The Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages and the Reformation was, in one respect, more Biblically orthodox than most of the modern church. In the medieval tradition it saw all of life in religious terms. Today we would say it had a world and life view that was rightly God-centered. Unfortunately, however, it saw the work of God in hierarchical terms, with the institutional church as the mediator between heaven and earth, effectively being an extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Prior to the Reformation, secularists had begun a concerted effort to revive a humanistic worldview, one that saw man's political and economic life as central. Europe , then, was being divided between two worldviews before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. Rome 's worldview was intolerant of religious challenges, and the emerging humanist political-economic worldview saw conflicting national, political, and economic interests as threatening. Reformation teaching did not so much challenge the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, as it challenged Rome 's claim to be a mediating institution. Both Rome and the Reformers had God-centered worldviews. Both saw society in religious terms. But it was the Reformation, following Calvin, that reoriented the entire focus of Christian thought and action.
What was it, then, that made John Calvin's ideas (for it was John Calvin who developed the implications of the stand begun by Luther) so transforming of faith and society? Calvin's emphases on the Kingdom of God and justification are largely responsible. Rome had closely identified the Kingdom of God with the institutional Church. The Church, with the Roman See as its head, was the voice of the Kingdom of God . The Church's human head was the Vicar of Christ, the Pope. The Church held the keys of the kingdom and interpreted the Word of God to all believers.
The Only Mediator Between God and Man
John Calvin denied to the Church the right to mediate between God and man. To Calvin, Jesus Christ was the only Mediator. Calvin saw the Kingdom of God as being wherever men submitted themselves to the reign of Jesus Christ. The Church was not the Kingdom of God , but was rather in the Kingdom. The Kingdom was not seen as an institution but as the rule of Jesus Christ, the activity of God by grace, not of man by works. John Calvin made the believer a member not just of an institution to which he owed subjection and deference, but also of an eternal eschatological order. John Calvin reoriented the Christian's dominion responsibility from the authority of the institutional church to the over-arching reign of Christ Himself. Calvin was not anti-institutional church; he merely defined its authority as ministerial rather than mediatorial.
Rome, of course, saw this (and still sees Protestantism) as anarchistic. This ought not to surprise us. All authoritarians believe order depends on visible, institutional structure. Rome 's idea of a God-centered world was, in reality, a church-centered worldview.
The second Reformation emphasis that Calvin so powerfully developed was justification. Calvin taught that justification was an act of God's grace. It did not rely on any human activity, so no human mediation of justification was possible. Rome was not only itself an institutional hierarchy that claimed a mediatorial role in man's salvation, it saw all of society as a hierarchy of mediating institutions which were to lead men to God via Rome.
The Reformation teaching on salvation denied the mediatorial work of the church and all other institutions.1 Because justification was an act of God, there was no process involved, and no mediation except that of Jesus Christ. Rome 's position was that society and its institutions were to lead men to God. The social implications of this theology placed men and institutions under the institutional authority of the Church as the voice of, if not the manifestation of, God's Kingdom. Rome 's theology of mediated redemption brought all of society under its authority.
Calvin freed men from social and religious institutions and traditions that presumed to mediate God's grace. He envisioned a society in which the church and other institutions were ministerial of, and under the authority of, the Word. Both the Mediator and the Word's authority transcend man and history, though any man could know them through the redemptive call to knowledge, righteousness, and dominion. The Reformation made good works not acts of penance before a God of vengeance but evidence of justified man's new life in righteousness. The church, social institutions, and good works became part of man's ministry of proclaiming God's grace not his mediation of that grace. Freed from control by the church as a mediator, the outworking of man's salvation in his calling and personal sanctification exploded after the Reformation into a multitude of manifestations.2
Because the medieval Roman Church saw its role as mediatorial, it prescribed faith to promote its concept of godly order. The Reformation, because it saw the role of the faithful as ministerial, applied the faith in order to promote godly order. Calvin freed Christians from the illegitimate mediatorial role of the church to citizenship in the Kingdom of God . In doing this he freed the church, too, from the impossible task it had assumed and enabled it to return to its role in the ministration of the whole counsel of God.
Calvin's doctrine of the Kingdom of God and justification by faith ushered in for the West a new perspective, one that catapulted it into the modern era. For several generations, before the secular humanistic worldview of the Enlightenment came to predominate, the heirs of Calvin controlled the direction of Western Civilization. The religious worldview of Rome was concerned with controlling men, not with setting them free to exercise dominion as citizens of the Kingdom of God . One of the lessons we have learned in the West is that free men can accomplish things of which institutions cannot dream. Calvin made the activity of the most humble worker noble in the service of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
Even as Calvin's message was drowned out by the revival of secular humanism in succeeding centuries, that movement had, because of Calvin, two battles to wage. One was the promotion of the secular political-economic outlook. It also had to contend with the loss of freedom this shift entailed. The secular outlook itself led to a loss of freedom, but the Reformation made this trend the subject of much resistance. The love of liberty to serve God and the respect for the labors of individuals in the furtherance of His Kingdom, when secularized after a loss of faith, still gave men a love of freedom and a purposefulness to their work that they give up to the state only grudgingly. The Reformation had to respond to the secular humanism of the Renaissance as well as to the institutionalized religious humanism of Rome . Today the situation is somewhat different. The primary challenge is now post-Enlightenment humanism, and the chief reform needed in the church is its recall to the work of the Kingdom and present dominion in terms of the eternal reign of Jesus Christ. Without a return to the doctrine of justification by God's sovereign grace, and to a life of sanctification and dominion work in the name of the only Mediator between God and man, believers will remain unprofitable servants.
Neither the Reformation nor any other period of history should be seen as the high-water mark of Christian activity, however. If we are truly dominion-oriented believers in the Kingdom of God, we know that His reign is sure and that His will shall come to pass in time as well as in eternity. There are no setbacks to the Kingdom of God , though we as mortals are unable to see the course Providence has established for it. God did not use the Reformation to cast down Rome from its arrogant claim to the mediation of God's work only to replace it with our frail reasoning. God does not mediate His grace through either priests or human understanding. Ours is to have faith and to serve God in newness of life. This powerful Reformation message must be ours to carry forward.
Note: Much of the material for this article is based on Calvin in Geneva : the Sociology of Justification by Faith, a chapter in R .J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (Virginia: Thoburn Press 1978, now available from Chalcedon), 263-290.
1. In this, the Reformation developed the implications of the Counsel of Chalcedon. See Mark R. Rushdoony, The Immanent or the Incarnate? The Definition of Chalcedon as the Foundation of Western Liberty,' Chalcedon Report, December 2003, 4.
2. The teaching of the "priesthood of all believers" is one example of this influence. The belief that God honors the honest work of any man or woman led to an unprecedented dedication to work and calling. In America the development of this theology resulted in the "Puritan work ethic."