Calvin’s Reformation at Geneva

Calvin was a second-generation reformer, and his achievements are best considered as a consolidation of the insights of earlier reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli. Calvin is a system-builder, not an original thinker. Perhaps his most significant achievement was providing a systematic defense of the new understanding of the Christian church, partially developed by Luther, which allowed the new reformed communities throughout Europe to assert their Christian identity, without the need to have institutional continuity with the medieval church.

For Calvin, there were two – and only two – essential elements of a Christian church: the preaching of the word of God, and the proper administration of the sacraments.

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Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and listened to, and the sacraments admin-

istered according to Christ’s institution, it is in no way to be doubted that a church of God

exists. For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I

am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).


Calvin’s definition is significant as much for what it does not say as for what it does explic- itly affirm. There is no reference to the necessity of any historical or institutional continuity with the apostles. For Calvin, it was more important to teach what the apostles taught than to be able to show an unbroken line of institutional continuity with them. Institutional continuity, Calvin insisted, did not guarantee theological fidelity. For Calvin, the Catholic church had suffered from institutional drift, losing its grounding in the fundamental ideas of the apostles, which were, of course, expressed in the Bible.

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