Calvin engaging with Trent

An outline of the key issues at stake between Rome and Reformed theology as expressed in the Council of Trent and Calvin's response to it.

The Council of Trent met in three periods between 1545 and 1563, taking up twenty-five sessions over a total of four years.[1] Its aim? “To raise up and[1] renovate the almost fallen church.”[2] Trent acknowledged three particular “evils” as besetting Roman Catholicism: “heresies, decay of discipline, intestine and external war.”[3] Although the Roman view of the church means that the “heresies” are described as having “grown rank in every part of the church,”[4] it seems by the particular emphases of Trent, they referred in fact to the rising doctrines of Protestantism. The two issues outlined in this essay both encompass the concerns of Trent, and reflect the chosen emphases in Calvin’s response.

1) Authority

Trent :

Session 4 describes the “saving truth and moral discipline” of the gospel as “clearly” contained in “the written books” (defined as including the Old Testament apocrypha) and the unwritten traditions,” as preserved through “continuous succession.” Subsequently, the Synod “receives and venerates” both “with an equal affection of piety, and reverence.” Yet the council also holds that the Holy Spirit “day by day” brings to the “mind” of the church “all truth.”[5]scripture and tradition seen as authoritative, but its interpretation by the church and by consequence the decrees of the council itself. It is therefore declared that “no one” is to “judge the said sacred scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother church…hath held and doth hold.” By this means, all doctrine that is contrary to the decrees of Trent is not only rejected, but implicitly declared to be in conflict with the Holy Spirit; which explains the abundance of anathema’s within each session which condemn any divergence from Trentine doctrine. It is no surprise than, that only the Vulgate is to be used, and only books that have been “examined” and “approved” are to be published and read. A greater degree of scriptural teaching is encouraged for Priests in session 5, yet the above assumptions suggest that this may only have been so that Protestant thought might be more thoroughly stemmed by bible teaching that is consistent with Roman interpretation. Thus, not only is

Calvin :

In response Calvin deals with the authority of councils apart from the authority of scripture. His key question with respect to councils is over the need to obey God not man: “In this view, wherein does the Holy Word of God differ from the decrees of man?”[6] “Councils are deservedly honoured,” but inquiry should be made so that rather than “rashly subscribing to the naked decisions of men,” one might “submit to God only.”[7] In order to justify questioning the council however, Calvin must show that it does not have the authority it claims,[8] and he does so on five points. First, “the whole administration of the Popery” is “at variance with the majority of ancient Councils.”[9] Second, the Pope has no authority to call a Council for the purpose of enshrining doctrine.[10] Third, the bishops are ignorant[11] and man pleasing,[12] and so nothing said by them could have “proceeded from the Holy Spirit.”[13] Fourth, they call it and require it to be an universal council in order to be authoritative, yet (a) many of the “schools” of Europe[14] (b) only a few bishops (the “dregs”) were present.[15] Fifth, everything is “subjected” to the Pope’s “decision and censure,”[16] and so its is not truly a group discerning the mind of the Spirit anyway. Calvin therefore establishes that his readers may “despise” the council despite its claims for authority, for its decrees “are entitled to no more weight than the cry of an auctioneer.”[17] differ,

On tradition and scripture, Calvin notes that any “ancient”[18] mention of tradition was “not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the scriptures.”[19] Oral traditions were only in matters of “decency and discipline” and it cannot be proved that the Roman doctrines stem from apostolic traditions anyway.[20] Citing Jerome and Ruffinus, he further argues that the Roman canon is “against the consent of the primitive church.”[21] Indeed, the “phraseology” and even the explicit acknowledgement of possible error in the Maccabees confirms this.[22] In terms of translation, the Vulgate “teems with innumerable errors,”[23] and so the Greek and Hebrew should be considered.[24] In fact, to decree the Vulgate’s use alone is to hold back the “renovation of the church.”[25] Calvin comments that by this “one article they have obtained the means of proving what they please out of Scripture, and escaping from every passage that might be urged against them.”[26] Furthermore, in matters of interpretation; because “scripture came not by the private will of man, (2 Pet. I. 21) it is unbecoming to wrest it to the private sense of man.” Rather, where a passage is uncertain, its meaning should be ascertained by “common inquiry” and “religious discussion.”[27] Calvin then lists examples of fanciful interpretations from the Council of Nice.[28]

2) Justification

In Calvin’s response to Trent, it is interesting to note how little is actually said on the specific sacraments, and especially mass. This may have been because he meant to write on the remaining sessions. However, it might also have been because he recognised that justification is the issue on which all the others turn. To understand the Roman view therefore, Trent’s teaching on the surrounding doctrines also needs outline.

Trent :

“In adults, the beginning” of justification stems from “the prevenient grace of God” through the “vocation” of Jesus Christ,[29] whereby he “merited justification” by his “passion” and “made satisfaction for us” to God.[30] Trent suggest that on the basis of this “meritorious cause,” without “any merits” in themselves, adults are “called” or “disposed through his quickening and assisting grace to convert themselves.”[31] Man is therefore not free “to move himself unto justice,” but is free to co-operate with or “reject” the “illumination of the Holy Ghost.”[32] This movement occurs when faith[33] is conceived, and shows itself in penitence[34] and the desire for baptism.

Whether infant or adult, baptism is the means by which the “merit” of Christ (not his obedience, but the merit of his passion) is “applied.”[35] Thus it is necessary unto salvation.”[36][37] They are then not only guiltless, but actually free from sin, although “concupiscence,” the “incentive” or inclination to sin, remains (and so assumed not to be sinful in itself).[38] Furthermore, the infant is “incorporated with Christ” in a manner that “cannot” be lost “at that age.”[39] Likewise, in baptism more generally one puts on Christ, is “made therein entirely a new creature, obtaining a full and entire remission of all sins.”[40] Therefore in adults, it seems that temporal[41] and eternal punishments are also remitted, leaving them in the same innocent state.[42] In the baptism of infants, original sin alone is remitted, and “cleansed” and “expiated” by “regeneration.”

Where justification’s “instrumental cause” is baptism as “the sacrament of faith,” its “formal cause” is justification itself; described as renewal by the Holy Spirit into “faith, hope, and charity” on the basis of the merit of Christ’s passion. By these three, man is united “perfectly with Christ.” The apparent confusion in justification causing justification is explained by its definition as: “not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man”[43] to a “state” of grace, or being “just.”[44] Thus it is received on “being born again,” yet is dynamic, maintaining and increasing itself as the individual co-operates in preserving it “pure and spotless…so that they may bear it before the judgement-seat” of Christ[45] and so merit eternal life. Thus justification is potentially temporary.

Sins are described as either venial or mortal. The former are “light and daily sins” through which one does not “cease to be just,” on the grounds that God does not forsake those who are justified “unless he be first forsaken by them.”[46] However one can fall from the grace of justification either by “infidelity”[47] or “other mortal sin,” even if faith itself “be not lost.”[48]Trent also has to reject both that man sins in every good work and that all sin “merits eternal punishments;” for otherwise venial sin would also forfeit justification.[49] Similarly, it has to reject assurance with respect to predestination and perseverance, as these can never be certain if one can fall from grace.[50] It is no coincidence then, that the canons on these subjects come between those on venial and mortal sin. Thus it is clear that faith alone is not sufficient for salvation, as it may be expressed even by those who are damned. Furthermore, in accepting that mortal sin leads to a fall from grace,

Where justification is lost, it can be recovered through being excited by God to penance: First, for the remittance of “the eternal punishment” and “guilt” of mortal sin, penance requires a “cessation from” and “detestation” of sin, “a contrite and humble heart,” and the “sacramental confession” of the particular sins (“at least in desire”). Second, for the temporal punishment of venial sin, “which is not wholly remitted,” “sacerdotal absolution;” is granted, “and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises.”[51] Where these do not fully satisfy for temporal punishments in this life, they must be continued in purgatory,[52] or by “the faithful” on one’s behalf; “principally” through offering mass.[53] The mass and extreme unction fulfil a similar task. The mass, in which “Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner,” if combined with penitence and faith, is therefore “not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified.” It “appeases” God bringing forgiveness of “even heinous crimes and sins.” [54] This suggests that the mass is a means of remitting eternal punishments and restoring one to grace, as the phrase “heinous crimes and sins” suggests those which are mortal, and only eternal punishments are dealt with through appeasing God. Temporal ones are paid for oneself. Nevertheless, the pious act of receiving mass may also satisfy for a certain degree of such temporal punishment. Likewise, extreme unction seems to provide the same twofold remittance, as it signifies “the grace of the Holy Ghost; whose anointing cleanses away sins, if there be any still to be expiated.” This presumably refers to mortal sin as temporal sin remains through death, and this sacrament is especially given when “departing.” Yet, it also “raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person,” which may refer to some alleviation of temporal punishment.[55]

Trent therefore defines justification not as being declared righteous through the imputation of Christ’s obedience, but as a package combining forgiveness for past mortal sins through the merits of Christ’s death and the infusion of an increasing “just” moral character by the Holy Spirit. The means of obtaining forgiveness is termed “propitiation.”[56] However the temporary nature of justification suggests that this is given on the basis of Christ’s initial sacrifice only when entering the state of grace through baptism and perhaps through penance, whereas further propitiation is achieved through the sacrifice of the mass for post-baptismal mortal sin.[57] Again, temporal sin requires no propitiation as its punishment is paid for oneself.

Although faith[58] is described as the “beginning,” “foundation,” and “root” of justification, justification is received freely because faith/works do not actually “merit” it,[59] rather, Christ’s passion does. Nevertheless, “life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God” whether having “preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or…recovered it when lost.” It is therefore by contrast, “a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits.” Christ’s “virtue” is continually infused into the justified, and “precedes and accompanies and follows” good works so that they are “pleasing and meritous” before God. Nevertheless, such works “fully” satisfy “the divine law” and “truly” merit eternal life.[60]

Calvin :

Calvin highlights the doctrines of “salvation” and the “sacraments” as the key areas of error.[61] The ultimate issue is over the human struggle against leaving “the glory of righteousness entire to God alone.” As Pelagius is “repudiated,” so Rome has now “devised a middle way, by which they might not give God the whole in justification, and yet give something.”[62]

In terms of God’s call, the Roman error lies in not distinguishing this “grace of regeneration” that cannot be lost, from the “first grace” given to Adam which could.[63] Yet Calvin argues that God’s call is an “effectual working” by which he forms “a new heart in man, so as to make him willing.”[64] Thus “faith, as well in its beginnings as its increase, even to its final perfection, is the gift of God…and the preparation for receiving grace is the free election of God.”[65]

Yet for Calvin, the key question is clearly “What is justification?”[66] It occurs “once freely in a single moment.”[67] It is “acquittal,”[68] being “regarded as righteous in the sight of God, because our sins have been expiated by Christ.”[69] And this is not merely the “beginning of justification” because this “righteousness” is retained not through works, but by faith “which by no means consists of works.”[70] Indeed, “we are possessed of no works but those which God hath prepared,” and in opposing “faith to works,” scripture prevents “its being classed among merits.”[71] Our hope is therefore based only on Christ’s “mediation,” and so we can have confidence regarding our salvation.[72] Nevertheless, “justification and sanctification” do “cohere.”[73] Yet we are unable to obey the law perfectly, and without that we cannot be counted righteous in ourselves. [74]

Calvin stresses that if baptism alone is the “instrumental cause” then “what will become of the gospel?” Instead he stresses that baptism is merely “an appendage of the gospel.”[75] In it “remission” is made, but “regeneration” is only begun; that is “the whole guilt of sin is taken away” that “the remains of sin still existing are not imputed.”[76] Yet baptism does not itself save.[77] Rather, salvation is “founded on the word” yet “sealed in baptism.”[78] Furthermore, Calvin challenges the view that absolution is a sacrament: “Where is the sign? Where the form?”[79] He argues that John 20:22 is actually about preaching of the gospel, and in it “God promises” remittance to us “free in the blood of Christ.” Thus men “tie me down to a necessity of confession from which Christ frees me,”[80] and mean that “we merit by works what God gives “freely.”[81] In fact, he says, absolution was not practised in the church for a 1000 years, until Pope Innocent III instituted it.[82] Purgatory too is without foundation, but is based on the apocrypha; “just to have the use of spurious paint in colouring their errors.”[83] Furthermore, Trent’s decrees of the mass immediately deny “their famous reformation…for in instituting the sacred supper, he (Christ) does not enjoin us to sacrifice, but invites us to partake of the sacrifice which he himself once offered.”[84]


“Wherefore, this sacred and holy Synod delivering here, on this venerable and divine sacrament of the Eucharist, that sound and genuine doctrine, which the Catholic Church,-instructed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and by His apostles, and taught by the Holy Ghost, who day by day brings to her mind all truth, has always retained, and will preserve even to the end of the world, forbids all the faithful of Christ, to presume to believe, teach, or preach henceforth concerning the holy Eucharist, otherwise than as is explained and defined in this present decree.”[85]

The significance of this wording about the mass, is telling in terms of contemporary ecumenical discussion. Trent believes its doctrines to be “sound and genuine,” “taught by the Holy Ghost,” and so “always” to be “retained,” preserving “even to the end of the world.” Furthermore, it “forbids” belief in or teaching of alternatives, and so throughout the document, anathematises[86] all who do. No matter what councils have occurred since Trent (or indeed will occur), their doctrines are therefore “a-priori” declared to be infallible, immutable, and irrefutable, for nothing can be declared that is inconsistent with what has gone before. The ecumenical movement is therefore nieve if it imagines that true progress is being made, or can in fact be made without the Roman church denying its entire authority structure, its whole soteriology in which so many of its most central doctrines have been moulded, and the decrees of its Popes and councils over at least the last millennium. Of course, if such a denial were made, it would no longer be the Roman Catholic Church.

Bibliography :

1. Calvin, John. Calvin's tracts: Canons and decrees of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, translated by Henry Beveridge, (Edinburgh, Calvin Translation Society, 1951)

2. The Council of Trent, edited and translated by J Waterworth, (London, Dolman, 1848), – accessed 29.5.02

3. Williams G. Survey of church history: Lecture 23 – The Catholic/Counter Reformation, (Oak Hill, London, 2001)

[1] Williams G. Survey of church history: Lecture 23 – The Catholic/Counter Reformation, (Oak Hill, London, 2001)

[2] Session (S)1, Tracts p.25

[3] S1, Tracts p.22

[4] S1, Tracts, p.23

[5] S13 Opening

[6] Calvin, John. Calvin's tracts: Canons and decrees of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, translated by Henry Beveridge, (Edinburgh, Calvin Translation Society, 1951), p.33

[7] Ibid, p.30

[8] Ibid, p.33

[9] Ibid, p.32

[10] Ibid, p.58

[11] Ibid, p.34

[12] Ibid, p.45

[13] Ibid, p.34

[14] Ibid, p.21

[15] Ibid, p.23 - 20 at the second session, p.57, forty for the third, p.63

[16] Ibid, p.36

[17] Ibid, p.36

[18] Presumably that of the NT or early church fathers.

[19] Ibid, p.69

[20] Ibid, p.70

[21] Although he acknowledges that Augustine and the council of Carthage accepted it, Ibid, p.71

[22] Ibid, p.71

[23] Ibid, p.71

[24] Ibid, p.73

[25] Ibid, p.72

[26] Ibid, p.69

[27] Ibid, p.74

[28] Ibid, p.75-76

[29] S6 Canon (C)6

[30] S6 C2-3, 7

[31] S6 C6

[32] S6 C5 Elsewhere there is some hint that man may be able to take the initiative in moving towards grace. S6 Cn5,7

[33] Here faith seems to be defined as: “by hearing, they are freely moved towards God, believing those things to be true which God has revealed and promised,-and this especially, that God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ's sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice;” S6 C6

[34] S6 C6 continues to define penitence: ”and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be performed before baptism:”

[35] S5.3

[36] S7 On Baptism Cn5

[37] S5.4

[38] S5.5

[39] S21 C4

[40] S14 C2

[41] S6 C14

[42] See discussion below on temporal and eternal punishments.

[43] S6 C7

[44] S6 C3

[45] S6 C7

[46] S6 C11

[47] Defined as the loss of faith. S6 C15

[48] S6 C15

[49] S6 C11

[50] S6 C12

[51] S6 C14

[52] S7 Cn30

[53] S26 Decree concerning purgatory.

[54] S22 C2

[55] S14 On the sacrament of extreme unction C3

[56] S6 C2

[57] S22 C2

[58] Defined in footnote 30.

[59] S6 C8

[60] S6 C16

[61] Calvin, Op Cit, p.38

[62] Calvin, Op Cit, p.108

[63] Ibid, p.111 He goes on “Their error consists in sharing the work between God and ourselves, so as to transfer to ourselves the obedience of a pious will in assenting to divine grace, whereas this is the proper work of God himself.” p.113

[64] Ibid, p.110

[65] Ibid, p.120 citing Eph 1:3, Acts 13:48, Eph 2:10

[66] Ibid, p.114

[67] Ibid, p.129

[68] Ibid, p.115 citing Lk 17 and Rom 8:33

[69] Ibid, p.114 citing Rom 4:6 and 2 Cor 5:19

[70] Ibid, p.113-114 citing Acts 13:38

[71] Ibid, p.125

[72] Ibid, p.125-127

[73] Ibid, p.116

[74] Ibid, p.129-132 citing 1 Kgs 8:46, Ps 143:2, Gal 3:10, Rom 7:24, Acts 15, Gal 3:10, Jam 2:10

[75] Ibid, p.116-117

[76] Ibid, p.85-86

[77] Ibid, p.117

[78] Ibid, p.110

[79] Ibid, p.138

[80] Ibid, p.139

[81] Ibid, p.141

[82] Ibid, p.140

[83] Ibid, p.68

[84] Ibid, p.59

[85] S13 Decree concerning the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist

[86] Taken from Gal 1:8-9, this means “let him be eternally cursed.”