Kindle Edition.

[iii] Calvin, John. Calvin's Complete Bible Commentaries (With Active Table of Contents in Biblical Order) (Kindle Locations 410947-410951). Kindle Edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment