Calvin on Apostles image

Calvin on Apostles

I have made the argument before that, since Apollos was regarded as an apostle (1 Corinthians 4:1), and yet was clearly not an eyewitness of the resurrection (Acts 18), apostleship cannot be limited to those who saw the risen Christ (although the type of apostleship exercised by the eyewitnesses of the resurrection is clearly of a different order). What I didn't realise was that John Calvin allowed for this view. Here's his commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:9:

It is uncertain if he is speaking about himself alone, or whether he includes Apollos and Sylvanus, for he sometimes calls men like them apostles. I prefer however to take it as referring to himself alone. If anyone wishes to give it a wider application, I have no great objection, provided that he does not understand it, like Chrysostom, to mean that all the apostles have been relegated to the least significant place, as if they were in disgrace.

So Calvin, not exactly known for being an advocate of apostolic ministry today (see below), thinks that Paul sometimes used the word “apostle” to describe people other than the twelve/Paul/James, and that he doesn’t much object if people put his reference to Apollos in that category. How nice.

Later in the same commentary, he famously distinguishes between the “permanent offices” which are “necessary for the government of the Church”, and the “temporary ones” which were designed for “the founding of the Church, and the setting up of the Kingdom of Christ; and which ceased to exist after a while.” So he believes that apostleship is limited to the first generation or so of the church, but not because one had to be an eyewitness of the risen Christ (because otherwise, how do Apollos or Silas fit in?) Why, then, does he believe apostles are temporary? Well:

For the Lord appointed the apostles, so that they might spread the Gospel throughout the whole world. He did not assign any particular boundaries or parishes to them but wanted them to act as ambassadors for him, wherever they went, among people of every nation and language. In that respect they differ from the pastors, who are bound, so to speak, to their own churches.

Which looks very much like his reasons for arguing that apostleship is a temporary office are missional, if that word is not too anachronistic, rather than theological. Unlike many subsequent Calvinists, his argument here is not based on the necessity of witnessing the resurrection (which he says nothing about in chapters 9 or 15), nor on the completion of the canon of Scripture (which he says nothing about in chapter 13), but on the missionary scope of apostleship “among people of every nation and language”. Apostles were temporary, says Calvin, because the task of spreading the gospel in the whole world was temporary - which, from the point of view of sixteenth century Europe, it looked like it was - and the difference between an apostle and pastor was that one aims to take the gospel to every nation and language, and the other one doesn’t.

All of which raises the question: what if Calvin was persuaded that there were thousands of nations and languages still to be reached with the gospel today? Might he believe, perhaps, that apostles (like Apollos and Silas and Barnabas and co), commissioned to take the gospel to all nations, were still needed? Why not?

It’s an interesting thought.

[And, while we’re talking about Calvin on apostles, let’s not forget this little dig, which is my second favourite one-liner in his Corinthians:

Anyone who wants to find support for the Papacy in this passage is simply making a fool of himself.

My favourite, should you care, is the even terser (and empirically untrue) throwaway comment: “Everyone knows what is meant by the gift of healings.” If only he had elaborated.]

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