Blog 183: 4.6.7 - 4.7.4

Rick Phillips

History is always important to Christians, since ours is a faith based on God's saving deeds in history and since the true church passes its faith through history, one generation to the next.  For this reason, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers had an urgent need to address the question of history.  In particular, Rome charged the Reformers with breaking with the tradition of papal authority in what they regarded as the Catholic Church under Rome.  In response, Calvin spared no pains both to refute the Romish claims and also to set forth a true account of church history on the matter of ecclesial authority.  Calvin's cogent reasoning in Book 4 Chapter 7 is just as valuable now as five centuries ago in freeing the Church from the unbiblical tyranny of Rome and to her rightful obedience to the sole headship of the living, reigning Jesus Christ.

The last paragraph of chapter 6, which refuted the primacy of the Roman see, makes the point that the early church did not acknowledge the sole headship of any bishopric or patriarchy.  To make his point, Calvin appeals to both Jerome and Cyprian, both of whom provide eloquent arguments for the equality of all bishops under the sole authority of the source of our salvation, the Lord Jesus.  Calvin thus summarizes: "Where is the primacy of the Roman See, if the entire bishopric resides in Christ alone?"  He concludes, therefore, that the papal authority assumed in later days was unknown to the ancient church and therefore constituted a usurpation of the true authority of the exalted Christ.

In chapter 7, Calvin moves forward to assail the claims of Rome on the further record of the ancient church, showing that Rome not only never possess primacy in the early days but did not even dare to assume it.  True, the Council of Nicaea (325) established Rome as a patriarchy, but only one of four (and the fourth listed to boot).  So also in later councils, Rome generally did not preside or rule, and when the pope was given the gavel it was only because of his particular ability and not because of his primacy as Bishop of Rome. 

The same can be said of the "titles of pride, of which that pontiff now makes a wondrous boast" (4.7.3).  Early writers like Cyprian address the Roman pontiff as an equal and did not hesitate to harshly rebuke him as they deemed necessary.  Nor did any early pope dare to take up high titles over the other bishops, in which case such claims would have been vigorously opposed.  As late as Pope Gregory (540-604), from whose time the current institution of the Roman Catholic Church may be dated, the Roman pontiff not only did not claim supremacy.  In fact, when the patriarch of Constantinople sought to claim a superior status Gregory railed in opposition, describing such an attempt to rule the whole church as the action of Antichrist. 

As Calvin describes the equality of the early church bishops and patriarchs, he must surely have seen a parallel to the relationship among the Reformation leaders of his own time, which was one of partnership and equality in faith and ministry.  If Calvin did note this, he showed considerable restraint in not pointing this out, nor to use himself as the eminent example that he was of godly leadership among brothers in gospel ministry.