John Calvin, in accord with the Church Fathers?

A couple weeks ago, I picked up Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Volume I and began to read it again. I only read through the introduction and was stopped by an account of John Calvin claiming that his beliefs are in accord with the Church Fathers more than Catholic dogma during the discourses on the Lausanne Articles. Since reading Volume III of the Holy Scripture trilogy, I’ve been looking up references to the Church Fathers and making my way through their works on New Advent and CCEL. Naturally, I began to investigate these claims by Calvin. If there is any substance to claiming the Church Fathers as “non-Catholic”, then Calvin surely knew it then and pointed it out.

Yet, in this discourse, Calvin claims more than the non-Catholic nature of the Fathers, he claims that they believed as he did, particularly with regards to the Eucharist. He gave nine references, eight put forward to show the Fathers believed the presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be merely symbolic. Of these references that he claimed were “reached readily without using great subtlety in citing them”, I have been able to find one. I have ordered a book containing another, but received a different book of the same name, Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, and have ordered the book again. I will share more on that when it arrives and I have time to look it over. I don’t suggest that Calvin was intentionally using obscure references and calling them easy to reach, but that for some reason over the past 500 years these references have not been translated from the Latin, transferred to an electronic format, or copies sent to the local libraries. It’s frustrating, and I’m about to learn Latin and camp out in the Vatican archives to get to the bottom of this.

For some reason, I feel compelled to hunt down these references and explain them to my satisfaction. Or, if I happen to find astonishing evidence of the Church Father’s belief that Christ is not present, then abandon my Catholic journey altogether. I can’t expect to find the latter since for every Father quoted by Calvin, I have easy references at my fingertips that clearly show their position on the Eucharist. Either these great men changed their minds readily, or they have been misunderstood by those who did not want to understand them, or they held some position I can’t fathom that incorporates their quotes on the Real Presence.

I have listed the references that Calvin made below and will deal with each in separate posts as I investigate them further. If anyone has information with regards to these references, please share! Several use familiar language and ideas that can be easily found in other places, but the quotes themselves are out of my reach.

I) Calvin begins by referencing Cyprian, who “does not wish us to have any regard to what is said or what is done by those before us.” Calvin cites this as from letter 3 of book 2 of Cyprian’s letters. Unfortunately, the 82 epistles of Cyprian are no longer arranged into books and will take some time to go through. I have heard Cyprian quoted this way to prove him and the other Church Fathers to be “proto-Protestants”, but hadn’t looked up the context or found with regards to what he would have us ignore those who came before us. I know he was rather ferociously loyal to the Catholic Church to the extent of believing only Catholic baptisms are valid, and is credited with the first version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. The hunt for this reference continues in searching his letters.

II) Calvin emphasizes Tertullian’s use of the word “figure” with respect to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. I found this reference, which is in Tertullian’s Against Marcion, Book 4. I believe this quote is taken out of context. Even in the same paragraph, Tertullian speaks of the Body and Blood in a very real way. I also found a website with exhaustive explanation of this quote, including analysis from Protestant patristic scholars who agree Tertullian believes in some form of the Real Presence. I will put a separate post up to address this reference in depth.

III) Next, Calvin mentions the unfinished commentaries on Matthew, attributed to John Chrysostom. He marks the location in about the middle of the 11th homily. I read through the eleventh homily of John Chrysostom’s on the gospel of Matthew, and found nothing discussing the “greater offense in us to contaminate and pollute ourselves than to profane the vessels in which are administered the elements of the Last Supper.” Calvin says he word for word quotes the homily by saying, “while we are the true vessels which God inhabits, those contain not the true body of Jesus Christ, but only the mystery of his body.” I’ve googled as best I know how, and I have no idea where else to look for this reference.

IV) The rest of Calvin’s references are from Augustine, because of his opponents use of him. I find this interesting, because in many places Augustine is very explicit in explaining the Eucharist. His words can easily be misunderstood, since he draws fine lines and represents two sides of an issue, logically working through to determine the truth. I intend to devote a good deal of time discussing Augustine and his view of the Eucharist.

Moving on to Calvin’s reference: He cites Augustine’s 23rd letter. This letter deals with the sin of re-baptism, not the faith of children in baptism that Calvin mentions. He says Augustine calls faith in infants in baptism a kind of simile, like the Eucharist, and then says the bread and wine are called “in some sense” the body and blood of Christ. The Latin phrase used by Augustine is “quodammodo vocamus sacramenta”. I searched Augustine’s book on infant baptism and found nothing there as well, though I didn’t read the whole thing. Again, I’m at a loss as to where to go from here, maybe the letters have been renumbered.

V) Calvin’s next reference: In the middle of Augustine’s book, Against Adimantus the Manichee, he says the “blood is not substance but sign” in refuting Adimantus’s claim that Genesis Chapter 9 means the blood of an animal contains its soul. It seems this book has not been translated from the Latin.

VI) Calvin says under Psalm 98, Augustine interprets “adorate scabellum pedum eius quoniam sanctum est” to mean the Jews ate Christ’s body in the same manner the Christians do. Things get complicated when you’re trying to understand someone interpreting 500 years ago what someone else wrote 1700 years ago. Apparently the Psalms have been renumbered in such a way that our current Psalm 99 is the old Psalm 98. In Augustine’s Exposition on Psalm 99 at New Advent, he referred to all these verses as “98” instead. I believe “adorate scabellum pedum eius quoniam sanctum est” is “worship at His footstool; he is holy” from Psalm 99:5. Here Augustine does talk about the Echarist and expounds John 6 to show that to worship at God’s footstool is to worship His Earth, and by that he means to worship Christ’s flesh who became part of God’s creation. In both New Advent and CCEL, the section I think Calvin is referring to has been edited out. I have a book coming in the mail with excerpts from Augustine’s Expositions on the Psalms. We’ll see if it’s in there!

VII) Calvin next says that in a homily on the gospel of John, in the 8th or 9th section, Augustine talks about the resurrection in such a way to say Christ’s body cannot be on Earth. He says “while this age endures, it is necessary that the saviour be on high; but he has left his Word on earth by which he speaks to us. For it had to be that his body which ascended into heaven be in one place; but his truth is spread over all.” I’ve only read through thirteen of Augustine’s 124 tractates on the gospel of John. I haven’t found it yet. But this reference is unsurprising, and I have found other references that say close to the same thing. Augustine well explains himself on this subject in his homily on the Ascention. There is also a substantial amount worth reading through in his homily on John 6.

VIII) In Chapter 19 of the book De fide ad Petrum Diaconum, Calvin says Augustine speaks of the “representation of the body of Christ” in the Old Testament animal sacrifices and that the New Testament sacrifice of the Eucharist is an “act of thanksgiving and commemoration for the flesh of Christ.” I don’t know where to find this book and don’t know if it has been translated from Latin either.

IX) I have ordered a copy of Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, which contain his Letter 187, On the Presence of God written to Dardanum. Calvin mentions Augustine’s epistle “ad Dardanum” in which “he testifies clearly what he thinks.” In this letter, Calvin says Augustine writes, “Jesus Christ according to his divinity fills all, and is spread through heaven and earth… according to his humanity he is in heaven, not on earth.” This idea is echoed many times not only by Augustine but by the other Fathers, and is similar to Calvin’s seventh reference. Without reading the reference, I think reading Augustine’s other works on the Eucharist and the ascention explain well what he thinks. I think Augustine’s explanations deserve a detailed post. It’s on my list.

Of course, I expect to find the Church Fathers in absolute accord with Catholic teaching. All that I have read of them so far suggests this. If so, what does this mean for John Calvin? I know little about the man, and intend to learn more. Based off of this alone, I’m led to believe he either intentionally deceived people and manipulated the words of the Father’s to further his cause, or he was some kind of delusional and honestly believed these men supported his view, or most likely he thought himself into a corner. Perhaps he really believed the Church Fathers agreed with him, not out of intellectual honesty or delusion, but because he had to believe that in order to make it fit with his a priori assumption that he already posessed the gospel truth.

Some may ask if I’m doing the same thing, but in the opposing manner. Am I just finding Catholic Church Fathers because I already think they’re Catholic or because I want to find them so? The only way to avoid reading your own ideas into the works of these great men is to try your best to understand the works taken as a whole, in context of the time in which they were written. As I have attempted to do so, I find the Catholic position on many issues more clearly understood, because they have already delved into the particulars of understanding them. If something has seemed non-Catholic, it has been because either the Father is being misread, or because the Catholic position was not understood. I expect that will be what I continue to find. I’ll keep you updated.

7 Responses to John Calvin, in accord with the Church Fathers?

  1. stirenaeus says:

    (1) “I expect to find the Church Fathers in absolute accord with Catholic teaching”

    Well, not necessarily — Tertullian becomes a Montanist, for instance, and many Fathers suggest things from time to time that are not affirmed or, in some cases, declared wrong. But put differently, you’re right to suggest the Fathers look like Catholics and Orthodox, not Protestants.

    (2) I do remember that Calvin somewhere (and it escapes me, discussing 2 Cor 3.6?) that he says debates about whom the Fathers side with really doesn’t matter, because it’s all about Scripture anyway.

    I’ve been both Lutheran and Calvinist, and left the former for the latter, but the studying I’ve done lately, were I to remain Protestant, I might just go back to Lutheranism. Luther is much more Catholic than people think.

  2. Stacey says:

    You’re right, Irenaeus. I know some of the Father’s themselves had different views, wrong views even, so that they themselves are not a part of the Tradition the Catholic Church speaks of. Like you said, Tertullian became a Montanist, Cyprian denied baptisms outside the Church and re-baptized. I’m told even Augustine grew something of a hard edge in his older years, and became overly rigorous in his thinking. These men were great men, but imperfect men all the same.

    What I really do expect to find in accord with the Catholic Church is the beliefs of the Early Church that the Fathers testify to. For instance, I think you can ask a question, such as, “Did the Early Chuch believe in the Real Presence, especially in a way consistent with transubstantiation?” This is what I was really talking about in my post. I think the answer is overwhelmingly “Yes.” I don’t think we can take every snippet that the Father’s wrote and use it like Canon Law. Although, some of their work is really great. I have to say I’m developing a real love for it!

    Yes, in the end, Calvin disregards Tradition, of course. In the Lausanne dialogues he was charged with disrespecting the Church Fathers because his beliefs were so contrary to theirs. He replied by saying they were in accord with the Fathers, and the Catholic Church was not, especially with regards to the Real Presence. Even when he, and all other Protestants, lose their memory of traditional beliefs, I think that’s a rather serious charge that should be looked into. It’s one that is bandied about readily by people ignorant of anything but modern apologetic compilations. And if he was right, that the Early Church was not Catholic in nature, then the Catholic Church has some serious problems in claiming Tradition.

  3. lenetta says:

    I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the Church Fathers are a bit over my head. Blessings to you as you work your way through them!

    I just wanted to pop on and say that I’m almost done with The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn – it connects the Mass with the Book of Revelation. There have been a few times where you’ve touched on something in a post and I’ve read something similar in this book – it’s been interesting. If you’d like to borrow it, I’d be happy to send it to you.

    I’m hoping hubs will read it someday, but I don’t think that day is coming any time soon. If it’s farther down on your list, no problem, the offer will be open. It’s less than 200 pages, so it’s a “quick” read . . . except when you only read for five or ten minutes at night before collapsing to sleep. Ahem.

  4. Stacey says:

    Ah, the five or ten minute reading spurts I’m soooooo familiar with! Thanks for the offer, I will put it on my list. I don’t think I’ll borrow it though. I’m something of a possessive book addict and like to own most all books I read (unless they’re one time, no future reference books like whipped topping fiction). I’m fond of marking my books with colored post it tabs and even scribble in some, so if I get the urge with this book it’d be good to have my own copy 🙂

    Have you read much of the Fathers? They have a much friendlier writing style than I expected. I think that comes from the dialogue nature of the works, since I know some (like Augustine and even Calvin) used stenographers. That, and they’re really sarcastic, I think it’s funny.

  5. lenetta says:

    Haha – you sound like my sister-in-law. She reads her books the way Catholics worship the Lord – with everything we’ve got! (She’s even figured out a little bookmark/pocket deal so she can keep her pen and highlighter with the book.) Me, my mom makes fun of me because I barely crack the spine as I’m reading.

    Nope, I’ve not read the Fathers; I guess I get that from reading discussions of them that are a bit beyond me. Which brings me to the reason of my comment – have I given you this link yet? I keep thinking I ought to ditch it because I don’t currently have the attention span to dig through the posts properly, but I keep thinking that I might. :>) Their tag line is “Reformation meets Rome.” If I’ve already passed it along, sorry. You know how things blur together . . .

    And, worse yet, I appear to have fried my jump drive WITHOUT a backup. You’d think I’d know better by now. I’m invoking St. Jude that I can at least get the data peeled out of it for a fee. Wish me luck.

  6. Rob says:

    Sorry, I just read this. I don’t know how far you got in your research. But even at first glance, these quotes are not opposed to Catholic teaching, and other quotes from the same authors flesh out their proto-Catholic views. I say proto-Catholic, but what I mean is, their views are the views of 4th and 5th century Catholics, whose ideas developed into what we have today.

    So the fact that a Father comments on the symbolic element of the Eucharist doesn’t contradict the fact that modern Catholics recognize a symbolic element too. With Chrysostom, we too say that the vessels contain the “mystery” of his body and blood. A hunk of Christ’s flesh does not lie on the altar. Rather he is truly present in the manner of a mystery. And the Eucharist is an act of thanksgiving and comemoration for the flesh of Christ. Eucharist means thanksgiving and “do this is in memory of me”. Doesn’t detract one bit from the fact that he is truly present.

    All of this highlights the Prot tendency to look upon one aspect of the mystery, or one aspect of what someone has said about the mystery, to the neglect of the rest. And John Calvin was king of forgetting the other side of Mystery. E.g., predestination to the exclusion of free will.

    Re: online translations of the Fathers, as I understand it, New Advent is based on the 30+ volume set that was translated a long time ago, by Protestant theologians. Not that it’s not reliable, it is, but there may be some selection bias in which were works were included. Or not. Maybe they just thought 38 volumes was enough.


  7. brettsalkeld says:

    Hi Stacey,
    I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of help for you regarding specific passages from the Fathers, but I do want to offer what I can in other areas.
    I am a Roman Catholic who specializes in Eucharistic theology and have just started reading about Calvin myself. I have been surprised to find that, though he often repudiates the Catholic understanding, Calvin is not himself very far from it. Indeed, ‘Calvinism’ has often followed Zwingli rather than Calvin in its understanding of the Eucharist.
    I don’t think Calvin was deceiving himself about what the Fathers said in claiming them for his side. I think he was confused by the polemics of his time about what the Catholic Church actually said and got himself caught attacking an idea for which he actually had significant sympathy. And this sympathy came, in part from his reading of the Fathers, Augustine especially.
    You seem an avid reader, so I will recommend a book to you that I found very helpful in this area. It is Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin, by B.A. Gerrish. Chapters 1, 5 and 6 are especially helpful for the interested Catholic. It is interesting to think what Calvin would have written had he been aware of Thomas’ rejection of a ‘local’ eucharistic presence, something which he attributes to Catholics and treats as a major stumbling block.

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