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Cardinal Sadolet and John Calvin

Cardinal Sadolet's exchange with John Calvin provides the occasion for what is surely the most powerful argument for the Protestant Reformation ever issued. I have my own problems with John Calvin's doctrines, but surely no one can argue with this defense of his call for reformation.


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The occasion of this exchange is John Calvin's sojourn in Strassburg, then a city of Germany. Germany had by then been thoroughly reformed, but Geneva in Switzerland had banished Calvin and Peter Farel in 1538 for trying to enforce reformation too quickly and too strictly.

With the reformers banished, Rome saw opportunity to return the great city of Geneva to the fold. They set Cardinal James Sadolet, one of those rare Catholic prelates that was a man of untarnished character, on the task. Cardinal Sadolet was also an eloquent and cultured man, and he used those talents to write a letter of great force to the council in Geneva in 1539.

Cardinal Sadolet's Letter

The quotes on this page are taken from Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church. The history given here comes from there, too. For this little sidelight, I pulled only from Schaff. John Calvin's history was diligently compared with many other web sites and history books.

Cardinal Sadolet's letter was kindly, but it accused the reformers of ill motives. It suggested they had joined the Reformation out of greed and ambition. It also argued extensively that the Catholic church must be correct because it had been united and held to the same beliefs for 1500 years [this isn't true], while the Reformers were split into many parties because they embraced error.

That was an argument that had been advanced by Tertullian against the gnostics in his Prescription Against Heretics 13 centuries earlier. It seems to me that Cardinal Sadolet, a scholar, must have read it, for his letter uses very similar wording. He writes:

Truth is always one, while error is varied and multiform; that which is straight is simple, that which is crooked has many turns. Can anyone who professes Christ, fail to perceive that such teaching of the holy Church is the proper work of Satan, and not of God? What does God demand of us? What does Christ enjoin? That we be all one in him.

Listen to how similarly Tertullian put it around A.D. 210:

Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith?  No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.  When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition? (Prescription Against Heretics 28)

The problem is the huge difference between the church in Tertullian's day and the church is Cardinal Sadolet's day. In Tertullian's day, the churches were comprised of godly, committed believers. No one church ruled over any other. The only way for 2nd century churches to hold the same doctrine was to have had it handed down to them. Even communication with one another would not have been effective enough—spread from Africa to the Middle East, and to even northern Europe—to bring them into unity, especially when no one church had the authority to mandate unity.

Did the Roman Catholic Church in Cardinal Sadolet's Day Really Bear Little Resemblance to Apostolic Teaching?

  • What apostle would have ordered someone to be put to death for translating the Scriptures into a language that people could read? Yet the Roman Catholic Church had done it repeatedly.
  • The RCC taught then that the bread and wine of communion became the flesh and blood of Christ so that not one molecule of the grain or grape remained
  • The RCC taught then (and still does!) that Christ, Mary, and some of the saints had extra good works that could be applied to others—at the pope's will, though he usually sold these "indulgences" to raise money—to reduce physical punishments they receive for sin.
  • Numerous doctrines concerning Mary that can't be found in the Scriptures or in any church writings before Nicea
  • "Veneration" and praying to Mary and the saints. (Praying for the dead can be found in early church writings, but not praying to them. Even Augustine questioned this practice, though he approved it.)

Tertullian addresses all those things. Cardinal Sadolet could not. The Roman Catholic Church, which did not exist in Tertullian's day, was filled with corruption in Cardinal Sadolet's day, and it held teachings bearing little resemblance to apostolic teaching.

John Calvin's Answer to Cardinal Sadolet

So John Calvin was not about to leave Cardinal Sadolet's letter unanswered, even if he was living in Strassburg rather than Geneva. His answer is creative and insightful, to say the least, and it silenced Sadolet, who left Geneva alone afterwards.

We deny not that those over whom you preside are churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor's office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation.

   … Destroyed the Church would have been, had not God, with singular goodness, prevented. For in all places where the tyranny of the Roman pontiff prevails, you scarcely see as many stray and tattered vestiges as will enable you to perceive that these Churches he half buried.  Nor should you think this absurd, since Paul tells you that Antichrist would have his seat in no other place than in the midst of God's sanctuary.

Then he adds:

Let your pontiff boast as he may of the succession of Peter: even if he should make good his title to it, he will establish nothing more than that obedience is due to him from the Christian people so long as he himself maintains his fidelity to Christ, and does not deviate from the purity of the gospel. A prophet should be judged by the congregation (1 Cor. 14:29). Whoever exempts himself from this must first expunge his name from the list of the prophets.

In this way he defends the right to question the pope's authority and teachings. He then moves on to defend the way in which he did it.

A Defense of Reformation Against Cardinal Sadolet

It is often wrongly assumed that the Reformers simply left the Roman Catholic Church. This isn't true. All of them simply wanted to reform it. Martin Luther especially was a staunch supporter of the pope prior to Rome making strong efforts to quench the Reformation.

Both Luther and Calvin were already teachers in the Catholic Church when they began trying to reform it. Both simply saw it as their obligation to try to teach the truth as they knew it to those they were called—by Rome—to teach.

Thus, John Calvin did not want to leave the Church, as he made clear above by calling Rome's churches the churches of Christ. He makes it even more clear in the part of the letter he writes as an address to God.

I hope you will forgive me for the long quotes here. I cannot presume to say any of the things which follow as well as John Calvin answered Cardinal Sadolet in 1540. Philip Schaff translated this around 1890. I have not changed the wording or punctuation.

They charged me with two of the worst of crimes—heresy and schism. And the heresy was, that I dared to protest against dogmas which they received. But what could I have done? I heard from Thy mouth that there was no other light of truth which could direct our souls into the way of life, than that which was kindled by Thy Word. I heard that whatever human minds of themselves conceive concerning Thy Majesty, the worship of Thy Deity, and the mysteries of Thy religion, was vanity. I heard that their introducing into the Church instead of Thy Word, doctrines sprung from the human brain, was sacrilegious presumption.

But when I turned my eyes towards men, I saw very different principles prevailing. Those who were regarded as the leaders of faith, neither understood Thy Word, nor greatly cared for it. They only drove unhappy people to and fro with strange doctrines, and deluded them with I know not what follies. Among the people themselves, the highest veneration paid to Thy Word was to revere it at a distance, as a thing inaccessible, and abstain from all investigation of it.

Owing to this supine state of the pastors, and this stupidity of the people, every place was filled with pernicious errors, falsehoods, and superstition. They, indeed, called Thee the only God, but it was while transferring to others the glory which thou hast claimed for Thy Majesty. They figured and had for themselves as many gods as they had saints, whom they chose to worship. Thy Christ was indeed worshipped as God, and retained the name of Saviour; but where He ought to have been honored, He was left almost without honor. For, spoiled of His own virtue, He passed unnoticed among the crowd of saints, like one of the meanest of them. There was none who duly considered that one sacrifice which He offered on the cross, and by which He reconciled us to Thyself—none who ever dreamed of thinking of His eternal priesthood, and the intercession depending upon it; none who trusted in His righteousness only. That confident hope of salvation which is both enjoined by Thy Word, and founded upon it, had almost vanished. …

As to the charge of forsaking the Church, which they were wont to bring against me, there is nothing of which my conscience accuses me, unless, indeed, he is to be considered a deserter, who, seeing the soldiers routed and scattered, and abandoning the ranks, raises the leaderís standard, and recalls them to their posts. For thus, O Lord, were all thy servants dispersed, so that they could not, by any possibility, hear the command, but had almost forgotten their leader, and their service, and their military oath. In order to bring them together, when thus scattered, I raised not a foreign standard, but that noble banner of Thine which we must follow, if we would be classed among Thy people. Then I was assailed by those who, when they ought to have kept others in their ranks, had led them astray, and when I determined not to desist, opposed me with violence. …

With whom the blame rests it is for Thee, O Lord, to decide. Always, both by word and deed, have I protested how eager I was for unity. Mine, however, was a unity of the Church, which should begin with Thee and end in Thee. For as oft as Thou didst recommend to us peace and concord, Thou, at the same time, didst show that Thou wert the only bond for preserving it. … 

Nor did I think that I dissented from Thy Church because I was at war with those leaders; for Thou hast forewarned me, both by Thy Son, and by the apostles, that that place would be occupied by persons to whom I ought by no means to consent. Christ had predicted not of strangers, but of men who should give themselves out for pastors, that they would be ravenous wolves and false prophets, and had, at the same time, cautioned me to beware of them. Where Christ ordered me to beware, was I to lend my aid? And the apostles declared that there would be no enemies of Thy Church more pestilential than those from within who should conceal themselves under the title of pastors (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:18).

Why should I have hesitated to separate myself from persons whom they forewarned me to hold as enemies? I had before my eyes the examples of Thy prophets, who I saw had a similar contest with the priests and false prophets of their day, though these were undoubtedly the rulers of the Church among the Israelitish people. But Thy prophets are not regarded as schismatics, because, when they wished to revive religion, which had fallen into decay, they desisted not, although opposed with the utmost violence. They still remained in the unity of the Church, though they were doomed to perdition by wicked priests, and deemed unworthy of a place among men, not to say saints.

Cardinal Sadolet Recognizes Calvin's Triumph

Calvin's answer was so powerful that it ended Cardinal Sadolet's attempt to restore Geneva to Catholicism. Luther commended it, and it was printed, along with Cardinal Sadolet's letter, and distributed in Strassburg and Geneva.

To this day, John Calvin's answer to Cardinal Sadolet remains a powerful argument for truth over the corrupt traditions of men.

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