The Piety of John Calvin
Ford Lewis Battles

 

Introduction

True Piety According to Calvin

 

Obstacles to Piety According to the Polemical Tracts

One thing that has marked all great theologians, from Paul the apostle onward, is that their finest theology has been called forth by specific requests for help. At bottom, then, true theology and true exegesis are an exercise of the pastoral office. Calvin claimed a double pastoral intent for the Institutes: (1) to introduce neophytes to the study of the Scriptures; (2) to justify the French evangelicals before a hostile government and (if we may add its corollary) to hearten these evangelicals in their effort to lead a Christian life under harsh circumstances.

Also for the heartening of beleaguered Christians, but even more pointed than Calvin’s theological and exegetical works, are selected polemical works from his pen, most of them undertaken in response to anguished cries for help from evangelical Christians. This class of writings is virtually unknown except to specialists, yet they carry the teaching of pietas that necessary further step: to overcome the obstacles that commonly stand in the way of leading the Christian life for members of churches in the Reformed tradition. From this rich store of pastoral instruction, we have selected three tracts for a brief perusal: On Scandals (l550),59 Excuse to the Nicodemites (1544),60 and What a Faithful Man . . . Ought to Do Dwelling Amongst the Papists (1543).61

On Scandals (1550). Reformed Christians, especially Frenchmen, underwent great vexations on account of the faith. Calvin for a long time pondered writing a tract to amplify the spiritual advice he had already given in the Institutes. Many persecuted evangelicals sought refuge in Geneva; extensive correspondence also kept Calvin informed of the plight of his countrymen who remained at home. In September 1546 Calvin wrote to Farel that he was suspending work on such a tract because of labors on the Commentary on Galatians; the tract was completed in August 1550. The occasion for it was the misfortune of his friend, Laurence de Normandie, who after accepting the Reformed faith gave up his country and social position in favor of the gospel, and in the space of a year lost his father, wife, and little daughter. It is understandable that Laurence was tempted to read in these events the curse of God attendant upon his change of religion. Calvin took up his pen both to console Laurence in his great loss and to strengthen him in the faith.

The gospel teaches that Christ Himself is a scandal, and we cannot follow the gospel apart from scandal. The danger of this rock of offense has turned four classes of men away from the gospel: those who are so naturally modest as to be horror-struck at the scandal, and dare not even taste the gospel; those who are too lazy or sluggish or unteachable to bother with the gospel; those who reject the gospel because they are arrogant and perversely convinced of their own wisdom; and finally those who maliciously and deliberately collect all sorts of scandal and even invent many to deform the gospel out of hatred for it.

Calvin saw three sorts of scandals on which men stumble: those intrinsic to gospel-teaching itself; those “annexed” scandals that arise out of the preaching of the gospel; finally those “adventitious” scandals that spring from moral depravity, hypocrisy, the ingratitude and vanity of worldly professors of the faith.

“Intrinsic” scandals characterize those who take offense at the gospel because of the simplicity of its language. The Christian doctrines, in Calvin’s view, that commonly stir disgust in men’s minds include: the two natures of Christ, salvation obtained from Christ’s sufferings alone, His becoming a curse for us and thus blessing us, our righteousness being in God only and not in ourselves, Christ’s cross, our self-denial, and constancy in time of persecution. Here Calvin eloquently summarized the long chronicle of the church’s sufferings.62 Finally he noted the scandals of those who ascribe their sins to God or stumble at the doctrine of predestination.

The “annexed” scandals that arise when the gospel is preached lead to sects and controversies among Christian teachers. Some men are offended because the gospel often gives rise to strife and war. Calvin replied that war is justified if it is for souls; Christ foretold wars. The “cultured despisers” of the gospel (such as the circle of Rabelais) raise a scandal by converting Christian freedom into licentiousness.

Wicked ministers of the gospel living among the good are the cause of scandal; the gospel is not chargeable with their guilt; throughout its history offenses appear; the commingling of the wicked with the good is intended to prove the faith of the latter. Another source of offense is the easy enticement of some people from the profession of the truth. Over against this, Calvin set the courage of the women of Artois and the Netherlands.

“Adventitious” scandals spring from moral depravity, hypocrisy, and the ingratitude and vanity of worldly professors of the faith. Among the calumnies hurled at Reformed Christians by opposing preachers were the charges that the Reformed had abrogated auricular confession, condemned fasting, abandoned celibacy, and opened marriage to all.

Calvin closed the treatise with an eloquent admonition, translated here in the colorful language of the Elizabethan Age, to unity under Christ, the sole foundation. Christians

. . . being armed with the remedies by me showed, they rather keep Christ still for their foundation, than by their rash and ignorant running against Him, make Him to themselves a stone to stumble at, and a rock to dash against, It cannot otherwise be but that in this world, many occasions of offense must from time to time be fathered upon the faithful. From these not even Christ himself was free. Rather, it is scarcely to be hoped for, that they should step one pace, but that the devil cast some stumbling block in their way. So must they walk through innumerable offenses. But albeit the variety of them be manifold, and the heap thick packed, yet shall none be a Christian, but he that wadeth through them with victory.63

Excuse to the Nicodemites (1544).64 Laodicean luke-warmness, ever a problem in the Christian church, seems today one of the chief plagues of the old-line denominations in affluent America. Calvin had a name for the general class of such persons, “Messrs. the Nicodemites.” They received their sobriquet from the well-known inquirer in John’s Gospel. Calvin first encountered such people at the court of Marguerite at Ferrara, which he visited in 1536 on the eve of his detention by Farel in Geneva. Calvin directed several tracts against these siren prophets of religious compromise and sweet reasonableness. We shall look only at the Excuse.

Calvin’s basic argument was that God is the Lord of the body no less than of the soul of the elect. Therefore the believer must honor God by public worship, upright life, and abstention from idolatrous conformity to the papal church. He directed his critique of religious luke-warmness against four kinds of “Nicodemites.” There are evangelical priests and bishops who preach from Catholic pulpits the evangelical message but give their congregations the impression that they have thereby made acceptable the whole superstition-encrusted ecclesiastical shell in which the unreformed church hobbles. The second Nicodemite sect he found in the “delicate prothonotaries” who play religion with the ladies of the court and beguile them with sweet theological niceties, all of them condemning with one voice the too-great austerity of Geneva. This is the religion of the theological salon. A third group is comprised of the men of letters, given to philosophy and the tolerance of the foolish superstitions of the Papacy. For them it is enough to know God by books and contemplation in their ivory towers, without becoming strained or sullied by involvement in the organization of the community of faith, worship, and Christian action. These men half-convert Christianity into philosophy. In a rather extremely worded condemnation of them, Calvin said: “I would prefer that all human sciences were exterminated from the earth, than for them to be the cause of freezing the zeal of Christians and turning them from God.”65 The last group will raise a respondent chord in American hearts. This includes the merchants and common people, who would prefer that their pastors or priests not become so much involved in the fine points of doctrine and thereby disturb commerce and the workaday tasks and satisfactions.

What a Faithful Man . . . Ought to Do Dwelling Amongst the Papists (1543). A basic issue in the two works already examined is what a Reformed Christian is to do when pressed to conform to the religious practices and beliefs of the unreformed church that dominates his native place. Calvin was indeed aware of the bitter prospect of losing body and goods, of stirring the world to opprobrium against oneself, and of forsaking the ease of life in one’s own country for harsh exile in a foreign land. (Here one is reminded of the impassioned lines at the close of the dedicatory letter to Francis I of France that introduces the Institutes of the Christian Religion.)66 This is the very route Calvin himself had taken. Many had been asking him how they should live and worship in accord with their own conscience when law and custom work against this. The tract was a detailed answer to them; it is also an extended application of pietas.

What shall men do? Calvin replied: We must not measure our duty to God according to our own advantage or physical convenience. We are not to rely on our own brain but rather to trust God’s own providence, that He will keep us even in the midst of a thousand deaths.

What should be the general principles of Christian behavior? If God declares His will to us through His Word, w& should follow it and not debate with God.

The first lesson in Christ’s school is that if we are ashamed of Him or His Word, He will be ashamed of us when He comes in judgment. God is not satisfied that we acknowledge Him secretly in our hearts; we are to profess outwardly that we are His. Or to put it in the language of the treatise “On the Christian Life,” with which we have already dealt, “We belong to God.”67 Should everyone declare himself openly, whether or not anybody ask him about his faith? Only those called thereto should preach openly, but everyone should witness according to his gifts, inviting his neighbor to join in true worship and Christian instruction. Since we have no definite rule for all, let every man ask our Lord to direct him in true wisdom to his duty, and then let him do it with all his power.

The chief question to which Calvin addressed himself in this tract is this: “Should a truly Christian man go to mass when he is among the Papists? Should he worship images, relics (and such like ceremonies)? A prior question which must be answered is: what is idolatry? Idolatry is of two sorts: first, when a man through a false fantasy conceived in his heart or spirit corrupts and perverts the spiritual balm of the one only God; second, when a man gives or transfers the honor which belongs to God only, to any creature.” (Parenthetically, this would confirm our earlier postulation that the Romans passage underlying this view of idolatry is in fact the key verse that triggered Calvin’s conversion.)

What duty do we owe God? Is it not enough to hold God in secret within our hearts? Calvin answered with a resounding no! God must be glorified in both our hearts and our bodies as well, for the latter too are redeemed by Jesus’ blood. Therefore, we must not prostitute our bodies, which are the very temple of the Holy Spirit, before an idol. When we kneel before an idol we derogate God’s majesty. All this is, once more, the familiar call to holiness before the all-holy God.

But can we really label the Mass as pagan idolatry? Surely, though it may be corrupt, it is still men’s intention by it to worship God and not a humanly devised idol; consequently, such calling upon God’s name, though perhaps idolatrous, is not perilous, is it? This argument did not impress Calvin. He responded: If you go about worshiping God in a perverse and unlawful manner, you are worshiping an idol.

What then about the practice of the Mass in Calvin’s own day? One does not condemn all papal rites, but only those that are completely bad. No evangelical Christian can submit to daily mass, for this is manifest idolatry. What then about high mass? Is this not better since it is a memorial of the Lord’s Supper? No, this is a corruption of the Lord’s Supper and as such is idolatrous; also the priestly absolution that follows is a violation of God’s authority.

Calvin then sketched the cultic acts that mark the daily life of an unreformed Christian, from birth to death, labeling them abominations to be avoided by faithful believers. But still a crowd of excuses for conformity to such practices must be dealt with. Of course it is wrong to participate in these rites, but if one does them out of fear of men, is this not a light fault? Surely far worse crimes than this are committed? Calvin replied that such hypocrisy is no light fault, for it runs clean counter to God’s requirement that man sanctify and consecrate himself to God — both in body and in spirit, but the spirit as chief takes the principal place.

Another excuse: What good would come of it if everyone declared he would serve God purely? To this Calvin rejoined: If it pleases God, the faithful man will undergo persecution, flight, prison, banishment, and even death itself.

Still another excuse: Suppose everyone wished to leave idolatry; then all the countries under Antichrist’s reign would be deprived of the faithful. Having thus departed, where could they settle, since the regions where God is purely called upon cannot absorb any more population. To this Calvin replied: If this happened, our Lord would provide for His faithful in some way — either convert the hearts of the princes and magistrates, moving them to put down idolatry and establish the true worship of God, or at least soften them so they would not force the faithful to defile themselves against their consciences or would not act cruelly against them.

The supply of excuses is not yet exhausted. If those capable of following the gospel take themselves away, how, if the seed is removed, can the doctrine of the gospel be multiplied? Calvin’s answer is sharp: If all who have been given knowledge of the truth did but half their duty, there would not be one corner of the world not filled with it. Lack of courage is the fault. Have faith that if one man moves away, God will raise up four in his place.

The final excuse is a taunt thrown at Calvin: It is very well for you to talk from your safe place! If you were in our place, you would do as we do! Calvin answered: I speak as my conscience prompts, without boasting. If I were in a place where I thought I could not avoid idolatry without danger, I would pray the Lord to strengthen me and give me constancy to prefer His glory over my own life.

After a call to martyrdom, Calvin gave his final advice to evangelical Christians. If you live in a land where you cannot worship purely, go into exile if you can. If you cannot flee, abstain from idolatry while purely worshiping God in private. But suppose one has not the strength or constancy or is held back by parents, family, or the like? As far as your infirmity permits, follow the surest and soundest counsel. Insofar as you depart from the right way out of fear of men, confess your sin to God. Try daily to be sorry in order that you may obtain God’s mercy. Then ask your Father to draw you out of bondage or to establish a right form of the church throughout the world so you can duly honor Him.

Thus do these tracts pastorally apply pietas to the troubled, perplexed lives of those who longed to work out the renewal that had already touched their hearts. It has been said that Calvin is a theologian for hard times. Though too often curtained over by affluence, the church is living in a hard time. All the forces contrary to a truly Reformed faith that stood in the way in the sixteenth century have their late-twentieth-century counterpart. Lukewarm Nicodemites and learned scoffers are in the very bosom of the church, and — I may say — the seminaries. It will not take much imagination to find the category of obstacle-makers to which each of us in our failure to follow Christ belongs. Deny self! Follow God! Bear your cross! Let the hope of the life to come give meaning for your present life. What excuses do we give for not following this way of pietas?

It remains for us to summarize the teaching of Calvin on pietas. What better passage to do this is there than the hymn to Creation which is included in chapter 7 of this volume and to which you, the reader, are invited to turn.


Notes

  1. OC, 8:1-64; OS, 2:162-340. Translated into English by Arthur Golding (London: Seres, 1567).
  2. OC, 6:589-614. For critical text see Francis M. Higman, ed., Three French Treatises (London: Athione, 1970).
  3. OC, 6:537-88. Translated into English by R. G. in 1548.
  4. See “The Church as Pilgrim” in epilogue below.
  5. P. 109.
  6. See chap. 3, lines 171ff. (note) below.
  7. . OC, 6:600; cf. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), pp. 603f.
  8. Cf. Institution, pp. 171.
  9. See chap. 3, lines 281ff. below.

Author

 At the time that this book from which this article was taken, The Piety of John Calvin: An Anthology Illustrative of the Spirituality of the Reformer, Ford Lewis Battles was visiting professor of church history at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has also taught at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Hartford Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from the latter school. He has translated the definitive English edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the only complete English edition of the  Institution of 1536, and Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s “De Clementia.” Among his many other published works is A Computerized Concordance to Calvin’s “Instituties of the Christian Religion.” He is widely recognized as one of the foremost Calvin scholars today.


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