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John Henry Newman, (Questionable) Reader (?) of Calvin

A friend notes that John Henry Newman says this in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

Calvinism, again, in various distinct countries, has become Socinianism, and Calvin himself seems to have denied our Lord’s Eternal Sonship and ridiculed the Nicene Creed.

My initial impulse upon reading this is to quote a proverb of A.E. Housman: “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” But let me try something slightly more constructive.

In this post, I’m going to ignore the first charge, presumably a reference to Calvin’s exposition of the Son as autotheos, because the issue is complex and the accusation is, to use a technical term, dumb.1 I highly doubt the Anfechtung-infected divine spent much time closely reading Calvin on the matter.2

Let’s focus instead on the second. It may strike one as strange to read that Calvin “ridiculed the Nicene Creed,” and Newman unsurprisingly does not provide a reference; in my view he is as likely to be making things up as not. After all, Calvin says this in Institutes 4.9.10:

Even in their ancient and purer councils there is something to be desiderated, either because the otherwise learned and prudent men who attended, being distracted by the business in hand, did not attend to many things beside; or because, occupied with grave and more serious measures, they winked at some of lesser moment; or simply because, as men, they were deceived through ignorance, or were sometimes carried headlong by some feeling in excess. Of this last case (which seems the most difficult of all to avoid) we have a striking example in the Council of Nice,3 which has been unanimously received, as it deserves, with the utmost veneration. For when the primary article of our faith was there in peril, and Arius, its enemy, was present, ready to engage any one in combat, and it was of the utmost moment that those who had come to attack Arius should be agreed, they nevertheless, feeling secure amid all these dangers, nay, as it were, forgetting their gravity, modesty, and politeness, laying aside the discussion which was before them (as if they had met for the express purpose of gratifying Arius), began to give way to intestine dissensions, and turn the pen, which should have been employed against Arius, against each other. Foul accusations were heard, libels flew up and down, and they never would have ceased from their contention until they had stabbed each other with mutual wounds, had not the Emperor Constantine interfered, and declaring that the investigation of their lives was a matter above his cognisance, repressed their intemperance by flattery rather than censure. In how many respects is it probable that councils, held subsequently to this, have erred? Nor does the fact stand in need of a long demonstration; any one who reads their acts will observe many infirmities, not to use a stronger term.

To be sure, he criticizes the Council in certain respects. But he’s a Protestant and engaged in an argument that councils can err; therefore, so what? The point is that he can say that while also affirming that the council has been “received, as it deserves, with the utmost veneration.” It is indeed possible to affirm both of these things. Regardless, “deserved veneration” hardly counts as “ridicule,”if words mean things.

Did Mr. Newman read the Institutes? Beats me. If he did, did he read it carefully? On that score I would make so bold as to speculate in a more decisive fashion.

In any case, it seems to me that this passage from the Institutes cannot be the one that Mr. Newman has in mind (again, if he has a passage in mind at all). Another friend suggests to me that he may be referring to a remark from his Pro G. Farello et collegis eius adversus Petri Caroli calumnias defensio Nicolai Gallasii (1545). There Calvin says:4

What if I should deny that this form of words…came from the Council of Nicaea? For it is not believable that the holy fathers, when they wished to include the [articles of faith] principally necessary in the form of words they had composed with the greatest brevity possible, sported about with a needlessly roundabout way of speaking. However, you see that there is vain repetition in these words–“God from God, light from light, very God from very God.” To what purpose is this repetition? Does it have any emphasis or greater [force of] expression? You see therefore that it is a song, more fit for chirping, than a form of confession, in which it is absurd to be superfluous in [even] one syllable.

As far as I know, this treatise is not available in English; as far as I know, it wasn’t available in English in the mid-19th century either. Did Mr. Newman really take the time to read this text–51 columns in the Calvini opera in the Corpus reformatorum series–in Latin? I sort of doubt it. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that he did and that these are the offending words.

This work, which appears in vol. 7 of the CO, was not customarily circulated with Calvin’s works because it appeared under the name of someone else (Nicolaus Gallasius or Nicolas des Gallars, Calvin’s secretary). But the editors of Calvini opera think it is Calvin’s based primarily, it seems, on a letter by Pierre Viret, and that attribution is now widely accepted. I will refer to its author as Calvin for the remainder of this post.5

In the work, Calvin6 defends himself and others against the charges of Pierre Caroli (=Carolus) that they were heterodox on the doctrine of the Trinity. If we look at the context before and after the quotation, some very noteworthy things emerge relative to Mr. Newman’s comment about Calvin “ridiculing” the Creed.7

Carolus had apparently demanded that Calvin and others subscribe the three Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian, one surmises) to prove the authenticity of their faith. They refused, but not on grounds of demurring from the Creeds, as Calvin makes clear: “The purpose of Calvin and the others was in no way to reject the Creeds or to remove faith from them.”8 Rather, they would not be bullied by one individual into needing to prove their bona fides.

Indeed, according to the author, self-respect was not so motivating them as respect for the ministry, which they saw as under attack by this demand, and that from “a worthless and wicked man.” Carolus was hoping to impugn the name of Farel in order to destroy the work he was doing in advancing the reign of Christ, so Calvin claims.

“Next,” Calvin says, “they did not want this example of tyranny brought into the church, such that he would be held a heretic who had not spoken according to the prescription of another man.” Carolus wanted to insist “that no one was a Christian apart from the three Creeds.” The response from Calvin is: “But what is more contentious, says Augustine to Pascentius, than to quarrel about words when there is agreement about the reality? Therefore it is false that Calvin declaimed against the three Creeds.” (Mr. Newman should have read that part.)

He did, however, make comments about two of them–the author’s words make clear that he was trying to get a rise out of Carolus, in a very Luther-esque assertion of liberty. He was having a laugh.

About the Athanasian Creed he joked in this way: You have pronounced, Carolus, that clause: whoever does not hold this faith will not be able to be saved. You, however, do not hold it. For, although you struggled for a long time, you were not able to arrive at the fourth clause. What if death should now cut you off and the devil deal with you as to the fact because, with words formally declared, you devoted yourself to eternal destruction unless you should be furnished with the present guard of this faith?9 About the Nicene Creed he spoke as follows: What if I should deny that this form, which you force upon me, came from the Council of Nicaea?10 For it is not believable that the holy fathers, when they wished to include the [articles of faith] principally necessary in the form of words they had composed with the greatest brevity possible, sported about with a needlessly roundabout way of speaking. However, you see that there is vain repetition in these words–“God from God, light from light, very God from very God.” To what purpose is this repetition? Does it have any emphasis or greater [force of] expression? You see therefore that it is a song, more fit for chirping, than a form of confession, in which it is absurd to be superfluous in [even] one syllable. What of the fact that Augustine, who treated the Council of Nicaea with quite devout reverence, bravely impugned that bit: “I believe in the holy church”? For he contends that [this] manner of speaking is vicious. Would he have done this, at least without a prefatory remark honoring [the Council], if he thought [the phrase] came from such authors? Nay, rather, he charges those who speak in such a way with ignorance. You, however, wish to force all the faithful to assent to you even in his error.

Note that Calvin doesn’t say he denies the form. He raises a hypothetical: “What if I should do it?” In the parlance of our time, he means: “Come at me, bro.” But the context makes it clear that he wasn’t actually trying to rob the Creed of its status in doing so. Rather, the emphasis comes in the ellipsis in my first version of this quotation: “which you force upon me.” This issue is not new; cf. Galatians passim.

“In short,” then, Calvin continues, “Calvin’s response was directed not so much to the matter at hand as to the man (ad hominem).” He refused to be forced into subscription by one individual in order to prove his orthodoxy because he thought this was a bad precedent for the church–what right has one man (and he not an ecclesiastical authority–e.g., a church council) to demand this from another?

Calvin is playing a game here. The game is humorous; and it is no surprise that the humorless Mr. Newman wouldn’t notice, though one might have expected him to pick up on the rhetorical texture of the exchange, given that Calvin says exactly what he is doing, viz., making an argumentum ad hominem. It’s a pity Mr. Newman didn’t pay more attention–in addition to having had a restrained Victorian chortle, he might have learned something valuable about ecclesiology to boot.11

  1. Cf. Steven Wedgeworth’s article “Is There a Calvinist Doctrine of the Trinity?
  2. Alas, pretending to have read Calvin seems to be something that, like the poor, we will always have with us.
  3. That is, “Nicaea,” in modern parlance.
  4. All translations are my own.
  5. B.B. Warfield gives a succinct contextual explanation of this work in his essay “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity” in Calvin and Augustine, Baker 1974, pg. 239. He criticizes Calvin’s unfairness towards Caroli but explains well the rationale for the defense, as well as its orthodoxy.
  6. Assuming, that is, that John Calvin is the author of the treatise.
  7. In fairness, I should note that some Protestants have made much the same charge, though they should have known better. Schaff, for instance, claims that Calvin “depreciates the Nicene Creed”; see n. 22 in the Warfield article cited above. Warfield (justly) does not let Schaff off the hook for this remark. One gets the impression that this criticism had become received wisdom at this point, causing one to wonder once again if Mr. Newman simply picked it up from a secondary work. Nonetheless, the passage cited above was precisely the kind of thing in view when such criticisms began to find their way toward being communes opiniones.
  8. All quotations are from coll. 315-16. Calvin refers to himself in the third person because he is writing as if he is not Calvin but rather Calvin’s secretary, Nicolas Gallars, under whose name the work was published, as explained above.
  9. I’ve repunctuated here, though I could be mistaken to do so.
  10. As yet another friend–it’s like the Get Along Gang!–remarked in conversation, Calvin’s not wrong: the form of the Creed in use since 381 is not that composed at Nicaea. The bit quoted below did appear in the Creed of 325, but the bit in the remark attributed to Augustine did not.
  11. I offer all these remarks ex hypothesi, subject to later revision (I’m a Protestant, after all) if some other smoking-gun quotation is discovered. But in the meantime there is an object-lesson for writers here: don’t be like Mr. Newman–always cite your sources!

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.