Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Arrested by Calvin's Institutes: Comments on the Preface

I wasn't going to mention this earlier, since I didn't want it to sound like a New Year's resolution (and I'm not confident I'll complete it), but I am endeavoring to read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion this year. Princeton Theological Seminary has it broken up into daily readings in a blog-format (complete with audio tracks) and so far I've managed to keep up.

I'm not sure what I think of Calvin. No doubt he is an extremely important theologian. I think I am largely a Calvinist, even where I might rather not be. I guess we'll see. I've never read him on his own terms.

We are well into section one now, but what follows are a couple excerpts which stood out to me from the preface. So far I've found it extremely important to keep the context in mind. Calvin, with other "Reformers" (as they were later called--Calvin was a Catholic, really), stood against the abuses and vices of a Church rutted in power and politics and privilege and sought, not schism, but reformation. That it ended in division was a work of history and not the author's intent. Calvin spent most of his life in exile. He wrote in the hopes of a reformed Church and a redeemed theology.

Anyway, this puts it into context, but the points are still relevant. Consider the following:


"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. . . .

Hence, one must either completely despair of human affairs or grapple with these great evils-or rather, forcibly quell them. And this remedy is rejected for no other reason save that we have long been accustomed to such evils. But, granting public error a place in the society of men, still in the Kingdom of God his eternal truth must alone be listened to and observed, a truth that cannot be dictated to by length of time, by long-standing custom, or by the conspiracy of men" (Pref. 5).


"By their double-horned argument they do not press us so hard that we are forced to admit either that the church has been lifeless for some time or that we are now in conflict with it.

Surely the church of Christ has lived and will live so long as Christ reigns at the right hand of his Father. It is sustained by his hand; defended by his protection; and is kept safe through his power. For he will surely accomplish what he once promised: that he will be present with his own even to the end of the world [Matt. 28:20].

Against this church we now have no quarrel. For, of one accord with all believing folk, we worship and adore one God, and Christ the Lord [I Cor. 8:6], as he has always been adored by all godly men. But they stray very far from the truth when they do not recognize the church unless they see it with their very eyes, and try to keep it within limits to which it cannot at all be confined.

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. 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?" (Pref. 6).

As an evangelical and therefore a child of the reformation I have to say I find these passages arresting. Especially the bold portions.

Firstly, considering our inclinations toward meeting felt needs and growing the church by various strategic means, ought we be taken aback by Calvin's reminder that "the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority."

Secondly, if the marks of the church are "pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments," well, ought I to wonder if Calvin would today attend any of the churches that I have called home?

If he did find himself in these churches what would he do? Considering that much of our preaching has become motivational speech and illustration and that the sacraments have so often been reduced to mere symbols alongside clapping and raising hands in praise: Would Calvin today be calling for reform now in our evangelical churches, albeit maybe from another angle?

What are the marks of a church today? Is the Church today any more "visible" than it was then? Is a reformation needed in our preaching and our worship? Is that what needs to "emerge"? What would Calvin say of the children of the reformation?

1 comment:

Kent said...

Have you seen the massive collection of Calvin material from Logos Bible Software on Calvin500.com? I thought you might be interested!