Blog 187: 4.7.23-30

Rick Phillips
In the concluding paragraphs of Book 4, Chapter 7, Calvin goes for the jugular in his battle against papal supremacy.  Throughout this chapter, he has steadfastly refuted Rome's chief arguments, denying that: Christ appointed Peter head of the whole church; Peter deposited this honor in the Roman see; the ancient church sanctioned papal supremacy and confirmed it by long use; and the supreme power had "always" been in the hands of the Roman pontiff, so that he was rightly above all other authority on earth.  Calvin has effectively assailed each these arguments.  But now he delivers the coup de grace: even if these things were once true they no longer can be for this simple reason: there is no true church at all in Rome!  Calvin writes: "What is not a church cannot be the mother of churches; he who is not a bishop cannot be the prince of bishops" (4.7.23).  

How far was Calvin from the politically correct emphasis on "charity above all" in today's doctrinal disputes!  Calvin thought that life or death issues were at stake and so he fought with a manly ferocity.  In this manner, Calvin asks, "I should like to know what one Episcopal quality the pontiff himself has?"  The pope neither teaches God's Word nor rightly administers the sacraments, nor properly exercises church discipline.  He therefore is not a pastor at all, much less the ruler of all bishops.  As a shepherd over an endangered flock, Calvin does not hesitate to denounce the wolves in the strongest language.

Reflecting on Calvin's comments in these paragraphs, we might ponder these matters relevant to us today:

•  Church leaders are not like civil leaders, who retain their office even if they are unfit.  But Christian leaders maintain their authority only as they teach sound doctrine, faithfully administer the sacraments, and govern biblically.  Calvin assails the popes for having made an abomination in all these categories (4.7.24).  So today the mere possession of office does not qualify any person to command authority in the Church.
•  Calvin's strident condemnation of Rome ought to give pause to mild hearts today who disdain the Reformation's rhetoric as it appears in our confessional documents.  For instance, the Westminster Confession condemns marriages between Christians and "papists, or other idolaters" (XXIV.3).  Those who agitate for the removal of such language should explain how Calvin's diatribe against Rome in these paragraphs errs in describing the papacy today.  Calvin defends his seemingly "intemperate" language by pointing out that the Holy Spirit, speaking in Scripture, uses no less strident terms for those guilty of similar perversions as Rome (4.7.25).
•  No claims to antiquity or to apparent success in ministry can justify a failure to teach the true gospel, faithfully administer the sacraments, and exercise proper church discipline.  Churches that fail to display these marks, whatever other qualifications they possess (including good intentions), should not be lauded as true churches.
•  Calvin's assessment of Roman Catholicism should inform the thinking of Christians today who are members of apostate or corrupt denominations.  What would the writer of these paragraphs say of ministers and congregations who remained under the authority of spiritual leaders who assail the gospel and practice moral abominations, especially on the grounds that they fear to lose retirement funds or real estate?