Did Calvin Advocate Praying To Or For The Dead?

Jonathan Deane

Sometimes one of the most helpful ways to consider why we accept or reject claims of Protestantism or Catholicism is to step outside of the argument. There is so much heat and emotion that covers these issues, that it’s very helpful to go back to the basics and read the earliest debates.

I’ve found this helpful in particular instances: there is the letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X which caused me to raise an eyebrow or two (or three, if that were possible), and there is St. Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which was acclaimed by C.S. Lewis to be a masterpiece in the art of writing dialogues. Recently, another dialogue has caught my attention, that of a letter by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto. I’ve only begun to scratch its surface and would encourage all those who care about this divide to go to such primary sources for inspiration and, as I said, a means to take personal affinities and emotions and place them on the back-burner.

So let’s look at one part of Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadoleto–there’s an eyebrow or two that will be raised, methinks.

Decrying what he thought to be one of the most egregious abuses of Catholics, Calvin states:

As to purgatory, we know that ancient churches made some mention of the dead in their prayers, but it was done seldom and soberly, and consisted only of a few words. It was, in short, a mention in which it was obvious that nothing more was meant than to attest in passing the affection which was felt toward the dead. As yet, the architects were unborn, by whom your purgatory was built; and who afterwards enlarged it to such a width, and raised it to such a height, that it now forms the chief prop of your kingdom. You yourself know what a hydra of errors thence emerged; you know what tricks superstition has at its own hand devised, wherewith to disport itself; you know how many impostures avarice has here fabricated, in order to milk men of every class; you know how great detriment it has done to piety. For, not to mention how much true worship has in consequence decayed, the worst result certainly was, that while all, without any comand from God, were vying with each other in helping the dead, they utterly neglected the congenial offices of charity, which are so strongly enjoined.

Note what Calvin is willing to admit-mentioning the dead in their prayers. His main issue is that in the 16th century, these prayers were not done “seldom and soberly”. The “expansion” of the understanding of the estate of those who have gone on to their eternal rest was decried because it was “abused”.

Which leads to the big question–what would he really defend in terms of prayers to or for the dead? Was this rhetorical sleight of hand, or was he open to a more humble appeal to or on behalf of the faithful departed?

If he wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water, how is he not guilty of committing the error of “abusus no tollit usum” (namely, that the abuse of something does not eradicate its use)?