The Necessity of Reforming the Church

by John Calvin

Presented to Imperial Diet at Spires, AD 1544,
in the name of all who wish Christ to reign.

Part 5

From what has been said, it will doubtless be easy for you to perceive how little attention is due to the calumny of our adversaries, when they accuse us of impious presumption, and as it were inexpiable audacity, in having attempted to purify the Church from corruption, both in doctrine and ceremonies, without waiting for the beck of the Roman Pontiff. They say we have done what private individuals have no right to do. But, in regard to ameliorating the condition of the Church, what was to be hoped from him to whom we were required to give place? Any man who considers how Luther and the other Reformers acted at the outset, and how they afterwards proceeded, will deem it unnecessary to call upon us for any defence. When matters were still entire, Luther himself humbly besought the Pontiff that he would be pleased to cure the very grievous disorders of the Church. Did his supplication succeed? The evils having still increased, the necessity of the case, even had Luther been silent, should have been stimulus enough to urge the Pope to delay no longer. The whole Christian world plainly demanded this of him, and he had in his hands the means of satisfying the pious wishes of all. Did he do so? He now talks of impediments. But if the fact be traced to its source, it will be found that he has all along been, both to himself and to others, the only impediment. But why insist on these lighter arguments? Is it not in itself alone an argument of sufficient clearness and sufficient weight, that, from the commencement up to the present time, he gives us no hope of transacting with him until we again bury Christ, and return to every impiety which formerly existed, that he may establish them on a firmer basis than before? This, unquestionably, is the reason why still, in the present day, our opponents so strenuously maintain that we had no right to intermeddle with the revival of the church—not that the thing was not necessary, (this it were too desperate effrontery to deny,) but because they are desirous that as well the safety as the ruin of the Church should be suspended on the mere beck and pleasure of the Roman Pontiff.

Let us now attend to the only remedy left us by those who think it impiety to move a finger, how great soever the evils by which the Church is oppressed. They put us off to an universal council. What? If the major part, from obstinacy, rush upon their own destruction, must we therefore perish along with them, when we have the means of consulting for our own safety? But they tell us it is unlawful to violate the unity of the Church, and that unity is violated if any party decide an article of faith by themselves, without calling in the others. Then they enlarge on the inconveniences to which such a course might lead—that nothing could be expected but fearful devastation and chaotic confusion, were each people and nation to adopt for itself its peculiar form of faith. Things like these might be said justly, and even appositely to the occasion, if any one member of the Church, in contempt of unity, should of its own accord separate itself from the others. But that is not the point now in dispute. I wish, indeed, it were possible for all the monarchs and states of the Christian world to unite in a holy league, and resolve on a simultaneous amendment of the present evils. But since we see that some are averse to amelioration, and that others involved in war, or occupied with other cares, cannot give their attention to the subject, how long, pray, must we, in waiting for others, defer consulting for ourselves? And more freely to explain the source of all our evils, we see that the Roman Pontiff, if he can prevent it, will never permit all churches to unite, I do not say in due consultation, but in assembling any council at all. He will, indeed, as often as he is asked, give promises in abundance, provided he sees all the ways shut up, and all modes of access interrupted, while be has in his hand obstructions which he can every now and then throw in, so as never to want pretexts for tergiversation. With a few exceptions, he has all the cardinals, bishops, and abbots, consenting with him in this matter, since their only thought is how to retain possession of their usurped tyranny. As to the welfare or destruction of the Church, it gives them not the least concern.

I am not afraid, Most Invincible Caesar, and Most Illustrious Princes, that my statement will seem incredible, or that it will be difficult to persuade you of its truth. Nay, rather I appeal to the consciences of you all, whether I have stated any thing which your own experience does not confirm. Meanwhile, the Church lies in the greatest peril. An infinite number of souls, not knowing in what direction to turn, are miserably perplexed; many even, forestalled by death, perish, if not saved miraculously by the Lord; diversified sects arise; numbers, whose impiety was formerly hid, assume, from the present dissensions, a licence to believe nothing at all, while many minds, otherwise not ill disposed, begin to part with their religious impressions. There is no discipline to check these evils; amongst us who glory in the name of Christ only, and have the same baptism, there is no more agreement than if we professed religions entirely different. And the most miserable thing of all is, that there is at hand, nay, almost in sight, a breaking up of the whole Church, for which, after it has taken place, it will be in vain to seek for remedies. Seeing, therefore, that in bringing assistance to the Church in her great distress and extreme danger, no celerity can be too rapid, what else do those who put us off to a General Council, of which there is no prospect, but insult both God and man? The Germans must therefore submit to have this sentence passed upon them, that they choose to look on quietly and see the Church of God perish from their land, when they have the means of curing her disorders, or they must instantly bestir themselves to the work. This second alternative they will never adopt so speedily, as not to be even now deservedly condemned for not adopting sooner. But those persons, whoever they be, who, under the pretext of a General Council, interpose delay, clearly have no other end in view, than by this artifice to spin out the time, and are no more to be listened to than if they confessed in word what they in deed demonstrate, that they are prepared to purchase their private advantage by the destruction of the Church.

But it is said that it would be unprecedented for the Germans alone to undertake this reformation; that in no case when controversy has arisen concerning the doctrines of religion, was it ever heard that a single province could undertake the investigation and decision. What is this I hear? Do they imagine that by their mere assertion they will persuade the world to believe what the histories of all times refute? As often as some new heresy emerged, or the Church was disturbed by some dispute, was it not the usual custom immediately to convene a Provincial Synod, that the disturbance might thereby be terminated? It never was the custom to recur to a General Council until the other remedy had been tried. Before bishops from the whole Christian world met at Nice to confute Arius, several Synods had been held with that view in the East. For the sake of brevity, I pass over the other instances, but the thing which our enemies shun as unusual is proved by the writings of the ancients to have been the ordinary practice. Have done, then, with this lying pretence of novelty.

Had this superstitious idea possessed the African Bishops, they would have been too late in meeting the Donatists and Pelagians. The Donatists had already gained over a great part of Africa to their faction, nor was any place entirely free from the contagion. It was a controversy of the greatest moment, relating to the unity of the Church and the due administration of baptism. According to the new wisdom of our opponents, the orthodox Bishops, in order not to cut themselves off from the other members of the Church, ought to have referred the question to a General Council. Is this what they do? Nay, rather, knowing that in extinguishing an actual fire no time can be lost, they press and follow close upon the Donatists, now summoning them to a Synod, now coming, as it were, to chose quarters with them in discussion.

Let our enemies condemn of impious separation from the Church, Augustine, and the other holy men of that age who concurred with him, for having, by imperial authority, without convoking a General Council, forced the Donatists to dispute with them, and hesitated not to treat in a Provincial Synod of a most difficult and dangerous controversy. There, too, Pelagius had shown his horns; instantly a Synod was held to repress his audacity. When, after having for a short time feigned penitence, he had returned to his vomit, with the stigma which had been fixed on his impiety in Africa he betook himself to Rome, where he was received with considerable favour. What course do the pious Bishops take? Do they allege that they are only a member of the Church, and must wait for relief from a General Council? Nay, they themselves assemble on the very first opportunity, and again and again anathematize the impious dogma with which many had now been infected, freely deciding and defining what ought to be held on the subjects of original sin and regenerating grace. Afterwards, indeed, they send to Rome a copy of their proceedings, partly that, by a common authority and consent, they may the more effectually crush the contumacy of the heretics, partly that they may admonish others of a danger, against which all ought to stand upon their guard. The flatterers of the Roman Pontiff give the matter a different turn, as if the Bishops had suspended their judgment until the proceedings were ratified by Innocent V., who then presided over the Church of Rome. But this impudent averment is more than refuted by the words of the holy Fathers. For they neither ask Innocent to counsel them as to what they ought to do, nor do they refer it to him to decide, nor do they wait for his nod and authority, but they narrate that they had already taken cognisance of the cause, and passed sentence, condemning both the man and the doctrine, in order that Innocent, too, might imitate their example, if he desired not to fail in his duty. These things were done while as yet the churches agreed with each other in sound doctrine. Now, then, when all things threaten ruin if not speedily remedied, why hang waiting for the consent of those who leave not a stone unturned to prevent the truth of God, which they had put to flight, from again beaming forth?

Ambrose, in his day, had a controversy with Auxentius on the primary article of our faith, viz., the divinity of Christ. The Emperor favoured the view of Auxentius. He does not, however, appeal to a General Council, under the pretext of its being unlawful that so important a cause should be decided in any other manner. He only demands, that, being a question of faith, it should he discussed in the church in presence of the people. And to what end the Provincial Synods, which were once regularly held twice a year, unless that Bishops might consult together on emerging circumstances, as the nineteenth Canon of the Council of Chalcedon explains. An ancient enactment orders that the Bishops of every province shall convene twice a-year. The Council of Chalcedon gives us the reason, that any errors which may have emerged may be corrected. Our opponents, contrary to what all know, deny the lawfulness of touching a corruption of doctrine or manners, until it has been laid before a General Council. Nay, the very subterfuge by which the Arians Palladius and Secundinianus declined the Council of Aquileia was, because it was not full and general, all the Eastern Bishops being absent, and few even of the West making their appearance. And it is certain that of the Italians scarcely a half had convened. The Roman Bishop had neither come in person, nor sent any one of his presbyters to represent him. To all these objections Ambrose replies, that it was not a thing without example for the Western Bishops to hold a synod, since the practice was familiar to those of the East—that the pious Emperors who summoned the Council had acted wisely in leaviug all at liberty to come, without compelling any; and, accordingly, all who thought proper had come, none being prohibited. Though the heretics continued to press their quibbling objections, the holy Fathers did not, therefore, abandon their purpose. Assuredly, after such examples, your Imperial Majesty is not to be prohibited from using the means within your reach of bringing back the body of the empire to sacred concord.

Though, as has been observed, our enemies, who advise procrastination, do it not with the view of shortly after consulting for the welfare of the Church, but ouly of gaining time by delay, knowing, that if they can throw us back to a General Council, the truce will be long enough; let us, however, assume that there is no obstacle to a General Council being immediately called; let us even assume that it has been summoned in good earnest, that the day of meeting is at hand, and all things prepared. The Roman Pontiff will, of course, preside, or if he declines to come, he will send one of his Cardinals as Legate to preside in his stead, and he will doubtless select the one whom he believes will be most faithful to his interests. The rest of the Cardinals will take their seats, and next them the Bishops and Abbots. The seats beneath will be occupied by ordinary members, who are, for the most part, selected for subservience to the views of those above. It will, indeed, happen, that some few honest men will have seats among them, but they will be despised for the smallness of their number, and, made weak by fear, or dispirited by the hopelessness of doing any good, will be silent. Should any one of them, perchance, attempt to speak, he will instantly be put down by noise and clamour. But the great body will be ready to suffer any thing, sooner than allow the Church to be restored to a better condition.

I say nothing of doctrine. Would that they could only come to the cause with an honest and docile temper. But it is certain as certainty itself; that the single resolution of all will be not to listen to any thing that is said, or to the arguments by which it is supported, be they what they may. Nay, they will not only stuff their ears with stubbornness and obstinacy, that they may not obey the truth, but will also arm themselves with ferocity to resist it. And why? Is it credible that those who do not admit into their ears any mention of sound doctrine, will spontaneously withdraw their opposition, as soon as it comes to be a matter of present practice? Can we hope that those who are constantly plotting to prevent the fallen kingdom of Christ from again rising in the world, will give a helping hand to raise it up, and advance it? Will those who are now, with fire and sword, raging against the truth, and doing all they can to whet and inflame the cruelty of others, show themselves moderate and humane? But were there nothing else, I leave it to your prudence, Most Invincible Emperor, and yours, Most Illustrious Princes, to consider whether or not it is for the private interest of the Roman Pontiff, and his whole faction, that the Church should be restored to true order, and its most corrupt condition reformed, according to the strict standard of the gospel. How much it is their wont to forget their own advantage, and, in disregard of it, to engage with heart and soul in promoting the common welfare, you have learned by a sure experience!

Sire, will you leave the Church to them, that they may decide concerning its reformation at their own will, or rather their own caprice? Will you remain waiting for their nod, resolved never to consult for the Church till they consent? If they know this to be your intention, they will disentangle themselves by an easy process. They will decide that things must remain as they are. But let us suppose that they will be so overcome, either by a sense of shame, or by the authority of your Majesty, and the other Princes, as to put on some appearance of moderation, and part with some small portion of their power; will they, even of their own accord, condescend so far as to allow them selves to be reduced into order, that the kingdom of Christ may be upraised? But if they will not, to what end is the care of reforming the Church committed to them, unless it be to expose the sheep to the wolves? If there is no other alternative, it were better that the Church should he given up as desperate, than that she should fall into the hands of such physicians.

It had, indeed, become those who have the name and hold the office of pastors, to be the first of all to fly to her assistance. It had, I admit, become them to come forward as leaders, and unite the princes with them, as associates and coadjutors in this holy work. But what if they decline to do it themselves? What if they are unwilling it should be done by others? What if they leave not a stone unturned in order to prevent it? Are we, then, still to have regard to them? must no man move till they give the signal? Must we still listen to that solemn saw of theirs, "Nothing must be attempted till the Pope has approved?" Let your Majesty, then, be assured, and do you also, Most Illustrious Princes and distinguished personages, lay it to heart, as a certain fact, that the Church, not only betrayed, deserted, and left destitute by her pastors, but vexed, overwhelmed with calamity, and doomed to destruction, throws herself on your protection. Nay, rather view it in this way—God has now furnished you with the means of giving a sure and striking proof of your fidelity towards Him. There is nothing in which all men ought to feel a deeper interest, nothing in which God wishes us to exhibit a more intense zeal, than in endeavouring that the glory of His name may remain unimpaired, His kingdom be advanced, and the pure doctrine, which alone can guide us to true worship, flourish in full vigour. How much more, therefore, does it become princes to make these things their care, to design, commence, and prosecute them to a close, seeing God has honoured them with a communication of His name, that they may be on earth the guardians and vindicators of His glory?

Be unwilling, I beseech you, to lend an ear to ungodly men, who either cajole you with a false show of counsel, in order that the Church may receive no alleviation at your hand, or disparage the cause—though it is the greatest of all causes—that you may be more remiss in undertaking it, or urge you to violent methods of proceeding in it. Hitherto, Most Invincible Emperor, in endeavouring to inflame you with rage, and, in a manner, clothe you in armour, they have host their labour, and you will certainly transmit to posterity the distinguished praise, both of mildness and prudence, in not having suffered yourself to be once moved from moderation by the turbulent counsels, which have been so often and so strongly pressed upon you. Be it at all times your care that this praise be not wrested from you by the importunity of our enemies. Augustine acknowledges the discipline to be bad which terrifies heretics, but does not teach them. If heretics, who, by their intemperance, and without any just cause, disturb the Church, are to be treated with a mildness ensuring that instruction shall always precede chastisement, how much more becoming is it to use humanity in this cause, in which we call God and men to witness that we seek nothing but a sincere consent on both sides to the pure doctrine of God? That the Roman Pontiff and his followers breathe nothing but blood and slaughter, you yourself; Sire, are the best witness. Had you yielded to their fury, Germany had long ago been deluged with her own blood. You, too, Most Illustrious Princes, well know the fact. Can it be that it is the Spirit of God which drives them on headlong to such cruelty? But thus it is; licentiousness, which has long stalked abroad without hindrance, no sooner feels the curb than it breaks out into madness. If there are any, besides those who desire to see us crushed by violence and arms, either enkindled by the breath of others, or instigated from within by an inconsiderate zeal, they hate a cause which they know not. For the very same thing of which Tertullian complains in his Apology, as having happened to the Church when she first arose, is also experienced by us in the present day. We are condemned merely from prejudice against our name, without any investigation of our cause. And what do we contend for now, save that our cause, after due cognisance has once been taken of it, may at length be decided, according to truth and equity, and not according to any falsely preconceived opinion? Sire, it is, indeed, a noble proof both of humanity and of singular wisdom, that you have hitherto resisted the urgency with which our enemies have endeavoured to hurry you into an unjust severity. The next best thing is not to yield to the pernicious counsels of those who, under specious pretexts for delay, have for a long time hindered this holy work, (I mean the reformation of the Church;) and what is worse, are endeavouring to prevent it altogether.

There is, perhaps, one remaining difficulty which prevents you from commencing the work. Very many, not otherwise indisposed, are deterred from engaging in this holy undertaking, merely because antecedently to the attempt they despair of its success. But here two things ought to be considered; the one, that the difficulty is not so great as it appears to be, and the other, that, however great it be, there is nothing in it which ought to dispirit you, when you reflect that it is the cause of God, and that He overruling it, both our hopes may be surpassed and our impressions prove erroneous. The former of these it is no part of my present design to explain; a fitter opportunity will be found, when once the matter comes to be taken into serious consideration. This only I will say, that the execution will be more expeditious, and of less difficulty than is commonly supposed, provided there is courage enough in attempting it. However, considering, according to the well known sentiment of an old proverb, that there is nothing illustrious which is not also difficult and arduous, can we wonder, that in the greatest and most excellent of all causes, we must fight our way through many difficulties? I have already observed, that if we would not give deep offence to God, our minds must take a loftier view. For it is just to measure the power of God by the extent of our own powers, if we hope no more of the restoration of the Church than the present state of affairs seems to promise. How slender soever the hope of success, God bids us be of good courage, and put far away every thing like fear, that we may with alacrity begirt ourselves for the work. Thus far, at least, let us do Him honour. Confiding in his Almighty power, let us not decline to try what the success is which He may he pleased to give.

In the present condition of the empire, your Imperial Majesty, and you, Most Illustrious Princes, necessarily involved in various cares, and distracted by a multiplicity of business, are agitated, and in a manner tempest-tossed. But be always assured, that of all works this one is undoubtedly entitled to take precedence. I feel what nerve, what earnestness, what urgency, what ardour, the treatment of this subject requires. And I am well aware that persons will not be wanting to express their surprise, that on a subject so noble and splendid I should be so cold. But what could I do? I bend under its weight and magnitude; and I therefore see not how I can do better than set the matter before you simply, without any embellishment of words, that you may afterwards ponder and scrutinize it. First, call to mind the fearful calamities of the Church, which might move to pity even minds of iron. Nay, set before your eyes her squalid and unsightly form, and the sad devastation which is everywhere beheld. How long, pray, will you allow the spouse of Christ, the mother of you all, to lie thus prostrated and afflicted—thus too, when she is imploring your protection, and when the means of relief are in your hand? Next, consider how much worse calamities impend. Final destruction cannot be far off; unless you interpose with the utmost speed. Christ will, indeed, in the way which to him seems good, preserve his Church miraculously, and beyond human expectation; but this I say, that the consequence of a little longer delay on your part will be, that in Germany we shall not have even the form of a Church. Look round, and see how many indications threaten that ruin which it is your duty to prevent, and announce that it is actually at hand. These things speak loud enough, though I were silent.

Such indications, however, ought not only to move us by their actual aspect; they ought also to remind us of coming vengeance. Divine worship being vitiated by so many false opinions, and perverted by so many impious and foul superstitions, the sacred Majesty of God is insulted with atrocious contumely, his holy name profaned, his glory only not trampled under foot. Nay, while the whole Christian world is openly polluted with idolatry, men adore, instead of Him, their own fictions. A thousand superstitions reign, superstitions which are just so many open insults to Him. The power of Christ is almost obliterated from the minds of men, the hope of salvation is transferred from him to empty, frivolous, and nugatory ceremonies, while there is a pollution of the Sacraments not less to be execrated. Baptism is deformed by numerous additions, the Holy Supper is prostituted to all kinds of ignominy, religion throughout has degenerated into an entirely different form.

If we are negligent in remedying these evils, God assuredly will not forget himself. How could He who declares that he will not allow his honour to be in any way impaired, fail to interpose when it is cast down and destroyed? How could He who threatens with destruction all the nations among whom prophecy shall have failed, permit our open and contumacious contempt of the prophecies to go unpunished? How could He who punished a slight stain on his Supper so severely in the Corinthians, spare us in presuming to pollute it with so many unutterable blasphemies? How could He who, by the mouths of all his prophets, testifies and proclaims that he is armed with vengeance against idolatry, leave untouched in us so many monstrous idolatries? Assuredly He does not so leave them, for we see how, sword in hand, he urges and pursues us. The Turkish war now occupies the minds of all, and fills them with alarm. It well may. Consultations are held to prepare the means of resistance. This, too, is prudently and necessarily done. All exclaim that there is need of no ordinary dispatch. I admit that there cannot be too much dispatch, provided, in the meantime, the consultation which ought to be first, the consultation how to restore the Church to its proper state, is neither neglected nor retarded. Already delays more than enough have been interposed. The fuel of the Turkish war is within, shut up in our bowels, and must first be removed, if we would successfully drive back the war itself.

In future, therefore, as often as you shall hear the croaking note—The business of reforming the Church must be delayed for the present—there will be time enough to accomplish it after other matters are transacted—remember, Most Invincible Emperor, and Most Illustrious Princes, that the matter on which you are to deliberate is, whether you are to leave to your posterity some empire or none. Yet, why do I speak of posterity? Even now, while your own eyes behold, it is half bent, and totters to its final ruin. In regard to ourselves, whatever be the event, we will always be supported, in the sight of God, by the consciousness that we have desired both to promote his glory and do good to his Church; that we have laboured faithfully for that end; that, in short, we have done what we could. Our conscience tells us, that in all our wishes, and all our endeavours, we have had no other aim. And we have essayed, by clear proof; to testify the fact. And, certainly, while we feel assured, that we both care for and do the work of the Lord, we are also confident, that he will by no means be wanting either to himself or to it.

But be the issue what it may, we will never repent of having begun, and of having proceeded thus far. The Holy Spirit is a faithful and unerring witness to our doctrine. We know, I say, that it is the eternal truth of God that we preach. We are, indeed, desirous, as we ought to be, that our ministry may prove salutary to the world; but to give it this effect belongs to God, not to us. If; to punish, partly the ingratitude, and partly the stubbornness of those to whom we desire to do good, success must prove desperate, and all things go to worse, I will say what it befits a Christian man to say, and what all who are true to this holy profession will subscribe:—We will die, but in death even be conquerors, not only because through it we shall have a sure passage to a better life, but because we know that our blood will be as seed to propagate the Divine truth which men now despise.

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