Roman Primacy / Popes & Collegiality (vs. Calvin #18)

Roman Primacy / Popes & Collegiality (vs. Calvin #18) January 10, 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, 7:5-9


Book IV


5. Second part of the chapter, explaining the ambitious attempts of the Roman See to obtain the primacy. Their reception of pious exiles. Hearing the appeals and complaints of heretics. Their ambition in this respect offensive to the African Church.

I come now to jurisdiction, which the Roman Pontiff asserts as an incontrovertible proposition that he possesses over all churches. I am aware of the great disputes which anciently existed on this subject: for there never was a time when the Roman See did not aim at authority over other churches. 

The question then becomes (since Calvin grants this), why did this the state of affairs occur? Is it simply because the Romans were arrogant and self-important and overly influenced by Roman political and cultural primacy; mere historical happenstance, or because it was the divine plan all along, as indicated by Peter and Paul both being martyred in Rome, when they (especially Paul, in all his missionary journeys) could easily have died in any number of places? Catholics say that God had a plan for the papacy and ecclesiology, and it had to do with Peter and Rome.

And here it will not be out of place to investigate the means by which she gradually attained to some influence. 

The influence was from the beginning, as indicated particularly in the letters of Clement (a pope). But Calvin was unfamiliar with those, or rejected their authenticity, as he did the letters of St. Ignatius.

I am not now referring to that unlimited power which she seized at a comparatively recent period. The consideration of that we shall defer to its own place. 

What does he mean by “unlimited” and at what date does he claim this occurred? Moreover, what essential principle changed, and when? These are questions Calvin must answer, for his argument to prevail.

But it is worth while here briefly to show in what way, and by what means, she formerly raised herself, so as to arrogate some authority over other churches. When the churches of the East were troubled and rent by the factions of the Arians, under the Emperors Constantius and Constans, sons of Constantine the Great; and Athanasius, the principal defender of the orthodox faith, had been driven from his see, the calamity obliged him to come to Rome, in order that by the authority of this see he might both repress the rage of his enemies, and confirm the orthodox under their distress. He was honourably received by Julius, who was then bishop, and engaged those of the West to undertake the defence of his cause. 

Exactly. This was the continual pattern through history: Rome’s position was the one that was eventually regarded as orthodox. When this happens enough times in history one begins to see (and believe in faith) that God really did have a plan for the primacy of Rome.

Therefore, when the orthodox stood greatly in need of external aid, and perceived that their chief protection lay in the Roman See, they willingly bestowed upon it all the authority they could. 

That may be the case, if they incorrectly understood the nature of the primacy of Rome; but the institution of the papacy still goes back to our Lord Jesus and St. Peter. It didn’t begin to manifest itself later on. It is itself a divinely revealed, biblical doctrine. Even if some in the east had an erroneous view, it is not at all necessarily a disproof of the thing itself.

But the utmost extent of this was, that its communion was held in high estimation, and it was deemed ignominious to be excommunicated by it. 

There is a reason for that. It has a rationale; a justification, or warrant. Catholics see that in the Bible and the earliest history. But because Calvin wants to reject Roman authority, he has to undermine Rome’s authority at every turn. That is his bias. Catholics have theirs, but so does Calvin. The proverbial “neutral observer” has to make his choice.

Dishonest bad men afterwards added much to its authority, for when they wished to escape lawful tribunals, they betook themselves to Rome as an asylum. Accordingly, if any presbyter was condemned by his bishop, or if any bishop was condemned by the synod of his province, he appealed to Rome. These appeals the Roman bishops received more eagerly than they ought, because it seemed a species of extraordinary power to interpose in matters with which their connection was so very remote. Thus, when Eutyches was condemned by Flavianus, Bishop of Constantinople, he complained to Leo that the sentence was unjust. He, nothing loth, no less presumptuously than abruptly, undertook the patronage of a bad cause, and inveighed bitterly against Flavianus, as having condemned an innocent man without due investigation: and thus the effect of Leo’s ambition was, that for some time the impiety of Eutyches was confirmed. It is certain that in Africa the same thing repeatedly occurred, for whenever any miscreant had been condemned by his ordinary judge, he fled to Rome, and brought many calumnious charges against his own people. The Roman See was always ready to interpose. This dishonesty obliged the African bishops to decree that no one should carry an appeal beyond sea under pain of excommunication.

How does it follow that this exercise of primacy, that was widely acknowledged, is invalid, because some may have abused it for their own ends? Of course it doesn’t. It is what it is, and because people knew where the power and authority lay, some abused it for nefarious ends. But that proves exactly nothing with regard to the truth or falsity of Roman claims and preeminence. If Calvin claims that it does, he is engaging in sophistry and empty, fallacious polemics.

6. The power of the Roman Bishops in ordaining bishops, appointing councils, deciding controversies, &c., confined to their own Patriarchate.

Be this as it may, let us consider what right or authority the Roman See then possessed. Ecclesiastical power may be reduced to four heads—viz. ordination of bishops, calling of councils, hearing of appeals (or jurisdiction), inflicting monitory chastisements or censures. 

And note that most Protestants eventually got rid of bishops; councils in the ancient sense became extinct, and appeals and censures became ultimately absurd, given denominationalism and the ability to leave one for another at the first controversy (so that consistent discipline is impossible, for all practical purposes).

All ancient councils enjoin that bishops shall be ordained by their own Metropolitans; they nowhere enjoin an application to the Roman Bishop, except in his own patriarchate. 

Local ordination is not an absolutely unchangeable practice. It still doesn’t follow from local ordination that the Roman bishop is not the head of all.

Gradually, however, it became customary for all Italian bishops to go to Rome for consecration, with the exception of the Metropolitans, who did not allow themselves to be thus brought into subjection; but when any Metropolitan was to be ordained, the Roman Bishop sent one of his presbyters merely to be present, but not to preside. 

The custom develops with a further understanding of the original apostolic deposit. Sometimes things take centuries to fully develop (for example, Christology and trinitarianism). This is not unusual at all. And so some particulars may differ, and we fully expect that. But not all particulars affect the essence of any given thing (in this case, Roman and Petrine primacy).

An example of this kind is extant in Gregory (Lib. 2 Ep. 68, 70), in the consecration of Constantius of Milan, after the death of Laurence. I do not, however, think that this was a very ancient custom. At first, as a mark of respect and good-will, they sent deputies to one another to witness the ordination, and attest their communion. What was thus voluntary afterwards began to be regarded as necessary. 

That would be consistent with a notion of consistent development, just as the Church eventually defines all dogmas after a long pereiod of reflection. What was once voluntary, and then widely practiced, becomes obligatory.

However this be, it is certain that anciently the Roman Bishop had no power of ordaining except within the bounds of his own patriarchate, that is, as a canon of the Council of Nice expresses it, in suburban churches. To ordination was added the sending of a synodical epistle, but this implied no authority. The patriarchs were accustomed, immediately after consecration, to attest their faith by a formal writing, in which they declared that they assented to sacred and orthodox councils. Thus, by rendering an account of their faith, they mutually approved of each other. If the Roman Bishop had received this confession from others, and not given it, he would therein have been acknowledged superior; but when it behoved to give as well as to receive, and to be subject to the common law, this was a sign of equality, not of lordship. Of this we have an example in a letter of Gregory to Anastasius and Cyriac of Constantinople, and in another letter to all the patriarchs together (Gregor. Lib. 1 Ep. 24, 25; Lib. 6 Ep. 169).

I’ve already documented in my response to IV, 7:4 that Pope Gregory the Great believed that the Apostolic See; the Roman See, was “set over all Churches” and “by the words of our Lord the care of the whole Church was committed to Blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles.” So he can hardlyt be denying this in the letters Calvin mentions above, when he asserts it elsewhere. His thought has to be harmonized with itself. So often, Protestant prooftexting involves citing one aspect of a father’s thought, while ignoring equally relevant portions that are clearly “Catholic.” A partial truth is little better than an untruth.

7. If they censured other bishops, they themselves were censured in their turn.

Next come admonitions or censures. These the Roman Bishops anciently employed towards others, and in their turn received. Irenæus sharply rebuked Victor for rashly troubling the Church with a pernicious schism, for a matter of no moment. 

Popes can occasionally be rebuked, just as Paul rebuked Peter for hypocrisy. This is no disproof of their authority. The prophet Samuel rebuked King David for his murder and adultery, too. It doesn’t follow, however, that David was not king because he was rebuked.

He submitted without objecting. Holy bishops were then wont to use the freedom as brethren, of admonishing and rebuking the Roman Prelate when he happened to err. 

And that is fine.

He in his turn, when the case required, reminded others of their duty, and reprimanded them for their faults. For Cyprian, when he exhorts Stephen to admonish the bishops of France, does not found on his larger power, but on the common right which priests have in regard to each other (Cyprian. Lib. 3 Ep. 13). I ask if Stephen had then presided over France, would not Cyprian have said, “Check them, for they are yours”? but his language is very different. “The brotherly fellowship which binds us together requires that we should mutually admonish each other” (Cyprian. ad Pomp. Cont. Epist. Steph.) 

Of course bishops do that, according to scriptural admonitions. Jesus washed the disciples’ feewt. Does that mean He was equal or lower than they were, in rank? No; all it proves is that He was humble and meek, and wanted to provide a noble example of servanthood.

And we see also with what severity of expression, a man otherwise of a mild temper, inveighs against Stephen himself, when he thinks him chargeable with insolence. Therefore, it does not yet appear in this respect that the Roman Bishop possessed any jurisdiction over those who did not belong to his province.

That doesn’t follow logically, as I have been demonstrating in several different ways.

8. They had no right of calling provincial councils except within their own boundaries. The calling of a universal council belonged solely to the Emperor.

In regard to calling of councils, it was the duty of every Metropolitan to assemble a provincial synod at stated times. Here the Roman Bishop had no jurisdiction, while the Emperor alone could summon a general council. 

Do we say that because a governor in the United States calls a statewide gathering, therefore, the President is no longer President, and is merely one of many governors? No, of course not. The pope can’t do everything, and local bishops have plenty of duties.

Had any of the bishops attempted this, not only would those out of the province not have obeyed the call, but a tumult would instantly have arisen. Therefore the Emperor gave intimation to all alike to attend. 

But the popes usually presided through legates in the early ecumenical councils, and confirmed councils. This is a matter of historical fact.

Socrates, indeed, relates that Julius expostulated with the Eastern bishops for not having called him to the Council of Antioch, seeing it was forbidden by the canons that anything should be decided without the knowledge of the Roman Bishop (Tripart. Hist. Lib. 4). But who does not perceive that this is to be understood of those decrees which bind the whole Church? At the same time, it is not strange if, in deference both to the antiquity and largeness of the city, and the dignity of the see, no universal decree concerning religion should be made in the absence of the Bishop of Rome, provided he did not refuse to be present. But what has this to do with the dominion of the whole Church? For we deny not that he was one of the principal bishops, though we are unwilling to admit what the Romanists now contend for—viz. that he had power over all.

That is not how the historical record reads. There is much evidence of many sorts for Roman primacy. Calvin, like many Protestants, chooses to see in the record what he wants to see, and nothing else. If he was concerned with the entirety of the record, then he would address passages such as the sorts of ones I have brought up, but he doesn’t do that because they don’t harmonize with the novel Protestant ecclesiology that he is seeking to establish by highly selective prooftexting, that has the appearance of strength and proof, when in actuality it is not proof at all.

9. Appeal to the Roman See not acknowledged by other bishops. Stoutly resisted by the Bishops of France and Africa. The impudence and falsehood of the Roman Pontiff detected.

The fourth remaining species of power is that of hearing appeals. It is evident that the supreme power belongs to him to whose tribunal appeals are made. Many had repeatedly appealed to the Roman Pontiff. He also had endeavoured to bring causes under his cognisance, but he had always been derided whenever he went beyond his own boundaries. I say nothing of the East and of Greece, but it is certain, that the bishops of France stoutly resisted when he seemed to assume authority over them. In Africa, the subject was long disputed, for in the Council of Milevita, at which Augustine was present, when those who carried appeals beyond seas were excommunicated, the Roman Pontiff attempted to obtain an alteration of the decree, and sent legates to show that the privilege of hearing appeals was given him by the Council of Nice. 

There will always be people who resist legitimate authority. So what? What does that prove? The doctrine is established (like all other doctrines) by Scripture and by the consensus of the fathers as a whole. The papacy passes this test. Novel Protestant doctrines, that deliberately depart from traditional precedent do not.

The legates produced acts of the council drawn from the armoury of their church. The African bishops resisted, and maintained, that credit was not to be given to the Bishop of Rome in his own cause; accordingly, they said that they would send to Constantinople, and other cities of Greece, where less suspicious copies might be had. It was found that nothing like what the Romanists had pretended was contained in the acts, and thus the decree which abrogated the supreme jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff was confirmed. In this matter was manifested the egregious effrontery of the Roman Pontiff. For when he had fraudulently substituted the Council of Sardis for that of Nice, he was disgracefully detected in a palpable falsehood; 

Popes may personally sin, of course. All this proves is that bad men sometimes occupy permanent offices. And theree is all sorts of internal politics and power plays and maneuverings in the universal Church, just as in all human organizations. That is why divine protection from theological error is absolutely required. Men left to their own devices will mess things up every time.

but still greater and more impudent was the iniquity of those who added a fictitious letter to the Council, in which some Bishop of Carthage condemns the arrogance of Aurelius his predecessor, in promising to withdraw himself from obedience to the Apostolic See, and making a surrender of himself and his church, suppliantly prays for pardon. These are the noble records of antiquity on which the majesty of the Roman See is founded, while, under the pretext of antiquity, they deal in falsehoods so puerile, that even a blind man might feel them.

Unfortunately, forgeries occurred, too, in history. But a fake document cannot overcome legitimate ones that establish what the forged documents also happen to express.

“Aurelius (says he), elated by diabolical audacity and contumacy, was rebellious against Christ and St Peter, and, accordingly, deserved to be anathematised.” What does Augustine say? and what the many Fathers who were present at the Council of Milevita? But what need is there to give a lengthened refutation of that absurd writing, which not even Romanists, if they have any modesty left them, can look at without a deep feeling of shame? Thus Gratian, whether through malice or ignorance, I know not, after quoting the decree, That those are to be deprived of communion who carry appeals beyond seas, subjoins the exception, Unless, perhaps, they have appealed to the Roman See (Grat. 2, Quæst. 4, cap. Placuit.). What can you make of creatures like these, who are so devoid of common sense that they set down as an exception from the law the very thing on account of which, as everybody sees, the law was made? For the Council, in condemning transmarine appeals, simply prohibits an appeal to Rome. Yet this worthy expounder excepts Rome from the common law.

That can be interpreted two way: the Roman See was exempted from common law precisely because it was unique, and above all, or advocates for Roman primacy were possessed by an ignorant or malicious lust for power, which caused them to make illegitimate exceptions for Rome. Facts can always be interpreted variously, according to a larger schema or purpose for presenting those facts. And we know that Calvin has an agenda; therefore, he will choose an interpretation cynical and disdainful of Roman claims, and this provides a clear example of that, but not a clear and undeniable proof of that which he seeks to demonstrate.


(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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