Saturday, January 03, 2009

0 The Institutes: Responding to Complaints against Reformed Doctrines by French Romanists

One of the primary objections the Roman Church had to both Luther and Calvin was the charge of novelty - that the doctrines they promoted were of new construction, were uncertain or doubtful, and ran contrary to their conceptions of what was acceptable by custom and tradition. Calvin dispenses rather skillfully with these objections in sections 3 and 4 of the Prefatory Address to King Francis affixed to the Institutes.

Calvin writes,
Despite this, they do not cease to assail our doctrine and to reproach and defame it with names that render it hated or suspect. They call it "new" and "of recent birth." They reproach it as "doubtful and uncertain." They ask what miracles have confirmed it. They inquire whether it is right for it to prevail against the agreement of so many holy fathers and against most ancient custom. (p. 14-15, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Interestingly, some of these objections were lobbed against the early church by the Jews... insistence on signs (1 Cor. 1:22, "For indeed Jews ask for signs...") and the insistence on continuity with their received traditions ("you have heard it said, but I say..." a la Matthew 5) is very similar.

Calvin makes quick work of the idea of novelty - noting that any fault of burial of the truth recovered in the Reformation is man's alone,
That it has lain long unknown and buried is the fault of man's impiety. Now when it is restored to us by God's goodness, its claim to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery. (p. 15, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
The Reformation, in a sense, reminds one of Josiah's rediscovery of the Law; the truth lay idle through the fault of sinful man - was the 'true church' in fact reflected in those who rejected that Law and had adopted pagan custom? Certainly not - one need only read the accounts in the Kings and Chronicles to discover where truth lay.

Related to this was the Romanist demand for miracles - perhaps miracles associated with relics, that might show to them the validity they demanded. For them, the lack of miraculous signs was a reason to reject the simplicity of Reformed doctrine; for Calvin, their production of such signs in association with obviously false doctrine and practice was a sign of the origin of that doctrine and practice. He writes,
In the first place, it is right to investigate and examine that doctrine which, as the Evangelist says, is superior to miracles. Then, if it is approved, it may rightly be confirmed from miracles. Yet, if one does not tend to seek men's glory but God's [John 7:18; 8:50], this is a mark of true doctrine, as Christ says. Since Christ affirms this test of doctrine, miracles are wrongly valued that are applied to any other purpose than to glorify the name of the one God [Deut. 13:2 ff.]. And we may also fitly remember that Satan has his miracles, which, though they are deceitful tricks rather than true powers, are of such sort as to mislead the simple-minded and untutored [cf. II Thess. 2:9-10]. Magicians and enchanters have always been noted for miracles. Idolatry has been nourished by wonderful miracles, yet these are not sufficient to sanction for us the superstition either of magicians or of idolaters.

The Donatists of old overwhelmed the simplicity of the multitude with this battering-ram: that they were mighty in miracles. We, therefore, now answer our adversaries as Augustine then answered the Donatists: the Lord made us wary of these miracle workers when he predicted that false prophets with lying signs and prodigies would come to draw even the elect (if possible) into error [Matt. 24:24].'° And Paul warned that the reign of Antichrist would be "with all power, and signs and lying wonders" [II Thess. 2:9].
(p. 16-17, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
His condemnation of their complaint carries with it a very strong admonition to us - to know the Word of God, so that any doctrine or practice that conflicts with God's Word might be known, despite whatever accompanying signs or 'miracles' might be brought. If one knows the Word, a counterfeit cannot be sold - the counterfeit health and wealth 'gospel' of our age is often accompanied by signs. Whether they be by human trickery or demonically contrived, we can know for certain that they are not God-inspired by comparing the accompanying doctrine. The same was true in Calvin's day with respect to Roman error.

Finally, in section 4, Calvin takes on the claim, proven easily to be utterly false, that the Reformer's doctrines were opposed to the teachings of the early church Fathers. What in fact is the case is that the vast majority of evidence from the early church fathers supports Calvin's doctrine that he'll expound in the Institutes. His argument in this introduction (to be fleshed out in the Institutes proper) shows that in fact what the Roman church antagonists are complaining about is that the Reformers were teaching contrary to those doctrinal strains that had flourished and multiplied long since the early church Fathers.

The complaint of these individuals is swiftly put away - and a summarizing section is worth quoting in full:
Moreover, they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory -to put it very modestly-would turn to our side. Now, these fathers have written many wise and excellent things. Still, what commonly happens to men has befallen them too, in some instances. For these so-called pious children of theirs, with all their sharpness of wit and judgment and spirit, worship only the faults and errors of the fathers. The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold. Then, with a frightful to-do, they overwhelm us as despisers and adversaries of the fathers! But we do not despise them; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval. Yet we are so versed in their writings as to remember always that all things are ours [I Cor. 3:21-22], to serve us, not to lord it over us [Luke 22:24-25], and that we all belong to the one Christ [I Cor. 3:23], whom we must obey in all things without exception [cf. Col. 3:20]. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves. It is not without cause, they say, that Solomon bids us not to transgress the limits set by our fathers [Prov. 22:28]. But the same rule does not apply to boundaries of fields, and to obedience of faith, which must be so disposed that "it forgets its people and its father's house" [Ps. 45:10 p.]. But if they love to allegorize so much, why do they not accept the apostles (rather than anyone else) as the "fathers" who have set the landmarks that it is unlawful to remove [Prov. 22:28]? Thus has Jerome interpreted this verse, and they have written his words into their canons. But if our opponents want to preserve the limits set by the fathers according to their understanding of them, why do they themselves transgress them so willfully as often as it suits them? (p. 18-19, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin's letter to King Francis, while it is not meant, as he states, to be a defense of the doctrines he is introducing Francis to, certainly carries the structure of a legal case. The legal training received in Orleans certainly was coming in handy... for Calvin was making an exceedingly strong case, whether he structured his letter in this way intentionally or not.



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