John Calvin, Virtual Church Pioneer by Douglas Estes
John Calvin was not only one of the church’s greatest trailblazers; he was also one of the virtual church’s leading pioneers. In fact, John Calvin was all about virtual churches. Even though Calvin lived almost a half-millennium before the first virtual church was born, were he alive today he would be a fan—though he also would be unsatisfied with the direction that most virtual churches are taking.
Calvin was a pre-Enlightenment Christian, meaning that he was born before the modern ideal became the mindset in the Western world. As such, he held many non-modern viewpoints about the church. Let’s look at two examples.
We Westerners squabble over aspects of the ‘church’ that would seem less important to pre-moderns like Calvin. While every generation struggles with culturally-based views of the church, the idea that the church is a physical, tangible object seems to be most felt during the modern era. Our language betrays that we think a church is a physical building or a place. But even those who understand that a church is not a building still overplay the physical nature of what a church is. While there are physical aspects to a church (cf. Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva, where he likens the church to the ‘body’ of believers), a church is, and by nature must be, primarily a spiritual thing. Calvin understood this when he wrote:
"Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence." (Institutes, trans Beveridge; 4.1.9)
What Calvin says is that the form of the church should be very conspicuous to those seeking to view it—the church exists where the word of God is sincerely taught and received, and where the sacraments are offered in Christ’s name. Whether Calvin realized it or not—though I am certain he did—he demonstrated that churches are not defined by names, location, politics, leadership, or even tangibility, but instead by the spiritual demonstration of Christ. Therefore whether churches are gothic, home-based or virtual (remember, virtual means ‘synthetic’ not ‘fake’; virtual churches are real churches existing in synthetic places instead of real-world places), a church "has some existence" because of its spiritual qualities, and in spite of any physical limitations it may possess.
Calvin was a virtual church pioneer because he understood that there were, and would be, churches that didn’t look like church through the lens of prevailing Christian culture. Calvin wrote:
"We have said that the symbols by which the Church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God." (Institutes, trans Beveridge; 4.1.10)
It seems clear he understood that culture will often blind people to the true nature of the church, and that therefore if we want to discern what a real and true and valid church is, then we must look to the central aspects of church: the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments.
Calvin was a virtual church pioneer because he believed the church was defined by its God-given, spiritual descriptors instead of its physical attributes or cultural underpinnings. He was the man behind some of the more ‘alternative, non-traditional’ churches of his day. His new form of church was heavily criticized, but it thrived due to its spiritual foundation and not its outward appearance. Critics will argue that it is anachronistic to make Calvin an advocate of virtual churches, but if so, it is no more anachronistic than Calvinists using the Fathers as advocates of Reformed churches.
Calvin himself experienced many problems with the launch of ecclesiastical IPOs, same as virtual churches now face. How to create a church that was as Christ-centered as possible, erring neither on the side of the traditionalists or the libertines? Still, I feel quite convinced Calvin would have been very disappointed in virtual churches today. Many virtual churches, labeled as ‘fake’ by the prevailing Christian culture and ignored as a means of building God’s kingdom by ‘conservative’ denominations, have shied away from controversy by abstaining from the sacraments and keeping their ‘preaching’ to a sweet, vanilla treat.
We know where Calvin stood, we know where modern Christian culture stands, but where will we stand as more and more churches are launched in synthetic worlds? With Calvin or with culture?
Douglas Estes is Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San José and Lead Pastor at Berryessa Valley Church, San José, California. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. His publications include The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008) and the forthcoming SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Available Oct. 2009). Douglas blogs at http://www.bvcblog.com