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Thinking Out Loud

John Calvin: Catholic Theologian

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 07, 2017

Of all the figures of the Protestant Reformation, the one by whom the great Roman Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, was most troubled was John Calvin. Why? Because Calvin was the most Catholic (capital C), the Reformer closest to the heart and soul of Catholic thought.

John Calvin: Catholic TheologianCasual readers of Calvin might not notice this. And non-readers for whom Calvin's name provides merely a license for their reactionary excesses or a punch line for their jokes will not know this at all. But careful and astute readers of Calvin have seen this fact from the beginning. Calvin was never a revolutionary, but always a reformer of the One Holy and Apostolic Church.

My friend and colleague Matthew Myer Boulton, President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, is one of the most astute readers of Calvin today. His superb study of Calvin, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology (Eerdmans, 2011), is compelling and visionary.

Notice, for example, what Matt has to say about Calvin's understanding of the unio mystica (our "mystical union" with Christ):

"When it comes to the church's side of the 'mystical union' with Christ, then, 'God with us' [Immanuel] means 'God with us in the flesh.' Through him, intimacy with God is possible for human beings. 'Christ shares in flesh and blood,' and therefore is 'comrade and partner in the same nature with us'. …  [T]his intimate, embodied, 'mutual connection' is sacramentally - that is, practically and paradigmatically- realized in the 'Sacred Supper.'" (Boulton, Life in God, p. 132.)


Calvin's intention as a reformer was to restore the Church to its primitive purity and simplicity, not to start "a new church." The very idea of denominations would have been anathema to Calvin. Indeed, starting "a new church" was as foreign to Calvin as the hated sin of schism, which Calvin ranked beside heresy. Calvin saw himself as a physician trying to heal the illness in the Body of Christ.

Calvin writes in the remarkable letter he sent to Emperor Charles V, "The Necessity of Reforming the Church" (1539): "[The] question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for that is admitted even by all moderate judges [here Calvin could have listed scholars and leaders like Erasmus and a man who eventually would be considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More]; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait for too slow remedies." Calvin observes that even among those who condemn the activities of the reformers, "they think us right indeed in desiring amendment, but not right in attempting it." [John Calvin, Theological Treatises, J.K.S. Reid, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), p. 185.]

Calvin's aims are reminiscent of other reformers and reformation movements in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, some of whom managed to remain "in bounds," though not without controversy. Richard Rohr has mentioned, for instance, the uneasy relationship the Franciscan Order has had with the Church for centuries, and how much the Church has needed it. Much the same could be said about other religious leaders, orders and movements in the Catholic Church from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz to Dorothy Day, and from the mendicant orders to the Trappists. The various orders of nuns, especially in the Americas, have consistently bewildered and agitated the Vatican and have suffered its slings and arrows while advancing the faith. Even Calvin's insistence on a starker beauty of ecclesial architecture than was common in his day, and the elevation of proclamation (though, with Calvin, never at the expense of the sacrament of Eucharist, which he wanted to be received every time the community worshiped) has parallels, for example, in the reformation of the Benedictine Order we know as the Cistercian movement and among the Dominicans.

Calvin's sources sometimes surprise readers. Obviously we expect to see him refer to and quote that favorite doctor of the ancient Catholic Church, St. Augustine. And, consistent with our expectations, the source index of the venerable McNeill/Battles English edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, shows references to Augustine of Hippo running to seven-and-a-half pages, demonstrating Calvin's familiarity with the full range of this Catholic bishop's voluminous corpus. But notice also other scholars and saints from whom Calvin generously draws in his Institutes. Catholic theologians like Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventura, and John Chrysostom, Cyprian, Duns Scotus, and Pope Gregory I, Hilary, Jerome, Peter Lombard, Erasmus and Thomas More, standing cheek by jowl with Protestants such as Huldreich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), pp. 1592-1634.]

Notice too Calvin's utter disregard for the establishment of an alternative theology to mere Christianity. He is not the founder of a denomination, not in his view. He is not an apologist for Presbyterianism or for the Reformed faith, but of the Christian Faith which knows only one founder, Jesus Christ. Thus, while Calvin defends the reformation of the Church Catholic, he writes a theology of the Christian Religion, not a Reformed Theology, as many of his followers will do.

Most telling of all, Calvin's approach to the great subject matter of Christian theology is fundamentally non-sectarian and thoroughly Catholic. While faith is deeply personal, deeply felt, a conscious adherence to Jesus Christ, this faith is anything but narrowly individualistic. Faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in a tradition that has continuity as well as divergence; it possesses a corporate character that has priority over the individual's idiosyncrasies and opinions. All this is to say that while Calvin vigorously opposed corruption in the Church Catholic, the ecclesiastical order and polity which he helped establish recoiled from anarchy and the elevation of the individual over the group, and respected the proper exercise of offices and authority in ordered groups. In other words, Calvin held a high ecclesiology.

Calvin also, and perhaps most significantly, saw the life of faith as an active engagement with the world, not a separation from it. In H. Richard Niebuhr's classification system, Calvin believed that Christ is the transformer of culture and is not against culture. As John T. McNeill once wrote:

"To Calvin, the Christian is one who lives actively in the world and knows its culture, although he also knows its insufficiency and looks in hope to a blessed life beyond it. Although he rejects the political control of religion, he diligently fulfills all political duties." (John T. McNeill, Our Debt to John Calvin, Vanguard, March 1985, p. 7.)


Calvin's engagement with culture is grounded in a theological perspective that values the use of the law to help us live faithfully. In contrast to Martin Luther, for whom the law functioned principally to drive a person to take refuge in God's grace and mercy, Calvin understood the precepts and laws of God as gifts of divine grace to help us order our lives, to live at peace with one another, and to fulfill the love of Christ. To put it another way, there is not only a retrospective aspect of God's work with humanity (forgiving our sins) but an enduring prospective aspect as well (liberating us to live in continued obedience). Later commentators on Luther and Calvin, from John McLeod Campbell to James and T.F. Torrance have observed just how crucial this difference between Luther and Calvin really was.

Perhaps nowhere does Calvin demonstrate himself more clearly (or ironically) to be a Catholic theologian than in his Reply to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, Archbishop of Carpentras (1539). Sadoleto had written an appeal calling upon the Christians of Geneva to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Sadoleto was, himself, a respected critic of the abuses and corruption of the Church. Calvin, then living in Strasbourg, was asked to reply on behalf of the reformers. In what T.H.L. Parker has referred to as "a masterpiece of the lawyer's art, a defense which is an indictment of the prosecution," Calvin "clears the evangelicals of the charges of heresy and schism and in his turn recalls the cardinal-archbishop to the faith of the fathers and apostles of the church." [T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), p. 95.]

In his letter, Calvin speaks to Cardinal Sadoleto almost as a pastor or parish priest would to an errant parishioner:

"I shall not press you so closely as to call you back to that form [of the Church] which the apostles instituted, though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whatsoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error. But to indulge you so far, I ask you to place before your eyes the ancient form of the Church as their writings prove it to have been in the ages of Chyrsostom and Basil among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine among the Latins; and after so doing, to contemplate the ruins of that Church which now survives among yourselves." (Calvin, Theological Treatises, p. 231.)


It has been said that if the Second Vatican Council had occurred in 1519, there would have been no Lutheran reformation. Perhaps. The Roman reaction to Martin Luther was of a fortress bristling with defensive weapons and an army terrible with banners. But one can imagine, in whatever age, John Calvin sitting among the conciliar body that drafted Vatican II as a Doctor of the Catholic Church calling the Church to attend to the Word and Spirit of God.

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