Calvin on Lent and Ministry to Roman Catholics

The life and ministry of John Calvin provides insight into a range of ministry related issues—from biblical exegesis to training pastors to the effect of preaching upon civil government. But what, if anything, does Calvin teach us about ministry among Roman Catholics? It turns out that he teaches us a valuable lesson.

Contrary to those who would portray Calvin as a clerical despot, bent on micro-managing religious practice in his Genevan fiefdom, there is instead much evidence demonstrating his concern for the outward thrust of evangelism. Through each successive edition of his Institutes, for example, he retained his dedication to the French king. Some believe that this signified Calvin’s commitment to nurturing the Protestant church in France, a movement for which he equipped pastors and missionaries. Whether it was in forming the Geneva Academy in 1559 (to train church leaders), his tireless routine of writing letters of encouragement to oppressed Huguenots, or in caring for refugees who had escaped the fires of persecution, the centrifugal impulse of Calvin’s Christianity moved beyond the borders of Geneva and into the world.

It is interesting to notice how Calvin’s missional outlook informed his approach to ministry among Roman Catholics, something with which he had much experience (given his time period when virtually everyone was from a “Romanist” background). Michael A. Mullett, in the recent update of his book John Calvin, stresses this point with regard to the standards and protocols that Calvin implemented for the church in Geneva: “we should try to understand the importance [Calvin] placed on the educational function of the liturgy,” he writes, “deliberately using it to instruct a population of ex-Catholics in Protestant ways” (101). Through such instruction, Calvin sought to guide newcomers from patterns of superstition into a biblically chaste religion.

We observe Calvin’s intentionality in his comments about Lent, for example. In the Institutes 4.12.19-21, the French reformer enumerates reasons for taking “precaution lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church.” He first quotes Joel 2:13 in opposition to religious hypocrisy. Second, citing Augustine, he cautions readers to avoid Lenten fasts as a work of merit. He then goes on to tackle the problems of legalism and spiritual pride. In all of this exhortation, Calvin is helping ex-Catholics evaluate familiar traditions in the light of Scripture. While recognizing a proper observance of Lent–one that flows from a heart of gratitude—he opposes superstitious distortions. By way of conclusion, Calvin writes:

Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached. And not to overlook any depravity, they began, with a completely absurd pretense of abstinence, to mock God.

Reason for the Rhetoric

It is easy to make direct application from Calvin’s polemic, especially when it involves a similar liturgical phenomenon such as Lent. The case of Lent is particularly interesting because, as in Calvin’s period, some today may display penitent works for reasons of superstition or merit-seeking. Is such an error any less grievous now than it was then, and, if not, shouldn’t we address it with the same degree of candor? I would say yes to the first question and probably not to the second. Let me explain.

With regard to our rhetorical engagement with Catholics, we must recognize that we live in a different time period from Calvin’s. In the 21st century we don’t link Christian faith to physical violence. However, it was far different for the 16th and 17th centuries when religious solidarity and national destiny went hand-in-hand. In such a society, the idea of religious pluralism was new and frightening. With what church does one identify? Even saying it this way is misleading. There was hardly a pluralistic choice. When Luther published his Appeal to the German Nobility, for instance, he was not proposing an alternative option. It was, for him, a necessary replacement of an apostate church institution. In addition to generating profound existential angst among rank and file Christians, such transition created a social and political revolution, which the wars of religion vividly remind us.    

In this setting, words were employed to heighten concern, awaken emotions, and motivate action. In this clash of competing worldviews, where the stakes were life and death, rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents. In this polemical universe, you could not punch below the belt, because there was no belt marking off acceptable and unacceptable blows. My friend Jason illustrated this point during seminary. The consummate Calvinist, Jason once mentioned nonchalantly to our classmate Linford, a beloved Mennonite friend: “If we were living 500 years ago, I’d be drowning you about now.” The strength of their friendship allowed for such a bizarre statement. Perhaps the most bizarre part, however, was its truth.

Outreach in Our Day

With regard to polemics, we live in a new day. The influence of Christian virtue on verbal etiquette has delivered us from the violent vituperations of yesteryear. In other words, we can disagree with charity. This is not to say that the Reformation is therefore over. Far from it. The same fundamental issues of difference that separated Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century largely exist today. But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.

This sort of humility doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that we lack strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). Only after reaching informed convictions, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, do we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

So what is the lesson that Calvin teaches us about ministry to Catholics? It starts with understanding the religious assumptions of those Catholics whom we serve. With such a perspective, Calvin initiated a process that called superstition into question in favor of biblical faith and practice. Whether in evangelism or in catechizing members at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Calvin’s “Reformed” vision consisted of just that: reforming religion in the light of Scripture. The same opportunity is before us. By asking informed questions of our Catholic friends, questions that reveal the limitations (or outright error) of sacred tradition, we can serve a process of reflection in which biblical truth comes into sharper focus and eventually dominates life.

  • God Seeker

    Hi Mr. Castaldo,

    Thank you for your article. Just out of curiosity, do you believe that the superstitious doctrines which had crept into the Church were accepted by all Catholics and that since all Catholics believe in superstition, that they must be evangelized into a more “chase religion”? I am just curious because when I read the history of Catholics back then, even in the later middle ages, I find that there were very holy people who did not perform half the things which Martin Luther or John Calvin did.

    Secondly, I hope we are not forgetting that there was a Cathoilic reform in response to the much needed reformation. Cries for “reform” were rampant, within the Catholic Church. We should probably be a bit more clear on Trent’s condemnation of superstitious doctrine and practice, and maybe you will see that not all practicing Catholics must be ministered the way you think.

    Third, do you realize that many of the supertitious practices were simply outrageous abuses of doctrines which were held by all Christians (minus the heretics and fringe groups) from the very beginning? For instance, Justin Martyr, who died for the faith of Jesus, and who was well respected in the Early Church, and who wrote extensively on orthodox faith (Essentials such as repentance, conversion, etc,etc) believed that a liturgical prayer transformed the substance of bread and wine into the same flesh and blood that was made flesh when Christ was conceived in Mary? Or Similarly, how Ireneaus, who was known and fellowshiped with polycarp, who was also a Christian martyr who was taught and discipled by St. John (as the tradition goes), also believed that the Eucharist held the real presence of Christ, his flesh and blood. Moreover, the practice of fasting and lent, the celebration of Easter, goes so far back to the dispute between PolyCarp and the Bishop of Rome, which came to peace in the act that PolyCarp consecrated the host for the celebration of Christ’s passion.

    And to think that St. Augustine believed the “chaste religion” of John Calvin, one would have to be very careful with this. We are Christians, and we have to be people without deceit or integrity, and to think that St. Augustine believed what John Calvin believed is a bit of an stretch. Now maybe Augustine and John Calvin would agree on the eradication of superstitious practices that had crept into the Church. First you must ask if the Bishops of Trent agreed with John Calvin and Augustine, and make sure you are not ministering in a different way than you think.

    It is probably true that if St. Augustine were alive during the reformation, that he would have been distraught by the seeming fall of the Church, but to reject some of the doctrines which had been taught to him from Ambrose, Jerome, and the rest of the holy Christian tradition would have been unthinkable.

  • Sensible

    Good morning Mr. Castaldo, I am reposting my observation, because I think it is a valid point to make if we wish to make a comprehensive defense of Christian orthodoxy. No disrespect is intended in these remarks, and if anything I state is in error, I welcome any correction. Thank you for your consideration,

    “With regard to polemics, we live in a new day.”

    “But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.”

    As a Christian and a believer in absolute truth, I must respectfully disagree with this analysis of the reformers’ past conduct. To murder a man is to murder a man, regardless of the times. It is odd that many in the past (Calvin, Farel,…) devoted their lives to defending all manner of doctrine, without affirming the most essential orthodoxy of all–the call to love God and man.

  • Chris Castaldo

    There is a difference between describing history and endorsing it. I have sought to do the former.

    • Sensible

      We both agree on that point. However, when an paragraph begins “Contrary to those who would portray Calvin as a clerical despot, bent on micro-managing religious practice in his Genevan fiefdom…” the writing tutor in me observes, “This is a useful rhetorical device. The author used ‘contrary’ to demonstrate that he clearly objects to portraying Calvin as a ‘clerical despot,’ or a ‘micromanaging’ tyrant. Logically then, this writer’s aim must be to demonstrate that Calvin is none of these things.” To casual readers and veteran rhetoric scholars alike, this statement signals that a defense (however large or small) of Calvin’s character is certain to follow. In addition, this analysis of Calvin’s methods of evangelism is an incomplete history (nor does it refute the historical evidence well known to the “those” of the second paragraph) and therefore cannot constitute as a strict “description.”

      Here is the big lesson to take away: one need not admire or apologize for Calvin (or any human for that matter) to adhere to reformed theology, and certainly not to know Christ. Calvin’s life, death, and conduct were shabby, pitiful, and meaningless; Christ’s life is not.

  • Sensible

    Another thought I would attach to my response above:

    To clarify my stament on murder–I believe that history reveals that Calvin was guilty of both the murder of unbelievers (Calvin’s attempts to reduce Servetus’ sentence to a beheading do not absolve him of murder…rather they convict him of cowardice) and the persecution of Christians and fellow reformers (mainstream historians neglect to highlight that fact).

    Fortunately, Christians already possess all they require, in the form of God-breathed scripture, to defend sound doctrine. We need not defend or admire the conduct of men whom, by way of common grace, do profess some truths inspite of not having a saving knowledge and love of Christ.

    • Jon

      I’m sorry but are you saying Calvin was an unbeliever?

      • Sensible

        Does Calvin’s witness match his profession of belief? Why should it matter to the Christian (who already possesses saving truth in scripture) if Calvin was not a believer (a possibility we should keep in mind whenever we search for mentors)?

  • Josh Lough

    Thank you, Chris, for the article. Your concluding exhortation to temper our polemic is line with Scripture’s call to “make a defense … with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) and to be “correcting his (our) opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:25). At the same time, I believe there is a great danger in only being “nice.” A casual cup of coffee at Starbucks can be fine as long as we accurately communicate the severity of the corrupt doctrines we are trying to sway our deceived friends away from. And if any of these friends persist in teaching others a merit-approach to God, then there are times Scriptures calls us to “rebuke then *sharply* that they may be sound in faith” (Titus 1:13). Indeed, even though our Lord was meek and humble, there were times, as we all know, when he communicated with unhindered outrage. I would ask that we take a balanced approach. Different situations call for different emotions and forms of communication. Wisdom should dictate the approach. But in our “evolved” day and age of tolerance and respect, let us not do away with the passion, anger, and sharpness that the Reformers employed to wake a corrupt system that continues to this day. (And, yes, this would also apply to corrupt systems within Protestantism, of which there are many as well).

    • Chris Castaldo

      Well said, brother. God help us to be forthright, especially when we preach the gospel.

  • Melody

    Our Lord was humble. When He was angered, he did not sin. He certainly did not abuse, bully or murder anyone.
    I see bullying in the name of proper theology all the time online. I’ve often wondered if they could would they resort to violence with the self-righteous pride that Saul had while Stephen was stoned.
    When the gospel has the power of the Holy Spirit behind it the violence of Satan is never required. The violence of Satan never saved anyone.

    • Joseph


    • Sensible

      Thank you Melody, your remarks truly were “proper theology,” and I second them.

  • Matthew S.


    One wonders what you would have us do with, say, King David, a murderer/adulterer/polygamist and “man after God’s own heart.”

  • Sensible

    So was Calvin a man after God’s own heart? I cannot recall whether God revealed that in scripture? I and Calvin both live in the age of the new covenant, so I in my limited knowledge can only take the advice of James on this one…

    • Matthew S.

      I’m not saying that the state of Calvin’s heart is revealed for us in scripture, but I think you probably know that. Do I know FOR SURE, with the same certainty I have about things revealed in scripture, that John Calvin was a man after God’s own heart? No, I do not. But I do know that there is much more to his life than his grievous errors (which are VERY grievous). If we take the reductionistic lens with which you view Calvin and view David with it, then David’s “life, death, and conduct were shabby, pitiful, and meaningless” as well. I appreciate your zeal for Sola Scriptura, and I share it. Accordingly, I don’t believe that David sinning grievously and yet remaining a man after God’s own heart NECESSARILY requires one to believe the same thing about John Calvin. With David we have an authoritative, scriptural interpretation of his life and heart; with Calvin we do not. But we can look at the evidence of a man’s entire life, which includes his good fruit as well as his rotten, and make a cautious, non-authoritative estimation that such and such a man was/is a man of God. David’s life, at the very least, renders the paradox of being a man after God’s own heart yet from time to time temporarily falling into grievous sin a POSSIBILITY, one which you seem bent on not considering.

      I have been a real follower of Christ since I was 9 years old. The worst things I have done were done AS a Christian, not before. Have I committed murder? No. But in the sight of God, I doubt that my sins are any less heinous than murder. I’ve been angry at my brother with an uncaused, violent anger, and I’ve viewed things one ought not to with all the lust of an adulterer. But God is faithfully bringing to completion the good work which he started in me, transforming me from one miniscule degree of glory to another. As for my present standing: God views me as righteous, a man after his own heart, because every sin, every wayward moment, every idolatrous impulse and desire, past, present, and future, has been atoned for by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. This is called grace…and that one word “grace” might as well sum up the only point I’m trying to make here. On my deathbed, I and the ones who know me best will surely be able to look back and see a life story that contains much fruit but also many thorns. But by the grace of God, my life will surely not be a “shabby, pitiful, and meaningless” waste.

  • Sensible

    One note before I am off to class: I hope nothing said has come across as uncivil. I am not a rogue arminian looking for a fight :). I am only noting that we should be cautious (very, very cautious) before consciously or unconsciously sending any man to heaven without examining his witness…
    God bless.

    • Matthew S.

      I”m not sure if that last comment about cautiously examining a man’s witness was addressed to me, but I wholeheartedly agree. And thank you for it, because it helps me to see what your concerns, which I also share. And when I said you “seem bent on not considering,” I realize that it’s a bit too strong of a statement, though I tried to temper it with the word “seem.” Apologies if that was taken more forcefully than it was meant. God bless you as well.

  • JD

    Dear Chris,

    You said, “Whether it was in forming the Geneva Academy in 1559 (to train church leaders), his tireless routine of writing letters of encouragement to oppressed Huguenots, or in caring for refugees who had escaped the fires of persecution, the centrifugal impulse of Calvin’s Christianity moved beyond the borders of Geneva and into the world.”

    I wonder if you’re experiencing a bit of denial (or rose colored glasses at best) with regards to Calvin. For instance, I find it interesting that you mention the refugees of religious persecution he helped, but you fail to mention the refugees of religious persecution he promised to kill and then handed over to be slowly burned alive for disagreeing with his theology (i.e. Michael Servetus). When Calvin was debating Servetus in writing, he wrote that if Servetus came to Geneva he would not let him leave alive. Servetus came in peace to talk, and Calvin had him arrested and murdered. Jesus said you will know them by their fruit, and let’s be honest… that doesn’t sound like the work of a Christian pastor to me.

    You said, “[In Calvin’s day,] rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents.”

    The conventions that aimed at demeaning opponents were evil, as were the conventions that aimed at killing people over theological disagreements. A man of God should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve resisted those conventions and instead would’ve followed God’s conventions instead, even unto death. God teaches us to correct the opposition with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, 2 Timothy 2:25). God in the flesh accepted death before ever lifting a finger against a theological opponent. The Scriptures teach that even rebukes and corrections are to be done in the context of overall respect, gentleness, and love. Calvin’s rebukes were sometimes in the context of kidnapping and murder!

    You said, “… ministry among Roman Catholics [is] something with which he had much experience (given his time period when virtually everyone was from a “Romanist” background).”

    This is another overly-simplified view of history. Not every Christian was from a Romanist background in Calvin’s time period. Perhaps everyone was from that background in Calvin’s geographical location, but in his time period most Christians in the rest of the Christian world were orthodox (from Greece to Armenia, from Israel to Ethiopia). Calvin should have consulted with any of those churches, for they had held onto the faith much better than than the Roman Church did.

    You said, “Whether in evangelism or in catechizing members at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Calvin’s “Reformed” vision consisted of just that: reforming religion in the light of Scripture.” Actually, Calvin reformed religion by twisting Scripture. He distorted portions of Scripture into destructive heresies that were never taught in the historical Christian world (neither in the orthodox nor in catholic churches) until Calvin’s time.

    In Christ,

  • Heber

    Hey I have an idea. Let’s appreciate the article for what it is and look for unity.. let’s stop trying to play “who can get the upper hand by being smart” and just applaud our BROTHER, Mr. Castaldo, for well-meaning article. Thanks Chris.