Week 40 of 50 in the Institutes: Picking Up the Slack

I was looking forward to reading the daily blogs on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments in the Institutes (see bottom for schedule).  But, alas!  They were skipped entirely by their Blogging the Institutes initiative back in 2009, and no one ever back-filled them.  I’m not about to attempt to fill their shoes by providing summaries of each section.  I will, instead, provide at least one reflection for each day’s reading assignment, in a meager attempt to pick up the slack left in the rope here.

October 5:  When reading these sections, the plight of Kim Davis kept coming to mind.  What relevant counsel or insight may we glean from Calvin’s definition of conscience, and what it means to bind the conscience?  Calvin had the situation of his own day in mind with regard to the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church concerning worship, so his handling of the topic isn’t as broad as we might hope for here relative to our current events.  The closest he comes seems to be in 4.10.5.  Laws of the magistrate or church are “necessary to be observed” when they are just and good:

Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded. Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.

So it stands to reason that it is not necessary to observe unjust and bad laws.  After all, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29; see Calvin’s Commentary on this passage here).  In such cases the conscience is not bound, Calvin would say, because such laws are in conflict with the law of God (since to be in conflict with God’s law puts the matter beyond the pale of being a subject of indifference, or morally neutral).  I vehemently disagree with the position taken by Brad Littlejohn in his post here with regard to supporting Kim Davis’ stance.  Marriage is not a pet issue, and its definition is not something over which the Supreme Court has jurisdiction by any fanciful stretch of judicial imagination.  In the end, Littlejohn’s “prudence test” seems little more than a pragmatic, spineless capitulation: don’t make waves, and surrender at the slightest opposition.

October 6:  Calvin pegged man’s penchant for the products of his own imagination and wisdom in 4.10.11 where he discussed the appeal of human traditions, as found in the RCC or anywhere else.  So it should be no surprise that natural man would take offense at being required to worship God in the way He proscribes (i.e., the regulative principle of worship):

Human traditions, he says, deceive by an appearance of wisdom. Whence this show? Just that being framed by men, the human mind recognizes in them that which is its own, and embraces it when recognized more willingly than anything, however good, which is less suitable to its vanity.

October 7: Calvin denies the right of any institution to use the name of “church” if it refuses to follow God’s commands (4.10.17).  How many “churches” today are illegitimate by this definition?

October 8: The surprising thing in these sections is that Calvin leaves no neutral zone for the casual, compliant, don’t-rock-the-boat, non-reflective worshipper where God’s dictates are not observed.  We might expect Calvin to lay the blame for defective worship entirely at the feet of the church leaders, but he doesn’t.  Rather than viewing compliance as a manifestation of humility (man to man), Calvin held such behavior in utter contempt, because every such participant presumes to prescribe how God is to be worshipped (4.10.24), whether he realizes it or not, by his very actions.  It would seem that Calvin placed a premium on personal responsibility in this regard, and that worship was no passive, slight, or inconsequential act. As we might expect, such high regard for the significance of worship on Calvin’s part was rooted in his knowledge of Scripture and the examples made therein of those who took worship lightly (4.10.24):

Many wonder why God threatens so sternly that he will bring astonishment on the people who worship him with the commandments of men, and declares that it is in vain to worship him with the commandments of men. But if they would consider what it is in the matter of religion, that is, of heavenly wisdom, to depend on God alone, they would, at the same time, see that it is not on slight grounds the Lord abominates perverse service of this description, which is offered him at the caprice of the human will. For although there is some show of humility in the obedience of those who obey such laws in worshipping God, yet they are by no means humble, since they prescribe to him the very laws which they observe.

October 9:  In this last reflection for this week’s assignment, I have to take issue with the apparatus of John T. McNeill’s edition of the Institutes we have been using, because the editor put words in Calvin’s mouth in a way that should be readily apparent to the observant reader.  Calvin’s concluding admonition in 4.10.30 with regard to bondage and freedom of church constitutions was to let love be our guide.  The editor then made the following comment in footnote 50 on p. 1208 of the McNeill-Battles edition of the Institutes:

While Calvin warmly approves the kneeling posture in prayer, for reasons both of human tradition and of divine sanction, he finally leaves the choice of posture (with the like manners) to the best interest of the church and the judgment of charity.  A sensible freedom in such secondary matters is illustrated in the reference to women’s headwear in church, in sec. 31, where the limiting factors mentioned are custom, humanity, and the rule of modesty. On this passage, F. Wendel observes that Calvin does not require ‘a servile imitation of the primitive church’ (Wendel, Calvin, pp. 229 f).

A careful reading of section 31, however, reveals that Calvin nowhere refers to the issue of women’s headwear in church, but rather to the issue of everyday apparel (4.10.31, bold emphasis added):

Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy. You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognize in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman’s bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbor that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered.

To be sure of Calvin’s position here, I checked his commentary on 1 Cor. 11:2-17.  Therein Calvin takes the stance that head coverings for women in worship are required universally in the church, and not matters left up to individual conscience or cultural settings.  This would seem to be one aspect of worship where God binds the conscience (as Calvin addressed it in 4.10.3 and 4.10.4).  But the majority of evangelicals today do their best to skate around this rather straightforward reading of 1 Cor. 11 to try and make it culturally relative, despite Paul’s rooting of the practice in creation and redemption.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:  Skipped!

This week’s reading schedule:

Oct. 5:  4.10.3 – 4.10.8

Oct. 6:  4.10.9 – 4.10.15

Oct. 7:  4.10.16 – 4.10.21

Oct. 8: 4.10.22 – 4.10.28

Oct. 9: 4.10.29 – 4.11.1


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