Monday, January 05, 2009

2 The Institutes: Custom, Pomp and Glory vs the True Church

In his prefatory address to King Francis I, Calvin takes up two additional complaints of the oppressors of Reformational ideas - the assertion that 'custom' must be followed, and that the Roman church, by its mere existence as an organized body cannot have erred given its glorious outward appearance.

The first of these he dispenses with swiftly, appealing to the common sense argument that a custom, if evil, mustn't be followed, period.
Even in their appeal to "custom" they accomplish nothing. To constrain us to yield to custom would be to treat us most unjustly. Indeed, if men's judgments were right, custom should have been sought of good men. But it often happens far otherwise: what is seen being done by the many soon obtains the force of custom; while the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority. Therefore, the private vices of the many have often caused public error, or rather a general agreement on vices, which these good men now want to make law. Those with eyes can perceive it is not one sea of evils that has flooded the earth, but many dangerous plagues have invaded it, and everything is rushing headlong. (p. 23, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Further, he lays down the hammer:
Even though the whole world may conspire in the same wickedness, he has taught us by experience what is the end of those who sin with the multitude. This he did when he destroyed all mankind by the Flood, but kept Noah with his little family; and Noah by his faith, the faith of one man, condemned the whole world [Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7]. To sum up, evil custom is nothing but a kind of public pestilence in which men do not perish the less though they fall with the multitude. (p. 23, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
It's as though the Roman authorities condemned Calvin and his brethren the Reformers because they refused to go along with the rest of the gang... Since the practices of the church had become so corrupted for so long, Calvin surely appeared to be bringing novel ideas to the fore (as he argued in the previous sections) but in fact, he was drawing people back to an older teaching - the sound doctrine which provides the only safe mooring for church practice and theological discussion.

The next objection is related - that the church, visible in all its pomp and grandeur, must clearly be in the right... that God would never let his church disappear entirely. What Rome forgot in this was that might doesn't make right - and that indeed, God did NOT allow his church to disappear entirely. They forgot of the Biblical doctrine of the remnant - wherein pure practice and doctrine were maintained, even if it was only by a very few. The majority CAN be wrong - and at this point in time, Calvin's day, IT WAS. Calvin writes,
Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments. (p. 24-5, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
The simplicity of this standard for the church is most alarming if your perspective is that God's Kingdom on earth must be full of glorious images, gold, beautiful vestments and ceremony. The refinement of church practice to the simple preaching of the Word of God, the singing of Psalms, and the prayers of the congregation far outstrips the vacuous Roman church despite its outward trappings of glory. Their objection along these lines was quite vehement - but again, they forgot the Word of God. Calvin argues,
They rage if the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left [I Kings 19:10, or 14]? How long after Christ's coming was it hidden without form? How often has it since that time been so oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies that it did not shine forth at all? If they had lived at that time, would they have believed that any church existed? But Elijah heard that there still remained seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee before Baal. And we must not doubt that Christ has reigned on earth ever since he ascended into heaven. But if believers had then required some visible form, would they not have straightway lost courage?(p. 25, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin's antagonists are confusing the outward forms for the true church - and have utterly abandoned Scripture's teaching of its true nature. They have repeated the errors of many in the Scriptural record, and even today continue these poor arguments... that the earthly glory of Rome speaks to its being God's church on earth. How far falls the one who leaves the Scriptures in the dust.


David Porter said...

I happened across your blog during a Google search. You are quite the mystery person.

Enjoyed your blog, nonetheless, and have you in my Google Reader.

I am also following along in Princeton's version, of Calvin's Institutes.

Todd said...

Mystery person? Well, I probably have no need to be such, since somehow regardless of my avoiding it, when you search on Google, you get my blog ;)

So the mystery will be a little less, not too far off from now :)


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