Sunday, October 10, 2010

Calvin on the Papacy, Part 2

In my last post on Calvin's Institutes, I focused on Calvin's severe critique of the Roman Catholic Church. Here, in discussing Book IV, Chapters IX - XIII, I will focus more on the constructive side of Calvin's criticism. If Calvin so detested the papacy, what was he ready to replace it with? What reasons did he have to support his view?

To begin with a summary, I would say that Calvin's view of the Church, which is expounded in these chapters, is marked by a candid realism that makes his critique all the more convincing. The ancient church is extremely important to him, and he constantly goes back to ancient sources for support for his arguments. On the other hand, he has no qualms saying that the early Church was flawed (he even has his rare moments of disagreeing, even if slightly, with Augustine). In his view, the Roman Catholic Church in his day became far more corrupt than it ever had been in ancient times; but at the same time he does not hold to some romantic vision of the early Church as the symbol of perfection. His hope for reforming the Church is clearly linked with returning to the purity that the Church once enjoyed, but simultaneously he does not pretend that total purity is ever truly attainable. In short, Calvin expresses a truly progressive mentality: we learn from the experiences of the past, both good and bad, so that we might create a better future.

Chapter IX is a perfect example of this realism. Here he talks about "Councils and Their Authority." Against his Catholic opponents, who regard councils as absolutely authoritative, he expresses a more reserved view. Councils are extremely useful and often to be regarded as holy, yet ultimately they are fallible. A paragraph from the first section is telling:
The fact that I shall here be rather sever does not mean that I esteem the ancient councils less than I ought. For I venerate them from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all. But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ. Now it is Christ's right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit.
He also asserts that the ancient councils, if necessary, could be used to support his theological claims. But to him it is, strictly speaking, neither necessary nor sufficient to have the support of councils. This is because councils derive their authority only insofar as they faithfully interpret Scripture, and therefore their authority must be in question as long as there is Scriptural basis for disagreement. Moreover, he considers it important to weigh the character and motivation of those members present at a council. Improper motives could throw into question the validity of a particular ruling.

The chapter goes on dealing with particular cases, but the message is essentially the same throughout. We as Christians ought not to trust ourselves so readily with the ability to make authoritative interpretations of Scripture. Which means, if I understand correctly, Calvin's view of the Church is pretty much the most appealing thing about him. Because he stresses unity in spite of imperfections, and is always cautious to question the interpretations of the people in authority, his vision of the Church is one in which Christians are united together in one faith, but not a faith that can never be reviewed and corrected. In short, his view of the Church is as a free people.

Which leads me straight to Chapter X, which is pleasantly titled, "The Power of Making Laws, in Which the Pope, with His Supporters, Has Exercised Upon Souls the Most Savage Tyranny and Butchery." It's fair to say this chapter might be viewed as simply a diatribe against the pope. But one cannot miss the vision of Christian freedom developed here. In several passages in this chapter, Calvin defends the freedom of the conscience. By this he means that it is to God alone that the human conscience must be ultimately accountable.

Here is Calvin's definition of conscience:
We must take our definition from the etymology of the word. When men grasp the conception of things with the mind and the understanding they are said "to know," [scire] from which the world "knowledge" [scientia] is derived. In like manner, when men have an awareness of divine judgment adjoined to them as a witness which does not let them hide their sins but arraigns them as guilty before the judgment seat--this awareness is called "conscience." It is a certain mean between God and man, for it does not allow man to suppress within himself what he knows, but pursues him to the point of making him acknowledge his guilt.
This is what Calvin says ought to be free from all human authority. And Calvin's application is clear:
If we duly weigh this, that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself, we shall understand that the whole power of those who wish to advance themselves to command anything in the church apart from God's Word is thus cut off.
Hence none of the traditions of the Church ought to be binding on the individual believer. Calvin argues at great length against the various decrees and ceremonies imposed by the Roman Catholic Church on its members. I think I can skip this stuff.

In Chapter XI, "The Jurisdiction of the Church and Its Abuse as Seen in the Papacy," Calvin is essentially arguing for the separation of Church and State. The reason, as the title suggests, is that he finds the Church to be far too reaching in its powers. Civil laws ought to come from civil authorities. The clergy ought not to be above the common law. There is a lot of fascinating historical material in this chapter, but I will skip treating it more fully in favor of getting on to the other two chapters.

Chapter XII is about Church discipline. Here to a large extent Calvin is simply laying out his own view, not simply denouncing those of the Romanists. While his view on this subject is firm, he beautifully expresses the need for moderation:
But we ought not to pass over the fact that such severity as is joined with a "spirit of gentleness" [Gal. 6:1] befits the church. For we must always, as Paul bids us, take particular care that he who is punished be not overwhelmed with sorrow [II Cor. 2:7]. Thus a remedy would become destruction.
These and many other wise statements characterize Calvin's very reasonable view of Church discipline.

In this chapter he goes into an interesting discussion of fasting. Rejecting the view that the Church ever has the authority to impose a fast on individuals Christians, he nevertheless affirms its usefulness, "either to weaken and subdue the flesh that it may not act wantonly, or that we may be better prepared for prayers and holy meditations, or that it may be a testimony of our self-abasement before God when we wish to confess our guilt before." As with all acts of piety, for Calvin the most important consideration is "the motive of the heart." It is thus improper to view fasting and other rituals as practices to be done with some hope of meriting or causing God's favor in a superstitious or legalistic way.

Another interesting discussion in Chapter XII is celibacy for clergy. This is still a hot-button issue, I suppose. Perhaps it would be politically insensitive of me to bring up such accusations as Calvin makes against the clergy, when he says,
Therefore, whenever the defenders of this new tyranny seek the pretext of antiquity in defense of their celibacy, we shall have to require of them that they restore that ancient chastity in their priests; that they remove adulterers and fornicators; that they do not allow those to whom they forbid an honorable and modest use of the marriage bed to run unpunished into every sort of lusts; that they restore that now abandoned discipline by which all wantonness may be restrained; and that they free the church from this most shameful wickedness with which it has so long been defaced. When they concede this, then we shall have to admonish them once more not to claim as obligatory that which, being free, depends on its usefulness to the church.
Calvin certainly pulls no punches. I do not mean to offend Catholics with these words, but I do think it's worth asking, just as the Reformers did 500 years ago, whether this regulation isn't more destructive than helpful.

Chapter XIII, which I will have to summarize quickly as this post is getting ridiculously long, is called, "Vows; and How Everyone Rashly Taking Them Has Miserably Entangled Himself." If you're a little more clever than I am, you'll realize that here Calvin is going to blast the Roman Catholic practice of monasticism. Calvin's treatment of early Church monasticism is mixed. On the one hand, he evaluates it as being in a much purer form then than in his own day. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to see much of a place for the practice at all. He utterly rejects the idea that there are some more special ways to Christian perfection than others. We are all meant to follow all of the commandments of Christ, not just some of us. And following the commandments of Christ does not involve adding on special man-made impositions; we must ask God what He expects of us. By rejecting faulty vows as binding, Calvin argues that monks and nuns should be free to leave their current life, without feeling their consciences burdened by guilt. This argument, echoing Luther, surely had great significance during the time of the Reformation. I wish I could go into more details on this chapter, as it is full of fascinating insights; but right now I have only time for a summary, which is really all these blog posts are useful for, anyway.

To close, I have to say that Calvin's fourth book has so far been my favorite one. I guess that's partly because it has the most to do with being Protestant, generally speaking (as opposed to just "Calvinist"), partly because it has to do with the practical more than the theological, and partly because it has to do with political philosophy, at least to some degree. And perhaps there is something behind all of this, namely that this book is really revealing Calvin's courage and his amazing role in this tumultuous time in history. It takes an incredible man to do so much to change the course of human history, and these words speak directly of change. There really is something inspiring about that, whatever you think of Calvin.

Next time I get to start on the Sacraments. Good stuff.

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