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    Aug 28, 2022

    Class 7: Reformation Contested: Calvin and the Council of Trent (1509-1564)

    Series: Church History

    Category: Core Seminars, Church History, Church Leadership, Church Government, The Reformation, Christian Biography, Corporate Worship, Lord's Supper, Faith, Grace, Justification, The Gospel


    Main Point: ● Despite the clarity of the Reformational doctrines as taught by John Calvin, the Roman Catholic Church responded at the Council of Trent by focusing on structural rather than doctrinal problems, entrenching existing errors, and further cementing the differences between Protestantism and Rome. Class Goals: ● Introduce John Calvin as a humble and patient reformer whose life was subdued to the will of God. ● Explain the political and social turmoil within Europe that caused the delay in calling the Council of Trent until 1545. ● Elucidate the central doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent, including their affirmation of the so-called ‘Wide Canon’ (which included the Apocrypha), oral tradition as an equally authoritative mode of revelation, and justification as an ongoing sacramental process rather than a punctiliar event.



    In our class last week we considered the formal principle of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura—the Word of God alone) and how this doctrine shaped the ministry of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. We discussed how the Protestant Reformation was not an attack on true church unity but a recovery of the only foundational principles by which true and lasting church unity can be realized: the Scriptures as “the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”[1]

    This week we turn to what has been called the material principle of the Reformation (Sola Fide—justification by faith alone). We’ll first consider John Calvin, a pastor who was immensely impacted by the Reformation and instrumental in clarifying the doctrines of Protestantism. Second, we’ll consider a very different response to the Protestant Reformation at the Council of Trent where the Roman Catholic Church rejected and cursed the teaching of Protestants like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on these issues of Scripture and Justification. And in these two responses—Calvin’s acceptance and Trent’s rejection—we see the silhouettes of divisions that still haunt us today and constitute the chief differences between Evangelical Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

     That’s where we are going. Let me pray for us and we’ll begin.

    1. John Calvin: A Life of Quiet Confidence (1509-1564)

                First, we’ll consider the life and teaching of John Calvin, as an example of quiet confidence in God’s Word, and unrelenting trust in the good news of the Gospel.

    (Optional: Contra Caricatures)

    But before that, something ought to be said about the caricatures often made about John Calvin. If you’ve only ever heard about Calvin in a university classroom or about “Calvinism” from an English literature class, you may think of him as the “Tyrant of Geneva,” ruling a theocratic city with an iron-fist, even to the point of throwing a pious, enlightened skeptic named Michael Servetus to the flames, obsessed with “predestination,” forcing an anxiety-producing questions of election on the poor citizens of Geneva.

    In reality, these myths and stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth. John Calvin was most fundamentally a faithful, loving pastor, who trusted God’s Word and faithfully taught it to his flock. When the New England Puritan, Cotton Mather was asked why in his latter days he indulged evening studies more than formerly, he used to reply, “Because I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to sleep.”[2] That’s the sweetness and warmth that as we’ll see, marked not only John Calvin’s writings but by his life, which is where we’ll turn first, before turning to Calvin’s writings.


    Calvin’s Life: Subdued to the Word of God

                Calvin was born in 1509 in a small town called Noyon in northeast France. His well-to-do father Gerard initially sent Calvin to Paris in 1520 to study for the priesthood but had a change of mind after a dispute with the church over a legal case he was handling led to his excommunication in 1528.[3] Instead, Calvin began to study law at Orleans where he came into contact with Reformers such as Melchior Wolmar.[4] Suddenly, however, sometime in 1533 (or perhaps as early as 1529[5]), Calvin was converted. Here’s how Calvin described his conversion in his Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms:

    “When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.”[6]

    (Note that Calvin makes no mention of human causes. He could have mentioned his tutor Wolmar, his cousin Pierre Olivetain who translated the New Testament into French, or Etienne de la Forge with whom Calvin resided in Paris. He attributes everything to God.[7])

    In 1535, Calvin was forced to flee persecution in France, arriving in Basel, Switzerland, where reformers like Bullinger, Farel, and Olivetain were residing.[8] There he composed the first edition of the Institutes.[9] He was only 26 at the time.[10] This first edition of the Institutes consisted of six chapters covering the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the sacraments and Christian liberty.[11]

    In 1536, he spent 6 months in Italy working as a secretary to Princess Renee, sister in law of Francis I, king of France.[12] In August 1536, Calvin set out for Strasbourg, but finding the route closed, took a detour through Geneva.[13] He planned only to spend one night,[14] but shortly after he was discovered, his reputation already being well-known, and was accosted by another Protestant, William Farel, desperate for help in reforming the Genevan church. Here’s how Calvin recalled that night:

    “Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.”[15]

    Again, Calvin is “subdued,” in many ways, against his will, to stay and help.

    ​​Between 1536 and 1538 Calvin’s ministry in Geneva was full of tension with the City Council which was reluctant to cede authority over excommunication to the church. Eventually, when Calvin and Farel’s insisted that certain persons be excommunicated before Easter 1538, and refused to celebrate the ordinances when the City Council failed to comply, they were exiled from the city.[16]


    Exile in Strasbourg (1538-1541)

    From Geneva, Calvin traveled to Strasbourg. This was an immensely fruitful and influential time in Calvin’s life. There in Strasbourg, Calvin learned under the tutelage of Martin Bucer, one of the great Reformers of the first generation. It was Bucer who gave Calvin a vision for pastoral training that later led to his creation of the Genevan academy.[17] At Bucer’s invitation, Calvin took charge of the French speaking exile congregation in Strasbourg. Much of what Calvin learned of pastoral ministry came from watching Martin Bucer.[18]

    These were the happiest years of Calvin’s life.[19] His “ministry was well received, his pen productive, and his engagement with other Reformers… fruitful.”[20] He enjoyed the fellowship and pastoral tutelage of Bucer. He married Idellete de Bure, an former Anabaptist and widow.[21] Tragically, their only son, Jacques, died in 1542, just 21 days after his birth. Idellete too died seven years later in 1549 after suffering from various diseases. At age forty, Calvin was a widower.

    Broken-hearted by his wife’s death Calvin wrote to a friend, “I am no more than half a man, since God recently took my wife home to himself… I am forced to go on, but I hardly have courage to do so.”[22]  Calvin’s enemies mocked his sufferings and lack of children as a sign of God’s judgment, but Calvin pointed to his spiritual children, the pastors he had trained, as his true children.[23]


    Return to Geneva

    In 1541, however, the Genevean government officials turned to Calvin for help.[24] Geneva was under pressure to return to Roman Catholicism and needed someone to rebut a recent letter from Cardinal Jacobo Sadoleto. So they officially invited him to return. Calvin did not want to return to Geneva. He once wrote that he would “rather die a hundred times” than go back to Geneva.[25] He wrote to Farel,

    “What avail will be the exertions of a single individual, hampered by so many… hindrances on every side? Here [in Strasbourg] I have only to take the oversight of a few, and the greater number hear me, not so much as a pastor, as with the attention and reverence due an instructor.”[26] 

    Nevertheless, after much prayer, on September 13, 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva.[27] When he ascended the steps to the pulpit at St. Pierre, and began his preaching right where he left off. No comment. No “I told you so,” he just kept preaching.


    Years of Opposition (1541-1555)

                Calvin’s reform work in Geneva was mainly a matter of preaching. From 1541 to 1549 Calvin preached twice on Sundays (once in the morning and once in the afternoon) and three times during the week.[28] From 1549 onward he preached daily.[29] He worked to reform the church’s relationship to the city by drafting an Ecclesiastical Ordinance, laying out four offices: Pastors, Doctors, Elders, and Deacons.[30] The Pastors and Doctors met weekly for Bible study and the Pastors and Elders met weekly to oversee the discipline of the church and take in new members.[31]

    Finally, in 1555, after fourteen more years of patient reforming work, authority over church discipline and excommunication was granted to the consistory of elders by the City Council. Up until that point church discipline had been under the control of the City Council.[32]

    In 1558, Calvin started the Geneva Academy for theological training whose first rector was Theodore Beza. By the time of Calvin’s death, the school had 1,500 students.[33]

    In 1559 Calvin completed his final definitive edition of the Institutes. He completed commentaries on 24 Old Testament books and 24 New Testament books (all except 2 and 3 John and Revelation).

    After years of ongoing illness (probably tuberculosis), he died on May 27, 1564 at the age of fifty-five.[34] He was buried in a plain wooden coffin, in an unmarked grave.[35] He died as he lived to the glory of God.


    [Pause for questions]


    2. The Council of Trent (1545-1563)

    The Council of Trent was the official response of the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation.[36] There were various individual responses, but the reason we’re focusing on Trent is that Trent marked the official breaking point between Protestantism and Catholicism, a divergence that continues to this day. That is why we’re focusing on Trent.

    Now, unlike some of the early church councils that we studied earlier in this class, such as the Council of Nicaea (325) or the Council of Constantinople (381), Trent could hardly be called an “ecumenical council.” No representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, or Orthodox bodies were represented. Nor was the Council marked by broad geographic diversity. Italians dominated the council, constituting 70% of all bishops present (195 of 280 during the third and final period of the Council).[37] If this were intended to be an objective jury—weighing Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin’s charges of doctrinal error and corruption against the Papacy—it hardly consisted of an unbiased body.

    But here’s the thing: despite the fact that the gathering was exclusively Catholic, almost exclusively Italian, most of whom had never read any of the Protestant Reformers first hand,[38] they still struggled to come to agreement on matters like the authority of Scripture and their understanding of justification.

                So what do we know about Trent?

                The Council was held in the city of Trent, in Northern Italy, on-and-off for 18 years, from 1545 to 1563.[39] Technically Trent was in German territory; today Trent is part of Italy, so it was close enough to Rome for the Pope to retain control.[40]

                Now if the Protestant Reformation really took hold in the 1520s, why did it take the Pope so long to call a council? All the way back on February 5, 1523, the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg issued a letter to Pope Hadrian VI, demanding a “free Christian Council in German lands.”[41] At that point two years had already passed since Luther was officially excommunicated, and Charles V and the Diet as a whole considered a Council absolutely necessary to resolve lingering questions and undertake the necessary reform. Nevertheless, it took 22 years before a council was finally convened. Why did it take so long?

    The “Dangerous Game of Council”

    If you recall from last week, Church Councils had been slowly chipping away at papal authority for over a century![42] Every time a Council was called—it placed limits on the authority of the papacy… so Popes just stopped calling Councils… and abuses continued.

    So when Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, calls for a Council, he is issuing a threat. And by demanding that it be held in Germany, he’s ensuring that the Pope will not unduly influence or control the Council. Moreover, Charles wanted a doctrinal council. He wanted the council to consider the theological arguments raised by the Protestant Reformers—justification by faith alone… sola Scriptura—to be weighed, balanced, and responded to. This scared the Pope to death. Not only was such a council to chip away at his authority—it might even side with Luther, against the Pope!

    But the Pope had another reason to delay. In the decades surrounding the Reformation, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Vatican were constantly at war with one another. On May 6, 1527, Charles V—the same Emperor who had summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1521—even invaded Rome and sacked the city with Pope Clement barely escaping with his life![43] Hardly a time to call a council! With Charles’s expanding power, surrounding countries actually benefited politically from the theological turmoil dividing Charles’s empire from within! You even have examples of French monarchs aligning themselves with German Protestant Princes against the Catholic Emperor! Hence, the Pope had little incentive to call a council that would stabilize Charles’ control over the Protestants.[44]

    So between the bull Excurge Domine excommunicating Martin Luther in June 1520 and the convening of the Council of Trent in December 1545, 25 years passed, all because the Papacy feared calling a Council it could not control.


    (Optional: About the Council)

    A few more facts about Trent. Until the third and final session, attendance was small compared to other church councils. “Although in the mid-16th century the Catholic episcopate numbered close to 700 members, the council opened with only 29 prelates. The second period, 1551–1552, opened with only 15. In neither of these periods did the number ever reach 100. The council attained its peak membership during the third period, 1562-63, when by the second year around 200 were steadily present.”[45] We focus on that first period, when the most critical decisions concerning Protestantism were made.

    While the council continued on, three different Popes (Paul III, Julius III, Pius IV) came and went, two emperors (Charles V and Ferdinand I), two kings of France (Francis I and Henry II), and the Spanish king Philip II.[46]

    The process of the Council consisted in General Assemblies where matters were debated and discussed, work in committees where decrees and canons were drafted, and finally votes by delegates to accept or reject the decrees. A number of documents came out of the Council. The most important are the “Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent.” Decrees are theological or doctrinal statements on disputed questions. These are longer, complex, theological promulgations. Canons, in contrast, are short dogmatic definitions with anathemas attached.[47] They follow a formula: “If anyone says… let him be anathema [or accursed].” As you study the council, it is important to interpret the canons in the context of the decrees, which give the larger theological context.

    While no pope attended the Council’s proceedings, they controlled it through a legate who was endowed with absolute discretion over the topics on the agenda. In other words, there were no motions from the floor, leading one attendee to comment that “whereas the Holy Spirit descended upon the Bishops from on high [in former councils], at Trent he arrived in the mailbag from Rome.”[48]

    So what were the charges against the Roman Church and what was their response?


    Structural Reforms

    The Protestant indictment of the Roman Church was twofold: doctrinal and structural: recovering the Gospel and reforming abuse.[49] The abuses were uncontested. As the late Catholic historian John O’Malley notes, on the eve of the reformation only half of pastors resided in their parishes. In Geneva, things were even worse, where only 20% resided in their parishes.[50] In other words, priests were pocketing income while leaving their flocks unshepherded and uncared for.

                See, at that time Popes controlled the appointment of bishops. Bishops received a passive income for the wide swaths of land they owned in their bishoprics: income derived from farming, land-leases, and serfs. In other words, for many bishops, a “bishopric” was simply a matter of property ownership: a way of generating passive income. Many bishops owned multiple bishoprics. If one was good, two was better. Many Popes gifted bishoprics to relatives or sold them for cash to the highest bidder (referred to as the practice of Simony). This practice was widespread and uncontroversial.  As O’Malley writes, “Seemingly without scruple, absentee bishops and pastors pocketed the revenue from the benefices and devoted their time and energy to other pursuits.”[51] And all the while, the sheep suffered.

    When it came to these charges—of the abuses of the clergy and the selling and buying of bishoprics—there was no dispute. The Council determined that one could not hold multiple church offices simultaneously,[52] that illiterate or immoral local church officials could be deprived of their offices,[53] and that all bishops make annual visits to their dioceses to monitor the behavior of the clergy and the religious life of the laity.[54] So far, the Reformers were vindicated in their charges. If the Reformation had simply been a matter of reforming the clergy, the Reformation would have been over at this point. But at the heart of the disagreements were doctrinal differences, which is where Protestants and Catholics diverged.

    Doctrinal Reforms

    After dealing with structural reforms in Sessions 1 and 2, Trent then turned to doctrinal reforms. As we’ve seen, the doctrinal charges leveled against the Roman Catholic Church centered on two doctrines: the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Reformers charged that the Catholic Church had displaced the authority of Scripture with Papal authority, and justification by grace alone through faith alone with a works-based system of salvation.

    Now, Trent took the unusual step of refusing to condemn specific people. It condemned only doctrines, not people themselves.[55] (This may have been because only a “few of the voting members of the council… knew the writings of the Reformers first-hand”[56]).

    Doctrine of Scripture

                The Council of Trent made two important decisions regarding the Scriptures. The first was to affirm the so-called “Wide Canon,” including the Apocrypha, and the second, was to allege that Scripture and the so-called “unwritten tradition” of the church, are equally authoritative.

    The Canon and the Apocrypha

                Before turning to other doctrinal issues, the Council recognized the need to “establish the basis on which it could legitimately make its doctrinal points.”[57] Many of the doctrines the Reformers opposed—such as the existence of purgatory and the distinction between mortal and venial sins—were only defensible on the basis of the Deuterocanonical books—which we call the Apocrypha.[58]

    Luther and other Reformers had rejected the Apocrypha (or the seven deuterocanonical books) since the Hebrew Bible did not include them. Moreover, there was a longstanding debate in the Western church over whether they could be considered Canonical. After all, even Jerome and Augustine disagreed over whether or not to include them![59] Some followed Jerome in favoring a “narrow Canon” of 66 books. Others followed Augustine in supporting a “wide Canon” of 73 books!

                The same was true at Trent. Bishop Bonuccio for instance had made an impassioned appeal not to “try to resolve questions long disputed among reputable theologians.”[60] Nevertheless, after naming the books of the Old and New Testaments alongside the Apocrypha, the Council issued the following canon, unambiguously affirming the “wide canon”:[61]

    “If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts... let him be anathema.”[62]

    This marked the beginning of the Roman claim of the supremacy of the church over the Scriptures. After all, if Rome claimed authority to say which books were and were not canonical, authority lay ultimately, not with Scripture, but with the church at Rome.

    Two Modes of Revelation

                In addition to affirming the “wide canon,” Trent likewise argued that “unwritten traditions” were on equal footing with Scripture. The Roman Church realized that, even with including the Apocrypha, they still had no biblical defense for countless of the ecclesiological practices.[63] This was exactly why the Reformers had strongly asserted the doctrine of Sola Scriptura! To argue against the dozens of doctrines, ceremonies, and unbiblical practices which had crept into the church.[64]

    But not even among the Bishops at Trent was there immediate consensus regarding the exact relationship between Scripture and Tradition. “Were not all truths necessary for salvation found in Scripture, asked the Bishop of Chioggia.”[65] Another Bishop, Jacopo Nacchianti, insisted that “to put Scripture and traditions on the same level is impious.”[66]

    Nevertheless, when the “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures,” came together, it affirmed two sources of revelation: Holy Scripture alongside the “unwritten traditions” of the church.[67] As the Decree reads,

    “It also clearly perceives that these truths [concerning the Gospel] and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand … Since God is the author of both [Testaments]; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.” Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, April 1546.[68]

    By stating that it “receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence… the traditions… as having been… preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession,” Trent completely shut down any conversation of doctrinal reform.[69] If anyone raises questions of the biblical basis for the Papacy, or the Eucharist, or infant baptism, all they need to say is— “We know we’re right, because we’ve always done things this way!”[70] As O’Malley used to always tell his students when asked how he could reconcile the factual errors of Trent with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on its infallibility: “that’s a problem for the theologians.”

    (Two myths about Trent’s teaching on Scripture to quickly debunk. First, sometimes people claim that Trent mandated the use of the Vulgate and forbade vernacular translations.[71] This is not correct.[72] While the council decreed that the Latin Vulgate was the “authentic” version that ought not to be rejected, it “said nothing about translations of the Bible into the vernacular.”[73]

    Second, it is sometimes claimed that Trent mandated use of Latin in the mass. This too is incorrect. Trent condemned anyone who claimed that “the mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only” but, contrary to popular belief, never insisted on the exclusivity of the Latin mass.[74] In other words, “Latin was legitimate but not obligatory.”)

    Doctrine of Justification

    After dealing with Scripture, Trent then turned to the doctrine of original sin and justification. The story here gets complicated quite quickly. The Council of Trent spent SEVEN MONTHS working out its articles and decrees concerning justification, from June 1546 to January 13, 1547.[75] Trent’s goal was to find a middle ground between the Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagian teaching that was widespread in the Roman Catholic Church and what they considered the excesses of the Reformed teaching on justification—which they feared would lead to antinomianism. It’s important to note that “[n]ot all Catholic theologians, especially members of the Augustinian Order were convinced ‘the Lutherans’ were altogether wrong in their teaching both on Original Sin and justification, and at the Council of Trent, the Augustinians prior general Girolamo Seripando was among them.”[76] Nor was support for Trent’s articles unanimous. Several bishops voted against Trent’s article on original sin and justification.[77]

    The result is sixteen chapters of “Decree[s] on Justification” followed by thirty-three Canons. Remember, the decrees are the complex theological backdrop. The canons are short dogmatic definitions with anathemas. But if you just read the decrees, you might think that Trent was a Protestant Council! There is some significant agreement!

    In perhaps its most striking section, chapter eight of the sixth session declares:

    “[W]e are said to receive justification as a free gift because nothing precedes justification, neither faith nor works, would merit the grace of justification, for if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise (as the Apostle says [Rom. 11:6]) grace would no longer be grace.” (Session VI, Chapter VIII, p. 674).

    Another chapter states that,

    “… the wicked are justified by God by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. At the same time, acknowledging that they are sinners, they turn from fear of divine justice, which profitably strikes them, to thoughts of God’s mercy; they rise to hope, with confidence that God will be favourable to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love him as the fount of all justness. They are thereby turned against sin by a feeling of hatred and destestation, namely by that repentance which must occur before baptism” (Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 3, p. 672-673).

    If Trent had stopped there, everything would be rosy![78]

                Yet at the same time, other articles completely undermine Christian assurance! “No one can know, by that assurance of faith which excludes all falsehood, that he has obtained the grace of God.” (Session 6, Chapter 9, p. 674). Yes, we have been justified in Christ apart from merit. But having been granted “a pure and spotless state,” we must now “carry it” and keep it spotless until we appear “before the tribunal of our lord Jesus Christ” (Session 6, Chapter 7, p. 674).

    In other words, the Gospel of the Roman Catholic Church is great news! At baptism, you’re justified! In a state of grace! Adopted! Accepted! That is, until you sin. Not of course, meaning “light and everyday sins which are also called venial”[79] but mortal sins. Chapter 15 says, “The grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin, though faith is not lost.”[80] At which point, the sacraments of confession, absolution, and penance come into play in order to restore you to the state of grace that you had after your baptism. (Session VI, Chapter XIV, p. 677). What emerges is a sacramental scheme—empowered by God’s grace and enriched by Christ’s sacrificial death—which nonetheless undermines Christian assurance and makes your righteousness before God ebb and flow with your sanctification.

                As best as I can tell, the key difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is over the means by which a sinner is justified. Protestants taught justification by faith. The Roman Catholic Church taught justification by baptism.

                There’s a chart on the back of your handout that uses Aristotle’s four causes to analyze the causes of justification. It’s interesting that both the Council of Trent and John Calvin use the same language to analyze the causes of justification.[81] And if you look at the chart, they agree on three of four causes!

                The Council of Trent taught, in its sixth session, and seventh chapter, that the Final Cause—or the goal of justification—is “the glory of God and of Christ and life everlasting.” The Efficient Cause, or source of justification is “the God of mercy who, of his own free will washes and sanctifies.” The Material or Meritorious Cause is the Lord Jesus Christ, “who when we were at enmity with him, out of the great love with which he loved us, merited justification for us by his most holy passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction to God the Father on our behalf.” The Formal or Instrumental Cause is the “sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith and without which no man was ever justified finally…”[82]

                In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin draws on the same “four kinds of causes,” to show how our salvation is by grace alone:

    “For Scripture everywhere proclaims that the EFFICIENT CAUSE of our obtaining eternal life is the mercy of the Heavenly Father and his freely given love toward us. Surely the MATERIAL CAUSE is Christ, with his obedience, through which he acquired righteousness for us. What shall we say is the FORMAL OR INSTRUMENTAL cause but faith? …  As for the FINAL CAUSE, the apostle testifies that it consists both in the proof of divine justice and in the praise of God’s goodness…”[83]


    Calvin and the Council of Trent on the Causes of Justification





    Final Cause (the goal)

    “The glory of God and of Christ”

    “the praise of God’s goodness”

    Efficient Cause (the source)

    “the God of mercy”

    “the mercy of the Heavenly Father”

    Material Cause (the substance)

    “our Lord Jesus Christ”

    “Christ, with his obedience”

    Formal or Instrumental Cause (the means)

    “the sacrament of baptism”

    “through faith in his blood”


    So either we are justified by participating in the sacraments of baptism, followed by penancy (if we sin), or we are justified by faith in Christ alone.

    Now, there is a clarification to make here that the Roman Catholics at Trent did not make and that many Protestants still fail to grasp today. When Calvin and other Protestants taught that we are justified by faith and not as a result of works, they were not saying that our faith merits or earns our justification before God.

    No, the opposite of our “works” is not “faith” but Christ’s work. The opposite of “trusting in your works” for your righteousness before God is not “trusting in your faith,” but trusting in Christ’s work on the cross![84]

    Sadly, the Council of Trent seemed to profoundly misunderstand the Protestant Reformers at this point. Trent constantly condemns the teaching that we are justified by believing that we are justified. As Session 6, Chapter 9 declares,

    “It must not be maintained, that they who are truly justified must needs without any doubt whatever, convince themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified except that believes with certainty that he is absolved and justified…  and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone…” (Sixth Session: Justification, Ch. IX, p. 35, italics mine).


    Or Canon XIV, which says,

    “If any one saith that a man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified… let him be anathema.”

    This makes it sound like Protestants believed that “justification by faith alone” was a kind of self-fulling prophecy. That to be justified, you must believe that you are justified. But that would make your faith, rather than Christ the object of your faith!

                But these kinds of uncareful statements about Protestantism are typical of Trent, and they seriously raise the question of whether Roman Catholic Church even understood the teachings it reputedly repudiated. Even the Roman Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy acknowledges that “Nothing in Hadrian’s response suggests any grasp of the real power of Luther’s message, the evangelical fervour and the sense of the radical and blessed simplification of religious life which it offered.”[85] Sadly, the oversimplifications and misunderstandings of the evangelical gospel, led Trent to create a caricature of Protestantism that it then rejected and condemned.


    So what does all of this mean for us today? On the one hand, the decrees and canons of Trent have never been revoked. Instead, they were confirmed by both the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the official “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” At the same time, Vatican II took some significant steps softening Rome’s stance toward Protestants, so that the Catholic Catechism today writes, “the Catholic Church accepts [those who at the present are born into Protestant communities] with respect and affection as brothers . ... All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”[86]

                As we speak with Roman Catholics today, we need to keep in mind the way their view of Protestantism has been shaped by centuries of misunderstandings, but also particularly in America, how much they have benefited from the influence of Protestantism. We should encourage them to read the Bible for themselves! We should ask them where their confidence for salvation lies—in the sacraments or in Christ himself. And we should continue to place our confidence in the work of Christ and the Word of God alone. Let’s pray.


    [1] Article 1: Of the Scriptures, “Statement of Faith | Capitol Hill Baptist,” accessed November 15, 2021,

    [2] Barrett Wendell, Cotton Mather, the Puritan Priest (Dodd, Mead, 1891), 12.

    [3] John Calvin, The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 2.

    [4] John Calvin, The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 3.

    [5]  T.H.L. Parker and J.I. Packer argue for the earlier date (1529-1530).

    [6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 1:xl-xli.

    [7] Beeke, 4.

    [8] Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 44.

    [9] Selderhuis, 45. Calvin finished the book in 1535 and published it in 1536.

    [10] Beeke, 9.

    [11] Here’s how Calvin describes his purpose in writing the Institutes: “I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro. Being of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which led me always to love the shade and retirement, I then began to seek some secluded corner where I might be withdrawn from the public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my be desire, all my retreats were like public schools. In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice. Leaving my native country, France, I in fact retired into Germany, expressly for the purpose of being able there to enjoy in some obscure corner the repose which I had always desired, and which had been so long denied me. But lo! whilst I lay hidden at Basle, and known only to a few people, many faithful and holy persons were burnt alive in France; and the report of these burnings having reached foreign nations, they excited the strongest disapprobation among a great part of the Germans, whose indignation was kindled against the authors of such tyranny. In order to allay this indignation, certain wicked and lying pamphlets were circulated, stating that none were treated with such cruelty but Anabaptists and seditious persons, who by their perverse ravings and false opinions, were overthrowing not only religion but also all civil order. Observing that the object which these instruments of the court aimed at by their disguises, was not only that the disgrace of shedding so much innocent blood might remain buried under the false charges and calumnies which they brought against the holy martyrs after their death, but also, that afterwards they might be able to proceed to the utmost extremity in murdering the poor saints without exciting compassion towards them in the breasts of any, it appeared to me, that unless I opposed them to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institute of the Christian Religion. My objects were, first, to prove that these reports were false and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord; and next, that as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy individuals, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion towards them and solicitude about them. When it was then published, it was not that copious and labored work which it now is, but only a small treatise containing a summary of the principal truths of the Christian religion, and it was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed by those flagitious and perfidious flatterers. That my object was not to acquire fame, appeared from this, that immediately after I left Basle, and particularly from the fact that nobody there knew that I was the author. Wherever else I have gone, I have taken care to conceal that I was the author of that performance.” (Commentary on the Psalms).

    [12] Beeke, 8.

    [13] Beeke, 8-9.

    [14] Willem van 't Spijker, Calvin: A Brief Guide to His Life and Thought trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 35. Spijker says Calvin was en route to “either Basel or Strasbourg” while Manetsch said “en route to Strasbourg” (Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013], 18).

    [15] Calvin, Preface Commentary on the Psalms.

    [16] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New York, NY: Yale University Press, 2009), 79-81, 122. William J. Bouwsma provides additional context and asserts that Calvin’s expulsion occurred in May 1538 (William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988], 20). Manetsch describes the disagreement over the kind of bread used in the Lord’s Supper and places Calvin’s exit from Geneva as April 23, 1538 (Manetsch, 24).

    [17] Selderhuis, 238.

    [18] Manetsch writes that “it is only a slight exaggeration to say that it was in Strasbourg that Calvin learned to be a pastor” (184).

    [19] Beeke, 13.

    [20] Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York, NY Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 27.

    [21] Beeke, 14.

    [22] McNeill, History and Character of Calvinism, 156-157.

    [23] Beeke, 14.

    [24] Selderhuis, 116.

    [25] Frans Pieter Van Stam, “Calvin's First Stay in Geneva” in The Calvin Handbook ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 37. On another occasion, Calvin said “It would be better to die at once than to suffer repeatedly on that torture rack” (Cited, 25).

    [26] Calvin to Farel, 27 October 1540, in CO 11, col. 91-92 (Selected Works… Letters, I, pp. 212.

    [27] Selderhuis, 116.

    [28] Beeke, 18.

    [29] Beeke, 19.

    [30] Beeke, 17-18.

    [31] Beeke, 17.

    [32] Beeke, 19.

    [33] Beeke, 19.

    [34] Beeke, 25.

    [35] Selderhuis, 25; Manetsch, 1, 151.

    [36] The definitive study of the Council of Trent is John W. O’Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council (Harvard University Press, 2013).

    [37] O’Malley, 6.

    [38] “Before coming to Trent,” O’Malley writes, “relatively few had direct knowledge of the writings of the Reformers, and far, far fewer could read German. Although the theologians had been trained in dispassionate analysis of texts, they almost without exception read the Reformers with unsympathetic eyes” (O’Malley, 85).

    [39] See The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent trans H. J. Schroeder (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1978),  ix-xxii. Additional context: “The Council of Trent was to come together in 25 sessions spread over three groups of years, 1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63” (“Council of Trent” in Historical Dictionary of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ed. Michael Mullett [Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2010], 451).

    [40] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations 2nd Ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 339.

    [41] O’Malley, 23.

    [42] O’Malley, 25.

    [43] O’Malley, 57.

    [44] O’Malley, 58.

    [45] O’Malley, 4.

    [46] O’Malley, 5.

    [47] The Catholic Encyclopedia Dictionary, 163.

    [48] O’Malley, 9.

    [49] O’Malley, 12-13.

    [50] O’Malley, 16.

    [51] O’Malley, 16.

    [52] Canons and Decrees, 56. From the Seventh Session. March 3, 1547.

    [53] Canons and Decrees, 141. From the Twenty-First Session. June 4, 1562.

    [54] Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 382.

    [55] O’Malley, 78.

    [56] O’Malley, 81-82. “Before coming to Trent,” O’Malley writes, “relatively few had direct knowledge of the writings of the Reformers, and far, far fewer could read German. Although the theologians had been trained in dispassionate analysis of texts, they almost without exception read the Reformers with unsympathetic eyes” (O’Malley, 85).

    [57] O’Malley, 90.

    [58] Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch.

    [59] The Council of Carthage of 397, at which Augustine attended, recognized Apocrypha as in its canon (The Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1, From the Beginnings to Jerome ed. P. R Ackroyd and C.F. Evans [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1970], 544). Augustine also recognized the Apocrypha as Scripture and produced a canonical list that included the Apocrypha in his famous work De Doctrina Christiana II.8.13 (Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching trans. R. P. H. Green [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008], 36-37). In contrast, Jerome opposed the Apocrypha as canonical and his Latin Vulgate, which served as the Bible of the West for a millenium, “added prefaces at various points to emphasize that they were not true parts of the Bible, and he called them by the name ‘apocrypha’” (Roger T. Beckwith, “The Apocrypha” in Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible's Origin, Reliability, and Meaning ed. Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012], 90).

    [60] O’Malley, 91.

    [61] O’Malley argues that “the council agreed simply to affirm the Florentine canon but with the understanding that it was not taking a stand on the disputed question,” but this is hard to square with the unambiguous language of the Canon. O’Malley continues to argue that while “[i]n the context of the controversies of the sixteenth century, in fact, the decree reads like an unqualified affirmation of the wide canon. No wonder, then, that Catholics appropriated and clung to that canon as a mark of their identity, to be defended in its integrity against all comers. The decision constituted the first instance of subsequent misunderstandings of what the council intended that became standard interpretations, impossible to dislodge even from the minds of scholars who should know better” (O’Malley, 92).

    [62] Canons and Decrees, 18. From the Fourth Session. April 8, 1546.

    [63] O’Malley, 92-93.

    [64] Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 33-75. Moreover, countless theologians throughout church history had advocated a Scripture-alone principle. As John O’Malley writes, Trent struggled to define tradition and to reconcile the Roman Church’s reliance on tradition with the “complicated fact that the Fathers of the Church and even medieval theologians like Aquinas seemed in their up-front statements to hold a Scripture-alone principle” (O’Malley, 93).

    [65] O'Malley, 93; CT 5:18-19.

    [66] O’Malley, 95; CT 1:45-46, 5:71-72.

    [67] O’Malley insists that “it did not intend to suppress the view expressed by some council fathers about the ‘sufficiency’ of Scripture for salvation” (97). But regardless of the Council’s “intentions,” the fact of its unambiguous endorsement of “traditions” was clearly at odds with the teachings of the Reformers. O’Malley further notes: “Trent spoke not of Tradition, that is, of some global category of transmission, but only of traditions, in the plural,” that is specific practices such as infant baptism (97-98). The Council defended this view by insisting that this reflected an “unbroken continuity with the apostles” and spoke of the “unanimous teaching of the Fathers” as a standard justification of its positions over and against the Protestants (98; Decrees, 19).

    [68] Canons and Decrees, 17. From the Fourth Session. April 8, 1546.

    [69] Decrees, 17.

    [70] O’Malley writes, “Trent’s insistence on continuity contributed to the Catholic historiographical tradition emerging at this time, in which continuity sometimes was so emphasized as to leave precious little room for change. The emphasis persists as a recognizable Catholic trait even to the present” (98).

    [71] See for example  Joseph A. Komonchak, 'The Council of Trent at the Second Vatican Council', in Raymond F. Bulman, and Frederick J. Parrella (eds), From Trent to Vatican II: Historical and Theological Investigations (New York, 2006; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Sept. 2006).

    [72] See O'Malley, 95, 97, 98.

    [73] O’Malley, 98.

    [74] O'Malley, 19.

    [75] O'Malley, 19.

    [76] O’Malley, 104.

    [77] O’Malley, 106. In fact, during the debates over justification, Tommaso Sanfelice, the bishop of La Cava, spoke of the “slave will” and of “justification by faith alone,” phrases associated with Luther, leading Dionisio de Zanettini, the Franciscan bishop, to say he was “either a knave or a fool.” When Sanfelice confronted him face to face, Zanettini repeated the insult, at which point Sanfelice grabbed him violently by the beard and shook him, with Zanettini shouting all the while, “I have said that the bishop of La Cava is either a knave or a fool and I shall prove it.” It took colleagues to pull the men apart. After much discussion, Sanfelice was instructed to leave the Council—not for what he had said about justification per se but for his behavior. Nonetheless, these incidents highlight the lack of concord between many of the bishops and the sharp and sometimes physical conflicts that took place (O’Malley, 109).

    [78] For example, Trent affirms that justification is a translation of the sinner from the state of original sin to a state of grace by adoption in Christ Jesus.


    “... the justification of the sinner [is] a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, Our Saviour” (Sixth Session, Chapter 4, p. 31). 


    Trent likewise affirms that justification is the way “an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend…” (Sixth Session: Justification, Ch. VII, p. 33).

    [79] Not of course referring to “light and everyday sins which are also called venial,” because of which “they do not therefore cease to be just” (Session 6, Chapter 11, p. 675).

    [80] Session 6, Chapter 15, p. 677.

    [81] R. Scott Clarke makes the same observation, “Calvin and Trent on the Causes of Justification,”

    [82] Sixth Session: Justification, Ch. VII, p. 33.

    [83] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.14.17.

    [84] To quote Brittish evangelist Glenn Scrivener, “Some reformation theology: The opposite of "your works" is not "your faith". The opposite of "your works" is "Christ's work." You do not answer "trusting in your works" by switching to "trusting in your faith." That's like saying you believe in belief. What are you, Ted Lasso?” February 19, 2022.  

    [85] Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 157.

    [86] CCC 818.


    Did not use any of this section when class taught on 8.21.2022. In future, would love to highlight Calvin's doctrine of Union With Christ as basis for comparison with Trent's teaching on justification