Image by Jonathan Cooper

John Calvin’s Rebuttals to his Catholic Opponents, Part I

Updated: Jun 16

It was early on the morning of August 24th, 1572 and many gathered in Paris for the celebration of St. Bartholomew’s Day. Between midnight and dawn, the bells from Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois’ church near the Louvre began to ring out. These bells, which normally signaled the singing of Matins, were used as a signal to begin the slaughter of Protestants throughout the city.

What is now known as “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre '' was, at the time, a horrific series of days wherein violent persecution of French Protestants by Catholic opponents led to the slaughter of ~3,000 in Paris and ~70,000 across France. A combination of political and religious tension had culminated in this tragic chapter of French history and of the relations between Catholics and Protestants.

The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois, 1572

The French Protestants, which became known as the Huguenots had become adherents to the teachings of the exiled Frenchman, John Calvin. Calvin had fled his native France and ended up in Geneva, Switzerland where he engaged in local church leadership and efforts at international unity among the Protestants throughout Europe.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Among his most famous works is The Institutes for the Christian Religion. This book, which went through five publications from the years of 1536 to 1560, was written as a way to systematically instruct future ministers in the core doctrines of the Christian faith. It was also written as an apologetic against Roman Catholics throughout Europe who had sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Reformation. Indeed, in Calvins first edition, he writes a prefatory address to the King of France, King Francis I, in which he seeks to briefly demonstrate the soundness of the doctrines and actions of Protestants throughout Europe despite claims to the contrary by their opponents.

King Francis I of France (1494 – 1547)

Thus, almost 40 years prior to this most violent demonstration of Catholic violence against the Protestants in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Calvin was already seeking to advocate for his Protestant brethren throughout the Gallic lands. In this series of blogs, we will learn the main arguments used by Catholics in 16th century Europe to discredit the Reformation and study Calvins responses to these main arguments as he presented them to the King of France.

Calvin provides Francis I seven arguments for the vindication of the Reformation over and against the counter claims of his Catholic opponents. Before we discuss Calvin’s seven rebuttals to the “counter-Reformers,” we must take a moment to identify the seven main arguments used by Catholics at the time to undermine the Reformation:

  1. Protestants are teaching something new and not solid, historical doctrine.

  2. Protestant doctrine, in general, is doubtful at best.

  3. The Protestants lack the testimony of miracles.

  4. The Reformers teach doctrine opposed to what the early Christian leaders (Church Fathers) taught.

  5. Protestants break with tradition and therefore with God's path.

  6. Protestants claim that the church can exist invisibly and that this church cannot be found outside of Roman Catholicism.

  7. The Protestants stir up trouble by their doctrines, how can such trouble makers be of God?

In this article, we will follow Calvin as he seeks to refute the first three of these arguments.

Catholic Argument #1: Protestants are teaching something new and not solid, historical doctrine.

Calvin’s Rebuttal:

For his first defense, Calvin writes that the doctrines that they teach are not new. He states that rather it is that his opponents are ignorant of Holy Scripture. He writes, therefore, that “those who are acquainted with the old (emphasis mine) saying of Paul, that Christ Jesus ‘died for our sins, and rose again for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25) will not detect any novelty in us” (Institutes, Preface). Calvin does, however, admit that the gospel has been, as it were, buried or hidden for a time. This camouflaging of the gospel, however, does not equate to its error. The hiddenness, rather, is a result of man’s impiety. Out of this shrouded context, God has, in his mercy, allowed the gospel to resume its primal place as it has at different times throughout the history of the Church.

Catholic Argument #2: Protestant doctrine, in general, is doubtful at best.

Calvin’s Rebuttal:

Calvin points to the same fundamental error of his opponents which lead to their first argument as the cause of his second - ignorance or willful suppression of good doctrine. Calvin compares his opponents to a wayward Israel when he quotes from Isaiah 1:3:

“The ox knows its owner,

and the donkey its master's crib,

but Israel does not know,

my people do not understand.”

To prove his point, Calvin writes that those receiving and walking in the faith taught by the Reformers are willing to die for their faith and thereby “seal their own doctrine with their blood” (Ibid). He contrasts this with his Catholic opponents who he charges have not had their convictions tested by such fiery trials. As such, who are they to cast doubt on the doctrines taught by the Reformers.

Catholic Argument #3: The Protestants lack the testimony of miracles.

Calvin’s Rebuttal:

On this point, Calvin critiques the Roman Catholic tendency to overemphasize the place of miracles in the confirmation of truth. Setting aside the dubious nature of many claims to the miraculous by Roman Catholics, Calvin seeks to downplay their importance. Though he agrees with the Scriptures that miracles did indeed attend the preaching of the gospel (see Mark 16:20, Acts 14:3, Hebrews 2:4) throughout the New Testament, Roman Catholics had allowed them to take precedence over sound doctrine, including the gospel itself. This incorrect ordering of emphasis, Calvin argues, leads to an ungodly glorification of man vs of God. Indeed, these can be considered trustworthy tests of the miraculous: does the miracle bring glory to God or to man? And does the miracle align with Holy Scripture? Thus Calvin argues that it is not the miracles to which we should look for confirmation of the truthfulness of a said doctrine, but rather to the doctrine itself and how it compares to Holy Writ.

The Devil whispers to the Antichrist, A detail from Sermons and Deeds of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli, 1501, Orvieto Cathedral.

Calvin goes on to write about the other dangers of miracles occupying the central place in Christianity. He writes that even Satan has his own miracles and can even appear as an “angel of light” (see 2 Cor. 11:14, Exodus 7:8-10, 2 Thess. 2:9). Indeed, miracles stemming

from anti-Christs were foretold by Jesus when he warned that “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).

Finally, Calvin completes this argument by affirming the existence of the miraculous among the Reformers in confirmation of their doctrine. These miracles, however, are not heralded loudly so that they may not draw people away from God and into vanity - into the glorification of man over God.

In these first three rebuttals the Reformation battle cry of Sola Scriptura can be seen on full display as Calvin seeks to establish his apologetic in the Scriptures themselves. In the next article, we will examine more fully Calvin’s fourth argument in which he seeks to demonstrate that while the Church Fathers were far from infallible, they made many great points and that the bulk of their teachings would fall within the doctrines now espoused by the Reformers versus within the corpus of 16th century Roman Catholicism.


Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

What are your thoughts on Calvin's first three rebuttals? Are they sound? Were the Roman Catholic argument's against Calvin and the Reformers correct? I look forward to hearing from you!

Coming Soon...John Calvin's Rebuttals to his Catholic Opponents, Part II

In Part II of this series, we will examine how Calvin responds to Catholic critique that the teachings of the Reformers were out of line with the teachings of the Church Fathers. If you would like to receive a notification of the posting of this next article and other happenings at Christian Erudition, feel free to sign up below!

Thanks for reading! -Elijah

34 views0 comments