Is the Reformation over? At first blush, this question would appear to be a rather peculiar one to ask. Of course the Reformation is over—if by that term we mean the particular constellation of religious, political, and social events in sixteenth-century Europe that led to the division of Western Christendom and the renewal of early modern Christianity. In recent years, however, the question “Is the Reformation over?” has served as a placeholder for a different set of issues, addressing the nature of contemporary Roman Catholicism and its relation to historic Protestantism. The issues are complex and controversial: To what degree has the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council effectively redressed the central theological and religious concerns posed by sixteenth-century Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther or John Calvin? Has the historic agreement reached between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999—known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)—successfully pacified the centuries-long controversy over the doctrine of justification by faith alone? 2 And irrespective of real theological differences, is it strategic and wise for Christians in the Western world to continue to divide over matters of doctrine in the face of radical Islam and rampant secularism? Moreover, some contemporary evangelicals outside historic Protestant churches may wonder if the question “Is the Reformation over?” holds any relevance for them at all. Should evangelicals remain wedded to theological constructions framed by religious controversies that occurred nearly 500 years ago?
In 2005, evangelical historian Mark Noll and free-lance Christian author Carolyn Nystrom addressed these issues in a book entitled (appropriately enough) Is the Reformation Over? 3 In this highly acclaimed work, Noll and Nystrom survey the history of Catholic-Protestant controversies in North America over the past three centuries. The authors call particular attention to the seismic shift in evangelical attitudes toward Roman Catholics since the Second Vatican Council. In recent years, they note, much of the historic mistrust and antagonism between evangelicals and Catholics has been set aside for a new spirit of cooperation and mutual support. Today evangelical Protestants in the United States make common cause with their Catholic neighbors on a variety of important political and social issues. At the same time, a sizeable number of evangelicals admire Catholic leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa, and they look to traditional works of Catholic spirituality and modern Catholic devotional literature for inspiration and spiritual nourishment. In addition to these shifting popular attitudes, Noll and Nystrom point to the sustained ecumenical dialogues between Catholic and evangelical scholars over the past fifteen years—known collectively as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)—as evidence of substantive theological rapprochement between the two religious camps. The most impressive fruit of these unofficial dialogues, the authors believe, is the agreement on the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone as formulated at ECT II4.
Should we conclude, then, that the Reformation is over? For Noll and Nystrom, the answer is “No” and “Yes.” No, the Reformation is not over in the sense that important theological differences continue to divide American evangelicals and Roman Catholics—most notably their conflicting understandings of the Church, the primacy of the Pope, and the Marian doctrines. On the other hand, Noll and Nystrom believe that ecumenical accords such as ECT II and JDDJ signal that the Reformation divide over justification has been successfully bridged. The authors, thus, conclude, “If it is true . . . that iustificatio articulis stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over.”5
Noll and Nystrom’s book Is the Reformation Over? has garnered both praise and criticism. The evangelical periodical Christianity Today awarded the book “honorable mention” in its 2006 book awards. Evangelical leader J. I. Packer praised the book for its “superb theological journalism.” 6 Other scholars have been far less positive. While acknowledging the book’s usefulness as a historical survey of Catholic-Protestant relationships, several reviewers (including myself) question the quality of theological analysis and dispute the accuracy of a number of the book’s conclusions.7
One thing is clear, however: Noll and Nystrom’s book has been read widely, and it has played a not insignificant role in shaping American evangelicals’ perceptions of contemporary Roman Catholicism. A good example of this is seen in the case of Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. When Beckwith, announced his decision to convert back to the Roman Catholic Church in 2006, one of the factors he listed that influenced his decision was reading the book Is the Reformation Over?8
Because of the limitations of space and the range of my own expertise, I will explore the question “Is the Reformation over?” from a slightly unconventional angle. Instead of examining Catholic theological formulations since Vatican II or describing ecumenical conversations of the past four decades or reviewing relevant material in the authoritative Catholic Catechism (rev. 1994), this essay focuses on the fundamental religious and theological concerns of one Protestant reformer, John Calvin, as he engaged Catholic opponents between 1539 and 1549. Several words of explanation are in order.
1. I am convinced that before we answer the question “Is the Reformation over?” we must first clearly define the nature of the Protestant Reformation, or more precisely, the primary theological convictions that set Protestant churchmen at odds with the late medieval Church. If contemporary ecumenical dialogues are to be conducted with historical integrity, they must take seriously the substantial theological and religious disagreements that caused ecclesial division in the first place.
2. Why John Calvin? Admittedly, it is hazardous to present one sixteenth-century reformer as representative of a religious movement as complex and variegated as the “Protestant Reformation.” Nevertheless, Calvin was recognized in his own day as one of the most insightful and articulate Protestant theologians who rigorously engaged and critiqued Roman Catholic theology. 9 Though few magisterial reformers endorsed all of Calvin’s conclusions, documentary evidence indicates theologians such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and Pierre Viret did read and approve of the general substance of Calvin’s argument against his Catholic opponents.
3. Finally, I have chosen to focus my analysis on a select number of Calvin’s writings from 1539 to 1549, a decade (as we shall see) when Calvin was intensively engaged in defending the Protestant cause against papal and imperial threats. Several of these treatises are relatively unknown, yet they provide important insights into the reasons that Calvin believed that religious reformation was necessary to preserve the Christian gospel and protect the purity of Christ’s Church.
This essay proceeds as follows: §1 briefly surveys Calvin’s engagement with Roman Catholic opponents from 1539 to 1549. §2 highlights important theological themes found in Calvin’s writings of this period that shed light on his distinctive priorities and theological concerns as they relate to Catholic theology and practice. §3 concludes with five brief observations drawn from Calvin’s theological writings that seem particularly relevant for contemporary ecumenical discussions between evangelical Protestants and Catholics.
1. A Decade of Debate: Calvin and Catholicism, 1539–1549
John Calvin is frequently remembered as the author of the Institutes and the writer of biblical commentaries. He is less well-known for the several dozen polemical writings that periodically issued from his pen during his career. For Calvin, defending Christian truth in print was a crucial dimension of his vocation as pastor and doctor of the church: “I would be a real coward if I saw God’s truth being attacked and remained quiet without a sound,” he once commented.10
A survey of Calvin’s polemical writings over the course of his career reveals a definite pattern: during the late 1530s and throughout the 1540s, his opponents more often than not were Roman Catholics, such as Louis Du Tillet, Jacob Sadoleto, Albert Pighius, Pope Paul III, and the Council of Trent. By contrast, during the 1550s, Calvin’s literary battles shifted to engaging Protestant opponents, such as the Lutheran pastor Joachim Westphal and the reformed scholar Sebastian Castellio. We begin with a brief survey of Calvin’s most important writings against Catholic opponents during the decade from 1539 to 1549.
Calvin’s first major polemical writing against Catholicism was thrust upon him. In 1539, Calvin was in the city of Strasbourg, serving as minister of the French congregation under the tutelage of the seasoned reformer Martin Bucer. Calvin had been expelled from Geneva the previous year, and he was still licking his wounds from the humiliating treatment he had received from the city council. With Calvin’s departure, the progress of reform had gone rather badly in Geneva, and Catholic authorities had seized upon the opportunity by enlisting Cardinal Jacob Sadoleto to write an open letter to Geneva’s citizens in order to woo them back to the Mother Church. With no one to answer Sadoleto, Geneva’s city council appealed to Calvin for help. That Calvin agreed to do this says a lot about his character and his sense of Christian duty. Calvin wrote his response to Sadoleto in six days in August of 1539.11
In this long epistle, Calvin defends the Genevan reformation as well as his own ministry as a reformer. He articulates the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, the nature of the Church, and a reformed understanding of the sacraments. Calvin’s primary argument is that true Christianity is founded upon the Word of God, not the pronouncements and traditions of men. Calvin and the Protestants were not destroying the true Church, but seeking to restore it according to Scriptures, following the pattern of the ancient Church. Calvin comments,
You know, Sadoleto, . . . not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew the ancient form of the Church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was after-award flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction.12
During Calvin’s three year sojourn in Strasbourg, Martin Bucer introduced him to the broader world of inter-confessional dialogue. In 1540–41, Bucer persuaded Calvin to accompany him to a series of religious colloquies at Haguenau, Worms, and finally Regensburg, aimed at achieving religious concord between Protestants and Catholics. “They are dragging me to Regensburg although I do not want to go at all,” Calvin complained.” 13 At Regensburg, Protestant theologians (such as Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer) and Catholic moderates (such as Gasparo Contarini, Johannes Gropper, and Johann Eck) tentatively agreed on key doctrines that divided them, including original sin, free will, and justification. 14 As a theological advisor, Calvin watched from the sidelines. He found the articulation of justification in Article 5 to be satisfactory, although somewhat vague. Writing to Guillaume Farel, Calvin reported:
You will be astonished . . . that our opponents have yielded so much, when you read the extracted copy. . . . Our friends have thus retained also the substance of the true doctrine. . . . [Y]ou will desire, I know, a more distinct explication and statement of the doctrine [of justification], and in that respect, you shall find me in complete agreement with yourself. However, if you consider with what kind of men we have to agree upon this doctrine, you will acknowledge that much has been accomplished.15
In the end, both Martin Luther and the pope rejected the Regensburg Agreement—including the article on justification. Long before this, Calvin had given up hope for true reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church and returned to Strasbourg. For the remainder of his career, Calvin was of the opinion that healing the breach between Rome and the Protestant churches was all but impossible.16
In the years following Calvin’s return to Geneva in 1541, he engaged Catholic opponents on a variety of fronts. In 1543, he wrote a sharp satirical work against the popular Catholic practice of venerating religious relics. Honoring the physical remains of martyrs and saints is not only foolish and superstitious, Calvin argued, but nothing short of idolatrous because it transfers to physical objects the worship and praise that belong to the living God alone.17
In the same year, Calvin offered a more substantial critique of Roman Catholic theology and practice in a long treatise entitled On the Necessity of Reforming the Church. 18 This work is addressed to Emperor Charles V, who had announced an Imperial Diet to be held at Speyer early in 1543. Comprising more than one hundred pages in the Latin original, this treatise describes in detail the myriad of errors of Roman Catholic teaching on worship, salvation, the sacraments, and church leadership, showing the ways that false doctrine translated into religious practices that were abusive, superstitious, and even pagan. Given the church’s desperate condition, Calvin urges the emperor to undertake the cause of religious reformation in the German lands by summoning a religious council. This was the emperor’s responsibility; this was God’s command: “[T]he church should be restored to true order, and its most corrupt condition reformed, according to the strict standards of the gospel.” Calvin’s treatise On the Necessity of Reforming the Church19, which went through eight editions in the half century that followed, was read with approval by Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer. 20 There is no evidence that Emperor Charles V ever saw it or read it.
By the time that Pope Paul III finally convened a General Church Council at Trent in December 1545, the window of opportunity for religious reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants had closed. In the first phase of the Council, which met in eight sessions from 1545 to 1547, the roughly forty clergymen in attendance addressed and rejected central doctrines of the Protestants. The council condemned the doctrines of sola scriptura and justification by faith alone. At the same time, it reaffirmed the Roman Church’s traditional teachings on original sin, baptism, the Mass, penance, purgatory, the priority of the Vulgate and the authority of Apocryphal books.21
The first phase of Trent had scarcely concluded before Calvin’s friends were urging him to respond. By the end of 1547, Calvin had rushed to publication a printed version of the Acts of the Council of Trent, with his Antidote that answered Catholic arguments point by point. 22 Calvin’s theological analysis in the Antidote is incisive, even as his tone is sharp and sometimes abusive. Calvin ridicules the notion that the Catholic Council is infallible: the forty clergymen in attendance were drawn from the “dregs” of the church; they are a bunch of “garrulous and audacious monks, some of whom hunt after mitres, and others after cardinals’ hats.” Consequently, “[t]he proclamation of the Council is entitled to no more weight than the cry of an auctioneer.” 23 The Catholics at Trent boast of their “specious reformation” (speciosa reformatio) but refuse to address the myriad of problems in the Church. Calvin summarizes Protestant grievances as follows:
We complain that the whole doctrine of godliness is adulterated by impious dogma; that the whole worship of God is vitiated by foul and disgraceful superstitions; that the pure institution of the sacraments has been supplanted by horrible sacrilege; that their use has been converted into a profane trafficking; that poor souls, which ought to have been ruled by the doctrine of Christ, are oppressed by cruel bondage; that nothing is seen in the Christian Church that is not deformed and debased; that the grace of Christ not only lies half-buried, but is partly torn to pieces, partly altogether extinguished. Calvin’s frustration and bitterness are palpable in the Antidote. Despite repeated calls for religious reform, the Council of Trent in Calvin’s view had done nothing but condemn the Protestants, reaffirm errant Catholic dogma, and tighten the yoke of tyranny over faithful Christian people.24
The final major treatise that Calvin wrote against Catholic opponents appeared in 1549 under the title The Adultero-German Interim. 25 Like the Antidote, Calvin wrote it in response to a specific confessional crisis. After more than two decades of empty threats, Emperor Charles V finally found the political opportunity in 1547 to wage war against the Lutheran princes who made up the Schmalkaldic League. On April 23, 1547, imperial forces won a stunning victory at Mühlenberg over Johann Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony. Over the next months, Charles imposed on Lutheran territories and cities the so-called Augsburg Interim, a temporary religious settlement that required Protestants to subscribe to a moderate statement of Catholic doctrine which, among other things, recognized the existence of married clergy and allowed laity to receive communion in both kinds.26
Several Protestant reformers, most notably Philip Melanchthon, were willing to accommodate themselves to this uncomfortable arrangement. Calvin, by contrast, was horrified and soon published the text of the Interim with a lengthy commentary on each doctrinal point. Calvin’s Adultero-German Interim represents one of the clearest and most comprehensive statements of what he believed to be the fundamental doctrines dividing Catholics and Protestants. Its popularity in the sixteenth century is attested by the fact that it reappeared in ten editions during the following two decades.
In Calvin’s mind, there was no room for compromise. To do so, would be to mix Christ and Baal, indeed, to settle for “half of Christ.” 27 In order he treats justification by faith, confession of guilt and penance, the nature of the true Church, the authority of Scripture, papal primacy, the Catholic sacraments, intercession of the saints, fasting, celibacy, and ceremonies. On all these points, Calvin is clear: any doctrinal accommodation is impious, indeed sacrilegious. Certainly Christian unity and the peace of the Churches is desirable. But Protestants must reject all “terms of peace which mingle the figments of men with the pure truth of God.”28
Calvin concludes his treatise by calling German Protestants to die, rather than sign the Augsburg Interim: “The time now demands that the faith which we have hitherto professed with the tongue and pen shall be sealed with our blood. . . . For an idol is set up, not to deform the external appearance of the sanctuary, but to defile and destroy the whole sanctity of the Church, to overthrow the entire worship of God, and leave nothing in our religion unpolluted.” 29 Clearly, Calvin was not attempting to build bridges with his Catholic opponents, but to expose the church of Rome as a false church that had fundamentally destroyed the Christian gospel.
2. Calvin’s Critique of Roman Catholicism
To detail each of the theological concerns articulated in Calvin’s writings against Catholic opponents from 1539 to 1549 would require an essay much longer than the present one. This section highlights only some of the most important or suggestive elements of Calvin’s argument against Roman Catholicism.
2.1. Scripture and Interpretation
Throughout his Catholic writings, Calvin emphasized that the Word of God, the Scripture, must serve as the norma normans, the determinative authority within Christ’s Church. The Word of God, states Calvin, “is like the Lydian stone, by which [the Church] tests all doctrines.” Indeed, “all controversies should be decided by thy Word.” 30 In his letter to Sadoleto, Calvin insists that the Church of Christ must be governed by both Word and Spirit: “seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, [our Lord] declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, he annexed it to the Word.” 31
In Calvin’s eyes, one of the chief failures of the medieval church was that it had neglected the divine Scriptures. Scarcely one bishop in a hundred was willing or able to preach. 32Lay people were encouraged to venerate the Sacred Text, but they were not taught its message. In a rare auto-biographical comment in his Letter to Sadoleto, Calvin recalls his own experience:
I, O Lord, as I had been educated from a boy, always professed the Christian faith. But at first I had no other reason for my faith than that which then everywhere prevailed. Thy Word, which ought to have shone on all thy people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us.33
Calvin believed that the consequences of such neglect were devastating. Once deprived of God’s Word, ignorant common people were victimized by the corrupt traditions of the medieval church and succumbed to pernicious errors, falsehoods, and superstition. 34 By contrast, one of the most important achievements of the Protestant Reformation, Calvin asserts, is to make the Word of God available to the people of God, whether through preaching, vernacular translations of the Scripture, or biblical commentaries. Calvin boasts, we “have thrown more light upon the Scriptures than all the doctors who have appeared under the Papacy since its commencement.”35
Calvin’s most detailed treatment of the authority of Scripture is found in the Antidote, his commentary on the early sessions of the Council of Trent. Here Calvin rehearses and rejects the four main conclusions that the Tridentine fathers made relative to the Scriptures: (1) Scripture and church tradition share equal authority in determining matters of doctrine; (2) the Apocryphal books are authentic Scripture; (3) the Latin Vulgate constitutes the authoritative version of the Church; and (4) the magisterium alone has the right to interpret Scripture.
To concede these points, Calvin argues, is to capitulate everything to the Catholics. For if one places the church’s oral traditions on equal footing with Scripture, then “whatever [doctrines] they produce, if supported by no authority of Scripture, will be classed among the traditions, which they insist should have the same authority as the Law and the Prophets.” 36 The same thing pertains to the exclusive privilege of interpretation. If the Roman magisterium is granted exclusive authority to interpret holy writ, then the papists will prove whatever they wish out of Scripture, turning God’s Word into a “wax nose.”37
Calvin does acknowledge, however, the dangers of allowing private individuals to interpret the Scripture for themselves in every circumstance. Certainly, most biblical texts are clear, and everyone may correctly interpret them. But for a passage that is more obscure or difficult, it is “inappropriate [indignum] to refer it to the private will of man” alone. In such instances, he believes, a company of godly teachers well-versed in the Scriptures ought to undertake such interpretation: “in the case of an obscure passage, when it is doubtful what sense ought to be adopted, there is no better way of arriving at the true meaning than for pious doctors to make common inquiry, by engaging in religious discussion.” 38 For Calvin, then, Christian lay people are responsible to study and interpret the Word of God, but on difficult matters, they must submit to the judgment of godly leaders with special training in the biblical text.
2.2. Church and Tradition
In his polemical writings dating from 1539 to 1549, Calvin never minced words in his stinging rebuke of the structures, doctrines, and religious practices of the medieval Church. The papal office he likened to the Roman Antichrist. The Catholic Mass was an “abomination” and “sacrilege,” devised by Satan. The requirements of auricular confession and clerical celibacy were “murderers of souls” and a “modern tyranny.” 39 The Roman Catholic Church, with the pope at its head, had snuffed out the light of divine truth, buried the Word of God, defiled the glory of Christ, and subverted the pastoral office. 40 Despite this perilous situation, however, Calvin insisted that the true Church of Christ had not entirely been extinguished in Europe. The Christian Church was in “grievous distress, and in extreme danger”; it was at “the very brink of destruction,” writhing under the effect of “a deadly wound.” 41 But it wasn’t altogether deceased.
In his writings against Roman Catholicism, Calvin regularly distinguishes the spiritual and visible natures of the Christian Church. On the one hand, the Christian Church is a spiritual reality, “the society of all the saints,” spread over the whole world through time, “bound together by the one doctrine and the one Spirit of Christ.” 42 In this sense, Calvin believes that remnants of God’s elect people still remained within the Roman Catholic Church, though facing the most dire of circumstances. 43 On the other hand, Calvin asserts that the Church of Christ took on visible form in the world through two or perhaps three primary marks: the preaching of sound doctrine, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline. 44
The true Church should be identified through right doctrine rather than the visible succession of bishops. Though “there has been an uninterrupted succession of the Church from the beginning of the gospel even to our day,” Calvin writes, this succession exists, not in the “external show” of bishops and popes, but in the “perpetuity of doctrine” handed down from the Apostles. 45 Because of this understanding of the Church, Calvin strenuously rejects Catholic claims that the Protestant reformers are schismatics or innovators. In Calvin’s view, the Protestants did not break the spiritual unity of the Christian Church; rather, they are defending the Apostolic message of the gospel and the purity of Christ’s Church. Calvin makes this point forcefully in his treatise On the Necessity of Reforming the Church:
It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of Church, but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true church, and what is the nature of its unity. And the thing necessary to attend to, first of all, is, to beware of separating the Church from Christ its head. When I say Christ, I include the doctrine of his gospel, which he sealed with his blood. . . . [The] uniform characteristics of a well-ordered Church are the preaching of sound doctrine and the pure administration of the Sacraments.46
From Calvin’s perspective, therefore, the Protestant reformers are engaged in a “holy work” of God. Their efforts are not innovative, but preservative—reforming, restoring, and renewing Christ’s Church on earth. By contrast, it is the Catholics who are the innovators, out of sync with both the teachings of Scripture as well the practice of the early church. Calvin makes this point repeatedly in his treatises:
Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours [i.e., Sadoleto]. . . . [Indeed] in all these points, the ancient Church is clearly on our side . . . .47
[T]he primitive and purer church is not in this matter so adverse to us as our enemies pretend [on the subject of clerical marriage]. . . . [W]e accord far better with the ancient Church than they do.48
[B]esides the clear testimonies which are everywhere met with in Scripture [regarding images], we are supported by the authority of the ancient Church.49
Clearly, even as Calvin based his arguments on the solid foundation of Scripture, he in no way was willing to abdicate the precedence of the early Church to his Roman Catholic opponents. Indeed, so confident was Calvin that the Reformation message was in basic conformity with the early Church that, in his Antidote, he marshals the testimony of Jerome, Cyprian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and especially Augustine against the Council of Trent on such issues as free will, justification, and Roman primacy.
Calvin’s doctrine of sola Scriptura did not preclude him from calling upon the authority of early church fathers or the customs of the patristic church in an effort to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between the gospel that the reformers preached and the message of the early Church. If Scripture was Calvin’s highest authority, it was not the only authority to which he appealed.
2.3. Central Issues in Dispute
It is not uncommon for Protestant Christians today to summarize their primary doctrinal commitments with five “solas”: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Calvin would certainly not have objected to such formulations. However, in his polemical treatises against Catholic opponents during the 1540s, Calvin framed his central concerns somewhat differently.
This is clearly seen in the structure of Calvin’s treatise On the Necessity of Reforming the Church. In this treatise, Calvin summarizes the primary doctrinal grievances that Protestants have with the Roman Church in these terms: “All our controversies concerning doctrine relate either to the legitimate worship of God or to the ground of salvation.” 50 These two issues—legitimate worship and the doctrines of salvation—constitute what Calvin calls the “soul” of the matter. They are of central importance: “If the purity of this doctrine is in any degree impaired, the Church has received a deadly wound” and will be brought “to the very brink of destruction.”51
After treating these two chief matters in the first part of his treatise, Calvin next turns his attention to two derivative and supporting doctrines: church government and the sacraments. Calvin likens these to the “body.” If the “body” (church government and the sacraments) is not infused and animated by the “soul” (right worship and salvation), then it becomes “a dead and useless carcass.”52
What becomes clear from his treatment of these theological priorities is that, for Calvin, fundamental Christian truths do not stand alone, but are closely related to one another and dependent upon one another. Thus, for example, the “false” sacraments of the Catholic Church were insidious, not only because Christ did not institute them but also because they diminished God’s glory and undermined the unique role of grace in salvation. Moreover, it is important to recognize that when Calvin gives priority to right worship and salvation, he is defending not simply discrete theological topics, but a constellation of related truths and practices that cohere and comprise a larger conceptual field of doctrines. Thus, for Calvin, a biblical understanding of salvation includes not only a commitment to the doctrines of grace and justification, but also to particular understandings of election, original sin, the substance of faith, remission of sins, the nature of good works, and Christian assurance.
The importance of this insight is clearly illustrated by Calvin’s discussion of the doctrine of justification in his treatise against the Augsburg Interim. 53 Although the Interim’s statement on justification is more moderate and less angular than that made by the Tridentine Council, Calvin was not in the least bit impressed. In the introduction to his treatise, he reminds his reader, “[T]here is a great difference between merely uttering the one expression—we are justified by faith—and setting forth the whole matter in a distinct explanation.” 54 Over the next several pages, Calvin demonstrates the ways in which one’s conception of Christian faith, divine sovereignty, and the remission of sins either support or undercut the biblical doctrine of justification:
It is now clear enough how important it is, in order to maintain the doctrine of Justification entire, to have a sure definition of faith.
Unless [God’s effective call in salvation is] put beyond controversy, though we may ever and anon repeat like parrots that we are justified by faith, we shall never hold the true doctrine of Justification.
Is not the name justification more than shamelessly brought forward while consciences are laid under [the burden of Catholic penance]? . . . Scripture declares that we are justified, not because we fulfill the law, but because we rest on the sacrifices of Christ, by which sins have been expiated.55
Calvin concludes his defense of the Protestant doctrine of justification in the Adultero-German Interim with a final polemical thrust that highlights his central theological concerns. Even if the Augsburg Interim allows for the doctrine of justification by faith alone (which it does not), the Catholic settlement would still be unacceptable because it fails to redress the problem of idolatry that permeates the Catholic cultus.56
2.4. True Worship
In recent years scholars of the reformed tradition have highlighted the central place that right worship occupied in the theological constructions of the Swiss reformers in the sixteenth century. 57 And the subject of worship was a recurring theme in Calvin’s theological treatises from 1539 to 1549. Calvin’s indictment of what he calls Catholic idolatry is devastating. Roman Catholics rob God of his glory by praying to saints, seeking their intercession and assistance. Catholics perpetrate a grave injustice against the Virgin Mary and commit the grossest of idolatries when they present Jesus’ mother as “the gate of heaven, hope, life, and salvation.” 58 This same idolatry is evident as Catholics adore physical images of deceased saints and worship sacred relics. Catholic ceremonies such as vigils, prayers, and fasts are also a mockery of God that promote a new Judaism, and “God rejects, condemns, abominates all [such] fictitious worship.”59
But what of the Catholic distinction between dulia (the veneration reserved for saints) and latria (the worship reserved for God alone)? Calvin argues that this is a distinction without a difference, for in everyday practice, “Do not men pay to images and statues the very same reverence which they pay to God?” 60 By encouraging common people to exalt Mary, pray to saints, and worship physical objects, the Catholic tradition promoted superstition and manifold idolatry, undermining the unique mediatorial role of Christ, treating him as if he were “some ordinary individual in a crowd.” 61
Calvin believes that one of the most important achievements of the Protestant Reformation is that it purified the Church of such idolatry and restored true worship to Christ’s Church. What does Calvin mean by right worship? To worship God rightly is to worship him in Spirit and in Truth. Right worship is to acknowledge God as he is—the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation—and to render him glory alone. Right worship is not a matter of outward ceremonies, but is a matter of the heart. It is the “inward worship of the heart, which alone [God] approves and requires.” 62 Finally, true worship must always follow the rule of Scripture (the so-called Regulative Principle). Calvin makes this point on several different occasions: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word. . . . [T]he Word of God is the test which discriminates this true worship and that which is false.”63
For Calvin, then, true worship is governed by the Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and issued from the human heart. True worship brings glory to God alone. Calvin is convinced that the Protestants restored true spiritual worship to the Christian churches, notwithstanding the scorn and abuse that Catholics heaped upon them:
While the whole world teems with these and similar delusions . . . we, who have brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his Word, we, who are blameless in this matter, and have purged our churches, not only of idolatry but of superstition also, are accused of violating the worship of God, because we have discarded the worship of images.64
2.5. Justification by Faith Alone
As with other sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, Calvin believed that the doctrine of justification occupied an essential place in the Christian gospel. 65 He also believed it to be one of the most significant issues separating Protestants from their Catholic opponents. In his Letter to Sadoleto, for example, Calvin identifies justification as “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.” This was no trifling matter, for “[w]herever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”66
How then did Calvin understand the biblical doctrine of justification? According to Calvin, justification is simply God’s acquittal of sinners by which he pardons them of their sin and imputes the alien righteousness of Christ to their account. Sinners are justified through Christ’s expiatory death alone, and this is received by faith alone. Faith is not a good work that merits justification; rather, faith is the gift of God by which the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, effecting their adoption and enabling them to partake of all the blessings of Christ. Calvin defines justification like this in his Adultero-German Interim:
As God justifies us freely by imputing the obedience of Christ to us, so we are rendered capable of this great blessing only by faith alone. As the Son of God expiated our sins by the sacrifice of his death, and by appeasing his Father’s wrath, acquired the gift of adoption for us, and now presents us with his righteousness, so it is only by faith we put him on, and become partakers of his blessings.67
Stated more succinctly: “We say therefore, that we are justified by faith, because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.”68
Calvin emphasizes that justification, as God’s forensic declaration of non-guilt, must be distinguished from regeneration or sanctification. But at the same time, he insists that the faith that justifies the sinner necessarily results in spiritual renewal and growth in godliness: “when we say a man is justified by faith alone, we do not fancy a faith devoid of charity, but we mean that faith alone is the cause of justification.” It is “faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” 69 Calvin articulates this doctrine most fully in his Antidote against the Council of Trent:
Justification and sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. . . . [A]s soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. . . . The whole dispute is as to the cause of justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration. . . . I on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favor of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness [iustitiae] consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous [iustos] only by gratuitous acceptance.70
This then is the crux of Calvin’s disagreement with his Catholic opponents. The reformers taught that believers’ right standing before God is due to the once-for-all free imputation of Christ’s righteousness. By contrast, the Tridentine Fathers taught that justification includes both divine pardon and the process whereby Christ’s righteousness is infused into believers, which enables them to cooperate with divine grace, live a holy life, and merit salvation. From Calvin’s viewpoint, Trent’s doctrine represents little more than a modified version of the ancient heresy of Pelagius, in that it affirms “that men are justified partly by the grace of God and partly by their own works.” 71 Accordingly, Calvin finds the Catholic doctrine of justification altogether pernicious, for it ignores the full effects of original sin, exalts human righteousness, vitiates divine grace, distorts the meaning of true faith, and destroys the grounds of Christian assurance. On this last point, Calvin is particularly adamant. Because Catholics predicate justification on the inherent righteousness of the believer, they must regard full Christian assurance as ungodly presumption. In so doing, they portray God as an exacting Judge and thereby “rob all consciences of calm and placid confidence” in divine grace. 72 How different is the Protestant teaching on justification, Calvin believes. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone enables Christians to conduct their lives with confidence and gratitude, secure in the knowledge of God’s fatherly love for them. As Calvin notes in his response to the Augsburg Interim,
It is asked . . . where our consciences may rest safely in regard to salvation. . . . Any part of this righteousness, however small, if placed in works will totter, as resting on an insecure foundation. . . . It is a plain matter, that we cannot come boldly before the tribunal of God, unless we are certainly persuaded that he is our Father: and this cannot be without our being regarded as righteous in his sight.73
For Calvin, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith is not only a truth to be professed, but a doctrine to be celebrated and enjoyed, for it provides Christians both comfort and confidence during this present life and a firm assurance for the next.
3. Concluding Observations
I conclude with five brief observations based on Calvin’s polemical treatises from 1539 to 1549. I hope these will be helpful as evangelical Protestants engage Roman Catholics in the present day.
3.1. Sola Scriptura Does Not Mean Nuda Scriptura
Evangelical Christians in North America sometimes misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological resource, that it can and should be denuded of its churchly context (hence nuda Scriptura). 74 Such an understanding is altogether incorrect.
Calvin believed that holy Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice should serve as the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and practice, but it was not his only resource for theology. Consequently, he regularly consulted and appealed to early Christian documents and church authorities—most notably Augustine—to gain theological insight and clarity on contested doctrinal matters. He recognized the strategic importance of demonstrating the continuity of Protestant teaching with the core convictions of the early Church. Thus, his regular refrain: “The ancient church is on our side!”
In a similar fashion, evangelical Protestants should view the riches of the Christian tradition(s) during and before the sixteenth-century Reformation not simply as an “alien world” or as an unfortunate parenthesis. Instead, they should view them as an important resource for biblical interpretation, theological reflection, and ecumenical dialogue while at the same time insisting that everything be tested carefully by the authoritative Word of God.
3.2. Moving Beyond Reformation Slogans
In the past four centuries, Protestants have often summarized their distinctive doctrinal commitments with the five Latin phrases sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. How should evangelical Protestants respond, then, when contemporary Roman Catholic churchmen affirm one or several of these slogans? To be more concrete, how should evangelicals respond to the Roman Catholic Church’s official approval of the formulae “by grace alone” and “by faith alone” in the Joint Declaration of 1999? Or, again, how should evangelical Protestants respond to revisionist Catholic interpretations that argue that the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent did in fact affirm the doctrine of sola Scriptura as the authoritative position of their Church?75
We should be grateful that Catholics are willing to affirm these central biblical truths while at the same time remaining both cautious and realistic. Calvin reminds us that the so-called Protestant “solas” cannot be treated as discrete or independent doctrines. Rather, they cohere with, inform, and require other important biblical truths. Thus, as we have seen, Calvin was quick to point out the theological inconsistency of affirming the doctrine of justification by faith alone, on the one hand, while remaining committed to the Catholic sacrament of penance, with its distinction between guilt and punishment, and its requirement of works of satisfaction, on the other. So also Calvin recognized that whatever authority the Catholic Church ascribed to Scripture in theory, Rome undermined Scripture’s authority in practice by commanding the exclusive right of interpreting the biblical text. Evangelicals engaged in ecumenical conversations with Roman Catholics should demonstrate this same kind of realism.
Moreover, the accent that a particular theological tradition gives to a doctrine is important. For the Protestant reformers, justification was a first-order doctrinal concern. Not so with many contemporary Catholics. The most recent edition of the Catholic Catechism gives only brief attention to the doctrine of justification. 76 Clearly, sacramental grace, not justification, occupies the central position in Catholic conceptions of salvation. American Cardinal Avery Dulles admits as much: “Justification is rarely discussed at length except in polemics against, or dialogue with, Protestants.” 77 Lutheran scholar James Preuss once stated the problem even more baldly: “The doctrine [of justification] is at best at the fringe of their corpus doctrinae, like a fingernail, or like the planet Pluto at the edge of our solar system.” 78 In discussions with Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants need to be attentive to the priority given core Christian doctrines. Defending slogans is important, but not enough.
3.3. Clarifying the Meaning of Justification
It is noteworthy that the official Catholic formulations of the doctrine of justification found in the Catholic Catechism and the Joint Declaration make no mention of the positive forensic character of justification—that sinners are acquitted before God on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Moreover, both of these documents describe justification as including divine pardon and the process of renewal of the inner person. The Catholic Catechism, for example, reaffirms the definition of justification formulated at Trent in 1547: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” 79 In a similar fashion, section 4.2 of the Joint Declaration bears the title “Justification as forgiveness of sins and making righteous.”
This has led evangelical theologian Anthony Lane rightly to observe that the definition of justification presented in the Joint Declaration is a decidedly Catholic one. 80 All of this should cause evangelical Protestants some pause. Although the Roman Catholic Church has now affirmed the slogans sola gratia and sola fide as consonant with historic Catholic teaching, nevertheless, the definition of justification found in its official doctrinal statements continues to be at variance with the understanding of justification defended so tirelessly (and often courageously) by Protestant reformers such as John Calvin. To underline this point is not to be churlish or uncharitable; it is to be theologically precise and fair to the historical record.
3.4. The Challenge of Right Worship
The dogmatic priority that Calvin gives to right worship in his polemical writings may appear somewhat idiosyncratic—even irrelevant—to contemporary Christians in the West. But it shouldn’t. Calvin’s concern that God alone be glorified and his warnings against the insidious nature of human idolatry are extremely timely for evangelical Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. The propensity of sinful human beings to seek to domesticate God by human ceremonies, rules, ideologies, and intellect; the ever-present temptations of self-promotion; the expansive influence of celebrity culture in many of our churches; the allure of slick methods to manage the Holy Spirit and manipulate God—in all of these ways contemporary Christians in the Western world would do well to take seriously Calvin’s warnings on this topic. Some will no doubt view Calvin’s regulative principle of worship as unnecessarily restrictive. But all evangelicals should resonate deeply with Calvin’s call for a reformation of worship that glorifies God alone, where true spiritual worship is filled with reverence for God’s majesty and profound gratitude for his mercy.
3.5. Living Our Theology
When reading Calvin’s treatises against Roman Catholic opponents during the 1540s, I have been impressed how often he reminds his readers of the practical entailments of their theological commitments. What we confess affects how we live.
Calvin believed that religious legalism tortures the consciences of men and women. Merit theology plunges God’s people into the “gulf of despair.” 81 The Catholic sacrament of penance “rob[s] all consciences of calm and placid confidence”; indeed, mandatory annual confession is nothing but “an executioner to torture and excruciate consciences.”82
By contrast, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone offers the believer a safe refuge of assurance that brings with it “peace of conscience.” 83 Calvin is concerned, in other words, not simply with articulating biblical doctrine, but demonstrating how it impacts the spiritual experience of ordinary Christians. Calvin the theologian was also Calvin the pastor. For those of us who have been called to serve Christ’s church as pastors or professors, we would do well to follow Calvin’s example in this. For our vocation is not simply to uphold biblical orthodoxy, but to edify, instruct, and protect God’s people entrusted to our care. It is our task, our awesome responsibility, to present God’s timeless truth in a manner that assists everyday Christians to live their lives in faithful, joyful obedience to Christ. May this be true of all of us, for Christ’s glory and for the edification of his Church!