John Calvin (1509-1564) on submission to ecclesiastical authority


The early church father Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) once said: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” John Calvin (1509-1564) picks up on this phrase in his treatment of the Church, and in particular with regard to submission to ecclesiastical authority. In our day and age where consumerism and individualism, among other factors, lead to a general reluctance to submit to divinely ordained authority (if not outright anarchy), these words are quite prophetic:

“…by the faith of the gospel Christ becomes ours, and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness procured by him. But as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation, God, in accommodation to our infirmity, has added such helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church. He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11); he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith, and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith…

I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother…

…let us learn, from her [the visible church’s] single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars…

But let us proceed to a full exposition of this view. Paul says that our Saviour ‘ascended far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:10-13). We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose. Isaiah had long before given this as the characteristic of the kingdom of Christ, ‘My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever’ (Isa. 59:21). Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, ‘Faith cometh by hearing’ (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it. With this view, it pleased him in ancient times that sacred meetings should be held in the sanctuary, that consent in faith might be nourished by doctrine proceeding from the lips of the priest. Those magnificent titles, as when the temple is called God’s rest, his sanctuary, his habitation, and when he is said to dwell between the cherubims (Ps 32:13, 14; 80:1), are used for no other purpose than to procure respect, love, reverence, and dignity to the ministry of heavenly doctrine, to which otherwise the appearance of an insignificant human being might be in no slight degree derogatory. Therefore, to teach us that the treasure offered to us in earthen vessels is of inestimable value (2 Cor. 4:7), God himself appears and, as the author of this ordinance, requires his presence to be recognised in his own institution. Accordingly, after forbidding his people to give heed to familiar spirits, wizards, and other superstitions (Lev. 19:30, 31), he adds, that he will give what ought to be sufficient for all—namely, that he will never leave them without prophets. For, as he did not commit his ancient people to angels, but raised up teachers on the earth to perform a truly angelical office, so he is pleased to instruct us in the present day by human means. But as anciently he did not confine himself to the law merely, but added priests as interpreters, from whose lips the people might inquire after his true meaning, so in the present day he would not only have us to be attentive to reading, but has appointed masters to give us their assistance. In this there is a twofold advantage. For, on the one hand, he by an admirable test proves our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as we would to himself; while, on the other hand, he consults our weakness in being pleased to address us after the manner of men by means of interpreters, that he may thus allure us to himself, instead of driving us away by his thunder. How well this familiar mode of teaching is suited to us all the godly are aware, from the dread with which the divine majesty justly inspires them.

Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach, betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares. Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous. But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions. Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by his institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which he so highly recommends. None, even among the most petulant of men, would venture to say, that we are to shut our ears against God, but in all ages prophets and pious teachers have had a difficult contest to maintain with the ungodly, whose perverseness cannot submit to the yoke of being taught by the lips and ministry of men.  This is just the same as if they were to destroy the impress of God as exhibited to us in doctrine. For no other reason were believers anciently enjoined to seek the face of God in the sanctuary (Ps. 105:4) (an injunction so often repeated in the Law), than because the doctrine of the Law, and the exhortations of the prophets, were to them a living image of God. Thus Paul declares, that in his preaching the glory of God shone in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). The more detestable are the apostates who delight in producing schisms in churches, just as if they wished to drive the sheep from the fold, and throw them into the jaws of wolves. Let us hold, agreeably to the passage we quoted from Paul, that the Church can only be edified by external preaching, and that there is no other bond by which the saints can be kept together than by uniting with one consent to observe the order which God has appointed in his Church for learning and making progress.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.i.1, 4, 5

Augustine (354-430) on the Incarnation of Christ


“The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day [set aside] for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly Mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day. The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, the Teacher, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Vine, might be crowned with thorns; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Strength might be weakened; that He who makes well might be wounded; that Life might die. To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil, and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father; He was made Man in the Mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.”

– Augustine (354-430), For the Feast of the Nativity, Sermon 191

Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-455): Would it not be a debasement of redemption in Christ’s blood?

Prosper of Aquitaine


And just as there are no crimes so detestable that they can prevent the gift of grace, so too there can be no works so eminent that they are owed in condign [deserved] judgment that which is given freely. Would it not be a debasement of redemption in Christ’s blood, and would not God’s mercy be made secondary to human works, if justification, which is through grace, were owed in view of preceding merits, so that it were not the gift of a Donor, but the wages of a laborer?”

– Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-455), De vocatione omnium gentium, 1.17

Origen (185-254) on justification by faith



“For God is just, and therefore he could not justify the unjust. Therefore he required the intervention of a propitiator, so that by having faith in Him those who could not be justified by their own works might be justified.”

“A man is justified by faith. The works of the law can make no contribution to this. Where there is no faith which might justify the believer, even if there are works of the law these are not based on the foundation of faith. Even if they are good in themselves they cannot justify the one who does them, because faith is lacking, and faith is the mark of those who are justified by God.”

– Origen (185-254), Commentary on Romans, 2.112; 2.136

Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century) on penal substitutionary atonement: O sweet exchange!



“[W]hen our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!”

– Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century), ix

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-389/390): Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us



“Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us—you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the Prince of the world. Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting; let us give back to the Image what is made after the Image. Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honour our Archetype; let us know the power of the Mystery, and for what Christ died.

Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become God’s for His sake, since He for ours became Man. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich; He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonoured that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the fall of sin.  Let us give all, offer all, to Him Who gave Himself a Ransom and a Reconciliation for us.”

– Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-389/390), Oration I, ch. IV & V

Augustine (354-430) on why God makes sheep of some, and not others



“But wherefore does God make these men sheep, and those not, since with Him there is no acceptance of persons? This is the very question which the blessed apostle thus answers to those who propose it with more curiosity than propriety, “O man, who are you that repliest against God? Does the thing formed say to him that formed it, Wherefore have you made me thus?” (Rom. 9:20). This is the very question which belongs to that depth desiring to look into which the same apostle was in a certain measure terrified, and exclaimed, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counsellor? Or who has first given to Him, that it should be recompensed to Him again? Because of Him, and through Him, and in Him, are all things: to Him be glory for ages of ages.” Let them not, then, dare to pry into that unsearchable question who defend merit before grace, and therefore even against grace, and wish first to give unto God, that it may be given to them again—first, of course, to give something of free will, that grace may be given them again as a reward; and let them wisely understand or faithfully believe that even what they think that they have first given, they have received from Him, from whom are all things, by whom are all things, in whom are all things. But why this man should receive, and that should not receive, when neither of them deserves to receive, and whichever of them receives, receives undeservingly,— let them measure their own strength, and not search into things too strong for them. Let it suffice them to know that there is no unrighteousness with God. For when the apostle could find no merits for which Jacob should take precedence of his twin-brother with God, he said, “What, then, shall we say? Is there unrighteousness with God? Away with the thought! For He says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion. Therefore it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy.” Let, therefore, His free compassion be grateful to us, even although this profound question be still unsolved; which, nevertheless, is so far solved as the same apostle solves it, saying, “But if God, willing to show His wrath, and to demonstrate His power, endured in much patience the vessels of wrath which are fitted to destruction; and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He has prepared for glory” (Rom. 9:22-23). Certainly wrath is not repaid unless it is due, lest there be unrighteousness with God; but mercy, even when it is bestowed, and not due, is not unrighteousness with God. And hence, let the vessels of mercy understand how freely mercy is afforded to them, because to the vessels of wrath with whom they have common cause and measure of perdition, is repaid wrath, righteous and due. This is now enough in opposition to those who, by freedom of will, desire to destroy the liberality of grace.”

– Augustine (354-430), Against Two Letters of the Pelagians (Contra duas epistulas Pelagianorum), IV.16