Sunday, September 19, 2010

Calvin on the Papacy

Oh, man, it's time to lay the smack down.

That's right, today's blog entry from my reading of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion comes after having read chapters IV - VIII in Book IV. Basically all of these chapters (and a few chapters after these) unify around one central theme: the corruption of the papacy.

The whole work up until now has been pretty sharp in its criticism of numerous theological beliefs and religious practices (not all of which come from the Roman Catholics). Yet this part of the Institutes is by far the most polemical. Why don't we just review some of the chapter titles?
  • Chapter V: The Ancient Form of Government Was Completely Overthrown by the Tyranny of the Papacy
  • Chapter VII: The Origin and Growth of the Roman Papacy Until It Raised Itself to Such a Height that the Freedom of the Church Was Oppressed, and All Restraint Overthrown
  • Chapter VIII: The Power of the Church with Respect to Articles of Faith; and How in the Papacy, with Unbridled License, the Church Has Been Led to Corrupt All Purity of Doctrine
I think it should be pretty easy to get Calvin's central point.

How have I been confronting this, as a modern reader? Generally speaking, the way Calvin deals with theological controversy has made me uncomfortable. It's hard in my context to think in such black and white terms about the "papists."

And yet, this section of the book has honestly been profoundly eye-opening. It's quite astonishing to read someone with first-hand experience of that time talk about the corruption of the papacy. Chapter V, in particular, reviews some unbelievably corrupt practices in the church: lawsuits over pastoral ordination, "beneficed" and hired priests, bishops who did nothing for their parishes but collected money from them, priests engaged in all kinds of immoral behavior--my favorite part was about children being appointed as bishops! For all the theological points that the Reformers were eager to make, I wonder if anything close to the Reformation would have ever occurred had it not been for the sheer corruption of the church at that time?

It sounds as if even most Catholics of our day will admit that what was going on back then was an abomination, so perhaps this is nothing new. But I did learn a lot more than this. Calvin develops a pretty deep historical argument in defense of a Reformed view of church government, as well as an impressive amount of historical evidence that originally the bishop of Rome had nothing like his current place in the Roman Catholic Church. I have heard a lot of Catholic and even Eastern Orthodox apologists talk as if Protestants think the church was just corrupt from the time of Constantine until finally the Reformation came along. That's certainly not a fair reading of Calvin.

Although I don't have time to list the relevant quotes from this chapters, Calvin's view of the early church is nuanced and respectful. It is accurate to say that he finds much of the church in decline from around the 6th century onward, but he also finds that corruption crept in slowly, rather than immediately. I think an interesting aspect of his argument to consider is his treatment of Leo I and Gregory I. He uses the words of both of these figures at times to defend his argument against the papacy (see, e.g., Ch. VII Sec. 4). Yet at other times he highlights their weaknesses; I believe at one point he calls Leo a man of "ambition." It is clear in my mind that Calvin had a very nuanced view of all these early Christian leaders. You can see his theology at work here: we are all corrupt to some degree or another, and are continually depending on God's grace to sanctify us. It should be no surprise that this goes for leaders as well.

Chapter VIII is where the theological battleground is still present today. The Roman Catholic Church, as I understand it, would still more or less claim that the Church has some degree or other of infallibility--that is, the Tradition (with a capital "T") of the Church is sacred and without error. To this Calvin responds that the Church is only infallible insofar as it perseveres in its charge to uphold the Word of God. It is the "pillar and ground of the truth" in the sense that it is called to preserve the truth of Scripture--in a sense he is saying that the Bible is the truth, and the Church is its pillar and ground. For Calvin, any proclamation that comes from outside of Scripture can't be authoritative.

Essentially Calvin's doctrine of individual sanctification applies to the Church, as well. The Church is constantly bearing corruption, and must constantly seek God's grace to heal it. There is nothing truly infallible about the Church itself. To be honest, this is something I agree with perhaps more than anything else in all of Calvin. This is why I am a Protestant--the Church is simply not infallible.

There is one comment that comes in Section 15 of Chapter VIII that I found particularly interesting:
And I should not seem too quarrelsome because I insist so strongly that the church is not permitted to coin any new doctrine, that is, to teach and put forward as an oracle something more than the Lord has revealed in his Word. For sensible men see how perilous it is if men once be given such authority. They also see how great a window is opened to the quips and cavils of the impious if we say that what men have decided is to be taken as an oracle among Christians.
What if we view the political trend toward constitutional government in light of this sentiment? The written word is often the source of freedom for people. Indeed, that has always been the case in the United States, where our rights as citizens are enshrined in a written document that transcends the will of politicians. (We can only hope that these rights will continue to be enforced.)

For Protestants, the Bible functioned as a source of freedom long before the U.S. Constitution was written. What was written could not be annulled by power structures created by mere human beings. There is certainly something liberating about having the written word transcending human tradition. I have written at other times about the problems lurking underneath this freedom, but I have to say that at Calvin's moment in history, it makes sense that he clung to the supremacy of the written Scriptures over the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Interesting and provocative stuff. I think next time I post on Calvin, it might be "Calvin on the Papacy, Part II."


  1. I look forward to reading Part II on this subject: I'm certainly one of the alluded-to modern day Catholics who condemns in the strongest possible terms any corruption in the Church, most especially the disastrous laxity of the Renaissance which led in so many ways to the divisions within the Body of Christ. Yet the Church remains precisely that to me: the Body of Christ. His Bride for whose sake He laid down His life. Looking at the Church from that perspective gives me pause: what bridegroom, even amongst fallen human beings, would stand by and watch his beloved wander away from him? One can imagine, perhaps, with great sadness the bridegroom saying, "I pleaded with her, but she turned away, I pursued her but she rebuffed me, and I love her too much to force myself upon her. I must let her go." One cannot imagine any caring husband-to-be speaking no word at all, as his affianced departed him.

    How much less so, then, could the eternal and perfect Bridegroom suffer His Bride, purchased with His own life, to depart in such a fashion? Without word or look or sigh to remind her Who He truly Is, Who she turned away from? No: it seems to me that just as no one can stand before the Word made flesh and say "You abide in purity of light and spirit while I toiled in the mud of time. You never bore what I bore, you never lived as I had to", just as any who would thus cry falls silent before the Crucified, so too none of us can cry "Your Church abandoned us, no truth remained in her. Why did You not remain with us as you promised?" We cannot speak thus: men err, men fall away but God honors His promises.

    ....I have no idea how I just came to write the way I just did. ADHD is a mad, mad condition. But I do believe that the message of the Gospels, the Good News of Christ cannot be made contingent on our human failings: can we presume that our sin, our corruption however great will prevent Him from being heard? And it seems to me that to center Truth on the line of tradition, the enduring faith and love of God reaching through time back to the days when a carpenter of Nazareth proclaimed the Kingdom is perhaps the only way to know, in each new-doubting generation, that this is what He taught.

    Then again, I'm Catholic and therefore conditioned to see that way. Also I should just blog about this myself (and read some of Calvin's work so I have some idea what I'm talking about).

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Art. I sympathize with your words:

    "One can imagine, perhaps, with great sadness the bridegroom saying, "I pleaded with her, but she turned away, I pursued her but she rebuffed me, and I love her too much to force myself upon her. I must let her go." One cannot imagine any caring husband-to-be speaking no word at all, as his affianced departed him."

    Keep in mind, however, that Calvin would have seen himself in a line of people who were precisely that voice you would hope from Christ. For him, those who faithfully expounded the Scriptures were instruments of God--essentially carrying out a prophetic task. Calvin probably would not have hesitated to say that Christ's words to the Catholic Church would be just these: "I pleaded with her, but she turned away, I pursued her but she rebuffed me."

    The Reformation is a fascinating part of history; it is still the defining moment for most of what we experience as Christians today (at least in the West).


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