Calvin on the Necessity of the Apostles

Apollos was regarded as an apostle (1 Cor 4:1). He was not an eyewitness of the resurrection (Acts 18). Thus, 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). 

John Calvin’s 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.“[1] 

Clearly, Calvin is not a fan of the NAR. You would not find him advocating for modern apostolic ministry today. Yet it is clear he understands Paul sometimes used the word “apostle” of people not on the ‘short list’. It is clear that he doesn’t much object if people put his reference to Apollos in that category. 

In the same commentary, Calvin gives the cessationist position, believing that apostleship is limited to the first generation. What is curious are the grounds he gives for his position. He made his assertion not on the grounds that they had to be an eyewitness of the risen Christ (because otherwise, how do Apollos or Silas fit in?) Calvin explains here why he believes apostles are temporary:

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.[2]

Calvin’s reasons for arguing that apostleship is a temporary office are on practical rather than theological grounds. See, most cessationist arguments are based on the necessity of witnessing the resurrection. Calvin says nothing of this in Chapters 9 or 15 of 1 Corinthians. 

Other cessationists claim it is the completion of the canon of Scripture. Calvin says nothing about this either in chapter 13 of 1 Cor. 

Calvin’s reasons rest on the practical missionary scope of apostleship “among people of every nation and language” as he wrote. Apostles were temporary, says Calvin, yet his reason is that the task of spreading the gospel to the whole world was temporary. No more spreading, no more apostles. This view is understandable from one living in sixteenth-century Europe. Paul made it to the ends of the known world at that time and the church was established. From Calvin’s historical perspective, it looked like it was – and the difference between an apostle and pastor was that one takes the gospel to every nation and language, and the other one doesn’t. This shift raises the question: What if Calvin could talk to a mission mobilizer or mission pastor? What if Calvin was persuaded the nations still needed to be reached? What if he began to believe there were thousands of nations and languages still to be reached with the gospel? Might his beliefs shift? Would he believe that apostles (like Apollos and Silas and Barnabas and the like), commissioned to take the gospel to all nations, still are needed?

In Calvin’s thought we see an ambiguity I was not expecting. While holding the line against Rome, He was open in ways I did not expect. This “revelation” had me looking a little deeper into his thought. 

Honest ambiguity 

The same ambiguity can be seen in a more general way, in Calvin’s Acts Commentary. Throughout the whole corpus, he gives one of two reasons He believes for the cessation of the gifts. That fact that He believes the gifts ceased is not in question, that was a key part of his polemic against Rome. In his commentaries, Calvin answers why he believes the Lord removed them. 

The first was divine sovereignty; it was all God’s plan. The second was human depravity; God removed them because people could not handle them.[4] Scholars have debated which one played more of a role in his thought.[5] The clearest place this ambiguity can be seen is in one of Cavlin’s tracts against Rome. Making a point about the gifts of the Spirit, He shows his ambiguity: 

It is notorious that the gifts of the Spirit, which were then given by the laying on of hands, sometime after ceased to be conferred. Whether this was owing to the ingratitude of the world, or because the doctrine of the Gospel had already been sufficiently distinguished by the miracles of nearly a hundred years, is of no consequence…”[6]

A Hopeful Openness

The most interesting quote I’ve ever read by Calvin is in his Acts Commentary. He expounds Acts 5:32b, “and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him”, and explains what God gives in response to obedience. His answer leaves open the possibility for more than most today would: 

But it may be asked, “since we obtain faith by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, how is Christ here said to be given after faith?” My reply is that this refers to the gifts of tongues, prophecy, interpretation, healings, and the like, through which God was enriching his church at that time. Paul says this when he asks the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2). So the illumination of the Spirit precedes faith, since it causes faith. Later other graces – follow that are beneficial to us, in line with Jesus’ words, “Whoever has will be given more” (Matthew 13:12). If we want to be continually enriched with new gifts of the Spirit, we must approach God with all our hearts. Today our unbelief brings us totally different rewards, because most people, devoid of God’s Spirit, see and understand nothing. [7]  

Such quotes remind me, Calvin may look like a Karen, but he is never as cut and dry, mean and bombastic, as people make him out to be. Calvin was always open to change. He wanted the church holy and God’s blessing to be on her. His openness may be the result of his charismatic wife, well, a ‘former anabaptist’ wife. [8] As we can see from his writings, Calvin seemed to have a belief that God is in control and can do as He wishes, so anything is possible. He believed the gifts had ceased as a polemic against a Catholic view of miracles but was also hopeful God would do a new thing. He wanted God to give new graces to a believing church. I like to say Calvin was “open but cessationist”.

I am sure some Calvin scholars, most Calvin scholars, all Calvin scholars, (what do I know) will have a bone to pick with me. Yet my point transcends one man: if you believe in sovereignty, you have to be open to God being sovereign, even if you are sure about what He does not do anymore. Because, being open leaves room to be kind. I wish more cessationists would follow his lead and not be so sure of their own ideas. It is as if they believe God needs to get their approval before He does anything. Calvin wanted God to be God, and hoped to see any and all the graces God wished in His good pleasure to give the Church. He was open in a way that may be hard today given the social labels and identity groups surrounding this issue. Yet, Calvin was open to being surprised by a Good Father who gives good gifts. I wish more of my reformed friends were “open but cessationist”.

But more than anything, I wish we all could see how we need each other. I wish we could see our real situation. We are like fighting brothers in a house, set in a scorched landscape, surrounded by Orcs, Goblins and rainbow glitter. The enemy is on all sides, yet all we do is fight till we are bloody, over which toy is mine and who the Father loves more. On both sides, the common mood is becoming “open but indifferent or indignant” and it ought not be. I write this after receiving yet another email telling me, “You are a good guy, just not one of “us”, so please don’t email again.” The church in the coming years will need bridges of fellowship for what is ahead for us, lines of communication built on love and understanding. All I am asking is for my brothers across the aisle to consider Calvin, for all I see these days are my reformed friends disappearing one-by-one as the walls between camps seem to grow higher and higher. 



[1] John Calvin, 1 Corinthians, Trans. John W. Fraser, eds. David W Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance (Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1960) p 93. 

[2] John Calvin, 1 Corinthians, (Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1960) p 270 

[3] Acts 10:4, in Calvins Comm. also in  Mark 16:17 (above translation) the firmness of his logic and conviction of the cessation of the gifts, with a good reflection showing his ambiguity on the nature as well: “Though Christ does not expressly state whether he intends this gift to be temporary, or to remain perpetually in his church, yet it is more probable that miracles were promised only for a time, in order to give luster to the Gospel, while it was new and in a state of obscurity. It is possible, no doubt, that the world may have been deprived of this honor through the guilt of its own ingratitude, but I think that the true design for which miracles were appointed was, that nothing which was necessary for proving the doctrine of the Gospel should be wanting at its commencement. And certainly we see that the use of them ceased not long afterwards, or, at least, that instances of them were so rare as to entitle us to conclude that they would not be equally common in all ages.” 

[4] Comm. on Acts 10;46 also see Comm. on 1 COR 12 /1, 298, 15-17; see also comm. on Acts 2:17, 1 COR 12/1,58,32-33; comm. on Acts 5:32, 1 COR 12/1,156,19-20.

[5] Personally I don’t think you need to pit one against the other, for Calvin understood the logic of primary and secondary causes, especially with regards to human responsibility and divine sovereignty. It is assumed in his writings and theological logic all the time. If placed on the horns of that dilemma, what is that human error or God‘s plan, He could give a hearty and affirming Yes to both.  Both can be coherent reasons one can be the formal reason the other can be the material reason. Human error and abuse (read Corinthians) resulted in God pulling back on his gifts. As well as, The gifts ceased in keeping with God’s plan anyway because nothing catches God off guard for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have the future in hand. I disagree with old Cal but I see his logic. 

[6] Calvin’s tract on “Interim adultero-germanum”, in Tracts and Letters of John Calvin, Vol 7 (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Press,2009) 628-629. This tract outlined the difference between Catholics and Protestants. Calvin clearly associated the miraculous gifts to the confirmation of the gospel message not the authorization of the messenger which was a Catholic position: Miracles attest to the gifted person’s authority thus the powerful and gifted ule, it’s God’s affirmation of the person. 

[7] John Calvin, ACTS 1-13, Trans. John W. Fraser, eds. David W Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance (Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1965) p 150-151  

[8] I am joking a bit here. In all honesty, She was a former anabaptist. Such groups were more open to the idea of personal revelation and for better and mostly worse the anabaptists were the ‘Continuationists’ of Calvin’s day. What is clear is her Influence on her husband. It’s been documented by historians that she was a positive influence on his view of the Holy Spirit. Loosening his very tight collar and helping his shift gears from His polemic against the Catholic miracles, to a more open approach  when it came to the Holy Spirit’s role in church’s life.