Calvin’s Concept of the Church as mater fidelium (Mother of Believers), Viewed through His Concept of Accommodation

in Journal of Reformed Theology
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Is the church distinctive from us or are we ourselves the church? Unlike many protestant believers who understand the church as assembly of believers, Calvin defines the church as mater fidelium (mother of believers), just as the Catechism of Catholic Church describes, following Cyprian. To review in what ways Calvin’s view is similar to—and differentiated from—that of Catholicism, this article discusses the concept of the church as ‘Mother’ in the early church, focusing on Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Then, it deals with Calvin’s concept of mater fidelium and move on to Calvin’s concept of accommodation in his ecclesiology. It concludes that Calvin’s use of the concept in four different ways is similar to Augustine’s rather than to Cyprian’s, and that Calvin’s concept of accommodation as God’s relationship to the church can overcome the tension between the church as ‘mother of believers’ and the church as ‘believers themselves.’

Calvin’s Concept of the Church as mater fidelium (Mother of Believers), Viewed through His Concept of Accommodation

in Journal of Reformed Theology




Carl E. BraatenMother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Minneapolis: Fortress1998) 2.


Jeannine E. Olson“Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception: Disputes Developments and New Possibilities eds. J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink (Louisville: Westminster John Knox2012) 198.


I. John HesselinkCalvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press1997) 155. Calvin’s high doctrine of the church has been noted by Calvin specialists. Hesselink asserts that Calvin laid great stress on the authority of the visible earthly church (Ibid.). Carew Hunt sees Calvin as a Churchman as any Pope (Calvin [London The Centenary Press 1933] 136). G.S.M. Walker holds that despite the fact that unity and universality were lost in the general turmoil of the Reformation the outcome was the direct opposite of what the Reformer was accused of; for Calvin stressed the catholicity of the Una Sancta more strongly than any other Reformer (“Calvin and the Church” in Readings in Calvin’s Theology ed. Donald K. McKim [Grand Rapids: Baker 1984] 212).


Joseph C. PlumpeMater Ecclesia: An Inquiry into the Concept of the Church as Mother in Early Christianity (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press1943) 1–6.


PlumpeMater Ecclesia18–20. “If you will but look into them closely you will be able to build up yourselves into the faith given to you; and this … is the mother of us all” (Polycarp Letter to the Philippians 3). The same idea can be found in The Shepherd of Hermas Vision 3.8.2–3 and in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata 2.5.


PlumpeMater Ecclesia22. “This tower is held up by them at the command of the Lord …. The first of them the woman with the strong hands is called faith” (The Shepherd of Hermas Vision 3.8.2–3).


Georg Plasger“Ecclesiology” in The Calvin Handbooked. Herman J. Selderhuis trans. Randi H. Lundell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans2009) 332. According to Johannes Quasten “Tertullian is the first to use ‘mother’ as a title of the Church” (Patrology: The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus [Utrecht-Antwerp: Spectrum 1953] 330). Yet among theologians of Alexandria was Clement of Alexandria who mentioned the church as mother. The focus is placed on the tight relationship between Christ and the church and the pedagogical characteristics of the church as one undefiled virgin loving and teaching mother for her children (The PadagogusI.6 see also Plumpe Mater Ecclesia 65–67 and Abraham van de Beek Lichaam en Geest van Christus: De theologie van de kerk en de Heilige Geest [Zoetermeer: Meinema 2012] 18).


CyprianLetter 10.2 ANF 5.291 “Ante est ut a Domino pacem mater prior sumat tunc secundum vestra desideria de filiorum pace tractetur” (emphasis mine) MPL 4.255A.


CyprianLetter 39.6 ANF 5.318.


CyprianLetter 72.21 ANF 5.384 Epistola 73.21 MPL 3.1123B. A question can be raised as to whether or not this brief statement is extended to the more general principle of the church as an exclusive means of salvation because it is stated in the context of a debate on validated baptism rather than the church in general. Still it is fair to say that a strong accent on the unity of the church over against Donatists may give Cyprian an additional force to develop this exclusive idea of the church (Pelikan The Christian Tradition 159). Other exclusive benefits of Mother Church are mentioned in the section 24 of the same letter.


CyprianEpistle 48.1 ANF 5.325.


AmbroseLetter 22.7 NPNF2 10.437.


AmbroseLetter 62.3 NPNF2 10.456 MPL 16.1188C.


AugustineHomilies on the Gospel of John 13.12–18 NPNF1 7.91–93.


AugustineHomilies on the Gospel of John120.2 NPNF1 7.434 MPL 35.1953.


AugustineOn the Moral of the Catholic Church 30.62 NPNF1 4.58 MPL 32.1336.


AugustineExposition on Psalm89.41 NPNF1 8.441.


AugustineConfession 7.1.1 NPNF1 1.102 MPL 32.733.


AugustineLetter 98.5 NPNF1 1.408.


AugustineSermon 213.7.7 MPL 38.1063.


AugustineHomilies on the Gospel of John 124.5 NPNF1 7.450.


Gregory of NazianzusOration 18.42 8.14.


Jacopo SadoletoA Reformed Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply (Grand Rapids: Baker1966) 42.


Lukas Vischer“The Church—Mother of the Believers,” in Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks Topics Traditionseds. David Willis and Michael Welker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans1999) 264–265.


BraatenMother Church3.


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