Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Just Who is Catholic?

With this [universal/catholic] Church we deny that we have any disagreement.  Nay, rather, as we revere her as out mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom.

-          John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

Shocking, perhaps.  Clarifying Calvin’s words requires shedding one’s self of the idea that the word “catholic” only has meaning when preceded by the word “Roman.”  Calvin would define the word “catholic” as the “society of all the saints…spread over the whole world.”

It is the purpose of Barrett’s work to clarify just this, that it was the Reformers who were aimed at the earliest traditions and doctrines of the catholic (universal) Church, and not the Roman Catholics.  As he writes:

Whether one thinks the Reformers were correct is a theological matter that is not the burden of this book.  Whether the Reformers defined themselves by this theological conviction however, is a historical matter, one that defined the Reformation as a whole.

Which, as I mentioned in my first post on this book – and is true whenever I write on such topics – is my purpose as well.  The history, not the theology.  What were the ancient Christian historical doctrines, beliefs, practices, dogmas, etc., and were the Reformers speaking to this or not?  That is the question.  Whether these were theologically sound is a different matter – and a topic which I try to avoid when writing here, and encourage commenters here to avoid as well.

It was, according to history, the Reformers that were the heretics.  This is true if one defines “heretic” as one who does not conform to the current teaching and will of the Roman church.  Jacopo Sadoleto, a Cardinal in good standing, would write to the Geneva church in 1539.  His timing was such that it was shortly after Calvin was exiled.  Yet, the Geneva church asked Calvin to respond.  And he did, with both barrels.

He told Sadoleto that the Reformation is not only catholic but more catholic than Rome.  …The Reformers believed that their teachings, in contrast to Rome’s, were not only faithful to the sacred Scriptures but allegiant to the catholic tradition that embodied those same biblical teachings.

That was the calm part.

Calvin said to Sadoleto, We are more catholic than you.  “Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours,” Calvin insisted.

The purpose of the Reformers was to renew this connection to antiquity, which had been sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character.  The Reformers believed that they had not only the Bible, but also the major dogmas on their side.  Per David Steinmetz:

The goal of the reformers was a reformed catholic church, built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, purged of the medieval innovations that had distorted the gospel….

It was an appeal to Christian antiquity.  There was nothing less revolutionary in the sixteenth century than an appeal to the past – to that which was sound and tested.  And with this, Calvin would continue in his response to Sadoleto:

“Where, pray, exist among you any vestiges of that true and holy discipline which the ancient bishops exercised in the Church?  Have you not scorned all their institutions?  Have you not trampled all the canons under foot?  Then, your nefarious profanation of the sacraments I cannot think of without the utmost horror.”

Luther was in fundamental agreement with such arguments.  “We are the true ancient church…you have fallen away from us.”  Melanchthon would continue along these lines:

The church “is an assembly dispersed throughout the whole world and…its members, wherever they are, and however separated in place, accept and externally profess the same utterance or true doctrine throughout all ages from the beginning to the very end.”

The credibility of the Reformation did not depend on the visible – kneeling before the Eucharist or venerating images – but on the invisible: the truth of their doctrine.  Being “catholic” did not depend on institutional badges.  As for Rome, Melanchthon would add: “It is one thing to be called catholic, something else to be catholic in reality.”  Separately, he would write: “I am not creating new opinions.”

Conformity was not to be placed above soteriology.  Further, the idea of conformity presupposed that Rome was in continuity with the past.  The Reformers argued that much of this required conformity could not be found in the ancient church – that these were accretions. 

Of course, Rome had the political and ecclesiastical power to expel the Reformers.  But, as we know, the Reformers did not go away so easily.  It was Rome’s decision, not Luther’s, to oust the “heretics.” 


Luther was not breaking with catholic tradition but self-consciously retrieving the tradition, bringing to bear the deepest insights of Augustine and the great monastic teachers on a [late medieval] scholasticism out of touch with its own [Scholastic] roots.

-          David S. Yeago, “The Catholic Luther”

As an aside, I have come across this last idea more often recently – and, admittedly, it is contrary from what I first understood of Luther.  Yes, Luther decried Scholasticism.  But he wasn’t decrying the Scholasticism of Aquinas (there remain questions, at least for me, about how well Luther understood Thomistic Scholasticism).  Instead, he reacted against the later Scholasticism – the Scholasticism that included the drive toward nominalism; the Scholasticism of Scotus and Occam, among others.

But back to the main point and the first sentence of this last cite: the Reformers were after reformation – a return to both the Scripture and the ancient Christian traditions.


  1. Seems a repeating pattern throughout history. Things are bad, a small group reforms or reviolts and things get better .
    The small group grows because it seems an improvement. The small group becomes the big group and begins to overpower all other small groups .Things become more and more centralized.
    The big group gets too fat and powerful corruption takes over .
    Wash rinse repeat. Where does the corruption come from?
    Me thinks it is always here in me.
    It is up to me to bring EVERY thought into submission to Christ( not his last name).
    Buffet my body. Strive to enter the narrow gate. Never forget that the only good in me is not of myself. No, it is given by grace lest myself finds a reason to boast

  2. This is how I have always understood the Reformation. I agree with most of their doctrine, but even where I disagree I listen because these guys were smart and put lots of thought into it. They also used scholastic forms in their analysis which is similar to Platonic dialogues. They were going for something ancient not new.. I read Samuel Rutherford's "Lex Rex" when I am able. It follows that same pattern and is a huge influence on early American political thought.

  3. If the Reformation was more Catholic than Rome, why is there such division amongst them? The Catholic Church for 2000 years has stood based on the Magisterium of the Faith. Why do the reformers differ so on such topics as the Real Presence in the Eucharist? Is it Sola Scriptura, Solo Fides, or something else that leads to salvation? Does baptism remove sin or is it merely a ceremony? What does it mean? Have the reformers come to any universal or Catholic agreement on any of these things? Are all the reformers right? Or wrong? Is there one reformer who stands out as "The One?"

    1. We do not debate theology and doctrine here, or at least keep it to a minimum - and especially not with "unknown."

      My purpose, as is Barrett's, is to understand the history, the threads of theology and doctrine - without getting into if that theology is sound.

      Christians of all stripes - Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant - make fools of themselves whenever they claim that they are the only true Church and the only example of continuous and faithful teaching and living. Such beliefs are too easily falsifiable to bother. Which is another reason I try to stay out of it here - to include answering any of these questions.

  4. Always get a kick out of what they call "communion".
    IS it a cracker and a jigger of juice or wine?
    It was an annual thing the Hebrews did.
    Passover .
    It was about their story of escape from Egypt.
    It was also about the coming Messiah.
    They looked for many centuries for the Messiah.
    This bread was always about Me.
    Then He told them .
    Now whe ever you do this Remember I AM.
    They did it once a year.
    Not weekly, not once a month.
    They did not go to confession before.

    Now Jesus show up and said I am the one