Tuesday, April 12, 2016

26 "The Roman Church and the Christian Ministry"

Lane Chapter 26:  The Roman Church and the Christian Ministry
             In sections (4.2.1)-(4.3.9) Calvin denounced the Roman Church, provided a blueprint for leadership in the True Church and described the manner in which the Roman Church fell into apostasy and abuse.  In a broad sense, this section might be called the “Reformation” chapter as the vision of Calvin, his Reformed contemporaries and his reforming predecessors such as Martin Luther, Johannes Bugenhagen, Johannes Spangenberg, and Ulrich Zwingli, sought to restore the “True Church” of God or reform it according to scripture.  Therefore, Calvin began his chapter by virulently attacking the Roman Catholic Church where he compared the Roman practices as not only “corrupt and debased” but also as having a “grosser idolatry” than the lapsed Jews under King Jerobaum. (4.2.9) Specifically he called the Roman Mass an “unbearable mass of superstitions” and labeled the pope,  the “Antichrist.” (4.2.2, 4.3.12) After discrediting Roman Catholic practices, Calvin presented a scripturally based outline on how God ordained and ordered the True Church.  The Institutes, in this section, included church organization, leadership, and expectations with a special emphasis on church offices. Scripture, he noted, named the one-time or rarely prescribed offices of apostle, prophet and evangelist as well as permanent offices of pastor and teacher. Because of the importance of the pastor, Calvin included an expanded description of the office’s call and duties for “he entrusted to men the teaching of salvation and everlasting life in order that through their hands it might be communicated to the rest “(4.3.1).  Finally, Calvin provided a history of the early church, its organization, and the means in which the papacy debased the True Church.
            In response to this section, Lang posed a couple of questions.  First,” How does Calvin view the Roman Catholic Church?”  Calvin considered the Roman Catholic Church to be corrupted by evil and that the leaders were “perverse,” the doctrine “buried” and the Worship of God, “deformed.” (4.2.2) Because the word of God was so corrupted, Calvin believed that continued association with the Roman Church actually endangered Christians who worshipped.   However, Calvin was careful not to undermine the sovereignty of God and noted that even within a church that where the light of God is “choked” (4.2.2), the promise of God remained, and baptism, even if performed by illegitimate priests, was still valid. (4.2.5) Such a position is central in mainline churches today that recognize one baptism across denominational lines. 
            Lang’s second question is  “What are the offices of the ministry in the postapostolic church and their functions?”  In asking this question, Lang is asking how closely Calvin’s definition of leadership parallels the early church as prescribed in the Bible.  Perhaps the most important statement about the ministry is that human beings hold God’s church together.  In this way, God’s Will is carried out through God’s creation.  In doing this, God acknowledges that humans have different gifts that are carried out in different ministerial roles.  In the post-apostolic church, the specific roes of the church are the pastors who preach the Word and administer sacraments (4.3.4).  There are also “governors” or elders in charge of church discipline a “senate, chosen from godly, grave and holy men, and deacons who care for the poor. (4.3.8)

Question:  The 500th anniversary of the Reformation will take place on October 31, 2017 (500 years after Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral).  How should the PCUSA (or other Protestant denominations) treat the anniversary?  How would you treat it?  Should we emphasize the points made by Calvin, drawing attention to his understanding of the Roman Catholic perversion of the church?  Or should we work towards shared values and reconciliation? 

One of many reformation era woodcuts depicting the Pope as Antichrist  Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1521.  Depicting the pope as "Antichrist" was part of the Protestant propaganda throughout the Reformation.  This was therefore not unique to Calvin but would have been well-known by 16th century Genevans.  



  1. Christy, fantastic summary and your knowledge base adds so much to the discussion! Although Lane sort of steers us away from much of Calvin's polemic writing, this section was a pretty necessary basis for the Reformation, as you point out. The Roman Catholic Church at the time clearly strayed into areas that were scripturally questionable according to Calvin. Calvin really only had two rules and both were broken - by the perverse government of lies in the ministry of the Word and the foulest sacrilege in place of the Lord's Supper. (4.2.2)

    In answer to your questions, I think I will take the middle of road with the upcoming anniversary. I do think it is important to recognize such a milestone in our reformed faith, but I don't plan to quote Calvin in this section. I hope it is possible to affirm the building blocks of our denominations without continuing to destroy other buildings. It is important to remember that the Roman Catholic Church has not remained static over the last 500 years and some of those vestiges that Calvin pointed out may have blossomed. In fact, I recently purchased Pope Francis' book, The Name of God is Mercy, and although it is but a small slice of the theology in the Roman Catholic Church today, it is a beautiful read. Pope Francis clearly affirms Jesus' prayer in John, "That all may be one." (Jn 17:21)

  2. Thank you for the overview/post concerning Calvin's views of the Catholic Church. I often wonder how I might have reacted in or during Calvin's time, the time of the Reformation. From Church History there is much about syncretism and other abuses from the Papacy... And so, although Calvin is strong in his comments, I see a frenetic element being necessary to combat the atrocities which gradually took hold of Catholicism.
    The upcoming Anniversary is something which slipped my radar, so thank you for the reminder, I do think this is something to be celebrated, and hopefully as a uniting force rather than a dividing wedge. Especially with the current Pope, Pope Francis, who I admire... That being said, I would want to work toward moving forward with a strong effort of unity. Many, though not all, of the issues Calvin shares have been addressed in Vatican II.. and I feel that going back and rehashing all that the Catholic Church chose to do in reaction to the culture of the times is not helpful. Possibly, looking to additional reformation for Mainline Christianity in a more inclusive way. By centering on the common ground of love, forgiveness and grace there might be a way of moving toward solutions for the many common issues and sources of hardship.. That would be my hope, coming together in hope for a more united Faith in God with compassion for all.

  3. Hi Christy,
    Thankyou for this excellent summary and historical perspective from your additional knowledge! Calvin was struggling with a diverse set of issues regarding inappropriate (as he saw it) behaviors from priests. The Roman church of that period caused many to disregard the "preaching of the word." and it was of course less participatory than we have today. I am thinking of the celebration of the Lord's supper.
    With respect to answering your question of how to celebrate reformation anniversary, I am leaning to an educational possibility. In the PCUSA we need to teach people about the history while celebrating our unity as the body of Christ. We need to see those things which have united us and the differences that are no longer differences. History is obviously important but glorifying God is even more important.

  4. Very nice job leading us through this section of the Institutes. In Dr. Coffman's book, which she is sharing with her Church History class, she wrote about the many diverse Roman Catholic churches in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, which isn't far from where I was born and raised. And for sure, every ethnic group had their own church that nurtured the flock within the bounds of their own culture. The city has changed a lot since then, but new immigrants for Latin America have moved into those neighborhoods once populated by the Polish, Irish, and Italians. So what?

    So... As I was reading Calvin's writing about the remnant of the church, that perhaps 'might' still be within the Roman Catholic church at the end of 4.2.12, Christy, I think Calvin never anticipated the Roman Catholic's still being around 500 years later. I think that he believed that because God's Reformation had occurred, this newly revived church would replace the old

    "To sum up, I call them churches to the extent that the Lord wonderfully preserves in them a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered, and to the extent that some marks of the church remain - especially those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil's wiles nor human depravity can destroy. BUT on the other hand, because in them those marks have been erased to which we should pay particular regard in this discourse, I say that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church."

    To make matter worse for a Calvinist in 2017, the Pope, more often than not, is still referred to as the head of the Christian church by the news media and world leaders. Pope Frances is the Man!

    To answer your question about the upcoming anniversary, I hope for a new movement for Christianity unity!

    Now for my question to you, how did it feel to read Calvin only refer to pastors as men only?

  5. Everyone! Thank you for your comments. As a historian of the Reformation, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how talk about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in the modern age. This is one of the few events in history that will, if only briefly, make national news. So, Tim, while I agree with the media's portrayal of the Pope, this will be a time where a separate Protestant identity will be pointed out. I also agree with Tim that Calvin would not have envisioned a Roman Catholic presence 500 years later, but neither would he have envisioned the historical developments that emerged from his own theological works.

    One of the distinct problems that these Early Modern theologians (I am lumping here which is not quite fair - Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon for an example are exceptions) was that they had the correct understanding of scripture and that if others read scripture they would naturally come to the same conclusions. They became so dogmatic in their reading that the reformation itself splintered, and, of course, the tenets of the reformation so departed from the Roman Catholic position that there would be no reconciliation. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics lashed out against each other, in that audacious polemic further splintering whatever potential might have existed to reconcile. We have to remember also that the Reformation took on a political battle as individual princes committed to power adopted religious confessions in order to display solidarity with either other like-minded princes or, on the other hand, the pope.

    So, to answer my own question. I do think it is important to continue to work toward mutual cooperation and respect, in particular, emphasizing the theology that we both share. I do, however, think it is important however to celebrate the many blessings that have come through our own tradition and our dedication to reading the Bible as the living Word of God. To answer Tim's final question, I see Calvin as a product of his time, but his willingness to acknowledge a priesthood of all believers means that all (men, women) are equal before God and even though women were, at that time, barred from service in the ministry, their eventual inclusion is not only Biblical but an natural development from Calvin's theology. If God is indeed the author of human history, then we mush understand scripture within the unfolding of the human story. Together, they require a faith that is reformed and keeps reforming.

  6. Wow, great post and very engaging comments in the wake of it. I agree, reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics is a great goal for the 500th anniversary. I think the things that divide Christians in our own age has more to do with polity than doctrine. Yes, this is somewhat tied up with theology and questions of authority, but I think feelings may run higher with regard to governmental structures because there are other ideologies at stake in them as well, not to mention the fact, it is the governmental authorities within the church that ultimately determine theological emphasis.

    Coming full circle to the Reformation ... wait a minute ... couldn't we say that the underlying reasons for the reformation had more to do with the polity of the churches and who was in charge of interpreting scripture than the interpretations that were current at the time? Well, that may be an over-statement.

    Not sure where I am going with this, except total reconciliation among Christians is harder than agreeing on theology, purpose, and goals. But I still believe it is a worthy project. And the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a good opportunity to further reconciliation.

  7. Let me preface this by saying that I grew up in an area that is predominately Roman Catholic. (In fact, when I was in school, all the Catholic children were let out of school on Wednesday's for catechism and the handful of us Protestant children that remained were grouped in a classroom to be "entertained" until catechism was over). Several people that I go to church with today are former Roman Catholics. Yes, Vatican II made a huge difference in the Roman Catholic religion. But up until that time (and yes, this still happens in some Roman Catholic churches even today ), the mass was said in Latin. Most Roman Catholics that I knew had no idea what the Bible said. I think one important highlight that should be emphasized during the anniversary of the reformation is that those reformers felt it necessary for people to be able to read the Bible for themselves and not be dependent on someone else to tell them what God said.

  8. Thank you for a great summary Christy. I always wonder how hard it is to switch from professor (leader) to student (learner). I have to point everything back to what I know and it was not always easy in the military. I have taken a long time to thing about your question as presented to us. I think it would a great thing to celebrate. After living in Louisiana for a few years, I have come to enjoy celebrating many things. There is a festival almost year around in Louisiana. I actually was refreshed that we shared a short prayer at a local high school graduation ceremony. The Catholic Church seems to be making historic reconciliation efforts under new leadership. It may be a time for the Catholic Church to celebrate as well. I also don’t think it would be out of place for churches to emphasize certain points that they hold true to worship.

  9. This was an awesome post and great discussion. I learned a lot…thank you all. So I would definitely have a celebration. I would kick off the party by first showing the movie, Spotlight. (Just kidding) I like the idea shared about providing some education around the history, but I think we should always be making strides towards reconciliation and unity. There is enough hate and bigotry in the world that divides us, let’s focus on what unites us. When I was a kid growing up in Montana in the 70s, my little Lutheran Church always did a joint service with the Catholic Church in town every year. I think our Pastor and their Priest were ahead of their time. Our Presbyterian church in Sarasota does a joint service every year with a Jewish Synagogue. As leaders in the church, we need to be leading the way in peaceful, respectful and grace-filled conversations with people of all races and religions.

  10. Jesus prayed for unity within the church before he went to the cross. John 17:23-"I in them and you in me-so that they may be brought to complete unity." There are difference in opinions and backgrounds but we need to work towards a unified Church under the banner of Jesus love. I believe in the circles that I am involved in it is happening more and more. There are leaders of the church getting together and becoming more aquainted with what God is doing in our entire city so that every church; Mega, small, large, old, or young, can have a hand in what God is doing through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to worship God in spirit and in truth. We can do that with any different style, background, or theology. But we can't do that with animosity, hatred, or jealousy in our hearts.

  11. You know, the more I study and participate in the life of the church, the more Catholic I feel. That's a pretty long swing from my original, allergic reaction to all traditions Catholic. But, like many of life's aggravations, understanding eases the animus. I appreciate the question – and I wonder about how we in the reformed tradition might engage our Catholic heritage. We are acknowledging, after all, separation from something.
    Yet, we continue to return to bits and pieces of that heritage. We impose ashes. We have Maundy Thursday suppers. Most recently, we celebrate a rock start Pope as he ushers in a wave of justice and grace to the Church of Rome. It almost feels as if the reformed are a bit homesick for the traditions we abandoned in a cloud of Calvinistic disgust.

    1. I really resonate with what you wrote Matt. I love and long for some of those traditions, but not all. Ash Wednesday is one of my very favorite worship services. I wish we would make the sign of the cross on ourselves in our church each week, because it feels so empowering, yet humbling. The biggest stumbling block for me is actually the idea of needing a Pope (and other Priests) to act as intermediaries between us and God. Is it hypocritical to embrace some of the ancient traditions, but not all of them? I don’t think so…