Calvin Confronts Caroli’s Calumny: The 1537 Trinitarian Controversy and its Ecclesiastical and Theological Significance

John Calvin


In 1537 a Roman Catholic priest and professor, Peter Caroli, who himself had left the Roman Church multiple times to support the Protestant cause only to return again each time to Rome, accused John Calvin and the Protestant Reformers of trinitarian heresy. Caroli’s main arguments were based upon the Reformers’ unwillingness to subscribe to the ancient creeds of the church and their refusal to use extra-biblical terminology such as “trinity” in their teaching. Calvin disputes Caroli over a protracted year of five disputations and synods, strongly condemning the Caroli’s calumny.

The 1537 Caroli affair is a significant event in Calvin’s life and in the historical development of the Reformers’ doctrine of the Trinity. On the former, although Calvin easily won the disputes, his ad hominem tactics and apparent (though not substantial) disdain for traditional trinitarian formulations caused public distrust, a sentiment which eventually led to his expulsion from Geneva the following year

On the latter, Calvin successfully upheld the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura against Caroli’s contemptuous attempt to subvert the Reformation by means of demanding submission to church tradition. Furthermore, these disputes provided impetus for the Reformers to clarify their exegetical basis for the Trinity and their qualified rejection of patristic and scholastic trinitarian formulations, a clarification necessary for the Reformers’ subsequent disputes with growing antitrinitarian movements. Calvin’s confrontation with Caroli, therefore, reveals Calvin not as one who rejects trinitarian orthodoxy, but rather as one who rejects ecclesiastical tyranny.

Viewed as an event in the organic historical development of the Reformed doctrine of the Trinity, the 1537 Caroli affair emerges as a transition event from what Richard Muller describes as the “earlier” and “later” stages in the dogmatic development. Such an organic perspective allows us to avoid Caroli’s error on the one hand and uncritical hagiography on the other.

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Annotated Bibliography

The following is a partial list of works I found helpful for researching this topic. See the “Works Cited” page for a complete listing.

The Theology of John Calvin - by Karl Barth

Barth’s lectures on the life of Calvin contain a lengthy section on the Caroli affair in which Barth details each of the five disputations and synods and evaluates the significance of the 1537 events.

1536 Edition - by John Calvin

Calvin published this original version of his Institutes the year before Peter Caroli accused Calvin of trinitarian heresy. Muller cites this volume to demonstrate that Calvin’s trinitarian orthodoxy was never in question. Barth notes that it is interesting that Calvin never referred to this work in his debates, a fact which may indicate the “politics” of Calvin’s solidarity with Farel and the reformers being more in view rather than Calvin’s own trinitarian teaching.

Institutes of the Christian Religion - by John Calvin

The later editions of the Institutes reflect Calvin’s trinitarian disputes, perhaps even with Caroli. Note Calvin’s dealing with the issue of whether or not it is proper to use technical terms such as “trinity,” etc.

Essays and Analysis (Hardcover)

Douglas Kelly has a great article on Calvin’s trinitarian theology in this collection of essays: “The True and Triune God: Calvin’s Doctrine of the Holy Trinity.”

Four Volumes (Hardcover)

Volume 4 of Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics argues for a two-age development of the Reformed doctrine of the Holy Trinity and provides a summary of the characterics of both ages. When thinking through the Caroli debates, it is important to know, for example, that it was characteristic of the Reformed to resist extra-biblical terms such as “trinity” prior to 1540. (As is noted in the paper, Barth notes that one of the results of the 1537 synods is that Calvin is forced by the synod to use the term “trinity” in his teachings.) Muller provides evidence from Calvin’s own teachings that Calvin’s trinitarian orthodoxy was never in doubt and a offers a most useful organic historical perspective within which to view the events of 1537.

The History of Christian Doctrines - by Louis Berkhof

Though not mentioned in the paper, Berkhof defends Calvin’s orthodox view of the eternal generation of the Son:

It is sometimes said that Calvin denied the eternal generation of the Son. This assertion is based on the following passage: “For what is the profit of disputing whether the Father always generates, seeing that it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of generating when it is evident that three persons have subsisted in one God from eternity.” Institutes I. 13, 29. But this statement can hardly be intended as a denial of the eternal generation of the Son, since he teaches this explicitly in other passages. It is more liekly that it is simply an expression of disagreement with the Nicene speculation about eternal generation as a perpetual movement, always complete, and yet never completed. (Quoted from Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines, 95-96.)

Concise Reformed Dogmatics (Hardcover) - by J. Van Genderen and W. H. Velema Also not mentioned in the paper, Velema and van Genderen refer to Calvin’s orthodox views regarding the ancient symbols and Christ’s eternal generation:

As for the councils of Nicea (325) through Chalcedon (451), Calvin said that he regarded them as holy insofar as they conerned the doctrines (dogmata) of the faith. When someone brings the church into confusion with his teaching and it looks as though serious discord will ensue, the churches must convene and make a pronouncement that is derived from Scripture (definitio ex Scriptura sumpta). Thus the Council of Nicea upheld the eternal divinity of Christ over against Arius (Institutes, 4.9.8, 13). (Quoted from van Genderen and Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics, 2.)

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2 thoughts on “Calvin Confronts Caroli’s Calumny: The 1537 Trinitarian Controversy and its Ecclesiastical and Theological Significance

  1. I always meant to tell you that I read this and found it fascinating. It was all new to me and gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Thanks, Scott. If you want to dig into it, Barth’s account was the most detailed and most useful that I’ve found so far on the Caroli controversy specifically. And Muller was really helpful for getting a feel for the early development of how Reformed thinkers have reacted to the ancient creeds.

    Grace and peace to you.

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