Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Calvin, The Church Fathers, and The Roman Church

Every so often I read someone asserting that Protestants don't "know" the Church Fathers. Protestants are said to be completely ignorant of Church History. Well, maybe there is some truth here. I suspect many modern-day evangelicals begin their "study" of church history with the birth of Billy Graham.

Such cannot be said of John Calvin.

The following is a brief excerpt from: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 18-23. Read for yourself how familiar Calvin was with the church fathers in relation to the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church. Calvin contrasts the church fathers with the Roman Church. Calvin's words will be in blue.

Moreover, (The Roman church) unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory — to put it very modestly —would turn to our side. Now, these fathers have written many wise and excellent things. Still, what commonly happens to men has befallen them too, in some instances. For these so-called pious children of theirs, with all their sharpness of wit and judgment and spirit, worship only the faults and errors of the fathers. The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold. Then, with a frightful to-do, they overwhelm us as despisers and adversaries of the fathers! But we do not despise them; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval.

Yet we are so versed in their writings as to remember always that all things are ours, to serve us, not to lord it over us, and that we all belong to the one Christ, whom we must obey in all things without exception. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves.

1. It was one of the fathers who said that our God neither drinks nor eats, and therefore has no need of plates or cups. (Acacius, bishop of Amida, addressing his clergy as he was about to melt the gold and silver vessels of the church to obtain food for captive Persians. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 7:21 (MPG 67. 781-784; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 2. 164).

2. Another (father), that sacred rites do not require gold, and those things not bought with gold do not please with gold. (Ambrose, De officiis clericorum 2:28 (MPL 16. 140; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 10. 64). (The Roman Church) therefore transgress this limit when in their ceremonies they take so much delight in gold, silver, ivory, marble, precious stones, and silks; and think that God is not rightly worshiped unless everything swims with untoward splendor, or, rather, mad excess.

3. It was a father who said that he freely ate meat on the day others abstained from it, because he was a Christian. (From Sozomen’s description of Spyridion, bishop of Trimithus in Cyprus, Ecclesiastical History 1.11; Cassiodorus, Historia tripartita 1.10 (MPL 69. 895; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 2. 247). (The Roman Church) transgress the limits, therefore, when they execrate any person who has tasted of meat in Lent.

4. There were two fathers, one of whom said that a monk who does not labor with his hands must be considered equal to a thug, or (if you prefer) a brigand ( Serapion, head of a monastery near Arsinoe in Egypt, who required his monks to earn their food by labor. Sozomen, op. cit., 6:28; Cassiodorus, Historia tripartita 8. 1 (MPL 69. 1103; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 2. 365); the second, that it is not lawful for monks to live off the goods of others, even though they be assiduous in contemplation, in prayer, and in study (Augustine, On the Work of Monks 14-17 (MPL 40. 560-564; tr. NPNF 3. 511-513). They have also transgressed this limit when they have put the lazy, wine-cask bellies of monks in these stews and brothels to be crammed with substance of others.

5. It was a father who termed it a dreadful abomination to see an image either of Christ or of some saint painted in the churches of Christians (“Epistle of Epiphanius to John of Jerusalem,” translated by Jerome, in his Letters 51:9 (CSEL 54. 411; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 6. 89). Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, tells how in a church at Anablatha he tore up a curtain bearing an image and replaced it by a plain curtain. He declares images in churches “contrary to our religion” (A.D. 394). Cf. 1. 11. 11, 16; 1. 12. 2). “What is reverenced is not to be depicted upon walls” was not the mere declaration of one man but the decree of an ecclesiastical council (Council of Elvira (Illiberitanum) in Spain, ca. A.D. 305, canon 36: ‘That there ought not to be images in a church, that what is worshiped and adored should not be depicted on the walls.” Hefele-Leclercq 1. 240; Mansi 2. 264). They are far from remaining within these limits when they leave not a corner free of images. Another father counseled that, after having exercised in burial the office of humanity toward the dead, we should let them rest (Ambrose, De Abraham 1. 9. 80 (MPL 14. 472). They break these limits when they stir up perpetual solicitude for the dead.

6. It was one of the fathers, who testified that in the Eucharist the substance of bread and wine remained and did not cease to be, just as in Christ the Lord the substance and nature of man remained, joined to the divine nature (Gelasius, Tract. 3. 14 (Epistolae Romanorum pontificum, ed. A. Thiel, 1. 541). Therefore, (the Roman Church) overstep(s) the bounds in pretending that when the Lord’s words are repeated the substance of bread and wine ceases and is transubstantiated into body and blood (Canon 1 of the Fourth Lateran Council, A.D. 1215, declares that in the sacrament of the altar the bread is by divine power transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood of Christ. (Mansi 22. 954; Hefele-Leclercq 5. 1325; tr. H. J. Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils, p. 338.).

7. They were fathers who, as they set forth only one Eucharist for the whole church and consequently excluded wicked and criminal persons, most gravely condemned all those who though present did not receive it (Chrysostom, Commentary on Ephesians, ch. 1, hom. 3. 4, 5 (MPG 62.28-30; tr. NPNF 13. 63-65), and Calixtus as quoted by Gratian, Decretum (De consecratione) 3. 2:18 (Friedberg 1. 1320; MPL 187. 1759). How far have they removed the boundaries when they fill not only churches but also private houses with their Masses, admitting anyone at all to observe them, each one the more willingly the more he pays, however impure and wicked he may be! They invite no one to faith in Christ and believing communion of the sacraments; rather, they put their work on sale, as the grace and merit of Christ.

8. There were two fathers, one of whom decreed that those content with participation in one kind, but abstaining from the other, were to be excluded entirely from participation in the Sacred Supper of Christ (In a passage dubiously attributed to Pope Gelasius and found in Gratian (Decretum 3. 2:12; Friedberg 1. 1318; MPL 59. 141; 187, 1736), communicants are required to take the wine with the bread or abstain from both: “aut integra sacramenta percipiant, aut ad integris arceantur.” The withdrawal of the wine from the laity called forth the protests of Scriptural sects, especially the Hussites); the other strongly contends that one must not deny the blood of their Lord to Christian folk, who, in confessing him, are bidden to shed their own blood (Cyprian, Letters 57. 2 (CSEL 3. 2. 651 f.; tr. ANF 5. 337). They have removed these landmarks when they have commanded by an inviolable law the very thing that the former father punished by excommunication and the latter reproved with a valid reason (Council of Constance, session 13 (1415), definition on communion in both kinds. This was confirmed by Martin V’s bull In eminentis (1418) (Texts in Mansi 27. 727 f., 1215, 1219).

9. It was a father who affirmed it rashness, when judging of some obscure matter, to take one side or another without clear and evident witness of Scripture (Augustine, De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum 2. 36, 59 (MPL 44. 186; CSEL 60. 128; tr. NPNF 5. 67f.): “In obscure matters where the Scriptures do not give guidance, rash judgment is to be avoided.” Cf. Augustine, Letters 140. 37. 85 (MPL 33. 576; tr. FC 20. 135). They forgot this limit when they established so many constitutions, canons, and doctrinal decisions, without any word of God.

10. It was a father who reproached Montanus for, among other heresies, being the first to impose laws of fasting (Apollonius, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5. 18 (MPG 1:472; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 1. 235 ff.). They also passed far beyond those limits when they ordained fasts by very strict law (Gratian, Decretum 3. 3. 9 (MPL 187. 1734; Friedberg I. 1354 f.).

11. It was a father who denied that marriage should be forbidden to the ministers of the church, and declared cohabitation with one’s wife to be chastity. And other fathers agreed with his opinion (Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 1:23) records that Paphnutius the Confessor, an ardent ascetic, swayed the decision of the Council of Nicaea (325) against requiring clerical celibacy by the declaration here reported. Calvin probably used Cassiodorus’ text, op. cit., 2. 14 (MPL 69. 933; tr. NPNF 2 ser. 2. 256). By severely enjoining celibacy for their priests, they have gone beyond this limit.

12. It was a father who deemed that one must listen to Christ alone, for Scripture says, “Hear him” (Matthew 17:5); and that we need not be concerned about what others before us either said or did, but only about what Christ, who is the first of all, commanded (Cyprian, Letters 63:14 (CSEL 3. 2. 712; tr. ANF 5. 362).When they set over themselves and others any masters but Christ, they neither abode by this boundary nor permitted others to keep it.

13. It was a father who contended that the church ought not to set itself above Christ, for he always judges truthfully, but ecclesiastical judges, like other men, are often mistaken (Augustine, Contra Cresconium Grammaticum Donatistam 2:21 (MPL 43. 482; CSEL 52.385).When this boundary is also broken through, they do not hesitate to declare that the whole authority of Scripture depends entirely upon the judgment of the church (This view, asserted by John Eck, Enchiridion (1526), ch. 1:(1541, fo.76).

14. All the fathers with one heart have abhorred and with one voice have detested the fact that God’s Holy Word has been contaminated by the subtleties of sophists and involved in the squabbles of dialecticians (Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 7 (CCL Tertullianus 1. 192; tr. LCC 5. 35 f.); Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2. 31 (MPL 34. 57; tr. NPNF 2 550; also FC 4. 102-103). When they attempt nothing in life but to enshroud and obscure the simplicity of Scripture with endless contentions and worse than sophistic brawls, do they keep themselves within these borders? Why, if the fathers were now brought back to life, and heard such brawling art as these persons call speculative theology, there is nothing they would less suppose than that these folk were disputing about God!


Anonymous said...

Protestants are said to be completely ignorant of Church History.

You could say that same thing of many Roman Catholics. There are a couple of folks in my life right now that started out Catholic. The more they learned...they ended up ex-Catholics.

I try to remember that some of Calvin's doctrines were a reaction against Rome - he wanted to get as far away as possible; it is possible that it clouded his reasoning.

James Swan said...

Hi Ellen-

Thanks for your response. I think some people manipulate history the way they want to- depending on which direction they are moving in before their "conversion". Thus, conversion stories are rampant from both Protestants and Catholics-

In regard to Calvin- which aspects of his reasoning were "clouded"?

Thanks again for stopping by- When I have some time i'm going to read your paper on the Calvinism/Arminianism split.


Anonymous said...

Hi - I maily think that Calvin (Zwingli) swung a bit too far in the regulative principal. It takes a very severe reading of Scripture to end up with a worship service as "austere" as what they ended up with.

I know that folks can take any doctrine and take it to the extremes - and that's what happened with a lot of Calvin's writings - they could have been very reasonable, but were taken to extremes by part of the population.

A lot of what happened in the century immediately following Calvin's death was a result of the time. The religious wars were a sad thing, yet I'm not so sure that the same thing wouldn't happen today, if some folks were given the chance.

MichaelCrown said...

Calvin may known and collected more than a few weak statements of Church Fathers, but that doesn't mean he truly understood the whole body of thought that went to make the Universal Church, such as it was.
From the 1200s Heaven sent wave after wave of great spirits to reveal a deeper, more satisfying, more spiritually illumined Way.
I am thinking of Saint Gertrude, given revelation of the sacred heart of Jesus; Saint Teresa of Avila who was given sublime and practical teachings on prayer, just for starters. Then Saint Margaret Mary continued on devotions to the sacred heart of Jesus. These are only a few. All these Calvin and Co. deprived the people of, along with taking all beauty from churches, all in the name of improvements which were no improvements, just throwing out the good and leaving the husks.
I highly recommend Conversations With Christ by Rohrbach. It will show you some of what Protestants are missing, as well as those Catholics who who have been ignorant of their own culture.

Via rationis said...


how do you know that God sent these people? Just because something inspires you in your religion, doesn't mean that God sent it. Paul said that some people worship angles ... and it serves them well - in their false worship and religion.

Sola Scriptura

Matthew Michael Crown said...

I know it because I studied their lives and history and I know truth when I hear it, or close enough for a working hypothesis, anyhow. If you study their lives and history then reach your own conclusion. But pls don't dare to comment on these beautiful things without even knowing what they are.

And please don't try to discount them when you don't even know anything about them.

Start with The Life and Revelations of St. Getrude the Great. No investigation of the spiritual aspects of life is complete without this sacred teaching from the Sacred Heart.

She is not called "Great" for nothing.

May angels guide you and help you piece together a working spiritual path out of the husks left us.