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In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin accuses his scholastic opponents of considering the commandment "Love your enemies" to be optional. Specifically, he says that they call it an evangelical counsel, to be kept by monastics but not Christians in general.

The scholastic doctors made simple "counsels" of the commandments in which our Lord told us not to seek revenge and to love your enemies; they say one is free to obey these counsels or not. They have said that it is only monks who are obliged of necessity to keep them - monks to whom they have ascribed a more perfect righteousness than to other Christians - because monks are obligated to keep the "evangelical counsels", as they call them. 1

Similar language had appeared in the Augsburg Confession (1530), article XXVII.54:

They hear that it is an evangelical counsel not to seek revenge; therefore some in private life are not afraid to take revenge, for they hear that it is but a counsel, and not a commandment.

Audit consilium Evangelicum esse de non vindicando: ideo alii in privata vita non verentur ulcisci, audiunt enim consilium esse, non præceptum.

I thought that the evangelical counsels were limited to chastity, poverty and obedience. This is certainly the case today, according to Canons 598-601 of the Code of Canon Law.

While the whole topic of "precept vs. counsel", or supererogation, has been a divisive topic, I am curious about the specific example, rather than whether it's a valid distinction at all.

  • Was there a contemporary group of scholastics that taught this, or were Calvin and the others simply incorrect about Catholic doctrine?
  • If they were wrong, did anybody point that out at the time?


1 This is from the 1541 French edition, translated by Elsie Anne McKee (Eerdmans, 2009), in chapter 3, "On the law", p161. In the 1599 Latin edition, the corresponding text is in Book II, Chapter 8, paragraph 56; the Latin uses just consilia instead of consilia evangelica.

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Calvin is right, in a sense: certain types of vengeance are allowed by the Roman Catholic Church, and have been since at least the time of St. Thomas Acquinas. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Anger is a desire for revenge. "To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit," but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution "to correct vices and maintain justice."95 If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin. The Lord says, "Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment."96

Which references the Summa:

It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice; and to this the sensitive appetite can tend, in so far as it is moved thereto by the reason: and when revenge is taken in accordance with the order of judgment, it is God's work, since he who has power to punish "is God's minister," as stated in Romans 13:4.

It's not that "love your enemies" in the broad sense is an evangelical counsel, but that vengeance done to correct a wrong is a Good Thing, whereas vengeance out of anger is absolutely wrong. As I understand it, when Calvin refers to the scholastics (I've seen it translated as the dismissive "schoolmen") in the Institutes, he's referring to people like St. Thomas (and others, like Duns Scotus).

But it's also important to take the Augsburg Confession in context: the part you quote from it is an expansion of the premise of the article, which starts a little bit before:

Furthermore, the precepts of God and the true service of God are obscured when men hear that only monks are in a state of perfection.

The charge isn't so much that love your neighbors is an evangelical counsel, but that only monks can ever do right by God, so regular men don't even bother because it's pointless. The issue of "love your enemies" is just one thing mentioned that normal men don't even bother to do because they believe only the perfect monks can do it.

This charge was refuted in 1530 by the Confutatio Pontificia, which stated:

Moreover, the malicious charge that is still further added, that those in religious orders claim to be in a state of perfection, has never been heard of by them; for those in these orders claim not for themselves a state of perfection, but only a state in which to acquire perfection - because their regulations are instruments of perfection, and not perfection itself.

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