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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 120. The Anti-Papal Writings. Criticism of the Council of Trent. 1547.


I. Most of Calvin’s anti-papal writings are printed in Opera, Tom. VI. (in the Amsterdam ed., Tom. IX. 37–90; 99–335 and 409–485.) An English translation in vols. I. and III. of Tracts relating the Reformation by John Calvin, translated from the original Latin by Henry Beveridge, Esq. Edinburgh (Calvin Translation Society), 1844 and 1851.

II. Acta Synodi Tridentinae elim antidoto. In Opera, VII. 305–506. Comp. Schweizer, I. 239–249; Dyer, p. 229 sq.; Stähelin, II. 255 sqq.


Calvin’s anti-papal writings are numerous. Among them his Answer to Cardinal Sadolet (1540), and his Plea for the Necessity of the Reformation, addressed to Emperor Charles V. (1544), deserve the first place. They are superior in ability and force to any similar works of the sixteenth century. They have been sufficiently noticed in previous sections.881881    See pp. 398-413; 452-466. I will only add the manly conclusion of the Plea to the Emperor: —


"But be the issue what it may, we will never repent of having begun, and of having proceeded thus far. The Holy Spirit is a faithful and unerring witness to our doctrine. We know, I say, that it is the eternal truth of God that we preach. We are, indeed, desirous, as we ought to be, that our ministry may prove salutary to the world; but to give it this effect belongs to God, not to us. If, to punish, partly the ingratitude, and partly the stubbornness of those to whom we desire to do good, success must prove desperate, and all things go to worse, I will say what it befits a Christian man to say, and what all who are true to this holy profession will subscribe: We will die, but in death even be conquerors, not only because through it we shall have a sure passage to a better life, but because we know that our blood will be as seed to propagate the Divine truth, which men now despise."


Next to these books in importance is his criticism of the Council of Trent, published in November, 1547.

The Council of Trent, which was to heal the divisions of Western Christendom, convened after long delay, Dec. 13, 1545; then adjourned, convened again, and finally closed, Dec. 4, 1563, a few months before Calvin’s death. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth sessions (1546), it settled the burning questions of the rule of faith, original sin, and justification, in favor of the present Roman system and against the views of the Reformers. The Council avoided the ill-disguised Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism of Eck, Pighius, and other early champions of Rome, and worded its decrees with great caution and circumspection; but it decidedly condemned the Protestant doctrines of the supremacy of the Bible, the slavery of the natural will, and justification by faith alone.

Calvin was the first to take up the pen against these decisions. He subjected them to a searching criticism. He admits, in the introduction, that a Council might be of great use and restore the peace of Christendom, provided it be truly, oecumenical, impartial, and free. But he denies that the Council of Trent had these essential characteristics. The Greek and the Evangelical Churches were not represented at all. It was a purely Roman Council, and under the control of the pope, who was himself the chief offender, and far more disposed to perpetuate abuses than to abolish them. The members, only about forty, mostly Italians, were not distinguished for learning or piety, but were a set of wrangling monks and canonists and minions of the pope. They gave merely a nod of assent to the living oracle of the Vatican, and then issued the decrees as responses of the Holy Spirit., As soon as a decree is framed," he says, "couriers flee off to Rome, and beg pardon and peace at the feet of their idol. The holy father hands over what the couriers have brought to his private advisers for examination. They curtail, add, and change as they please. The couriers return, and a sederunt is appointed. The notary reads over what no one dares to disapprove, and the asses shake their ears in assent. Behold the oracle which imposes religious obligations on the whole world .... The proclamation of the Council is entitled to no more weight than the cry of an auctioneer."

Calvin dissects the decrees with his usual polemic skill. He first states them in the words of the Council, and then gives the antidote. He exposes the errors of the Vulgate, which the Council put on a par with the original Hebrew and Greek originals, and defends the supremacy of the Scriptures and the doctrine of justification by faith.

He wrote this work in two or three months, under constant interruption, while Chemnitz took ten years to complete his. He submitted the manuscript to Farel, who was delighted with it. He published also a French edition in a more popular form.

Cochlaeus prepared, with much personal bitterness, a refutation of Calvin (1548), and was answered by Des Gallars,882882    Apologia Calvini contra Cochlaeum. and Beza, who numbers Cochlaeus among the monsters of the animal kingdom.883883    Brevis et utilis zoographia Joh. Cochlaei, 1549. Reprinted in Baum’s Beza, I. 357-363.

After the close of the Council of Trent, Martin Chemnitz, the leading divine of the Lutheran Church after the death of Melanchthon, wrote his more elaborate Examen Concilii Tridentini (1565–1573; second ed. 1585), which was for a long time a standard work in the Roman controversy.



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