“Those Who Demand A Reformation Should Accept The Council That Will Be Held”

In line with the work I’ve done here regarding Luther, here’s a huge proof, this time from John Calvin’s pen, that the Reformation was deeply indebted to Medieval conciliarism and on the issue of authority in the Church was not a gross novelty or destroyer of lawful means. I wish I had time to analyze this in detail, to point out the specific connections I see, but for now I’ll just have to let it stand as is. This is Letter 581 from Volume 7 of Calvin’s Letters and Tracts.


To put an end to the divisions which exist in Christendom, it is necessary to have a Free and universal council.

Its liberty consists in three points; viz., in the place, the persons, and in the manner of proceeding.

In respect to the place, if there be not a secure access for all those who are to be heard in discussing the matters which form the subject of controversy, it is perfectly clear that this will be shutting the door on
them. Wherefore it would be requisite to select a town situated in the midst of the nations that are to be present at the council, and that all the neighboring provinces around it, through whose countries it should be
necessary to pass, promise and swear to respect the safe conduct of those, who repair to it, both in going and on their return.

Respecting the persons, first of all, it would be an iniquitous thing; should none but the bishops have a decisive voice in it, since it is sufficiently notorious that they are parties concerned, and cannot therefore be
competent judges in their own cause.

What is more, should the authority which they insist on being allowed them, yet it is certain that not one of them is free, inasmuch as they are all bound and subjected by the oath which they have taken to the Pope to maintain his see, a thing totally incompatible with the liberty of a Christian council.


The remedy would be that out of the party which desires and demands the reformation of the church, both in doctrine and in morals, should be elected persons, who, though not possessed of a deciding vote, should yet be empowered to oppose all resolutions repugnant to the word of God, and that they should be entitled to be heard in all their protestations, while demonstrating by solid reasons the grounds of their opposition to the things which the bishops might be inclined to enact. Above all, it is not to be tolerated that the Pope should preside in the council as chief; that is to say, with the pretensions he has recently put forth of making every thing depend on himself and his good pleasure. But even admitting that the chief place should be assigned to him, it should be an indispensable condition of presidency that he, in all things, submit to the council, and take an oath to observe whatever should be decided and concluded in it, abdicating the
domination which he has usurped; the bishops, likewise, should swear to conform to the general decision, and support it when it shall have corruption’s and abuses to eradicate in doctrine as well as in ceremonies and morals.

As to the manner of proceeding, it would be altogether nugatory, if the custom which has been introduced since a short time should be followed, which is, that those who desire a reformation should propose their
measures verbally, or in writing, and then retire, leaving their bishops, the prelates, to decide whatever they may think fit. It is requisite then that whatever is ill-advised may be redressed, and also that it be permitted to reply to all erroneous opinions by sound and conclusive reasons.

It is, likewise, necessary to have determined beforehand the order in which the matters that will come before them ought to be treated, and to know that in the first place the points and articles of doctrine, which are now the subject of controversy, should be fully discussed; that this once settled, they may proceed to regulate the ceremonies, and finally the government of the church.

The articles of doctrine, on which at present the parties dispute, respect the service of God, and the point at issue between them is, whether it ought to be regulated purely and simply by the sacred Scriptures; or if,
indeed, men have been at liberty to lay down laws of their own respecting it, and if their traditions are binding upon souls on pain of being chargeable


with mortal sins if they neglect them. Under that head are comprised vows, professions of celibacy, confession, and things of the same kind.

The question that will next present itself is, upon what we found our hopes of salvation, and whether we are justified by the merit of our own works, or the gratuitous mercy of God. Connected with this question are
those of free-will, penances, purgatory, and others of the sort. It will be proper to examine, at the same time, how we should invoke God in conformity with the full assurance of our faith, and the right solution of this question puts an end to the intercession of the saints.

In regard to the second point, that of ceremonies, there will be here an occasion for treating of all those things which have been borrowed from the shadows of the law, of the number of the sacraments with their accessory matters, etc.

The third point concerning the government of the church, includes the definition of the office of bishops or pastors, in order to ascertain to what persons this title belongs, and what is the scope and bearing of ranks,
degrees, and orders, along with privileges and things of a like character.

Now, it would not be enough to hold a council, unless it were to be universal; that is to say, if the object of it were not to appease all the troubles of Christendom. True it is, that each king and prince can very well
remedy the disorders of his own states by a national council, when he shall not find his neighbors disposed and agreeing in sentiment and desires with himself. But should a partial council be held, which, notwithstanding, should be called a universal one, this would only kindle with greater violence, and spread more widely the brands of discord. Wherefore, it is indispensably necessary that those who demand a reformation, should accept the council which will be held, in order that all Christendom may be united, or that those who shall be unwilling to range themselves under the banners of unity and concord be declared and held for schismatics.

This entry was posted in 16th Century, Conciliar Theory & Practice, Reformational Ruminations. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Those Who Demand A Reformation Should Accept The Council That Will Be Held”

  1. kepha says:

    Interesting indeed!

  2. Iohannes says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

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