Calvin on the Church of England – Part 2

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

Earlier, I introduced Calvin’s commentary on the 16th century Church of England. I pointed out how Calvin complimented the state of religion in England at the time, instructed the civil magistrate to enact uniformity (without criticizing prelacy), issued certain specific criticisms of prayers to the saints and the unsatisfactory preaching, and concluded with a call to tighten up the practice of church discipline. All of this I drew from Calvin’s first letter to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. In this installment, I would like to look at a few other letters from Calvin to Somerset, as well as his writings to King Edward VI and Thomas Cranmer. In these communications, we will see similar points as in Calvin’s first letter. All in all, a consistent picture emerges.

Calvin’s Continuing Correspondence with Somerset

Calvin wrote at least two more letters to the duke of Somerset. Two years after his initial letter, Calvin wrote another celebrating Somerset’s restoration after a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London. This letter contained relatively little commentary on the state of the church as such, but in it, Calvin did compare Somerset to both Joseph in Egypt and King Hezekiah. Calvin also reaffirmed his confidence in the new king and encouraged Somerset to “discharge the principal service,” which was the maintenance of the true religion in England.

Calvin’s third letter to Somerset came in 1551 and was written as a supporting document to a letter sent to King Edward VI a few months earlier. These tandem letters called upon the English monarch to strengthen the clergy of the Church of England by better funding the universities. Writing to Somerset, Calvin calls for “better order to be established than heretofore.” One might expect Calvin to move to a polemical discussion about parity or plurality among presbyters, but in fact he goes on to address the need to see that “specially qualified” men are appointed to be pastors in the churches. Calvin calls out the need to fund the universities so that “ignorant priests” are not installed in the churches. After this, he also asks that the pastors, once they are installed in their offices, be provided with proper continuing financial support. Calvin criticizes the fact that those who are unsympathetic to pure religion might be profiting from church revenue or school bursaries and argues that funding ought to go to those will most likely support the Reformation.

Letters to the King

Next, we can consult Calvin’s letters to King Edward VI. He writes one letter to him, but he also dedicates three biblical commentaries to him, his massive Commentary on Isaiah, his Commentary on the Catholic Epistles, and his commentary on Psalm 78. These dedications, as well as the commentaries attached, are important in that they all focus on the reformation of the Church and the role of the monarchy in supporting that reform. In one place, Calvin directly takes upon himself the person and voice of Isaiah, as he addresses Edward as both Hezekiah and Cyrus, saying:

And here I expressly call upon you, most excellent King, or rather, God himself addresses you by the mouth of his servant Isaiah, charging you to proceed, to the utmost of your ability and power, in carrying forward the restoration of the Church, which has been so successfully begun in your kingdom. First, you daily read and hear that this duty is enjoined on you in the kingdom over which you rule. More especially Isaiah, as I have said, calls Kings the nursing-fathers of the Church, (Isaiah 49:23,) and does not permit them to withhold that assistance which her afflicted condition demands. Nor ought your mind to be slightly affected by the consideration, that the Prophet pronounces a woe on all kings and nations who refuse to give her their support. Next, your Majesty sees plainly what is urgently demanded by the times. Though you may not have great success in your labors, yet, knowing that this worship is acceptable to God, and is a sacrifice of most delightful savor, you ought not to be turned aside from your purpose by any event, however calamitous. Seeing, therefore, that God exhorts you to be courageous, and at the same time promises success, why should you not cheerfully obey him when he calls?

This is definitely a case of Calvin the prophet. But it is not a case of the prophet against the king. Rather, it is the prophet calling the king to continue with the project he has begun and not to turn back in the face of opposition.

In his letter to Edward, we see many of the same points as were made to Somerset. Calvin praises the general state of the Reformation in England, but he has some continuing items of concern. That there are lingering needs is to be expected, writes Calvin, for “it would be very difficult to purge in a day such an abyss of superstition as there is in the papacy.” What then are these remaining errors and superstitions?

Calvin begins by pointing Edward to the examples of Hezekiah and Josiah, how they tore down the high places in Israel. Idolatry must be rooted out. Some remaining monuments to it, however, still stand in England. Before he speaks of these directly, however, Calvin does say that some “things indifferent” may allowably be tolerated. But even with adiaphora, there are still guiding principles. Ceremonies should be simple and orderly, not obscuring the light of the gospel, so that “the whole may serve and be suited to the edification of the Church.”

Moving beyond indifferent ceremonies, Calvin focuses on “manifest abuses,” which are not at all to be “endured.” These are “prayer for the souls of the departed, of putting forward to God the intercession of saints in our prayers, as also of joining them to God in invocation.” This is the chief remaining error Calvin hears about in the Church of England, and he encourages King Edward to “look to that matter, so that the whole may be restored to a sound and wholesome state.”

After this major error in worship, Calvin also points out a problem of order, namely that “the poor flocks” are “destitute of pastors.” Because of the “ignorance and barbarism” which was so-long produced by “this accursed popery,” the English clergy are largely uneducated and unable to fulfill their pastoral duties. To remedy this, Calvin encourages the king to better fund the universities. This Calvinistic promotion of education was a feature of the broader Protestant program. Calvin wants better schools with better teachers, and he also wants particular support to go to those students who show the most potential to become Reformed pastors. This is exactly the same pitch Calvin made to Somerset later in the same year.

Then, intriguingly, Calvin gives his opinion on the “strangers churches” in England. These were churches made up of European exiles which had been given permission to hold their services in their own languages and according to their own orders. Essentially, these were “Lutheran” and “Continental Reformed” churches but within the temporal realm of England. Calvin praises Edward for allowing these churches such liberty. It is a good thing. But he also counsels that the liberty not be extended to carelessness:

In so far as regards the use of the Sacraments, and spiritual order, I hope that the permission which you have been pleased to confer upon them will bear fruit. Howbeit, Sire, I cannot help beseeching you once more, feeling so deeply how needful it is, not only that you would secure the rest and contentment of the godly who desire to serve God and to live peaceably in obedience to you, but also that you would restrain vagabond and dissolute people, should such withdraw into your kingdom.

Calvin is aware of the possibility that the strangers churches might become outposts of disorder and even rebellion. He warns against this and asks the king to keep a careful watch on what sorts of people are allowed to enter England under this guise. He wants these churches to have the freedom to worship according to their own liturgies, but he does not want this to create civil unrest.

Relations With Cranmer

A third set of Calvinian correspondences are with the Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer. Calvin writes Cranmer twice in 1552, once to discuss a general council among the Protestants and once to discuss further reform in England. Of the two, the second is more valuable for our purposes, but both are important and both show appreciation and critique.

The first letter is polite but evasive. Cranmer had been trying to pull together a pan-Protestant ecumenical council for years. First suggested by Philip Melanchthon in 1548, Cranmer picked up the baton and invited various Protestant divines to England for a Protestant counterpart to the Council of Trent. Some of those invited were Melancthon, Bucer, Bullinger, Jan Laski, and John Calvin (see the discussion of this in MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer, pgs. 394, 478-479, 518-519; according to MacCullough, it was Laski who ended up causing more harm than help in this regard). Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, and Calvin carefully declines the invitation in his letter. He did affirm the goodness of the goal, and even Cranmer’s fittingness to preside over it– “most illustrious Archbishop, is it necessary for you, in proportion to the distinguished position you occupy, to turn your attention as you are doing towards this object… I do not say this as if to spur you on to greater exertions, who are not only, of your own accord, in advance of others, but are also, as a voluntary encourager, urging them on; I say it in order that, by my congratulations, you may be strengthened in a pursuit so auspicious and noble.” Nevertheless, Calvin suggests that he ought not attend, since there are better candidates. He offers Melanchthon and Bullinger as superior options, though he seems to know that neither will attend. “Would that I were as able as I am willing to exert myself!” Calvin says.

Calvin does not give a clear reason for his reticence. MacCulloch simply suggests “it was the wrong moment for a General Council” (518). The broader political situation in Europe probably played some role, but more likely was the increasing hostility between Lutherans and Calvinists over the doctrine of the Eucharist and the burgeoning disagreement over polity between the majority of the leadership of the Church of England and men like Laski and Knox. Calvin wanted to see Protestant unity as much as Cranmer did, but he sensed that a council in 1552 would be a combustible situation.

Calvin’s second letter to Cranmer again focuses on the need for continuing reform in England and echoes concerns previously brought up to Somerset and King Edward. Calvin mentions the earlier desire for a council, but says that it is unlikely to be attained. In that case, he says, it would be better for Cranmer to carry on with further national reform. Calvin urges Cranmer to create a unified “religious constitution” for England. This is most likely a reference to Cranmer’s plan to publish a new body of canon law, a plan which never came to fruition, along with the articles of religion, which eventually did. The Forty-two Articles were drafted throughout 1552, the year Calvin wrote this letter, and were published in 1553.

Calvin is clear that Cranmer occupies a singular role for this process:

Supreme authority is vested in you—an authority which your high rank entitles you to, not more than the previously entertained opinion regarding your wisdom and integrity. The eyes of many are fixed upon you, either to second your exertions, or to imitate your lukewarmness.

In other words, it’s time to step up.

Calvin presses Cranmer in a strikingly forward way, suggesting that Cranmer has indeed been too timid and lukewarm:

But to speak freely, I greatly fear, and this fear is abiding, that so many autumns will be spent in procrastinating, that by and by the cold of a perpetual winter will set in. You are now somewhat advanced in years, and this ought to stimulate you to increased exertions, so as to save yourself the regret of having been consciously dilatory, and that you may not leave the world while matters remain in so disordered a condition. I say matters are still in a disorganized state, for external religious abuses have been corrected in such a way as to leave remaining innumerable young shoots, which are constantly sprouting forth.

Indeed, Calvin worries that certain “Papal corruptions” have been allowed to linger to the point that “the pure worship of God” might be extinguished. Calvin also states that “the life of the whole ecclesiastical order is all but extinct, or at least is not sufficiently vigorous.” This is different language from earlier letters and might explain his reluctance to come to a council. England needs to clean up its own house.

But again, what are these problems? Calvin does not list some of the items we might expect today. He repeats one of his common complaints. The parishes lack appropriately-trained pastors. In fact, scholarships are going to “idle gluttons… who chant vespers in an unknown tongue.” Calvin finds this to be a “mockery” and “openly incompatible” with proper order and polity. This money should be immediately redirected to pastors who will skilfully preach and teach the Scriptures. Calvin recommends that Cranmer consult with Peter Martyr about how to begin solving this problem. (Perhaps Martyr deserves a new university chair or stipend…) And then Calvin is done, a perhaps abrupt ending which suggests that this letter was written in the context of a larger conversation with many unstated but understood points.

Concluding Thoughts (again, for now)

What can we take away from these three sets of correspondences? We certainly see a multilayered relationship between Calvin and the English leaders. There is a clear bond of unity and even kinship. There is no hint that Calvin is writing to theological opponents. To the contrary, he recognizes that these men are some of the most valuable allies in all of Christendom. Calvin wants to see them succeed, and he congratulations them on securing the true gospel. He wants them to use their power to continue to champion this gospel and make certain reforms which will safeguard it.

But Calvin also has criticisms. He is unhappy especially with prayers to the saints. This was something that could perhaps be tolerated for a short season at the onset of reformation, but it can in no ways be allowed to continue. And Calvin is extremely desirous to see competent pastors in every English parish. He does not want royal money or revenues drawn from taxes to go to men who will simply occupy a position of pageantry. There should be no monk-like loiterers or Latin cantors. Instead, the Church of England needs true pastors, men who are properly trained in the Scriptures so that they can preach and teach the lay people. Calvin wants the universities of England to put a special focus on this goal, and he thinks men like Peter Martyr are well-placed to bring it about. Finally, Calvin wants to see greater stability in the Church of England’s doctrine and order. He wants Cranmer to write up a confession and constitution so that the churches are not pulled back into popery but allowed to take root and fully reform the English nation.

Calvin’s criticisms are interesting to consider. Clearly he thought the English situation had been marked by a bit of compromise. Indeed, it was at times marked by too much compromise. But when Calvin mentions particular concerns, they are not what we now think of as essentials of an “Anglican” system, certainly not the 1662 settlement. In fact, each of Calvin’s concerns were addressed. Cranmer eliminated prayers to the saints. He also brought in skilled teachers, and the English clergy would ascend from that illiterate and prodigal bunch to become the stupor mundi. Cranmer was not able to effect his vision of canon law reform, though a more modest version was passed under King James in 1604. He was, however, able to pass the Articles of Religion, which, with some minor modification, did become a lasting confession of faith. And as to Latin chants in the service, these were also removed and are in fact condemned by several of the formularies, namely article 24 and the homily entitled, “That Common Prayers and Sacraments Ought to be Ministered in a Known Tongue,” which appears in article 35.

In a future essay, I will take up Calvin’s commentary on the controversy associated with the Frankfort churches, a controversy which would prove extremely significant for debates over vestments and liturgical ceremonies.


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