King Henry VIII in 1537 (Holbein)
See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
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So Calvin rails against bishops getting directly involved in secular politics (with some good cause) on the grounds that they "require so much time and labour in their own office" and need to do their work "without distraction" -- yet on the other hand, he objects to clerical celibacy: the rationale for which is largely the same, since Paul expressly teaches that "the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife" (1 Cor 7:33), and that "the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord" (1 Cor 7:32), and that celibacy is excellent in order to secure "undivided devotion to the Lord" (1 Cor 7:35). It's one of the many disconnects and internal inconsistencies in Calvin's thought.
Basically the only reliable predictor of where he will come down on any given position, is whether it is in opposition to the Catholic belief. He's against celibacy (to those called to it) because Catholics uphold it (following the biblical teachings of 1 Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19). He is against bishops being involved with politics, while he is neck-deep in it himself, and he is in effect a super-bishop in his own domain of Geneva (since he feels able to declare on all Christian doctrines, over against tradition if needs be). Thus, he is often either logically inconsistent (usually with double standards employed) or hypocritical, in condemning among Catholics that which he does himself (usually to a greater degree).
But such is their perverseness, that they hesitate not to boast that in this way the dignity of Christ’s kingdom is duly maintained, and they, at the same time, are not withdrawn from their own vocation. In regard to the former allegation, if it is a comely ornament of the sacred office, that those holding it be so elevated as to become formidable to the greatest monarchs, they have ground to expostulate with Christ, who in this respect has grievously curtailed their honour. For what, according to their view, can be more insulting than these words, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise authority over them”? “But ye shall not be so” (Luke 22:25, 26). And yet he imposes no harder law on his servants than he had previously laid on himself. “Who,” says he, “made me a judge or divider over you?” (Luke 12:14) We see that he unreservedly refuses the office of judging; and this he would not have done if the thing had been in accordance with his office. To the subordination to which the Lord thus reduced himself, will his servants not submit? The other point I wish they would prove by experience as easily as they allege it. But as it seemed to the apostles not good to leave the word of God and serve tables, so these men are thereby forced to admit, though they are unwilling to be taught, that it is not possible for the same person to be a good bishop and a good prince. For if those who, in respect of the largeness of the gifts with which they were endued, were able for much more numerous and weighty cares than any who have come after them, confessed that they could not serve the ministry of the word and of tables, without giving way under the burden, how are these, who are no men at all when compared with the apostles, possibly to surpass them a hundred times in diligence? The very attempt is most impudent and audacious presumption. Still we see the thing done; with what success is plain. The result could not but be that they have deserted their own functions, and removed to another camp.
First of all, Calvin is undeniably correct in his general opposition (at least in theory) to clerics getting directly involved in secular political affairs (exercising excessive power or holding secular offices). Often this has led to corruption and abuses. But as I noted above, he isn't consistent in this opposition, because he loved to pitifully fawn and court the approval particularly of English political figures, up to and including kings.
Moreover, I think it would be difficult to find instances of Calvin expressing disapproval of his fellow Protestant Lutherans deliberately replacing bishops with secular princes: making them, in effect, the new bishops (which is pretty much the same scenario he decries above, approached from the opposite angle: "bishopizing princes" -- to coin a phrase -- rather than "secularizing bishops"). Again we find him railing against abuses in Catholic circles, but not the same or worse in Lutheran circles, where arguably the connection between state and church is far closer. It's all about opposition to Catholicism at all costs, and winking at the same flaws in his own or non-Calvinist Protestant circles. He always has that agenda. Lutheranism opted for caesaropapism, as English historian Lord Acton noted:
At the date we have reached, soon after the middle of the century, Luther was dead, and the churches of the Confession of Augsburg had reached their full measure of expansion. They predominated in Germany, and still more in Scandinavia; but Luther had not endowed them with institutions, or imparted to them the gift of self–government. In religious ideas, he was inexhaustible; but he was deficient in constructive capacity. The local governments, which were effective, had defended the Reformation and assured its success against the hostility of the central government, which was intermittent and inoperative, and as they afforded the necessary protection, they assumed the uncontested control. Lutheranism is governed not by the spiritual, but by the temporal power, in agreement with the high conception of the State which Luther derived from the long conflict of the Middle Ages. It is the most conservative form of religion, and less liable than any other to collision with the civil authority on which it rests. By its lack of independence and flexibility it was unfitted to succeed where governments were hostile, or to make its way by voluntary effort through the world.Zwingli, the Swiss "reformer" took essentially the same view, according to Acton:
(Lectures on Modern History, London: Macmillan, 1906, chapter VI: "Calvin and Henry VIII")
Zwingli committed the government of the Church to the authorities that governed the State, differing from the Lutherans in this, that Zwinglianism was republican and revolutionary. In Germany, where the organisation was defective, there was little discipline or control. In Switzerland there was a more perfect order, at the price of subjection to the secular authority.This is a huge improvement over power-hungry Catholic bishops who got too involved in secular affairs?: simply turn over the entire government of the Church to the secular state? That has never worked throughout history, whether in the Orthodox world (where the same mentality prevailed) or the various Protestant guises, or in periods and places where Catholic popes and bishops fell prey to it.
For Calvin, Catholics en masse (above all the clergy) always have to have nefarious motives for everything they do. We see the same mentality all the time in anti-Catholics today (making any constructive dialogue impossible from the outset).
at another time, when occasion offered, by means of threats and terror, extorted some increase of power from princes; at another time, when they saw princes disposed to give liberally, they abused their foolish and inconsiderate facility. The godly in ancient times, when any dispute arose, in order to escape the necessity of a lawsuit, left the decision to the bishop, because they had no doubt of his integrity. The ancient bishops were often greatly dissatisfied at being entangled in such matters, as Augustine somewhere declares; but lest the parties should rush to some contentious tribunal, unwillingly submitted to the annoyance. These voluntary decisions, which altogether differed from forensic strife, these men have converted into ordinary jurisdiction. As cities and districts. when for some time pressed with various difficulties, betook themselves to the patronage of the bishops, and threw themselves on their protection, these men have, by a strange artifice, out of patrons made themselves masters. That they have seized a good part by the violence of faction cannot be denied. The princes, again, who spontaneously conferred jurisdiction on bishops, were induced to it by various causes.
Calvin has hit upon many actual abuses of power and rightly condemns them. We do not disagree with the overall thrust of his objection in this regard; only with the constant insinuation that Catholics were uniquely guilty of such shortcomings, whereas Protestants supposedly were not. He tries to make polemical, sophistical hay out of general flaws and tendencies of men, and make them overwhelmingly apply to Catholics only. Needless to say, this is exceedingly unjust and unfair, and untrue to historical fact.
Though their indulgence had some appearance of piety, they did not by this preposterous liberality consult in the best manner for the interests of the Church, whose ancient and true discipline they thus corrupted, nay, to tell the truth, completely abolished.
Nothing has done more damage to the "ancient and true discipline" of the Church than the Protestant Revolution. It's as if Calvin wants to put out a fire in a wastebasket, while encouraging the destruction by fire of entire cities. It makes no sense. He decries the lack of discipline among Catholics with one hand, and wants to completely remove all traditional ecclesiastical discipline of the historic Catholic Church with the other, and pretend that he has something that will truly take its place. Luther and Melanchthon ran to the princes, to replace Catholic bishops, which was bad and foolish enough. They despised the oft-corrupted power of the one class but loved the corrupt power of the other class, simply because it was on their side, over against Catholicism. Calvin ran to himself and his own arbitrary pronouncements, which was even worse, and far more arrogant.
Those bishops who abuse the goodness of princes to their own advantage, gave more than sufficient proof by this one specimen of their conduct, that they were not at all true bishops. Had they had one spark of the apostolic spirit, they would doubtless have answered in the words of Paul, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal,” but spiritual (2 Cor. 10:4). But hurried away by blind cupidity, they lost themselves, and posterity, and the Church.
Yet Calvin thinks that having no bishops at all is the solution? I haven't seen historic Calvinism come up with anything better. The solution to corruption among bishops, is not to get rid of bishops altogether, but to get rid of corruption or bad bishops. But with Protestants, so often the "solution" is to abolish even what they grant was a good thing (in the early Church), rather than reform it (and this itself is quite odd, seeing that they fancy themselves "reformers" and "restorers" of what was or what is imagined to have been the case in the early Church).
Again, there is truth in this critique, and we acknowledge that certain popes became excessive in the exercise of their power (or otherwise sinful, as the case may be: though not nearly to the extent of anti-Catholic stereotypes). But the various Protestant records of church-state relations are scarcely any better. Calvin's own Geneva, when he had power, was not exactly a perfect model of how it should be done.
Calvin rants about "how childishly the Romanists tell lies when they attempt to claim an earthly empire for their Pontiff". It's the usual: Catholics are a pack of rascally scoundrels. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457), whom he does, at least, mention: the main person responsible for exposing the forgery of the Donation of Constantine, was a Catholic priest. So the noble Catholic priest proved that most Catholics are liars. What sensible logic! Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who took the same position, was a Catholic Cardinal. Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester from 1450-1457, arrived independently at the same conclusion, as did Pope Pius II in 1453.
All of this occurred in Catholic circles before Luther or Calvin were even born, and more than fifty years prior to the beginning of the Protestant Revolution. There was a forgery in the history of Catholicism. Catholics discovered and exposed it. This proves exactly nothing as to the general wickedness or honesty (or lack thereof) of Catholics, or whether Catholic beliefs are true or false.
All it proves is that there are good and bad men who call themselves Catholics (and that such things as forgeries occur). Did Calvin fancy that it is any different among Protestants? If so, then he was surely among the most naive of men. If he knew better, why did he bother to bring this up?
And that's how Calvin and most of the early Protestants preferred it: the state was above the Church, and/or actually ran the Church (caesaropapism). As soon as they gleefully threw off the alleged severe yoke of the despised papacy and bishops, they immediately ran to secular princes and emperors and made them their lords (as if this is some vast improvement and much more "biblical" than the papacy), or, as in Calvin's case, they proclaimed themselves autocrats. Calvin in the long run wanted to merge state and church into a sort of theocracy. But the same problems occur; just in different guises.
An occasion of innovating on this order was given to Gregory VII. by Henry IV., a giddy and rash man, of no prudence, great audacity, and a dissolute life. When he had the whole bishoprics of Germany in his court partly for sale, and partly exposed to plunder, Hildebrand, who had been provoked by him, seized the plausible pretext for asserting his claim. As his cause seemed good and pious, it was viewed with great favour, while Henry, on account of the insolence of his government, was generally hated by the princes. At length Hildebrand, who took the name of Gregory VII., an impure and wicked man, betrayed his sinister intentions. On this he was deserted by many who had joined him in his conspiracy. He gained this much, however, that his successors were not only able to shake off the yoke with impunity, but also to bring the emperors into subjection to them.
Calvin assumes that it is far worse for the Church to temporarily be "over" the state than vice versa. Why is that, I wonder? One can make, I think, quite legitimate criticisms of excessive power in certain periods of Catholic history. We Catholics do this ourselves. But why is secular rule over the Church regarded (seemingly without question) as an inherently superior state of affairs? I confess that I have never understood this; nor have I comprehended the strange attraction that this manifest folly holds for professed Christian thinkers and alleged "reformers."
That said, is it a fair appraisal to call Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) "an impure and wicked man" with "sinister intentions"? Recent (non-Catholic) estimations of his character are a bit more positive. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church summarizes modern historical opinion:
Though Gregory was once regarded as an ambitious tyrant, most modern historians have revised this judgement and are agreed on his purity of intention and his desire for 'justice'. In his own lifetime the Church suffered division, and he himself incurred much criticism; but Gregory's example, and the activities of his successors (esp. Urban II) did much to regenerate the Church.Calvin makes out that Pope Gregory VII's reign was some radical innovation or brand-new thing. Again, many modern historians would not agree with his assessment:
(edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983, "Gregory VII," 596)
Bodies of canon law compiled from the ninth century onwards maintain his supremacy in matters of dogma and discipline. Monasteries and churches placed themselves under the protection of St Peter and hence of the Roman pontiff. Secular rulers journeyed to Rome to settle ecclesiastical disputes involving their domains.
Gregory and his supporters were also out to prove that the reforms they proposed were by no means innovations but merely a return to normal practice.
(Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe [The Pelican History of European Thought, volume 1], translated by Anne Carter, Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1968, 147, 234-235)
Richard William Southern was President of St. John's College, Oxford, and also of the Royal Historical Society. He viewed the Gregorian reform period similarly, despite his "anti-papal" bias, as indicated by his use of the term "papal pretensions" (p. 100):
The minds of these men [post-1050] turned back to a happier period of papal enterprise. They dedicated themselves to the task of restoring the papacy to the position which it had held in a remote past and ought to hold again. Above all they wished to restore the papacy to the controlling and directing role in the church that (as they thought) it had once had . . .Pope Gregory VII was merely developing what had been a long chain of thought and practice, grounded in Scripture itself (Petrine primacy), going back to earlier popes such as Innocent I, Gelasius, Nicholas I, Agatho, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great. For much more historical substantiation of this, see my paper: Was Conciliarism an "Orthodox" Option in Medieval Catholicism?; section II: "Pope Gregory VII's (Hildebrand's) Papacy (1073-1085): Radical Novelty or Development?"
We have already noticed the extent to which the popes of the earlier period were, so to speak, swallowed up in the personality of St Peter and were regarded simply as the mouthpiece of the Apostle. Gregory VII, a child of the Roman church from infancy, shared this point of view.
(Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages [The Pelican History of the Church, volume 2], Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1970, 100-101, 103)
Moreover, many of the subsequent emperors were liker Henry than Julius Cæsar. These it was not difficult to overcome while they sat at home sluggish and secure, instead of vigorously exerting themselves, as was most necessary, by all legitimate means to repress the cupidity of the pontiffs.
The secular rulers must keep those ambitious Catholics in line! We can't have them getting too uppity!
We see what colour there is for the grand donation of Constantine, by which the Pope pretends that the western empire was given to him.
And we see the inaccurate colour there is in Calvin's one-sided, jaded, pseudo-historical analyses.
Not a word about Henry VIII's usurpations and barbarities in England, that were already well under way even at the time of the first edition of the Institutes. One would think that in a treatment condemning undue power, his pretensions would figure prominently, but for some reason they do not.
Formerly, when in the time of Gregory, the guardians of ecclesiastical property seized upon lands which they considered to belong to the Church, and, after the manner of the exchequer, affixed their seals in attestation of their claim, Gregory having assembled a council of bishops, and bitterly inveighed against that profane custom, asked whether they would not anathematise the churchman who, of his own accord, attempted to seize some possession by the inscription of a title, and in like manner, the bishop who should order it to be done, or not punish it when done without his order. All pronounced the anathema. If it is a crime deserving of anathema for a churchman to claim a property by the inscription of a title—then, now that for two hundred years, the pontiffs meditate nothing but war and bloodshed, the destruction of armies, the plunder of cities, the destruction or overthrow of nations, and the devastation of kingdoms, only that they may obtain possession of the property of others—what anathemas can sufficiently punish such conduct? Surely it is perfectly obvious that the very last thing they aim at is the glory of Christ.
Without further specific details of what Calvin is referring to, one can hardly respond. But we have seen how accurate Calvin is with regard to anything Catholic, in previous installments. I highly doubt that this (whatever it is) would turn out very differently.
For were they spontaneously to resign every portion of secular power which they possess, no peril to the glory of God, no peril to sound doctrine, no peril to the safety of the Church ensues; but they are borne blind and headlong by a lust for power, thinking that nothing can be safe unless they rule, as the prophet says, “with force and with cruelty” (Ezek. 34:4).
Calvin must always paint the "papists" and the papacy in the blackest colors. Nothing less will do.
But of course they were "pious." In cases where they were not so "pious," there would be an obvious conflict from the start. Christians are conscience-bound not to obey wicked, immoral laws.
For Constantine, in a letter to the Nicomedians, thus speaks:—“Should any of the bishops unadvisedly excite tumult, his audacity shall be restrained by the minister of God, that is, by my executive” (Theodoret. Lib. 1 c. 20). Valentinian says, “Good bishops throw no obloquy on the power of the emperor, but sincerely keep the commandments of God, the great King, and obey our laws” (Theodoret. Lib. 4 c. 8). This was unquestionably the view then entertained by all. Ecclesiastical causes, indeed, were brought before the episcopal court; as when a clergyman had offended, but not against the laws, he was only charged by the Canons; and instead of being cited before the civil court, had the bishop for his judge in that particular case. In like manner, when a question of faith was agitated, or one which properly pertained to the Church, cognisance was left to the Church. In this sense the words of Ambrose are to be understood: “Your father, of august memory, not only replied verbally, but enacted by law, that, in a question of faith, the judge should be one who was neither unequal from office, nor incompetent from the nature of his jurisdiction” (Ambros. Ep. 32). Again, “If we attend to the Scriptures, or to ancient examples, who can deny that in a question of faith, a question of faith, I say, bishops are wont to judge Christian emperors, not emperors to judge bishops?” Again, “I would have come before your consistory, O emperor, would either the bishops or the people have allowed me to come: they say that a question of faith should be discussed in the Church before the people.” He maintains, indeed, that a spiritual cause, that is, one pertaining to religion, is not to be brought before the civil court, where worldly disputes are agitated. His firmness in this respect is justly praised by all. And yet, though he has a good cause, he goes so far as to say, that if it comes to force and violence, he will yield. “I will not desert the post committed to me, but, if forced, I will not resist: prayers and tears are our weapons” (Ambros. Hom. de Basilic. Traden.). Let us observe the singular moderation of this holy man, his combination of prudence, magnanimity, and boldness. Justina, the mother of the emperor, unable to bring him over to the Arian party, sought to drive him from the government of the Church. And this would have been the result had he, when summoned, gone to the palace to plead his cause. He maintains, therefore, that the emperor is not fit to decide such a controversy. This both the necessity of the times, and the very nature of the thing, demanded. He thought it were better for him to die than consent to transmit such an example to posterity; and yet if violence is offered, he thinks not of resisting. For he says, it is not the part of a bishop to defend the faith and rights of the Church by arms. But in all other causes he declares himself ready to do whatever the emperor commands. “If he asks tribute, we deny it not: the lands of the Church pay tribute. If he asks lands, he has the power of evicting them; none of us interposes.” Gregory speaks in the same manner. “I am not ignorant of the mind of my most serene lord: he is not wont to interfere in sacerdotal causes, lest he may in some degree burden himself with our sins.” He does not exclude the emperor generally from judging priests, but says that there are certain causes which he ought to leave to the ecclesiastical tribunal.
This is a much better analysis, from a Catholic perspective. But it is not clear that Calvinists put in place anything approximating this early medieval model of church-state relations. I don't see that Calvin's solution is superior at all. His citations of St. Ambrose carry weight because Ambrose was a bishop. So how are things improved when Calvinists get rid of bishops, while citing great ones in the early Church as models? If something is good enough to be a representative model of how things should be, then it is good enough to be an ongoing office in the present time. But Calvinists have no bishops. This is supposed to be impressive and far superior to the Catholic ecclesiastical model?
Exactly. This is what Henry VIII did in England. But one hears no peep of protest from Calvin about that, because it was an anti-Catholic move. Instead, Calvin thought it was wonderful that St. Thomas More was executed.
They did not disapprove when princes interposed their authority in ecclesiastical affairs, provided this was done to preserve, not to disturb, the order of the Church, to establish, not to destroy discipline. For, seeing the Church has not, and ought not to wish to have, the power of compulsion (I speak of civil coercion), it is the part of pious kings and princes to maintain religion by laws, edicts, and sentences.
Kings and princes are not always pious, which is the problem.
In this way, when the emperor Maurice had commanded certain bishops to receive their neighbouring colleagues, who had been expelled by the Barbarians, Gregory confirms the order, and exhorts them to obey. He himself, when admonished by the same emperor to return to a good understanding with John, Bishop of Constantinople, endeavours to show that he is not to be blamed; but so far from boasting of immunity from the secular forum, rather promises to comply as far as conscience would permit: he at the same time says, that Maurice had acted as became a religious prince, in giving these commands to priests.
No disagreement there . . .
In summary, Calvin offers innumerable criticisms and insults toward Catholics and Catholicism, but little by way of constructive (not to mention, biblical) alternatives.