The Fruit of Discord

There are many markers of our ecumenical age, from official dialogue among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed to a US President of Protestant faith honoring graduates of the University of Notre Dame. In such a promising and cooperative time dare we look back to the Reformation era, when things first fell apart, when dogmatism, intolerance, and violence shattered Christian unity? Should Calvin and historic Reformed voices be heralded again, voices that excoriated idolatrous images, warped worship, and other “abominations of Rome”?

John Calvin and Roman Catholicism risks such a return to the past and brings together a diverse team of theologians and historians in order to ponder the nature of the encounter among Calvin, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics. In fact, editor Randall C. Zachman underscores Calvin’s ultimate desire “to restore the Catholic Church to what he called its ‘purer form.'” Ten substantial and provocative chapters in this volume explore the religious landscapes of France, Geneva, and the Netherlands as well as Calvin’s own understanding of idolatry, church polity, and theology.

The remarkable and tantalizing range of historical angle and theological approach in this book tends to tickle and heighten the curiosity of the reader. Irena Backus opens John Calvin and Roman Catholicism, revealing how French Catholic writing on Calvin usually did not follow the lead of Jerome Bolsec. This first Catholic biographer of Calvin admitted in 1577 “to relying on fabrication, rumor, and hearsay” (29) and portrayed Calvin “as the reincarnation of all heresies.” In contrast, most Catholic biographers thereafter sought a more measured and source-based approach to Calvin’s life and legacy. Not surprisingly, Calvin’s correspondence also provides an incredibly rich profile of ecumenical friction and exchange. George H. Tavard expounds the letters of Calvin and those early friends, who shared his views on reform but in the end chose to remain in the Roman Catholic fold. Earnest and searing missives between Calvin and Louis du Tillet reveal an intimate friendship shattered: while Calvin lamented du Tillet’s refusal to leave the Catholic Church, du Tillet reprimanded Calvin for his misguided and illegitimate calling to pastoral ministry.

Three scholars in John Calvin and Roman Catholicism broaden the historical scope to examine Catholic and Calvinist relationships in Geneva and the Netherlands. Karen Spierling describes how Reformed Genevans handled relationships with Catholic friends, family, and business partners. Given the persistent face to face contact of their parishioners with Catholics, the pastors of Geneva sought to monitor and correct residents tempted to dabble in things Roman Catholic when outside the city. Indeed, Roman Catholic pressure on Geneva intensified exponentially in the generations following Calvin’s death. Formerly a vital center for the spread of Protestantism, Geneva and its Calvinist residents were compelled to negotiate a sea of resurgent Catholicism. Jill Fehleison examines how preachers and missionaries, spurred by François de Sales, Capuchin Friars, and Jesuits put the pastors of Geneva on the defensive with tantalizing presentations of Catholic belief and persistent demands for public debate of Christian doctrine. Even as ongoing Catholic pressure reshaped Genevan Calvinism in the Dutch Republic, and under the shadow of the Synod of Dort, Roman Catholics found creative ways to survive and flourish. With the traditional church hierarchy outlawed, Catholics turned to a variety of innovative institutional measures, including lay virgins serving in ministry in order to compensate for a shortage of male clergy.

Three final chapters in this volume, though still attuned to history, focus on Calvin as a “Catholic theologian.” Carlos Eire unfolds Calvin’s view of idolatry. Eire comes to the surprising conclusion that Calvin’s understanding of true and false religion has little in common with the Catholic tradition, but does anticipate modern anthropology and religious studies. Randall Zachman offers a careful investigation of ecumenical debates around 1540 and Calvin’s resulting revisions of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Zachman describes how deliberations with Catholics spurred Calvin to refine and alter his views of the sacraments, laying on of hands, and church office. Finally, Dennis E. Tamburello unpacks Calvin’s conceptions of creation and humanity, which he maintains parallel current Catholic understandings of sacramentality.

John Calvin and Roman Catholicism reveals that the texture of sixteenth and seventeenth century Christianity was shaped not only by dramatic confrontation and violence, but more commonly by a steady stream of fierce communication among theological adversaries and by the daily give and take of common Calvinists and Catholics. In contrast, our tolerance and ecumenical cooperation today sometimes conceals a real indifference to religious beliefs and values. For Calvinists and Catholics of the Reformation era, doctrine and church were a matter of life and death. Their ideas and convictions, forged in debate and disagreement, yet stir our curiosity and spark our creativity.

J. Jeffery Tyler is professor of religion and director of the senior seminar program at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.