John Calvin and the Church

Dear friends :),

History is very important. Simply absent of theology, we must recognise the facts of history. I have a few questions based on John Calvin’s idea of the Church. :o

Calvin makes several very interesting points about the Church in this fourth book of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” that are contrary to my expectations. It was written near to his death, and it’s somewhat less ‘protestant’ than his experiments in Geneva. There is a distinctly non-Papal flavour, but several points sound downright ancient and episcopal. His chapters are separated into Sections, and each section is numbered, so here are a few summaries of sections I’ve written:

  1. Beginning with “[the Church,] into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood and, finally, attain perfection to the faith.”

  2. “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam Ecclesiam” is taken to mean “I believe one … Church”, not “I believe in one Church”, since the Church is an instrument of God, not to be believed in of itself. He also says that the children of God in the Church are often indistinguishable from brute animals because of our sinfulness and greed, so we cannot be trusted. He says we need not believe “in” the Church, for we believe in God. He stresses the requirement of unity with all members of Christ’s Body, past and present; elect and militant.

  3. He says that the Nicene Creed forces us to conclude that “every member must maintain brotherly concord with all the children of God, give due authority to the Church, and conduct ourselves as sheep of the flock”. “Christ would not allow His faithful followers to be severed from Him, just as He would never allow members of His own body to be torn apart … so long as we remain in the bosom of the Church, we are sure that the truth will remain with us”.

  4. He says that membership in the Church is required and necessary in Earthly life, as it keeps us in the framework that brings us to eternal life, allows forgiveness of sins, and brings us to salvation. He concludes that holiness is always in those who are His people, and that the abandonment of the Church is “fatal”.

  5. “We see that God, who might perfect His people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church”. “All who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church deserve to perish of hunger and famine”. “Just as He appointed prophets to speak as angels in the Old, so He appoints masters and priests to speak His word in the New”. (But they must remain holy and do the works of faith in Christ, if they are truly masters - never to be evil)

He also says that pride leads some men to believe they can study in private, ignoring public meetings of the faithful and preaching. He says that many wicked errors spring up in the mind when this state is reached.


  1. Calvin points out St. Paul’s words that he (Paul) was believed by the gentiles not only because he taught right doctrine, but because the Spirit of God was in him. Paul had “power”, not only the word. He seems to say that true priests and pastors must be listened to just as one listens to God, but only if they are legitimate by their moral actions and holy life (i.e. not just by ordination).

  2. The True Church is distinguished by its members: who are “initiated” by baptism, participate in the Lord’s Supper, and agree to uphold the ministry of preaching Christ’s holy word. “In this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the outward name and appearance”. He says that virtue and holiness make the pastor, not the ordination, because there have just been so many evil pastors and bishops that ordination alone cannot be said to impute anything special.

  3. “We acknowledge, as members of the Church, those who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite us in acknowledging the same God and Christ”.

  4. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in the midst of them’. He says that all faithful across the world are tied together by one doctrine and one common religion. Each individual church in a town or a village, he says, comes to the Church when it agrees with the common doctrine and religion. Unity is ensured by bishops in communion with each other and Christ. “If they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked within the Church”.

  5. “For several centuries, the pure preaching of the word disappeared due to the wiles of Satan. He is always of a mind to sew evil thoughts in the minds of the faithful, and to spread discord.”

He says a church’s validity rests on the virtue or lack of virtue of clerics, apparently. Why should a priest or bishop remain in his office if he is evil? Surely even the mark/character is lost when someone is so bad as to scandalise others by his bad actions. There have been so many kidnappings, whore-houses, prostitute-hiring parties, wars, thefts, assassinations, and plots in the Catholic Church’s public history, that I find it hard to trust the Church to be “set apart” and holy at all times. The Early Church, so Calvin says, was composed of holy apostles who were chaste, humble, held things in common, and were not tyrannical. He understands St. Paul as saying that those who act unholy and do evil things are simply outside the Church, no matter who they are.

Calvin would say that Gregory the Great was the last true Pope in the proper episcopal sense, and that the Church somehow survived on Earth via other faithful bishops while Rome became more ridiculous. He sees the Roman Pontiff as having supremacy of honour, not of power, and that all bishops are equally shepherds with the Roman Pontiff. Here is a syllogism: If any bishop claims infallibility or supremacy of power, he says, it is beyond his legitimate office as a bishop, because a bishop leads only his own diocese. As the Roman Pontiff is a bishop, these ultramontane power-grabs of the last 1500 years (1000 years for Calvin) must be outside his Roman See, and therefore the Roman Pontiffs since about the AD 800’s have been heretics by excess (whereas Cathars and gnostics, who deny the need for bishops at all, are heretics by defect).

These are his opinions and understanding of history, so far as I can tell. He says, in Chapter 2, that “apostolic succession” is only a pretense to justify power. His example is the Orthodox Church: they most definitely have valid apostolic succession, yet Rome excommunicated them in 1054. This very fact, Calvin says, invalidates the argument that apostolic succession, in an unbroken line of bishops, is the principle of unity. There must be more than that.

Any opinions? I’d really like some help here, given that my baptism is scheduled only 3 weeks away. If something is true, it should be followed; if something is false, it should not only be ignored, but fought against.

There are quite a few errors in what you posted from Calvin.

Could you be more precise? Exactly what are your questions and concerns?

I suppose my question/concern is: is it true? If not, why not? What makes it wrong? What gives it the mark of falsity? Why should priests who become evil not lose God’s power of ordination (as the Church teaches), just as the Lord no longer dwelt in the Temple when Israel had become debauched and evil (and allowed Assyria to take Jerusalem)? Is the mystical mark of ordination so perfecting that it ignores immorality in the ordained person?

Why did the One, HOLY, Catholic and Apostolic Church display such intense corruption and evil during the Late Dark Ages, and again in the Late Middle Ages? Can it have been the Church and remained so despite the immensity of the evils perpetrated? History shows the absolute contempt that Protestants and all heretics were held in by everyone from the Pope down to laity; laity were encouraged to go about slaughtering heretics in frenzied riots, or were at least not disdained when they did so. Disagreement not repented of was met with burning and torture.

I think Calvin is saying: how can we see Christ in the Catholic Church universally? Its tendency seems to be towards abuse of the same power ostensibly given it by our Lord. It’s really a stumbling block to read the absolute carnage wrought by the Catholic Church during some portions of European History. It’s a sign of contradiction! :confused: I guess the question really is: is the true Christian Church expected to be holy 100% of the time, or is it the true Christian Church even when run by totally brutal assassins? Could Peter have remained prince of the apostles if he went around killing everyone?

As Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Organizationally - His Church unfortuneately has to be run by a multitude of fallable human beings.

However, the importance of the organization of the Catholic Church is that it operates on the reliance and codepenence of three principles: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium (Her bishops and priests).

Most Catholics who jettisoned from the Church over the child abuse scandal reacting to the human condition of Christ’s Chruch. In effect, they threw the “baby Jesus” out with the bath water."

All churches should be hospitals for sinners. The problem today, many churches condone sin (in direct opposition to Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture).

Quote from Bishop Fulton Sheen

If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hated.

My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world as Christ was hated by the world.

Look for the Church that is accused of being behind the times, as our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned.

Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth.

Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils.

Look for the Church which, in seasons of bigotry, men say must be destroyed in the name of God as men crucified Christ and thought they had done a service to God.

Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because He called Himself the Truth.

Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men.

Look for the Church which amid the confusions of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its Voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly it is other worldly.

Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself.

But only that which is Divine can be infinitely hated and infinitely loved. Therefore the Church is Divine…the Catholic Church is the only Church existing today which goes back to the time of Christ.

History is so very clear on this point, it is curious how many miss its obviousness.

Calvin is merely putting new clothes on the ancient heresy of Donatism which St. Augustine, among others, refuted:

Consider that if each priest must be perfect than the Holy Eucharist depends on the sanctity of each individual priest rather than on the authority and power of Christ Who continues His saving work despite the fallibility of His servants.

The answer to your last question, and most of the others, is “yes”. Here’s why:


If a Church leader is guilty of gross immorality, does his sin invalidate his position or authority?

Many, if not most, Protestants would say that it does, and they often use this line of reasoning to justify their denial of the authority of the Catholic Church. They cite historical events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition or reign of the Borgia Popes as evidence that the Church has lost its claim to moral and spiritual authority.

Such a response, however, is unbiblical. For example, Scripture states that Jesus knew “from the beginning” who would betray him – namely Judas, whom Jesus calls a “devil” (cf. John 6:64–71). This fact is significant, since Judas was selected as an apostle even though Jesus knew that he was corrupt.

Another example would be found in Jesus’ teaching on “Moses’ seat” found in the opening verses of Matthew 23: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.’” (Matthew 23:1-3)

“Moses’ seat” is a phrase that referred to a position of legitimate teaching authority held by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Later, Jesus condemned these men as “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,” and a “brood of vipers.” But in the passage above, Jesus specifically instructed the crowds and his disciples to obey these leaders – despite their corruption – because of the authority of their position. That is sobering stuff.

If it were true that immorality invalidated a religious leader’s authority, then why did Jesus command his followers to “obey and do everything” the scribes and Pharisees tell them? Jesus merely admonished his followers not to follow their hypocritical example. There is not even the slightest hint that their positions had been forfeited or abrogated because of their hypocrisy or immorality. If anything, the reverse is true because Jesus validated these leaders’ office by telling people to obey them. From this, we see that sin and corruption found in the individual office holders has no impact whatsoever on the authority of the office itself.

In the Parable of the Weeds found in Matthew 13, Jesus tells His disciples to anticipate corruption within the Church. He said:

Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. "The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ (Matthew 13:24-30)

Notice it is not the world at large that is being described but rather the “kingdom of heaven” or Church that is portrayed as the field containing both wheat and weeds. Jesus does not indicate that weeds (sinners) should be uprooted from the field (Church) until the separation done at the time of the final harvest.

The Church is not a paradise for saints who are already perfected but a hospital for the spiritually sick who are being healed.

Jesus clearly taught that sins of individual Church leaders do not invalidate the authority of the positions those leaders hold. These sins, whether real or imagined, do not undermine the legitimate authority of the Catholic Church and do not provide an excuse for those who refuse to acknowledge and obey her. The authority given by God to the Church and the office of the Papacy is the same today as it was in the days of Peter, Linus, Anacletus and Clement because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

It’s a queer sort of hospital that employs doctors who are chronically ill with the same infectious disease they’re attempting to stop. The “hospital for sinners” argument doesn’t work very well when you see the physicians themselves engaging in the “Pornocracy” and the institutional evils of the late Medieval Church. Those were “old times”, yes, but they show that it’s possible for great evils to occur in the Church by Church officials. What separates them, as the Holy Church, from virtuous protestants or Orthodox?

Obviously we are not donatists, but my goodness… you’d at least expect a man of priestly calling to want to be virtuous. In real history, though, you see priests being trusted with such childlike faith that they could get away with anything, and they did. It’s just so depressing… at least the Anglicans say their structure is more practical than mystically holy. It somewhat excuses them from charges of hypocrisy. :frowning:

I’d really quite like to be a member of the true Church. Your argument about Moses’ seat is very compelling, indeed. :blush:

Were ALL of the priests in olden times corrupt? Are ALL of the priests corrupt today?

If not, what percentage of all the clergy do you suppose are as evil as you claim them to be? Five percent? Fifty percent?

Methinks you have been reading too many Protestant history books, my friend.

“Initiated” by baptism? Rather “sins are remitted and they receive the Holy Ghost by baptism?” “Participate in the Lord’s Supper?” Rather “receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.” “Virtue and holiness make the pastor, not the ordination” Rather, “the sacrament of Holy Orders make the priest.”

So we see in this single paragraph three attacks on the authority of the Church. While Calvin speaks of “sacraments” in a separate paragraph, his words here show his true beliefs about them.

Without Holy Orders there is no Church. It doesn’t depend on the virtue and holiness of the priests – though the Church has (and has had) many, many holy priests – it depends on the authority of the Church to ordain priests, who then have the power and authority to administer the true sacraments. Without this you are left with the nebulous “Invisible Church” that Calvin alludes to in a later paragraph.

But are there any specific points here that you would like to discuss?

WFS5801 and Mr. Carson, you have both put my own doubts and those criticisms of Mr. Calvin to shame. Let us pray for the repose of his immortal soul. :slight_smile:

We need to be careful not to get caught up in the media frenzy when a priest is accused. For every study I’ve seen there is no difference between priests and Protestant pastors when it comes to abuse charges.

Here is site established by Protestants to keep tract of their own.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit