Happy Birthday, John Calvin

But with the immediate (helpful and true) caveat:

In his own words, don’t celebrate the birthday boy unless he helps lead you deeper into a Gospel-soaked piety.

Is Calvin, the man born this day in 1509 in Noyon, France, still relevant? Fortunately, Pope Francis is helping keep Calvin’s ideas current by issuing a new indulgence today:

Pope Francis will grant a plenary indulgence – a remission of all temporal punishment due to sin – to World Youth Day Catholic participants, the Vatican announced July 9…

They will also need to invoke “the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Brazil (with the title Nossa Senhora da Conceicao Aparecida) as well as other patrons and intercessors of the same meeting, that they may encourage the young to reinforce their faith and lead a holy life.”

The granting of indulgences by the Pope comes from Jesus’ response to Peter, the first Pope, when he proclaimed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Matthew 16.

Scott Clark points out that Calvin (like Luther) had quite a bit to say about indulgences:

Now very many persons see the base tricks, deceits, thefts, and greediness with which the indulgence traffickers have heretofore mocked and beguiled us, and yet they do not see the very fountain of the impiety itself. As a consequence, it behooves us to indicate not only the nature of indulgences but also what in general they would be, wiped clean of all spots. The merits of Christ and the holy apostles and martyrs our opponents call the “treasury of the church.” … Now these, to describe them rightly, are a profanation of the blood of Christ, a Satanic mockery, to lead the Christian people away from God’s grace, away from the life that is in Christ, and turn them aside from the true way of salvation. For how could the blood of Christ be more foully profaned than when they deny that it is sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, for reconciliation, for satisfaction—unless the lack of it, as of something dried up and exhausted, be otherwise supplied and filled? “To Christ, the Law and all the Prophets bear witness,” says Peter, that “through him we are to receive forgiveness of sins.” [Acts 10:43]
read the whole quote at the Heidelblog

Calvin proves eminently accurate and readable, even today.

There are many other things to read about Calvin’s birthday. I will simply conclude by pointing you to what I wrote last year at this time:

July 10 is the … anniversary of John Calvin’s (1509 – 64) birthday. Many blame Calvin for coming up with a novel and unbiblical theology that centered on predestination. I think that, not only was Calvin’s theology eminently biblical, but it wasn’t novel either. I’ve looked before at similarities between Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. On this his birthday, consider a few quotes comparing Calvin’s so-called “5 Points” with select quotes from the early Church Fathers.
Read the whole thing here…

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth….So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
I Corinthians 3:5 – 6, 21

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, John Calvin

  1. Now, do you understand what an indulgence is? Apart from Calvin’s harsh words? It is true that there were abuses of indulgences prior to the Reformation. Bu there is nothing “satanic” about the doctrine itself.

  2. hi Joseph! Thanks for the comment.

    I thought I understood Rome’s doctrine, but your question prompted me to wonder if I really did. So I refreshed my memory from the CCC.

    You make a good point that abuses of a doctrine. and calling said doctrine “satanic,” are very different things. And to top things off, the rhetoric of the Reformation was often very inflammatory compared to our modern tastes.

    And yet, for men like Luther, Calvin and others who fell under Trent’s anathemas (see Trent session 25, Decree on Indulgences), I wonder if the concept of granting temporal forgiveness for either monetary or moral compliance as a means of accessing the treasury of saints, the BVM, and Christ – at the discretion of the Pope – felt like a betrayal of scores of biblical texts. Through the Protestant rejection of the Apocrypha, Judah Maccabee’s prayer for the dead no longer connected virtue from saints triumphant to saints militant. And looking at Paul’s pleas for the Corinthians to restore the sexual offender in 2 Corinthians, the case for indulgences seemed weak. But I think what makes Calvin call the doctrine (and not just the abuse of the doctrine) “satanic” was its implicit surrender to a works righteousness. Calvin exegeted what he called duplex iustitia, “double righteousness,” from the Scriptures – which covered both initial and ongoing righteousness from the righteousness (treasury?) of Christ by faith. Personally, I am more convinced by Scripture (and to a lesser extent, tradition) of Calvin’s doctrine of duplex iustitia than the indulgence/purgatory model.

    In any case, let me hear your opinion, Joseph. What qualifies something as “satanic?” Surely, the Protestant reformers never framed demonic words/phrases into the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the sufficiency of Scripture alone, or the non-sacrificial sacrament of the Eucharist, and yet Trent declared them all anathema. Is there a connection there with “satanic?” I look forward to your thoughts!

    • Yes, the rhetoric was definitely inflammatory. To my dismay, many Calvinists, more than any other Protestants, still maintain that same vitriolic opposition.

      I recently read a book on indulgences, to give a presentation to our RCIA class, that was very enlightening about the origins and theology of the doctrine. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a Protestant — Cardinal Lépicier did not pull punches — and I can’t imagine any Protestant sitting through 400 pages on such an objectionable doctrine as indulgences. 😉 But I do hope I’m prepared to answer some questions now.

      One thing I’m not sure if you realize or not — but “anathema” was only a legal formula for a formal excommunication from the Church. It condemned specific doctrines, of course, but as far as anyone “being under” an anathema, Luther and Calvin had both already excommunicated themselves by the time of Trent (in fact, weren’t they both dead?), so technically, such excommunications would have had no bearing on them. Protestants often interpret “anathema” as some “damning to hell” or some other such, but though that sort of language was sometimes used, by the time of Trent it was primarily a declaration that these doctrines, and those who taught them, weren’t welcome in the Catholic Church. So no, that’s not “satanic.”

      I wonder if the concept of granting temporal forgiveness for either monetary or moral compliance as a means of accessing the treasury of saints, the BVM, and Christ – at the discretion of the Pope – felt like a betrayal of scores of biblical texts.

      Well, first of all, I’m not sure I agree with that characterization. As I’m sure you have read, the Catholic Church makes a distinction between the eternal punishment due for a sin, which Christ freely forgives by the grace of the cross, and the temporal punishment, which is really just a way of saying is that even though you’ve been forgiven and have no eternal debt to pay, your sin still has consequences. And as far as “monetary or moral compliance” — indulgences were never, and still are not, a means to coercion to any end. They were incentives to promote good behavior and the practice of good works, offered freely, and people pounced on them like hotcakes. People wanted to do good works, especially if they felt they were receiving a reward for them. The “sale of indulgences” — which, it’s debatable whether that’s even a fair description; even the likes of Tetzel posed it as a grant of an indulgence for the good work of donating to a holy effort — would never have become a problem or offended Luther so if everybody hadn’t been flocking to them. The biggest problem and abuse of indulgences was not that people were “selling” them, but that popes were issuing too many and too liberal or too far-reaching indulgences. There had been a number of efforts in the century or two prior to Luther to reel in the practice — he wasn’t the first to notice that it was getting out of hand.

      So no, if you read Luther’s 95 Theses, he wasn’t complaining so much about the Church trying to coerce “monetary or moral compliance,” but about the Church promising too much for too little when it wasn’t clear that it could even deliver on that in the next life.

      As far as it being a betrayal of biblical texts: the doctrine does have a basis in Scripture, primarily in the “power of the keys” given especially to Peter and the power of “binding and loosing” (Matthew 16:17-19). “Binding and loosing” were rabbinical concepts that entailed the power to make binding doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements, to set and remove canonical penalties. And that was the origin of the doctrine in the earliest centuries of the Church. In the beginning, canonical penance for grave sins was no joke — it entailed entering an order of penitents and putting on sackcloth and ashes for a matter of years. But bishops had the authority to lift that penance at their discretion. In the age of persecution and martyrdom, these penitents began to obtain the written promises of those destined for martyrdom that they would intercede for them in heaven. When they presented those notes to the bishop, the bishop would in turn remit some or all of their penalty. And that’s the origin of indulgences. Eventually, the pope began issuing indulgences for certain pious deeds, like making pilgrimages, venerating relics, praying the rosary — to begin with, nothing of particular profit to the Church, but of benefit to people’s souls, to encourage those practices. As you can see, that is still the idea of indulgences today.

      As for the sinner in 2 Corinthians 2: it’s interesting you should mention that — because the Church sees in that precisely the principle on which the doctrine of indulgences is based. The man had been expelled from the Church — perhaps he was the sinner of 1 Corithians 5? — and had other punishments placed upon him. But Paul here has mercy on the sinner — he lifts the sentence of penance. The idea of indulgences is that “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And Paul here looses the punishment that had been placed upon the man, judging that it had served its purpose of bringing the man to repentance.

      As far as “works’ righteousness” — I don’t have that understanding of this. The sinner has already been forgiven and his sin remitted. The temporal punishment, the penance, is merely what he has to pay — whether in terms of actual consequences, in making reparation to those he has offended, or in terms of what he has to go through to set things right in his soul. Penance is a “penalty” only by analogy — it’s also a remedy for sin and healing the harm it’s caused you. Even Calvin taught the doctrine of progressive sanctification. This is only that, paired with the quite scriptural idea (cf. James 2:14-26, Philippians 2:12-14, Galatians 5:6) that faith working in love is the path to sanctification. (As for purgatory: That, in my opinion, is only the logical end of any belief in progressive sanctification. One has to finish being sanctified, whether he does it by the end of his life or not.)

      Now, I don’t understand Calvin’s concept of duplex iustitia, so I can’t really comment on that.

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