Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.

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