Calvin and the pope

If there are two things that stand out to me in Calvin’s commentaries through the years, they are:

  1. He hates speculation. Every time he encounters a passage where he believes people go astray with fanciful, speculative views that have no support from the text itself, he calls foul – and he tends to call it hard. I’ve always appreciated that.

  2. He hates the papacy. It seems like nearly every thought in his commentaries is capped off by commenting on how the papists get this particular doctrine wrong.

For this reason, I found this comment today particularly interesting. I was reading his commentary on Matthew 28:20, where he says:

Teaching them to observe all things. By these words, as I have formerly suggested, Christ shows that, in sending the apostles, he does not entirely resign his office, as if he ceased to be the Teacher of his Church; for he sends away the apostles with this reservation, that they shall not bring forward their own inventions, but shall purely and faithfully deliver from hand to hand (as we say) what he has entrusted to them. Would to God that the Pope would subject to this rule the power which he claims for himself; for we would easily permit him to be the successor of Peter or of Paul, provided that he did not usurp a tyrannical dominion over our souls. But as he has set aside the authority of Christ, and infects the Church with his childish fooleries, this shows plainly enough how widely he has departed from the apostolic office. In short, let us hold that by these words teachers are appointed over the Church, not to put forward whatever they may think proper, but that they, as well as others, may depend on the mouth of the Master alone, so as to gain disciples for him, and not for themselves.

It’s the highlighted portion that I found so fascinating. It’s the closest I’ve ever heard him come to saying something even remotely sympathetic to papal authority. It suggests to me that even as the father of presbyterianism, Calvin had room in his mind for the idea of an episcopal form of government. While I know he would not have affirmed a doctrine of apostolic succession, it seems he could have had room for the notion of regional bishops absorbing an authority similar to that of the apostles.

If nothing else, this comment seems like a fitting capstone to the end of Calvin’s gospel commentary. After the reformers spent so much of their blood and energy combatting the papists, going against the grain of an established, corrupt church order, this is his parting shot. “Look, when all is said and done, we would be eager to submit to the rule of a pope. We never asked for this. We would be eager to honor him as Peter or Paul. We would be happy to not have to do this reformation thing. But here we are.”

Anyway, curious what others may think. I know some of you are far more well-read in Calvin than I am. I just found it a fascinating find.


Oh boy! What a bowl of ecclesiastical, doctrinal, and disciplinary spaghetti you set before us! And, what a folly I’m embarking on in this reply, since I am addressing not merely a proto-Presbyterian assembly but rather an assembly that has embraced fully (excepting moi, of course) the mega-evolved system of church and doctrine and discipline that Calvin is only the tenderest sprout no matter how vigorously any today insist their mere allegiance to what he propounds.

However, please consider the following:

(1) The Great Commission was always taught to me as if it were a mandate given to every member of the Church. It was the motto of Royal Ambassadors, an SBC ministry to boys when I inhabited their ranks over 70 years ago.

However, on its face this commission by our Lord is given to eleven Apostles alone, a fact nailed down not only by Matthew’s narrative, but also by our Lord’s insistence that they are to teach only what He has taught them.

But some will say “Fr. Bill! Has the Lord not taught you this or that? Has He not taught us all?”

To which I would say, "Yes, I have learned from the Lord, but it has always and everywhere been mediated through what the Apostles conveyed to the Church. They did indeed undertake this commission, and they continue to do so right down to this very minute.

How so?

(2) The fulfillment of that mandate is the totality of the canonical New Testament documents.

Our Lord’s teaching - what He commands to be taught when He gave the Great Commission - is found in all of the New Testament. His teaching is not confined to the canonical Gospels. This is why the Apostles today are still fulfilling the commission our Lord conveyed to them.

There are significant implications from this correct understanding of the Great Commission that impact the offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and also impact the office (theoretically) of Pope (if there is such an office).

For now, I’ll reserve my opinions on what some of those implications are. I merely wanted to set this cat among the pigeons.


I have heard that Calvin endorsed an episcopal structure for the Polish Reformed church, but I have no evidence for it.


You wrote:

…The Great Commission was always taught to me as if it were a mandate given to every member of the Church. It was the motto of Royal Ambassadors, an SBC ministry to boys when I inhabited their ranks over 70 years ago. However, on its face this commission by our Lord is given to eleven Apostles alone, a fact nailed down not only by Matthew’s narrative, but also by our Lord’s insistence that they are to teach only what He has taught them.

A side-question, but I’ve always wondered about this too. Like you I was brought up to believe that evangelism was something in which “everybody gets to play” (John Wimber, slightly out of context). So I was quite surprised when on the former Baylyblog, I came across the idea that the principal responsibility for evangelism in fact lies with the clergy, not the laity; and that idea was built on the reading of this Scripture.

Tbh it’s not an obvious reading to be taken from Matt 28:19-20, so would welcome comment.


Of course, the way those SBC revivalists used it when they came round to FBC in Needles, California back in that day, you’d have supposed that our Lord were speaking directly to each and every one of us squirming in those pews every night during the revival! But, we Baptists (at least the ones in that congregation in that time and place) were not great students of Holy Writ. Readers, perhaps.

But, if our pastor said this verse or that verse meant so and so, well of course we were going to assent. As one of my early mentors in the faith (decades later!) put it: Baptists have no standing to criticize Catholics for having a Pope. The Baptists have thousands of them!" And, I’d wager that their number (number of popes, that is) are just as numerous amongst Reformed climes.

Here’s what changed my mind about the Great Commission:

(1) There is nothing in Matthew’s narrative to require the Commission being laid on any but His own Apostles.

(2) In context, the Lord has JUST spent 40 post-resurrection days instructing those He’s about to commission to build His Church on what they are supposed to do, how to do it, what - precisely - they are to teach (cf. Acts 1:3-4)

This last datum is key, for in the Commission our Lord stipulates that they are to teach newly baptized disciples “to observe everything I have commanded you.”

Now consider - if the Commission belongs as much to Fr. Bill as it does to the Apostle Matthew, what is Fr. Bill - 2,000 and more years distant from our Lord’s giving of this commission - to do with that phrase. Where exactly is Fr. Bill - or you - going to find what our Lord commanded YOU? And if you come up with some sort of answer for that, are you still going to put your learning from our Lord on the same level, having the same quality/context/immediacy as what Matthew had when our Lord was instructing him during those 40 days?

St. Thomas - during those 40 days - likely asked our Lord many questions. He doesn’t seem in other parts of the gospels to be the sort of fellow who takes his Teacher’s affirmations at face value. No, he’s got to poke around to insure he’s heard correctly, understood sufficiently. Can you do as St. Thomas likely did during those 40 days? My spirit resonates finely with what I see of St. Thomas, but I never got to put my finger into His side.

Back to the “syllabus” our Lord delivers to his Apostles, where do we find it? Many (most?) think its found in the gospels. Flummery!! St. John tells us that the world likely could not contain the books that could be written concerning everything our Lord did prior to His Ascension (John 21:25).

Moreover, those who confine our Lord’s syllabus to what’s found in the gospels set up (deliberately or unthinkingly, no matter) a tension between the authority of our Lord and the authority of the Apostles, especially St. Paul. So, something found in the Pauline corpus which is not mentioned in the gospels - well, St. Paul’s teaching is diminished, no?

But, what if things in St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John that are not mentioned in the canonical gospels were nevertheless included in what our Lord taught them during those 40 days? Then there is no tension. Indeed, St. Paul is confident enough in his own possession of the Commission that he tosses this rejoinder to his Corinthian critics: " If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord." (1 Corinthians 14:37)

Ruminating in this way several decades ago, I realized that the Great Commission was Apostolic in the sense that it was given to the Apostles as something to do, and the obvious question followed hard after this realization - did they do it? And, if so, how do we know? What evidence of their success do we have?

The New Testament is the answer to these questions, that is, the sheer coming into existence of it, the abiding impact it has. You do know, of course, that today there are Christians whose evangelism was done entirely by St. Paul, right? Entirely by St. John, right? Entirely by one or more of those our Lord commissioned to do the work of baptizing and teaching, so as to make new disciples of our Lord. Such folk read their Bibles, confessed their sins, and trusted in God’s Son.

Their baptism? Of course, this work was done by those who inherit our Lord’s commission - the heirs of the Apostles, the Bishops (e.g. St. Timothy) and their agents - the long line of faithful presbyters (“priests” in my Anglican heritage) who teach, baptize, and administer the sacraments to the faithful.

Now, a final disclaimer - no one objects in principle to a member of the laity communicating the truth of Christ to an unbeliever. The objections I would raise - the cringing memories I have from university days, of baby Christians speaking the most horrid religious confusion to an unbeliever - these objections are not that he is “sharing the gospel,” but that the so-called gospel he is sharing is so distant from sound Biblical truth!

If a member of the laity is well-discipled himself, if he is genuinely prepared to give a defense of the reason for the hope that is in him, (1 Peter 3:15) , may his tribe increase! But let us also acknowledge that for the officers of our Lord’s Church - the evangelists, pastors, and teachers, the bishops, presbyters, and eacons (Ephesians 4:11ff; 1 Timothy 4:5; 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2) - it is as much their duty to do this work as it was for the Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:16).


This is all very helpful for me to consider.

Admittedly, something that has always been a source of irritation to me within (my own) Reformed Baptist paradigm is that I perceive there is often some cherry-picking done when it comes to understanding which texts concerning the apostles apply to all believers, generally, versus which were specific to them – the whole “narrative vs normative” thing.

For instance, most would say Acts 6:1-7 provides us with the prototype for the office of deacon. I’ve heard others argue that this text has nothing to do with deacons, pointing primarily to the fact that this occurrence was unique to the time and function of the apostles, and the Jerusalem church, and doesn’t provide explicit instruction for us today. Likewise, the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, seems to sometimes be invoked as instructive in some situations, and dismissed as “narrative” in other situations, depending on the issue at hand. It seems arbitrary.

The Great Commission, the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21), are we to understand this as being the direct inheritance of all believers? Depending on what we mean, I don’t have a problem saying yes. But if by saying “yes,” what we do is put a weighty burden on the conscience of every believer – from the layman worker to the housewife with ten children – to be striving to participate in hair-on-fire street evangelism so we can be like Paul in the marketplace, then I think we have a problem.


Thanks for the “narrative v normative” paradigm - very helpful, in this and a number of other contexts (e.g. Pentecostals regard Acts as “normative” where most of the rest of us would describe it as “narrative”, or significantly so). We do need to use the wise judgement God has given us as to which is which.

Yup, amen. At the same time, we need to strive for some sort of consistent hermeneutic to be able to get beyond competing opinions in any given moment.

So many conversations in my life, among the brethren of my own church, seem to dead-end because parties disagree at the point of narrative vs. normative. By creed, we all affirm the perspicuity of Scripture, but somehow we stalemate in so many conversations where opinions differ. I have to think it’s a hermeneutic problem, at points like these.

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Quote: This last datum is key, for in the Commission our Lord stipulates that they are to teach newly baptized disciples “to observe everything I have commanded you.”

Doesn’t this include the Great Commission?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at the way this is communicated, but if the Lord commanded the apostles to preach the gospel, then surely that is one of the commands disciples should observe.

No, if it were given only to THEM as a duty. That’s what we’re discussing, of course. At one point, our Lord commanded his disciples to go to other cities and to preach the gospel, carrying no provisions with them. Are you going to suggest that this commandment applies to every one of us today?

Clearly, as noted already in previous comments by others, it is challenging many times when reading the record of what our Lord said to the Twelve or to everyone in the crowds he was addressing what extends to you and me 2,000 years later. Sometimes it is obvious that His commands are confined to a small audience at a precise time. Other times His commands are obviously for any of His disciples at any time in the future.

But, there remain a frustrating number of places where the “target” or applicability of His commands are not clear at all as to who precisely is His audience. “You” sometimes means “You over there sitting next to Nathaniel,” and other times it means “All of you who claim to be my disciples.” It’s not always easy to know which of these is intended. That’s why we have these discussions.

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This is a valid criticism. But the question, as always, is “compared to what?” I would much rather grab a random evangelical out of a pew to share the gospel with a nonbeliever than I would grab a random bishop with an impeccable “apostolic succession.”

Additionally, charging ordinary believers to sanctify Christ as Lord in their hearts (always being ready to make a defense of the faith) spurs them to actually understand said faith.

Can it even be called “confusion to an unbeliever” when a bishop willfully communicates the opposite of the sacred gospel to an unbeliever, and it is indeed dogmatized by his “church”?


I’m sorry, Bill, but I do not see this as a command limited to the apostles or the clergy. While it may be argued that the apostles were better euipped, as are mature Christian leaders today, the Great Commission is open-ended and easily comes under “all I have commanded you”. The stumbling, bumbling, embarrassing attempts at obedience of new and immature believers are not to be discounted. God uses children and the foolish to humble the wise and learned, even in the Church.

All disciples are to spread the gospel (Philippians 1:14, also Acts 11:19-20) and teach Christ’s commands (Colossians 3:16). Some Christians may be chosen to do so more specifically, but that does not negate the general command.

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It’s beyond dispute that all disciples are to be involved in the work of spreading the gospel. I don’t think that’s what Bill is saying. The part of your paragraph that’s in question is the “some Christians may be chosen to do so more specifically.”

Are all disciples to be involved in the work of spreading the gospel in the same way? Are all to strive for the kind of life that emulates the life of an apostle? When Paul says “imitate me, as I imitate Christ,” what does that mean for the housewife? Is she to view her lot in life as a mother and a wife as an unfortunate inhibitor to the higher calling of going out as a street evangelist in the market place?

To apply the Great Commission – and other texts like some referenced here – with one broad brush, saying that it applies to all believers for all time, seems to tend toward putting an undue burden on the consciences of lay Christians. The distinction that Bill is making doesn’t take away from the fact that all believers are involved in the work of ministry, but preserves the fact that not every believer is called to bear the weight of ministry in exactly the same way,

Another text that comes to mind, Acts 5:42:

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.

We get the picture in the book of Acts that the houses of all the saints were constantly open and being used for ministry. This ministry was a way of life for the church. But it was the apostles (and prophets, and evangelists, and by later extension elders) who were doing the work of teaching and preaching in those houses – or at least presiding over that teaching and preaching.

That’s clearly a refrence to Ephisians 4:11-16. Its good to have the refrence of what they are teaching and preaching in mind for this discussion:

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,e to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

The elders and pastors of a church should be equipping the saints for ministry (among other things), building the body up so that it is working properly. Each part of the body is different, and so the type, style, and focus of their ministry will be different, but it’s ministry nonetheless.

In regards to the housewife evangelizing, it’s unlikely any street evangelist will ever have an impact on their listeners like the one a mother has. It’s unlikely they will ever have the opportunity to disciple their listeners in the commands of Jesus the way a mother does. If anything, the street evangelist has a greater inhibitor placed on him by his position than a housewife.


Yes, I am aware of the text I was citing. Not sure why you’re phrasing this as a sweeping rebuttal, as I don’t see the point of disagreement. Again, I don’t think anyone is denying that the work of ministry belongs to all the saints.

Regarding the question of the audience of the Great Commission, it’s worth noting that there would (or at least should be) less disagreement about who should do the baptizing. That belongs to the church and her officers exercise their authority when they baptize. It doesn’t follow that the apostles should have responsibility for one part of the Great Commission and not the other. That said, I’m not opposed to Christians sharing their faith with their friends and neighbors, but it seems that an invitation to church or an introduction to their pastor happens pretty early on. I am opposed to lay Christians taking it upon themselves to take up street preaching. They should never do that without having their elders support and blessing.


True 'dat.

Maybe I could have phrased it better, as I didn’t intend it as a sweeping rebuttal. :slightly_smiling_face: You refrencing Ephesians 4 made me think of what it went on to say, and I thought it was helpful to the discussion to point out that pastors and elders are equipping all if the church for ministry.

Often, it seems to me, people (not necessarily you) look at this issue as either or. Either ministry and evangelism is solely done by elders, or it’s done by everyone with no distinction in the role or type of ministry being done. What Paul calls us to in this passage, however, is ministry by the whole church, equipped and trained by the pastors and teachers, with different people doing different (but often similar) parts. Also, it’s certainly true that ministry is not a synonym for evangelsm here.

Many people will never talk to a pastor in their entire lives, often by choice. But, they have Christian coworkers, Christian neighbors, Christians that they know and interact with all the time in their day to day lives. My hope and desire would be to equip and challenge these Christians to witness Christ to those unbelievers, in whatever various ways and methods might be appropriate. Not say to to those Christians, the Great Commission wasn’t directed directly to you, maybe you might invite them to church.



I’ve said this before, but: it is the Christians who make the effort to get out there and preach the Gospel, however well or badly, that will then have the privilege of seeing the Elect come to faith and will then have the privilege of discipling them. This is something that Reformed church leaderships should, in my not-so-humble-opinion, remind themselves of frequently! :slight_smile:

I am opposed to lay Christians taking it upon themselves to take up street preaching. They should never do that without having their elders support and blessing.

Hi Dave. I’m curious- beyond knowledge of the gospel and some level of doctrinal accuracy, what would you look for to give or withhold your blessing to someone who wants to do street preaching?

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