Calvin on Lent and Ministry among Catholics


The life and ministry of John Calvin provides insight into a range of ministry related issues—from biblical exegesis to training pastors to the effect of preaching upon civil government. But what, if anything, does Calvin teach us about ministry among Roman Catholics? It turns out that he teaches us a valuable lesson.

Contrary to those who would portray Calvin as a clerical despot, bent on micro-managing religious practice in his Genevan fiefdom, there is instead much evidence demonstrating his concern for the outward thrust of evangelism. Through each successive edition of his Institutes, for example, he retained his dedication to the French king. Some believe that this signified Calvin’s commitment to nurturing the Protestant church in France, a movement for which he equipped pastors and missionaries. Whether it was in forming the Geneva Academy in 1559 (to train church leaders), his tireless routine of writing letters of encouragement to oppressed Huguenots, or in caring for refugees who had escaped the fires of persecution, the centrifugal impulse of Calvin’s Christianity moved beyond the borders of Geneva and into the world.

It is interesting to notice how Calvin’s missional outlook informed his approach to ministry among Roman Catholics, something with which he had much experience (given his time period when virtually everyone was from a "Romanist" background). Michael A. Mullett, in the recent update of his book John Calvin, stresses this point with regard to the standards and protocols that Calvin implemented for the church in Geneva: "we should try to understand the importance [Calvin] placed on the educational function of the liturgy," he writes, "deliberately using it to instruct a population of ex-Catholics in Protestant ways" (101). Through such instruction, Calvin sought to guide newcomers from patterns of superstition into a biblically chaste religion.

We observe Calvin’s intentionality in his comments about Lent, for example. In the Institutes 4.12.19-21, the French reformer enumerates reasons for taking "precaution lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church." He first quotes Joel 2:13 in opposition to religious hypocrisy. Second, citing Augustine, he cautions readers to avoid Lenten fasts as a work of merit. He then goes on to tackle the problems of legalism and spiritual pride. In all of this exhortation, Calvin is helping ex-Catholics evaluate familiar traditions in the light of Scripture. While recognizing a proper observance of Lent–one that flows from a heart of gratitude—he opposes superstitious distortions. By way of conclusion, Calvin writes:

Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached. And not to overlook any depravity, they began, with a completely absurd pretense of abstinence, to mock God.

Reason for the Rhetoric

It is easy to make direct application from Calvin’s polemic, especially when it involves a similar liturgical phenomenon such as Lent. The case of Lent is particularly interesting because, as in Calvin’s period, some today may display penitent works for reasons of superstition or merit-seeking. Is such an error any less grievous now than it was then, and, if not, shouldn’t we address it with the same degree of candor? I would say yes to the first question and probably not to the second. Let me explain.

With regard to our rhetorical engagement with Catholics, we must recognize that we live in a different time period from Calvin’s. In the 21st century we don’t link Christian faith to physical violence. However, it was far different for the 16th and 17th centuries when religious solidarity and national destiny went hand-in-hand. In such a society, the idea of religious pluralism was new and frightening. With what church does one identify? Even saying it this way is misleading. There was hardly a pluralistic choice. When Luther published his Appeal to the German Nobility, for instance, he was not proposing an alternative option. It was, for him, a necessary replacement of an apostate church institution. In addition to generating profound existential angst among rank and file Christians, such transition created a social and political revolution, which the wars of religion vividly remind us.  

In this setting, words were employed to heighten concern, awaken emotions, and motivate action. In this clash of competing worldviews, where the stakes were life and death, rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents. In this polemical universe, you could not punch below the belt, because there was no belt marking off acceptable and unacceptable blows. My friend Jason illustrated this point during seminary. The consummate Calvinist, Jason once mentioned nonchalantly to our classmate Linford, a beloved Mennonite friend: "If we were living 500 years ago, I’d be drowning you about now." The strength of their friendship allowed for such a bizarre statement. Perhaps the most bizarre part, however, was its truth.

Outreach in Our Day

With regard to polemics, we live in a new day. The influence of Christian virtue on verbal etiquette has delivered us from the violent vituperations of yesteryear. In other words, we can disagree with charity. This is not to say that the Reformation is therefore over. Far from it. The same fundamental issues of difference that separated Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century largely exist today. But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.

This sort of humility doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that we lack strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). Only after reaching informed convictions, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, do we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

So what is the lesson that Calvin teaches us about ministry among Catholics? It starts with understanding the religious assumptions of those Catholics whom we serve. With such a perspective, Calvin initiated a process that called superstition into question in favor of biblical faith and practice. Whether in evangelism or in catechizing members at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Calvin’s "Reformed" vision consisted of just that: reforming religion in the light of Scripture. The same opportunity is before us. By asking informed questions of our Catholic friends, questions that reveal the limitations (or error) of sacred tradition, we can serve a process of reflection in which biblical truth comes into sharper focus and eventually dominates life.

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