Thursday, August 06, 2009

Antidote to John Calvin's Institutes (IV,10:17-18) [Tradition / Doctrinal Development vs. "Inventions" / Sacrificial Worship vs. Obedience?]

See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.



17. Arguments in favour of traditions answered.

I understand what their answer will be—viz. that these traditions are not from themselves, but from God. 

Yes; Calvin gets that, but no doubt has a poor understanding of the arguments adduced for this position.

For to prevent the Church from erring, it is guided by the Holy Spirit, whose authority resides in them. This being conceded, 

That is a huge concession, and all sorts of things flow from it. But as we shall see, Calvin doesn't consistently follow through on that, and creates limitations where the Bible does not do so.

it at the same time follows, that their traditions are revelations by the Holy Spirit, and cannot be disregarded without impiety and contempt of God. 

Traditions have varying degrees of dogmatic status, but ones that are clearly grounded in the Bible, which is itself God's inspired revelation, are of a piece with the one revelation. 

And that they may not seem to have attempted anything without high authority, they will have it to be believed that a great part of their observances is derived from the apostles. 


For they contend, that in one instance they have a sufficient proof of what the apostles did in other cases. The instance is, when the apostles assembled in council, announced to all the Gentiles as the opinion of the council, that they should “abstain from pollution of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:2029). We have already explained, how, in order to extol themselves, they falsely assume the name of Church (Chap. 8 sec. 10-13).

And "we" have already replied to that (I think, effectively).

If, in regard to the present cause, we remove all masks and glosses (a thing, indeed, which ought to be our first care, and also is our highest interest), and consider what kind of Church Christ wishes to have, 

That would solve all our problems on all sides, wouldn't it?

that we may form and adapt ourselves to it as a standard, it will readily appear that it is not a property of the Church to disregard the limits of the word of God, and wanton and luxuriate in enacting new laws. 

We agree. Whatever is held, ought to be in complete harmony with Holy Scripture. This is what we believe as Catholics: not only that it ought to be, but that it actually is such.

Does not the law which was once given to the Church endure for ever? “What things soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32).

Yes; as long as this is understood as including within itself a capability and potential for development over time, without alteration of the essential core or essence.

And in another place, “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov. 30:6). Since they cannot deny that this was said to the Church, what else do they proclaim but their contumacy, when, notwithstanding of such prohibitions, they profess to add to the doctrine of God, and dare to intermingle their own with it? 

The Catholic Church doesn't declare this, so it is a straw man.

Far be it from us to assent to the falsehood by which they offer such insult to the Church. 

It's tough to give assent to something that is imaginary in the first place.

Let us understand that the name of Church is falsely pretended wherever men contend for that rash human licence which cannot confine itself within the boundaries prescribed by the word of God, but petulantly breaks out, and has recourse to its own inventions. 

Amen! And let us understand that Protestantism often does this, by coming up with new novelties not found in the Bible at all (such as sola Scriptura, which is every bit as much a tradition of man as anything that could be submitted).

In the above passage there is nothing involved, nothing obscure, nothing ambiguous; the whole Church is forbidden to add to, or take from the word of God, in relation to his worship and salutary precepts. 

Catholics agree that public revelation was complete with the apostolic age and the deposit received at that time. It only develops. It doesn't essentially change or evolve into something contrary to the original apostolic deposit (including Holy Scripture). But the issue of the canon of the Bible itself shows clearly the necessary, logically and practically inevitable interaction between Bible, Church, and Tradition. We can hardly align our doctrine with Holy Scripture if we haven't determined the antecedent consideration of the number and specificity of books that are part of this Bible. That didn't happen spontaneously (as a matter of the historical record). There was agreement in large part (as we would expect, at least among pious men), but there was enough uncertainty to require a binding Church declaration. And this declaration cannot itself  be "biblical," in the nature of the case; in terms of being explicitly grounded in the Bible, because it was about the Bible itself (as the Bible never lists its own books anywhere).

But that was said merely of the Law, which was succeeded by the Prophets and the whole Gospel dispensation! This I admit, but I at the same time add, that these are fulfilments of the Law, rather than additions or diminutions. 

And hence, Calvin accepts the notion of development, which is implicit in his mention of "fulfilments" above. This is exactly how Catholics view it: we are not adding or diminishing, but developing and fulfilling the apostolic deposit (cf. Mt 5:17). As I noted above: Calvin will often acknowledge certain presuppositional truths, but then he fails to consistently build upon them or to grasp the relevant implications.

Now, if the Lord does not permit anything to be added to, or taken from the ministry of Moses, though wrapt up, if I may so speak, in many folds of obscurity, until he furnish a clearer doctrine by his servants the Prophets, and at last by his beloved Son, 

More development of doctrine  ("obscurity," "clearer doctrine") . . . 

why should we not suppose that we are much more strictly prohibited from making any addition to the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospel? 

We are; we agree. It is a matter of semantics and understanding of fine distinctions. Calvin shows that he comprehends development of doctrine, and that is the key to understanding all of subsequent Catholic theological development. But when he is polemical, he (unjustly, irrationally) collapses all Catholic development into this unwarranted, forbidden, outright "addition." He usually merely assumes this is taking place, without demonstrating it. It's the difference between empty, unsubstantiated rhetoric and rational argument. 

The Lord cannot forget himself, and it is long since he declared that nothing is so offensive to him as to be worshipped by human inventions. 

And Calvin's denial of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is one such human invention: utterly contrary to the Bible and unanimous early Church tradition.

Hence those celebrated declarations of the Prophets, which ought continually to ring in our ears, “I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you” (Jer. 7:22, 23). “I earnestly protested unto your fathers, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice” (Jer. 11:7). There are other passages of the same kind, but the most noted of all is, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 15: 22, 23). 


It is easy, therefore, to prove, that whenever human inventions in this respect are defended by the authority of the Church, they cannot be vindicated from the charge of impiety, and that the name of Church is falsely assumed.

There are no "human inventions" from the Catholic Church "in this respect" so it is a non-issue. Calvin simply assumes without argument (as he so often does) that the Sacrifice of the Mass (firmly entrenched in apostolic and patristic tradition, as Calvin must have known if he knew Church history at all: as he surely did) is the equivalent of the sorts of false worship that God condemned in the Old Covenant. But he cites Scripture out of context. 

He is trying to pit burnt-offerings and sacrifices against simple obedience to God, but that was not the point of Jeremiah 7:22-23 and 1 Samuel 15:22-23: which was, rather, that outward ritual is useless if it is not accompanied by inner piety and a right relationship to God, and obedience to Him at all costs. This is a very common theme in the Old Testament, and Catholics wholeheartedly agree with it.  Our notions of inner disposition during worship and examination of conscience are two of the many ways in which the Catholic Church highly stresses inner spirituality in conjunction with ritual and liturgy.

Secondly, the passages in Jeremiah and 1 Samuel couldn't possibly have meant this in the sense of abolition of the OT sacrificial system of temple worship, because it continued even into the New Covenant, with Christians (including St. Paul) continuing to participate in it and to observe (as we have noted previously) all the Jewish feasts (e.g., Jn 4:45; 5:1; 7:1-2,11,37; 12:20), including Passover (Matthew 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:1-15; Jn 2:13,23). Jesus did so as well. 

Therefore, there was a correct way to sacrifice in worship of God, which was not antithetical to the OT system, but rather, a continuation it. It was developed in the New Testament as the Sacrifice of the Mass: Jesus being the Lamb. 

This is the one-time event at Calvary; not a repetition of killing Jesus over and over, as is often falsely believed by non-Catholics. As usual, Calvin illogically equates the corruption of a thing with the thing itself, and throws the baby out with the bathwater. This is his constant tendency, and could almost be said to be a leading hallmark of the so-called "Reformation" overall. To eliminate something under the guise of its corruption being the same as the thing corrupted is no reform; it is a revolution: i.e., the introduction of a new thing altogether (and moreover, a change based on fallacies and falsehoods at the level of premises).

18. Answer continued

For this reason we freely inveigh against that tyranny of human traditions which is haughtily obtruded upon us in the name of the Church. 

Yes; that's why I oppose Calvinism insofar as it contradicts Catholicism: precisely because it consists of "human traditions" at that point.

Nor do we hold the Church in derision (as our adversaries, for the purpose of producing obloquy, unjustly accuse us), but we attribute to her the praise of obedience, than which there is none which she acknowledges to be greater. 

This is easy to say, but when it comes down to individual doctrines, in practice, Calvin, his followers, and other Protestants (not always in practice, but in terms of permissibility by virtue of their system) pick and choose what they like, making private judgment the determinant of selection rather than ecclesiastical authority and apostolic succession and tradition. And that is a huge sea change from what was before. If Church doctrines aren't binding and dogmatic, then they are little more than arbitrary guideposts: to be accepted or rejected at will. This guts the entire notion of an authoritative Church. 

They themselves rather are emphatically injurious to the Church, in representing her as contumacious to her Lord, when they pretend that she goes farther than the word of God allows, 

We make no such contention or pretension, so it is a moot point.

to say nothing of their combined impudence and malice, in continually vociferating about the power of the Church, while they meanwhile disguise both the command which the Lord has given her, and the obedience which she owes to the command. 

Actual corruption is reprehensible; no one who is trying to follow the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind disagrees with that.  

But if our wish is as it ought to be, to agree with the Church, it is of more consequence to consider and remember the injunction which the Lord has given both to us and to the Church, to obey him with one consent. For there can be no doubt that we shall best agree with the Church when we show ourselves obedient to the Lord in all things. 

This same Lord has the power to protect His Church from doctrinal error. That is why we can trust it, because we believe in faith that God is in control. God has the power and willingness to conform Church doctrine with His doctrine. All we need do is locate the Church that Christ established. Which argument for the nature of "the Church" is more plausible and believable? I think this determination can be made conclusively by comparison of doctrines with what we find in the Bible.

But to ascribe the origin of the traditions by which the Church has hitherto been oppressed to the apostles is mere imposition, since the whole substance of the doctrine of the apostles is, that conscience must not be burdened with new observances, nor the worship of God contaminated by our inventions.

Assumes what he needs to demonstrate and prove  . . . 

Then, if any credit is to be given to ancient histories and records, what they attribute to the apostles was not only unknown to them, but was never heard by them. 

Then by all means, Calvin ought to demonstrate this (erroneous) claim with documentation. But he refrains from doing so here. Perhaps he attempts it elsewhere. Wherever he appeals to historical fact to bolster his heresies and innovations, I shall offer a Catholic counter-argument. Where he doesn't offer an argument (as presently), I note that, so readers can be aware of the sleight-of-hand (in case they missed it).

Nor let them pretend that most of their decrees, though not delivered in writing, were received by use and practice, being things which they could not understand while Christ was in the world, but which they learned after his ascension, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit. 

This entails development of doctrine, which Calvin accepted in part above. Since he accepts the general notion, his burden is to show where Catholics have supposedly violated it: by what criteria does one prove that a given doctrine is a corruption and tradition of men? That's much more difficult than baldly declaring that all development of doctrine is impermissible. Ultimately, Calvin boxes himself into a corner by his subtlety of argument. He is clever, for sure, but he is also massively inconsistent and incoherent.

The meaning of that passage has been explained elsewhere (Chap. 8 sec. 14). In regard to the present question, they make themselves truly ridiculous, seeing it is manifest that all those mysteries which so long were undiscovered by the apostles, are partly Jewish or Gentile observances, the former of which had anciently been promulgated among the Jews, and the latter among all the Gentiles, partly absurd gesticulations and empty ceremonies, which stupid priests, who have neither sense nor letters, can duly perform; nay, which children and mountebanks perform so appropriately, that it seems impossible to have fitter priests for such sacrifices. If there were no records, men of sense would judge from the very nature of the case, that such a mass of rites and observances did not rush into the Church all at once, but crept in gradually. 

Passing over all the insulting and rather silly polemics, the Sacrifice of the Mass is very well-attested in the Fathers, and it has strong biblical arguments in its favor. See my relevant web page for many proofs of this.

For though the venerable bishops, who were nearest in time to the apostles, 

Ah; now Calvin is onto something: being closer in time to the apostles has some relevance to the truth of doctrine. Yet he denies apostolic succession, as understood by the apostles and the fathers.

introduced some things pertaining to order and discipline, those who came after them, and those after them again, had not enough of consideration, while they had too much curiosity and cupidity, he who came last always vying in foolish emulation with his predecessors, so as not to be surpassed in the invention of novelties. 

No historical proofs or actual argumentation offered; only foolish speculations, including of motives . . . When we see some Calvinists acting in the same fashion today, we know from whence the method comes.

And because there was a danger that these inventions, from which they anticipated praise from posterity, might soon become obsolete, they were much more rigorous in insisting on the observance of them. This false zeal has produced a great part of the rites which these men represent as apostolical. This history attests.

Then he needs to prove it, rather than merely stating his (altogether arguable, debatable) contention, as if it were some self-evident axiom.


Adomnan said...

Calvin is often praised as a writer. I don't see it. As you go through his Institutes systematically, Dave, what I see for the most part is just empty, insubstantial rhetoric.

For example, he grumbles about "a mass of rites." What in the world is he talking about? The Catholic Church has one essential rite, the Mass. Add to this the sacraments, hardly a confusing labyrinth of ritual. Sure, there were other inessential rites of various kinds connected to the Church Year and local religious customs. But why is this a problem?

Calvin gives no examples of the "mass of rites" he has in mind. It's all an abstraction. I have been Catholic my entire life and know the Church's rites well, and yet I don't have the slightest idea what this bloviater is talking about.

Even if there were a "mass of rites" back in his day (which I doubt), what a stupid reason for separating from the Church: "I left because there were too many ceremonies." Who said he had to attend them all? Some people like ceremonies. They leave others cold. Or it may depend on your mood. Again, where's the problem?

And if "a mass of rites" was a good enough reason to repudiate the Catholic Church, wouldn't it be an equally good reason for abolishing the monarchies of Calvin's day (all that court ceremony and pageantry)? Elizabeth of England's quasi-Calvinistic court was not exactly a ceremony-free zone. But, no. Calvin wasn't going to suggest that, because he saw it in his career interest to kiss up to monarchs. So, Catholic rites: bad. Royal rites: good. Got it.

Now, Calvin: There's a Sophist for you!

I notice, too, that he seems to equate "the word of God" exclusively with written texts. I wonder where that odd idea came from? In Calvin's case, it appears to be the unexamined assumption of a shallow thinker.

Ben M said...


In Calvin's case, it appears to be the unexamined assumption of a shallow thinker.

"Shallow thinker"? Calvin? Oh, I don't know about that, Adomnan. Seems to me he's right up there with such luminaries as 'Brian Fellows'.