John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (III)
In March 18, 1539, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, bishop of Carpentras in southern France, addressed a letter to the magistrates and citizens of Geneva asking them to return to the Catholic faith. He itemized a number of essential aspects of the Christian faith that he believed that the Roman Catholic Church endorsed and taught and, at the same time, pinpointed what he considered to be several weaknesses, discrepancies, and untruths among the Reformers.
The following August, Calvin replied to Sadoleto, defending the adoption of a number of the Protestant reforms, and, at the same time, attacking many of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. The exchange caused a firestorm, which has been neglected today in our many discussions about the Church of Jesus Christ and of “doing church” in the 21st century. As much confusion as exists today about the nature of the Church it is instructive to return to what the Reformers had to say about Church and the worship of our Lord, based on the premise that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. In this sense, Sadoleto’s letter and Calvin’s reply constitute one of the most interesting exchanges of Catholic-Protestant views during the Reformation.
In his reply, Calvin also supplies us also with some interesting biographical information of how he was instructed by the Reformers and eventually left the Roman Catholic Church and became a Protestant, which we shall examine in subsequent issues.
When Sadoleto wrote his letter to the Genevans in 1539, he was at the height of his long career and was one of the most eminent and respected members of the Sacred College of Cardinals. His request to the population of Geneva, therefore, represents his “mature” theological thought. In this issue I will focus on the main points that Sadoleto stressed and urged upon Geneva regarding why they should return to Roman Catholicism.
By way of introduction, as I hit the main emphases in Sadoleto’s letter, I’ll be using the paperback version published of the debate published by Baker in 1966. (Calvin’s reply can also be found in a volume in The Library of Christian Classics series.) As we proceed, it will become increasingly clear what Sadoleto’s criticisms were and how tenaciously he defended much within the Roman Catholic Church that was not and could not be substantiated by Scripture. This was due, in part, to view of Roman Catholicism of the nature of Scripture and tradition.
Sadoleto begins his letter by accusing the Reformers of seeking new power and new honors for themselves by assailing the authority of the Church. To his mind, the Roman Catholic Church based its life on humility, reverence, and obedience toward God and the Reformers based their doctrines on philosophy, “syllogisms,” and “quibbles on words.” Calvin will roundly reject this accusation and point out that the Reformers were, indeed, merely following Scripture in their endeavors.
The Heart and Soul of the Matter
Sadoleto does, however, hit on a number of the essential doctrines that divided the Roman Catholics and the Reformers. For example, early on Sadoleto addresses what he understands by the phrase “by faith alone.” He writes, “When I say by faith alone, I do not mean, as those inventors of novelties do, a mere credulity and confidence in God, by which, to the seclusion of charity and the other duties of a Christian mind, I am persuaded that in the cross and blood of Christ all my faults are unknown; this indeed is necessary, and forms the first access which we have to God, but it is not enough. For we must also bring a mind full of piety toward Almighty God, and desirous of performing whatever is agreeable to Him; in this, especially, the power of the Holy Spirit resides.”
In his own words, Sadoleto reveals to us that his concept of “by faith alone” actually isn’t, well, alone. It involves walking in the common faith of the Church. To that end, he favorably presents the Roman Catholic Church’s litany of the various expiations, penances, satisfactions, and other non-biblical rituals that existed in Roman Catholicism at the time over against the views of the Reformers with regards to them. To this above list, Sadoleto also adds the decrees of the Church or, in short, the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
In particular, he mentions the place of the Eucharist, confession of sins to a priest (auricular confession), prayers to the saints, and Christian freedom as essential matters in the Roman Catholic Church, which should not be abandoned. Calvin will respond to each of these items both in his reply as well as in the Institutes. Perhaps one of his most meditative and reflective chapters is found in Book 3, chapter 19: Christian Freedom.
Sadoleto is also not above playing on the emotions of those recently joining the Reformation churches by stating that their salvation hangs in the balance. Not only does his letter take on the tenure of an admonition, but there is a cloaked threat as well making his letter an iron fist in a velvet glove. Thus, he adds a grim “fear factor” to the contents of his letter.
In a stroke of almost laughable irony he adds that the Reformer’s great sin was firmly ensconced in not worshiping God purely as he commanded. As many voices of reform that form a chorus in the history of Roman Catholicism about the blatant and rampant abuses it is more than a touch of irony that Sadoleto would level such an accusation at the Reformers. He almost sounds like the inventor of the Regulative Principle—almost.
The Reformers as Mental Midgets
In addition, the Reformers are accused of being “simple men” of a “duller intellect” and of promoting a “preposterous and false religion” as well. In the course of his short letter, however, he does furnish the Genevans will sufficient, particular examples of precisely how the Reformers are promoting such falsehood. Sadoleto accuses Calvin and the Reformers of being “men seeking dissension and novelty.” Historically, this is understandable when we realize that at the time there was a uniformity in Christendom in this sense: by and large if you attended church—and most did—your choice was limited to one church and one church only: the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers was destroying this uniformity.
His main complaint, as he hurls these epithets at the Reformers’ heads, is that the Roman Catholic Church “has a certain rule by which to discriminate between truth and falsehood.” The short answer to what this might be is the twofold Scripture and tradition. It should be pointed out that even though the Roman Catholic theologians and the Reformers were often at loggerheads over various doctrines of theology, they did not disagree on the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Where the Reformers disagreed vehemently with Roman Catholicism was its parallel use of tradition. It a “doctrine” or practice was not found in Scripture but was included in the tradition, it was considered “settled and binding” upon the hearts and minds of the members of the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin and the other Reformers disagreed.
Sadoleto differentiates the Reformers from those who were educated in the lap and discipline of the Catholic Church—but, of course, they were, de facto, educated in the lap and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church but departed from its teachings. As he makes this accusation in his letter it begs the question: So how would the true Roman Catholic differ from the Protestant? (At this point, Sadoleto uses this part of his treatise to the Genevans to write a kind of “letter” describing the true Roman Catholic. Calvin will respond with a “letter: of his own.) To Sadoleto’s mind, the answers are clear cut.
First, the true Roman Catholic would be obedient to the (Roman) Catholic Church and revere and observe its law, admonitions, and decrees, as if God himself had delivered them.
Second, and connected to the first point, as a good Roman Catholic, Sadoleto believed that the Roman Catholic Church does not and cannot err. Why is that? He contended that the Holy Spirit “constantly guides her public and universal decrees and Councils.”
Third, “even if she did err, or could have erred (this, however, it is impious to say or believe), no such error would be condemned in him who should, with a mind sincere and humble toward God, have followed the faith and authority of his ancestors.” The Reformers on the other hand are guilty of using reason, philosophy, and philosophical dialectic to make their case.
Another of Sadoleto’s main points of criticism is that while previously there was but one “form” of the Church: Roman Catholicism, with the advent of the Reformers a number of sects have torn the Church. He writes, “Truth is always one, while falsehood is varied and multiform; that which is straight is simple, that which is crooked has many turns…. Can anyone who acknowledges and confesses Christ, and into whose heart and mind the Holy Spirit has shone, fail to perceive that such rending, such tearing of the holy Church, is the proper work of Satan, and not of God?”
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of Sadoleto’s letter to the Genevans. In the next issue we’ll turn to Calvin’s somewhat lengthy reply that will, in all likelihood, require more than one issue to deal with sufficiently. From there, we’ll move on to yet another important treatise by Calvin on The Necessity of Reforming the Church. This will be a document that we shall want to pore over for a while precisely because so many are changing and modifying worship into something the Lord never intended it to be based on a fallacious understanding of Calvin’s document on church reform.Eventually, we’ll want to ask the questions of how this fits into our current ecclesiastical (dare I say ecclesial?) setting with a view to both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements.
 John C. Olin [ed.], John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966).
 J.K.S. Reid [ed.], Calvin: Theological Treatises, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 219-256.
 Olin, ARD, 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 35. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 37.
 Comp. Ibid., 40, “The point in dispute is whether is it more expedient for your salvation, and whether you think you will do what is more pleasing to God, by believing and following what the Catholic Church throughout the whole world, now for more than fifteen hundred years, or (if we require clear and certain recorded notice of the facts) for more than thirteen hundred years approves with general consent; or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years, by crafty or, as they think themselves, acute men; but men certainly who are not themselves the Catholic Church?”
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 38, “I ask, with what care and anxiety of mind, ought we to guard against exposing our life and salvation to this great danger.”
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 45. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 46.