Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Antidote to John Calvin's Institutes (IV,10:27-32) [Church Laws / Calvinist Ecclesiology / Eucharist "Demoted" / "Clearness" of Scripture]


See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

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Book IV



27. Third part of the chapter, treating of lawful Ecclesiastical arrangements. Their foundation in the general axiom, that all things be done decently and in order. Two extremes to be avoided.

But as very many ignorant persons, on hearing that it is impious to bind the conscience, and vain to worship God with human traditions, apply one blot to all the laws by which the order of the Church is established, it will be proper to obviate their error. Here, indeed, the danger of mistake is great: for it is not easy to see at first sight how widely the two things differ. But I will, in a few words, make the matter so clear, that no one will be imposed upon by the resemblance. First, then, let us understand that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to insure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence.

So far so good. But as we have seen so many times, Calvin can and will start with a good premise, and greatly err in its application, in specifics.

Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgments and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form.

That's precisely why Protestant denominationalism is a recipe for chaos and theological relativism and heterodoxy of various sorts (as indeed has occurred throughout history).

So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds. In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religious obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety.

Let's see how Calvin builds upon this.

28. All Ecclesiastical arrangements to be thus tested. What Paul means by things done decently and in order.

We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish between those impious constitutions (by which, as we have said, true religion is overthrown, and conscience subverted)

The Catholic ones, of course (singularly evil and corrupt) . . . .

and the legitimate observances of the Church,

And of course this is (and could only be) Calvinism: not even Lutheranism, Zwinglianism, Anglicanism, or Anabaptism.

if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended—viz. that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds, as it were, of moderation and humanity. For when a law is understood to have been made for the sake of public decency, there is no room for the superstition into which those fall who measure the worship of God by human inventions. On the other hand, when a law is known to be intended for common use, that false idea of its obligation and necessity, which gives great alarm to the conscience, when traditions are deemed necessary to salvation, is overthrown; since nothing here is sought but the maintenance of charity by a common office. But it may be proper to explain more clearly what is meant by the decency which Paul commends, and also what is comprehended under order. And the object of decency is, partly that by the use of rites, which produce reverence in sacred matters, we may be excited to piety, and partly that the modesty and gravity which ought to be seen in all honourable actions may here especially be conspicuous.

Calvin provides his readers with more unproven assumptions: that Catholic worship is based on "human inventions." The rhetoric sounds fine and dandy; mightily impressive and eloquent, but the content is rarely laid out so that it can be scrutinized by a critic or even a neutral observer.

In order, the first thing is, that those who preside know the law and rule of right government, while those who are governed be accustomed to obedience and right discipline.

And how is this determined? Calvin either invents new laws of his own (if he detests existing Catholic laws), in which case his are merely arbitrary and carry no force of obligation, since they derive from him (and his authority is purely arbitrary and self-proclaimed), and hence, are more "human inventions." Or he appeals to Scripture for his positions (insofar as they are opposed to the Catholic Church), in which case anyone, even by Protestant presuppositions, can easily question whether his interpretation is correct or not, and offer another in its place. Either way, the epistemology is far inferior to traditional Catholicism, which is based on apostolic succession and sticking to previous received precedent and tradition: consistently developed. That was the biblical, apostolic, and patristic worldview.

The second thing is, that by duly arranging the state of the Church, provision be made for peace and tranquillity.

And by what laws do we do this, and by what authority?

29. Nothing decent in the Popish ceremonies. Description of true decency. Examples of Christian decency and order.

We shall not, therefore, give the name of decency to that which only ministers an empty pleasure: such, for example, as is seen in that theatrical display which the Papists exhibit in their public service, where nothing appears but a mask of useless splendour, and luxury without any fruit.

That's right: Catholicism is downright indecent. Who could doubt it?

But we give the name of decency to that which, suited to the reverence of sacred mysteries, forms a fit exercise for piety, or at least gives an ornament adapted to the action, and is not without fruit, but reminds believers of the great modesty, seriousness, and reverence, with which sacred things ought to be treated.

That is, Calvinism again: the restoration of all that is good, noble, decent, prudent, and wise.

Moreover, ceremonies, in order to be exercises of piety, must lead us directly to Christ. In like manner, we shall not make order consist in that nugatory pomp which gives nothing but evanescent splendour, but in that arrangement which removes all confusion, barbarism, contumacy, all turbulence and dissension.

Flowery rhetoric with no content that anyone could critique. This lowers theological discourse to the level of schoolyard "your dad's uglier than mine" taunts.

Of the former class we have examples (1 Cor. 11:5, 21), where Paul says, that profane entertainments must not be intermingled with the sacred Supper of the Lord; that women must not appear in public uncovered. And there are many other things which we have in daily practice, such as praying on our knees, and with our head uncovered, administering the sacraments of the Lord, not sordidly, but with some degree of dignity; employing some degree of solemnity in the burial of our dead, and so forth.

There are faults in human practice in all religions. These are not confined to Catholicism by any means (either then or now). Luther in particular, bemoaned (especially later in his life) how "ungrateful" and carnally-minded Lutherans were, and that they were less pious than even the "papists." So it isn't as if all the Catholics were wicked and unspiritual, and the Calvinists and Lutherans were spiritually pure and in earnest, at exponentially higher rates. That is one of the great big myths of the so-called "Reformation." And we need only go to the leaders of the movement to debunk it. Calvin sounds very confident here, but in private letters he, too, lamented some of the glaring flaws in his movement.

In the other class are the hours set apart for public prayer, sermon, and solemn services; during sermon, quiet and silence, fixed places, singing of hymns, days set apart for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,

Note how Calvin casually assumes that the Holy Eucharist is not to be part of every worship service. This exhibits the anti-sacramental strain of Calvinist thinking. The very center and focus of Christian worship in the Mass: receiving Jesus into our bodies, and the representation of the one sacrifice at Calvary, is removed from its position. Mere preaching is all Calvin can offer to replace the miracle and mystery of the Holy Eucharist and Sacrifice of the Mass. And even when he does celebrate it, Jesus is no longer physically present, so that the age-old Catholic, Christian belief is gutted of its essence and unique power and significance.

the prohibition of Paul against women teaching in the Church, and such like. To the same list especially may be referred those things which preserve discipline, as catechising, ecclesiastical censures, excommunication, fastings, &c. Thus all ecclesiastical constitutions, which we admit to be sacred and salutary, may be reduced to two heads, the one relating to rites and ceremonies, the other to discipline and peace.

Now he mentions fasting in a positive vein, whereas before he denigrated the Catholic prohibition of meat on Fridays. Whatever is Catholic is bad, no matter how many parallels to it may be found in Calvinism. Calvin doesn't even try to be consistent, where Catholicism is concerned.

30. No arrangement decent and orderly, unless founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture. Charity the best guide in these matters.

But as there is here a danger, on the one hand, lest false bishops should thence derive a pretext for their impious and tyrannical laws, and, on the other, lest some, too apt to take alarm, should, from fear of the above evils, leave no place for laws, however holy, it may here be proper to declare, that I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine.

That is: from Scripture, as determined by the interpretation of Calvin. But why should his take be placed above that of the historic Church and hundreds of years of precedent? Who made him God's man of the hour: a man supposedly singularly gifted and knowledgeable in Matters Spiritual? If he is not infallible (as he would surely not claim to be), then a person can differ with his opinion as to what Scripture teaches with regard to proper worship, discipline, etc. Catholics defer to the Catholic Church to determine those things. Protestants defer to Scripture, but this always means in practice: a particular person's or party's interpretation of Scripture.

If they are not specially guided by the Holy Spirit to interpret, then in fact they possess no binding authority. Catholics believe that the true Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and is infallible; therefore, can be trusted to promulgate truth. But Protestants deny the infallibility of the Church. So round and round it goes. Protestant authority and epistemological principles are always self-defeating in the final analysis.

Let us take, for example, the bending of the knee which is made in public prayer. It is asked, whether this is a human tradition, which any one is at liberty to repudiate or neglect? I say, that it is human, and that at the same time it is divine. It is of God, inasmuch as it is a part of that decency, the care and observance of which is recommended by the apostle; and it is of men, inasmuch as it specially determines what was indicated in general, rather than expounded. From this one example, we may judge what is to be thought of the whole class—viz. that the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard.

And of course, Protestants disagreed then, and have always disagreed on the "sacred oracles" where teaching is "clearly unfolded." This is one of their prime difficulties. Luther believed in the Real, Physical Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Many of the early Anglicans concurred. But Calvin and Bucer and Bullinger held to a "mystical presence" only (and even Luther's successor Melanchthon later inclined to that view). Zwingli and the Anabaptists held to a purely symbolic Eucharist. If Scripture is so "clear" on the matter, from whence derives this disagreement and confusion? And how does one decide which view is the "clear" view of Scripture. We decide because "Calvin (or Luther, etc.) says so? That is hardly compelling. Then we immediately ask, "why should we believe that he is right, over against all the others?"

But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency.

And thus the Catholic Church introduced various laws and rites. But Calvin detests those, because (in the end) they are "Catholic." He rarely gives reasons why he is so hostile to Catholic worship and piety. And on the infrequent occasion when he does graciously provide some of those, it is easy for any educated Catholic to expose the fallacies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations rampant in them (as I believe I have been doing throughout this treatment).

Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.

In other words, when Calvinists change things in some fashion, it is on the basis of these wise fundamental principles, and is wise and good and beneficial. But when Catholics do it, it is invariably because of impiety, "human invention," and a desire to torture and enslave the conscience of the masses (i.e., altogether unsavory motivations). The only difference is that it is Catholics who do the things that are supposedly (singularly and almost without exception), abominable.

31. Constitutions thus framed not to be neglected or despised.

Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy. You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognise in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman’s bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbour that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered.

This rule has obviously gone out the window in Calvinist circles: women must wear bonnets at all times, save for emergency situations? We see it still observed among some Mennonites and Amish (and Muslims), but not mainstream Calvinists.

And there are some occasions on which it is not less seasonable for her to speak than on others to be silent. Nothing, moreover, forbids him who, from disease, cannot bend his knees, to pray standing. In fine, it is better to bury a dead man quickly, than from want of grave-clothes, or the absence of those who should attend the funeral, to wait till it rot away unburied.

All rules have exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Jesus made that clear, in talking about rescuing a lost sheep on the Sabbath, and other similar examples.

Nevertheless, in those matters the custom and institutions of the country, in short, humanity and the rules of modesty itself, declare what is to be done or avoided.

Yet the Catholic Church is seemingly not allowed by Calvin to employ any such rules and regulations. That is all legalism and dead tradition, with the worst motivation, whereas Calvin's advice is Pure Wisdom through and through.

Here, if any error is committed through imprudence or forgetfulness, no crime is perpetrated; but if this is done from contempt, such contumacy must be disapproved.

This is somewhat like the Catholic distinction between sins which are culpable and mortal and those which are not, based on a lack of knowledge or deliberate intention, or the distinctions of levels or degrees of crime in civil law.

In like manner, it is of no consequence what the days and hours are, what the nature of the edifices, and what psalms are sung on each day. But it is proper that there should be certain days and stated hours, and a place fit for receiving all, if any regard is had to the preservation of peace.

Thus, the notion of "Holy Days" appears to be retained in some fashion. Many Protestants today would hold, to the contrary, that every day is exactly alike.

For what a seed-bed of quarrels will confusion in such matters be, if every one is allowed at pleasure to alter what pertains to common order?

That is, if the Protestant principle of private judgment, supremacy of conscience, and non-infallibility of church bodies is taken to its logical conclusion . . .

All will not be satisfied with the same course if matters, placed as it were on debateable ground, are left to the determination of individuals.

But the Protestant principle does precisely that. Every Protestant must ultimately make up his own mind who to follow, failing an infallible Church of impeccable, unassailable authority.

But if any one here becomes clamorous, and would be wiser than he ought, let him consider how he will approve his moroseness to the Lord. Paul’s answer ought to satisfy us, “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”

Then Calvin's wishes are at odds -- indeed at war with -- with his epistemology and ecclesiology. This is one of the tragedies of the so-called "Reformation": none of its leaders seem to have ever recognized this fatal flaw that runs right through the center of it. All we can do is keep pointing it out.

32. Cautions to be observed in regard to such constitutions.

Moreover, we must use the utmost diligence to prevent any error from creeping in which may either taint or sully this pure use.

That's right! And who determines what is "error"? Well, the Calvinist "church." And is this authority binding? Calvin says it is, yet it is not infallible; thus it is entirely possible and permissible within the system for every individual Calvinist to possibly dissent if his conscience demands it. The Calvinist appeals to the Bible. But so does the Lutheran and Anabaptist and Zwinglian, and Anglican, and they could never come to total agreement with each other. How is one to arrive at a definite attainment of spiritual, theological truth, with this relativistic chaos in Protestantism (far worse today, with many more sects, and liberalism and other confusing forces in play)?

In this we shall succeed, if whatever observances we use are manifestly useful, and very few in number; especially if to this is added the teaching of a faithful pastor, which may prevent access to erroneous opinions. The effect of this procedure is, that in all these matters each retains his freedom, and yet at the same time voluntarily subjects it to a kind of necessity, in so far as the decency of which we have spoken or charity demands.

And this is a clear self-contradiction. Why is it that Calvin doesn't see that? I submit that in the end, Calvin doesn't care whether his viewpoint is self-consistent or not, as long as it is consistently not Catholic. Anti-Catholicism is the leading motivator and the principle that is present all through the system. Self-consistent reasoning is certainly not the guiding factor.

Next, that in the observance of these things we may not fall into any superstition,

That evil, wicked Catholic stuff . . .

nor rigidly require too much from others, let us not imagine that the worship of God is improved by a multitude of ceremonies: let not church despise church because of a difference in external discipline. Lastly, instead of here laying down any perpetual law for ourselves, let us refer the whole end and use of observances to the edification of the Church, at whose request let us without offence allow not only something to be changed, but even observances which were formerly in use to be inverted.

A clever way of sneaking in the notion of revolution and revolt against received Christian precedent . . . "Change" and "invention" are thus very much in the eye of the beholder.

For the present age is a proof that the nature of times allows that certain rites, not otherwise impious or unbecoming, may be abrogated according to circumstances.

Except when Catholics try to do it.

Such was the ignorance and blindness of former times; with such erroneous ideas and pertinacious zeal did churches formerly cling to ceremonies, that they can scarcely be purified from monstrous superstitions without the removal of many ceremonies which were formerly established, not without cause, and which in themselves are not chargeable with any impiety.

Ah, the anti-Catholicism is now fully manifest; as usual without specifics, particulars, or rational arguments against same. It is always best to be propagandistically vague. Particulars are too messy and take too much work, and they are counter-productive to the anti-Catholic purpose of the negative descriptions. The goal is to taint and demonize the opposing party, and this is best done by repeated slogans and unproven, sweeping, colorful denigrations.


Paul Hoffer said...

Dave, you are doing a good job demonstrating just how bad of a lawyer Calvin was. Almost every statement he makes is conclusory-- no facts, no evidence--just lots and lots of posturing and argumentation.

I am enjoying this series!

God bless!

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks! I can't say I am enjoying writing it much anymore, as I encounter these glaring shortcomings in Calvin over and over. Now only my determination to finish the project keeps me going. I'm just about halfway through. Pray for my patience! :-)

I must say that I definitely enjoy reading Luther more. He is silly and fallacious over and over as well, but at least he is not nearly as pretentious, and his writing at least possesses a warmth and humanness wholly absent from Calvin.

If I could theoretically meet both men, I think I would actually get along with Luther, whereas I can't even imagine what it would be like with Calvin (I imagine, judging from his writings) that he would be snobbish, stand-offish, cold, and condescending).

No doubt this will be seen by Protestant as my own Catholic or "anti-Calvinist" prejudice, and perhaps it is to some extent, but hey, I'm simply giving my impressions, having read now one-eighth of the Institutes, with my own feeble attempt to counter it.

Adomnan said...

I'm enjoying the series, too, curious to see if Calvin will ever make a substantive point.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to discover how much generality and vapidity there is in the Institutes. Calvin seldom stoops to the specificity of an example. He's all cant and bluster.

Bishop Bossuet called his style "triste;" that is, sad.

Ben M said...

Almost every statement he [Calvin] makes is conclusory-- no facts, no evidence--just lots and lots of posturing and argumentation.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to discover how much generality and vapidity there is in the Institutes. Calvin seldom stoops to the specificity of an example. He's all cant and bluster.

Now fellas, just where do y’all get such notions? ;)

“I declare that I am not at war with the ancient fathers – only with Pighius and those like him, whether dogs or pigs, who some of the time befoul the sacred saving truth of God with their vile, filthy snouts, and at other times trample it underfoot or tear it with poisonous teeth or pursue it with their barking.”

- John Calvin

John Calvin: student of the church fathers, Anthony N. S. Lane, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999, ISBN 0567086941 ISBN 9780567086945, p. 180

Man, are those Reformer just too much or what?! LOL!

Adomnan said...

Calvin based that bit of polemic on Jesus's statement "cast not pearls before swine nor give what is holy to dogs, etc."

But Jesus said it so much better. Calvin trampled Jesus's pearls.

Nothing was holy for Calvin but his own sacrosanct opinions. The only "sacred things" he tolerates in his Reformed services are his preachments occasionally supplemented by a few empty "symbolic" rites.

Ben M said...


Nothing was holy for Calvin but his own sacrosanct opinions.

How very right you are!

Same, of course, goes for Luther who, never one to be outdone in most things peculiar, accordingly, tops the goofiness of Calvin's statement with this masterpiece!

“The female body is not strong – it cannot bear arms, etc.– and the spirit is even weaker; according to the normal course of events, it follows [that] if only the Lord had joined together defiance or gentleness, woman is half-child. Let everyone who takes a wife know that he is the guardian of a child. … She is thus a wild animal; you recognize her weakness of mind.” 92

Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany, 1995, Joel Francis Harrington, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521464838 ISBN978-0521464833, p. 72.

92. “Predigt am 2 Sonntag nach Ephiphanias” “Sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany,” on 1 Pet. 3:7 (1524), WA 15:419-20.

WA = D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, published at Weimar 1888 f.
(See Wikipedia: List of books by Martin Luther)

Again, LOL!


“Believe me, my brethren, the measure of our love for the Church is the measure also of the Holy Ghost's presence in our souls.”

St. Augustine, Tract. 32 [8] in Joan.

Love for holy Church, M. L’AbbĂ© Petit, Eward Caswall, tr., London, Richardson and Son, 1862, p. 230.

Alternate translation:

8. “Let us believe, brethren; as much as every man loves the Church of Christ, so much has he the Holy Ghost.”
Tractate 32 (John 7:37-39)