Popes & Early Ecumenical Councils (vs. Calvin #16)

Popes & Early Ecumenical Councils (vs. Calvin #16) January 9, 2019

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”)


IV, 7:1-2


Book IV


1. First part of the chapter, in which the commencement of the Papacy is assigned to the Council of Nice. In subsequent Councils other bishops presided. No attempt then made to claim the first place.
In regard to the antiquity of the primacy of the Roman See, there is nothing in favour of its establishment more ancient than the decree of the Council of Nice, by which the first place among the Patriarchs is assigned to the Bishop of Rome, and he is enjoined to take care of the suburban churches. 

This is untrue. I have already mentioned St. Irenaeus. He died around 202. In his work, Against HeresiesBook III, Chapter 3, Section 2, he writes:

2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

St. Clement of Rome died around the year 101. He was one of the early popes, and this is indicated in his letter, 1 Clement (59:1), written to the Corinthians:

But if some should be disobedient to the things spoken by him through us, let them know that they will entangle themselves in no small transgression and danger,

Calvin, to be fair, probably didn’t know about 1 Clement. A complete copy of the manuscript was not discovered till 1873. Max Lackmann, a Lutheran, commented on this epistle:

Clement, as the spokesman of the whole People of God . . . admonishes the Church of Corinth in serious, authoritative and brotherly tones to correct the internal abuses of their ecclesiastical community. He censures, exhorts, cautions, entreats . . . The use of the expression send back in the statement: Send back speedily unto us our messengers (1 Clement 65,1), is not merely a special kind of biblical phrase but also a form of Roman imperial command. The Roman judge in a province of the empire sent back a messenger or a packet of documents to the imperial capital or to the court of the emperor (Acts 25:21). Clement of Rome doubtless also knew this administrative terminology of the imperial government and used it effectively. (In Hans Asmussen, et al, The Unfinished Reformation, translated by Robert J. Olsen, Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers Association, 1961, 84-85)

While the council, in dividing between him and the other Patriarchs, assigns the proper limits of each, it certainly does not appoint him head of all, but only one of the chief. Vitus and Vincentius attended on the part of Julius, who then governed the Roman Church, and to them the fourth place was given. I ask, if Julius was acknowledged the head of the Church, would his legates have been consigned to the fourth place? 

Again, we give Calvin a pass for having less accurate historical information than we do now. Pope Julius reigned from 337-352, whereas the Council of Nicaea took place in 325, during the reign of Pope Sylvester (or Silvester: 314-335). The Catholic Encyclopedia (“General Councils”) observes:

At Nicaea, Hosius, Vitus and Vincentius, as papal legates, signed before all other members of the council. The right of presiding and directing implies that the pope, if he chooses to make a full use of his powers, can determine the subject matter to be dealt with by the council, prescribe rules for conducting the debates, and generally order the whole business as seems best to him. Hence no conciliar decree is legitimate if carried under protest — or even without the positive consent– of the pope or his legates. The consent of the legates alone, acting without a special order from the pope, is not sufficient to make conciliar decrees at once perfect and operative; what is necessary is the pope’s own consent. For this reason no decree can become legitimate and null in law on account of pressure brought to bear on the assembly by the presiding pope, or by papal legates acting on his orders.

For much more on this, see my paper, Pope Silvester and the Council of Nicaea. Brian W. Harrison, in his article, “Papal Authority at the Earliest Councils” (This Rock, January 1991),, wrote:

The Eastern priest-historian Gelasius of Cyzicus, who had no Roman ax to grind, affirms that Ossius “held the place of Sylvester of Rome, together with the Roman presbyters Vito and Vincentius.” [Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 85:1229; Gelasius wrote around 475 and claimed to base his history on the Council’s original acts, which are now lost.]

That Rome was acknowledged as the first of all sees is shown by the fact that the signatures of its undisputed legates, Vito and Vincentius, come immediately after that of Ossius. It is likely that Ossius, being a Western prelate and the foremost champion of anti-Arianism, was accepted by Sylvester as an ad hoc representative and presided by mutual agreement with Constantine.

Would Athanasius have presided in the council where a representative of the hierarchal order should have been most conspicuous? 

No, because he was neither a bishop of Rome nor a legate of one.

In the Council of Ephesus, it appears that Celestinus (who was then Roman Pontiff) used a cunning device to secure the dignity of his See. For when he sent his deputies, he made Cyril of Alexandria, who otherwise would have presided, his substitute. Why that commission, but just that his name might stand connected with the first See? His legates sit in an inferior place, are asked their opinion along with others, and subscribe in their order, while, at the same time, his name is coupled with that of the Patriarch of Alexandria. 

This is inaccurate, and records of the council confirm that it is an inaccurate representation of what took place, and show that the pope was regarded as the head of the council and the Church:

The council assembled on 22 June, and St. Cyril assumed the presidency both as Patriarch of Alexandria and “as filling the place of the most holy and blessed Archbishop of the Roman Church, Celestine”, in order to carry out his original commission, which he considered, in the absence of any reply from Rome, to be still in force. . . .

At last on 10 July the papal envoys arrived. The second session assembled in the episcopal residence. The legate Philip opened the proceedings by saying that the former letter of St. Celestine had been already read, in which he had decided the present question; the pope had now sent another letter. This was read. It contained a general exhortation to the council, and concluded by saying that the legates had instructions to carry out what the pope had formerly decided; doubtless the council would agree. The Fathers then cried:

This is a just judgment. To Celestine the new Paul! To the new Paul Cyril! To Celestine, the guardian of the Faith! To Celestine agreeing to the Synod! The Synod gives thanks to Cyril. One Celestine, one Cyril!

The legate Projectus then says that the letter enjoins on the council, though they need no instruction, to carry into effect the sentence which the pope had pronounced. . . . Firmus, the Exarch of Caesarea in Cappadocia, replies that the pope, by the letter which he sent to the Bishops of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Thessalonica, Constantinople, and Antioch, had long since given his sentence and decision; and the synod — the ten days having passed, and also a much longer period — having waited beyond the day of opening fixed by the emperor, had followed the course indicated by the pope, and, as Nestorius did not appear, had executed upon him the papal sentence, having inflicted the canonical and Apostolic judgment upon him. This was a reply to Projectus, declaring that what the pope required had been done, and it is an accurate account of the work of the first session and of the sentence; canonical refers to the words of the sentence, “necessarily obliged by the canons”, and Apostolic to the words “and by the letter of the bishop of Rome”. The legate Arcadius expressed his regret for the late arrival of his party, on account of storms, and asked to see the decrees of the council. Philip, the pope’s personal legate, then thanked the bishops for adhering by their acclamations as holy members to their holy head — “For your blessedness is not unaware that the Apostle Peter is the head of the Faith and of the Apostles.” The Metropolitan of Ancyra declared that God had shown the justice of the synod’s sentence by the coming of St. Celestine’s letter and of the legates. The session closed with the reading of the pope’s letter to the emperor.

On the following day, 11 July, the third session took place. The legates had read the Acts of the first session and now demanded only that the condemnation of Nestorius should be formally read in their presence. When this had been done, the three legates severally pronounced a confirmation in the pope’s name. The exordium of the speech of Philip is celebrated:

It is doubtful to none, nay it has been known to all ages, that holy and blessed Peter, the prince and head of the Apostles, the column of the Faith, the foundation of the Catholic Church, received from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, the keys of the Kingdom, and that to him was given the power of binding and loosing sins, who until this day and for ever lives and judges in his successors. His successor in order and his representative, our holy and most blessed Pope Celestine. . .

It was with words such as these before their eyes that Greek Fathers and councils spoke of the Council of Ephesus as celebrated “by Celestine and Cyril”. A translation of these speeches was read, for Cyril then rose and said that the synod had understood them clearly; and now the Acts of all three sessions must be presented to the legates for their signature. Arcadius replied that they were of course willing. The synod ordered that the Acts should be set before them, and they signed them. A letter was sent to the emperor, telling him how St. Celestine had held a synod at Rome and had sent his legates, representing himself and the whole of the West. (The Catholic Encyclopedia“Council of Ephesus”)

What shall I say of the second Council of Ephesus, where, while the deputies of Leo were present, the Alexandrian Patriarch Dioscorus presided as in his own right? They will object that this was not an orthodox council, since by it the venerable Flavianus was condemned, Eutyches acquitted, and his heresy approved. Yet when the council was met, and the bishops distributed the places among themselves, the deputies of the Roman Church sat among the others just as in a sacred and lawful Council. Still they contend not for the first place, but yield it to another: this they never would have done if they had thought it their own by right. 

This is a fanciful interpretation as well, once we consult the actual proceedings of this illegitimate council:

No time had been left for any Western bishops to attend, except a certain Julius of an unknown see, who, together with a Roman priest, Renatus (he died on the way), and the deacon Hilarus, afterwards pope, represented St. Leo. The Emperor Theodosius II gave Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria, the presidency — ten authentian kai ta proteia. The legate Julius is mentioned next, but when this name was read at Chalcedon, the bishops cried: “He was cast out. No one represented Leo.” . . . The brief of convocation by Theodosius was read, and then the Roman legates explained that it would have been contrary to custom for the pope to be present in person, but he had sent a letter by them. In this letter St. Leo had appealed to his dogmatic letter to Flavian, which he intended to be read at the council and accepted by it as a rule of faith. But Dioscorus took care not to have it read, and instead of it a letter of the emperor, . . . Dioscorus decided that the Acts of the trial should have precedence, and so the letter of St. Leo was never read at all. . . . Flavian and Eusebius had previously interposed an appeal to the pope and to a council under his authority. Their formal letters of appeal have been recently published by Amelli. . . . The papal legate Hilarus uttered a single word in Latin, Contradicitur, annulling the sentence in the pope’s name. He then escaped with difficulty. Flavian was deported into exile, and died a few days later in Lydia. . . .

In the next session, according to the Syriac Acts, 113 were present, including Barsumas. Nine new names appear. The legates were sent for, as they did not appear, but only the notary Dulcitius could be found, and he was unwell. The legates had shaken off the dust of their feet against the assembly. It was a charge against Dioscorus at Chalcedon that he “had held an (ecumenical) council without the Apostolic See, which was never allowed”. This manifestly refers to his having continued at the council after the departure of the legates. . . .

Theodoret had tried to make friends with Dioscorus, but his advances had been rejected with scorn. A monk of Antioch now brought forward a volume of extracts from the works of Theodoret. First was read Theodoret’s fine letter to the monks of the East (see Mansi, V, 1023), then some extracts from a lost “Apology for Diodorus and Theodore” — the very name of this work sufficed in the eyes of the council for a condemnation to be pronounced. Dioscorus pronounced the sentence of deposition and excommunication. When Theodoret in his remote diocese heard of this absurd sentence on an absent man against whose reputation not a word was uttered, he at once appealed to the pope in a famous letter (Ep. cxiii). He wrote also to the legate Renatus (Ep. cxvi), being unaware that he was dead. . . .

Meanwhile St. Leo had received the appeals of Theodoret and Flavian (of whose death he was unaware), and had written to them and to the emperor and empress that all the Acts of the council were null. He excommunicated all who had taken part in it, and absolved all whom it had condemned, with the exception of Domnus of Antioch, who seems to have had no wish to resume his see and retired into the monastic life which he had left many years before with regret. (The Catholic Encyclopedia“Robber Council of Ephesus”)

For the Roman bishops were never ashamed to stir up the greatest strife in contending for honours, and for this cause alone, to trouble and harass the Church with many pernicious contests; but because Leo saw that it would be too extravagant to ask the first place for his legates, he omitted to do it. 

Again, the above account reveals Calvin’s take to be a highly fictitious reading.

2. Though the Roman Bishop presided in the Council of Chalcedon, this was owing to special circumstances. The same right not given to his successors in other Councils.

Next came the Council of Chalcedon, in which, by concession of the Emperor, the legates of the Roman Church occupied the first place. But Leo himself confesses that this was an extraordinary privilege; for when he asks it of the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria Augusta, he does not maintain that it is due to him, but only pretends that the Eastern bishops who presided in the Council of Ephesus had thrown all into confusion, and made a bad use of their power. Therefore, seeing there was need of a grave moderator, and it was not probable that those who had once been so fickle and tumultuous would be fit for this purpose, he requests that, because of the fault and unfitness of others, the office of governing should be transferred to him. That which is asked as a special privilege, and out of the usual order, certainly is not due by a common law. When it is only pretended that there is need of a new president, because the former ones had behaved themselves improperly, it is plain that the thing asked was not previously done, and ought not to be made perpetual, being done only in respect of a present danger. The Roman Pontiff, therefore, holds the first place in the Council of Chalcedon, not because it is due to his See, but because the council is in want of a grave and fit moderator, while those who ought to have presided exclude themselves by their intemperance and passion. 

This is profoundly untrue, as can readily be verified by the documentation above, alone, and additional related facts, as outlined in my paper, Papal Participation (Through Legates) in the First Seven Ecumenical Councils. Pope St. Leo the Great’s Letter XCV to St. Pulcheria Augusta, wife of the Emperor Marcian Augustus (see more about her), dated 20 July 451, shows no such lack of papal authority, as Calvin suggests:

I . . . nominate two of my fellow-bishops and fellow-presbyters respectively to represent me, sending also to the venerable synod an appropriate missive from which the brotherhood therein assembled might learn the standard necessary to be maintained in their decision, lest any rashness should do detriment either to the rules of the Faith, or to the provisions of the canons, or to the remedies required by the spirit of loving kindness.

His famous Letter CIV to the Emperor (22 May 452) reveals the same self-awareness of papal authority and Roman primacy:

For although the liberty of the Gospel had to be defended against certain dissentients in the power of the Holy Ghost, and through the instrumentality of the Apostolic See, yet God’s grace has shown itself more manifestly (than we could have hoped) by vouchsafing to the world that in the victory of the Truth only the authors of the violation of the Faith should perish and the Church restored to her soundness. . . .

Let the city of Constantinople have, as we desire, its high rank, and under the protection of God’s right hand, long enjoy your clemency’s rule. Yet things secular stand on a different basis from things divine: and there can be no sure building save on that rock which the Lord has laid for a foundation. He that covets what is not his due, loses what is his own. Let it be enough for Anatolius that by the aid of your piety and by my favour and approval he has obtained the bishopric of so great a city. Let him not disdain a city which is royal, though he cannot make it an Apostolic See; and let him on no account hope that he can rise by doing injury to others. For the privileges of the churches determined by the canons of the holy Fathers, and fixed by the decrees of the Nicene Synod, cannot be overthrown by any unscrupulous act, nor disturbed by any innovation. And in the faithful execution of this task by the aid of Christ I am bound to display an unflinching devotion; for it is a charge entrusted to me, and it tends to my condemnation if the rules sanctioned by the Fathers and drawn up under the guidance of God’s Spirit at the Synod of Nicæa for the government of the whole Church are violated with my connivance (which God forbid), and if the wishes of a single brother have more weight with me than the common good of the Lord’s whole house.

And again Leo writes to St. Pulcheria Augusta (Letter CV, 22 May 452):

For no one may venture upon anything in opposition to the enactments of the Fathers’ canons which many long years ago in the city of Nicæa were founded upon the decrees of the Spirit, so that any one who wishes to pass any different decree injures himself rather than impairs them. And if all pontiffs will but keep them inviolate as they should, there will be perfect peace and complete harmony through all the churches: there will be no disagreements about rank, no disputes about ordinations, no controversies about privileges, no strifes about taking that which is another’s; . . .

Because if sometimes rulers fall into errors through want of moderation, yet the churches of Christ do not lose their purity. But the bishops’ assents, which are opposed to the regulations of the holy canons composed at Nicæa in conjunction with your faithful Grace, we do not recognize, and by the blessed Apostle Peter’s authority we absolutely dis-annul in comprehensive terms, in all ecclesiastical cases obeying those laws which the Holy Ghost set forth by the 318 bishops for the pacific observance of all priests in such sort that even if a much greater number were to pass a different decree to theirs, whatever was opposed to their constitution would have to be held in no respect.

Of the general opinion of Pope St. Leo the Great on the supreme authority of the papacy, there is no doubt, since he wrote some of the most explicit statements in this regard, in the history of the papacy. See: Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-61) and Papal Supremacy.

This statement the successor of Leo approved by his procedure. For when he sent his legates to the fifth Council, that of Constantinople [in 553], which was held long after, he did not quarrel for the first seat, but readily allowed Mennas, the patriarch of Constantinople, to preside. 

More myths to dismantle . . . Clearly, Calvin deliberately seeks to undermine papal authority at every turn, and is (shall we say?) “modifying” his interpretation of the known facts, toward that end. Pope Vigilius was being held as a prisoner, and due to this and various imperial coercive tactics, no papal legates were present. It is no argument against Roman and papal primacy, if and when a pope is held in physical bondage:

From 25 January, 547, Pope Vigilius was forcibly detained in the royal city; . . . Vigilius had persuaded Justinian . . . to proclaim a truce on all sides until a general council could be called to decide these controversies. Both the emperor and the Greek bishops violated this promise of neutrality;. . .

For his dignified protest Vigilius thereupon suffered various personal indignities at the hands of the civil authority and nearly lost his life; he retired finally to Chalcedon, in the very church of St. Euphemia where the great council had been held, whence he informed the Christian world of the state of affairs. Soon the Oriental bishops sought reconciliation with him, induced him to return to the city, and withdrew all that had hitherto been done against the Three Chapters; the new patriarch, Eutychius, successor to Mennas, whose weakness and subserviency were the immediate cause of all this violence and confusion, presented (6 Jan., 553 his professor of faith to Vigilius and, in union with other Oriental bishops, urged the calling of a general council under the presidency of the pope. Vigilius was willing, but proposed that it should be held either in Italy or in Sicily, in order to secure the attendance of Western bishops. To this Justinian would not agree, but proposed, instead, a kind of commission made up of delegates from each of the great patriarchates; Vigilius suggested that an equal number be chosen from the East and the West; but this was not acceptable to the emperor, who thereupon opened the council by his own authority on the date and in the manner mentioned above. Vigilius refused to participate, not only on account of the overwhelming proportion of Oriental bishops, but also from fear of violence; moreover, none of his predecessors had ever taken part personally in an Oriental council. To this decision he was faithful, though he expressed his willingness to give an independent judgment on the matters at issue. . . .

The decisions of the council were executed with a violence in keeping with its conduct, though the ardently hoped-for reconciliation of the Monophysites did not follow. Vigilius, together with other opponents of the imperial will, as registered by the subservient court-prelates, seems to have been banished (Hefele, II, 905), together with the faithful bishops and ecclesiastics of his suite, either to Upper Egypt or to an island in the Propontis. Already in the seventh session of the council Justinian caused the name of Vigilius to be stricken from the diptychs, without prejudice, however, it was said, to communion with the Apostolic See. Soon the Roman clergy and people, now freed by Narses from the Gothic yoke, requested the emperor to permit the return of the pope, which Justinian agreed to on condition that Vigilius would recognize the late council. This Vigilius finally agreed to do, and in two documents (a letter to Eutychius of Constantinople, 8 Dec., 553, and a second “Constitutum” of 23 Feb., 554, probably addressed to the Western episcopate) condemned, at last, the Three Chapters (Mansi, IX, 424-20, 457-88; cf. Hefele, II, 905-11), independently, however, and without mention of the council. (The Catholic Encyclopedia“Second Council of Constantinople,” written by Thomas Shahan)

In like manner, in the Council of Carthage, at which Augustine was present, we perceive that not the legates of the Roman See, but Aurelius, the archbishop of the place, presided, although there was then a question as to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. 

This was not an ecumenical council, so it is a moot point. In any event, Pope Innocent I concurred with and sanctioned the canonical ruling of the Council of Carthage in 397, in his Letter to Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse (dated 405).

Nay, even in Italy itself, a universal council was held (that of Aquileia), at which the Roman Bishop was not present. 

So what? That is irrelevant.

Ambrose, who was then in high favour with the Emperor, presided, and no mention is made of the Roman Pontiff. 

That is no more necessary than it is for any state Senate assembly in America to mention the President of the United States every time it meets.

Therefore, owing to the dignity of Ambrose, the See of Milan was then more illustrious than that of Rome.

Since no proof is given, since it is a subjective statement, and a ridiculous one at that. I shall pass on commenting. We have seen that when Calvin tries to rely on historical fact (rather than unsubstantiated subjective assertion) to support his case, he can easily be amply refuted at every turn. The Institutes is compelling and convincing only on the surface. Once examined and opposed with counter-factual information, it quickly becomes infinitely less impressive.


(originally 6-15-09)

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]


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