I just polished off a three page paper summarizing and commening on A Reformation Debate, edited by John C. Olin. It may be a short paper, but it makes for a pretty long blog. However, I thought a few readers might find it interesting, so here it is. For those less inclined, I'm working on a possible entry about rainbows (of all things) which I may post later this week!
Seizing the opportunity afforded him by the expulsion of reformers John Calvin and Guillaume Farel from Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to persuade the Genevans to go the whole way and rejoin the Catholic Church. Though the letter all but demonized the reformers, in a decisive moment for Geneva it ended up being John Calvin himself whom city council asked to craft a reply. His response was widely circulated in 1540, and within a year Calvin was persuaded by Geneva to return.
Though the debate was not therein comprehensively summarized, these letters serve as an accessible entry point into the crux of the reformation debate. The central disagreements between Sadoleto and Calvin involve (1) the tension between Church authority and Scripture and (2) the place of faith and works in justification of the sinner.
In regard to the first issue, Sadoleto’s approach is to cast the reformers as the self-seeking sowers of "wicked seeds of discord" in rebellion against the "perpetual sentiments" of the Catholic Church (30-31). Much is made of the uncertainty that ensues when the individual sets himself against the authoritative body that has for centuries "instructed us what to think . . . [and told] us that our sin is washed away" (37). Even if there are doubts on issues of doctrine, it is better to follow the Church of many centuries than the rash opinions of the last twenty-five years (40). Since "judgments vary" (39) over time, who is it that can pretend to stand over the Holy Spirit’s Church in judgment? What is at stake in such presumption is nothing less than the fearful loss of one’s soul (38)! Christ is in His Church calling for unity, and outside is only the way of selfish anarchy.
In response, John Calvin agrees that unity is important, but questions those things which have distracted the Church’s unity from the truth of Christ. The problem with the Catholic Church, in Calvin’s view, is that it has become dependent on a fallible authorities and superstitious ceremonies (63) and is no longer in accord with the Word and the Fathers (73). Since the "Antichrist would have his seat in no other place than in the midst of God’s sanctuary" (76), the people and the leaders of the Church must be on guard against false teaching.
But how are they to do this if they can not trust their leaders? For Calvin the answer is to place the Scriptures in authority over the Church, and as if anticipating objections, he attempts to distance himself from those radicals who have taken their personal interpretations of Scripture as paramount. In his view Pope and Anabaptist alike are wrong in depending presumptively on the guidance of the Spirit unchecked by the Word (61). Unity is very desirable for Calvin, if only it could be a "true unity" (93) centered on Christ (85) and focused by the Spirit on His Word. Having taken up the Word, Calvin seeks reform rather than schism, but implies that he would sooner have schism than further tolerance of current errors.
In the second main point of contention, Sadoleto’s claim is that the reformers are cheapening salvation by their version of justification by faith alone. He sees salvation as something perpetually given and enacted in faith, and opposes the reformer’s view which seems to rest salvation on a "mere credulity and confidence in God" (35) which people are expected to conjure up and maintain with no strings attached. Their emphasis is on their own strength of conviction for assurance, without much regard for the demanding call of Christ to the new life that salvation entails. By emphasizing faith alone, the reformers have taken the love out of salvation. Instead of being saved by entering a love relationship of service to their God, the reformers are looking at salvation as a cheap gift of love which can be reciprocated at the whims of the individual involved (36).
Calvin looks at the doctrine and its ramifications quite differently. What Sadoleto sees as the Church’s duty to ensure proper repentance and love of God, Calvin sees as the withholding of the freedom and life that Christ died to grant His followers. The life of salvation has been replaced by a system of oppressive ceremonies. In his view Sadoleto has avoided this issue and wrongly polarized the issue, implying that reformers care only for salvation and nothing for the life that it ushers in (66). What Calvin seeks to reemphasize is that Christians love Christ because He first loved them (69). Salvation and righteousness are free gifts imputed to those who will receive them by faith. Life does change, but rather than merit salvation as the Catholic Church implies, this change is the fruit of true faith in Christ and the unfolding of the free gift of salvation (70). Calvin more carefully distinguishes between justification (that initial act of being given Christ’s righteousness) and the regeneration and sanctification that result (68).
In Sadoleto’s view, where the Catholic Church provides certain measures toward gaining assurance of salvation, Calvin is left with nothing but the self-assured confidence in his own faith decision. In Sadoleto’s ears, "justification by faith alone" means "salvation according to the strength of one’s own convictions". This sounds to Sadoleto as much like a works-based salvation as penance does to Calvin—the only difference being that is more individualistically determined and therefore less unifying and concrete. This shows how linked this debate is with the issue of Church authority.
History has shown that, according to his own purposes for writing the letter, Sadoleto lost. Geneva embraced reform and invited Calvin home. Indeed, Calvin presents a clearer articulation of salvation and a much-needed corrective to the abuses and shortcomings of Church authority.
However, in this day when many evangelicals have now carried reformation doctrines to the point of abuse, some of Sadoleto’s arguments could stand to be heard again. His call to Church unity is compelling in this era of fragmentation and individualism and his emphasis on sanctification prompts a more holistic soteriology. In the debate on justification, both parties resisted what seemed to be offences to the cross of Christ. Where Calvin saw grace forgotten by Catholics, Sadoleto saw it cheapened by the reformers. Though Calvin won the debate, their concerns must continue to mingle down the ages so we may fully hear the resounding echoes of truth.