On the Reformation Debate between Jacopo Sadoleto and John Calvin

In 1539, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, bishop of Carpentras and a Jesuit priest, wrote a letter to the Genevese to urge them to return to the Catholic faith. At that time, John Calvin had been exiled from Geneva, and was then a minister at Strasbourg. The city council of Geneva consulted Calvin regarding Sadoleto’s letter, and Calvin agreed to give a reply. Calvin’s reply strongly defended the viewpoint of the Reformed movement. Both Sadoleto and Calvin were highly educated, and their letters are very valuable for understanding the theological debate at the times of Reformation. This debate was very academic, and apparently did not arouse a public discussion. However, it is undoubtedly an invaluable one because the discussion touched the very essence of the Reformation movement. It touched on various doctrines, but ultimately, the key difference is about the ultimate authority, whether it is the Word of God, or the rich ecclesiastical tradition of the Church.

Sadoleto was a very learned man. In his letter, he first pointed out the doctrines that both the Catholics and the Protestants agreed before discussing the differences. Examples including truth shining in darkness, its perspicuity both to the learned and the unlearned, doctrines’ foundation on humility and obedience towards God,[1] Christ’s work on Earth and His example being our role model,[2] His resurrection, His divine nature, His great work of redemption, salvation through Christ,[3] the significance of piety toward God, and the work of the Holy Spirit.[4] Sadoleto said he also agreed on “justification through faith alone,”[5] but it is definitely one of the biggest discrepancies between Catholic and Reformed teachings. Reformers did not initially sought for schism from the Church but to purify the Church in terms of doctrines, spiritual atmosphere, sacraments, and church polity. However, the differences between the Catholics and the Protestants were, and are, so big that the “unity” which Sadoleto begged for was not a true unity. As Calvin stated in his reply, true unity is not the tranquility inside the church without resolving great disputes and controversies.[6] Sadoleto did not use strong words in his letter. However, Calvin accused Sadoleto in his reply Sadoleto’s craft,[7] twisting of words, defaming the Reformers,[8] maintaining the wrong doctrines while knowing they were wrong,[9] and many other faults. Calvin pointed out the essential differences, and defended the Reformed teachings.

Sadoleto first accused the Protestants of “boasting” of some “hidden interpretation of the Scriptures,”[10] and indulging in certain “dialectics and vain philosophies.”[11] Although he rightly pointed out that it was imperative to approach the Scriptures with humility,[12] he later stressed on the role of Church in instructing the Christians “what to think, what to believe, wherein to place our hope,” and how to live a pious life that leads them to heaven.[13] The Church was also guided by the Spirit of Christ,[14] and hence all Christians should maintain her laws and precepts.[15] This is basically affirming the authority of the Catholic Church to interpret the Scriptures, the Word of God. Not surprisingly, Calvin strongly opposed to this teaching. He inveighed against the corruption of the Church, and the greed and avarice of the ecclesiastical staff.[16] He pointed out other problems of the Church, which I will list later. On the other hand, he asserted the ultimate authority of the Word in various places. While it was important that the Church should have been guided by the Holy Spirit, but the Word should be used to examine the guidance.[17] The Church should have built her foundations on the prophets and the apostles,[18] (Eph. 2:20) not on Peter,[19] who also taught that “people are regenerated by that incorruptible seed,”[20] (1 Pet. 1:23) which is clearly the Word of God according to the context in the quoted verses. He also quoted Apostle Paul that the only sword he possessed was the Word of the Lord.[21] (Eph. 6:17) He asserted that whenever the prophets foretold the renewal of the church, they referred to the Word of God, by citing Isa. 2:3.[22] He pointed out the danger of extravagantly boasting the work of the Holy Spirit by “burying” the Word of God, as it made room for the falsehood of the Church.[23] Calvin also asserted through the person in front of the Eternal Judge that “all controversies should be decided by Thy Word.”[24] In various places, Calvin hailed the ultimate authority of the Word of God, rebuking Sadoleto’s attempt to resort the controversies to the laws and precepts of the Church. He even teased Sadoleto that it was the Catholic Church who preyed upon the pious souls with “vain philosophies,” (Col. 2:8) not the Reformers, when discussing about the preaching sermons.[25]

Sadoleto accused the Reformers of their “pride”,[26] of teaching the “heretical doctrines” out of evil intention that they did it for wealth and ambition,[27] and of justifying themselves the liberty from ecclesiastical laws and their own lusts.[28] However, Calvin defended the Reformers strongly. He used himself as an example: “had I wished to consult my own interest, I would never have left your party.”[29] He said, if the Reformers did it for their own ambition, they would stay in the Catholic Church to rise to a prominent position.[30] As a matter of fact, the Reformers maintained that the pastors should keep the wealth that suffice their own need, and the rest should be dispensed, according to the practice of the early churches. If the Reformers did it for making money, as Calvin pointed out, it would be inexpedient for them to teach this.[31] Instead, Calvin also pointed out that many Reformers were in danger because they did not align themselves with the Catholic Church.[32] He wrote that the pastors were restricted to their own duty, not to govern the Church “with a licentious and lawless authority.”[33]

Sadoleto maintained that in order to “find a place with mercy and pardon with God,” Christians should not go beyond the “opinion and authority of the Church,” set by our ancestors, and guided by the Holy Spirit.[34] In other words, in Sadoleto’s viewpoint, the Church enjoyed the ultimate authority regarding the teachings of the Word and everyone’s salvation because of the Holy Spirit in work. The tradition of the Church was so important that it was where people found salvation. However, by upholding the Word of God, Calvin rejected the ultimate authority of the Church, even though Sadoleto claimed his teachings had been approved for 1,500 years or more.[35] Calvin asserted what he said was in more agreement with ancient church than Sadoleto.[36] Calvin affirmed the honor and rank of ancient Fathers and Councils, given the Word of God was their tool of judgement.[37]

Upholding the ultimate authority of the Word of God and playing down the authority of the church, Calvin attacked a number of Catholic practices and doctrines, and stated the corresponding Protestant positions. There are three things that the safety of the Church is founded, namely, doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments. And the Catholic Church added “ceremonies” to the list.[38] Ceremonies were used to exercise the people to piety, but Calvin complained the Catholic Church used it for her glory, and the ceremonies were vitiated by many forms of superstition,[39] defeating the purpose of piety, like Judaism.[40] What the Reformers tried to do with the sacraments was to restore their native purity, which had been abolished by the ceremonies which were superstitious in nature.[41] Catholic doctrines, as Calvin said, were so “twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling” that the scholastic theology itself is a “secret magic” as well.[42] He attacked the emptiness of the sermons preached all around the Western Europe that the first half was usually about the “misty questions” of the schools that scared away the rude populace, and the second half contained some “sweet stories” to keep the hearers alert.[43] He pointed out the Catholic preachers hurt the pious believers with “vain philosophies.” (Col. 2:8)

Calvin defended the Protestant position of “justification by faith alone.” Sadoleto maintained that “justification by faith,” which was “the common faith of the Church.” Sins were washed away by “expiations, penances, and satisfaction.”[44] To him, faith did “not only [include] … credulity and confidence.”[45] Calvin’s and the Reformers’ position is radically different: justification was not through works or merits, but through faith in Christ alone. If a man is convinced about his iniquities, he will humble before God and “[cast] away his self-confidence”[46] He pointed out succinctly that “the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.”[47] He summarized the hopelessness of all humankind as lost sinners and Christ being their only righteousness: “by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us.”[48] Men are reconciled with God not by merits or works, but by “gratuitous mercy.”[49] Calvin quoted Rom. 4:7 and 2 Cor. 5:19 to further defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In response to the Protestants’ doctrine of justification by faith alone, Catholic theologians accused the Protestants of “[taking] away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness.”[50] Facing this, Calvin further argued for the doctrine by stating the inseparability of faith and work. Quoting 1 Cor. 1:30, he argued that Christ has been given to us for justification and for sanctification, and wherever there is Christ, there is the Holy Spirit, who regenerates the soul to newness of life.[51] In other words, “Christ regenerates to a blessed life those whom He justifies, and after rescuing them from the dominion of sin, hands them over to the dominion of righteousness, transforms them into the image of God, and so trains them by His Spirit into obedience to His will.”[52] Therefore, responding to Catholics and Sadoleto’s complaints, by this doctrine of justification, “lust is left with loosened reins.”[53] He cited Eph. 1:4 that Christians are elected in Christ before the creation to be holy. In 1 Thess. 4:7, Christians have not been called to impurity but to holiness.[54] These verses are more enough to prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which involves regeneration, sanctification, and adoption. The ignorance of this doctrine would lead to the washings of sins by penances and satisfactions, nullifying the utility of the blood of Christ regarding the redemption of man’s sins.[55] Nevertheless, Calvin agreed with Sadoleto that “love is the first and chief cause of our salvation.”[56]

Calvin also defended Reformers’ position of the Eucharist. The Catholics attacked the Protestants for “attempting to confine the Lord of the universe… within the corners of a corporeal nature with its circumscribed boundaries.”[57] Calvin pointed out that Reformers’ position was that the divine power of Christ and His essence is “diffused over all, and defined by no limits.”[58] He insightfully responded that there is a great difference between removing local presence of Christ’s body and restricting His spiritual power within bodily limits. Calvin taught that in the Lord’s Supper, flesh is truly meat and blood is truly drink, but the presence of Christ are not excluded from the Supper. He asserted that there is no transubstantiation, and the bread is not to be worshipped as Christ.[59] He condemned Catholic transubstantiation position of the Eucharist that led to superstition. He referred Sadoleto to Augustine’s Epistle to Dardanus for further elaboration.

Calvin also condemned the Catholic teaching about auricular confession: the law of Innocent, which enjoins every man to pass all his sins in review before his priest annually.[60] He argued that such law has no scriptural proof. While there is an apparent humility, he cited the Apostle Paul’s teaching that “humility only is genuine which is framed in conformity to the Word of God.”[61] (Col. 2:18)

Regarding the intercession of the saints, Calvin urged Sadoleto and other Catholics to neglect this teaching, because superstition had risen from this doctrine that “the intercession of Christ was utterly erased from men’s thoughts, saints were invoked as gods…”[62] leading to the sins of idolatry.[63]

Regarding the teaching of purgatory, Calvin pointed out although ancient churches did mention the dead in their prayers, it was obvious that nothing more is about the passion of the living people felt towards the dead. It is the problem of the Catholic Church that enlarged this to a money-making business that wealth was accumulated by church’s prayer for the dead people.[64]

After disputing all Sadoleto’s accusation and defending the Reformers’ position, Calvin developed his Reformed position to the next step by further denying the ultimate authority of the Church. He accused Sadoleto and the Catholic Church of “overthrowing the ministry.”[65] The Catholic Church was well known to be corrupted in the way that the ecclesiastical staff were “active only in robbing and devouring.”[66] The Lord’s Supper lost its meaning in the mass; the worship of images as a sin of idolatry was prevalent; the sacraments were ruined by weird notions and doctrines; the abusive use of indulgences dishonored the cross of Christ; Christian liberty was crushed by man-made ecclesiastical traditions. With all these listed transgressions, Calvin asserted that the ancient Church was clearly on the Reformers’ side.[67] The Reformers did not initially sought for a revolution, but a reform within the Church. However, the adverse situation within the Catholic Church made them believe that a schism was indeed a necessity. He called the Roman Pontiff “ravening wolves.”[68] Even worse, he semi-directly called the pope the Antichrist, by citing 2 Thess. 2:4 that “the Antichrist would have his seat in no other place than in the midst of God’s sanctuary.”[69] Speaking of the pride and sins of the Catholic Church, he quoted Matt. 14:6: “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.”

According to the Reformers, Calvin yielded respect and honor to the Church, in subordination to Christ the Church’s head, not the pope in Rome.[70] He proclaimed that the Reformed Christians submit to the authority of the Word of God, not the traditions of the Catholic Church.[71] The Church served at the pleasure of the establishment, but a good Christian should “deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord.”[72] In his reply to Sadoleto’s letter to the Genevans, Calvin tore down and condemned the ultimate authority of the Church.

Finally, Calvin discussed about the pastoral office. He agreed with Sadoleto that the pastors should be heard like Christ himself,[73] but he had to perform his own duties as instructed by the Scriptures, according to 1 Thess. 5:21 and 1 John 4:1.[74] They were not to abusively execute their power to govern for their own pleasures.[75] And the pastor holding the office of the teacher should be judged by the congregation, (1 Cor. 14:29) not to let the congregations blindly submit to them.[76] Ultimately, it is not the Church to instruct the believers, but “God alone who enlighten our minds to perceive His truth, who by His Spirit seals it on our hearts, and by His sure attestation to it confirms our conscience.”[77]

At the end of Sadoleto’s letter, he hypothesized two men in front of the dread tribunal of the sovereign Judge, stating whether they believed in Christ (which both would say yes), and what they believed.[78] The man in the Catholic faith said he obeyed the laws and precepts taught by his ancestors.[79] On the other hand, the man in the Protestant faith asserted the Church is “everywhere corrupt,” and he believed he was justified by faith alone, contrary to what the Church proclaimed, because he understood the Scriptures more than the ancient people did.[80] In Calvin’s reply, he “rewrote” the words said by the Protestant man, defending himself against the charges of the Catholics, and upholding the authority of the Word alone, echoing the slogan sola scriptura.[81]

The two letters of Sadoleto and Calvin highlighted the main controversies regarding the doctrines of the Reformation debate. Conclusively speaking, the Catholics maintained the ultimate authority of ecclesiastical tradition that stemmed from antiquity, and the unity of the Church was of utmost importance; the Reformers upheld the ultimate authority of the Word of God, i.e., the Scriptures, and denied the ultimate authority of the ecclesiastical tradition, even though they maintained that the pastors should still be heard like Christ himself, but they were judged by the congregations, with the Word of God as the golden rule. Although the Reformers did not initially intend for the division of the Church, but the corruption of the Church was so severe that they thought a schism was a necessity. Indeed, as they saw it, it was the only way to restore the native purity of the Early Churches.

[1] John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1966), 32.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 36.

[6] Ibid., 93.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] Ibid., 32.

[13] Ibid., 37.

[14] Ibid., 37, 41.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 56.

[17] Ibid., 60.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 60.

[21] Ibid., 78.

[22] Ibid., 60-61.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Ibid., 86.

[25] Ibid., 65.

[26] Ibid., 38.

[27] Ibid., 54.

[28] Ibid., 41-42.

[29] Ibid., 54.

[30] Ibid., 56.

[31] Ibid., 56.

[32] Ibid., 80.

[33] Ibid., 76.

[34] Ibid., 37.

[35] Ibid., 62.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 92.

[38] Ibid., 63.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 64.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 64-65.

[43] Ibid., 65.

[44] Ibid., 37.

[45] Ibid., 36.

[46] Ibid., 66.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 66-67.

[49] Ibid., 67.

[50] Ibid., 68.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 68-69.

[54] Ibid., 69.

[55] Ibid., 69-70.

[56] Ibid., 69.

[57] Ibid., 70.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 71.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 72.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid., 73.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., 74.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid., 75.

[69] Ibid., 76.

[70] Ibid., 75.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid., 77.

[73] Ibid., 77.

[74] Ibid., 76.

[75] Ibid., 77.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 79.

[78] Ibid., 42.

[79] Ibid., 43.

[80] Ibid., 44-45.

[81] Ibid., 82-90.

  • Olin, John C. ed. A Reformation Debate. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1966. [Amazon]
  • Kwan-Yuet Ho, “Excerpts of John Calvin’s `Responsio ad Saboletum,'” reformator: living perspectivally, WordPress (2017). [WordPress]

Feature image adapted from: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Cardinal-Sadoleto-Visits-Calvin-Illustration-from-The-History-of-Protestantism-by-James-Aitken-Posters_i10151281_.htm?ac=true (James Aitken, Cardinal Sadoleto Visits Calvin)

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