Category Archives: Marcus Aurelius

There was a dream that was Rome

Book 4 Chapter 7 Section 1-30

In a touching scene in the film Gladiator the aging Marcus Aurelius tries to convince the impressive and loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius to take up his challenge to reform Rome as the new emperor. Marcus Aurelius wistfully reminisces: “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile”. But, Maximus cannot be convinced and the emperor’s hopes of reformation vanish. However, Rome would still dominate the world for the next 300 years, during which time a new power would emerge in Rome from amongst the followers of Christ. 

In this chapter Calvin traces the ancient accounts of how the Rome came to dominate all other churches of the West. Although he has briefly touched on some of the main themes in the previous chapter (see Chapter 6), it is here that Calvin deals in detail with the validity, or not, of the various claims of the Roman Papacy. It is a chapter rich in church history and Calvin demonstrates his strength in navigating these ancient times to understand the reason for the rise of Rome.

In what is quite a complex chapter that covers a great deal of early church history, I would suggest there are four main pillars upon which a case for the supremacy of Rome was built.

1. Claim of apostolic foundation & succession
This is a common theme throughout these chapters on the 16th century Catholic church and was dealt with in more detail a previous chapter. Although there seems to be no textual evidence, either in the New Testament or beyond to support the claim, Calvin admits tradition has it that Peter founded a church in Rome. Upon this uncertain event is weaved a web of dubious biblical interpretation that establishes Peter as the de facto leader of the apostles.

Whether this was the case or not, it certainly does not follow that the church which Peter founded must be superior to any other church founded by the other apostles. Finally, even if it was superior to the other churches in the first century, any invested authority was dependent on the purity and faithfulness of the church – a fact that would have disqualified Rome many years before the Reformation, despite their technical claim to have an unbroken line of succession of bishops from Peter to the Pope.

2. Growing influence in the Councils.
Once Christianity became a legal religion in the 4th century, the early church fathers began meeting at General Councils to defend the orthodox faith from certain heresies. Thus, beginning with the Council of Nice, Calvin observes how Rome came to dominate these General Councils. While initially there were no single leaders, by the time of the Chalcedon Council, the Roman Pontiff holds the first place “not because it is due his See, but because the council was in want of a grave and fit moderator.”

Subsequent councils tended to have the host bishops presiding over affairs, for example Mennas at Constantinople and Aurelius at Carthage. There was even an occasion when a universal council was held in Milan with no Roman bishop present. Indeed, there was a strong feeling amongst the bishops that “none should be called chief of the priests, or first bishop.” So for the first few hundred years of the early church, there was no ruling bishop amongst the patriarchs, despite attempts by Rome to the contrary.

3. Growing ecclesiastical power.
According to “Calvin ecclesiastical power can be reduced to four heads: 1) ordination of bishops, 2) calling of councils, 3) hearing of appeals (jurisdiction), 4) inflicting monitory chastisements or censures”. For ordination it was the practise of Italian bishops to be ordained in Rome, with other countries’ bishops ordained at their choice of location.

Regarding the calling of councils each metropolitan area could call a provincial synod, while only the Emperor could call a universal, general council. Appeals were initially held locally, and chastisements were mutual. If this was the situation for the first few hundred years, gradually the centrifugal force of Rome began to centralise these rights to them alone, or at least they would have the final word on an issue. In many respects this was due to our final factor:

4. Centre of the Roman Empire
With the official acceptance of Christianity as a valid religion in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), the way was set for an international power struggle that would last the next several hundred years. Given its place at the heart of the Roman empire, the Roman church was in a strong position to take supremacy, even without the claims to apostolic authority. Thus it proved. The church at the centre of the most important city in the world, eventually became recognised as being first among equals. What at first was offered voluntarily to Rome by its fellow churches in turbulent time, slowly became enshrined as their duty. 

This eventually led to a bitter power struggle between Rome and Constantinople when this latter city became the new seat of the Empire in 337 AD. For all the undercurrents that had led to the Roman church’s prominence as the head of the church, were now pushing in the other direction, in favour of Constantinople. Thus, with the empire moving on, Rome’s claim to apostolic authority became even more vital.


I have never been to Rome but it is one of the few European cities that I really want to see. Although its glory has faded, movies such as Gladiator are able to bring it vividly to life. Arriving in Rome from the provincial cities must have been a truly overwhelming experience for a 4th century bishop. The crowds, the buildings, the wealth, the glory of the city must have been a site to behold. Despite its fall from its past glory, the tremours of its power are still felt today in our everyday language: “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “all roads lead to Rome”, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and other sayings are repeated today in other contexts.

This chapter has demonstrated to me how strong the traditions of man can become if left unchecked. For the reasons described above Rome managed to solidify practises that were initially put into place partly voluntarily, to a point at which its authority was universal in the western church. To have such power and with so little true biblical authority is a lesson to us all in how quickly men can corrupt organisational structures. While God intended us to have freedom in the form of church governance and practise, our forefathers instead chose the traditions of man. How careful we must be in subscribing too much authority to man-made institutions, for the final day will reveal whether their power was derived from God or from man.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Matthew 23.10

Father, we rightly ascribe to you alone the authority to first place in the church. You alone are our Teacher, Master and Father. No earthly person or institution should come between us and you, for we are your children, the sheep of your pasture. Restore to your church the complete and pure dependance on your will in all things. For your glory, Amen

Our wilful, joyful, costly submission

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 16.54.36Book 3 Chapter 8 Section 1-11

In this second chapter on self-denial, Calvin focuses our thoughts on what it means to “bear the cross”. He begins by stating that our example and model in this should come from our Lord, who, despite being the most beloved Son and completely sinless, was subjected to a “perpetual cross” while on earth. The only reason He carried His cross was “to testify and prove his obedience to the Father.” On the contrary, there are many reasons which make it necessary for us to bear our cross:

  • To reveal our false confidence in the flesh – because we estimate our virtue above its proper worth
  • To prove to us our great weakness and frailty – thus teaching us true humility
  • To learn to invoke His strength – teaching us to daily rely on the grace of God, not our own strength
  • To try our patience and train us in obedience – that we might “display striking proofs of the graces” He has given us to withstand such trials
  • To prevent us from becoming corrupted by His indulgence – and so not become like the children of Israel who kicked against the father who reared them (Deut 32.15)
  • To correct our past faults – treating us as children who are rightly disciplined (Heb 12.8)
  • To suffer for the sake of righteousness – which is singled out as being particularly glorifying to God (Mat 5.10).

Calvin goes on to say that without trials there would be no such thing as patience. For patience only grows in adversity, never peace. God would have us display the glory of the gifts He has given us, that His grace and power may be demonstrated to the world. As Calvin says “But if God Himself, to prevent the virtues which He has conferred upon believers from lurking in obscurity, nay lying useless and perishing, does aright in supplying materials (i.e. trials!) for calling them forth, there is the best reason for the afflictions of the saints, since without them their patience could not exist.”

However, knowing that there are so many good reasons to undergo trials does not mean that believers possess a “total insensibility to pain” as if there feelings were desensitised. Our goal is not to be like the Stoics who aim to be so divested of humanity that nothing in life can affect them – treating adversity and prosperity, grief and joy all the same as if they were a stone. Even Christ himself experienced grief and “shed tears for his own and others’ woes.” We are caught between wanting to obey God and trying to avoid suffering. We by nature recoil from trials, but knowing that this is often the path we must take to obey our Father we press on, not knowing what lies ahead.


With so many good reasons for undergoing trials and tribulation its a wonder that we complain so much when we go through them! Seriously though, how hard it is for us to hold on to these truths in the midst of our sufferings. Most of the time it is only when looking back, often after many years, that we can see any positives from our ordeals. And yet Calvin reminds us that is in the midst of these trials, when they are at their fiercest, that we are virtue shines the brightest. Our patience, thankfulness and graciousness at the time of testing glorifies God and demonstrates to the world the reality of our faith.

Some trials are common to believer and unbeliever – for example disease, bereavement, redundancy and natural disasters. In addition when the believer takes a stand for his Lord he will often face persecution. In all these things, whether they come to us because we are believers or because we are living on a broken planet, we can view them all as the cross that we must bear. They can all be redeemed by embracing them for the sake of Christ. This is where the difference comes – not in the nature of the trials themselves, but in our offering of ourselves willing to God to bear them for His pleasure.

“Everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3.12

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?

In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.

Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.

Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.


The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.

We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.

The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34

Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.