Calvin vs. Sadolet

An Evaluation and Comparison of Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter to Geneva and Calvin’s Letter to Cardinal Sadolet

In March 1539, nearly a year after the expulsion of John Calvin and William Farel from Geneva, Roman Catholic Cardinal James Sadolet addressed a letter to that city to attempt, in the Reformers’ absence, to win back Geneva to the Roman Church. The Council of Geneva, instead of responding to the Cardinal, forwarded the letter to Bern, where it was suggested that Calvin, then residing in Strasburg, should pen a response.1

Sadolet’s Letter

Sadolet’s letter oozes flattery as he appeals to the Genevans to return to Mother Church, whom he can hear “weeping and lamenting at being deprived of so many and so dear children” (p. 31). He addresses the people of Geneva as his “very dear brethren in Christ,” earnestly pleading with them to consider the immense value of their souls, which are safest, Sadolet argues, in Rome’s bosom (p. 29). The Cardinal’s fundamental argument is an appeal to antiquity. What is safer, asks Sadolet, to follow the unanimous opinions of the Church, or to heed:

innovations introduced within these twenty-five years, by crafty, or, as they think themselves, acute men; but men certainly who are not themselves the Catholic Church? (pp. 40-41)

Although Sadolet never names Calvin or the other reformers the letter is replete with insinuations and thinly veiled attacks on their persons and their motives. This is certainly a cowardly approach.

An important section of Sadolet’s letter consists of two speeches which he presents as being delivered before the judgment seat of God. The first speech, in which Sadolet puts all kinds of perverse sayings in the mouths of his adversaries, is supposed to represent the reformers (pp. 4-45). The Cardinal attributes to them the base motives of “ambition, avarice, love of popular applause, inward fraud and malice” for their reformatory work (p. 45). The second speech, he imagines, is from a Roman Catholic who pleads before God that he simply trusted in the church. The clear implication is that, even if the church has erred (which Sadolet will not grant), God will show mercy to the sincere child of Rome, but will condemn the reformers for their presumption.

Calvin’s Letter

Calvin’s response to Sadolet is a “simple and dispassionate defense” of his innocence against the Cardinal’s accusations (p. 51). He warns Sadolet that some of the things he will write “will sting” but that his intention is to defend the truth, not to attack Sadolet’s person (p. 51). Although he prefers not to ascribe evil motives to the Cardinal, he is “compelled … to withstand [him] openly for only then do pastors edify the Church” (p. 53). As a faithful shepherd, although unjustly separated from his flock, he will not remain silent when he sees “snares laid” and “grievous peril impending” for the sheep entrusted to him (p. 51). He indignantly rejects the slander that he and his fellow reformers were motivated by greed, claiming that had he wished to consult his own interest he would have remained in the Roman Church (p. 57). Calvin agrees with Sadolet that the soul is precious, but he scolds the Cardinal for ignoring the glory of God. Sadolet’s zeal for eternal life, complains Calvin, “keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God” (p. 58). For Calvin, the glory of God is vastly more important than the salvation of the whole world.

Calvin refuses to acknowledge the Cardinal’s definition of church. The church is not merely that body which claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit, but that body which in reality is guided by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Sadolet, writes Calvin, has affronted the Holy Spirit by separating him from the Word (p. 61). Against the Cardinal’s accusation that Calvin and his Reformed colleagues have sought to destroy the church which has the glory of antiquity, Calvin replies that first of all “[his] agreement with antiquity is far closer” than Rome’s, and that the aim of the Reformation is nothing less than an attempt to “renew the ancient form of the Church” which barely survives in ruins under the Roman hierarchy (p. 62).

Calvin defends the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone against the calumnies of Sadolet, who insinuates that the motive for such a doctrine is license (p. 44). Calvin insists that works are not worth “one single straw” in justification but claims “full authority for them in the lives of the righteous” (pp. 67-68). Where the doctrine of gracious justification is lost, writes Calvin, “the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown” (p. 66). Besides, writes Calvin, “let judgment be given after comparing our conduct with yours” (p. 80). Such accusations against the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and against Calvin in particular, are absurd given Calvin’s insistence on a well-disciplined church. Indeed, it is because of such an emphasis on discipline (i.e., an insistence that those who refused to lead godly lives be denied church membership) that he had been expelled from Geneva in the first place. Rome, in comparison, was filled with iniquity of the grossest kind.

Calvin continues to deflect the charges that the reformers are sinning against antiquity. Masterfully, he demonstrates that Rome has so far degenerated from the pattern of the New Testament, that Sadolet’s appeals are in vain. “In all these points, insists Calvin, the ancient Church is on our side” (p. 74). In short, writes Calvin, “I will not permit, you, Sadoleto, by inscribing the name of Church on such abominations, both to defame her against all law and justice, and prejudice the ignorant against us” (p. 73).

Granted, for the sake of argument, that the accusations of the reformers concerning Rome’s errors are true, Sadolet insists that the unity of the church must so prevail in our minds that we do nothing to disturb her peace. Calvin rejects the accusation that he has sought to “dismember the spouse of Christ,” something Sadolet insists can scarcely be forgiven (p. 46). The reformers’ one desire is to “present her [i.e., the church] as a chaste virgin,” to “recall her to conjugal fidelity,” to “wage war against all the adulterers whom [they detect] laying snares for her chastity” (pp. 92-93). Calvin describes the leaders of the Roman church as “ravening wolves” who having “seized upon the pastor’s office” have exerted themselves to “scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation” (p. 75).

Calvin denies that the Reformers are “enemies of Christian unity and peace” as the cardinal alleges (p. 30). In his imagined defense before God, he appeals that he burned in zeal for the unity of the church provided the truth “were made the bond of concord” (p. 86). He complains of the unreasonableness of his opponents, who were not prepared to discuss their doctrinal differences on the basis of Scripture, but having vainly attempted to appeal to tradition, resorted to persecution. “Did they not instantly, and like madmen, fly to fires, swords and gibbets?” (p. 86) he writes. “Our Reformers,” writes Calvin,

offered to render an account of their doctrine. If overcome in argument, they decline not to submit. To whom then is it owing that the Church enjoys not perfect peace, and the light of truth? Go now, and charge us as seditious, in not permitting the Church to be quiet! (p. 94).

In a second imagined appeal to God, which some believe to be autobiographical in nature, Calvin laments that the state of the church compelled him to take action. The “true method of worshipping was altogether unknown to me,” he complains (p. 87). Only very reluctantly did he leave the faith of his youth: “Offended by the novelty, I lent an unwilling ear,” he confesses, and “only with the greatest difficulty I was induced to confess that I had all my life long been in ignorance and error” (p. 88). These words reveal his struggles. After he had availed himself of every means of salvation that Rome could offer he was still “far-off from true peace of conscience” and seized with “extreme terror” when he contemplated the holiness of God and his own sins (p. 88). Calvin’s defense is based on Scripture. The defense of Sadolet is (the errors in the church’s) tradition. Calvin bids Sadolet compare his defense with that of the reformers and hopes that the Cardinal will see that

the safety of that man hangs by a thread whose defense turns wholly on this—that he has constantly adhered to the religion handed down to him from his forefathers. At this rate, Jews and Turks and Saracens would escape the judgment of God (p. 90).

Final Evaluation

Having compared these two letters it is obvious that Calvin defeats all the arguments of the Cardinal, leaving him with no defense. It is remarkable that Calvin, a young pastor and relatively new to the faith, far exceeds Sadolet in knowledge of Scripture, church history and patristic literature, as well as skill in argumentation. It is little wonder that the Cardinal did not reply. It is also praiseworthy that Calvin, after being treated so poorly by the city of Geneva, was willing to write this response on their behalf.

God used this epistolary battle to restore Calvin to Geneva and further the work of Reformation in that city and, indeed, the broader work of Reformation in Europe. In his wise providence, the Almighty makes not only the wrath of man but also the craftiness of cardinals to praise him.


1 All quotations are taken from John. C. Olin (ed.), A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).