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”)
In regard to the mere title of primate and other titles of pride, of which that pontiff now makes a wondrous boast, it is not difficult to understand how and in what way they crept in. Cyprian often makes mention of Cornelius (Cyprian. Lib. 2 Ep. 2; Lib. 4 Ep. 6), nor does he distinguish him by any other name than that of brother, or fellow bishop, or colleague. When he writes to Stephen, the successor of Cornelius, he not only makes him the equal of himself and others, but addresses him in harsh terms, charging him at one time with presumption, at another with ignorance. After Cyprian, we have the judgment of the whole African Church on the subject. For the Council of Carthage enjoined that none should be called chief of the priests, or first bishop, but only bishop of the first See. But any one who will examine the more ancient records will find that the Roman Pontiff was then contented with the common appellation of brother.
Yes, of course, being a humble servant . . . Jesus called His disciples “friends” (Lk 12:4; Jn 15:14-15). He called His disciples (Matt 12:49; 28:10; Mk 3:34; Jn 20:17) and the larger class of His followers (Lk 8:21) “brothers” or “brethren”. Does that mean He had no authority over them? St. Paul calls the members of the Roman church “brethren” (Rom 1:13; 7:1, 4; 8:12; 11:25; 12:1; 15:14, 30; 16:14, 17). He does the same with the Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, and Laodiceans.
He even calls the entire Jewish people “my brethren” (Rom 9:3). By Calvin’s logic, then, Paul had no special authority over the Romans, because they called each other “brothers”. If he doesn’t wish to see this result of his reasoning, then he must drop the same argument with regard to the papacy. It proves nothing. There is plenty of evidence of special honor accorded the bishops of Rome, as we have seen again and again thus far.
Certainly, as long as the true and pure form of the Church continued,
Note that Calvin will never inform us as to when this “pure form” suddenly disappeared.
all these names of pride on which the Roman See afterwards began to plume itself, were altogether unheard of; none knew what was meant by the supreme Pontiff, and the only head of the Church on earth.
Whether one particular title or other was used is not as important as a consideration of the eminence of the Roman bishops, as proven by a variety of expressions and acts of deference, formal appeal, etc. For example, St. Cyprian (210-258) wrote:
With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy [that is, faithlessness] to have entrance. (Letter to Pope Cornelius, 59 , 14; in William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 1st of 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, p. 232)
Is this an example, in the middle of the third century, of the “true and pure form of the Church” or was it already lost and hopelessly corrupt by then?
St. Ambrose (c. 336-397), whom Calvin commended in the previous installment, likewise approves of this state of affairs:
We recognized in the letter of your holiness the vigilance of the good shepherd. You faithfully watch over the gate entrusted to you, and with pious solicitude you guard Christ’s sheepfold, you that are worthy to have the Lord’s sheep hear and follow you. Since you know the sheep of Christ you will easily catch the wolves and confront them like a wary shepherd. (Synodal Letter of Ambrose, Sabinus, Bassian and Others to Pope Siricius, 42,1; in Jurgens, ibid., vol. 2 , 148)Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal. (Commentaries on Twelve of David’s Psalms, 40,30; in Jurgens, ibid., vol. 2, 150)
St. Jerome (c. 343-420), the greatest biblical scholar of his time, concurs also:
The Church depends equally on all [the Apostles] . . . but one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division. (Against Jovinian, 1,26; in Jurgens, ibid., vol. 2, 199)Since the East tears into pieces the Lord’s coat . . . therefore by me is the chair of Peter to be consulted, and that faith which is praised by the Apostle’s mouth . . . From the Priest I ask the salvation of the victim, from the Shepherd the protection of the sheep . . . I court not the Roman height: I speak with the successor of the Fisherman and the disciple of the Cross. I, who follow none as my chief but Christ, am associated in communion with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. On that rock the Church is built, I know. (Epistle 15 [writing to Pope Damasus]; cited in John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine [1845; revised in 1878], Part 2, ch. 6, sec. 3, no. 8; see the Schaff online version)
If any be joined to Peter’s chair he is mine. (Epistle 16; from Newman, ibid.)
St. Augustine (354-430) is of the same mind:
If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said: Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it. Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement, Clement by Anacletus, Anacletus by Evaristus . . . (Letter to Generosus, 53,1,2 [c. 400]; in Jurgens, ibid. , vol. 3, 2)
The eastern bishops were no different. In the fourth century, St. Ephraem (c. 306-373) exclaims:
Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples . . . I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures! (Homilies, 4,1; in Jurgens, ibid., vol. 1, 311)
St. John Chrysostom (c. 344-407) was not only the greatest preacher in the history of eastern Christianity, and perhaps revered above any other Church Father by the Eastern Orthodox, who utilize exclusively his liturgy in their worship, but also the most eloquent and vociferous witness in the east for the divinely ordained papacy. He called St. Peter the “mouth of the apostles,” the “conductor of the apostolic choir,” and the “ruler of the entire world.”
St. Peter was designated by Christ to preside over “the see of the world because he entrusted him with the care of the whole world.” Peter was to “receive the government of the world.” As to why Jesus questioned Peter three times whether he loved Him, and commanded him to feed and tend His sheep (John 21:15-17), Chrysostom states:
The master asked those questions so that he might teach us how much at heart he has the headship over these sheep. (All Chrysostom quotes and information are from Dom John Chapman, Studies on the Early Papacy, London: Sheed & Ward, 1928, ch. 4: “St. Chrysostom on St. Peter”)
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-c. 466) confesses:
For that holy see has precedence of all churches in the world for many reasons; and above all for this, that it is free of all taint of heresy, and that no bishop of false opinions has ever sat upon its throne, but it has kept the grace of the apostles undefiled. (Sozomen’s Church History, 3, 10)
In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), arguably the greatest mystical and ascetic theologian of the eastern Christian tradition (and venerated as such by the Orthodox), echoes the same beliefs about papal and Roman supremacy:
All in every part . . . who purely and rightly confess the Lord, look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and its confession and faith, as it were to a sun of unfailing light, awaiting from it the bright radiance of our fathers . . . For from the coming down of the Incarnate Word among us, all the churches in every part of the world have possessed that greatest church alone as their base and foundation, seeing that, according to the promise of Christ Our Savior, the gates of hell do never prevail against it, that it possesses the Keys of right confession and faith in Him, that it opens the true and only religion to such as approach with piety, and shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks injustice against the Most High. (Cited by James Likoudis in Robert Baram, Spiritual Journeys, Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, revised edition, 1988, 206-207; primary source from Migne, Greek Fathers, 91,137 ff.)
St. Theodore of Studios (759-826), one of the most influential and highly regarded monastic reformers in the east, entirely concurs with St. Maximus:
So when, I ask Calvin, did the “true and pure form of the Church” become hopelessly corrupt? And what is he to do with all these statements of these men? What does it say about their opinions on the matters concerning which Calvin is full of negative pontifications (pun intended)?
I witness before God and men that the iconoclasts departed from the body of Christ and from the supreme heavenward throne in which Christ placed the keys of the faith, against which the gates of hell, that is, the mouths of heretics, have not so far prevailed and shall not prevail because the promise was made by the One who does not deceive. Let therefore the most blessed and apostolic [Pope] Paschal, worthy of his name, rejoice because he had fulfilled the function of the office of Peter. (Letter to Naveratius [Ep. 63], from Migne, Greek Fathers, 98:1281; cited in Stanley Jaki, The Keys of the Kingdom, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986, 171)
Had the Roman Bishop presumed to assume any such title, there were right-hearted men who would immediately have repressed his folly.
Indeed. Since we don’t find that (and this is a very good reason why Calvin doesn’t produce such a thing, but rather, only plays rhetorical games), and we do find a great deal of exaltation of the bishops of Rome and the Apostolic See of Rome, Calvin’s objection collapses.
Jerome, seeing he was a Roman presbyter, was not slow to proclaim the dignity of his church, in as far as fact and the circumstances of the times permitted, and yet we see how he brings it under due subordination. “If authority is asked, the world is greater than a city. Why produce to me the custom of one city? Why vindicate a small number with whom superciliousness has originated against the laws of the Church? Wherever the bishop be, whether at Rome, or Eugubium, or Constantinople, or Rhegium, the merit is the same, and the priesthood the same. The power of riches, or the humbleness of poverty, do not make a bishop superior or inferior” (Hieron. Ep. ad Evagr.).
Be that as it may, Jerome also wrote to Pope Damasus (Letter XV), around 377 (I cited part of it above):
Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed corn is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. . . . This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. . . . He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist. . . .
If you think fit enact a decree; and then I shall not hesitate to speak of three hypostases. Order a new creed to supersede the Nicene; and then, whether we are Arians or orthodox, one confession will do for us all. . . .
I implore your blessedness, therefore, by the crucified Saviour of the world, and by the consubstantial trinity, to authorize me by letter either to use or to refuse this formula of three hypostases.
And again in Letter XVI (377 or 378) to the same pope, Jerome exclaims:
The untiring foe follows me closely, and the assaults that I suffer in the desert are severer than ever. For the Arian frenzy raves, and the powers of the world support it. The church is rent into three factions, and each of these is eager to seize me for its own. The influence of the monks is of long standing, and it is directed against me. I meantime keep crying: “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus all profess to cleave to you, and I could believe the assertion if it were made by one of them only. As it is, either two of them or else all three are guilty of falsehood. Therefore I implore your blessedness, by our Lord’s cross and passion, those necessary glories of our faith, as you hold an apostolic office, to give an apostolic decision.
Yet Calvin would have us believe that St. Jerome denied papal primacy and headship, when he is ready (quite strikingly) to wholeheartedly accept a unilateral declaration of theological doctrine from the pope?
See an extremely in-depth treatment of “St. Jerome and Rome,” including an analysis of the passage Calvin cites, from Studies on the Early Papacy, by Dom John Chapman. The same book (online) has sections on St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, and St. John Chrysostom. See also (for a general study), The Primitive Church and the See of Peter, by Luke Rivington (1894), and The Primacy of Peter, the Papacy, and Apostolic Succession, by Mark Bonocore.
The controversy concerning the title of universal bishop arose at length in the time of Gregory, and was occasioned by the ambition of John of Constantinople. For he wished to make himself universal, a thing which no other had ever attempted. In that controversy, Gregory does not allege that he is deprived of a right which belonged to him, but he strongly insists that the appellation is profane, nay, blasphemous, nay the forerunner of Antichrist. “The whole Church falls from its state, if he who is called universal falls” (Greg. Lib. 4 Ep. 76). Again, “It is very difficult to bear patiently that one who is our brother and fellow bishop should alone be called bishop, while all others are despised. But in this pride of his, what else is intimated but that the days of Antichrist are already near? For he is imitating him, who, despising the company of angels, attempted to ascend the pinnacle of greatness” (Lib. 4 Ep. 76). He elsewhere says to Eulogius of Alexandria and Anastasius of Antioch: “None of my predecessors ever desired to use this profane term: for if one patriarch is called universal, it is derogatory to the name of patriarch in others. But far be it from any Christian mind to wish to arrogate to itself that which would in any degree, however slight, impair the honour of his brethren” (Lib. 4 Ep. 80). “To consent to that impious term is nothing else than to lose the faith” (Lib. 4 Ep. 83). “What we owe to the preservation of the unity of the faith is one thing, what we owe to the suppression of pride is another. I speak with confidence, for every one that calls himself, or desires to be called, universal priest, is by his pride a forerunner of Antichrist, because he acts proudly in preferring himself to others” (Lib. 7 Ep. 154). Thus, again, in a letter to Anastasius of Antioch, “I said, that he could not have peace with us unless he corrected the presumption of a superstitious and haughty term which the first apostate invented; and (to say nothing of the injury to your honour) if one bishop is called universal, the whole Church goes to ruin when that universal bishop falls” (Lib. 4 Ep. 188). But when he writes, that this honour was offered to Leo in the Council of Chalcedon (Lib. 4 Ep. 76, 80; Lib. 7 Ep. 76), he says what has no semblance of truth; nothing of the kind is found among the acts of that council. And Leo himself, who, in many letters, impugns the decree which was then made in honour of the See of Constantinople, undoubtedly would not have omitted this argument, which was the most plausible of all, if it was true that he himself repudiated what was given to him. One who, in other respects, was rather too desirous of honour, would not have omitted what would have been to his praise. Gregory, therefore, is incorrect in saying, that that title was conferred on the Roman See by the Council of Chalcedon; not to mention how ridiculous it is for him to say, that it proceeded from that sacred council, and yet to term it wicked, profane, nefarious, proud, and blasphemous, nay, devised by the devil, and promulgated by the herald of Antichrist. And yet he adds, that his predecessor refused it, lest by that which was given to one individually, all priests should be deprived of their due honour. In another place, he says, “None ever wished to be called by such a name; none arrogated this rash name to himself, lest, by seizing on the honour of supremacy in the office of the Pontificate, he might seem to deny it to all his brethren” (Gregor. Lib. 4 Ep. 82).
This is standard, garden-variety, boilerplate anti-Catholic argument: convincing strictly on a surface level, but fallacious in direct proportion to how closely it is examined. I’ve dealt with it briefly in the past. Catholic apologist Phil Porvaznik has treated it in some considerable depth. See also the General Audience (4 June 2008) of Pope Benedict XVI, on Pope St. Gregory the Great, another essay by Fr. Edward Hawarden, and the papal encyclical Iucunda Sane / On Pope Gregory the Great, by Pope St. Pius X (12 March 1904).
As with Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope Gregory the Great leaves little doubt as to his overall view of the sublime power and authority of the papacy (for some reason Calvin ignores passages such as the following):
Who could be ignorant of the fact that the holy church is consolidated in the solidity of the prince of the Apostles, whose firmness of character extended to his name so that he should be called Peter after the ‘rock’, when the voice of the Truth says, ‘I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’. To him again is said “When after a little while thou hast come back to me, it is for thee to be the support of thy brethren. (Epistle 40; in Michael Winter, St. Peter and the Popes, Baltimore: Helicon, 1960, 66)
Inasmuch as it is manifest that the Apostolic See, is, by the ordering of God, set over all Churches, there is, among our manifold cares, especial demand for our attention . . . (Letter to Subdeacon John; Register of the Epistles, Book III, Epistle XXX; NPNF 2, Vol. XII)
To all who know the Gospel it is clear that by the words of our Lord the care of the whole Church was committed to Blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles . . . Behold, he received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power to bind and loose was given to him, and the care and principality of the entire church was committed to him . . . (Epistles, 5, 37: To Emperor Maurice; NPNF 2, Vol. XII)
Protestant historian Philip Schaff (though somewhat perplexed) makes short work of this “universal bishop” argument as supposedly proving anything against the historic papacy:
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Gregory, while he protested in the strongest terms against the assumption by the Eastern patriarchs of the antichristian and blasphemous title of universal bishop, claimed and exercised, as far as he had the opportunity and power, the authority and oversight over the whole church of Christ, even in the East. “With respect to the church of Constantinople,” he asks in one of his letters, “who doubts that it is subject to the apostolic see?” And in another letter: “I know not what bishop is not subject to it, if fault is found in him.” “To all who know the Gospels,” he writes to emperor Maurice, “it is plain that to Peter, as the prince of all the apostles, was committed by our Lord the care of the whole church (totius ecclesiae cura) ….
We have no right to impeach Gregory’s sincerity. But he was clearly inconsistent in disclaiming the name, and yet claiming the thing itself. The real objection is to the pretension of a universal episcopate, not to the title. If we concede the former, the latter is perfectly legitimate. And such universal power had already been claimed by Roman pontiffs before Gregory, such as Leo I., Felix, Gelasius, Hormisdas, in language and acts more haughty and self-sufficient than his. (History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073, § 51. Gregory and the Universal Episcopate)
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]