The following is a essay I wrote for a European History course. I'm posting it hoping it will help anyone interested in the Reformation.
Note: This is a draft copy of this essay. I'm unable to find the finished product, but I feel that it's valuable anyway. All of the citataions are at the end under the footnotes.
The Correspondence Between John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto
What caused John Calvin to reject the Catholic church after he grew up in it and his father had worked for it (Olin xx)? Also, how did his time spent in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541 effect his thoughts about God and his theology and to the Reformation as a whole?
John Calvin’s rise to greatness, like many other historical figures, came amid great turmoil and instability.1 The
Reformation had come to Geneva (a city-state at the time), the city where Calvin would grow to prominence, in the 1530s. Protestantism was still practiced by a minority of its inhabitants when he went there for the first time and the seat held by Bishop Pierre de la Baume had just been forcibly vacated. Therefore the city was politically and religiously unstable (Olin 14).
Calvin by the time he found himself in Geneva was already a famous reformer.2 He had already published his most influential work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and was highly regarded in other non-theological humanist circles. Despite his impressive pedigree, Calvin and Guillaume Farel (the other leader of the Genevan church) were met with some resistance by the local government (Wallace 19-20). The reformers held very strong opinions about certain elements of the liturgy and disregarded any order the local government gave them. As Ronald Wallace points out: “They failed to realize that having only recently delivered themselves from Rome, the people of Geneva were going to be unusually suspicious of everything that seemed to suggest any new tyranny."3 Within three days the reformers were banished from the city, and Calvin settled in Strasbourg at the invitation of Martin Bucer (Wallace 20).
It was under this pretense that Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto sent a letter addressed to the city of Geneva, asking for it “..To return to concord with us (the Catholics), yield faithful homage to the Church, our mother, and worship God with us in one spirit (Olin 48)."4
Sadoleto’s letter was similar to some of his other works. It is critical of some church policy, but never gets into
territory that would by considered heretical.5 He was willing to consider some of the reformer’s disputes, but he was steadfast in his belief in one unified Catholic church.
One of Calvin’s problems with Sadoleto, was simply that he believed in unifying under the Pope. Calvin believed in a
unified church but under Christ not the Catholic church. His feelings on these matters and his response to Sadoleto clearly show what a profound affect Calvin’s religious “conversions” and his time in Strasbourg with Bucer had on his doctrine.
He at first was hesitant to accept Bucer’s invitation to come Strasbourg. He did not trust Bucer’s theology. Calvin felt it was too Lutheran in its foundations. However after Bucer allowed him to give the Eucharist to the people of Strasbourg Calvin was open to Bucer’s theology and insight (Ganoczy 124-25). Onece he accepted his surroundings Calvin came of age as a minister in Strasbourg. During his time away from Geneva (the city he had been attached to) Calvin became more of a “populist” minister. Before he had merely been a theological scholar, who preached but was not accessible to the people (Ganoczy 126). This could be said to be his second “conversion”, while the first caused his rejection of Catholicism.6 With newfound righteousness he sat to pen his letter to Sadoleto.
Calvin spent over a year in Strasbourg before being persuaded to write a response on behalf of the Genevans by Bucer and other friends (Olin 19). Little is known specifically about the six days in August 1539 Calvin spent composing the letter. And once he set to the task he shot back at what he thought of as personal attacks against himself and the other reformers.
What can we draw from Calvin’s letter to Sadoleto about the Reformation and Calvin himself? The letter that Calvin
wrote helped him solidify his belief in a single church under Christ that was not the Catholic church. After his first conversion in 1534, he still held to the belief (as once did Luther) that the Catholic church could be saved. In fact he could not fathom there being any other church (Garoczy 14).
Calvin giving up hope in Catholism, ultimately is the greatest legacy of his correspondence with Sadoleto. Accepting that idea, it had at the same time, profound and minimal impact on the Reformation as a whole. As far as the Reformation in Anglo-Saxon countries was concerned, Calvin’s final rejection of the Catholic church would probably have not made much of a difference to the spread of the reformed faith there. They had their own reformist leaders and a population ready for change. At the same time, Calvin’s views after his Strasbourg period had a profound impact on the later reformist movement in France and neighboring countries. Part of this impact came out of his new acceptance by the common people with his more “restrained” style. This can be seen for the first time in his reply to Sadoleto, which is calm in tone except in the areas where he
refuted what he felt were personal attacks made by the Cardinal (Wallace 22).
The other lasting legacy of this time for Calvin is once he returned to Geneva in 1541, he had matured enough to turn
that city into a Protestant stronghold. With newfound political support from government officials, Geneva became an important Protestant outpost during the Catholic counter-Reformation that was soon to follow (Olin 25).
Was Sadoleto successful at all in the reception of his letter? The answer is undoubtedly, no. He original intention was to reclaim Geneva for Catholicism. The only action that seems to have come of his letter is newfound support for Calvin’s allies still in the city which helped lead to the reformer’s return.7 After his correspondence with Calvin, Sadoleto still believed in reforming the Catholic church. However he gave up hope of a meaningful discussion with the leaders of the Reformation (Olin 25).
This time period for the Genevan reformers was one of chaos. While the letters between the two clerics probably did
not change any historical event, they are useful in understanding Calvin’s motivations and the general political and religious feelings of the time.
1 Many historians have compared Calvin to Lenin because they share many of the same attributes. Alister McGrath writes that Lenin and Calvin are the same, “in that both processed of a remarkable theoretical vision and organizing genius (Mc Grath 14).”
2 It was only by chance that Calvin came to Geneva in the first place. In July 1536 France and the Holy Roman Empire were at war with each other. This forced Calvin to take a detour through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg (Wallace14). Guillaume Farel –a colluge of Luther’s- was able to get Calvin to stay by threatening him with a curse if he left the city. Calvin claimed that he stayed in Geneva, “not so much by counsel and exhortation as by dreadful imprecation (Wallace 14-15).
3 Ronald S. Wallace in Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988, p.19
4 Sadoleto understood some of the reformers complaints about the Church and even wrote Consilium de emendanda, a report published after the Reform Council of 1536. The report was highly critical of what he perceived as church abuses. He how ever was a firm believer in a united church under the Pope, saying in his letter, “the church… can not err, since the Holy Spirit constantly guides her public and universal decrees and Councils.”
5 He probably learned not to overstep the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy after the publication of his De liberis recte instituendis published in 1530. In the work he placed too much importance on man’s free will in relationship to divine grace. He was subsequently chastised by officials in Rome (Olin 9-10).
6 Of his conversion Calvin writes sparingly. However in the preface to Commentary on the Psalms he writes: “And at first, whilst I remained thus so obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy that it would have been hard indeed to have pulled me out of so deep a quagmire by sudden conversion..” And, “.. When we are converted to God, it occurs contrary to nature and be the wonderful and secret power of God.” (Woodbridge)
7 It must be said that the exchange of letters was not the only (or most important) reason for Calvin’s acceptance again in Geneva. The ruling
party was ousted from power in 1540 due to discontent with failed negotoions with the city of Bern. Most of the citizenry felt that the government had submitted to too many of Bern’s demands of a land dispute (Olin 25).
Wallace, Ronald S. Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: 1988.
McGrath, Alister. A Life of John Calvin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.: 1990
Ganoczy, Alexandre. The Young Calvin. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press: 1987
Calvin, John and Sadoleto, Jacopo. A Reformation Debate.
John C. Olin, ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Woodbridge, John. “Calvin’s Damascus.” Tabletalk Magazine October 1995. Accessed: January 29, 2000 (http://www1.gospelcom.net/ligonier/tt/tt-10-95/ttsubartwood-10-95.html)