Why can’t we all just get along? That phrase commonly surfaces whenever moral and doctrinal matters begin to be considered with any depth. The issues Calvin raised more than four centuries ago in regard to papal supremacy still remain as sticking points to this day between Protestants and Catholics. And as Rick Phillips pointed out in the September 25 blog (see link below), Calvin was “far from the politically correct emphasis on ‘charity above all’ in today’s doctrinal disputes!”
We will do well here to pause and ask ourselves why it was that Calvin was so worked up about papal supremacy that he devoted so much space to it in the Institutes. Phillips credited this zeal on Calvin’s part to a belief that life and death issues were at stake, and so they were. But I think another reason can be posited as well, namely, Calvin’s view of God and zeal for his glory. I assert this because when he goes for the “jugular” in these sections (as Phillips puts it) in 4.7.24 when identifying the Roman pontiff as the Antichrist, Calvin has the honor and glory of God foremost in view:
To some we seem slanderous and petulant, when we call the Roman Pontiff Antichrist. But those who think so perceive not that they are bringing a charge of intemperance against Paul, after whom we speak, nay, in whose very words we speak. But lest any one object that Paul’s words have a different meaning, and are wrested by us against the Roman Pontiff, I will briefly show that they can only be understood of the Papacy. Paul says that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). In another passage, the Spirit, portraying him in the person of Antiochus, says that his reign would be with great swelling words of vanity (Dan. 7:25). Hence we infer that his tyranny is more over souls than bodies, a tyranny set up in opposition to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Then his nature is such, that he abolishes not the name either of Christ or the Church, but rather uses the name of Christ as a pretext, and lurks under the name of Church as under a mask. But though all the heresies and schisms which have existed from the beginning belong to the kingdom of Antichrist, yet when Paul foretells that defection will come, he by the description intimates that that seat of abomination will be erected, when a kind of universal defection comes upon the Church, though many members of the Church scattered up and down should continue in the true unity of the faith. But when he adds, that in his own time, the mystery of iniquity, which was afterwards to be openly manifested, had begun to work in secret, we thereby understand that this calamity was neither to be introduced by one man, nor to terminate in one man. Moreover, when the mark by which he distinguishes Antichrist is, that he would rob God of his honour and take it to himself, he gives the leading feature which we ought to follow in searching out Antichrist; especially when pride of this description proceeds to the open devastation of the Church. Seeing then it is certain that the Roman Pontiff has impudently transferred to himself the most peculiar properties of God and Christ, there cannot be a doubt that he is the leader and standard-bearer of an impious and abominable kingdom.
I think I’m safe in saying that few Reformed Protestants today will identify the Pope as the Antichrist. The Reformers and Puritans are not renown for their exegetical insights in this regard. But the spirit of Antichrist exists wherever Christ is opposed, and Calvin and the Reformers astutely discerned acute opposition to the gospel and Christ firmly ensconced in the institutional church of their day. So out of zeal for the Lord and his truth they railed against the corruption they encountered, perhaps sometimes with less charity than required (Eph. 4:15, “speaking the truth in love”). But at the end of the day they never forgot the holiness of the Lord, and that is the malady of our modern age.
This past week when gay marriage was in the headlines, one bystander was featured with a sign that said, “God loves. . . period!” Well, that isn’t the whole truth. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we read: “Love, love, love is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his love.” What we do find, instead, is: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:3) God, we see, is characterized as the thrice holy God.
Yes, the Lord is gracious, and he accepts penitent sinners just as they are. But his grace doesn’t leave them as they are. In redeeming Adam’s sinful, fallen race, he conforms his people to the image of his Son in holiness. The idea that “God loves. . . period” has it the other way around. But rather than conforming the Creator to the image of the corrupt creature (abandoning His holiness and becoming corrupt Himself), God instead maintains his own holiness and in salvation transforms the fallen creature into a new self, created after God in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Anything else makes a mockery of the inscription on the High Priest’s brow, “Holiness to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36), in that every believer in Christ now comprises a royal priesthood (1 Pe. 2:9). It was this affront to the Lord’s holiness that so incensed Calvin. May we be faithful to the Lord in our generation as well, always speaking the truth in love, and never abandoning either.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: