John Calvin


After Luther on the one hand, and Œcolompadius and Zwingli on the other, were successful in their strenuous efforts to re-establish the rule of Christ, there arose that unhappy dispute about the Holy Supper of the Lord, and a great many others have been drawn into association with them. It must be more a source of grief than surprise that that conflict among the foremost leaders causes alarm to overtake beginners. However, so that these same beginners may not be unduly perturbed, they must be warned that it is an old trick of Satan’s to rush otherwise prudent servants of God into controversies with each other so that he may hinder the course of sound doctrine. Who wishes to yield of his own accord to Satan’s crafty ways? Thus Paul’s quarrel with Barnabas reached a violent climax (Acts 15:39). Thus Paul’s similar disagreement with Peter broke out into open conflict (Gal. 2:11). In the case of those three men everyone recognizes what I have mentioned — the stratagem of Satan. In the present situation, when it is a question of their own salvation, why are they blind? Someone will object that those were not controversies about doctrine. Why? When certain men were pressing the ceremonies of the Mosaic law, was not this a question of doctrine (Gal. 2:12)? Yet the split was carried so far that it rent nearly all the churches. Or will they say that it was right for the gospel to be rejected on account of that disturbance?

It is well known that Luther and those with whom he disagreed were prudent men, equipped with singular gifts of God. They were all in remarkable agreement about the whole substance of the faith. They were unanimous in their teaching about what the proper and sincere worship of God should be, and they endeavored to cleanse it of countless superstitions and idolatries and to free it from the corrupt inventions of men. They rejected reliance on works, by which men had been intoxicated and indeed bewitched, and taught the restoration of total salvation in the grace of Christ. They have magnificently lifted up the virtue of Christ, after it had either fallen and lain prostrate or been submerged and hidden from view. Those men do not differ in their teaching about what is the true method of invocation, what is the nature and essence of penitence from which faith arises and produces certain fruits, and what is the legitimate government of the Church. Only on the symbols themselves was there any disagreement. Yet I deliberately venture to assert that, if their minds had not been partly exasperated by the extreme vehemence of the controversies, and partly possessed by wrong suspicions, the disagreement was not so great that conciliation could not easily have been achieved. Even if, because of the vehemence of that dispute, the controversy could not have been resolved properly, is there anything to prevent the plain truth being heard at least now, as in the calm after the storm?

We are all very much in agreement about what the true use of the sacraments is. We all teach in common that the sacraments have been instituted in order that they may seal the promises of God to our hearts, that they may be supports for our faith and testimonies of the divine grace. We clearly point out that they are not empty or bare and dead forms [figuras] since their use is efficacious by the power of the Holy Spirit; and by the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit, God is really offering everything that he shows in them. So we acknowledge that the bread and wine in the Holy Supper are not empty pledges of that communication which believers have with Christ, their head, because our souls enjoy him as spiritual nourishment. Everywhere there is agreement about the teaching on all these points. Why then do proud men find such a stumbling block in this connection that it bars the way to the gospel?

Someone may object, however, that in defining the mode the theory [ratio] is somewhat diverse. I certainly admit that all do not speak as dearly as one would wish, whether because they do not all have the same skill for clear and lucid expression or because they have not all acquired the same measure of faith. Since much of the dense darkness of the papacy is still left, if anyone is annoyed that everything serving to scatter the darkness of errors is carefully and plainly set forth, he is revealing that he is shunning the light maliciously. But when we, for our part, lift up men from earth to heaven; when we transfer them from the elements of death to Christ; when we place the ground of righteousness, salvation, and all good things in his pure grace; when we attribute the whole efficacy of the signs to the Holy Spirit, and inasmuch as God is the sole author and perfecter of the spiritual life, we claim totally for him what belongs to him; when we repudiate all the stupid fictions by which the world has plainly been deceived; when we do away with the physical mode of the presence of Christ and the wrongful adoration of him in the sign — when those who imagine a stumbling block in all those things are knowingly and willingly stumbling over Christ, they deserve to bruise themselves. I know by experience in this cause that there are indeed many who are helped by the pretext of scandals, because it suits them to be blind in the midst of light.

Alleged Errors

In addition we must recall what I touched on briefly earlier. Since new situations give an opportunity for many wrong steps, if any mistake is then made, stricter attention is paid to it and it is more severely condemned than if no change had been made. We remember with amazement how deep was the whirlpool of ignorance and how horrible the darkness of errors in the papacy. Then it was a great miracle of God that Luther and those who labored at the same time in restoring the doctrine of the faith were able to extricate themselves from it little by little. Some pretend that they are offended because they did not see everything all at once and because such a difficult task was not brought to absolute perfection on the first day, and they do so in order not to give their assent to the gospel or to complete the course after starting out on it. Who does not see how irrelevant those splendid ideas are? For it is exactly as if someone finds fault with us because at the first streak of dawn we do not yet see the midday sun. Nothing is more familiar than these complaints. “Why has it not been laid down for us once and for all what we ought to follow?” “Why has this, rather than other things, been concealed?” “Will there ever be any end if permission is continually being given to aim at something further?” Of course, those who speak like that either begrudge the servants of God their success or are annoyed that the Kingdom of Christ is being advanced to a better state. The same peevish spirit is apparent in regard to all the most trifling errors; yet, even if these do not deserve to be overlooked altogether, they ought not to provoke us to a dislike of the gospel. The monks and other teachers of the papal synagogue may babble their futile dirges as much as they like, they may disfigure Scripture with absurd glosses to their hearts’ content, yet those good fellows have no difficulty about condoning it all. If our men put out something that is perhaps not quite appropriate, they pretend they are kept back from hearing us as if by a great crime. They patiently put up with obscure scriptural testimonies, contradictory opinions, and frivolous themes in the ancient writers; but if they find one percent of them in the writings of our men, not only will they condemn all of us who will be innocent but they will consider keeping the whole of doctrine at arm’s length. However, this is not the place for me to undertake the defense of those who relieve their own itching with a desire to write. For one would wish that people like that would refrain from corrupting their writings. But while, on the one hand, I concede that the follies of a few men must not be encouraged by complacence, on the other hand, all see how unjust it is that the whole doctrine of the gospel is rendered tasteless by this disgust. What I have said is indeed true, that those things that previously lay hidden as if in the darkness of night are seen far more clearly in the full light of the gospel. But on the one hand cheerfully and unconcernedly conniving at any errors you like, while on the other hand paying very particular attention to the things at which you carp, is, I maintain, indeed the mark of those who are eagerly on the lookout for imaginary scandals for themselves.

This article is taken from the book, Concerning Scandals translated by John W.Fraser. “This is the first modern English translation of a tract written by John Calvin in 1550 to address various obstacles, or ‘scandals’, which hinder people in the course of accepting or following the gospel. Calvin identifies and discusses three classes of scandals and offers scriptural guidelines to deal with them.”

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