How John Calvin Made me a CatholicJun 1st, 2010 | By David Anders | Category: Featured Articles
I once heard a Protestant pastor preach a “Church History” sermon. He began with Christ and the apostles, dashed through the book of Acts, skipped over the Catholic Middle Ages and leaped directly to Wittenberg, 1517. From Luther he hopped to the English revivalist John Wesley, crossed the Atlantic to the American revivals and slid home to his own Church, Birmingham, Alabama, early 1990s. Cheers and singing followed him to the plate. The congregation loved it.
I loved it, too. I grew up in an Evangelical Church in the 1970s immersed in the myth of the Reformation. I was sure that my Church preached the gospel, which we received, unsullied, from the Reformers. After college, I earned a doctorate in Church history so I could flesh out the story and prove to all the poor Catholics that they were in the wrong Church. I never imagined my own founder, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, would point me to the Catholic faith.
I was raised a Presbyterian, the Church that prides itself on Calvinist origins, but I didn’t care much about denominations. My Church practiced a pared-down, Bible-focused, born-again spirituality shared by most Evangelicals. I went to a Christian college and then a seminary where I found the same attitude. Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Charismatics worshiped and studied side-by-side, all committed to the Bible but at odds on how to interpret it. But our differences didn’t bother us. Disagreements over sacraments, Church structures, and authority were less important to us than a personal relationship with Christ and fighting the Catholic Church. This is how we understood our common debt to the Reformation.
When I finished seminary, I moved on to Ph.D. studies in Reformation history. My focus was on John Calvin (1509-1564), the French Reformer who made Geneva, Switzerland into a model Protestant city. I chose Calvin not just because of my Presbyterian background, but because most American Protestants have some relationship to him. The English Puritans, the Pilgrim Fathers, Jonathan Edwards and the “Great Awakening” – all drew on Calvin and then strongly influenced American religion. My college and seminary professors portrayed Calvin as a master theologian, our theologian. I thought that if I could master Calvin, I would really know the faith.
Strangely, mastering Calvin didn’t lead me anywhere I expected. To begin with, I decided that I really didn’t like Calvin. I found him proud, judgmental and unyielding. But more importantly, I discovered that Calvin upset my Evangelical view of history. I had always assumed a perfect continuity between the Early Church, the Reformation and my Church. The more I studied Calvin, however, the more foreign he seemed, the less like Protestants today. This, in turn, caused me to question the whole Evangelical storyline: Early Church – Reformation – Evangelical Christianity, with one seamless thread running straight from one to the other. But what if Evangelicals really weren’t faithful to Calvin and the Reformation? The seamless thread breaks. And if it could break once, between the Reformation and today, why not sooner, between the Early Church and the Reformation? Was I really sure the thread had held even that far?
Calvin shocked me by rejecting key elements of my Evangelical tradition. Born-again spirituality, private interpretation of Scripture, a broad-minded approach to denominations – Calvin opposed them all. I discovered that his concerns were vastly different, more institutional, even more Catholic. Although he rejected the authority of Rome, there were things about the Catholic faith he never thought about leaving. He took for granted that the Church should have an interpretive authority, a sacramental liturgy and a single, unified faith.
These discoveries faced me with important questions. Why should Calvin treat these “Catholic things” with such seriousness? Was he right in thinking them so important? And if so, was he justified in leaving the Catholic Church? What did these discoveries teach me about Protestantism? How could my Church claim Calvin as a founder, and yet stray so far from his views? Was the whole Protestant way of doing theology doomed to confusion and inconsistency?
Understanding the Calvinist Reformation
Calvin was a second-generation Reformer, twenty-six years younger than Martin Luther (1483-1546). This meant that by the time he encountered the Reformation, it had already split into factions. In Calvin’s native France, there was no royal support for Protestantism and no unified leadership. Lawyers, humanists, intellectuals, artisans and craftsman read Luther’s writings, as well as the Scriptures, and adapted whatever they liked.
This variety struck Calvin as a recipe for disaster. He was a lawyer by training, and always hated any kind of social disorder. In 1549, he wrote a short work (Advertissement contre l’astrologie) in which he complained about this Protestant diversity:
Every state [of life] has its own Gospel, which they forge for themselves according to their appetites, so that there is as great a diversity between the Gospel of the court, and the Gospel of the justices and lawyers, and the Gospel of merchants, as there is between coins of different denominations.
I began to grasp the difference between Calvin and his descendants when I discovered his hatred of this theological diversity. Calvin was drawn to Luther’s theology, but he complained about the “crass multitude” and the “vulgar plebs” who turned Luther’s doctrine into an excuse for disorder. He wrote his first major work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), in part to address this problem.
Calvin got an opportunity to put his plans into action when he moved to Geneva, Switzerland. He first joined the Reformation in Geneva in 1537, when the city had only recently embraced Protestantism. Calvin, who had already begun to write and publish on theology, was unsatisfied with their work. Geneva had abolished the Mass, kicked out the Catholic clergy, and professed loyalty to the Bible, but Calvin wanted to go further. His first request to the city council was to impose a common confession of faith (written by Calvin) and to force all citizens to affirm it.
Calvin’s most important contribution to Geneva was the establishment of the Consistory – a sort of ecclesiastical court- to judge the moral and theological purity of his parishioners. He also persuaded the council to enforce a set of “Ecclesiastical Ordinances” that defined the authority of the Church, stated the religious obligations of the laity, and imposed an official liturgy. Church attendance was mandatory. Contradicting the ministers was outlawed as blasphemy. Calvin’s Institutes would eventually be declared official doctrine.
Calvin’s lifelong goal was to gain the right to excommunicate “unworthy” Church members. The city council finally granted this power in 1555 when French immigration and local scandal tipped the electorate in his favor. Calvin wielded it frequently. According to historian William Monter, one in fifteen citizens was summoned before the Consistory between 1559 and 1569, and up to one in twenty five was actually excommunicated.1 Calvin used this power to enforce his single vision of Christianity and to punish dissent.
A Calvinist Discovers John Calvin
I studied Calvin for years before the real significance of what I was learning began to sink in. But I finally realized that Calvin, with his passion for order and authority, was fundamentally at odds with the individualist spirit of my Evangelical tradition. Nothing brought this home to me with more clarity than his fight with the former Carmelite monk, Jerome Bolsec.
In 1551, Bolsec, a physician and convert to Protestantism, entered Geneva and attended a lecture on theology. The topic was Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the teaching that God predetermines the eternal fate of every soul. Bolsec, who believed firmly in “Scripture alone” and “faith alone,” did not like what he heard. He thought it made God into a tyrant. When he stood up to challenge Calvin’s views, he was arrested and imprisoned.
What makes Bolsec’s case interesting is that it quickly evolved into a referendum on Church authority and the interpretation of Scripture. Bolsec, just like most Evangelicals today, argued that he was a Christian, that he had the Holy Spirit and that, therefore, he had as much right as Calvin to interpret the Bible. He promised to recant if Calvin would only prove his doctrine from the Scriptures. But Calvin would have none of it. He ridiculed Bolsec as a trouble maker (Bolsec generated a fair amount of public sympathy), rejected his appeal to Scripture, and called on the council to be harsh. He wrote privately to a friend that he wished Bolsec were “rotting in a ditch.”2
What most Evangelicals today don’t realize is that Calvin never endorsed private or lay interpretation of the Bible. While he rejected Rome’s claim to authority, he made striking claims for his own authority. He taught that the “Reformed” pastors were successors to the prophets and apostles, entrusted with the task of authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. He insisted that laypeople should suspend judgment on difficult matters and “hold unity with the Church.”3
Calvin took very seriously the obligation of the laity to submit and obey. “Contradicting the ministers” was one of the most common reasons to be called before the Consistory and penalties could be severe. One image in particular sticks in my mind. April, 1546. Pierre Ameaux, a citizen of Geneva, was forced to crawl to the door of the Bishop’s residence, with his head uncovered and a torch in his hand. He begged the forgiveness of God, of the ministers and of the city council. His crime? He contradicted the preaching of Calvin. The council, at Calvin’s urging, had decreed Ameaux’s public humiliation as punishment.
Ameaux was not alone. Throughout the 1540s and 1550s, Geneva’s city council repeatedly outlawed speaking against the ministers or their theology. Furthermore, when Calvin gained the right to excommunicate, he did not hesitate to use it against this “blasphemy.” Evangelicals today, unaccustomed to the use of excommunication, may underestimate the severity of the penalty, but Calvin understood it in the most severe terms. He repeatedly taught that the excommunicated were “estranged from the Church, and thus, from Christ.”4
If Calvin’s ideas on Church authority were a surprise to me, his thoughts on the sacraments were shocking. Unlike Evangelicals, who treat the theology of the sacraments as one of the “non-essentials,” Calvin thought they were of the utmost importance. In fact, he taught that a proper understanding of the Eucharist was necessary for salvation. This was the thesis of his very first theological treatise in French (Petit traicté de la Sainte Cène, 1541). Frustrated by Protestant disagreement over the Eucharist, Calvin wrote the text in an attempt to unify the movement around one single doctrine.
Evangelicals are used to finding assurance in their “personal relationship with Christ,” and not through membership in any Church or participation in any ritual. Calvin, however, taught that the Eucharist provides “undoubted assurance of eternal life.”5 And while Calvin stopped short of the Catholic, or even the Lutheran, understanding of the Eucharist, he still retained a doctrine of the Real Presence. He taught that the Eucharist provides a “true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord” and he rejected the notion that communicants receive “the Spirit only, omitting flesh and blood.”6.
Calvin understood baptism in much the same way. He never taught the Evangelical doctrine that one is “born again” through personal conversion. Instead, he associated regeneration with baptism and taught that to neglect baptism was to refuse salvation. He also allowed no diversity over the manner of its reception. Anabaptists in Geneva (those who practiced adult baptism) were jailed and forced to repent. Calvin taught that Anabaptists, by refusing the sacrament to their children, had placed themselves outside the faith.
Calvin once persuaded an Anabaptist named Herman to enter the Reformed Church. His description of the event leaves no doubt about the difference between Calvin and the modern Evangelical. Calvin wrote:
Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.7
Evangelicals don’t understand this type of language. They are accustomed to treating “the Church” as a purely spiritual reality, represented across denominations or wherever “true believers” are gathered. This was not Calvin’s view. His was “the true Church,” marked off by infant baptism, outside of which there was no salvation.
Making Sense of Evangelicalism
Studying Calvin raised important questions about my Evangelical identity. How could I reject as unimportant issues that my own founder considered essential? I had blithely and confidently dismissed baptism, Eucharist, and the Church itself as “merely symbolic,” “purely spiritual” or, ultimately, unnecessary. In seminary, too, I found an environment where professors disagreed entirely over these issues and no one cared! With no final court of appeal, we had devolved into a “lowest common denominator” theology.
Church history taught me that this attitude was a recent development. John Calvin had high expectations for the unity and catholicity of the faith, and for the centrality of Church and sacrament. But Calvinism couldn’t deliver it. Outside of Geneva, without the force of the state to impose one version, Calvinism itself splintered into factions. In her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism, historian Janice Knight details how the process unfolded very early in American Calvinism. 8
It is not surprising that by the eighteenth century, leading Calvinist Churchmen on both sides of the Atlantic had given up on the quest for complete unity. One new approach was to stress the subjective experience of “new birth” (itself a novel doctrine of Puritan origins) as the only necessary concern. The famous revivalist George Whitefield typified this view, going so far as to insist that Christ did not want agreement in other matters. He said:
It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it.9
Since the eighteenth century, Calvinism has devolved more and more into a narrow set of questions about the nature of salvation. Indeed, in most people’s minds the word Calvinism implies only the doctrine of predestination. Calvin himself has become mainly a shadowy symbol, a myth that Evangelicals call upon only to support a spurious claim to historical continuity.
The greatest irony in my historical research was realizing that Evangelicalism, far from being the direct descendant of Calvin, actually represents the failure of Calvinism. Whereas Calvin spent his life in the quest for doctrinal unity, modern Evangelicalism is rooted in the rejection of that quest. Historian Alister McGrath notes that the term “Evangelical,” which has circulated in Christianity for centuries, took on its peculiar modern sense only in the twentieth century, with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (1942). This society was formed to allow coordinated public action on the part of disparate groups that agreed on “the new birth,” but disagreed on just about everything else.10
A Calvinist Discovers Catholicism
I grew up believing that Evangelicalism was “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” I learned from Protestant Church history that it was hardly older than Whitefield, and certainly not the faith of the Protestant Reformers. What to do? Should I go back to the sixteenth century and become an authentic Calvinist? I already knew that Calvin himself, for all his insistence on unity and authority, had been unable to deliver the goods. His own followers descended into anarchy and individualism.
I realized instead that Calvin was part of the problem. He had insisted on the importance of unity and authority, but had rejected any rational or consistent basis for that authority. He knew that Scripture totally alone, Scripture interpreted by each individual conscience, was a recipe for disaster. But his own claim to authority was perfectly arbitrary. Whenever he was challenged, he simply appealed to his own conscience, or to his subjective experience, but he denied that right to Bolsec and others. As a result, Calvin became proud and censorious, brutal with his enemies, and intolerant of dissent. In all my reading of Calvin, I don’t recall him ever apologizing for a mistake or admitting an error.
It eventually occurred to me that Calvin’s attitude contrasted sharply with what I had found in the greatest Catholic theologians. Many of them were saints, recognized for their heroic charity and humility. Furthermore, I knew from reading them, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis de Sales, that they denied any personal authority to define doctrine. They deferred willingly, even joyfully, to the authority of Pope and council. They could maintain the biblical ideal of doctrinal unity (1 Corinthians 1:10), without claiming to be the source of that unity.
These saints also challenged the stereotypes about Catholics that I had grown up with. Evangelicals frequently assert that they are the only ones to have “a personal relationship with Christ.” Catholics, with their rituals and institutions, are supposed to be alienated from Christ and Scripture. I found instead men and women who were single-minded in their devotion to Christ and inebriated with His grace.
The Catholic theologian who had the greatest impact on me was undoubtedly St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). All of my life, I heard the claim that “the Early Church” had been Protestant and Evangelical. My seminary professors and even Calvin and Luther always pointed to St. Augustine as their great Early Church hero. When I finally dug into Augustine, however, I discovered a thorough-going Catholicism. Augustine loved Scripture and spoke profoundly about God’s grace, but he understood these in the fully Catholic sense. Augustine destroyed the final piece of my Evangelical view of history.
In the end, I began to see that everything good about Evangelicalism was already present in the Catholic Church – the warmth and devotion of Evangelical spirituality, the love of Scripture and even, to some extent, the Evangelical tolerance for diversity. Catholicism has always tolerated schools of thought, various theologies and different liturgies. But unlike Evangelicalism, the Catholic Church has a logical and consistent way to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. The Church’s Magisterium, established by Christ (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 28:18-20), has provided that source of unity that Calvin sought to replace.
One of the most satisfying things about my discovery of the Catholic Church is that it fully satisfied my desire for historical rootedness. I began to study history believing in that continuity of faith and trying desperately to find it. Even when I thought I had found it in the Reformation, I still had to contend with the enormous gulf of the Catholic Middle Ages. Now, thanks to what Calvin taught me, there are no more missing links. On November 16, 2003 I finally embraced the faith “once for all delivered to the Saints.” I entered the Catholic Church.
- “The Consistory of Geneva, 1559-1569,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 38 (1976): 467-484. [↩]
- Letter to Madame de Cany, 1552. [↩]
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960: 3.2.3, 4.3.4. [↩]
- Institutes 4.12.9. [↩]
- Institutes 4.17.32. [↩]
- Institutes 4.17.17; 4.17.19. [↩]
- Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111. [↩]
- Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. [↩]
- Cited in Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003, 14. [↩]
- Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995, 17-23. [↩]