Calvin on the Church of England – Part 1

This post is Part 1 of a three part series. You can read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

John Durel was a Franco-Anglican minister who became a key Reformed apologist for the Church of England after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Mostly forgotten today, Durel was a key figure during the 1662 settlement, serving as a major foil to Richard Baxter. One of Durel’s most important achievements was in securing support from leading Huguenot theologians for the restored English state church, thus undermining a powerful part of the nonconformist polemic. In his book, A view of the government and publick worship of God in the Reformed Churches beyond the seas : wherein is shewed their conformity and agreement with the Church of England, Durel attempts to bolster this sort of approach, claiming the broader international Reformed world as an ally of the Elizabethan and Stuart settlements. Durel makes several interesting observations in that book, but some of the most intriguing have to do with John Calvin.

Durel begins by anticipating Richard Muller. He says that too many people in his day treat Geneva and Calvin as the “mother” of Presbyterianism and even an example “for all other Reformed Churches and Countries to imitate” (pg. 151). This Durel rejects entirely. But he then points out that the Genevans never claimed such a position for themselves in the first place. In fact, Durel says that he had initially been misled by this perception and carried an unfair bias against Calvin. However, after reading him directly, Durel came to believe that Calvin was more on the side of the conformist Church of England than the dissenters (pg. 161). The unaccommodated Calvin, it turns out, is entirely to Durel’s liking.

Now surely, this is just the apologetics talking. Can Durel possibly be correct that Calvin is more Anglican than Puritan? It seems a stretch. Yet Durel points to a number of sources in Calvin’s writings, most notably a letter to the Duke of Somerset, the guardian of the minor King Edward VI and Protector of England. This letter is very interesting, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of Calvin’s letters, focusing on what he had to say about what we now call “Anglicanism.” In this essay and future installments, I will draw together these various comments in order to form for us Calvin’s commentary on the emerging Church of England.

Calvin’s First Letter to Somerset

Edward Seymour was the brother to Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII and mother to Edward VI. Upon Henry’s death, Seymour was made the Protector of England until the child Edward reached majority. Edward Seymour then titled himself Duke of Somerset, and he approximated royal status. He also happened to be a staunch Protestant. In writing to Somerset, Calvin expresses what he would like to see in the newly-Reformed Church of England, and he also gives Somerset certain advice about how to make it happen. A few selections are particularly important.

Calvin opens by writing, “We have all reason to be thankful to our God and Father, that he has been pleased to employ you in so excellent a work as that of setting up the purity and right order of his worship in England by your means, and establishing the doctrine of salvation, that it may there be faithfully proclaimed to all those who shall consent to hear it…” Calvin’s goal in writing to Somerset is to direct him how best to set up “the purity and right order” of worship, as well as how to establish “the doctrine of salvation.” He then compares Somerset, and by implication Edward VI, to King Hezekiah of old, noting that God preserved him from what appeared to be defeat and death for the higher purpose of establishing the law of God and, chiefly, true worship in his realm.

Calvin then goes on to mention “two kinds of rebels” that trouble the kingdom. These are, effectively, the Libertines and the Roman Catholic sympathizers. Calvin’s advice is straight to the point, “Both alike deserve to be repressed by the sword which is committed to you, since they not only attack the King, but strive with God, who has placed him upon a royal throne, and has committed to you the protection as well of his person as of his majesty.” The call to persecution was not particularly distinctive at the time. Everyone was into that sort of thing. But Calvin’s statement that God had placed the king on the throne with a special commission is important for English politics, particularly as it has to do with religious dissenters. This is even more relevant when we note that the group I earlier termed “Libertines” were primarily known by their social and political views. Calvin calls them, “a fantastical sort of persons, who, under colour of the Gospel, would put all into confusion.” He adds, “These madmen, who would have the whole world turned back into a chaos of licentiousness, are hired by Satan to defame the Gospel, as if it bred nothing but revolt against princes, and all sorts of disorder in the world.” They were levelers. They were monarchomachs. They were… well…

Conformity of Faith

In the rest of Calvin’s letter, he lists three ways for Somerset to make sure that the true faith is preserved in England. The first has to do with “sound instruction” and the order of the church, particularly its ministers. Calvin notes that the orthodox Reformed faith is already present in England at this time. “Praise be to God, you have not to learn what is the true faith of Christians, and the doctrine which they ought to hold, seeing that by your means the true purity of the faith has been restored.” To this he adds that God’s law is “the only rule and spiritual directory for our consciences.” Calvin commends Somerset that such is currently the case in England, and then gives advice on how to keep it that way.

Calvin’s first imperative is preaching. He gently criticizes the Church of England for relying too much on the reading of pre-written sermons. He says that he understands why this was necessary, but he believes that the church needs to move on from this to equipping its parishes with ministers who are capable of bringing the word to life in their own homiletics. “Now, this preaching ought not to be lifeless but lively, to teach, to exhort, to reprove, as Saint Paul says in speaking thereof to Timothy.”

Later Calvin calls for a catechism to secure uniform teaching. ” Believe me,” he says, “the Church of God will never preserve itself without a Catechism, for it is like the seed to keep the good grain from dying out, and causing it to multiply from age to age.” In a prose so torturous that we must blame the translator, Calvin adds, ” Indeed, I do not say that it may not be well, and even necessary, to bind down the pastors and curates to a certain written form, as well for the sake of supplementing the ignorance and deficiencies of some, as the better to manifest the conformity and agreement between all the churches.” Thus, while Calvin wants the preachers to have the freedom to write their own sermons, he does not want them to have the freedom to form their own individual doctrine.

Now, I have saved the most striking part of this section for last, even though Calvin introduced it before the statement on catechesis. In calling for uniformity of doctrine, Calvin also calls for confessional subscription among the clergy. And the way that he does this is precisely what caught John Durel’s attention. Calvin writes, “In the first place, there ought to be an explicit summary of the doctrine which all ought to preach, which all prelates and curates swear to follow, and no one should be received to any ecclesiastical charge who does not promise to preserve such agreement.”

Yes, in a letter to the temporal head of England and the man who had the power to reform the church, Calvin writes that “all prelates and curates” should subscribe to a common confession of faith. If Calvin felt strongly that a hierarchy among the clergy was a problem, this was his chance to say so. Instead, he gives the impression that Somerset should continue this ecclesiastical arrangement, and this after he had previously said that Somerset should use the sword to repress any who rebel against the king.

Remaining Errors to be Corrected

Calvin isn’t all affirming towards the Church of England. He does note certain troublesome matters which still need to be addressed. The “bastard sort of Christianity” which the Pope had instituted has not entirely been uprooted. Calvin admits that “moderation” is called for in reformation. He even says “that forms of worship need to be accommodated to the condition and tastes of the people.” Nevertheless, some abuses simply cannot be allowed to fester. “Such corruptions,” Calvin states, “if they were allowed to remain, would become a little leaven, to sour in the end the whole lump.”

What are these corruptions? Calvin lists three: prayer for the dead in the Communion service, chrismation with oil, and the sacramental ritual of extreme unction. As to the first, Calvin admits that there are varying explanations offered which lessen the severity of the problem. Still, the danger is too great.

…the Supper of Jesus Christ is an action so sacred, that it ought not to be soiled by any human inventions whatsoever. And besides, in prayer to God, we must not take an unbounded license in our devotions, but observe the rule which St. Paul gives us, (Romans x.,) which is, that we must be founded upon the word of God; therefore, such commemoration of the dead, as imports a commending of them to his grace, is contrary to the due form and manner of prayer,—it is a hurtful addition to the Supper of our Lord.

This is the biggest problem that Calvin sees in the Church of England in 1548.

Calvin then mentions two more errors. These, he says, “possibly may be less open to reproof” but should still “not… be excused.” The chrismation he dismisses quickly, “The chrism has been invented out of a frivolous humour by those who, not content with the institution of Jesus Christ, desired to counterfeit the Holy Spirit by a new sign, as if water were not sufficient for the purpose.” It’s important to note that Calvin is not opposed to the notion of a sign for the impartation of the Holy Spirit. He simply believes that the baptismal waters are that sign. There is no need for another.

As for unction, Calvin says this ritual ceased when the miraculous gifts ceased. “When the apostles used oil in the case of the sick, it was for the healing of them miraculously. Now, when the gift of miracles has ceased, the figure ought no longer to be employed.” Since ministers no longer have an abiding gift of miraculous healing, they ought not use oil which is now but an empty sign.

And here Calvin ends his list of errors which the Protector must correct. One might caution us that Calvin wouldn’t want to overdo things here. He has to measure his request carefully. This is no doubt true. He certainly had other thoughts. And yet, surely he would put the most pressing matters first. When he has his chance to make it count, Calvin gives no objection to bishops (indeed, he gives the appearance of their commendation), no objection to a fixed liturgy or prayer book, and no objection to England’s baptismal or eucharistic doctrines. In fact, the three errors Calvin mentions are all removed by later developments within Anglicanism (they have been reintroduced by 20th century alterations) and are not present in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Church Discipline

Calvin’s final section is a call to church discipline and a proper fencing of the Lord’s Table. Ah, finally we have Calvin’s famous Puritan and Presbyterian emphasis. And yes, true enough, he does call for a stricter discipline, particularly regarding “whoredom,” adultery, drunkenness, and blasphemy. Yet even here, Calvin’s words might surprise later readers. He says, “The duty of bishops and curates is to keep watch over that, to the end that the Supper of our Lord may not be polluted by people of scandalous lives.” And then, “But in the authority where God has set you, the chief responsibility returns upon you, who have a special charge given you to set the others in motion, on purpose that every one discharge himself of duty, and diligently to look to it, that the order which shall have been established may be duly observed.” So again bishops and curates, yes, but the one who has the highest duty to set it all into motion is the civil magistrate. Later English kings would certainly welcome such counsel.

Concluding Intermission

This isn’t all that Calvin has to say about the English situation. In some following installments, I will look at other letters of Calvin which touch on relevant issues, involving both English polity and liturgy. But the evidence in this letter is striking. Calvin endorses the Church of England under Somerset and Edward VI. His criticisms are quite mild and, in fact, resolved by later Anglican reforms. And Calvin’s statements about the nature, rights, and duty of the crown do sound more “Anglican” than “Puritan.”

John Durel wasn’t making things up. John Calvin is a friend to Anglicans.


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