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”)
We come now to the third division—viz. the Power of the Church, as existing either in individual bishops, or in councils, whether provincial or general. I speak only of the spiritual power which is proper to the Church, and which consists either in doctrine, or jurisdiction, or in enacting laws.
Where are the bishops and councils in Calvin’s “church”? If he thought Catholicism did it wrong, what was his superior alternative?
In regard to doctrine, there are two divisions—viz. the authority of delivering dogmas, and the interpretation of them. Before we begin to treat of each in particular, I wish to remind the pious reader, that whatever is taught respecting the power of the Church, ought to have reference to the end for which Paul declares (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10) that it was given—namely, for edification, and not for destruction, those who use it lawfully deeming themselves to be nothing more than servants of Christ, and, at the same time, servants of the people in Christ. Moreover, the only mode by which ministers can edify the Church is, by studying to maintain the authority of Christ, which cannot be unimpaired, unless that which he received of the Father is left to him—viz. to be the only Master of the Church. For it was not said of any other but of himself alone, “Hear him” (Mt. 17:5). Ecclesiastical power, therefore, is not to be mischievously adorned, but it is to be confined within certain limits, so as not to be drawn hither and thither at the caprice of men. For this purpose, it will be of great use to observe how it is described by Prophets and Apostles. For if we concede unreservedly to men all the power which they think proper to assume, it is easy to see how soon it will degenerate into a tyranny which is altogether alien from the Church of Christ.
No disagreement here . . .
Therefore, it is here necessary to remember, that whatever authority and dignity the Holy Spirit in Scripture confers on priests, or prophets, or apostles, or successors of Apostles, is wholly given not to men themselves, but to the ministry to which they are appointed; or, to speak more plainly, to the word, to the ministry of which they are appointed. For were we to go over the whole in order, we should find that they were not invested with authority to teach or give responses, save in the name and word of the Lord. For whenever they are called to office, they are enjoined not to bring anything of their own, but to speak by the mouth of the Lord.
Men represent God’s will. Good . . .
Nor does he bring them forward to be heard by the people, before he has instructed them what they are to speak, lest they should speak anything but his own word. Moses, the prince of all the prophets, was to be heard in preference to others (Exod. 3:4; Deut. 17:9); but he is previously furnished with his orders, that he may not be able to speak at all except from the Lord.
If Calvin claims the same (or even similar) prerogative, he better have airtight reasoning; but as we have seen, he doesn’t have that at all: not even remotely close.
Accordingly, when the people embraced his doctrine, they are said to have believed the Lord, and his servant Moses (Exod. 14:31). It was also provided under the severest sanctions, that the authority of the priests should not be despised (Exod. 17:9).
Priests? Where are they in Calvin’s system? If he makes every Christian a priest, and confines the meaning of priest to that wider sense, then this is not analogous to the OT priestly system.
But the Lord, at the same time, shows in what terms they were to be heard, when he says that he made his covenant with Levi, that the law of truth might be in his mouth (Mal. 2:4-6). A little after he adds, “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” Therefore, if the priest would be heard, let him show himself to be the messenger of God; that is, let him faithfully deliver the commands which he has received from his Maker. When the mode of hearing, then, is treated of, it is expressly said, “According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee” (Deut. 17:11).
Sure; but Calvin takes this biblical teaching too far when he claims that a person ceases to be a priest or bishop or pope altogether, if he is corrupt in any way. That question has been dealt with in these replies many times previously.
The nature of the power conferred upon the prophets in general is elegantly described by Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me” (Ezek. 3:17). Is not he who is ordered to hear at the mouth of the Lord prohibited from devising anything of himself?
And what is meant by giving a warning from the Lord, but just to speak so as to be able confidently to declare that the word which he delivers is not his own but the Lord’s? The same thing is expressed by Jeremiah in different terms, “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully” (Jer. 23:28). Surely God here declares the law to all, and it is a law which does not allow any one to teach more than he has been ordered. He afterwards gives the name of chaff to whatever has not proceeded from himself alone. Accordingly, none of the prophets opened his mouth unless preceded by the word of the Lord. Hence we so often meet with the expressions, “The word of the Lord, The burden of the Lord, Thus saith the Lord, The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” And justly, for Isaiah exclaims that his lips are unclean (Isa. 6:5); and Jeremiah confesses that he knows not how to speak because he is a child (Jer. 1:6). Could anything proceed from the unclean lips of the one, and the childish lips of the other, if they spoke their own language, but what was unclean or childish? But their lips were holy and pure when they began to be organs of the Holy Spirit.
These men were inspired, whereas popes and bishops and Church fathers do not claim that charism. Infallibility (as Catholics understand full well) is essentially different from inspiration, with the latter being a positive gift, and the former, mostly a negative protection against error in extraordinary circumstances of teaching.
The prophets, after being thus strictly bound not to deliver anything but what they received, are invested with great power and illustrious titles. For when the Lord declares, “See, I have this day set thee over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant,” he at the same time gives the reason, “Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth ” (Jer. 1:9, 10).
Prophets are also a particular class of people: to which there is no direct analogy today in ecclesiastical offices, so the analogies only go so far. There is a sense, however, in which the prophets are analogous to papal infallibility. I explored this in my paper: Inspired & Infallible Prophets: Analogy to Infallible Popes.
Now, if you look to the apostles, they are commended by many distinguished titles, as the Light of the world, and the Salt of the earth, to be heard in Christ’s stead, whatever they bound or loosed on earth being bound or loosed in heaven (Mt. 5:13, 14; Luke 10:16; John 20:23).
And priests carry on this function today, as their successors.
But they declare in their own name what the authority was which their office conferred on them—viz. if they are apostles they must not speak their own pleasure, but faithfully deliver the commands of him by whom they are sent.
But of course Church authorities today don’t always receive a direct word from God, nor were they intended to. They go by Scripture, but also by Church tradition and the authoritative interpretation of the magisterium (completely in harmony with Scripture).
The words in which Christ defined their embassy are sufficiently clear, “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19, 20). Nay, that none might be permitted to decline this law, he received it and imposed it on himself. “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me” (John 7:16). He who always was the only and eternal counsellor of the Father, who by the Father was constituted Lord and Master of all, yet because he performed the ministry of teaching, prescribed to all ministers by his example the rule which they ought to follow in teaching. The power of the Church, therefore, is not infinite, but is subject to the word of the Lord, and, as it were, included in it.
Catholics agree so far, but as Calvin develops his argument, there will assuredly be disagreement, because Calvin is insufficiently biblical, historical, and reasonable.
But though the rule which always existed in the Church from the beginning, and ought to exist in the present day, is, that the servants of God are only to teach what they have learned from himself, yet, according to the variety of times, they have had different methods of learning. The mode which now exists differs very much from that of former times.
First, if it is true, as Christ says, “Neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt. 11:27), then those who wish to attain to the knowledge of God behoved always to be directed by that eternal wisdom. For how could they have comprehended the mysteries of God in their mind, or declared them to others, unless by the teaching of him, to whom alone the secrets of the Father are known? The only way, therefore, by which in ancient times holy men knew God, was by beholding him in the Son as in a mirror. When I say this, I mean that God never manifested himself to men by any other means than by his Son, that is, his own only wisdom, light, and truth. From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others, drew all the heavenly doctrine which they possessed. From the same fountain all the prophets also drew all the heavenly oracles which they published. For this wisdom did not always display itself in one manner. With the patriarchs he employed secret revelations, but, at the same time, in order to confirm these, had recourse to signs so as to make it impossible for them to doubt that it was God that spake to them. What the patriarchs received they handed down to posterity, for God had, in depositing it with them, bound them thus to propagate it, while their children and descendants knew by the inward teaching of God, that what they heard was of heaven and not of earth.
No particular disagreement . . . I would note, however, that it is interesting that Calvin accepts some semblance of “succession” under the Old Covenant: “What the patriarchs received they handed down to posterity, for God had, in depositing it with them, bound them thus to propagate it.” Why, then, does he have such a problem with the Catholic apostolic succession in the New Covenant? Catholic Tradition is nothing more than receiving what has been passed down, and passing it along (or “delivering” it) to others.
But when God determined to give a more illustrious form to the Church, he was pleased to commit and consign his word to writing, that the priests might there seek what they were to teach the people, and every doctrine delivered be brought to it as a test (Mal. 2:7).
The Old Covenant had plenty of writing and Scripture, too: in fact, relatively much more (volume-wise).
Accordingly, after the promulgation of the Law, when the priests are enjoined to teach from the mouth of the Lord, the meaning is, that they are not to teach anything extraneous or alien to that kind of doctrine which God had summed up in the Law, while it was unlawful for them to add to it or take from it.Yet the Old Covenant (with far more in common, by analogy, to Catholics rather than Protestants) accepted oral tradition as well as the written Mosaic Law. See my paper: Sola Scriptura, the Old Testament, & Ancient Jewish Practice.
Next followed the prophets, by whom God published the new oracles which were added to the Law, not so new, however, but that they flowed from the Law, and had respect to it. For in so far as regards doctrine, they were only interpreters of the Law, adding nothing to it but predictions of future events.
In other words, they were developments of the existing law. This is a good way to describe that: they “flowed from the Law.” Catholic teachings (more highly developed ones) “flow from” the apostolic deposit and teachings of the Bible. Catholics add nothing essential to the apostolic deposit. Calvin could have possibly understood Catholicism, even from his own analogies. But, sadly, he did not, because he applies one framework and standard to himself and another to the Church that he rejects (and seems to not even be aware of his double standards and frequent internal inconsistencies).
With this exception, all that they delivered was pure exposition of the Law. But as the Lord was pleased that doctrine should exist in a clearer and more ample form, the better to satisfy weak consciences, he commanded the prophecies also to be committed to writing, and to be held part of his word. To these at the same time were added historical details, which are also the composition of prophets, but dictated by the Holy Spirit; I include the Psalms among the Prophecies, the quality which we attribute to the latter belonging also to the former. The whole body, therefore, composed of the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and Histories,
And the oral law (accepted by Jesus and the early Christians), which Calvin passes right over . . .
formed the word of the Lord to his ancient people, and by it as a standard, priests and teachers, before the advent of Christ, were bound to test their doctrine, nor was it lawful for them to turn aside either to the right hand or the left, because their whole office was confined to this—to give responses to the people from the mouth of God. This is gathered from a celebrated passage of Malachi, in which it is enjoined to remember the Law, and give heed to it until the preaching of the Gospel (Mal. 4:4). For he thus restrains men from all adventitious doctrines, and does not allow them to deviate in the least from the path which Moses had faithfully pointed out. And the reason why David so magnificently extols the Law, and pronounces so many encomiums on it (Ps. 19, 119), was, that the Jews might not long after any extraneous aid, all perfection being included in it.
This law was always authoritatively interpreted, including the input of the oral traditions passed down.
But when at length the Wisdom of God was manifested in the flesh, he fully unfolded to us all that the human mind can comprehend, or ought to think of the heavenly Father. Now, therefore, since Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, has arisen, we have the perfect refulgence of divine truth, like the brightness of noon-day, whereas the light was previously dim. It was no ordinary blessing which the apostle intended to publish when he wrote: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2); for he intimates, nay, openly declares, that God will not henceforth, as formerly, speak by this one and by that one, that he will not add prophecy to prophecy, or revelation to revelation, but has so completed all the parts of teaching in the Son, that it is to be regarded as his last and eternal testimony. For which reason, the whole period of the new dispensation, from the time when Christ appeared to us with the preaching of his Gospel, until the day of judgment, is designated by the last hour, the last times, the last days, that, contented with the perfection of Christ’s doctrine, we may learn to frame no new doctrine for ourselves, or admit any one devised by others.
This is completely in accord with Catholic teaching. We hold that the apostolic deposit (public revelation) was complete and that nothing essentially new can be added to it.
With good cause, therefore, the Father appointed the Son our teacher, with special prerogative, commanding that he and no human being should be heard. When he said, “Hear him” (Mt. 17:5), he commended his office to us, in few words, indeed, but words of more weight and energy than is commonly supposed, for it is just as if he had withdrawn us from all doctrines of man, and confined us to him alone, ordering us to seek the whole doctrine of salvation from him alone, to depend on him alone, and cleave to him alone; in short (as the words express), to listen only to his voice. And, indeed, what can now be expected or desired from man, when the very Word of life has appeared before us, and familiarly explained himself? Nay, every mouth should be stopped when once he has spoken, in whom, according to the pleasure of our heavenly Father, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), and spoken as became the Wisdom of God (which is in no part defective) and the Messiah (from whom the revelation of all things was expected) (John 4:25); in other words, has so spoken as to leave nothing to be spoken by others after him.
We are responsible for spreading His gospel and His message, and for properly understanding and applying and developing it.
Let this then be a sure axiom—that there is no word of God to which place should be given in the Church save that which is contained, first, in the Law and the Prophets; and, secondly, in the writings of the Apostles, and that the only due method of teaching in the Church is according to the prescription and rule of his word.
Yes; correctly understood . . . But of course Calvin and Protestantism take this in an incomplete and inadequate direction: sola Scriptura, private judgment, no infallible Church, no popes, bishops (or even priests), councils, apostolic succession, etc.
Hence also we infer that nothing else was permitted to the apostles than was formerly permitted to the prophets—namely, to expound the ancient Scriptures, and show that the things there delivered are fulfilled in Christ: this, however, they could not do unless from the Lord; that is, unless the Spirit of Christ went before, and in a manner dictated words to them.
Indeed they could not.
For Christ thus defined the terms of their embassy, when he commanded them to go and teach, not what they themselves had at random fabricated, but whatsoever he had commanded (Mt. 28:20). And nothing can be plainer than his words in another passage, “Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ” (Mt. 23:8-10). To impress this more deeply in their minds, he in the same place repeats it twice. And because from ignorance they were unable to comprehend the things which they had heard and learned from the lips of their Master, the Spirit of truth is promised to guide them unto all truth (John 14:26; 16:13). The restriction should be carefully attended to. The office which he assigns to the Holy Spirit is to bring to remembrance what his own lips had previously taught.
Accordingly, Peter, who was perfectly instructed by his Master as to the extent of what was permitted to him, leaves nothing more to himself or others than to dispense the doctrine delivered by God. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11); that is, not hesitatingly, as those are wont whose convictions are imperfect, but with the full confidence which becomes a servant of God, provided with a sure message. What else is this than to banish all the inventions of the human mind (whatever be the head which may have devised them), that the pure word of God may be taught and learned in the Church of the faithful,—than to discard the decrees, or rather fictions of men (whatever be their rank), that the decrees of God alone may remain steadfast?
That would take out much of the “Reformation” insofar as there were many many completely novel teachings, previously unknown or virtually unheard of. It does not eliminate, on the other hand, consistent development of doctrine, built upon the original apostolic deposit and the written, inspired Word of God.
These are “the weapons of our warfare,” which “are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4, 5). Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the Church, by whatever name they are called,
And they’re not called priests and bishops and popes in Calvin’s new revolutionary ecclesiology . . .
should be invested— namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God, compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom, and rank of the world to yield and obey its majesty; to command all from the highest to the lowest, trusting to its power to build up the house of Christ and overthrow the house of Satan; to feed the sheep and chase away the wolves; to instruct and exhort the docile, to accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and petulant, to bind and loose; in fine, if need be, to fire and fulminate, but all in the word of God.
The written word of God that Calvin fully accepts, teaches also that there is a Tradition, and an oral Tradition:
Although, as I have observed, there is this difference between the apostles and their successors, they were sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit; and, therefore, their writings are to be regarded as the oracles of God, whereas others have no other office than to teach what is delivered and sealed in the holy Scriptures. We conclude, therefore, that it does not now belong to faithful ministers to coin some new doctrine, but simply to adhere to the doctrine to which all, without exception, are made subject.
True . . .
When I say this, I mean to show not only what each individual, but what the whole Church, is bound to do. In regard to individuals, Paul certainly had been appointed an apostle to the Corinthians, and yet he declares that he has no dominion over their faith (2 Cor. 1:24). Who will now presume to arrogate a dominion to which the apostle declares that he himself was not competent? But if he had acknowledged such licence in teaching, that every pastor could justly demand implicit faith in whatever he delivered, he never would have laid it down as a rule to the Corinthians, that while two or three prophets spoke, the others should judge, and that, if anything was revealed to one sitting by, the first should be silent (1 Cor. 14:29, 30). Thus he spared none, but subjected the authority of all to the censure of the word of God.
But the interpretation has its limits. The same Paul declared that nothing could be delivered that was not received. This is a major problem with the revolutionary novelties (and doctrinal corruptions) of the so-called “Reformation.”
But it will be said, that with regard to the whole Church the case is different. I answer, that in another place Paul meets the objection also when he says, that faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17). In other words, if faith depends upon the word of God alone, if it regards and reclines on it alone, what place is left for any word of man?
The place of delegated authority, of course, and authoritative interpretation, and guidelines for orthodoxy. This is why Protestants, too, are big on creeds and confessions: all of which presuppose authoritative interpretation of the inspired revelation.
He who knows what faith is can never hesitate here, for it must possess a strength sufficient to stand intrepid and invincible against Satan, the machinations of hell, and the whole world. This strength can be found only in the word of God.
That word of God always has to be interpreted, and people differ in that respect. Protestants have never been able to agree amongst themselves on many key issues. So merely proclaiming “we stand on God’s word” etc. is never completely sufficient. It breaks down as soon as the differing interpretations arise. Catholics can resolve that debate on a doctrinal level, because we believe in an infallible Church.
Then the reason to which we ought here to have regard is universal: God deprives man of the power of producing any new doctrine, in order that he alone may be our master in spiritual teaching, as he alone is true, and can neither lie nor deceive. This reason applies not less to the whole Church than to every individual believer.
Catholics fully agree. But as we’ll see in the next section, Calvin takes these many true premises into an erroneous direction. One can know that 2+2=4, but without learning the times tables and higher mathematics, then the basic arithmetical truths can quickly lead to false equations and conclusions. Theology (like all intellectual systems) works the same way, in that respect.
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]