John Calvin echoes Saints Cyprian and Augustine in proclaiming, "He who would have God for his Father must have the Church for his Mother." How curious that one of the Reformers would heartily endorse such a Catholic-sounding view of the Church. Is this an unnecessary holdover from the Catholic Church that Calvin’s spiritual children did well to do away with, or, is it in fact representative of biblical language about the Church?
Actually, the Westminster Confession, which has historically served as the boundary marker for Anglo-American Calvinism, does not jettison this kind of talk altogether, describing the earthly Church as that "out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25. 2). But perhaps the Westminster Confession of Faith misses what Calvin had to say about the Church? After all, it connects personal union with Christ exclusively to the invisible Church while asserting a merely political union with Christ in the visible Church (compare 25.1 to 25.2). Calvin, on the other hand, while it can be debated that he embraced a completely spiritualized concept of Christ's Body, seems to indicate more of what Augustine and Cyprian had in mind. It seems he would agree with these important ancient Christian thinkers that God has designed the earthly Church as the ark or womb into which sinful human beings are gathered for rescue from death and birth into the Kingdom of God. She is the Mother to whom we must turn for shelter from the forces of evil.
"Behold, your Mother," says Jesus to the disciple he loved as he was hanging on the cross (John 19:27). Is Christ entrusting us to His Mother and His Mother to us for the sake of Mary alone? He is certainly exalting her but only as the symbol of the Church He bids us embrace as the means of our union with Him. Just as Christ was conceived in Mary's womb by the Holy Spirit, so is Christ conceived in our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mother Church. Likewise, just as Christ was born whole from Mary after developing in her womb, He will be born fully formed in us when He returns because of the gestation of His Body in the womb of Mother Church. In this sense, Mother Church can be thought of as Christ Conceiver, Christ Nurturer, and Christ Bearer. The Christ life enters us through Her and will be brought to its maturity and full life in us through Her.
We can utilize the imagery of the Church's Motherhood to point us to the more classically biblical image of the Church's bridal union with Christ. Just as divinity finds its union with humanity in the Child in Mary's womb, so too do God's people find bridal union with Jesus in the womb of Mother Church.
Therefore, let it be known that whenever "high church” folks make such high-sounding statements about the Church, we are not elevating the bare humanity of the Church to the level of divine authority but simply recognizing the authority of Christ in His union with His Church. It is Christ we praise when we say such things. And let it never be thought that we conceive of the Church as standing between humanity and Christ. The great salvation we find in the Church is Christ's own communication to us of the salvation He purchased for us on the cross!
The Adventure of Knowing
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