See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
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OF COUNCILS AND THEIR AUTHORITY.
1. The true nature of Councils.
Were I now to concede all that they ask concerning the Church, it would not greatly aid them in their object. For everything that is said of the Church they immediately transfer to councils, which, in their opinion, represent the Church.
And Calvin thinks they do not?
Nay, when they contend so doggedly for the power of the Church, their only object is to devolve the whole which they extort on the Roman Pontiff and his conclave.
Maybe they simply want to defend the way it had been for 1500 years? Since Calvin can't accept that the historic Church was Catholic, and not even remotely "Protestant," he must search for nefarious motives somewhere and make out that Catholic arguments are mere power plays.
Before I begin to discuss this question, two points must be briefly premised. First, though I mean to be more rigid in discussing this subject, it is not because I set less value than I ought on ancient councils. I venerate them from my heart, and would have all to hold them in due honour. But there must be some limitation, there must be nothing derogatory to Christ.
And this clause "some limitation" is a loophole big enough for a truck to drive through, as we'll see again and again, as we proceed.
Moreover, it is the right of Christ to preside over all councils, and not share the honour with any man. Now, I hold that he presides only when he governs the whole assembly by his word and Spirit.
No man can preside at all? How can there be order or protocol if this is the case?
Secondly, in attributing less to councils than my opponents demand, it is not because I have any fear that councils are favourable to their cause and adverse to ours.
Of course not . . .
For as we are amply provided by the word of the Lord with the means of proving our doctrine and overthrowing the whole Papacy,
As we know, the papacy has long since been overthrown and Calvinism reigns supreme everywhere . . .
and thus have no great need of other aid, so, if the case required it, ancient councils furnish us in a great measure with what might be sufficient for both purposes.
Here is the familiar (but thoroughly erroneous) claim: that the ancient councils and fathers supposedly provide plenty of evidence for Protestantism; over against Catholicism.
2. Whence the authority of Councils is derived. What meant by assembling in the name of Christ.
Let us now proceed to the subject itself. If we consult Scripture on the authority of councils, there is no promise more remarkable than that which is contained in these words of our Saviour, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But this is just as applicable to any particular meeting as to a universal council. And yet the important part of the question does not lie here, but in the condition which is added—viz. that Christ will be in the midst of a council, provided it be assembled in his name. Wherefore, though our opponents should name councils of thousands of bishops it will little avail them; nor will they induce us to believe that they are, as they maintain, guided by the Holy Spirit, until they make it credible that they assemble in the name of Christ: since it is as possible for wicked and dishonest to conspire against Christ, as for good and honest bishops to meet together in his name.
That's correct; for example, the Robber Council of 449. But of course, the same criticism applies to various Protestant assemblies that adopted false doctrine. In the end, the discussion will always have to reference Scripture and prior received Tradition in order to determine true and false councils (and we contend, also, that popes have to ratify the decisions of true ecumenical councils).
Of this we have a clear proof in very many of the decrees which have proceeded from councils. But this will be afterwards seen. At present I only reply in one word, that our Saviour’s promise is made to those only who assemble in his name. How, then, is such an assembly to be defined? I deny that those assemble in the name of Christ who, disregarding his command by which he forbids anything to be added to the word of God or taken from it, determine everything at their own pleasure, who, not contented with the oracles of Scripture, that is, with the only rule of perfect wisdom, devise some novelty out of their own head (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18).
And of course this is circular reasoning:
1) Catholics declare doctrine X that I disagree with.Etc., etc. The circularity can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but this shall suffice for now.
2) Doctrine X is unscriptural.
3) Why is X unscriptural? Because I disagree that it is scriptural. My interpretation says that it is not scriptural.
4) I know my interpretation is correct because it disagrees with the Roman interpretation, which is a tradition of men, because it is a novelty devised out of their heads, rather than from Scripture.
Certainly, since our Saviour has not promised to be present with all councils of whatever description, but has given a peculiar mark for distinguishing true and lawful councils from others, we ought not by any means to lose sight of the distinction.
Indeed. Not every council is true or Spirit-led.
The covenant which God anciently made with the Levitical priests was to teach at his mouth (Mal. 2:7). This he always required of the prophets, and we see also that it was the law given to the apostles.
Of course, but by the same token, this also establishes authoritative teaching that is ultimately undermined by the individualistic notion of private judgment, and the denial of infallibility to the Church, and rejection of apostolic succession, etc.:
Exodus 18:20 and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.On those who violate this covenant God bestows neither the honour of the priesthood nor any authority. Let my opponents solve this difficulty if they would subject my faith to the decrees of man, without authority from the word of God.
Leviticus 10:11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.
Deuteronomy 33:10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law . . .
2 Chronicles 17:7-9 In the third year of his reign he sent his princes, Ben-hail, Obadi'ah, Zechari'ah, Nethan'el, and Micai'ah, to teach in the cities of Judah; and with them the Levites, Shemai'ah, Nethani'ah, Zebadi'ah, As'ahel, Shemi'ramoth, Jehon'athan, Adoni'jah, Tobi'jah, and Tobadoni'jah; and with these Levites, the priests Eli'shama and Jeho'ram. And they taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; they went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people.
2 Chronicles 35:3 And he said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the LORD, . . .
Ezra 7:6,10-11 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the LORD the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. . . . For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel. . . . Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel:
Nehemiah 8:7-8,12 Also Jesh'ua, Bani, Sherebi'ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab'bethai, Hodi'ah, Ma-asei'ah, Keli'ta, Azari'ah, Jo'zabad, Hanan, Pelai'ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.
And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. . . . And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Acts 8:27-28, 30-31,34-35 And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch . . . seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” . . . And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.
Acts 15:22,25,28 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, . . . it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, . . . For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .
Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.
Ephesians 3:10 . . . through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
2 Peter 1:20 . . . no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,
2 Peter 3:15-17 And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.
Obviously, both sides claim scriptural support. The argument has to be an exegetical one, not a "your dad's uglier than mine" name-calling, schoolyard level. It is not the case that Catholics ignore Scripture in setting forth their theological views (agree or disagree), as Calvin would have it. But it sounds good, and he loves the black-and-white contrast, with the Catholics always being wicked and evil and unbiblical, so he continues to use the technique.
3. Objection, that no truth remains in the Church if it be not in Pastors and Councils. Answer, showing by passages from the Old Testament that Pastors were often devoid of the spirit of knowledge and truth.
Their idea that the truth cannot remain in the Church unless it exist among pastors,
It stands to reason, does it not, that if doctrinal truth is to be maintained, that someone in leadership must maintain it, no? If God is truly preserving His Church, this will always be the case, at least with some of the leaders. The Church can never completely fall away (institutionally) from truth. Calvin seems to think this is the case with Catholicism, but this is contrary to Jesus' promises.
and that the Church herself cannot exist unless displayed in general councils,
Acts 15 would seem to bear that out. Even Paul the Apostle went around proclaiming the binding decrees of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 16:4 above).
is very far from holding true if the prophets have left us a correct description of their own times. In the time of Isaiah there was a Church at Jerusalem which the Lord had not yet abandoned. But of pastors he thus speaks: “His watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way” (Isa. 56:10, 11). In the same way Hosea says, “The watchman of Ephraim was with my God: but the prophet is a snare of a fowler in all his ways, and hatred in the house of his God” (Hosea 9:8). Here, by ironically connecting them with God, he shows that the pretext of the priesthood was vain. There was also a Church in the time of Jeremiah. Let us hear what he says of pastors: “From the prophet even unto the priest, every one dealeth falsely.” Again, “The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them” (Jer. 6:13; 14:14). And not to be prolix with quotations, read the whole of his thirty-third and fortieth chapters. Then, on the other hand, Ezekiel inveighs against them in no milder terms. “There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls.” “Her priests have violated my law, and profaned mine holy things” (Ezek. 22:25, 26). There is more to the same purpose. Similar complaints abound throughout the prophets; nothing is of more frequent recurrence.
Israel went through many periods of more or less complete corruption; this is obvious. But we are in a new dispensation now, after the appearance of our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ: the Incarnation, redeeming death, Resurrection, and Ascension. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have the power of the sacraments, and we have God's promises of guidance and protection. All of that makes the situation after Christ quite different from before the time of Christ. We see the massive change, for example, in the conduct of Peter, before and after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Before Pentecost, even the immediate disciples of Jesus were a pretty poor, miserable lot, barely understanding what Jesus was teaching them and failing to understand even the purpose of Jesus' death on the cross.
After Pentecost, they went out joyously, and triumphantly conquered the world. Yet Calvin would have us believe that nothing whatever was changed from the Old Covenant times and corrupt priests in Israel? It is often thought by Calvin and Protestants that Catholics are stuck in a rut of the Old Covenant (supposedly believing in works-salvation, etc.: which mainstream Judaism did not and does not hold, rightly understood). But here it is obvious that the Catholic position is the progressive one, while Calvin's Old Covenant redux position is regressive, and lacks faith in the power of God in the New Covenant, and in God's promises for His Church, built upon Peter himself.
Moreover, this whole line of reasoning would prove too much, because if the idea is that corruption is well-nigh universal, then Calvin's own version of "church" would be every bit as much subject to the same thing, and there would be no reason to believe that Protestantism is at all superior to Catholicism (if we stick strictly to the "sin" argument). Arguing from sin and corruption never accomplishes much, for this very reason. Calvin can try to maintain that Protestants are singularly freed from corruption and sin and religious nominalism, but it's a futile effort.
If he wishes to argue a lesser claim: that institutional offices in the Church are null and void because of widespread corruption (real or imagined), then this, too, mitigates against his own position, as he was not opposed to abolition of all Church offices and positions whatever. The entire argument he wishes to make at this juncture is a dead-end. It accomplishes nothing whatsoever.
4. Passages from the New Testament showing that our times were to be subject to the same evil. This confirmed by the example of almost all ages.
But perhaps, though this great evil prevailed among the Jews, our age is exempt from it. Would that it were so; but the Holy Spirit declared that it would be otherwise. For Peter’s words are clear, “But there were false prophets among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily will bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). See how he predicts impending danger, not from ordinary believers, but from those who should plume themselves on the name of pastors and teachers.
Of course there are false teachers. There were heresies and schisms all through Church history (with Protestant itself being one of the largest, insofar as false doctrines were promulgated). But we are contending that the near complete apostasy Calvin claims is the case with the Catholic Church was neither a fact, nor predicted in the Bible.
Besides, how often did Christ and his apostles foretell that the greatest dangers with which the Church was threatened would come from pastors? (Mt. 24:11, 24). Nay, Paul openly declares, that Antichrist would have his seat in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4); thereby intimating, that the fearful calamity of which he was speaking would come only from those who should have their seat in the Church as pastors.
This is lousy exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2:4, because (as we saw before) there, the Antichrist is "proclaiming himself to be God":
2 Thessalonians 2:3b-4 . . . the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition,  who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.No pope has claimed such an absurd thing, and demanded worship of himself over against any other "god or object of worship". If Calvin thinks otherwise, let him prove it. He offers no proof: only empty rhetoric, as usual. In context, all of this seems to occur, too, not long before the Second Coming:
2 Thessalonians 2:8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming.As we know, it has been almost 500 years now since the "Reformation" began and here we still are, with probably a good deal more days still to go before the end of the current epoch. I see nothing in the Bible about the Antichrist reigning for 500 years. I see things about three-and-a half and seven years, in the book of Revelation, but nothing like 500 years. So Calvin's scenario is refuted on those grounds alone. He appeared to expect a Second Coming very soon, and the destruction of the papacy. He and his followers have been severely disappointed on both scores.
And in another passage he shows that the introduction of this great evil was almost at hand. For in addressing the Elders of Ephesus, he says, “I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30).
This is always the case. There are always false teachers out and about, including the deceptive ones who infiltrate churches. We'll always have heretics (like the poor) with us.
How great corruption might a long series of years introduce among pastors, when they could degenerate so much within so short a time? And not to fill my pages with details, we are reminded by the examples of almost every age, that the truth is not always cherished in the bosoms of pastors, and that the safety of the Church depends not on their state.
All true, but this is not the extreme, total defectibility that Calvin adheres to, so it is neither here nor there and doesn't prove his contentions. It's a non sequitur, no matter how many times he repeats it.
It was becoming that those appointed to preserve the peace and safety of the Church should be its presidents and guardians; but it is one thing to perform what you owe, and another to owe what you do not perform.
The Catholic Church is alive and kicking, now , as it was, then. But there isn't much left of orthodox Calvinism . . .
5. All not Pastors who pretend to be so.
Let no man, however, understand me as if I were desirous in everything rashly and unreservedly to overthrow the authority of pastors.
Understood (Calvin retains some measure of authority and institution; especially when he -- like Luther before him -- gets to be boss and proclaim true theology), but the interior logic of private judgment will undermine both the authority of pastors, as well as individual denominations as a whole. The Protestant can always split to another denomination if he doesn't like something, or if he is (in rare cases) being disciplined. No Protestant can tell another Protestant that they don't have a right to do so. That would be a joke. On what grounds would they argue? "We have the fullness of Christian truth over against all those other denominations"? That would be hardly distinguishable from the Catholic claim to unique fullness, and so it is self-defeating in the end. Protestant epistemologies and self-justifications are always and inherently at war with the various Protestant ecclesiologies.
All I advise is, to exercise discrimination, and not suppose, as a matter of course, that all who call themselves pastors are so in reality.
How true. This was true in Calvin's own case. But if doesn't even know that he has no legitimate authority, he is hardly the one to advise others on how to identify false pastors!
But the Pope, with the whole crew of his bishops, for no other reason but because they are called pastors, shake off obedience to the word of God, invert all things, and turn them hither and thither at their pleasure;
The wicked rascals . . . not a one of them knows a thing about true theology or discipleship.
meanwhile, they insist that they cannot be destitute of the light of truth, that the Spirit of God perpetually resides in them,
As Calvin blithely assumes in his own case . . .
that the Church subsists in them, and dies with them, as if the Lord did not still inflict his judgments, and in the present day punish the world for its wickedness, in the same way in which he punished the ingratitude of the ancient people—namely, by smiting pastors with astonishment and blindness (Zech. 12:4).
The OT "Church" never completely died out; nor will the Catholic Church. It doesn't "die" by being cynically redefined by someone self-interested in setting up his own "pseudo-church". It continues because God promised that it would be so. Period. End of that discussion! The Church is indefectible; so says Holy Scripture.
These stupid men
Ah; nice touch. Now the lowly papists are stupid as well as relentlessly wicked and evil.
understand not that they are just chiming in with those of ancient times who warred with the word of God. For the enemies of Jeremiah thus set themselves against the truth, “Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” (Jer. 18:18).
That's us Catholics: the enemies of Jeremiah!
6. Objection, that General Councils represent the Church. Answer, showing the absurdity of this objection from passages in the Old Testament.
Hence it is easy to reply to their allegation concerning general councils. It cannot be denied, that the Jews had a true Church under the prophets. But had a general council then been composed of the priests, what kind of appearance would the Church have had? We hear the Lord denouncing not against one or two of them, but the whole order: “The priests shall be astonished, and the prophets shall wonder” (Jer. 4:9). Again, “The law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients” (Ezek. 7:26). Again, “Therefore night shall be unto you, that ye shall not have a vision; and it shall be dark unto you, that ye shall not divine; and the sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them,” &c. (Micah 3:6). Now, had all men of this description been collected together, what spirit would have presided over their meeting?
Not a very good one; I agree. But I have already explained why these examples of Old Testament corruption are non sequiturs.
Of this we have a notable instance in the council which Ahab convened (1 Kings 22:6, 22). Four hundred prophets were present. But because they had met with no other intention than to flatter the impious king, Satan is sent by the Lord to be a lying spirit in all their mouths. The truth is there unanimously condemned. Micaiah is judged a heretic, is smitten, and cast into prison. So was it done to Jeremiah, and so to the other prophets.
Indeed. Men are sinners. If it weren't for God's grace, there would be no hope for any religous assembly whatever (including Calvin's); let alone the Church of God.
7. Passages to the same effect from the New Testament.
But there is one memorable example which may suffice for all. In the council which the priests and Pharisees assembled at Jerusalem against Christ (John 11:47), what is wanting, in so far as external appearance is concerned? Had there been no Church then at Jerusalem, Christ would never have joined in the sacrifices and other ceremonies. A solemn meeting is held; the high priest presides; the whole sacerdotal order take their seats, and yet Christ is condemned, and his doctrine is put to flight. This atrocity proves that the Church was not at all included in that council.
Obviously not, as it opposed Christ Himself (at least not insofar as this particular ruling was concerned). Calvin's difficulty, however, is that Jesus recognized the continuing authority of the Pharisees, and even told His followers to do what they teach them to do (Matthew 23:1-3). This shows that there was authority and truth retained, even within a corrupt institution (one that Jesus excoriated shortly after He said this), not that there was an absolute corruption, leading to a complete downfall or cessation of what once was. Paul recognized the authority of the high priest, even at his trial; even called himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:1-6). The early Christians worshiped at both synagogues and in the Temple.
But there is no danger that anything of the kind will happen with us. Who has told us so? Too much security in a matter of so great importance lies open to the charge of sluggishness. Nay, when the Spirit, by the mouth of Paul, foretells, in distinct terms, that a defection will take place, a defection which cannot come until pastors first forsake God (2 Thess. 2:3), why do we spontaneously walk blindfold to our own destruction?
Christians should always be vigilant against falsehood and heresy and schism. Paul warned more about divisions than he did about almost anything else.
Wherefore, we cannot on any account admit that the Church consists in a meeting of pastors, as to whom the Lord has nowhere promised that they would always be good, but has sometimes foretold that they would be wicked. When he warns us of danger, it is to make us use greater caution.
This is obvious. A true council has to produce true doctrine. The tree is known by the fruit. Calvin, on the other hand, goes so far as to claim that even the Catholic "tree" has ceased to exist; let alone produce any good fruit. He's taken the axe to the entire Church and has offered nothing of any particular legitimacy or authenticity to take its place. Whatever was true in Calvinism was merely retained from Catholicism (which is yet another proof that Catholicism had some measure of life in it, since it had preserved so much that even the so-called "Reformers" never dreamt of getting rid of). Self-contradictions abound in Calvin's position.