Did Calvin Advocate Praying To Or For The Dead?

Nov 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Sometimes one of the most helpful ways to consider why we accept or reject claims of Protestantism or Catholicism is to step outside of the argument. There is so much heat and emotion that covers these issues, that it’s very helpful to go back to the basics and read the earliest debates.

I’ve found this helpful in particular instances: there is the letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X which caused me to raise an eyebrow or two (or three, if that were possible), and there is St. Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which was acclaimed by C.S. Lewis to be a masterpiece in the art of writing dialogues. Recently, another dialogue has caught my attention, that of a letter by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto. I’ve only begun to scratch its surface and would encourage all those who care about this divide to go to such primary sources for inspiration and, as I said, a means to take personal affinities and emotions and place them on the back-burner.

So let’s look at one part of Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadoleto–there’s an eyebrow or two that will be raised, methinks.

Decrying what he thought to be one of the most egregious abuses of Catholics, Calvin states:

As to purgatory, we know that ancient churches made some mention of the dead in their prayers, but it was done seldom and soberly, and consisted only of a few words. It was, in short, a mention in which it was obvious that nothing more was meant than to attest in passing the affection which was felt toward the dead. As yet, the architects were unborn, by whom your purgatory was built; and who afterwards enlarged it to such a width, and raised it to such a height, that it now forms the chief prop of your kingdom. You yourself know what a hydra of errors thence emerged; you know what tricks superstition has at its own hand devised, wherewith to disport itself; you know how many impostures avarice has here fabricated, in order to milk men of every class; you know how great detriment it has done to piety. For, not to mention how much true worship has in consequence decayed, the worst result certainly was, that while all, without any comand from God, were vying with each other in helping the dead, they utterly neglected the congenial offices of charity, which are so strongly enjoined.

Note what Calvin is willing to admit-mentioning the dead in their prayers. His main issue is that in the 16th century, these prayers were not done “seldom and soberly”. The “expansion” of the understanding of the estate of those who have gone on to their eternal rest was decried because it was “abused”.

Which leads to the big question–what would he really defend in terms of prayers to or for the dead? Was this rhetorical sleight of hand, or was he open to a more humble appeal to or on behalf of the faithful departed?

If he wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water, how is he not guilty of committing the error of “abusus no tollit usum” (namely, that the abuse of something does not eradicate its use)?

Thoughts? Objections?

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  1. Admitting the fact that something was practised in the ancient Church has no bearing whatsoever upon whether it is justifiable in the light of scripture. The former is all that Calvin admitted in the quotation you provide; his discussion was on the nature of those prayers, that they were not such an abuse as the contemporary and indeed current Roman form, yet in so doing he does not condone even that. It is the logical equivalent of saying “thirty years ago, there were very few thefts” – indeed it is to say that the situation thirty years ago was more proper than that of today, but it does by no means imply that the few thefts that happened at that time were proper in their own right.

    Bearing in mind to whom the letter was addressed, it is likely that the deliberate reference and agreement to short prayer for the dead in the ancient church aimed to disarm the cardinal who would otherwise have attempted to refute Calvin’s point by stating prayer for the dead was established even in the ancient church. By the use of implied argument Calvin ensures that if the cardinal uses such an argument he must either address the contemporary abuse or make a claim for similar abuse in the ancient church and hence consistency of practice, for it would be very weak argument to suggest justification based on historical usage if it is conceded that the usage significantly differs from the historical form.

  2. Vince,
    Thanks for your comments. I would argue that Calvin’s point about there being an ancient practice of prayers speaks to something quite different from the theft analogy which you offer. He is offering a contrast in quality, not quantity. I see no condemnation of the ancient Church, explicit or implicit and thus there isn’t a strong comparison of degree to denounce at his present time without saying that whatever happened in the ancient Church was deplorable. The “but” is the key to my reading it in this manner. It reads as if what is being practiced in the 16th century is of a different sort as compared to what was done by the ancient Church. He wants to cut the Cardinal off from appealing to the practice of the early Church, but he does not spell out that this early practice is bad or good. This leads me to ask this question: what was done on behalf of the dead in the early Church? Upon what basis does one segregate that from what is done today by Catholics, and of course what is not done by Reformed successors of Calvin?


    p.s. My family’s Thanksgiving break essentially is beginning now so apologies in advance for delayed responses/interaction in the future.

  3. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the reply. To me, it makes no difference what the early church did or did not do and so the question of segregation or differentiation does not arise as anything other than of purely academic interest.

    Yet, if I were to venture an answer, I would look at Calvin’s words “to attest in passing the affection which was felt”. Here there is no reference to praying for the soul of the departed or of any supposed benefit to the departed. I would suggest that what Calvin references is equivalent to “Lord, thank you for the life of N, now departed in faith and whom we loved”. This is in contrast to what by means of the mention of purgatory I think he is implying, and was both contemporary and is current Roman style “Lord, we pray that you permit your servant N to rest in peace” or “Lord, have mercy on the soul of N”.

    I do not, in saying this, make any statement upon the actual usage of the ancient church but only on the extent of doctrine, as I see it, expressed within the quotation you give. In interpreting a letter, the context is always very important; particularly in this case, that is forms part of an argument against current practice rather than an effort to determine the theological basis of the ancient church.


  4. Hey Jonathan,

    Interesting point. I went back and read some of Calvin’s remarks on prayers for the dead in the Institutes and it has raised a question that my own brief experience in the Church can’t answer. It seems that Calvin rejects prayers for the dead for two reasons; the lack of scriptural support for the practice, and the trajectory which the practice had taken over the course of history. My impression is that Calvin’s experience of the Mass must have had significantly more prayers for the dead then the various Catholic masses I’ve experienced. Prayers for the dead at the parish I attend never last more than thirty seconds. Would you agree that prayers for the dead do not occupy the place of importance that they did in the late medieval Church? Why the change? Did the practice diminish in response to the Reformation? If it did diminish, then isn’t that itself a concession to Calvin and the Reformers, that maybe they did have a point?

    Thanks, Jeremy Tate

  5. Jeremy,

    The reformers did have valid points regarding the abuses associated with Indulgences being sold and the Church addressed these points during the counter-reformation period (as it is called).

    But the month of November drives home several points regarding prayers for the dead in the Catholic Church:

    1) The Church still prays for the faithful departed often in the liturgy (not only in November too)
    2) She encourages us to assist the dead in our personal prayer life, almsgiving and fasting
    3) The Church still grants Indulgences out of her treasury of merits

    You may not have a parish that focuses on these practices but mine does. It is of great comfort to know that we can help our loved ones and that they can help us too. But you must apply these practices and see if there are positive results in your own life.

  6. Dr. Deane,

    Thank you for a very insigtful post. As a former Protestant – Catholic Convert it gave me a moments pause. Even as a Reformed “Baptist”, I wasn’t a “fan” of John Calvin.

    IMHO, Calvin’s Institutes, letters, commentaries, etc., that inspire many still today are just that – Calvin’s writings. He wasn’t a prophet (even if Beza called him that after his death as some have suggested). I don’t care if he thought we shouldn’t pray for the dead or that the ancient church didn’t. He said none of the books of the “deuterocanonicals” were ever written in Hebrew , and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) proved him wrong all these years later.

    When anyone says, “Calvin said” it means no more to me than someone saying, “Henry VIII” said…”
    Moderate appropriately because I think my disdain for this Early Protestant Church Father is too evident.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Dr. Deane,

  7. In this sample, Calvin seems hyper-attentive to the practical outcome of a theology and not so interested in the substance of the mystery it contains. He *might* reject in principle those prayers for the dead that go beyond expressing affection. But, he hasn’t explicitly said so in this space. Was Calvin a Nominalist?

    Thanks for posting this and enjoy your Thanksgiving!


  8. In my opinion,I feel Calvin was trying to water down the weight of the ancients regarding prayers for the dead.If we look at the testimony of the inscriptions and the testimony of the fathers,we would discover that the ancients believe that the prayers of the living is profitable for the dead.That was one of the reasons why they prayed for their dead.But Calvin would not have any of that so he tries to interpret the action of the ancients as nothing more than a show of affection towards the dead(” It was, in short, a mention in which it was obvious that nothing more was meant than to attest in passing the affection which was felt toward the dead”).

  9. Chaka,
    Thanks for your comment. Calvin may have been trying to interpret the action of the ancients in a manner that makes their practice more “innocuous”/less “presumptuous” than the practice of his contemporaries, but his action still presupposes what is undeniable historically. And that historical issue is the key one—once we leave the realm of abstract notions and go to the actual practices of the Church, there is an impasse that the Protestant faces. What’s interesting is that Calvin almost sounds like he misses the good old days when the Church Fathers prayed to the dead, but just not with the force of the prayers he heard of in his day.

  10. Jonathan;

    That the ancient practice may have been X, Y or Z is only referred to by Calvin in order to anticipate the response of the Bishop that “X, Y or Z was practiced in the the early church.” It does not indicate that Calvin establishes doctrine from the actions of the early Church for it is undeniable that to some extent even the early church was corrupt – even if that corruption was less than the corruption at the time of Calvin or even today.

    That is to say; the historical use argument works for a Roman Catholic; but not for a protestant. Just like with papal infallibility in which something infallibly declared is binding on a Roman Catholic but still only a flawed interpretation or opinion to the protestant. Unless the underlying doctrine of historical use is present, the doctrines which arise from it remain unfounded.


  11. In the ‘ancient practice’ category, do not forget to include that Jesus is just one of many essential spirits, that Jesus is not divine, that Christians are to be circumcised into the Mosaic covenant and keep the law, and countless other heresies that are well documented amongst the early church, and even attested to within the Bible. The fact that they were both attested to and in so doing condemned is crucial here; for the RCC accepts that these early uses in being later condemned become invalid for the establishment of doctrine, yet refuse to accept later condemnation of prayer for the dead as invalidating that historical use case.

  12. Vincent,
    Thanks for your comments.
    They raise the key question of how it is that a Protestant can make any principled acceptance or rejection of an ancient practice, whether it’s prayer for the dead, or the Canon of Scripture.

    In principle it also opens the door for some to have no problems with theological novelty because “hey, whatever was done in the early church is probably bad anyway, right?” That not all Reformed brethren do this does not dismiss the concept which is embraced by more evangelical types.

    Your second response hinges on a distrust of ancient practices, by associating prayers to/for the dead with heresies. But that’s not really what Calvin said. Let’s go back to his statement:

    “As to purgatory, we know that ancient churches made some mention of the dead in their prayers, but it was done seldom and soberly, and consisted only of a few words. “

    Calvin made a qualified historical difference between the practice of the 1500s and set it in distinction from the practice of the ancient churches, not from a heretic here or a heretic there. And note that he didn’t condemn the practice from square one.

    Ultimately, when it pays no regard to ancient practices, Protestantism can no more condemn or accept prayers for the dead as it can the new idea that one must wear purple clothing to receive grace, as Acts 16 describes how Lydia made clothing out of purple. I make this last comparison slightly in jest, but you get where I’m coming from.

    The point is that after seeing the “perspicuity” of Scripture disproven through the kaleidoscopic ways that my home churches interpreted Scripture, I wanted something more stable-this led me to Tradition. May God lead us all towards Tradition.


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