Sunday, September 23, 2018

Calvin: We admit therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ himself

Here's a curious Roman Catholic use of a quote from John Calvin:
We all know obedience is a bad word in Protestantism. People LOVE doing what they want to do and not being told they can't. That's the heart of Protestantism. "Nobody tells me what to do or think, even about my own salvation." It's devilishly attractive too. (link)
You should obey John Calvin and your pastors. He said so. "We admit therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ himself." (Calvin's letter to Sadoleto) (link)
In the context of the discussion, all Protestants are portrayed as blatant antinomians, heeding no one but their own inner feelings. John Calvin's words are then put forth to demonstrate that authority-denying Protestants should heed the words of a founding Protestant and submit to church authority.  Let's take a look at this quote and see what exactly Calvin was saying.

The documentation provided is "Calvin's letter to Sadoleto." It's odd to find one of Rome's defenders citing this treatise. Sadoleto was the archbishop of Carpentras. He was seeking to sway Geneva back to Roman Catholicism. Calvin had been ejected from Geneva, but was requested to respond on their behalf. Calvin's entire tract is a strong argument against Rome and stands as one of the Reformation's most popular writings. It's ironic, therefore, to find one of Rome's defenders sifting this tract to find material for polemical use.

I found two English versions of this sentence with one minor difference. Some texts use "We admit therefore, that..."  for instance in the Selected Works of John Calvin, vol. 1, p.114 (pdf). There is also another version with an extra comma: "We admit, therefore, that..." as in this text.  While this  other Roman blogger uses the quote here, there does not appear to be heavy Roman Catholic use of this quote. I mention this because It may actually be that the defender of Rome utilizing this quote actually sifted it himself, which is somewhat of a rare occurrence. Rome's cyber-defenders typically do not read Calvin. They simply utilize secondary sources.

Calvin actually argues against the absolute authority of the Roman church. He states, "That I may altogether disarm you [Sadoleto] 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." He then goes on to list numerous examples of why the Roman church does not have the pedigree of authority,  juxtaposing this against the true authority of the universal church:
Ours be the humility, which, beginning with the lowest, and paying respect to each in his degree, yields the highest honor and respect to the Church, in subordination, however, to Christ the Church's head; ours the obedience, which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the word of God; in fine, ours the Church, whose supreme-care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the word of God, and submit to its authority (link).
Calvin then contrasts the Roman church with the Protestant church:
But whatever the character of the men, still you say it is written, "What they tell you, do." No doubt, if they sit in the chair of Moses. But when, from the chair of verity, they intoxicate the people with folly it is written, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees," (Matthew 16:6.) It is not ours, Sadolet to rob the Church of any right which the goodness of God not only has conceded to her, but strictly guarded for her by numerous prohibition. For, as pastors are not sent forth by Him to rule the Church with a licentious and lawless authority, but are astricted to a certain rule of duty which they must not exceed, so the Church is ordered (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1) to see that those who are appointed over her on these terms faithfully accord with their vocation. But we must either hold the testimony of Christ of little moment, or must hold it impious to infringe in the least degree on the authority of those whom he has invested with such splendid titles! Nay, it is you who are mistaken in supposing that the Lord set tyrants over his people to rule them at pleasure, when he bestowed so much authority on those whom he sent to promulgate the gospel. Your error lies here, viz., in not reflecting that their power, before they were furnished with it, was circumscribed within certain limits. We admit therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ himself, but they must be pastors who execute the office entrusted to them. And this office, we maintain, is not presumptuously to introduce whatever their own pleasure has rashly devised, but religiously and in good faith to deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord. For within these boundaries Christ confined the reverence which he required to be paid to the Apostles; nor does Peter (1 Peter 4:11) either claim for himself or allow to others anything more than that, as often as they speak among the faithful, they speak as from the mouth of the Lord. Paul, indeed, justly extols (2 Corinthians 12:10) the spiritual power with which he was invested, but with this proviso, that it was to avail only for edification, was to wear no semblance of domination, was not to be employed in subjugating faith (link).
From the context, one can see that Calvin is careful to distinguish Rome's alleged authority over against the actual authority of the church as derived from Scripture. Notice that the sentence being used was not cited in full: "We admit therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ himself, but they must be pastors who execute the office entrusted to them." Calvin is arguing that one is not to blindly bow down to the authority of the church. Her authority is to be followed if the offices are obedient to Christ, and are not corrupt and abusive. Calvin goes on to say that even if the pope could be proven to have been the successor of Peter, it wouldn't matter if the pope did not maintain his fidelity to Christ and the purity of the gospel. Rome's defenders, particularly many of them in the sixteenth century, were defending the alleged infallible authority of a corrupt institution. It's simply unfair to rip Calvin's words from their context and apply them to the current condition of the Protestant church.

Rome's defender though does have a valid point with his Calvin quote in one sense: there are indeed "Protestants" (for lack of a better word), that are a law unto themselves. They are the type I refer to as, "Me in the woods, under a shady tree, with my Bible, waiting to hear directly from the Holy Spirit." For such people, confessions of faith, pastors, elders, deacons, any sort of organized structure, is inconsequential. Even more abhorrent is to suggest to such a person that church history is a beneficial enterprise, documenting the ways in which the Spirit of God has worked with His church.  For people like this, I consider them more the in the vein of Anabaptism and the radical Reformation, or as Luther referred to them, Schwärmer, rather than in the tradition of the magisterial Reformers.

On the other hand, Rome's defender does not have a valid point, presenting merely a caricature and strawman. I've been involved with various Protestant churches my entire life: baptist, non-denominational, mildly charismatic, and Reformed. I have friends and acquaintances in all of these traditions. All of them have authority structures in place. It's simply unfair for Rome's defenders to lump all of Protestantism into the category of antinomian radicals. In my experience, these people do not represent the majority of contemporary Protestantism.

With Roman Catholics, always keep a look out for the double standard.  Are there not Roman Catholics who disagree with the Papacy? Are there not Roman Catholics that pick and choose what they want to believe? I know Roman Catholics that do not show full obedience to what their church teaches. They are in the category I refer to as "Antinomian Roman Catholics." I was friends with one Roman Catholic that went to Mass regularly, but said he didn't believe in Purgatory. I've met more than one Roman Catholic that denies their church's stance on abortion. I've met more than one Roman Catholic that follows a different paradigm in regard to divorce and remarriage. 


Lucy said...

Here is a Roman Catholic who thinks Muslims et al are just fine in God's eyes "For me, it is more important to help men here [San Quentin Prison] come to know God as they understand God–and to deepen their spiritual connection with the Divine. I believe that God draws all of us closer to him and to the truth as long as our hearts are open to receive that love and truth.

So if a guy is Muslim, I would want him to be the best Muslim he can be, same for Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus or whatever faith group you can imagine. The key is that the person needs to be willing to be open to the power of love in his life."

This priest is a descendant of Roger Williams even, and is the Jesuit chaplain for San Quentin prison. In other words, a Roman Catholic in good standing with the church. (

Roman Catholics want desperately for Protestantism to be an alternate Roman Catholicism, a monolithic monster where the Reformed Baptists can be shamed for the faults of the Episcopalians and round and round. It is very difficult for them to mount a valid defense of the 30,000 odd apostasies approved by their pope without it.

James Swan said...

Hi Lucy:

There are a number of entries on this blog with tag, "Blueprint for Anarchy" pointing out the same sort of issues you've raised.

Even with their infallible interpreter, Rome's defenders still need to personally interpret that infallible interpreter. They will never escape being impaled by their own sword.