Blog 186: 4.7.18 - 4.7.22

Rick Phillips

Well might Calvin have drawn upon Lord Acton's famous dictum in describing the outcome of the papacy's successful bid to usurp all ecclesial authority in Christendom: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  During his earlier recitation of the earlier days of popes Leo (440-461 AD) and Gregory (590-604 AD), Calvin saw much to praise and emulate.  But once the popes had secured jurisdiction over the other bishops, this soon was followed by tyranny, and tyranny by corruption.  This situation was greatly exasperated by the decline in prosperity and learning during the Early Middles Ages, sometimes known as The Dark Ages (roughly 500-1000 AD).  Even when bishops sought to oppose the popes, they lacked the learning and resources to succeed.  The consequence was the lamentable situation so lamented by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).  Calvin reports, "He complains that there converge upon Rome from the whole earth the ambitious, the greedy, the simoniacs, the sacrilegious, the keepers of concubines, the incestuous, and all such monsters, to obtain or retain churchly honors by apostolic authority; and that fraud, deception, and violence have prevailed" (4.7.18). 

Calvin employs this history to show how unbridled jurisdiction corrupted the Roman See and how the popes' lack of accountability opened the door to the grossest corruptions of the Church.  Calvin's aim is, of course, to assail the Roman claim to papal authority and infallibility.  Earlier, Calvin had pointed out how alien was this idea of papal supremacy to the ancient church, citing even Pope Gregory in his violent opposition to such an idea.  Now, Calvin shows how shameless it is for the papists of his day to ground their claims in the precedent of the early medieval period, since their own best men (represented by Bernard) condemned the period as the most corrupt and debased ever.  Only, Calvin argues, the situation had actually become worse in his own time and he only imagines what Bernard would say if he could see it.  So, Calvin argues, papal enthusiasts who seek to ground papal supremacy in the ancient age of Leo and Gregory "lack all shame" (4.7.22), since that age condemned the practice, and those who lay hold of the later medieval precedent also lack all shame due to the manifest corruption of the era to which they refer.

This discussion provides some fertile reflections for churches today, and especially for ministers of the gospel, to wit:

  • Under Calvin's reasoning, Christian institutions that attain to great power and wealth are ripe for corruption, owing to our sin nature and Satan's wiles;
  • Christian leaders should never be left above accountability to some body of equals or superiors;
  • The more power a church body accumulates, the more focused it will be on secular matters, to the exclusion of spiritual matters.  Referring to Gregory's complaints, Calvin argues that we should avoid accumulating  earthly power.  The prime example is none other than the papacy: "Here there is no preaching, no care for discipline, no zeal toward the churches, no spiritual activity - in short, nothing but the world" (4.7.22).
  • Therefore, in today's parlance, ministers of Christ should avoid obligations that will entail excessive committee requirements, fund-raising, and worldly obligations, so that we might instead focus our energies on the far more wholesome and valuable ministries of the Word, prayer, and pastoral care.


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