Sunday, July 13, 2008

Thoughts on the King of France in 1536

John Calvin urges then King of France, Francis, to read his Institutes, which had evidently already gained some noteriety, and more to the point of his letter, a storm of opposition from the hierarchy of the Church of Rome. He summarizes their opposition in 7 points and gives answer to each:
1. Calvin's Institutes teach new, untested doctrine. He simply responds that indeed it is new to his adversaries, but is as old as the Gospel itself.
2. The doctrine is doubtful and uncertain. Calvin responds that his adversaries would likely not seal their doctrine with their own blood, but he would be willing to die and face the judgement seat of Christ for what he is expounding.
3. The teachings have not been confirmed by miracles. Calvin responds that the doctrine has been confirmed by Christ's own miracles and those of the apostles. He then exposes the claim of his adversaries that the teachings of the church have through the ages been constantly confirmed by miracles. He makes a plea to first examine the doctrine in the light of scripture, a recurring theme in his defence to King Francis.
4. Calvin's doctrines are opposed to the early church Fathers. He responds by quoting father after father condemning many of the practices which were common in the church of Rome at the time of his writing, such as the love of the priesthood for golden chalises and other showy luxury in the church, the practice of monks living off the charity of others, the extensive use of painted images and sculputre to represent Christ and the saints, and the doctrine of transubstantiation, and others including the celebacy of the priesthood. He strikes an overriding chord when he quotes another Father: the Church ought not to prefer herself to Christ, who always judges truly, whereas ecclesiastical judges, who are but men, are generally deceived.
5. He is accused of going against custom. Calvin responds with a touchstone of the Reformation, that this is the root of the problem. The truth of the simple Gospel in the scriptures has been obscured by centuries of church custom. But be it so that public error must have a place in human society, still, in the kingdom of God, we must look and listen only to his eternal truth, against which no series of years, no custom, no conspiracy, can plead prescription.
6. His adversaries complain that these doctrines mean that the Church has been in error for centuries. Calvin responds by making a clear defence of what is commonly referred to today as the Church Invisible as opposed to the Church Visible. The visible church in his day bore little resemblance to the simple Body of Christ, and he spends several paragraphs in scathing denouncement of the vain pomp of the visible church of his time.
7. His doctrines are accused of causing civil disturbance. Calvin simply claims: "It is one of the characteristics of the divine word, that whenever it appears, Satan ceases to slumber and sleep."
Calvin ends his defence by beseaching the king to read the Institutes for himself, and test the doctrines. I don't know my history well, but it appears that this plea fell on deaf ears.

My edition contains Calvin's preface to the second edition where after expressing almost surpise at the widespread success of the work, made the bold statement that the Institutes could be used as a tool by which to study the scriptures, for the new student of the word, a guide by the learned for the unlearned. At first this sounds a bit pompous, but after reflection, was indeed most needed in Calvin's day.
There follows a preface to the French edition, translated by the author himself. He here gives God glory for the work: acknowledging it to be God's work rather than mine.
Finally, there is a preface to the final edition of 1559, where he commends the work for students preparing for the ministry. He is increasingly humbled at the increasingly favorable reception this work received. This reception pales indeed to the influence this monument to God's Holy Word has had in the ensuing 400 years!

Take Home Pearl: Let God be true and every man a liar. Search the scriptures to see if those things were so. God's word, not man's word is the yardstick by which we measure all claims to truth.


BlueDog said...

As we read this work, I will be interested to note what Calvin considers a false doctrine of the Roman church, on the one hand, and a corruption of a true doctrine on the other. No doubt the Roman church was exceedingly corrupt and was in great need of reformation. And a guy like Calvin experienced the fierceness of the wrath that that church could show when someone tried to clean house. But, it seems to me from the dedicatory letter, that the occasion of the Institutes, had more to do with corruptions of right and true doctrines than with outright false inventions. To be sure, there was plenty of falsehood, bad doctrine and bad practice. No doubt the leadership, from the papacy down to the priests, was riddled with sin, error, and corruption. But I get the impression that Calvin is calling the Roman church back to her roots. In part, it is Calvin's plea for reformation of that body. Let me illustrate.

First, on the issue of miracles. Calvin doesn't dispute the claim that doctrine be confirmed by miracles. Rather, he attacks spurious claims of miraculous confirmation for Romish doctrine, on the one hand. On the other hand, he claims that, indeed, his teaching has had miraculous confirmation.

Second, concerning the early church Fathers. Once again, he concedes a certain amount of authority or, shall I say, value in the Fathers. Indeed, he incisively exposes corruption of the Roman church through their use.

Third, the fact that a custom is a custom doesn't necessarily make it wrong, or right for that matter. I'm pretty sure, when we listen to Calvin discussing the doctrine of the Church, he will place some value in tradition. I get a hint of this by chapter headings like "The power of the Church respecting articles of faith, and its licentious perversion under the Papacy" or "The primacy of the Roman see."

My point is not to minimize the errors of Rome. I readily advance the fact that corrupt practice comes from corrupt doctrine. But I'm seeing hints that Calvin didn't set out to create an entirely new system of doctrine. He wasn't trashing everything the Roman church established and stood for for centuries. He was shrewd in pointing out corruptions in his own time. And I suspect that he is exposing how the Roman church had deviated from the true teachings of the Church.

Blue Dog Daddie said...

No, indeed, John Calvin wasn't setting out to establish a new system of doctrine ... that is one problem he has with the Catholic Church ... much of their doctrine was "new". His claim, rather, was that the Institutes represented the doctrine with which the church began, viz that of the scripture.

BlueDog said...

True enough. My point was, though, that Calvin seems to preserve a lot of baby, while he was draining out the bath water. He seemed to think that the system of doctrine taught by the Roman church was indeed biblical in many respects.

Blue Dog Daddie said...

Blue Dog Daddie expends enough mental energy simply to read the text and figure out what Calvin is saying! We'll leave the between lines stuff for Blue Dog!