Blog 184: 4.7.5 - 4.7.10

Rick Phillips

As Calvin continues his refutation of papal claims to supremacy, he shows the great value of detailed learning.  Reading 4.7.5-10, one may soak in the volume of facts marshaled by Calvin, but we should appreciate his vast reading in the early church fathers and councils and the value of this learning to his ministry.  Our unlearned generation is greatly rebuked by Calvin's casual recitation of facts, and we are exhorted to put in the hard reading and the mental effort needed to attain to the mastery of fields in which we are called to serve.

The matter now before Calvin is the question of Rome's jurisdiction over the Church of Christ as a whole.  He makes his case by working through four matters in which ecclesial jurisdiction is comprehended, showing that in none of these did Rome enjoy supremacy in the ancient church: ordination of bishops, infliction of censures, calling of councils, and the hearing of appeals.  Here, in brief, is Calvin's persuasive case against Roman jurisdiction over the whole Church:

  • Ordination: The ancient councils granted the rite of ordination to each of the metropolitans, but overall supremacy to none.  Calvin summarizes: "it is certain that anciently the Roman bishop had no power of ordaining except within the bounds of his own patriarchate."  Moreover, it was the ancient practice of new patriarchs to present their orthodoxy to the other patriarchs, a practice observed by the Bishops of Rome at least through Gregory (540-604), a sign, Calvin observes, "of equality, not of lordship.
  • Censures: Bishops of Rome both inflicted and received censures in the ancient church.  Cyprian is quoted: "The brotherly fellowship which binds us together requires that we should mutually admonish each other."  "Therefore," Calvin notes, "it does not yet appear in this respect that the Roman bishop possessed any jurisdiction over those who did not belong to his province.
  • Councils: Under the empire, patriarchs called regional councils, but ecumenical councils could only be summoned by the emperor.  Therefore, Calvin says, "we are unwilling to admit what the Romanists now contend for - i.e. that [the pope] had power over all.
  • Appeals:  Whoever is the court of final appeal must also be the highest jurisdiction.  With this in mind, and ever seeking supremacy, a succession of popes sought to assume authority over appeals in the ancient church, but were "stoutly resisted" by the bishops of France and Africa.  The latter were so wearied by pernicious Roman interference that they threatened with excommunication anyone who made appeal to the pope.  In this matter, Calvin brings out his horns, noting several fraudulent attempts by Rome, including the use of faked documents, to claim jurisdiction over appeals.  These attempts disgraced the dignity of the Roman pontiff and shed light on the avarice for power so notable among the popes. 

With this cogent argument fully arrayed, Calvin renders his verdict on papal jurisdiction: "We see, therefore, how far in every way the Roman pontiff was from that supreme dominion, which he asserts to have been given him by Christ over all churches, and which he falsely alleges that he possessed in all ages, with the consent of the whole world."  With these words, Calvin not only closes the matter but sets an example for those engaged in ecclesiastical disputes today.


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