Institutes – Prefatory Address Question 2

Prefatory Address Question 2: What do we learn about the situation of the Protestant cause in France from Calvin’s Prefatory Address to King Francis I, the Author’s Preface of his Psalms commentary, and his reply to Sadoleto?

After Calvin’s conversion to (what later became known as) Protestantism in 1533, he was implicated in the Affair of the Placards of 1534, in which posters criticizing the Roman Church (RC) view of the Eucharist were found in certain French cities; one such placard was posted to the bedchamber door of King Francis I, who became alarmed. In response, the King threw his support behind the RC (by participating in a religious procession with church officials, and, according to the thinking at the time, standing as a symbol of the presence of Christ to his subjects). The Roman Catholic party rounded up the usual Protestants and burned them. Calvin left France and hid for a while; one hiding place was Basel, Switzerland. With the French persecutions against fellow Protestants in mind, he determined to defend them through the writing of the Institutes. This is Calvin’s account of these events: “… whilst I lay hidden at Basle … many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France; and the report of these burnings having reached foreign nations, they excited the strongest disapprobation among a great part of the Germans, whose indignation was kindled … In order to allay this indignation, certain wicked and lying pamphlets were circulated, stating that none were treated with such cruelty but Anabaptists and seditious persons, … [Calvin defends his people against the charges of Anabaptism and sedition, although the authors of such pamphlets may have been attempting to slander the Protestants with exactly these charges – also, it’s interesting that Calvin and the authors agreed by silence that the use of cruelty against Anabaptists was acceptable]. Observing that the object [of these pamphlets] was not only that the disgrace of shedding so much innocent blood might remain buried under the false charges and calumnies which they brought against the holy martyrs after their death (sic), but also, that afterwards they might be able to proceed to the utmost extremity in murdering the poor saints without exciting compassion towards them in the breasts of any, it appeared to me, that unless I opposed them to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institute of the Christian Religion.” Calvin railed not only against the burnings but also against the false charges against his people. Interestingly, the Affair of the Placards was carried out by people with a Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper, which Calvin came later to reject to a degree.

The actual prefatory address has more detail: here, we read Calvin complain to the King about “madmen who are this day, with fire and sword, troubling your kingdom.” He protested that his doctrine (i.e. Protestantism) was “the very doctrine which, they vociferate, ought to be punished with confiscation, exile, imprisonment, and flames, as well as exterminated by land and sea.” He added to his complaint by noting that “… this doctrine, of which I am endeavoring to give your Majesty an account, has been condemned by the suffrages of all the estates, and was long ago stabbed again and again by partial sentences of courts of law…” Calvin asserted that the Protestants had no ability to defend their doctrine in the courts and suffered legal persecutions as well as physical ones. Later, he referred to the physical persecutions as the reason that the church was too afraid even to “breathe.” Thus, the two types of persecutions complemented each other cruelly.

Considering the limited scope of the persecutions in 1534 compared to that carried out against the Huguenots later, Calvin’s language seems extreme. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective, since he was personally affected by exile; or the backlash was extreme for the time, coming after a period of religious order and peace. We know from his later fateful detour through Geneva that there was war in the land, and the disorder that accompanies war sometimes provides opportunities for oppression against civilians from either belligerent. Lastly, maybe something of this has been forgotten to historians. In any case, Calvin’s choice of words was somewhat justified later by the Catholic response to the Huguenot challenge.

In his reply to Sadoleto (which, along with some biographical and historical context, should be required reading for every Protestant each year), Calvin engages his Roman Catholic counterpart on the state of the RC in many ways:

  • Calvin called the RC a “church” (albeit deformed). This suggests that Calvin did not teach that every Roman Catholic was condemned. He wrote: “We indeed, Sadoleto, deny not that those over which you preside are Churches of Christ,” etc.
  • The RC was used by men to advance their own careers and to secures a life of literature and ease (which life, had he remained, would have been Calvin’s choice). Calvin refuted Sadoleto’s charge of ambition by pointing this out.
  • Church-State relations were tangled; Calvin reported that he had separated the functions and revenues of the church and state in Geneva.
  • Calvin alluded to the same persecution as in the Prefatory Address and the Introduction to the Psalms, charging the RC with “violently [driving] away” the Protestant party “by fire and sword”.

Calvin’s main argument against Sadoleto was that the Bishop had missed the church by seeing only the visible form of it (the RC), and allowing it to disregard the Word as primary, and thus separated the Holy Spirit from the Word. Calvin expanded on this argument by using not only the Word but ancient church tradition (to a lesser extent) to describe the sad state of Sadoleto’s charge. Calvin’s asserted that the RC:

  • departed from the purity of the ancient church;
  • invented useless and superstitious ceremonies;
  • promoted a scholastic approach so complex that Calvin called it a type of “secret magic”;
  • ignored the Word of God in its simplicity and resorted to entertainment in its sermons (which is happening today in the Protestant church, especially the seeker-sensitive mega-churches);
  • fused works to grace in salvation – making works (“love”) primary;
  • resorted to ceremonies to lure the people into “atoning” for their sins by the performance of these ceremonies;
  • fell into superstition in its understanding of the Eucharist;
  • suffered “many disasters” at the hands of the auricular confession; and
  • built up a “hydra of errors”, tricks, superstitions, avarice and other degradations of piety from the base of the doctrine of purgatory.

Calvin answered Sadoleto’s argument that the Protestants had left the church to pursue licentiousness; he admitted to sinfulness, but turned the argument back on Sadoleto by pointing out that the Roman Catholic party exceeded them all in licentiousness (especially Rome, that “famous abode of sanctity”, who has “so overflowed with all kinds of iniquity, that scarcely anything so abominable has ever been seen before.”) The church had fallen into its miserable condition by succumbing to “luxury and indulgence,” and awarded offices without a regular process of election.
Calvin’s report on the state of the RC in the reply is grim but still held out the prospect of hope. His description of the RC as an actual “Church of Christ” provided some basis for that hope. He was not self-consciously leaving the Kingdom of God to pursue innovation. He was lifting his hand to reform his part of the church, and challenged Sadoleto to do likewise. Calvin was fixing the form of the church, not inventing a new one. A terribly unfortunate outcome of the Reformation was the decision of the RC to remain separate and condemn as “anathema” anyone who taught the central Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (JBFO). Before the Reformation, the RC was unclear on this critical tenet of the Christian religion; afterward, the RC rejected JBFO outright (Canon 9 of the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”)

The significance of this sad litany is to show that the Protestant cause was in danger during the time of Calvin’s writing of the Prefatory Address. But the she was far healthier and happier, even while bloodied, than her older sister.

Source: Piety’s Wisdom by J. Mark Beach

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