This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
Related reading from yours truly:
Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)
A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)
Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)
Let the Romanists now go and oppose us with antiquity;
Yes, we will certainly do so, because that is a slam-dunk argument for our side.
as if, amid such a complete change in every respect, the honour of the See can continue where there is no See.
Calvin has by no means proven that there was a “complete change in every respect”. The more extreme and ridiculous he gets in making his groundless claims, the less he even makes a pretense of providing factual substantiation. One feels like a clueless fool even reading this; it is an insult to every reader of intelligence (not just Catholics).
Eusebius says that God, to make way for his vengeance, transferred the Church which was at Jerusalem to Pella (Euseb. Lib. 3 cap. 5). What we are told was once done may have been done repeatedly. Hence it is too absurd and ridiculous so to fix the honour of the primacy to a particular spot,
Why would that be, given that Jerusalem was one “spot” and was the center of God’s Kingdom on earth for many hundreds of years?
so that he who is in fact the most inveterate enemy of Christ, the chief adversary of the Gospel, the greatest devastator and waster of the Church, the most cruel slayer and murderer of the saints, should be, nevertheless, regarded as the vicegerent of Christ, the successor of Peter, the first priest of the Church, merely because he occupies what was formerly the first of all sees.
If it was formerly “first of all sees,” then when did it cease to be so, and why? None of this is argued; it is assumed (which is circular logic). Calvin makes all these outlandish claims without demonstrating any of them.
I do not say how great the difference is between the chancery of the Pope and well-regulated order in the Church; although this one fact might well set the question at rest. For no man of sound mind will include the episcopate in lead and bulls, much less in that administration of captions and circumscriptions, in which the spiritual government of the Pope is supposed to consist. It has therefore been elegantly said, that that vaunted Roman Church was long ago converted into a temporal court, the only thing which is now seen at Rome.
What year did this momentous change take place? When did the Holy Spirit entirely depart from the Roman See?
I am not here speaking of the vices of individuals, but demonstrating that the Papacy itself is diametrically opposed to the ecclesiastical system.
“Demonstrating” is the very last word that would apply to this contentless, slanderous mishmash and gobbledygook: supposed “argument” from an ostensibly intelligent man.
But if we come to individuals, it is well known what kind of vicars of Christ we shall find. No doubt, Julius and Leo, and Clement and Paul, will be pillars of the Christian faith, the first interpreters of religion, though they knew nothing more of Christ than they had learned in the school of Lucian. But why give the names of three or four pontiffs? as if there were any doubt as to the kind of religion professed by pontiffs, with their College of Cardinals, and professors, in the present day. The first head of the secret theology which is in vogue among them is, that there is no God.
Then (assuming Calvin is correct, as he offers no hard evidence, as usual) they would certainly enshrine such an opinion in Catholic theology, and proclaim it. Why, then, doesn’t Calvin document when that occurred? Obviously, he cannot, because it never happened. Catholic dogma is firmly theistic (I can assure all worried readers). If it had actually happened, that would actually be a rational argument and something Calvin could hang his hat on.
The Catholic Church would have declared a lie to be the truth (as the Episcopalians today and other liberal Protestant denominations often do). But corrupt popes (atheists, whoremongers, murderers, etc.) hardly cast doubt on the institution, since Christ established it. All corruption proves is that men are sinners, which is elementary Christian teaching. Peter denied Christ after he was commissioned as the Rock and first pope.
Another, that whatever things have been written and are taught concerning Christ are lies and imposture.
This would be another compelling proof for Calvin’s case, were he to trouble himself to document that it had ever been taught with papal authority.
A third, that the doctrine of a future life and final resurrection is a mere fable.
And where does that appear in any papal pronouncement?
All do not think, few speak thus; I confess it.
A few holdouts; who are they?
Yet it is long since this began to be the ordinary religion of pontiffs;
Which ones? What did they teach?
and though the thing is notorious to all who know Rome, Roman theologians cease not to boast that by special privilege our Saviour has provided that the Pope cannot err, because it was said to Peter, “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not”(Luke 22:32).
That’s right; when binding the faithful to dogmas on faith and morals; they are guided by the Holy Spirit. It was never promised that they would be perfect human beings, or that no “bad popes” would ever hold office.
What, pray, do they gain by their effrontery, but to let the whole world understand that they have reached the extreme of wickedness, so as neither to fear God nor regard man?
The Church needed reform then; it does now; it always does. Human beings always need to repent, and revival is necessary at all times. But “reform” and revival is not destruction, abandonment, annihilation, or essential reconstruction, which was Calvin’s program.
But let us suppose that the iniquity of these pontiffs whom I have mentioned is not known, as they have not published it either in sermons or writings, but betrayed it only at table or in their chamber, or at least within the walls of their court.
Okay; much better . . .
But if they would have the privilege which they claim to be confirmed, they must expunge from their list of pontiffs John XXII., who publicly maintained that the soul is mortal, and perishes with the body till the day of resurrection.
The pope denied that souls would behold the Beatific Vision prior to the Last Judgment. He also appeared to assert the notion of soul sleep, which was posited by a few fathers. This was the position that Martin Luther adopted, or came close to espousing. It had already been condemned by the Councils of Lyons (1274), and later by Florence (1439) and Trent (1545-1563). But the pope did not bind the faithful to it dogmatically (which is what the Church claims as to infallibility). The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision. (“Pope John XXII”)
And to show you that the whole See with its chief props then utterly fell, none of the Cardinals opposed his madness, only the Faculty of Paris urged the king to insist on a recantation.
That has no bearing on papal infallibility, so it is neither here nor there. The important thing was that there were many in the Church who directed the pope to eventually be persuaded of his error. That’s perfectly Catholic.
The king interdicted his subjects from communion with him, unless he would immediately recant, and published his interdict in the usual way by a herald. Thus necessitated, he abjured his error. This example relieves me from the necessity of disputing further with my opponents, when they say that the Roman See and its pontiffs cannot err in the faith, from its being said to Peter, “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.”
It proves nothing, because the notion of papal infallibility was never absolute. It specifically referred to extraordinary papal utterances. This instance was not that, because the pope had made no public, binding decree. It was strictly his private opinion. This distinction was made very clear in, for example, St. Francis de Sales’ work, The Catholic Controversy, written around 1596: just 37 or so years after Calvin’s final edition of the Institutes:
Certainly by this shameful lapse he fell from the faith,
When he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form .
We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.
But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church. (translated by Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1989, 306-307)
Not at all; he was wrong about a private opinion having to do with an “anthropological” and eschatological question, not salvation or Christology, etc. The Mind of the Church prevailed. It’s a non-issue. But when it is distorted it makes for good copy, so Calvin exploits it in his usual sophistical fashion. Did Martin Luther “fall from the faith” when he asserted soul-sleep? That would be a fascinating scenario indeed, if the founder of Lutheranism and the entire “Reformation” was not even within the bounds of the Christian “faith”.
and became a noted proof to posterity, that all are not Peters who succeed Peter in the episcopate; although the thing is too childish in itself to need an answer: for if they insist on applying everything that was said to Peter to the successors of Peter, it will follow, that they are all Satans, because our Lord once said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offence unto me.”
Yes, exactly; when Peter opposed Jesus going to Jerusalem, he was speaking by the influence of Satan. That has nothing to do with the charism of infallibility, either.
It is as easy for us to retort the latter saying as for them to adduce the former.
It is easy to say, but that makes it neither logical nor relevant.
But I have no pleasure in this absurd mode of disputation,
It’s good that Calvin regards his own arguments as absurd. That’s progress (yes, I know he is referring to the reductio ad absurdum). And we readers have no more pleasure than he has, except to see that he is deservedly refuted.
and therefore return to the point from which I digressed. To fix down Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church to a particular spot,
Who ever said that Christ and the Holy Spirit were the sole associates of the popes and no one else? This is returning “to the point”? What point, pray tell? The only “point” is that Calvin is again thinking illogically.
so that every one who presides in it, should he be a devil, must still be deemed vicegerent of Christ, and the head of the Church, because that spot was formerly the See of Peter, is not only impious and insulting to Christ, but absurd and contrary to common sense.
It’s not at all. It is a scandal; bad popes are hypocrites and cause misery and grief, for sure, but it is not unexpected that any office would have some bad inhabitants.
For a long period, the Roman Pontiffs have either been altogether devoid of religion, or been its greatest enemies. The see which they occupy, therefore, no more makes them the vicars of Christ, than it makes an idol to become God, when it is placed in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). Then, if manners be inquired into, let the Popes answer for themselves, what there is in them that can make them be recognised for bishops.
Apostolic succession, and possession of an office instituted by Jesus Christ. Calvin seems to have forgotten his own words in IV,1:27, or else he is arbitrarily excluding popes from the same scenario that he himself applied to entire churches in the apostolic period:
What shall we say to the fact, that occasionally whole churches have been implicated in the grossest sins, and yet Paul, instead of giving them over to destruction, rather mercifully extricated them? The defection of the Galatians was no trivial fault; the Corinthians were still less excusable, the iniquities prevailing among them being more numerous and not less heinous, yet neither are excluded from the mercy of the Lord. Nay, the very persons who had sinned above others in uncleanness and fornication are expressly invited to repentance.
The covenant of the Lord remains, and ever will remain, inviolable, that covenant which he solemnly ratified with Christ the true Solomon, and his members, in these words: “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless, my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him” (Ps. 89:30-33).
Part of the New Covenant was Jesus’ commissioning of Peter and the popes to lead His Church, and Jesus promised that it would not fail, nor would the gates of hell prevail against it. Therefore, the office of the papacy is no more able to be abolished than the Old Covenant could have been, despite David’s adultery and murder. Calvin eloquently refutes himself in IV,1:28:
Then how is David, who was so well instructed in the Law, to be excused by ignorance? Did David, who was daily punishing it in others, not know how heinous a crime murder and adultery was? Did the patriarchs deem fratricide a lawful act? Had the Corinthians made so little proficiency as to imagine that God was pleased with lasciviousness, impurity, whoredom, hatred, and strife? Was Peter, after being so carefully warned, ignorant how heinous it was to forswear his Master? Therefore, let us not by our malice shut the door against the divine mercy, when so benignly manifested.
First, the mode of life at Rome, while they not only connive and are silent, but also tacitly approve, is altogether unworthy of bishops, whose duty it is to curb the licence of the people by the strictness of discipline. But I will not be so rigid with them as to charge them with the faults of others. But when they with their household, with almost the whole College of Cardinals, and the whole body of their clergy, are so devoted to wickedness, obscenity, uncleanness, iniquity, and crime of every description, that they resemble monsters more than men, they herein betray that they are nothing less than bishops.
If they aren’t bishops, then how could the corrupt, decadent Corinthians, Galatians, and the seven churches of Revelation still be churches? By Calvin’s reasoning, they would cease to be that, on the same grounds that he wishes to deny that status to the group of Christians and popes in Rome. But he can’t do so because Jesus Christ Himself and St. Paul continued to call them “churches.” Therefore, Calvin’s reasoning against the continuance of the papacy is fallacious and must be discarded, on the basis of compelling biblical analogy.
They need not fear that I will make a farther disclosure of their turpitude. For it is painful to wade through such filthy mire, and I must spare modest ears. But I think I have amply demonstrated what I proposed—viz. that though Rome was formerly the first of churches, she deserves not in the present day to be regarded as one of her minutest members.
I guess, then, that Rome was, in Calvin’s eyes, what Zwingli and other Protestant “reformers” were in Luther’s eyes. In his work, Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament, written in September 1544, after all, Luther describes Zwingli, Karlstadt, Oecolampadius, and Caspar Schwenkfeld as men who are guilty of “blasphemies and deceitful heresy” (Luther’s Works, 39, 288), and who were “loathsome fanatics” (39, 291), “murderers of souls” (39, 296), who “possess a bedeviled, thoroughly bedeviled, hyper-bedeviled heart and lying tongue” (39, 296), and who “have incurred their penalty and are committing ‘sin which is mortal’,” (39, 296), “blasphemers and enemies of Christ” (39, 302), and “God’s and our condemned enemies” (39, 316).
He described Zwingli as a “full-blown heathen” (39, 290), and wrote: “I am certain that Zwingli, as his last book testifies, died in a great many sins and in blasphemy of God” (39, 302-303)
That sounds just about like the ancient Corinthian and Galatian churches, and scarcely distinguishable from how Calvin describes Rome and the popes. Things remain the same as they always were. Men sin. The point is that sin can be found anywhere and everywhere, so that if the presence of sin eliminates the presence of a church or a bishop or indeed, a Christian at all, then there are virtually no churches or bishops or Christians. Since that proves too much, one must return to the premise and see what went wrong.
In regard to those whom they call Cardinals, I know not how it happened that they rose so suddenly to such a height.
I would ask Calvin, too, how he achieved such an exalted position? By what authority and credentials?
In the age of Gregory, the name was applied to bishops only (Gregor. Lib. 2 Ep. 15, 77, 79; Ep. 6, 25). For whenever he makes mention of cardinals, he assigns them not only to the Roman Church, but to every other church, so that, in short, a Cardinal priest is nothing else than a bishop.
And that is how it is now.
I do not find the name among the writers of a former age. I see, however, that they were inferior to bishops, whom they now far surpass. There is a well-known passage in Augustine: “Although, in regard to terms of honour which custom has fixed in the Church, the office of bishop is greater than that of presbyter, yet in many things, Augustine is inferior to Jerome” (August. ad Hieron. Ep. 19). Here, certainly, he is not distinguishing a presbyter of the Roman Church from other presbyters, but placing all of them alike after bishops. And so strictly was this observed, that at the Council of Carthage, when two legates of the Roman See were present, one a bishop, and the other a presbyter, the latter was put in the lowest place. But not to dwell too much on ancient times, we have account of a Council held at Rome, under Gregory, at which the presbyters sit in the lowest place, and subscribe by themselves, while deacons do not subscribe at all. And, indeed, they had no office at that time, unless to be present under the bishop, and assist him in the administration of word and sacraments. So much is their lot now changed, that they have become associates of kings and Cæsars. And there can be no doubt that they have grown gradually with their head, until they reached their present pinnacle of dignity. This much it seemed proper to say in passing, that my readers may understand how very widely the Roman See, as it now exists, differs from the ancient See, under which it endeavours to cloak and defend itself.
Some of this might be seen as a legitimate abuse to be decried; granted. Power corrupts, and that strong tendency can sometimes be in the Church as well. If it weren’t for God’s special grace upon the Catholic Church, these things would be a lot worse than they were throughout history.
But whatever they were formerly, as they have no true and legitimate office in the Church, they only retain a colour and empty mask; nay, as they are in all respects the opposite of true ministers, the thing which Gregory so often writes must, of necessity, have befallen them. His words are, “Weeping, I say, groaning, I declare it; when the sacerdotal order has fallen within, it cannot long stand without” (Gregor. Lib. 4 Ep. 55, 56; Lib. 5 Ep. 7). Nay, rather what Malachi says of such persons must be fulfilled in them: “Ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of hosts. Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people” (Mal. 2:8, 9). I now leave all the pious to judge what the supreme pinnacle of the Roman hierarchy must be, to which the Papists, with nefarious effrontery, hesitate not to subject the word of God itself, that word which should be venerable and holy in earth and heaven, to men and angels.
However corrupt it was, there was no justification for splitting the Church and concluding that the Catholic Church no longer was what it always was, and always will be. It is obvious that the Church did reform itself in the latter part of the 16th century. If it was capable of profound reform, then it wasn’t dead. And by the same token, Protestant history provides no grounds for anyone to plausibly hold that Protestants somehow picked up the ball from the alleged ruins of the Catholic Church and became some new pseudo-Church, defined differently from the historic definition of “Church.”
Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]