Friday, January 02, 2009

17 The Institutes: Calvin Calls His King to Mercy and Justice

Letters of dedication in published works are a 16th-century commonplace, though to the modern (post-modern) reader they are perhaps a surprising feature of such old books. It's hard to imagine a writer today attaching a note of the kind that the Puritans did to their works, or even Calvin did to his magnum opus. I suppose part of the reason is that letters like this, today, would be viewed as rather indelicate. Calvin, as others before and after his time, doesn't merely introduce his work, but makes specific comments and applications of his work to his recipient's situation as ruler of France. These comments are not without exhortation - and reading this introductory letter is a breath of fresh air, in addition to being illuminating historically.

In the first two sections of his letter to King Francis I, who was the King of Calvin's developmental years and early adulthood (Francis ruled from 1515-1547, so it is interesting that Calvin kept the letter attached to the 1550 and 1559 editions!), Calvin gives several key insights into the situation at hand in France at the time of his first edition in 1536. He writes,
I perceived that the fury of certain wicked persons has prevailed so far in your realm that there is no place in it for sound doctrine. Consequently, it seemed to me that I should be doing something worth-while if I both gave instruction to them and made confession before you with the same work. From this you may learn the nature of the doctrine against which those madmen burn with rage who today disturb your realm with fire and sword. And indeed I shall not fear to confess that here is contained almost the sum of that very doctrine which they shout must be punished by prison, exile, proscription, and fire, and be exterminated on land and sea. Indeed, I know with what horrible reports they have filled your ears and mind, to render our cause as hateful as possible to you.1 But, as fits your clemency, you ought to weigh the fact that if it is sufficient merely to make accusation, then no innocence will remain either in words or in deeds. (p. 9, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
There had been rumors of evangelical plots against the royal establishment, and the Roman church who were of course dominant at the time; Calvin's purpose he declared to be
solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness. And I undertook this labor especially for our French countrymen, very many of whom I knew to be hungering and thirsting for Christ; but I saw very few who had been duly imbued with even a slight knowledge of him. The book itself witnesses that this was my intention, adapted as it is to a simple and, you may say, elementary form of teaching. (p. 9, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
An "elementary form of teaching" might more easily be a label attached to the early 1536 Institutio to which this letter was first added, but even so in the greatly expanded 1559 edition, the teaching is indeed straightforward. Calvin writes to his king that he desired both the instruction of his countrymen in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, which had been, by the established church, long held away from them. Calvin very well may have applied the words of Isaiah 9:2 to his brothers in the flesh - that they were a people who walked in darkness - and his desire was to shine the bright and saving light of the Gospel upon them, that they might see.

He confesses that the doctrine he brings in the Institutio is that very doctrine held by those accused before Francis of seditious acts... and certainly in Calvin's mind is the desire to free those accused from such false accusations, and to show his king that his teaching is that of the meek and mild Messiah. He speaks too, very directly, against unjust responses to the doctrine which he presents in this work:
It is sheer violence that bloody sentences are meted out against this doctrine without a hearing; it is fraud that it is undeservedly charged with treason and villainy. So that no one may think we are wrongly complaining of these things, you can be our witness, most noble King, with how many lying slanders it is daily traduced in your presence. It is as if this doctrine looked to no other end than to wrest the scepters from the hands of kings, to cast down all courts and judgments, to subvert all orders and civil governments, to disrupt the peace and quiet of the people, to abolish all laws, to scatter all lordships and possessions-in short, to turn everything upside down! And yet you hear only a very small part of the accusation, for dreadful reports are being spread abroad among the people. If these were true, the whole world would rightly judge this doctrine and its authors worthy of a thousand fires and crosses. Who now can wonder that public hatred is aroused against it, when these most wicked accusations are believed? This is why all classes with one accord conspire to condemn us and our doctrine. (p. 10, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
If I recall correctly similar accusations were made against the English translation of the Bible in whose construction Calvin had a hand - the Geneva Bible - because of its marginal notes that called kings and princes to account before God. Sedition! was the cry, simply because Calvin and the other contributors to those marginal notes called rulers to the bar of Scripture and to bow to the supremacy of King Jesus. Politicians today cry the same 'foul' when their ethics are questioned based on God's ethical principles as laid out in the Holy word. Christians today are increasingly being viewed as unfaithful citizens, in part, because of their unwillingness to compromise principle and submit uncritically to leadership of rulers who expect such.

So, seeing his brethren in the faith facing ugly circumstances in Francis's realm, Calvin makes his plea for them in section 2 of his introductory letter. He very bluntly states that the cause of Christ in France is
"a cause completely torn and trampled in your realm today, lying, as it were, utterly forlorn, more through the tyranny of certain Pharisees than with your approval." (p. 11, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
He clearly calls upon Francis to recognize his duty before God, in the face of this trampling down of the truth - with words I can't imagine anyone speaking today to leaders who have allowed the church to be trampled in their lands:
It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very great question is at stake: how God's glory may be kept safe on earth, how God's truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ's Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is this matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God's glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage. Furthermore, he is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God's scepter, that is, his Holy Word; for the heavenly oracle that proclaims that "where prophecy fails the people are scattered" [Prov. 29:18] cannot lie. (p. 11-12, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
He presents clearly the case before the king, and asks for him to consider taking the action that is right before God. This plea is attached, it should be noted, to Calvin's work - He is asking Francis, in light of the situation, to examine the doctrine contained in that work, and to be willing to defend the cause of those slandered and persecuted by the Roman church party. He says with David, "See if there be any evil way in [us]"?
Indeed, our adversaries cry out that we falsely make the Word of God our pretext, and wickedly corrupt it. By reading our confession you can judge according to your prudence not only how malicious a calumny but also what utter effrontery this is....

Yet we must say something here to arouse your zeal and attention, or at least to prepare the way for you to read our confession.

What further? Examine briefly, most mighty King, all the parts of our case, and think us the most wicked of wicked men, unless you clearly find that "we toil and suffer reproach because we have our hope set on the living God" [I Tim. 4:10]; because we believe that "this is eternal life: to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent" [John 17:3 p.]. For the sake of this hope some of us are shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders, and treated in most shameful ways. (p. 12-13, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Also contained in this section of the Prefatory Letter are clear statements of the doctrine of man and of man's duty to submit to God in all things... but for that, another post later on.


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