Two Theologians Fight over Geneva

(Written January, 1987)

In 1539, Geneva, Switzerland was under the control of Protestant reformers. John Calvin and Guillaume Farel, two men who had led the Genevan reforms, had been banished from the city because they refused to submit to certain decisions of the municipal government. In March, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to the Genevans pleading with them to rejoin the Catholic Church. This action was one of the first moves in the Counter-Reformation. Finally, in August, friends persuaded Calvin, who was living in Strasbourg, to reply with a letter of his own, defending the Protestant reforms. The debate between the two men centered on their differing concepts of true, pure worship of God, which they both agreed was the most important concern in life. In between their discussions of this problem they inserted many less important comments.

For the most part, the major themes in Sadoleto’s letter and Calvin’s letter coincide closely, since Calvin wrote in direct response to Sadoleto. Sadoleto does, however, preface his main arguments with a long section on the importance of uncorrupted worship of God, and Calvin discusses in his letter several issues, like the mention of the cult of the saints, which Sadoleto’s letter does not mention. They key points on which Sadoleto and Calvin disagree are the nature of faith, the nature of the true Church, and whether the Church or the Bible should be the final authority.

Sadoleto claims that faith

not only includes in it credulity and confidence, but also the hope and desire of obeying God, together with love…. When we say, then, that we can be saved by faith alone in God and Jesus Christ, we hold that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation.<l>

Calvin, however, holds that

man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.<2>

The difference is perhaps hard to detect at first, but Sadoleto claims that people must first desire to obey God and to love before they can be saved, while Calvin considers that such things are possible only as a result of salvation.

Sadoleto and Calvin also disagree on what constitutes the true body, or Church, of Christ. Sadoleto considers it to be synonymous with the Catholic Church, which “has been always everywhere directed by the one Spirit of Christ.”<3> Calvin, however, believes that the Church is defined not by an institution or organization, but by belief in the Word of God, regardless of which church organization its members belong to. That is,

the society of all the saints…spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages…bound together by the one doctrine and the one Spirit of Christ <4>

Due to these differing definitions of the Church, Sadoleto sees the reformers as tearing the Church apart, and Calvin sees their work as rescuing the Church from destruction wreaked by teaching contrary to the Word of God.

At the center of the dispute between Sadoleto and Calvin is their disagreement about what should be the final authority for Christian doctrine and practice. Only if this point could be agreed upon could their other disputes be solved, because their views on the other subjects spring from their respective authorities. Sadoleto believes that the authority should be the leaders and teachings of the Church. He bases this belief on his understanding that

the Church errs not, and even cannot err, since the Holy Spirit constantly guides her public and universal decrees and Councils.<5>

Thus, how could anyone dare not to submit to the Catholic Church’s official doctrine, since it was unerringly inspired by the Spirit of Christ? Calvin, on the other hand, holds that the Church leaders and doctrine must be guided by the Word of God. After quoting from letters of the apostles, Calvin also notes that “whenever the Prophets foretell the renewal of the Church, or its extension over the whole globe, they always assign the first place to the Word.”<6> Thus, to Calvin, if the current Church’s practices do not agree with the gospel as presented in the Bible, they are leading people astray and must be reformed. Are the Church’s pronouncements inerrant? Agreement on that question would have put a quick end to the conflict which these two letters evidence.

Sadoleto’s arguments to the Genevans are in many ways unfounded; he asks the readers to simply accept what he says without providing grounds. Among the positions he takes without further explanation are that God desires fidelity to the Church, more than to himself, and that the Church’s decisions are inerrant. From these he argues by the fallacy of invincible ignorance: the Church by its very nature can’t be wrong, no matter what the evidence may indicate. He also attacks his opponents’ persons, rather than their doctrines and systems, in the speech before the “dread tribunal of the sovereign Judge”<7> which he invents for them. Although he does take reasonable care to at least define his terms, such as faith and Church, Sadoleto’s case for returning to the Catholic Church is suspicious at best due to his fallacious reasoning.

Although Calvin is more convincing in his arguments, he begins his letter with a lengthy appeal to his conscience and the sincerity of his belief in his call as proof that he is in the right. He also argues to the person rather than to the issue when he busies himself explaining how Sadoleto’s personal accusations about the reformers are actually true about the Catholic Church instead. However, he doesn’t stop there. As with Sadoleto, he defines some disputed terms, and he directly addresses the root problem of their argument, namely the contest between Church and Word to be the final authority. Calvin also argues well using the writings of the early Church to prove that it is the Catholics, and not the reformers, who have been innovating and inventing new doctrines. Calvin does fail to justify his opinions in several places, however, notably his choice of the “things on which the safety of the Church is founded”<8> and his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. One would expect some backing from Calvin’s authority, the Word of God, in these cases, but he provides none. Nonetheless, overall his reasoning seems sound, and is appropriately backed up by Bible quotes.

Sadoleto’s letter had a negligible effect on its intended audience. The leaders of Geneva simply weren’t convinced. Perhaps its largest effect was in prompting Calvin’s response. Calvin’s letter, while more a refutation than a direct appeal, was a good defense of his teachings, and probably helped bring him back to power in Geneva eventually. But both documents are valuable today: the two men’s descriptions of the current state of the Church, and their language and methods of argument, give valuable insight into the mindsets of their respective groups in the mid-1500’s. Analysis of the two letters helps clarify why the Reformation started in the first place.


<1> Ed. John C. Olin, John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1966), p. 36. 
<2> Ibid., p. 67.
<3> Ibid., p. 41.
<4> Ibid., p. 62.
<5> Ibid., p. 45.
<6> Ibid., p. 60.
<7> Ibid., p. 42.
<8> Ibid., p. 63.


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