Friday, June 11, 2004

John Calvin's View of the Catholic Church

[all words except bibliographical information are from John Calvin. Added emphases are bolded]

From: Reply to Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto

(September 1, 1539; translated by Henry Beveridge, 1844; reprinted in A Reformation Debate, edited by John C. Olin, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966; citations from pp. 57, 59-65, 72-76, 82-83, 88-89)

. . . when they threw off the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff; in order that they might establish among themselves a better form of Church, you call it a desertion from the Church.

. . . I have also no difficulty in conceding to you, that there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God . . . In short, we train them, by every means, to be contented with the one rule of worship which they have received from his mouth, and bid adieu to all fictitious worship.

Therefore, Sadolet, when you uttered this voluntary confession, you laid the foundation of my defense For if you admit it to be a fearful destruction to the soul, when, by false opinions, divine truth is turned into a lie, it now only remains for us to inquire which of the two parties retains that worship of God which is alone legitimate . . . You are mistaken in supposing that we desire to lead away the people from that method of worshipping God which the Catholic Church always observed. You either labor under a delusion as to the term church, or, at least, knowingly and willingly give it a gloss. I will immediately show the latter to be the case, though it may also be that you are somewhat in error.

. . . For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly, as not in some measure to betray himself, the principal weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. And you, Sadolet, by stumbling on the very threshold, have paid the penalty of that affront which you offered to the Holy Spirit, when you separated him from the Word.

. . . our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, . . . all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction.

I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the Apostles instituted, (though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error), but to indulge you so far, place, I pray, before your eyes, that ancient form of the Church, such as their writings prove it to have been in the age of Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins; after so doing, contemplate the ruins of that Church, as now surviving among yourselves. Assuredly, the difference will appear as great as that which the Prophets describe between the famous Church which flourished under David and Solomon, and that which under Zedekiah and Jehoiakim had lapsed into every kind of superstition, and utterly vitiated the purity of divine worship.

. . . The truth of Prophetical and Evangelical doctrine, on which the Church ought to be founded, has not only in a great measure perished in your Church, but is violently driven away by fire and sword.

. . . your nefarious profanation of the sacraments I cannot think of without the utmost horror. Of ceremonies, indeed, you have more than enough, but, for the most part, so childish in their import, and vitiated by innumerable forms of superstition, as to be utterly unavailing for the preservation of the Church.

. . . Ceremonies we have in a great measure abolished, but we were compelled to do so, partly because by their multitude they had degenerated into a kind of Judaism, partly because they had filled the minds of the people with superstition, and could not possibly remain without doing the greatest injury to the piety which it was their office to promote.

. . . As to our doctrine, we hesitate not to appeal to the ancient Church.

. . . sophistry so twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling, that scholastic theology might well be described as a species of secret magic.

. . . But, in regard to the intercession of the saints, we insist on a point which it is not strange that you omit. For here innumerable superstitions were to be cut off; superstitions which had risen to such a height, that the intercession of Christ was utterly erased from men's thoughts, saints were invoked as gods, the peculiar offices of Deity were distributed among them, and a worship paid to them which differed in nothing from that ancient idolatry which we all deservedly execrate.

. . . I will not permit you, Sadolet, by inscribing the name of Church on such abominations, both to defame her against all law and justice, and prejudice the ignorant against us, as if we were determined to wage war with the Church.

. . . Indeed, in attacking, breaking down, and destroying your kingdom, we are armed not only with the energy of the Divine Word, but with the aid of the holy Fathers also. That I may altogether disarm you of the authority of the Church, which, as your shield of Ajax, you ever and anon oppose to us, I will show, by some additional examples, how widely you differ from that holy antiquity. We accuse you of overthrowing the ministry, of which the empty name remains with you, without the reality.

. . . We are indignant, that in the room of the sacred Supper has been substituted a sacrifice, by which the death of Christ is emptied of its virtues . . . in all these points, the ancient Church is clearly on our side, and opposes you, not less than we ourselves do.

. . . impiety so stalked abroad, that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part, however minute, of divine worship untarnished by superstition.

. . . We, indeed, Sadolet, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman Pontiff with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor's office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation.

. . . those shadowy prelates, by whom you think the Church stands or perishes, and by whom we say that she has been cruelly torn and mutilated, and brought to the very brink of destruction, can bear neither their vices nor the cure of them. Destroyed the Church would have been, had not God, with singular goodness, prevented.

. . . Owing to this supine state of the pastors, and this stupidity of the people, every place was filled with pernicious errors, falsehoods, and superstition. They, indeed, called thee the only God, but it was while transferring to others the glory which thou hast claimed for thy Majesty. They figured and had for themselves as many gods as they had saints, whom they chose to worship. Thy Christ was indeed worshipped as God, and retained the name of Saviour; but where he ought to have been honored, he was left almost without honour. For, spoiled of his own virtue, he passed unnoticed among the crowd of saints, like one of the meanest of them.

. . . lo, a very different form of doctrine started up, not one which led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought it back to its fountain head, and, as it were, clearing away the dross, restored it to its original purity.

. . . It was when the world was plunged in ignorance and sloth, as in a deep sleep, that the Pope had risen to such an eminence; certainly neither her appointed Head of the Church by the word of God, nor ordained by a legitimate act of the Church, but of his own accord, self-elected.

. . . the true order of the Church had then perished . . . the kingdom of Christ was prostrated when this primacy was reared up.

From: Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, With the Antidote

(1547; translated by Henry Beveridge, 1851; reprinted in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 3: Tracts, Part 3, edited by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983; citations from pp. 38-39, 46-47)

. . . the doctrine of salvation, which they have wholly adulterated by their impious and abominable fictions . . . the sacraments which they have utterly vitiated, and which they prostitute to a vile and shameless trafficking . . .

. . . We complain that the whole doctrine of godliness is adulterated by impious dogmas; that the whole worship of God is vitiated by foul and disgraceful superstitions; that the pure institution of the sacraments has been supplanted by horrible sacrilege . . . that nothing is seen in the Christian Church that is not deformed and debased; that the grace of Christ not only lies half-buried, but is partly torn to pieces, partly altogether extinguished.

. . . Is it honour to the saints to rob God of his honour and transfer it to them, that they may be worshipped promiscuously with God? . . . they allow the saints to be worshipped indifferently with God . . . In all these things the Papists go beyond the Israelites . . . a block of wood will be our Father in heaven.

I say nothing more than that it will be at once plain how just our grounds are for bewailing the destruction of the Church, and calling for the restitution of its fallen state . . . What agreement or affinity is there between their whole hierarchy which they proudly extol, and the government of Christ and the Apostles? Nay, in what point are they not utterly opposed to each other?

From: The True Method of Reforming the Church and Healing Her Divisions

(1547; translated by Henry Beveridge, 1851; reprinted in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 3: Tracts, Part 3, edited by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983; citations from pp. 264-268)

We certainly deny not that the Church of God has always existed in the world; for we hear what God promises concerning the perpetuity of the seed of Christ. In this way, too, we deny not that there has been an uninterrupted succession of the Church from the beginning of the gospel even to our day; but we do not concede that it was so fixed to external shows -- that it has hitherto always been, and will henceforth always be, in possession of the Bishops . . . if the Church resides in the successors of the Apostles, let us search for successors among those only who have faithfully handed down their doctrine to posterity.

. . . we deny the title of Successors of the Apostles to those who have abandoned their faith and doctrine . . . What effrontery then, is it to use the name of the Church herself as a cloak for oppressing the Church? . . . Wherein does Succession exist, if it be not in perpetuity of doctrine? But if the doctrine of the Apostles has been corrupted, nay abolished and extinguished by those who would be regarded as their successors, who would not deride their foolish boasting?

. . . But when the name of the Church is usurped by those who, as far as in them lay, have utterly destroyed it, how dastardly were it not to reclaim at least against the present evil?

. . . Next comes the right of interpreting, in support of which, as belonging to their fancied Church, the mediators adduce the testimony of Peter . . .

. . . while they, in the mean time, rob the Church of what was given her by Christ, does not their deceit deserve to be exposed?

From: Commentary on John

(1553; translated by William Pringle in 1847; this comment is on John 9:15)

When an opportunity occurs, we must endeavor, as far as lies in our power, to oppose the wicked attempts of those who, actuated by false zeal, reproach and slander the gospel. If no defense, however just, shut their mouth, we have no reason to be discouraged, but ought to trample under foot, with boldness and magnanimity, that eagerness to slander by which they wish to oppress us. They take up maxims which we readily grant to them, that we ought not to listen to those who revolt from the Church, and break up the unity of the faith. But they pass by, and pretend not to have observed -- that which ought to form the principal subject of inquiry, and which we have explained clearly in many passages -- that nothing can be farther removed from the Church than the Pope with all his band; that a medley composed of lies and impositions, and stained by so many superstitious inventions, is widely distant from the purity of faith. But with all their furious arrogance, they will never hinder the truth, which has been so frequently and so firmly maintained by us, from being at length successful.

From: Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets

(1559; translated by John Owen, 1848)

Commentary on Habakkuk

[2:19; Lecture 114]

Moreover, whatever is here said against idols, most certainly applies to the superstitions of popery. They deny that they give divine honors to their idols; but let us consider what the Prophet says. They indeed sacrifice to gold and silver, and then bend their knees before their images, and do not think that God is near them, except in these figures. Let them show, then, that the Prophet reasons here foolishly, or let them be held guilty according to the declaration, as it were, of the Holy Spirit, when they thus present their prayers before idols.

Commentary on Zephaniah


[1:5; Lecture 119]

This evil has been common in all ages; and it prevails still at this day under the Papacy. They swear by the Virgin, by angels, and by the dead. They do not think that they thus take away anything from the sovereignty of the only true God; but we see what he declares respecting them. The Papists therefore foolishly excuse themselves, when they swear by their saints: for they cannot elude the charge of sacrilege, which the Holy Spirit has stamped with perpetual infamy, since he has said, that all those are abominable in the sight of God who swear by any other name than his own

Commentary on Zephaniah

[1:6; Lecture 119]

The same is the case at this day with the Papists: for though they may glamour a hundred times that they seek to worship God, it is quite evident that they willfully go astray; inasmuch as they so delight themselves with their own inventions, that they do not purely and from the heart devote and consecrate themselves to God.

Commentary on Zechariah

[11:17; Lecture 159]

We must also bear in mind, that when the extreme rigour of God prevails, there still remains some evidence of his favor, for some seed, though few in number, is still perpetuated; for the Church is never so completely abolished as not to leave any remnants, for whose safety God is pleased to provide when he executes his vengeance, inasmuch as he stretches forth his hand at the same time against the ministers he has employed, because they had cruelly abused their power. So also at this day the milted bishops shall be made to know how precious to God is the safety of his Church; for though almost all the people and almost every individual are worthy of the most tyrannical cruelty, yet we know that some are found in that labyrinth for whom God has a care. Though then they who at this day possess power under the Papacy think themselves innocent, while they are robbers and wolves, they shall yet find that God is a righteous judge, who will visit their abominable cruelty: for the disorder of the Church is not its destruction, as God ever preserves some remnant.

From: Institutes of the Christian Religion

(1559 edition; translated by Henry Beveridge, 1845)

1. Among heretics and false Christians, Christ is found in name only; but by those who are truly and effectually called of God, he is acknowledged as a Prophet, King, and Priest. In regard to the Prophetical Office, the Redeemer of the Church is the same from whom believers under the Law hoped for the full light of understanding.

THOUGH heretics pretend the name of Christ, truly does Augustine affirm (Enchir. ad Laurent. cap. 5), that the foundation is not common to them with the godly, but belongs exclusively to the Church: for if those things which pertain to Christ be diligently considered, it will be found that Christ is with them in name only, not in reality. Thus in the present day, though the Papists have the words, Son of God, Redeemer of the world, sounding in their mouths, yet, because contented with an empty name, they deprive him of his virtue and dignity; what Paul says of "not holding the head," is truly applicable to them (Col. 2:19).

(II, 15, 1)

Book IV: Of the Holy Catholic Church
Chapter II: Comparison Between the False Church and the True
Link for IV, 2, 1-12.

1. . . . Where lying and falsehood prevail, no Church exists. There is falsehood wherever the pure doctrine of Christ is not in vigour.

But as soon as falsehood has forced its way into the citadel of religion, as soon as the sum of necessary doctrine is inverted, and the use of the sacraments is destroyed, the death of the Church undoubtedly ensues, just as the life of man is destroyed when his throat is pierced, or his vitals mortally wounded . . . it is certain that there is no Church where lying and falsehood have usurped the ascendancy.

(IV, 2, 1)

2. This falsehood prevails under the Papacy. Hence the Papacy is not a Church. Still the Papists extol their own Church, and charge those who dissent from it with heresy and schism. They attempt to defend their vaunting by the name of personal succession. A succession which abandons the truth of Christ proved to be of no importance.

Since this is the state of matters under the Papacy, we can understand how much of the Church there survives. There, instead of the ministry of the word, prevails a perverted government, compounded of lies, a government which partly extinguishes, partly suppresses, the pure light. In place of the Lord's Supper, the foulest sacrilege has entered, the worship of God is deformed by a varied mass of intolerable superstitions; doctrine (without which Christianity exists not) is wholly buried and exploded, the public assemblies are schools of idolatry and impiety . . . But by what arguments do they prove their possession of the true Church?

(IV, 2, 2)

In the present day, therefore, the presence of the Romanists is just the same as that which appears to have been formerly used by the Jews, when the Prophets of the Lord charged them with blindness, impiety, and idolatry. For as the Jews proudly vaunted of their temple, ceremonies, and priesthood, by which, with strong reason, as they supposed, they measured the Church, so, instead of the Church, we are presented by the Romanists with certain external masks, which often are far from being connected with the Church, and without which the Church can perfectly exist . . .

. . . so many who were born and brought up in servitude confidently boast that they are the sons of God and of the Church; nay, while they are themselves degenerate, proudly despise the genuine sons of God. Let us also, in like manner, when we hear that it was once declared from heaven, "Cast out the bondmaid and her son," trust to this inviolable decree, and boldly despise their unmeaning boasts. For if they plume themselves on external profession, Ishmael also was circumcised: if they found on antiquity, he was the first-born: and yet we see that he was rejected.

[1960 McNeill / Battles edition: "bastards" instead of "degenerate"]

. . . They have, therefore, no longer any ground for proceeding to make a gloss of the name of the Church, which we regard with due reverence; but when we come to definition, not only (to use the common expression) does the water adhere to them, but they stick in their own mire, because they substitute a vile prostitute for the sacred spouse of Christ. That the substitution may not deceive us, . . .

(IV, 2, 3)

4. Whatever the Papists may pretend, there is no Church where the word of God appears not.

In this way the Romanists assail us in the present day, and terrify the unskilful with the name of Church, while they are the deadly adversaries of Christ. Therefore, although they exhibit a temple, a priesthood, and other similar masks, the empty glare by which they dazzle the eyes of the simple should not move us in the least to admit that there is a Church where the word of God appears not. The Lord furnished us with an unfailing test when he said, "Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). Again, "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine." "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." A little before he had said, when the shepherd "putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:14, 4, 5). Why then do we, of our own accord, form so infatuated an estimate of the Church, since Christ has designated it by a sign in which is nothing in the least degree equivocal, a sign which is everywhere seen, the existence of which infallibly proves the existence of the Church, while its absence proves the absence of everything that properly bears the name of Church?

(IV, 2, 4)

9. Hence the Papists act unjustly when they would compel us to communion with their Church. Their two demands. Answer to the first. Sum of the question. Why we cannot take part in the external worship of the Papists.

Now then let the Papists, in order to extenuate their vices as much as possible, deny, if they can, that the state of religion is as much vitiated and corrupted with them as it was in the kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam. They have a grosser idolatry, and in doctrine are not one whit more pure; rather, perhaps, they are even still more impure . . . But in these men, I mean the Papists, where is the resemblance? Scarcely can we hold any meeting with them without polluting ourselves with open idolatry. Their principal bond of communion is undoubtedly in the Mass, which we abominate as the greatest sacrilege.

(IV, 2, 9)

With regard to the second point, our objections are still stronger. For when the Church is considered in that particular point of view as the Church, whose judgment we are bound to revere, whose authority acknowledge, whose admonitions obey, whose censures dread, whose communion religiously cultivate in every respect, we cannot concede that they have a Church, without obliging ourselves to subjection and obedience. Still we are willing to concede what the Prophets conceded to the Jews and Israelites of their day, when with them matters were in a similar, or even in a better condition. For we see how they uniformly exclaim against their meetings as profane conventicles, to which it is not more lawful for them to assent than to abjure God (Isa. 1:14). And certainly if those were churches, it follows, that Elijah, Micaiah, and others in Israel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and those of like character in Judah, whom the prophets, priests, and people of their day, hated and execrated more than the uncircumcised, were aliens from the Church of God. If those were churches, then the Church was no longer the pillar of the truth, but the stay of falsehood, not the tabernacle of the living God, but a receptacle of idols. They were, therefore, under the necessity of refusing consent to their meetings, since consent was nothing else than impious conspiracy against God. For this same reason, should any one acknowledge those meetings of the present day, which are contaminated by idolatry, superstition, and impious doctrine, as churches, full communion with which a Christian must maintain so far as to agree with them even in doctrine, he will greatly err. For if they are churches, the power of the keys belongs to them, whereas the keys are inseparably connected with the word which they have put to flight. Again, if they are churches, they can claim the promise of Christ, "Whatsoever ye bind," &c.; whereas, on the contrary, they discard from their communion all who sincerely profess themselves the servants of Christ. Therefore, either the promise of Christ is vain, or in this respect, at least, they are not churches. In fine, instead of the ministry of the word, they have schools of impiety, and sinks of all kinds of error. Therefore, in this point of view, they either are not churches, or no badge will remain by which the lawful meetings of the faithful can be distinguished from the meetings of Turks.

(IV, 2, 10 [complete] )

11. Although the Papacy cannot properly be called a Church, still, against the will of Antichrist himself, there is some vestige of a Church in the Papacy, as Baptism and some other remnants.

Still, as in ancient times, there remained among the Jews certain special privileges of a Church, so in the present day we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a Church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them amid the dissipation. When the Lord had once made his covenant with the Jews, it was preserved not so much by them as by its own strength, supported by which it withstood their impiety. Such, then, is the certainty and constancy of the divine goodness, that the covenant of the Lord continued there and his faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy; nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to he a true sign and sacrament of his covenant. Hence the children who were born to them the Lord called his own (Ezek. 16:20), though, unless by special blessing, they in no respect belonged to him. So having deposited his covenant in Gaul, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England, when these countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, He, in order that his covenant might remain inviolable, first preserved baptism there as an evidence of the covenant;--baptism, which, consecrated by his lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity; secondly, He provided by his providence that there should be other remains also to prevent the Church from utterly perishing. But as in pulling down buildings the foundations and ruins are often permitted to remain, so he did not suffer Antichrist either to subvert his Church from its foundation, or to level it with the ground (though, to punish the ingratitude of men who had despised his word, he allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place), but was pleased that amid the devastation the edifice should remain, though half in ruins.

(IV, 2, 11 [complete] )

12. The name of Church not conceded to the Papacy, though under its domination there have been some kind of churches. Herein is a fulfilment of Paul's prophecy, that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God. Deplorable condition of such churches. Summary of the chapter.

Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine. Daniel and Paul foretold that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God (Dan. 9:27; 2 Thess. 2:4); we regard the Roman Pontiff as the leader and standard-bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. By placing his seat in the temple of God, it is intimated that his kingdom would not be such as to destroy the name either of Christ or of his Church. Hence, then, it is obvious that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his tyranny; churches, however, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half-buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished; where, in short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God. In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the Church still remain--symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church.

(IV, 2, 12 [complete] )

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