In the 1559 edition of Calvin's Institutes, he writes:

Quare dum illam recipit, ac suffragio suo obsignat, non ex dubia aut alioqui controversa authenticam reddit

Ford L. Battles renders it this way:

Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial.

The English word suffrage appears to come from this word, suffragio, so I wonder why Battles does not incorporate an idea of voting into his translation.

Is it possible or likely, contra Battles, that Calvin means or implies that a "consensus" or "vote" within the church is associated with approval of the Scriptures?

Or is it safe to say that he means the church, as a single entity, simple approves them, with no implication of voting?

3 Answers 3


Note, in your Etymonline citation, that the word originally came into English with the meaning of "intercessory plea or prayer", rather than "vote"; that meaning wasn't established in English until the early 16th century.

The Catholic prayer known as the Memorare contains suffragium as well:

Memorare, O piissima Virgo Maria,
non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam...
tua petentem suffragia, esse derelictum.

The traditional English translation of this is

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone
who ... sought thy intercession was left unaided.

It appears that this prayer, popularized in the 16th century, was drawn from a longer one dating back to the 15th; and thus that "intercession" or "support" was an accepted meaning at the time.

With that in mind, I might translate the beginning of the passage as

Therefore, while the Church receives it, and seals it with its support ...

I don't see any necessary connection of the Medieval Latin suffragium with "voting", although the classical/postclassical Latin word certainly seems to have had that implication.

  • I'm not sure I follow the last paragraph. If 'support' can't be connected in sense to 'vote', what else possibly could?
    – jon
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 5:47

I don't know about that late a period, but the two dictionaries available on Perseus project give this as one definition for suffragium:

B. In gen., a decision, judgment, opinion: “rhetor suffragio tuo et compotorum tuorum,” Cic. Phil. 2, 17, 42: “(apes) concorde suffragio deterrimos (reges) necant,” Plin. 11, 16, 16, § 51.—

  1. In partic., a favorable decision, assent, approbation, applause (post-Aug.): “ventosae plebis suffragia,” Hor. Ep. 1, 19, 37; 2, 2, 103: “voto et suffragio prosequor,” Plin. Ep. 10, 18, 1; Dig. 24, 1, 24 al.: “Dentatus vel numerosissima suffragia habet,” i.e. very many authors who award to him the palm of bravery, Plin. 7, 28, 29, § 101.

So, the sense of suffragio here is "by its favorable judgement," which is made more idiomatic into English as "seal of approval."

  • Thanks, +1. But what makes you think that that's the usage in mind here? Is there some reason for excluding your source's first meaning? Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 16:56
  • 1
    That seems like an appropriate meaning based on the theological context - the Catholic church, when it agrees to something in its dogma, does not consider it to be a "vote," one equal voice among many, it is making a judgement or decision. Given that Calvin is objecting to (what he perceives) as the Catholic church making arbitrary declarations unrelated to scripture, this seems to match the sense that Calvin is objecting to. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:14

A great resource, if you can get a copy, for medieval Latin is J. F. Niermeyer's Mediae latinitatis lexicon minor (Leiden: Brill, 1976). There are other post-classical dictionaries, but this is a great single-volume supplement to Lewis & Short (the OLD is great, but mainly great for classicists / classical texts).

Anyway, here's the entry for suffragium. Note that each entry contains a French and then English translation. I'm including the French in parentheses where I think it adds some help about the intended meaning:

suffragium: 1. aid, support, succour. 2. incitement. 3. laying down (confirmation, fixation). 4. maintenance. 5. resource. 6. tribute. 7. intercession by a saint with God. 8. prayer said on the basis of a prayer community. 9. church province.

The first meaning clearly makes the most sense in the passage averted to. But remember that the definitions found in a resource like Niermeyer add to existing meanings (found in other dictionaries); it doesn't eradicate them.


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