Calvin on the Church as the “Mother” of believers (ETS paper)
Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” And, Protestants have often been associated with a strong rejection of this claim. But, according to Sung Wook Chung, Calvin was perfectly willing to affirm that the Church is the Mother of all Christians. Indeed, he thought this was essential for a proper understanding of the Christian life.
At ETS last week, Chung presented a paper that dealt (in part) with John Calvin‘s use of the “mother” metaphor for understanding the relationship between the church and believers. And, according to Chung, this was fundamental for understanding Calvin’s ecclesiology. As Calvin said,
I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26). (Inst. 4.1.1).
So, Chung devoted a considerable portion of his paper to understanding Calvin’s use of the metaphor. He began by identifying three three theological reasons that Calvin found the metaphor important.
- The Church as necessary and essential for all believers. As Calvin says, “Let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’, how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her” (Inst. 4.1.4). For Calvin, then, the Church is necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of all believers.
- The Church as honorable and glorious. As Calvin argues in his Galatians commentary, “This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.” As the bride of Christ, the church has the highest possible honor and should be revered by all the people of God.
- The Church as the “true” Mother of all Christians. Chung argued that Calvin specifically applied the “mother” metaphor to the Church as a response to the Catholic use of this metaphor, and specifically its emphasis on Mary as the mother of Christians.
After laying out these three areas of theological significance, Chung moved on to address the functions of the Church as Mother.
- Conception: God’s people are conceived in the womb of the Church through the power of the Spirit and the Word.
- Birth: God’s people receive life (regeneration) by the Spirit within the context of the Church.
- Spiritual Nourishment: The Church “nourishes us at her breast” (Inst. 4.1.4).
- Care & Guidance: The Church takes care of us throughout our lives, offering direction and counsel.
- Forgiveness and Salvation: Calvin argues that we cannot hope for either forgiveness or salvation “away from her bosom” (Inst. 4.1.4). Of course, Calvin differs here from his Catholic opponents, arguing that it is the not the Roman Catholic Church that provides forgiveness and salvation. But, Calvin still wants to maintain that the evangelical Church, as the bearer of the Gospel and the Spirit, is the agent of forgiveness and salvation in the world.
- Cultivation of Godliness and Piety.
For all of these reasons, then, Calvin felt that seeing the Church as the Mother of all Christians was absolutely fundamental for a proper understanding of the Christian life and the role of the church in it. As Calvin said in his Galatians commentary,
The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven and dwells above by faith, is the mother of believers. For she has the incorruptible seed of life deposited in her by which she forms us, cherishes us in her womb and brings us to light. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, he who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father. For it is only through the ministry of the Church that God begets sons for Himself and brings them up until they pass through adolescence and reach manhood. This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians (Eerdmans, 1974), 87-8).
I really appreciated the paper’s explanation of Calvin’s ecclesiology and the strong emphasis he placed on the Church in the life of the believer. We absolutely need to recognize that the Church is fundamental to the Gospel and the Christian life. Sadly, much of evangelicalism fails to make this connection and, consequently, fails to appreciate the Church as having anything other than a purely instrumental significance for believers. Maybe a return to the Church-as-Mother could provide an avenue for a deeper appreciation of the Church in evangelicalism.
At the same time, I would have liked to see more biblical support for the use of this particular metaphor. I probably just need to dig into Calvin’s writings myself to find his biblical warrant for this metaphor. But, Chung’s presentation made me wonder whether the metaphor really has that much biblical warrant, regardless of how much theological merit it might have. (By the way, I don’t have a problem with using a metaphor for theological rather than specifically biblical reasons. I just like to know when I’m doing so.)