"Preserving Church Unity: Calvin and the Believers at Wesel" - Dr. R. Faber

Taken With permission from Clarion Vol. 44, May 5, (1995)

Dr. Riemer Faber is professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

1. Introduction

Increasingly, the character of the Canadian and American Reformed churches is becoming diverse. Believers whose cultural, religious, and social backgrounds differ, are joined together in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. The union of true believers, however, is not easily achieved or maintained: the customs, liturgies, and other ecclesiastical practices produced by different histories or theological issues are frequently deemed precious inheritances. And the danger exists that matters of secondary significance are elevated to the status of doctrinal principle. It is important, therefor, to distinguish between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of the Christian faith. Churches must guard the principles of the faith jealously, for when the doctrine of the church is overturned "the death of the church follows". However, raising non-fundamental matters to primary status may lead towards sectarianism or may result in schism.

The history of Reformed churches has witnessed many opportunities to valuate teaching and practice; this article will discuss only one of them, namely the opportunity of the French Reformed believers in the church at Wesel in the sixteenth century. Consisting of Reformed believers who had been assumed into a town of predominantly Lutheran citizens and councillors, the Reformed congregation at Wesel experienced difficulties arising from the enforced union of Protestants whose doctrines and manner of worship were not identical in every respect. Especially differences in the teaching and ceremony of the Lord's Supper distinguished Lutherans from Calvinists. And it was concerning the celebration of the Lord's Supper that the French congregation at Wesel requested the advice of John Calvin. Calvin's letter of reply to the Reformed congregation teaches believers that there are indeed matters of the Reformed faith which are not worthy of the status of primary doctrine or necessary practice. In fact, as shall be noted, Calvin argues that there are certain circumstances in which even improper practices of secondary significance must be tolerated. In order to appreciate the intent of Calvin's letter, we shall first note the history and situation of the French Reformed believers in the town of Wesel. Thereupon we shall consider the issue which prompted them to consult Calvin, and Calvin's letter in response. Lastly, we shall consider how relevant Calvin's advice may be to Reformed churches today.

2. The "Stranger" Churches in London

It is thought that some of the believers who joined the congregation at Wesel in 1553 came from the so-called "stranger" churches in London. Members of these churches were continental Europeans of the Reformed faith who had emigrated to England in order to avoid religious persecution in their native lands. During his reign from 1547 until 1553 Edward VI promoted the reform of the church in England, and the country became a safe haven for exiled Protestants. Edward's accession to the throne had occurred not a moment too soon, for by 1548 actual or expected persecution of Protestants in the Low Countries was forcing a growing number of believers to emigrate to London.(1) During the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, Protestants living there were sought out and punished. Even Germany, which was considered a bastion of the Reformation, came under the threat of religious suppression after emperor Charles V had defeated the league of Protestant princes in 1547. Thus in 1547 groups of especially Dutch, German and French-speaking believers settled in London to practise the Reformed faith in freedom. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 Protestants moved from the continent to England during the reign of King Edward.

In 1548 the Dutch-German community in London formed into a congregation and instituted regular worship services. There was also a French Protestant community in the city, but it maintained a lower profile, since in the middle of the sixteenth century England was at war with France. Nevertheless, according to one church register, by 1550 the French Protestant congregation in London numbered about 350 adult males. From 1548 until its demise in 1553, the community of French Protestants was guided by two ministers, Francis Perussel and Richard Vauville. Both men were destined to leave London when Mary Tudor's Roman Catholic reign would force the Protestants to go underground. In 1553 Perussel moved to Wesel, whence he would travel to Frankfurt. Richard Vauville remained in London to serve the remaining French believers until 1555, when he, too, moved to Frankfurt.

The most prominent figure associated with the establishment of the stranger churches in England was the Polish theologian John à Lasco (or John Lasky). With the assistance of Jan Utenhove, à Lasco provided the two congregations with a church order, liturgies, forms for the administration of the sacraments, and a Confession of Faith. The Lord's Supper was celebrated monthly; the location for it alternated between the church of the Dutch and the meeting-place of the French. The Dutch-German community was also served by two ministers. It is estimated that by 1553 the Dutch and French churches together numbered more than three thousand persons.

It seems likely that Calvin's increasing authority influenced especially the French community in London, so that it developed practices on the model of the church at Geneva rather than that of the Dutch Reformed churches. Calvin followed the progress of the stranger churches with interest, and on occasion admonished and exhorted the French community. It is not surprising that the stranger churches, consisting of believers from diverse cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, should advocate divergent ideas and customs.

The death of Edward VI in 1553 came as a shock to the stranger churches which had prospered under a king who supported reformation. When Mary Tudor succeeded Edward VI, she moved quickly to revert the official religion to Roman Catholicism. In August 1553 "Bloody Mary" ordered the ministers of the stranger churches to stop preaching, viewing them as potential opponents to the restoration of the Roman church. By autumn of the same year, the Dutch and French churches had disappeared, its members going underground. And in December 1553, Mary rescinded the pro-Reformation laws of Edward and reinstituted the Romanist Mass. While many of the Dutch and German believers returned to the Low Countries and to Denmark, the French believers headed to their native land via Dover; it was assumed that many would head for Geneva.(2) Those members of the stranger church who remained in London were destined to resurface in 1559, when the accession of Elizabeth to the throne would provide a return to Protestantism.

4. The Refugee Centres

There were three European cities which acted as refugee centres for the exiled members of the stranger churches: Emden (in east Friesland), Frankfurt and Wesel (both in Germany). Unfortunately, no church records survive which might indicate the number of refugees who came to Wesel from the French stranger church in London. Whereas previously scholars thought that the influx of French-speaking believers from London to Wesel was considerable, recent estimates are very modest. Two facts suggest, however, that at least some of the members of the London church settled in the German town. As early as 1545 Wesel had accepted religious refugees from the Low Countries: Walloons had been permitted to conduct Reformed worship services in French alongside the Lutheran services.(3) Thus the town had gained the reputation of being kindly disposed towards fleeing Protestants; the French-speaking exiles from London would have been attracted to Wesel. More important is the fact that the church at Wesel elected Francis Perussel as its minister. The choice of this man suggests that there were not a few who knew the former minister of the stranger church in London. At any rate, one may suppose that the group at Wesel chose a pastor whose teaching and practice was in accord with their own. And the Calvinist tenor of the Reformed community in Wesel must have been similar to that of the French stranger church in London.

The town's council, however, consisted of Lutheran members, and both the doctrines and the practices of the town church differed from those which the French believers exercised. The well-being of the French Reformed group in Wesel depended upon its good relations with the Lutheran leaders. Unfortunately, the relations between Calvinists and Lutherans had deteriorated throughout Europe by the time the exiles settled into Wesel. The doctrine of the Lord's Supper continued to be the main issue separating the Swiss, German and French reformers. Already after the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, the doctrine concerning the mode of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrament divided Zwinglians from Lutherans, while those associated with Calvin strove to bring the camps together.(4) The so-called Zurich Accord of 1549, in which Calvin played no small role, was one of the attempts atcompromise.(5) But John à Lasco, whose name was associated with the refugees of the stranger churches, had published a series of sermons in which he denounced the Lutheran practice of the Lord's Supper.

The disagreement over the sacramental doctrine had become bitter, and the exiles could expect a less than warm reception by the councillors of Wesel. For, as A. Pettegree observes, "a narrow Lutheran orthodoxy was ... being imposed in many cities which had previously offered a generous welcome to Reformed communities."(6) Given these circumstances, the Reformed exiles needed to be sensitive to the Lutheran position.

Upon arriving in the town, the exiles first presented the town council with a Confession of Faith, which was deemed sound. The French-speaking believers were permitted to conduct worship services separate from the town church, but under certain conditions. Given the religious climate of the day, these were generous concessions. Shortly after he arrived in 1554, Francis Perussel requested that his flock be permitted to celebrate also the Lord's Supper apart. This request was denied, however, and the members were asked to participate in the Lutheran celebration. It seemed only a matter of time before the town council would request the exiles to subscribe to the Lutheran doctrine of the physical presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrament. To the Reformed believers, however, this would be unacceptable; they thought that the Lutheran exercise of the sacrament retained vestiges of the Roman Catholic mass. For them the use of figured bread, the candles on the table, and the wearing of special vestments, called chasubles, by the celebrants, was altogether too ornate. The exiles began to consider moving to another town where they might practise their Reformed faith freely. Late in 1553, or early in the new year 1554, leaders of the exiles requested Calvin's advice. The letter sent to him is not extant, but Calvin's reply, written in French and signed by "the Ministers of the Church of Geneva" on 13 March 1554, survives.(7)

5. Calvin's Letter of Advice

Calvin begins his letter with an encouragement to the exiles in their circumstances, exhorting them to remain constant in the Reformed faith.(8) He reminds them to be thankful to God, who "has granted you a place of refuge in which you are at liberty to serve and worship Him (30)." Calvin points out that such liberty is "no slight favour at a time when the world is turned upside down (30)." Thereupon he turns to the matter of immediate concern, the celebration of the Lord's Supper in the church at Wesel. He notes that the members of the congregation are rightly concerned about the administration of this sacrament, and that he shares their conviction that the supper should be celebrated only according to its institution as described in the New Testament and as practised in the apostolic church. Calvin agrees that any addition to the scriptural prescriptions for the rite "cannot fail to be a corruption." Calvin's attitude toward the more ornate Lutheran practice at Wesel is clear: he calls the ceremonies "unmeaning mummeries - which are, as it were, the residue of Popish superstitions, the recollection of which we should strive as much as in us lies to exterminate (30)." Calvin appreciates the concern of the believers in Wesel, and supports them in their efforts to correct the improper exercise of the sacrament. Indeed, Calvin states, if the church in Geneva should be confronted with "such ceremonies, we should hold ourselves bound according to the position in which God has placed us, to admit of no compromise in resisting their introduction (30-31)." The exile community in Wesel is rightly concerned about the manner in which the Supper was celebrated.

Improper administration of the sacrament, however, is for Calvin not sufficient reason to disband the body of Christ as it is manifested in Wesel. Ceremonies "do not affect the substance of our faith" (31), states Calvin, and it would be wrong if anyone who, "from spite against a candle or chasuble would consent to separate himself from the body of the church (31)." From these words in Calvin's reply the impression is gained that the exiles in Wesel deem the mal-administration of the sacrament of such significance that it warrants their withdrawal from the community.(9) To this the reformer replies that "it would be for us a matter of deep regret if the French church which might be erected there should be broken up, because we could not accommodate ourselves to some ceremonies (31)." Calvin feared not merely for the unity of the church in Wesel, but for its very survival.

According to Calvin another reason why the Reformed believers in Wesel should not quit the town over the issue of the manner in which the sacrament is administered, is to avoid causing a scandal among the Lutherans who in weakness might take offence at the objections raised by the exiles to the figured bread, candles, and chasubles. To quote Calvin: "We must be on our guard not to scandalize those who are already subject to such infirmities, which we should certainly do by rejecting them from too frivolous motives (31)." The reformer even writes, "it is perfectly lawful for the children of God to submit to many things of which they do not approve", hastening to add that the "main point of consideration is how far such liberty should extend (31)." From these words, and from several other passages in Calvin's works, it is clear that the ceremonies and rites of the church are not deemed fundamental elements of the Christian faith. Objections to the manner in which a ceremony is conducted is for Calvin not sufficient reason to "abandon the advantage of having a christian church in that place (31)."

The principle which supports Calvin's advice to tolerate the Lutheran practice of the Lord's Supper is that there are fundamental and non-fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In Institutes 4.1.12, in a discussion of capricious withdrawal from the body of Christ, Calvin writes: "Some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the principles of the religion.... Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith.... A difference of opinion over these non-fundamental matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians."(10) Especially the outward rites of our religion, that is the customs, practices, and external orders, do not deserve to be counted as fundamental principles. In his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:40, Calvin writes: "The Lord allows us freedom in regard to outward rites, in order that we may not think that His worship is confined to those things. At the same time, however ... He has restricted the freedom, which He has given us, in such a way that it is only from His Word that we can make up our minds about what is right."(11) It is Scripture, the Word of God, which acts as the norm for fundamental and non-fundamental elements of the faith. The traditions and the teachings of humans and human institutions are of no value in assessing the ceremonies and rites of a church.

Applying the rule of distinguishing between fundamental and non-fundamental articles to the situation of the believers in Wesel, Calvin invites his readers to agree to the premise that "we ought to make mutual concessions in all ceremonies, that do not involve any prejudice to the confession of our faith (31)." Especially for the sake of the unity of the church at Wesel, the exiles ought to "support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct (30)."(12) The Geneva reformer even admonishes the believers that "the unity of the church be not destroyed by our excessive rigour or moroseness (31)." It is important for believers that they distinguish between fundamental and non-fundamental matters of the faith, for it would be a grave mistake if a matter not of primary significance is the cause of schism of lack of unity. Calvin is aware of the temptation to abuse this advice, and therefore balances it with the exhortation "that you do not yield to a faulty pliancy in the confession of your faith, and that you make no compromise as to doctrine (31)." Ending the letter with an encouragement to enjoy the benefits of partaking in the Lord's Supper, Calvin restates the essence the Reformed confession of the sacrament: "we are only made partakers of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and ... our souls are fully nourished by them (31)." The brethren at Wesel should be on guard against any belief which would "go farther than that confession (32)." Thus Calvin concludes his pastoral letter on a note of caution: while bearing with the weaknesses which attend the ceremony of the sacrament in Wesel, the Reformed believers ought to be wary of any transgression of the doctrine of the Lord's Supper as taught in the Bible.

7. Conclusion

Readers may be tempted to draw certain parallels between the situation of the Reformed congregation in Wesel and that of some modern Reformed churches. However many similarities there may appear to exist, it may be inappropriate to draw hard conclusions from them. For the social, political, and especially theological issues affecting both the Lutheran and the Reformed congregations at Wesel have no counterparts in North America of the twentieth century. One must appreciate history. The relations between church and state were much closer in Calvin's day than they are now, and politics played a role in the matters which separated the exiles from the Lutherans in Wesel. What is more, in the sixteenth century the Reformation was still in its most formative phase, and Calvin's personal authority, and the authority of other figures, played an important role in the case of the Reformed exiles. The Reformed churches of today, however, have been influenced by a Calvinism which continued to develop long after John Calvin.

In addition to acknowledging the general differences which exist between the Reformed churches of today and those of the past, one must appreciate the specific nature of the issue facing the exiles at Wesel. Calvin was not so much concerned about the unity of a Reformed church, he was concerned about the relations between Lutheran and Reformed believers. The exiles had been admitted by citizens and councillors of a town which was hardening in its Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Wesel was one town where the sacramentarian controversy was real; Calvin was keenly aware of the role which the exiles played in the sensitive relations between Calvinists and Lutherans. Yet Calvin's immediate concern regarding the exiles was the very existence of a French Reformed Church in Wesel rather than the harmony within one congregation. Moreover, Calvin was giving advice to a definite group of believers whose circumstances and history he knew were abnormal. Identification of the situation of the Wesel exiles and a current one would, therefore, be inappropriate.

As was suggested above, Calvin's letter should not be read out of the context of worsening relations between Lutherans and Reformed. When the Lutheran party made demands from Reformed believers that would force them to compromise in doctrine, the Reformed believers could not acquiesce. K. Schilder reminds us that Calvin's attitude changed towards the Lutherans in general and towards the situation of the Reformed believers in Wesel and Frankfurt in particular. Schilder warned those who advocated the notion of the pluriformity of the church by adducing Calvin's assessment of the relations between Calvinists and Lutherans in the 1550's, that they should read Calvin's advice to the Reformed believers in the two Lutheran cities in a broader historical context.(13) For by 1561 the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper diverged more and more from the Reformed teaching, and Calvin then advised the Reformed believers against participating in the sacrament as it was taught and administered by Lutherans. Moreover, Calvin had observed that there were radical Lutherans, "apes of Luther", whose party-spirit was harming the delicate relations between the Calvinists and Lutherans.

It is worthy of note that Calvin did seek unity between Lutherans and Calvinists. He had signed the Augsburg Confession of 1540 (the "varied" version in which the article concerning the Lord's Supper was modified), and at no point in the discussions between Lutherans and Reformed did Calvin describe the emerging Lutheran church as a false church.(14) It was not until 1577 - after Calvin's death in 1564 - when the orthodox Lutheran Formula of Concord was published, that the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence and the two natures of Jesus Christ became official and so led to a formal break between Calvinists and Lutherans. Calvin's letter of advice in 1554 is one document of an ultimately unsuccessful process between two parties which, in the end, did not possess a common doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Nevertheless, Calvin's ongoing attempts to seek unity with Lutherans should be seen today as an example for bringing together that which belongs together. More importantly, perhaps, current deliberations among Reformed churches should focus upon the unity which exists in doctrine; common adherence to the doctrines taught in Scripture should lead to unity in practice.

In conclusion, some general observations may be made about the principles underlying Calvin's advice, and their relevance to modern Reformed churches. Firstly, one may consider the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of the faith. The premise according to which Calvin assigns differing values to matters which are essential to the doctrine of the faith and to matters which do not affect it is Scripture. The Bible, and not tradition, customs or practices of human origin should be acknowledged as the sole guide in making such distinctions. The advice that outward rites and ceremonies should not be placed on a par with the doctrine contained in Scripture is one which should be acknowledged today. Appreciation for the manner in which Reformed churches worship and exercise the sacraments should be tempered by the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of the faith. The fact that a certain form of worship has characterised a particular congregation is not in itself sufficient reason to maintain that form. This principle is particularly relevant in a time when Reformed churches seek to strengthen the ties which the unity of the faith provides. Reformed churches would be well-advised to distinguish carefully between those matters which form the very heart of the Christian faith and those which do not affect the doctrine as revealed in Scripture.


Return1. The most complete English treatment of the stranger churches in London is A. Pettegree, Foreign Protestant Communities in Sixteenth-Century London (Oxford, 1986).

Return2. For an account which traces the fortunes of the London exiles, see A. Pettegree, "The London Exile Community and the Second Sacramentarian Controversy, 1553-1560," Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 16 (1987) 223-251.

Return3. W. Nijenhuis, Ecclesia Reformata (Leiden, 1994), 103.

Return4. For the differences and similarities between Calvin's and Luther's teaching of the sacrament, see now B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude. The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis, 1994).

Return5. The most recent discussion of the Zurich Accord is by P. Rorem, "The Consensus Tigurinus (1549): Did Calvin Compromise?" in W. Neuser, ed., Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor (Grand Rapids, 1994), 72-90.

Return6. Pettegree, Protestant Communities, 121.

Return7. It appears as Letter 346 in the collation of J. Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin. Vol. III. (tr. M. Gilchrist. New York, 1972 [rep.]), 29-33.

Return8. Calvin's letter to the Reformed believers in Wesel is treated by W. Neuser, "Die Aufnahme der Flüchtlinge auf England in Wesel (1553) und ihre Ausweisung trozt der Vermittlung Calvin und Melanchthons," in Weseler Konvent 1568-1968. Eine Jubiläumschrift (Düsseldorf, 1968), 28-49.

Return9. In fact, upon receiving Calvin's letter, Perussel sought a second opinion from John à Lasco, who reckoned the council's demands to be too inflexible and the matter of ceremonies so fundamental as to warrant the group's departure from the city.

Return10. J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 2., tr. F.L. Battles (Philadelphia, 1967), 1025-1026; further quotations derive from this edition.

Return11. Calvin's Commentaries. The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (tr. J. Fraser. Grand Rapids, 1960), 310.

Return12. Cf. Institutes 4.1.12, were Calvin argues that we should opt to "condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation (p.1026)."

Return13. K. Schilder, Verzamelde Werken. Vol. III. De Kerk. Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1960, 69-71.

Return14. Thus L. Doekes, "Op de Ware Kerk," Reformatie 55 (1979-80), 453.