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”)
Note the implied circular argument of the title: “these great figures complained, and so this proves the papacy itself was a corruption” (as Calvin believes and is strenuously arguing throughout this chapter). But as we have seen, Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Bernard of Clairvaux were firm believers in papal supremacy. Obviously, then, whatever excesses or shortcomings occurred in practice, they did not arrive at Calvin’s conclusion, and so remain far more “Catholic witnesses” than “Protestant” ones. This happens time and again in the desperate Protestant appeal to (revisionist) history.
But that I may not be forced to discuss and follow out each point singly, I again appeal to those who, in the present day, would be thought the best and most faithful defenders of the Roman See, whether they are not ashamed to defend the existing state of the Papacy, which is clearly a hundred times more corrupt than in the days of Gregory and Bernard, though even then these holy men were so much displeased with it.
The office is not overthrown by corruption, since it was instituted by Christ and will be preserved by Him. In earlier sections of his Book IV (1:13-17, 1:24-29, and 2:1), Calvin understood full well the distinction between permanent office and corrupt individual officeholder, but for some reason he doesn’t apply that to the papacy, which he wants to eliminate.
Gregory everywhere complains (Lib. 1 Ep. 5; item, Ep. 7, 25, &c.) that he was distracted above measure by foreign occupations: that under colour of the episcopate he was taken back to the world, being subject to more worldly cares than he remembered to have ever had when a laic; that he was so oppressed by the trouble of secular affairs, as to be unable to raise his mind to things above; that he was so tossed by the many billows of causes, and afflicted by the tempests of a tumultuous life, that he might well say, “I am come into the depths of the sea.” It is certain, that amid these worldly occupations, he could teach the people in sermons, admonish in private, and correct those who required it; order the Church, give counsel to his colleagues, and exhort them to their duty. Moreover, some time was left for writing, and yet he deplores it as his calamity, that he was plunged into the very deepest sea. If the administration at that time was a sea, what shall we say of the present Papacy?
So for Calvin, corruption gets worse and worse till he feels compelled to throw out the “baby” (the office of the papacy) with the corrupt “bathwater” of abuses of individual popes. This is very shoddy (and quite unbiblical) reasoning.
For what resemblance is there between the periods? Now there are no sermons, no care for discipline, no zeal for churches, no spiritual function; nothing, in short, but the world.
All is extremes, in Calvin’s eyes.
And yet this labyrinth is lauded as if nothing could be found better ordered and arranged. What complaints also does Bernard pour forth, what groans does he utter, when he beholds the vices of his own age?
That’s because Bernard was a real reformer, not a bogus one like Calvin, who “reforms” by eliminating institutions and doctrines that had been believed continuously by the Church for nearly 1500 years.
What then would he have done on beholding this iron, or, if possible, worse than iron, age of ours?
The same as he did when he lived: call for repentance and reform of the papacy: not abolishing it. Is Calvin foolish enough to actually think otherwise? We’ve already documented how St. Bernard was a solid supporter of the supremacy of the papacy. There had been several periods at least as decadent and corrupt as the 16th century. They didn’t cause saints to proceed as Luther and Calvin did, with their bulldozers and theological / ecclesiological demolition crews.
How dishonest, therefore, not only obstinately to defend as sacred and divine what all the saints have always with one mouth disapproved, but to abuse their testimony in favour of the Papacy, which, it is evident, was altogether unknown to them?
This is a masterpiece of sophistical redefinition. In the first place, no true Catholic reformer or defender will disagree about the corruptions that St. Bernard decries, and it is dishonest to pretend that they would. Catholics then and now defend the office and institution of the papacy, while detesting any sins committed by individual popes. What is so difficult to comprehend about that? But for Calvin, corruption is the essence of a thing (at least of any and all Catholic things), as long as its degree reaches a point where Calvin has had enough, and is willing to ludicrously overreact by equating a thing with its excesses, and thus, discarding it.
By the same token, manifest excesses the new denominational, sectarian system brought about by Luther’s appeal to individual subjectivism (always, of course, piously cloaked in the language of “Scripture Alone” and “perspicuous Scripture”) — that Luther and Calvin both abominated — would mean that Protestantism should be discarded because of its internal corruptions (or consistent developments that bring into question original premises). But no corruption in his system is enough to get Calvin to even question it, let alone call for its abolition. Any corruption of practice in Catholicism, on the other hand, is sufficient to call for drastic measures.
Although I admit, in respect to the time of Bernard, that all things were so corrupt as to make it not unlike our own.
How convenient. St. Bernard did not at all arrive at the conclusion that Calvin did, so why does he keep citing him? I submit that it is because he thinks he can make rhetorical and sophistical hay out of citing the Great Man, even though his views do not ultimately support Calvin’s mission. Calvin cleverly acts as if the contrary is the case, and that St. Bernard, were he alive in Calvin’s time, would be magically transformed into a good Protestant (just like all Calvinists absurdly think would be the case with St. Augustine).
But it betrays a want of all sense of shame to seek any excuse from that middle period—namely, from that of Leo, Gregory, and the like—for it is just as if one were to vindicate the monarchy of the Cæsars by lauding the ancient state of the Roman empire; in other words, were to borrow the praises of liberty in order to eulogise tyranny.
But this argument works at cross-purposes to Calvin’s aim: to show the essential illegitimacy of the papacy, so that it could be eliminated. He himself argues that the Church can stand corruption in its boundaries without ceasing to be what it is. But he won’t allow the same state of affairs for the papacy. The papacy was either instituted by Christ or it was not. Catholics provide many arguments affirming that indeed it was. Calvin deals with those in only a grossly inadequate, dismissively cursory fashion.
Lastly, Although all these things were granted, an entirely new question arises, when we deny that there is at Rome a Church in which privileges of this nature can reside; when we deny that there is a bishop to sustain the dignity of these privileges. Assume, therefore, that all these things are true (though we have already extorted the contrary from them), that Peter was by the words of Christ constituted head of the universal Church, and that the honour thus conferred upon him he deposited in the Roman See, that this was sanctioned by the authority of the ancient Church, and confirmed by long use; that supreme power was always with one consent devolved by all on the Roman Pontiff,
What Calvin wants to assume for the sake of argument, is in fact, true.
that while he was the judge of all causes and all men, he was subject to the judgment of none.
Popes could be, and were, rebuked, by saints and ecumenical councils. But it doesn’t follow that they were not supreme in authority.
Let even more be conceded to them if they will, I answer, in one word, that none of these things avail if there be not a Church and a Bishop at Rome. They must of necessity concede to me that she is not a mother of churches who is not herself a church, that he cannot be the chief of bishops who is not himself a bishop.
This is fallaciously ingenious as well: simply declare out of the blue that there is no longer either a church or a bishop at Rome, and Catholicism collapses by default. What God had preserved and blessed all those years, suddenly no longer is. God changed His mind; so Calvin would have us believe. That’s a pretty amazing thing for a sovereign, omniscient, foreknowing Being to do.
Would they then have the Apostolic See at Rome?
The bottom line and heart of the matter is not what human beings want, but what God willed and protected and preserved.
Let them give me a true and lawful apostleship.
That is true which has preserved the handed-down teaching. Catholicism fully did that; Protestantism did only in part. This was why the Church rejected Luther’s new plan for what Christianity supposedly was.
Would they have a supreme pontiff, let them give me a bishop. But how? Where will they show me any semblance of a church? They, no doubt, talk of one, and have it ever in their mouths. But surely the Church is recognised by certain marks, and bishopric is the name of an office.
That’s correct. And one of the major marks is orthodoxy and continuity of Tradition. The Church is (as the Nicene Creed states) “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.” Calvin wants to get rid of the “apostolic” mark by redefining it (“apostolic” is now what Calvin and his ilk say it is, rather than what the Fathers and unbroken Tradition of the Church decree). “Catholic” means universal. It is a farce to view Protestantism as in any way “universal.” As Luther cried, “there are as many sects as there are heads.”
I am not now speaking of the people but of the government, which ought perpetually to be conspicuous in the Church. Where, then, is a ministry such as the institution of Christ requires?
In the same place where it was in the seven churches of the book of Revelation, where there was all kinds of corruption (by Christ’s own report), yet our Lord Jesus still referred to them as “churches” didn’t He? So God does it one way, Calvin a much different way.
Let us remember what was formerly said of the duty of presbyters and bishops. If we bring the office of cardinals to that test, we will acknowledge that they are nothing less than presbyters. But I should like to know what one quality of a bishop the Pope himself has? The first point in the office of a bishop is to instruct the people in the word of God; the second and next to it is to administer the sacraments; the third is to admonish and exhort, to correct those who are in fault, and restrain the people by holy discipline. Which of these things does he do? Nay, which of these things does he pretend to do? Let them say, then, on what ground they will have him to be regarded as a bishop, who does not even in semblance touch any part of the duty with his little finger.
If indeed the present pope at the time Calvin wrote didn’t do these things, then he failed in his duty. It doesn’t follow that there is no pope, anymore than false prophets “proved” there were no true disciples, or wolves in sheep’s clothing proved there were no true sheep (Christians). This is elementary. So how can Calvin fail to comprehend it?
It is not with a bishop as with a king; the latter, though he does not execute the proper duty of a king, nevertheless retains the title and the honour; but in deciding on a bishop respect is had to the command of Christ, to which effect ought always to be given in the Church.
Why, then, doesn’t our Lord Himself do this (Revelation 1:20 – 3:22)? Presumably all seven of the churches in Revelation had some form of Church government. Even granting for the sake of argument that they were not bishops in the full Catholic sense, Calvin wants to deny to the Roman church the status of church altogether (let alone preeminent one), because of what he regards as intolerable corruption. Why, then, didn’t Jesus do that with these seven churches? He doesn’t deny that they deserve that title. They were committing every sin in the book, as were the Galatians and Corinthians, whom Paul rebuked, while still regarding them as valid churches.
Paul even goes beyond that. He acknowledges the office of the Jewish high priest and calls himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:1-6), even after his conversion, just as Jesus had upheld the continuing authority of the Pharisees, right before lambasting their corruption (Matthew 23:1-3). Therefore, offices (even the papal office) continue, and Calvin is soundly refuted from Holy Scripture and the earliest Christian practice.
Let the Romanists then untie this knot.
I just did. Let the Calvinists tie it up again without doing violence to Holy Scripture.
I deny that their pontiff is the prince of bishops, seeing he is no bishop.
Calvin’s individual opinion is of no import. He has no authority to proclaim this, and his arguments can’t survive even a little scrutiny, even if he supposedly had any authority.
This allegation of mine they must prove to be false if they would succeed in theirs.
I dare say that I’m having little difficulty doing so, and I am a nobody.
What then do I maintain? That he has nothing proper to a bishop, but is in all things the opposite of a bishop. But with what shall I here begin? With doctrine or with morals? What shall I say, or what shall I pass in silence, or where shall I end?
Yes; he wants his readers to believe that there is such a mountain of evidence on his side, that he scarcely knows where to begin. But he does very poorly when he actually ventures out into the land of reasoned biblical and historical argument.
This I maintain: while in the present day the world is so inundated with perverse and impious doctrines, so full of all kinds of superstition, so blinded by error and sunk in idolatry, there is not one of them which has not emanated from the Papacy, or at least been confirmed by it.
More extreme, unsubstantiated language, which is the mark of the propagandist and sophist . . .
Nor is there any other reason why the pontiffs are so enraged against the reviving doctrine of the Gospel,
. . . as Calvin redefines that term, of course . . . as if there were no “Gospel” before he and Luther arrived on the scene.
why they stretch every nerve to oppress it, and urge all kings and princes to cruelty, than just that they see their whole dominion tottering and falling to pieces the moment the Gospel of Christ prevails.
As for cruelty, that was by no means confined to Catholics, as I have documented in dozens of papers.
Leo was cruel and Clement sanguinary, Paul is truculent. But in assailing the truth, it is not so much natural temper that impels them as the conviction that they have no other method of maintaining their power. Therefore, seeing they cannot be safe unless they put Christ to flight, they labour in this cause as if they were fighting for their altars and hearths, for their own lives and those of their adherents.
Of course, all Catholics had to be evil devils, to actually deign to fight for their tradition. Imagine that! What wicked fellows! They fought Christ Himself. But the Calvinist minions had Christ on their side as they went about stealing churches., smashing stained glass, organs, statues of Mary and Jesus Christ, and outlawing the Mass, and exiling Catholics, and drowning Anabaptist Protestants as seditious rebels.
What then? Shall we recognise the Apostolic See where we see nothing but horrible apostacy?
That’s all Calvin sees because it is convenient to his argument.
Shall he be the vicar of Christ who, by his furious efforts in persecuting the Gospel, plainly declares himself to be Antichrist?
Why doesn’t Calvin provide examples of a pope “persecuting the Gospel”? Surely that must be easy to do, if things are so beyond all redemption, as he claims. But all he can do is make bald assertions.
Shall he be the successor of Peter who goes about with fire and sword demolishing everything that Peter built?
Great melodramatic effect, and exactly zero substance, argument-wise . . .
Shall he be the Head of the Church who, after dissevering the Church from Christ, her only true Head, tears and lacerates her members?
Calvin would have made a great politician or used-car salesman.
Rome, indeed, was once the mother of all the churches, but since she began to be the seat of Antichrist she ceased to be what she was.
And what year did this momentous event take place? Isn’t it interesting that in anti-Catholic hit pieces like this, we hear this sort of definite assertion, but never a date at which it supposedly occurred. Rest assured, so Calvin tells us, that Rome (Babylon the Great) has fallen. It assuredly fell, but we know not when . . . Is that supposed to impress any man of reason, on either side of the sad debate?
It’s simply propaganda. I’m very disappointed with Calvin. I thought he would do much better than this. I see so clearly where today’s irrational, intransigent anti-Catholic attitude comes from. I knew Luther was a master at this sort of tactic, but I held out hope that Calvin could at least put up some substantive arguments.
Not so. Even the few he puts up are easily refuted, I think.
I don’t want to get into a bunch of character judgments of Calvin. What I know for sure is that he was a lousy debater and a thoroughgoing sophist.
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]