Monday, February 06, 2006

Dialogue: John Calvin's Letter to Philip Melanchthon Concerning Protestant Divisions: Its Nature, Intent, & Larger Implications

[originally uploaded on 26 November 2000]

I was challenged on Steve Ray's Catholic Message Board (November 2000) concerning this point. I responded and was then further challenged by a second person. I didn't think the point was at all disputable, but one never knows how the next person will respond. You now have the opportunity to make up your own mind what Calvin meant. Are his letters "perspicuous" enough to easily interpret? :-) My opponents' words will be in green. John Calvin's words will be in blue.

* * * * *
It is indeed important that posterity should not know of our differences; for it is indescribably ridiculous that we, who are in opposition to the whole world, should be, at the very beginning of the Reformation, at issue among ourselves.

[in Patrick F. O'Hare, The Facts About Luther, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, revised edition, 1987 (orig. Cincinnati, 1916), 293]

[Note: previously in this paper I had stated that Philip Melanchthon replied to Calvin with similar sentiments. I later discovered that this was incorrect (it was in a letter to Thomas Cranmer); see my paper on Melanchthon's tears over Protestant divisions]
"Nathan" wrote:

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***


I've come across this quote in various websites and online discussions . . . The quote, "It is indeed important that posterity should not know of our differences..." actually reads like this, "It is important that posterity should now know of our differences..." (Patrick F. O’Hare, The Facts About Luther [Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.], p. 293).

Also, that book doesn’t even give the source of that quote. Any explanations Dave? I suggest correcting it instead of continuing to cast Calvin in a deceitful light.

First of all, how do you know it is wrong, since you don't give us any primary source material (either you don't know, or foolishly refused to name it)? Perhaps your natural Protestant bias simply refuses to believe the sentiment as ostensibly written? Very curious . . .

I believe it is a typo in O'Hare's book. I had seen it somewhere else (possibly in Johannes Janssen) and should have cited that source, as O'Hare indeed has an irritating tendency to not give primary source citations.

Faced with your attempt to show that I and others are practicing deceit (interesting how you don't allow for a simple human error) with regard to Calvin, however, I did consult my book (which I obtained after writing this paper - in 1991): Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, vol. 5 of 7; edited by Jules Bonnet, translated by David Constable; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House (a Protestant publisher), 1983, 454 pages; reproduction of Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858).

The letter in question is numbered as CCCV (305) and was written to fellow "reformer" and Luther's right-hand man and successor Philip Melanchthon on 28 November 1552. It is found on pp. 375-381 of the above-named Protestant book: obviously an important and presumably trustworthy reference for Calvin's letters, unfettered by "Romanist deceitfulness" and jesuitical casuistry. The issue at hand was a disagreement about free will and limited atonement (Melanchthon had - correctly - adopted what we now call the Arminian position). The letter reads in part (bolding added):

. . . But it greatly concerns us to cherish faithfully and constantly to the end the friendship which God has sanctified by the authority of his own name, seeing that herein is involved either great advantage or great loss even to the whole Church. For you see how the eyes of many are turned upon us, so that the wicked take occasion from our dissensions to speak evil, and the weak are only perplexed by our unintelligible disputations. Nor in truth, is it of little importance to prevent the suspicion of any difference having arisen between us from being handed down in any way to posterity; for it is worse than absurd that parties should be found disagreeing on the very principles, after we have been compelled to make our departure from the world. I know and confess, moreover, that we occupy widely different positions; still, because I am not ignorant of the place in his theatre to which God has elevated me, there is no reason for my concealing that our friendship could not be interrupted without great injury to the Church . . .

And surely it is indicative of a marvellous and monstrous insensibility, that we so readily set at nought that sacred unanimity, by which we ought to be bringing back into the world the angels of heaven. Meanwhile, Satan is busy scattering here and there the seeds of discord, and our folly is made to supply much material. At length he has discovered fans of his own, for fanning into a flame the fires of discord. I shall refer to what happened to us in this Church, causing extreme pain to all the godly; and now a whole year has elapsed since we were engaged in these conflicts
. . .

[pp. 376-377; the central quotation - bolded above - is on both pages]

So much for the "deceitful" tendencies of us lowly papist apologists with regard to our presentation of John Calvin, the Unexcelled Theological Genius. All we have to do is let the man speak for himself, and observe the fruits in history of his heresies and schism.

JohnF wrote:

Is the point you are trying to make that Calvin was monomaniacally egotistical?

That wasn't my main point, but I do suspect that to some degree on many other grounds, yes. My editorial remark about Calvin's lack of humility pertained to the statement immediately before it, not the whole excerpt.

The matter at hand is a "textual argument." I (along with other Catholic apologists who were mentioned in passing) was challenged on one of my citations and I think I decisively met the challenge with an appeal to an unimpeachable primary (and Protestant) source, including much context.

Calvin in the portion you excerpt complains about "our dissension", discord, folly, conflict. And most definitely he speaks of those who are "perplexed by our unintelligible disputations".

Indeed. What's the point? The fact of Protestant dissension was apparent to all, including its founders. I have on my site many statements by Melanchthon indicating his extreme disgust over the worsening situation. He said once that it was far better under the bishops than under the caesaro-papistic Lutheran/Calvinist State-Church system of princes determining church polity. Luther passionately bemoaned and resented the fact that "there are as many beliefs as there are heads." The fact of rampant sectarianism and doctrinal chaos has always been obvious to one and all.

The causes and the solutions are what is at issue between us. Luther and Calvin apparently never figured out that it was their foundational principles which set the wheels of this sad process inexorably and inevitably in motion. The weakness is in the foundation, not the superstructure of denominationalism gone wild.

That's why it began immediately in 1521 and why Protestantism will never resolve this insurmountable difficulty; for to do so would mean necessary cessation of its essence and therefore (eventually and/or logically) its very existence. Private judgment (read theological relativism) - along with the closely-related concepts sola Scriptura and perspicuity of Scripture - is the very essence of the Protestant Rule of Faith and Protestantism, period. There is no longer any institutional Church to adjudicate the never-ending disputes. Or there are only cardboard pretenders. Apostolic succession is thrown to the winds, etc. So this sort of thing can and will never end.

Finally you yourself claim that the point of his letter was to address their disagreement.

Of course, but what's the point? Again, this was a textual challenge, and there is no question that my citation resolved the "problem."

With all this going on, there is no way anybody in his right mind could think no one would ever know.

Quite the contrary; Calvin was naive enough to believe at that early stage (1552) that his friend Melanchthon would bow to his superior wisdom and knowledge and revert to a Calvinist position in toto, and that the "problem" could be solved. I believe the underlying theme of the letter is "if you would just agree with me we could solve this thing for posterity" (precisely as Luther thought in the failed internal negotiations about the Eucharist and in other similar situations). But admittedly that is mere speculation, of course. One can extrapolate from other similar utterances of Calvin what he thought of doctrinal deviations from his self-proclaimed (and delusional) "Protestant orthodoxy." It doesn't take a rocket scientist . . . The man saw himself as "God's man for the hour."

There is nobody in his right mind who could think Calvin intended to write these things so that no one would ever know of their differences.

I didn't make that claim one way or the other. I was charged with "deceitfully" presenting the man's words, and I did not at all. I think Calvin wanted to resolve the disagreement precisely because - as he clearly expresses - he recognized the absurdity of such doctrinal disagreements, when everyone was supposed to unite against Rome and achieve a Protestant Utopia of the so-called restored "Gospel." Such is the stuff of pipe dreams. I didn't accuse Calvin of deceit (only arrogance); I was accused of it. You have it exactly backwards.

Especially since he was writing about those differences, the pain they caused etc, and he was going to lengths to describe them.

The fact of the matter (division and sectarianism), or his (rightful) distress over it is not at issue. You miss the point.

Again, we don't have enough excerpt, but I assume you concur that in the rest of the letter Calvin tried to explain the differences, perhaps tried to show how they weren't so different, and renew their friendship.

He sought to continue the friendship, but did not discuss the points of theology in any depth in this particular letter. There is no hint, however, that he would flinch from his position. He did think the two camps were very different; irreconcilably different, just as Calvinists regard (and look down their noses at) Arminians to this day.

There are implications in the letter that he thought Melanchthon was wavering based on his well-known "mild-mannered" temperament. The age-old resort to psychology as an explanation of "heresy" . . . I always get a kick out of such silly and insubstantial analyses of sincere conversions or changes of mind.

Out of context, "posterity should not know of our differences" implies the exact opposite of Calvin's intent. It deliberately deceitfully implies he was trying to be deceitful.

No, that is just you guys reading into our straightforward interpretation something which isn't there. And my second text (from a Presbyterian volume of Calvin's letters) directly contradicts your reading anyway. Why introduce the element of "deceit"? Calvin was simply embarrassed - as well he should have been - at the "absurdity" (as he put it) of such strong disagreements occurring (Reformed folks today - if they are consistent - would say Melanchthon was out of the fold; not even a "real" Protestant or Christian, based on Calvinist criteria).

Calvin - to his credit - felt this tension, and wished that it could be resolved before history got wind of it. Far from being deceitful, I think, rather, that this was a noble and laudable goal (he just didn't understand how to properly solve the problem of relativism and Protestant "epistemology"). That's my take, and it seems obvious to me.

If you want deliberate deceit you can go to the famous Philip of Hesse bigamy incident, where Luther and Philip thought that a "big lie" was the best course under the circumstances (kinda like Clinton and Gore). That's thoroughly documented, whereas this is pure conjecture on either side.

Again, out of context and in context "posterity should now know of our differences" is a better fit in every way.

Nonsense. It doesn't fit at all. Go read the excerpt again. To convince me (which isn't likely if your arguments are this weak and desperate), you would have to do a line-by-line commentary. I don't buy your view here at all. It makes no linguistic sense, as someone else pointed out. "Posterity" means "all succeeding generations; future mankind." So here's what your scenario would amount to:
People in the future should now know of our differences.
Makes a lot o' sense, huh John? There is a minor, trifling matter of the distinction between present and future tenses to be gotten over.

Since it was Calvin's whole intent to explicate those very differences.

In a private letter . . . he was referring to the public and history's reaction to the dissensions. He "got it." You don't. But what is so difficult to accept here? That Protestant divisions are scandalous? The founders of the system thought so. Why can't their "posterity" today see and grant the obvious point? This has been a problem since Day One: Luther at Worms in 1521. Private judgment and sola Scriptura inevitably produce such doctrinal relativism and ecclesiological confusion.

Matt wrote:

Just a few brief thoughts on the issue of diversity in Protestantism, raised by the email exchange you sent . . . First, it seems to me that Catholicism has enough diversity of its own. Even if there are "as many beliefs as there are heads" in Protestantism, the same is true in Catholicism--just in different areas. The church seems to be able to define certain boundaries, but within these boundaries seems to be a lot of disagreement and, sometimes, there are many differences on the pronouncements of the church itself. One could respond to this that Catholics agree on the essentials of the faith, the response is simply that Protestants do too. The variety of beliefs are not generally in the essentials. Of course there are many people going around who call themselves Protestants that believe things that are "out of bounds" on the essentials of doctrine and doing things that are out of bounds ethically. But you have that just as much in Catholicism, at least at the popular level.

I've dealt with this subject times without number on my website. I don't buy your (commonly stated) argument at all. There is an essential difference of principle.

Second, it seems that having an authoritative teaching body as the Catholic church does presents one with a problem opposite to theological relativism--the irreversible solidification of error. You might not be able to grasp this point from within your Catholic worldview, but for an outsider it is very easy to contemplate the real possibility that an authoritative teaching body, such as in the Catholic church, will definitively pronounce certain doctrines to be true which are in fact false and possible greatly in error. The result is that the faithful are bound to believe error and, in the case of the Council of Trent, can be anathematized for holding to the truth.

Of course I can grasp the point. I used to be a Protestant and it is very easy for me to get inside that worldview. Here I simply reply that it is a matter of faith (as well as Scripture and apostolic Tradition) that the Catholic believes that there is one Church instituted by Christ (of which Protestants are imperfectly a part, by virtue of baptism and common beliefs), which the Holy Spirit will prevent from falling into dogmatic error. I have the faith that God can and does do such a thing. You don't. Protestants don't believe in such a thing as a Church which God ordained, free from error. Yet you have no trouble believing in a Bible, written by sinful, fallible men, which God can nevertheless render infallible and even inspired. It seems to me that that requires just as much faith, if not more, as inspiration is a more sublime concept than infallibility.

Michael Card has a song (I think it's by him) which has a great line on why God has allowed different denominations (I don't know if that was his point, but it still speaks to that matter). In essence, when you have many different denominations it is much harder for corruption to spread.


Nonsense. This only holds if you redefine theological falsehood as not being "corruption." Remember, when contradictions are present, errors must be also, and all lies are of the devil. You guys will never be able to defend this, no matter how hard you try. It simply cannot be defended within a biblical framework. I know it troubles you down deep; all the protestations notwithstanding. It certainly troubled me when I was a Protestant, and I would have given largely the same rationale that you do. But I had never heard the far superior Catholic replies at that time.

But if there were only one "denomination" uniting all Christendom, all it takes for all of Christendom to become enslaved to serious error is the corruption of one body, not many. That is much easier.

BUT for the protection of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus' promise of the indefectibility of the Church (Mt 16:18-19 and often implied elsewhere). Again, we believe in this; you don't have enough faith to think that God can sustain an institutional, visible Church without error (strange for a system of belief which so highly emphasizes God's sovereignty and providence). I think the Catholic view is not only a far more plausible scenario, but also far more a biblical one, and spectacularly borne out by the facts of history.

Of course, I agree, that if the Catholic Church were merely human, as so many seem to think, it would have long since evolved into something else, or disappeared. But it does not. There is no institution in world history remotely like it. What in fact disappears are the rank heresies throughout history. Protestantism survives only to the extent that its life comes from the doctrines it inherited from us. Otherwise, it, too, goes liberal fairly quickly, as seen, e.g., in the change in New England from Puritanism to Unitarianism in the 18th century, or the rapid spiritual degeneration of the Netherlands since World War II, and England in the 20th century. And in all the nonsense today among many Protestants, which you and I would equally disdain.

Consequently, although it is not "ideal" for there to be so many denominations, God works in it for a good purpose (as in all things)--namely, for the preservation of His church.

He brings good out of evil; no argument there. I vehemently deny that relativism, chaos, and error per se help to preserve the "Church." A house divided against itself cannot stand. God brings good out of Protestantism despite its many serious shortcomings, not because of them.

John wrote:

Church divisions were nothing new in 1517; they plagued the Church even during the lifetime of the apostles..

Yes; schism and heresy are always problems. But only Protestantism has managed to retain trinitarianism, while forsaking apostolic succession and a host of other doctrines now regarded as "Catholic distinctives." So it is in a sort of "middle position."

1) Some of the Corinthians didn't believe in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15) and thought they had a superior gospel to that of Paul, who presented Christ crucified and told them to expect to suffer along with Him. Those guys would be proponents of the "health and welfare" gospel today;

2) The Galatians were abandoning the Gospel for works-righteousness by keeping the Law

3) The Colossians were adding a whole bunch of things to the simplicity of Christ

4) The Ephesians and the churches in Crete were troubled by Judaizers which is why Paul sent Timothy and Titus there respectively to straighten things out

5) There were even people who disputed John's eyewitness testimony and denied Jesus' humanity, which is one reason he wrote his three letters.

6) Finally, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation speak of heresies.

Of course this is true. I have made the same argument myself, but I utilize it in defense of the institutional Church, not the so-called invisible one. These things were all condemned in Scripture, whereas today Protestants defend what they call "diversity on the secondary doctrines." I immediately deny that there is such a thing as sanctioned doctrinal diversity in the NT or early Church, and that thhere is such a thing as a doctrine so "secondary" that holding it or not is of little importance.

I find no organic unity in the Church during the apostles' lifetime, so I am suspicious of any organic unity today.

You are confused between actual unity of large numbers of people making various claims, and institutional unity, bound by a common apostolic deposit and episcopacy, Councils, and a papacy.
Even within Catholicism you have a cafeteria of opposing doctrines, from those who want to go back to the Latin mass to liberals indistinguishable from the Protestant liberals who emasculated mainstream Protestantism, and every theological hue in between, including all the weirdities associated with the charismatic movement.

I've dealt with this subject times without number on my website. I don't buy your (commonly stated) argument at all. There is an essential difference of principle.

As sad as church divisions are, I fail to see that Calvin's letter to Melanchthon provides any ammunition with which to critique Protestantism.

I was challenged on the accuracy of a citation of Calvin, and questioned as to my opinion on the intent of it. That was the beginning of this exchange. My opponent has since conceded the argument, after I produced compelling primary documentary evidence (and the second challenger has virtually conceded also). In my opinion Calvin - in the letter to Melanchthon - is rightly and admirably aghast about a situation (division) which is equally alarming to us Catholics. In this instance he is agreeing with us. That's why the letter is a powerful piece of polemic for our side. Calvin is honestly admitting a certain inner contradiction in the dynamic of Protestantism - though he doesn't take it as far as I would. He doesn't see that the discord resulted from fallacious first principles, lately conceived (see the next section).

Calvin after all did not create division -

His (and Luther's) anarchical and semi-Donatist principles set the wheels in motion which made rampant sectarianism historically inevitable. I'm sure he didn't think that; nor was it his intent (as the present letter under consideration shows, I think), but I hold both he and Luther responsible for extreme naivete and irresponsibility in not anticipating what their principles of private judgment and sola Scriptura would lead to. They were arrogant and overly self-important. They thought everyone would simply agree with them and that there would be this spontaneous, marvelous unity out under the "yoke of Rome." Their novel views brought about what we see, despite whatever good intentions they had (which I readily grant them). But of course, they couldn't even agree with each other.

he was content to work from within the Catholic Church until he had to flee Paris to escape the stake.

I think you are confusing him with Servetus and the Comparet brothers. :-)

Similarly, Luther was a Catholic in good standing until the pope excommunicated him in absentia.

He certainly was a heretic (from a Catholic dogmatic perspective) long before his excommunication. Let's get our facts straight!

So the blame for the divisions that arose at the time of the Reformation cannot all be laid at the door of the Protestants.

We have always acknowledged that. But we refuse to yield on the matter of received doctrine (not to mention the nature of the Church itself). Those things are non-negotiable.

And why do you note with glee the failings of your separated brethren?

It's not with glee, and I am trying to critique what I feel are flawed principles, while simultaneously acknowledging the great good which is also present in Protestantism and its members. The very fact that I have a high regard personally for many, many Protestants, makes me think that I can persuade them to see some of the difficulties in their system, as perceived from a friendly "outsider."

That is not how I respond to the failings of my Catholic brethren.

It is difficult to achieve a balance between a "pastoral, ecumenical" approach and a more logical, doctrinal one. But I think both are very important. Unfortunately, one is very often perceived as "judgmental" when critiquing a system.

Have you forgotten Paul's exhortation to Timothy: "The Lord's servant must not strive, but be kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:24-25)?

No; I try to correct with gentleness! I'm sure I often fail (as we all do in this regard), but I think I do a pretty good job, overall. I have received plenty of laudatory remarks from Protestants regarding the writings on my website, where they said I was very fair and charitable to my Protestant opponents, etc. These letters mean a lot to me, because that has always been my goal in apologetic endeavors. But if you are saying I can do better, I would be the first person to agree with you.

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