Calvin’s View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds

Stephen M. Reynolds, „Calvin’s View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds,” Westminster Theological Journal 23.1 (Nov. 1960): 33-37.

What was Calvin’s attitude toward the Athanasian Creed in 1537? Williston Walker quotes him as saying, “‘We swear in the faith of the one God, not of Athanasius, whose creed no true church would ever have approved’“.1 Harry Emerson Fosdick gives the same quotation citing Walker as his source.2 Yet in 1559 the Gallican Confession, of which Calvin prepared the first draft, was published,3 and Article V of this confession ends with the words: “nous avouons les trois symboles: savoir: des ApÔtres, de NicÉe, et d’Athanase, parce qu’ils sont conformes à la parole de Dieu” (we confess the three creeds, to wit: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, because they are in accordance with the Word of God).4

It is certain that there is a problem in these discrepant statements. The suggestion may be made that Calvin’s mind was completely changed with regard to the Athanasian Creed, but this is unlikely as it is well known that he never wavered from the doctrinal positions he set forth as a young man in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It may be suggested that Chandieu5 or the Synod of Paris added the statement about the Athanasian Creed in the Gallican Confession without Calvin’s assent or approval. This too is improbable, for Calvin would have protested had his view been that which is attributed by Walker and Fosdick.

The solution of the problem appears to be in the original statement of what Calvin said which Walker has mistranslated. The source given by Walker for this statement is a letter quoted in A.-L. Herminjard, Correspondance des réformateurs dans les pays de langue frangaise, IV, 185-186. This letter was written about the 20th of February, 1537 by the pastors of Geneva to the pastors of Berne to explain the nature of a controversy that had arisen between the former and Pierre Caroli, one of the pastors at Lausanne. During the absence of Pierre Viret, also a pastor at Lausanne, Caroli had preached that Christians should pray for the dead to hasten their resurrection. The pastors of Geneva sent Viret back to Lausanne to combat this dangerous doctrine, but instead of listening to his remonstrances Caroli accused Viret of being tainted with Arianism. The pastors of Geneva charged Calvin with the task of trying to make Caroli listen to reason, and in the course of this attempt Calvin read the passage in the new French Catechism of Geneva relative to the Trinity. Caroli brushing aside this new doctrinal standard called for a subscription to the three ancient confessions (‘‘ac tribus symbolis potius subscribamus!”).7. The letter continues with these words: ‘‘Ad haec Calvinus, nos in Dei unius fidem jurasse respondit, non Athanasii, cujus symbolum nulla unquam legitima ecclesia approbasset”’.

The translation of Williston Walker is incorrect. As he ignores the fact that it is an indirect quotation of Calvin’s words, he translates approbasset as though the subjunctive indicated past conditional action, ‘would have approved”’. Instead it is the subjunctive of indirect discourse and should be rendered ‘“‘has approved”’.

Calvin’s position thus becomes clear. He did not wish to be forced to subscribe to any of the ancient creeds by a man whom he recognized as a trouble maker. The Athanasian Creed was brought into the discussion in particular because of the damnatory statement, ‘This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe firmly, he can not be saved”.8 No Reformed Church, he believed, had officially approved of it. The whole sentence should therefore be translated, ‘“To these things Calvin answered (that) we swear in the faith of the one God, not of Athanasius whose creed no true church has approved”.9

Was Calvin correct in believing that no ecclesiastical body that he would call a true church had as yet approved of the Athanasian Creed? Philip Schaff says of this creed, “It was formally adopted by the Lutheran and several of the Reformed Churches, and is approvingly mentioned in the Augsburg Confession, the Form of Concord, the Thirty-nine articles, the Second Helvetic, the Belgic, and the Bohemian Confessions’’.10

It is to be noted that Schaff does not mention the Gallican Confession (1559) in which, as noted above, the Athanasian Creed is approved. He does refer to the Augsburg Confession as approving it, but it does not mention it. As for the ‘‘Bohemian Confession’’ which Schaff says mentions it approvingly, he does not specify whether it is that of 1535 or the Second Bohemian Confession of 1575. Only the former would, of course, have been written before Calvin’s dispute with Caroli in 1537. An examination of the text of this confession of 1535 shows that it does in fact give approval to the Athanasian Creed.11

Calvin would not have wished to offend the Bohemian Brethren who had prepared this Bohemian Confession of 1535 and made it resemble the Augsburg Confession in form and contents. The Bohemians sent the confession with a deputation to the Reformers at Wittenberg in 1536. Luther disapproved the articles on celibacy and justification, but after the Brethren had made some corrections he published the document, at their request and expense, in 1538, with a favorable preface.” It is probable that Calvin had not seen the Bohemian Confession in early 1537 when he clashed with Caroli; so he could make the statement about the Athanasian Creed without knowingly attacking the doctrinal standards of any Protestant church.

Caroli, who left Switzerland and returned to the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter to Pope Paul III in June 1537 in which he supports the view that Calvin did not say that no true church would ever have accepted the Athanasian Creed. He quotes the Reformed preachers (not naming Calvin specifically) as ridiculing (“‘riderent, proscinderent, proculcarent”’) the creeds of the Council of Nicaea and of the ‘divine’ (divi) Athanasius and adds that they denied that these creeds have been received by any true church (“et ab ecclesia legitima unquam fuisse recepta negarent’’).12

It is noteworthy that Caroli says that the Nicene as well as the Athanasian Creed was opposed by the Reformed preachers. The letter of the Genevan pastors to those of Berne mentions only the Athanasian Creed in this connection as indicated above, and Calvin in a letter to Gaspard Megander at Berne in which the same facts are discussed again mentions only the Athanasian Creed.13

Calvin did, however, express himself freely in criticizing the Nicene Creed as he shows in his tract of 1545 against the calumnies of Caroli. He quotes himself as saying, ‘‘“What would you say…if I denied that the formula came from the Council of Nicaea? It is not credible that the holy fathers wishing, in a formula as short as possible, to encompass the most necessary things should amuse themselves in such a circuit of useless words. You see indeed that there is battology: God of God, light of light, true God of true God. Why this repetition? Does it give more emphasis, more expression? You see that it isa chant, more suitable to be sung (cantillando) than as a confession of faith, in which one useless syllable is absurd’’.14

Yet, although Calvin considered. the Nicene Creed unsuitable as a concise confession of faith and spoke against the view that it was composed by the fathers at the Council of Nicaea, he did not attack its doctrinal statements. On the contrary he found no fault with them, as can be seen clearly in studying the entirety of his writings insofar as they touch on the doctrines affirmed in this creed. Calvin shows that, in pressing him and his fellow pastors to subscribe to the ancient creeds, Caroli wished to discredit all their former ministry, particularly that of Farel.

In the Institutes of 1536 Calvin had already explained his reasons for using such terms as ‘‘Trinity” and ‘‘Person” and at the same time defending the right of others to object to them. He said, “if they (some orthodox Protestants) call exotic a term curiously imagined and superstitiously defended, more suited to discussion than to edification, troublesome or useless, which by its harshness offends pious ears, which departs from the simplicity of the divine words, then with all my heart I approve their sobriety’’.15

The Bible however is not a fetish. He says, “It is not that we would accept nothing but a confession woven (contexta) and sewn (consuta) superstitiously with biblical words’. Above the letter is the spirit. It is necessary to have “words truly in conformity with the biblical truth and offering the least possible of those asperities which can offend pious ears’’.16

Calvin is thus seen standing staunchly for the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and equally firmly for Christian liberty from slavery to words. He says of himself, Farel and Viret, “They do not wish by their consent to approve of that tyranny by which, the thing being sufficiently clear, faith should be tied to words and syllables.’’17

Crozer Theological Seminary, Chester, Pennsylvania

1 John Calvin, the Organiser of Reformed Protestantism, 1906, p. 197.

2 The Modern Use of the Bible, 1941, p. 84.

3 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1, 493.

4 Schaff, op. cit., II], 362.

5 Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, a young French nobleman and theologian, having been requested by the Protestants of Poitiers to suggest to the church in Paris the importance of preparing a common confession of faith and ordes of discipline, consulted Calvin. The latter sent three delegates with a draft of a confession to Paris. This was enlarged and adopted by the Synod of Paris in 1559 (Schaff, op. cit., 1, 494).

6 Herminjard, loc. cit.; Emile Doumergue, Jean Calvin, les hommes et les choses de son temps, Lausanne, 1910, II, 256. Doumergue’s understanding of Calvin’s words on the Athanasian Creed is the same as that expressed in this paper.

7 The Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

8 ProG. Farello et collegis eius, adversus Petri Caroli theologastri calumnias, defensio Nicolai Gallasii, 1545. Calvin, Opera, VII, 289-340. This treatise is by Calvin himself as the editors of the Opera have shown, VII, Proleg- XXX-XXXIV. To abbreviate we shall hereafter cite this work by the single word Defensio. Calvin paraphrases the damnatory statement as follows: ‘“‘Hanc fidem quicunque non tenuerit, salvus esse non poterit”’ (Opera, VII, 315).

9 Op. cit., 1, 40.

10 Corpus et syntagma confessionum fidet quae in diversis regnis et natonibus ecclestarum nomine fuerunt authentice editae, Geneva, 1654, p. 179.

11 Schaff, op. cit., 1, 578-9.

12 Herminjard, op. cit., 1V, 248-9. I am indebted to Dr. John T. McNeill for calling my attention to this letter.

13 Herminjard, op. cit., 1V, 187-91.

14 Defensio, 315-6.

15 Calvin, Opera, I, 60.

16 Defensio, 312; Doumergue, op. cit., II, 260.

17 Defensio, 318; Doumergue, op. cit., II, 260.

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