Dedication of the Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin (1536)
To His Most Christian Majesty, FRANCIS, King of the French, and his Sovereign,John Calvin wisheth peace and salvation in Christ.
I began this work, Sire, nothing was further from my thoughts than writing a book which would afterwards be presented to your Majesty. My intention was only to lay down some elementary principles, by which inquirers on the subject of religion might be instructed in the nature of true piety.
And this labour I undertook chiefly for my countrymen, the French, of whom I apprehended multitudes to be hungering and thirsting after Christ, but saw very few possessing any real knowledge of him. That this was my design, the book itself proves by its simple method and unadorned composition.
But when I perceived that the fury of certain wicked men in your kingdom had grown to such a height, as to leave no room in the land for sound doctrine, I thought I should be usefully employed, if in the same work I delivered my instructions to them, and exhibited my confession to you, that you may know the nature of that doctrine, which is the object of such unbounded rage to those madmen who are now disturbing the country with fire and sword.
For I shall not be afraid to acknowledge, that this treatise contains a summary of that very doctrine, which, according to their clamours, deserves to be punished with imprisonment, banishment, proscription, and flames, and to be exterminated from the face of the earth.
I well know with what atrocious insinuations your ears have been filled by them, in order to render our cause most odious in your esteem; but your clemency should lead you to consider that, if accusation be accounted a sufficient evidence of guilt, there will be an end of all innocence in words and actions.
If any one, indeed, with a view to bring odium upon the doctrine which I am endeavouring to defend, should allege that it has long ago been condemned by the general consent, and suppressed by many judicial decisions, this will be only equivalent to saying, that it has been sometimes violently rejected through the influence and power of its adversaries, and sometimes insidiously and fraudulently oppressed by falsehoods, artifices, and calumnies.
Violence is displayed, when sanguinary sentences are passed against it without the cause being heard; and fraud, when it is unjustly accused of sedition and mischief.
Lest any one should suppose that these our complaints are unfounded, you yourself, Sire, can bear witness of the false calumnies with which you hear it daily traduced; that its only tendency is to wrest the sceptres of kings out of their hands, to overturn all the tribunals and judicial proceedings, to subvert all order and governments, to distrub the peace and tranquillity of the people, to abrogate all laws, to scatter all properties and possessions, and, in a word, to involve every thing in total confusion.
And yet you hear the smallest portion of what is alleged against it; for such horrible things are circulated amongst the vulgar, that, if they were true, the whole world would justly pronounce it and its abettors worthy of a thousand fires and gibbets.
Who, then, will wonder at its becoming the object of public odium, where credit is given to such most iniquitous accusations? This is the cause of the general consent and conspiracy to condemn us and our doctrine.
Hurried away with this impulse, those who sit in judgment pronounce for sentences the prejudices they brought from home with them; and think their duty fully discharged if they condemn none to be punished but such as are convicted by their own confession, or by sufficient proofs. Convicted of what crime? of this condemned doctrine, they say.
But with what justice is it condemned? Now, the ground of defence was not to abjure the doctrine itself, but to maintain its truth. On this subject, however, not a word is allowed to be uttered.
Wherefore I beseech you, Sire,—and surely it is not an unreasonable request,—to take upon yourself the entire cognizance of this cause, which has hitherto been confusedly and carelessly agitated, without any order of law, and with outrageous passion rather than judicial gravity.
Think not that I am now meditating my own individual defence, in order to effect a safe return to my native country; for, though I feel the affection which every man ought to feel for it, yet, under the existing circumstances, I regret not my removal from it.
But I plead the cause of all the godly, and consequently of Christ himself, which, having been in these times persecuted and trampled on in all ways in your kingdom, now lies in a most deplorable state; and this indeed rather through the tyranny of certain Pharisees, than with your knowledge.
How this comes to pass is foreign to my present purpose to say; but it certainly lies in a most afflicted state.
For the ungodly have gone to such lengths, that the truth of Christ, if not vanquished, dissipated, and entirely destroyed, is buried, as it were, in ignoble obscurity, while the poor, despised church is either destroyed by cruel massacres, or driven away into banishment, or menaced and terrified into total silence.
And still they continue their wonted madness and ferocity, pushing violently against the wall already bent, and finishing the ruin they have begun. In the meantime, no one comes forward to plead the cause against such furies.
If there by any persons desirous of appearing most favourable to the truth, they only venture an opinion, that forgiveness should be extended to the error and imprudence of ignorant people.
For this is the language of these moderate men, calling that error and imprudence which they know to be the certain truth of God, and those ignorant people, whose understanding they perceive not to have been so despicable to Christ, but that he has favoured them with the mysteries of his heavenly wisdom.
Thus all are ashamed of the Gospel.
But it shall be yours, Sire, not to turn away your ears or thoughts from so just a defence, especially in a cause of such importance as the maintenance of God’s glory unimpaired in the world, the preservation of the honor of divine truth, and the continuance of the kingdom of Christ uninjured among us.
This is a cause worthy of your attention, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your throne.
This consideration constitutes true royalty, to acknowledge yourself in the government of your kingdom to be the minister of God. For where the glory of God is not made the end of the government, it is not a legitimate sovereignty, but a usurpation.
And he is deceived who expects lasting prosperity in that kingdom which is not ruled by the sceptre of God, that is, his holy word; for that heavenly oracle cannot fail, which declares that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” > Nor should you be seduced from this pursuit by a contempt of our meanness.
We are fully conscious to ourselves how very mean and abject we are, being miserable sinners before God, and accounted most despicable by men; being (if you please) the refuse of the world, deserving of the vilest appellations that can be found; so that nothing remains for us to glory in before God, but his mercy alone, by which, without any merit of ours, we have been admitted to the hope of eternal salvation, and before men nothing but our weakness, the slightest confession of which is esteemed by them as the greatest disgrace.
But our doctrine must stand, exalted above all the glory, and invincible by all the power of the world; because it is not ours, but the doctrine of the living God, and of his Christ, whom the Father hath constituted King, that he may have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth, and that he may rule in such a manner, that the whole earth, with its strength of iron and with its splendour of gold and silver, smitten by the rod of his mouth, may be broken to pieces like a potter’s vessel; > for thus do the prophets foretell the magnificence of his kingdom.
Our adversaries reply, that our pleading the word of God is a false pretence, and that we are nefarious corrupters of it. But that this is not only a malicious calumny, but egregious impudence, by reading our confession, you will, in your wisdom, be able to judge.
Yet something further is necessary to be said, to excite your attention, or at least to prepare your mind for this perusal.
Paul’s direction, that every prophecy be framed “according to the analogy of faith,” > has fixed an invariable standard by which all interpretation of Scripture ought to be tried. If our principles be examined by this rule of faith, the victory is ours.
For what is more consistent with faith than to acknowledge ourselves naked of all virtue, that we may be clothed by God; empty of all good, that we may be filled by him; slaves to sin, that we may be liberated by him; blind, that we may be enlightened by him; lame, that we may be guided; weak, that we may be supported by him; to divest ourselves of all ground of glorying, that he alone may be eminently glorious, and that we may glory in him?
When we advance these and similar sentiments, they interrupt us with complaints that this is the way to overturn, I know not what blind light of nature, pretended preparations, free will, and works meritorious of eternal salvation, together with all their supererogations; because they cannot bear that the praise and glory of all goodness, strength, righteousness, and wisdom, should remain entirely with God.
But we read of none being reproved for having drawn too freely from the fountain of living waters; on the contrary, they are severely upbraided who have “hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
> Again, what is more consistent with faith, than to assure ourselves of God being a propitious Father, where Christ is acknowledged as a brother and Mediator? than securely to expect all prosperity and happiness from Him, whose unspeakable love towards us went so far, that “he spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us?” > than to rest in the certain expectation of salvation and eternal life, when we reflect upon the Father’s gift of Christ, in whom such treasures are hidden? Here they oppose us, and complain that this certainty of confidence is chargeable with arrogance and presumption.
But as we ought to presume nothing of ourselves, so we should presume every thing of God; nor are we divested of vain glory for any other reason than that we may learn to glory in the Lord.
What shall I say more? Review, Sire, all the parts of our cause, and consider us worse than the most abandoned of mankind, unless you clearly discover that we thus “both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God,” > because we believe that “this is life eternal, to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent.”
> For this hope some of us are bound in chains, others are lashed with scourges, others are carried about as laughing-stocks, others are outlawed, others are cruelly tortured, others escape by flight; but we are all reduced to extreme perplexities, execrated with dreadful curses, cruelly slandered and treated with the greatest indignities.
Now, look at our adversaries, (I speak of the order of priests, at whose will and directions others carry on these hostilities against us,) and consider a little with me by what principles they are actuated. The true religion, which is taught in the Scriptures, and ought to be universally maintained, they readily permit both themselves and others to be ignorant of, and to treat with neglect and contempt.
They think it unimportant what any one holds or denies concerning God and Christ, provided he submits his mind with an implicit faith (as they call it) to the judgment of the Church. Nor are they much affected, if the glory of God happens to be violated with open blasphemies, provided no one lift a finger against the primacy of the Apostolic See, and the authority of their holy Mother Church.
Why, therefore, do they contend with such extreme bitterness and cruelty for the mass, purgatory, pilgrimages, and similar trifles, and deny that any piety can be maintained without a most explicit faith, so to speak, in these things; whereas they prove none of them from the word of God? Why, but because their belly is their God, their kitchen is their religion; deprived of which they consider themselves no longer as Christians, or even as men.
For though some feast themselves in splendour, and others subsist on slender fare, yet all live on the same pot, which, without this fuel, would not only cool, but completely freeze. Every one of them, therefore, who is most solicitous for his belly, is found to be a most strenuous champion for their faith.
Indeed, they universally exert themselves for the preservation of their kingdom, and the repletion of their bellies; but not one of them discovers the least indication of sincere zeal.
Nor do their attacks on our doctrine cease here; they urge every topic of accusation and abuse to render it an object of hatred or suspicion.
They call it novel, and of recent origin,—they cavil at it as doubtful and uncertain,—they inquire by what miracles it is confirmed,—they ask whether it is right for it to be received contrary to the consent of so many holy fathers, and the custom of the highest antiquity,—they urge us to confess that it is schismatical in stirring up opposition against the Church, or that the Church was wholly extinct for many ages, during which no such thing was known.
—Lastly, they say all arguments are unnecessary; for that its nature may be determined by its fruits, since it has produced such a multitude of sects, so many factious tumults, and such great licentiousness of vices.
It is indeed very easy for them to insult a deserted cause with the credulous and ignorant multitude; but, if we had also the liberty of speaking in our turn, this acrimony, which they now discover in violently foaming against us with equal licentiousness and impunity, would presently cool.
In the first place, their calling it novel is highly injurious to God, whose holy word deserves not to be accused of novelty. I have no doubt of its being new to them, to whom Jesus Christ and the Gospel are equally new.
But those who know the antiquity of this preaching of Paul, “that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and rose again for our justification,” > will find no novelty among us. That it has long been concealed, buried, and unknown, is the crime of human impiety.
Now that the goodness of God has restored it to us, it ought at least to be allowed its just claim of antiquity.
From the same source of ignorance springs the notion of its being doubtful and uncertain. This is the very thing which the Lord complains of by his prophet; that “the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib,” > but that his people know not him.
But however they may laugh at its uncertainty, if they were called to seal their own doctrine with their blood and lives, it would appear how much they value it. Very different is our confidence, which dreads neither the terrors of death, nor even the tribunal of God.
Their requiring miracles of us is altogether unreasonable; for we forge no new Gospel, but retain the very same whose truth was confirmed by all the miracles ever wrought by Christ and the apostles.
But they have this peculiar advantage above us, that they can confirm their faith by continual miracles even to this day. But the truth is, they allege miracles which are calculated to unsettle a mind otherwise well established, they are so frivolous and ridiculous, or vain and false.
Nor, if they were ever so preternatural, ought they to have any weight in opposition to the truth of God, since the name of God ought to be sanctified in all places and at all times, whether by miraculous events, or by the common order of nature.
This fallacy might perhaps be more specious, if the Scripture did not apprize us of the legitimate end and use of miracles.
For Mark informs us, that the miracles which followed the preaching of the apostles were wrought in confirmation > of it, and Luke tells us, that > “the Lord gave testimony to the word of his grace,” when “signs and wonders” were “done by the hands” of the apostles.
Very similar to which is the assertion of the apostle, that “salvation was confirmed” by the preaching of the Gospel, “God also bearing witness with signs, and wonders, and divers miracles.” > But those things which we are told were seals of the Gospel, shall we pervert to undermine the faith of the Gospel?
Those things which were designed to be testimonials of the truth, shall we accommodate to the confirmation of falsehood? It is right, therefore, that the doctrine, which, according to the evangelist, claims the first attention, be examined and tried in the first place; and if it be approved, then it ought to derive confirmation from miracles.
But it is the characteristic of sound doctrine, given by Christ, that it tends to promote, not the glory of men, but the glory of God. > Christ having laid down this proof of a doctrine, it is wrong to esteem those as miracles which are directed to any other end than the glorification of the name of God alone.
And we should remember that Satan has his wonders, which, though they are juggling tricks rather than real miracles, are such as delude the ignorant and inexperienced.
Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles; idolatry has been supported by astonishing miracles; and yet we admit them not as proofs of the superstition of magicians or idolaters. With this engine also the simplicity of the vulgar was anciently assailed by the Donatists, who abounded in miracles.
We therefore give the same answer now to our adversaries as Augustine > gave to the Donatists, that our Lord hath cautioned us against these miracle-mongers by his prediction, that there should arise false prophets, who, by various signs and lying wonders, “should deceive (if possible) the very elect.” > and Paul has told us, that the kingdom of Antichrist would be “with all power, and signs, and lying wonders.”
> But these miracles (they say) are wrought, not by idols, or sorcerers, or false prophets, but by saints; as if we were ignorant, that it is a stratagem of Satan to “transform” himself “into an angel of light.” > At the tomb of Jeremiah, > who was buried in Egypt, the Egyptians formerly offered sacrifices and other divine honours.
Was not this abusing God’s holy prophet to the purposes of idolatry? Yet they supposed this veneration of his sepulchre to be rewarded with a cure for the bite of serpents.
What shall we say, but that it has been, and ever will be, the most righteous vengeance of God to “send those who receive not the love of the truth strong delusions, that they should believe a lie?” > We are by no means without miracles, and such as are certain, and not liable to cavils.
But those under which they shelter themselves are mere illusions of Satan, seducing the people from the true worship of God to vanity.
Another calumny is their charging us with opposition to the fathers,—I mean the writers of the earlier and purer ages,—as if those writers were abettors of their impiety; whereas, if the contest were to be terminated by this authority, the victory in most parts of the controversy—to speak in the most modest terms—would be on our side.
But though the writings of those fathers contain many wise and excellent things, yet in some respects they have suffered the common fate of mankind; these very dutiful children reverence only their errors and mistakes, but their excellences they either overlook, or conceal, or corrupt; so that it may truly be said to be their only study to collect dross from the midst of gold.
Then they overwhelm us with senseless clamours, as despisers and enemies of the fathers. But we do not hold them in such contempt, but that, if it were consistent with my present design, I could easily support by their suffrages most of the sentiments that we now maintain.
But while we make use of their writings, we always remember that “all things are ours,” to serve us, not to have dominion over us, and that “we are Christ’s” > alone, and owe him universal obedience.
He who neglects this distinction will have nothing decided in religion; since those holy men were ignorant of many things, frequently at variance with each other, and sometimes even inconsistent with themselves.
There is great reason, they say, for the admonition of Solomon, “not to transgress or remove the ancient landmarks, which our fathers have set.” > But the same rule is not applicable to the bounding of fields, and to the obedience of faith, which ought to be ready to “forget her own people and her father’s house.”
> But if they are so fond of allegorizing, why do they not explain the apostles, rather than any others, to be those fathers, whose appointed landmarks it is so unlawful to remove? For this is the interpretation of Jerome, whose works they have received into their canons.
But if they insist on preserving the landmarks of those whom they understand to be intended, why do they at pleasure so freely transgress them themselves? There were two fathers, > of whom one said, that our God neither eats nor drinks, and therefore needs neither cups nor dishes; the other, that sacred things require no gold, and that gold is no recommendation of that which is not purchased with gold.
This landmark therefore is transgressed by those who in sacred things are so much delighted with gold, silver, ivory, marble, jewels, and silks, and suppose that God is not rightly worshipped, unless all things abound in exquisite splendour, or rather extravagant profusion.
There was a father > who said he freely partook of flesh on a day when others abstained from it, because he was a Christian. They transgress the landmarks therefore when they curse the soul that tastes flesh in Lent.
There were two fathers, > of whom one said, that a monk who labors not with his hands is on a level with a cheat or a robber; and the other, that it is unlawful for monks to live on what is not their own, notwithstanding their assiduity in contemplations, studies, and prayers; and they have transgressed this landmark by placing the idle and distended carcasses of monks in cells and brothels, to be pampered on the substance of others.
There was a father > who said, that to see a painted image of Christ, or of any other saint, in the temples of Christians, is a dreadful abomination. Nor was this merely the sentence of an individual; it was also decreed by an ecclesiastical council, that the object of worship should not be painted on the walls.
They are far from confining themselves within these landmarks, for every corner is filled with images.
Another father > has advised that, after having discharged the office of humanity towards the dead by the rites of sepulture, we should leave them to their repose. They break through these landmarks by inculcating a constant solicitude for the dead.
There was one of the fathers > who asserted that the substance of bread and wine in the Eucharist ceases not, but remains, just as the substance of the human nature remains in the Lord Christ united with the divine. They transgress this landmark therefore by pretending that, on the words of the Lord being recited, the substance of bread and wine ceases, and is transubstatiated into his body and blood.
There were fathers > who, while they exhibited to the universal Church only one eucharist, and forbade all scandalous and immoral persons to approach it, at the same time severely censured all who, when present, did not partake of it.
How far have they removed these landmarks, when they fill not only the churches, but even private houses, with their masses, admit all who choose to be spectators of them, and every one the more readily in proportion to the magnitude of his contribution, however chargeable with impurity and wickedness! They invite none to faith in Christ and a faithful participation of the sacraments; but rather for purposes of gain bring forward their own work instead of the grace and merit of Christ.
There were two fathers, > of whom one contended that the use of Christ’s sacred supper should be wholly forbidden to those who, content with partaking of one kind, abstained from the other; the other strenuously maintained that Christian people ought not to be refused the blood of their Lord, for the confession of whom they are required to shed their own.
These landmarks also they have removed, in appointing, by an inviolable law, that very thing which the former punished with excommunication, and the latter gave a powerful reason for disapproving.
There was a father > who asserted the temerity of deciding on either side of an obscure subject, without clear and evident testimonies of Scripture. This landmark they forgot when they made so many constitutions, canons, and judicial determinations, without any authority from the word of God.
There was a father > who upbraided Montanus with having, among other heresies, been the first imposer of laws for the observance of fasts. They have gone far beyond this landmark also, in establishing fasts by the strictest laws.
There was a father > who denied that marriage ought to be forbidden to the ministers of the Church, and pronounced cohabitation with a wife to be real chastity; and there were fathers who assented to his judgment. They have transgressed these landmarks by enjoining on their priests the strictest celibacy.
There was a father who thought that attention should be paid to Christ only, of whom it is said, “Hear ye him,” and that no regard should be had to what others before us have either said or done, only to what has been commanded by Christ, who is preeminent over all. This landmark they neither prescribe to themselves, nor permit to be observed by others, when they set up over themselves and others any masters rather than Christ.
There was a father > who contended that the Church ought not to take precedence of Christ, because his judgment is always according to truth; but ecclesiastical judges, like other men, may generally be deceived. Breaking down this landmark also, they scruple not to assert, that all the authority of the Scripture depends on the decision of the Church.
All the fathers, with one heart and voice, have declared it execrable and detestable for the holy word of God to be contaminated with the subtleties of sophists, and perplexed by the wrangles of logicians.
Do they confine themselves within these landmarks, when the whole business of their lives is to involve the simplicity of Scripture in endless controversies, and worse than sophistical wrangles? so that if the fathers were now restored to life, and heard this art of wrangling, which they call speculative divinity, they would not suspect the dispute to have the least reference to God.
But I would enumerate all the instances in which the authority of the fathers is insolently rejected by those who would be thought their dutiful children, my address would exceed all reasonable bounds. Months and years would be insufficient for me. And yet such is their consummate and incorrigible impudence, they dare to censure us for presuming to transgress the ancient landmarks.
Nor can they gain any advantage against us by their argument from custom; for, if we were compelled to submit to custom, we should have to complain of the greatest injustice. Indeed, if the judgments of men were correct, custom should be sought among the good. But the fact is often very different.
What appears to be practiced by many soon obtains the force of a custom. And human affairs have scarcely ever been in so good a state as for the majority to be pleased with things of real excellence. From the private vices of multitudes, therefore, has arisen public error, or rather a common agreement of vices, which these good men would now have to be received as law.
It is evident to all who can see, that the world is inundated with more than an ocean of evils, that it is overrun with numerous destructive pests, that every thing is fast verging to ruin, so that we must altogether despair of human affairs, or vigorously and even violently oppose such immense evils. And the remedy is rejected for no other reason, but because we have been accustomed to the evils so long.
But let public error be tolerated in human society; in the kingdom of God nothing but his eternal truth should be heard and regarded, which no succession of years, no custom, no confederacy, can circumscribe.
Thus Isaiah once taught the chosen people of God: “Say ye not, A confederacy, to all to whom this people shall say, A confederacy:” that is, that they should not unite in the wicked consent of the people; “nor fear their fear, nor be afraid,” but rather “sanctify the Lord of hosts,” that he might “be their fear and their dread.”
> Now, therefore, let them, if they please, object against us past ages and present examples; if we “sanctify the Lord of hosts,” we shall not be much afraid.
For, whether many ages agree in similar impiety, he is mighty to take vengeance on the third and fourth generation; or whether the whole world combine in the same iniquity, he has given an example of the fatal end of those who sin with a multitude, by destroying all men with a deluge, and preserving Noah and his small family, in order that his individual faith might condemn the whole world.
Lastly, a corrupt custom is nothing but an epidemical pestilence, which is equally fatal to its objects, though they fall with a multitude.
Besides, they ought to consider a remark, somewhere made by Cyprian, > that persons who sin through ignorance, though they cannot be wholly exculpated, may yet be considered in some degree excusable; but those who obstinately reject the truth offered by the Divine goodness, are without any excuse at all.
Nor are we so embarrassed by their dilemma as to be obliged to confess, either that the Church was for some time extinct, or that we have now a controversy with the Church.
The Church of Christ has lived, and will continue to live, as long as Christ shall reign at the right hand of the Father, by whose hand she is sustained, by whose protection she is defended, by whose power she is preserved in safety.
For he will undoubtedly perform what he once promised, to be with his people “even to the end of the world.” > We have no quarrel against the Church, for with one consent we unite with all the company of the faithful in worshipping and adoring the one God and Christ the Lord, as he has been adored by all the pious in all ages.
But our opponents deviate widely from the truth when they acknowledge no Church but what is visible to the corporeal eye, and endeavour to circumscribe it by those limits within which it is far from being included.
Our controversy turns on the two following points:—first, they contend that the form of the Church is always apparent and visible; secondly, they place that form in the see of the Roman Church and her order of prelates.
We assert, on the contrary, first, that the Church may exist without any visible form; secondly, that its form is not contained in that external splendour which they foolishly admire, but is distinguished by a very different criterion, viz. the pure preaching of God’s word, and the legitimate administration of the sacraments. They are not satisfied unless the Church can always be pointed out with the finger.
But how often among the Jewish people was it so disorganized, as to have no visible form left? What splendid form do we suppose could be seen, when Elias deplored his being left alone? > How long, after the coming of Christ, did it remain without any external form? How often, since that time, have wars, seditions, and heresies, oppressed and totally obscured it?
If they had lived at that period, would they have believed that any Church existed? Yet Elias was informed that there were “left seven thousand” who had “not bowed the knee to Baal.” Nor should we entertain any doubt of Christ’s having always reigned on earth ever since his ascension to heaven.
But if the pious at such periods had sought for any form evident to their senses, must not their hearts have been quite discouraged? Indeed it was already considered by Hilary in his day as a grievous error, that people were absorbed in foolish admiration of the episcopal dignity, and did not perceive the dreadful mischiefs concealed under that disguise.
For this is his language: > “One thing I advise you—beware of Antichrist, for you have an improper attachment to walls; your veneration for the Church of God is misplaced on houses and buildings; you wrongly introduce under them the name of peace.
Is there any doubt that they will be seats of Antichrist? I think mountains, woods, and lakes, prisons and whirlpools, less dangerous; for these were the scenes of retirement or banishment in which the prophets prophesied.”
But what excites the veneration of the multitude in the present day for their horned bishops, but the supposition that those are the holy prelates of religion whom they see presiding over great cities? Away, then, with such stupid admiration.
Let us rather leave it to the Lord, since he alone “knoweth them that are his,” > sometimes to remove from human observation all external knowledge of his Church. I admit this to be a dreadful judgment of God on the earth; but if it be deserved by the impiety of men, why do we attempt to resist the righteous vengeance of God?
Thus the Lord punished the ingratitude of men in former ages; for, in consequence of their resistance to his truth, and extinction of the light he had given them, he permitted them to be blinded by sense, deluded by absurd falsehoods, and immerged in profound darkness, so that there was no appearance of the true Church left; yet, at the same time, in the midst of darkness and errors, he preserved his scattered and concealed people from total destruction.
Nor is this to be wondered at; for he knew how to save in all the confusion of Babylon, and the flame of the fiery furnace. But how dangerous it is to estimate the form of the Church by I know not what vain pomp, which they contend for; I shall rather briefly suggest than state at large, lest I should protract this discourse to an excessive length.
The Pope, they say, who holds the Apostolic see, and the bishops anointed and consecrated by him, provided they are equipped with mitres and crosiers, represent the Church, and ought to be considered as the Church. Therefore they cannot err.
How is this?—Because they are pastors of the Church, and consecrated to the Lord.
And did not the pastoral character belong to Aaron, and the other rulers of Israel? Yet Aaron and his sons, after their designation to the priesthood, fell into error when they made the golden calf.
> According to this mode of reasoning, why should not the four hundred prophets, who lied to Ahab, have represented the Church? > But the Church remained on the side of Micaiah, solitary and despised as he was, and out of his mouth proceeded the truth.
Did not those prophets exhibit both the name and appearance of the Church, who with united violence rose up against Jeremiah, and threatened and boasted, “the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet?” > Jeremiah is sent singly against the whole multitude of prophets, with a denunciation from the Lord, that the “law shall perish from the priest, counsel from the wise, and the word from the prophet.”
> And was there not the like external respectability in the council convened by the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, to consult about putting Christ to death? > Now, let them go and adhere to the external appearance, and thereby make Christ and all the prophets schismatics, and, on the other hand, make the ministers of Satan instruments of the Holy Spirit.
But if they speak their real sentiments, let them answer me sincerely, what nation or place they consider as the seat of the Church, from the time when, by a decree of the council of Basil, Eugenius was deposed and degraded from the pontificate, and Amadeus substituted in his place.
They cannot deny that the council, as far as relates to external forms, was a lawful one, and summoned not only by one pope, but by two. There Eugenius was pronounced guilty of schism, rebellion, and obstinacy, together with all the host of cardinals and bishops who had joined him in attempting a dissolution of the council.
Yet afterwards, assisted by the favour of princes, he regained the quiet possession of his former dignity.
That election of Amadeus, though formally made by the authority of a general and holy synod, vanished into smoke; and he was appeased with a cardinal’s hat, like a barking dog with a morsel.
From the bosom of those heretics and rebels have proceeded all the popes, cardinals, bishops, abbots, and priests ever since. Here they must stop.
For to which party will they give the title of the Church? Will they deny that this was a general council, which wanted nothing to complete its external majesty, being solemnly convened by two papal bulls, consecrated by a presiding legate of the Roman see, and well regulated in every point of order, and invariably preserving the same dignity to the last?
Will they acknowledge Eugenius to be a schismatic, with all his adherents, by whom they have all been consecrated? Either, therefore, let them give a different definition of the form of the Church, or, whatever be their number, we shall account them all schismatics, as having been knowingly and voluntarily ordained by heretics.
But if it had never been ascertained before, that the Church is not confined to external pomps they would themselves afford us abundant proof of it, who have so long superciliously exhibited themselves to the world under the title of the Church, though they were at the same time the deadly plagues of it.
I speak not of their morals, and those tragical exploits with which all their lives abound, since they profess themselves to be Pharisees, who are to be heard and not imitated. I refer to the very doctrine itself, on which they found their claim to be considered as the Church.
If you devote a portion of your leisure, Sire, to the perusal of our writings, you will clearly discover that doctrine to be a fatal pestilence of souls, the firebrand, ruin, and destruction of the Church.
Finally, they betray great want of candour, by invidiously repeating what great commotions, tumults, and contentions, have attended the preaching of our doctrine, and what effects it produces in many persons. For it is unfair to charge it with those evils which ought to be attributed to the malice of Satan.
It is the native property of the Divine word, never to make its appearance without disturbing Satan, and rousing his opposition. This is a most certain and unequivocal criterion by which it is distinguished from false doctrines, which are easily broached when they are heard with general attention, and received with applauses by the world.
Thus, in some ages, when all things were immerged in profound darkness, the prince of this world amused and diverted himself with the generality of mankind, and, like another Sardanapalus, gave himself up to his ease and pleasures in perfect peace; for what would he do but amuse and divert himself, in the quiet and undisturbed possession of his kingdom?
But when the light shining from above dissipated a portion of his darkness—when that Mighty One alarmed and assaulted his kingdom—then he began to shake off his wonted torpor, and to hurry on his armour.
First, indeed, he stirred up the power of men to suppress the truth by violence at its first appearance; and when this proved ineffectual, he had recourse to subtlety.
He made the Catabaptists, and other infamous characters, the instruments of exciting dissensions and doctrinal controversies, with a view to obscure and finally to extinguish it.
And now he continues to attack it both ways; for he endeavours to root up this genuine seed by means of human force, and at the same time tries every effort to choke it with his tares, that it may not grow and produce fruit.
But all his attempts will be vain, if we attend to the admonitions of the Lord, who hath long ago made us acquainted with his devices, that we might not be caught by him unawares, and has armed us with sufficient means of defence against all his assaults.
But to charge the word of God with the odium of seditions, excited against it by wicked and rebellious men, or of sects raised by imposters,—is not this extreme malignity? Yet it is not without example in former times. Elias was asked whether it was not he “that troubled Israel.” > Christ was represented by the Jews as guilty of sedition.
> The apostles were accused of stirring up popular commotions > Wherein does this differ from the conduct of those who, at the present day, impute to us all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions, that break out against us? But the proper answer to such accusations has been taught us by Elias, that the dissemination of errors and the raising of tumults is not chargeable on us, but on those who are resisting the power of God.
But as this one reply is sufficient to repress their temerity, so, on the other hand, we must meet the weakness of some persons, who are frequently disturbed with such offences, and become unsettled and wavering in their minds.
Now, that they may not stumble and fall amidst this agitation and perplexity, let them know that the apostles in their day experienced the same things that now befall us.
There were “unlearned and unstable” men, Peter says, who “wrested” the inspired writings of Paul “to their own destruction.” > There were despisers of God, who, when they heard that “where sin abounded grace did much more abound,” immediately concluded, Let us “continue in sin, that grace may abound.”
When they heard that the faithful were “not under the law,” they immediately croaked, “We will sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace.” > There were some who accused him as an encourager of sin.
Many false apostles crept in, to destroy the churches he had raised. “Some preached” the gospel “of envy and strife, not in sincerity,” maliciously “supposing to add affliction to his bonds.” > In some places the Gospel was attended with little benefit.
“All were seeking their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.” > Others returned “like dogs to their vomit, and like swine to their wallowing in the mire.” > Many perverted the liberty of the spirit into the licentiousness of the flesh.
Many insinuated themselves as brethren, who afterwards brought the pious into dangers. Various contentions were excited among the brethren themselves.
What was to be done by the apostles in such circumstances? Should they not have dissembled for a time, or rather have rejected and deserted that Gospel which appeared to be the nursery of so many disputes, the cause of so many dangers, the occasion of so many offences?
But in such difficulties as these, their minds were relieved by this reflection that Christ is the “stone of stumbling and rock of offence,” > “set for the fall and rising again of many, and for a sign which shall be spoken against;” > and armed with this confidence, they proceeded boldly through all the dangers of tumults and offences.
The same consideration should support us, since Paul declares it to be the perpetual character of the Gospel, that it is a “savour of death unto death in them that perish,” > although it was rather given us to be the “savour of life unto life,” and “the power of God to” the “salvation” of the faithful; > which we also should certainly experience it to be, if we did not corrupt this eminent gift of God by our ingratitude, and prevert to our destruction what ought to be a principal instrument of our salvation.
But I return to you, Sire.
Let not your Majesty be at all moved by those groundless accusations with which our adversaries endeavour to terrify you; as that the sole tendency and design of this new Gospel—for so they call it—is to furnish a pretext for seditions, and to gain impunity for all crimes.
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace;” > nor is “the Son of God,” who came to “destroy the works of the devil, the minister of sin.” > and it is unjust to charge us with such motives and designs, of which we have never given cause for the least suspicion.
Is it probable that we are meditating the subversion of kingdoms?—we, who were never heard to utter a factious word, whose lives were ever known to be peaceable and honest while we lived under your government, and who, even now in our exile, cease not to pray for all prosperity to attend yourself and your kingdom Is it probable that we are seeking an unlimited license to commit crimes with impunity? in whose conduct, though many things may be blamed, yet there is nothing worthy of such severe reproach
Nor have we, by Divine Grace, profited so little in the Gospel, but that our life may be an example to our detractors of chastity, liberality, mercy, temperance, patience, modesty, and every other virtue.
It is an undeniable fact, that we sincerely fear and worship God, whose name we desire to be sanctified both by our life and by our death; and envy itself is constrained to bear testimony to the innocence and civil integrity of some of us, who have suffered the punishment of death for that very thing which ought to be accounted their highest praise.
But if the Gospel be made a pretext for tumults, which has not yet happened in your kingdom; if any persons make the liberty of divine grace an excuse for the licentiousness of their vices, of whom I have known many,—there are laws and legal penalties, by which they may be punished according to their deserts; only let not the Gospel of God be reproached for the crimes of wicked men.
You have now, Sire, the virulent iniquity of our calumniators laid before you in a sufficient number of instances, that you may not receive their accusations with too credulous an ear.
—I fear I have gone too much into the detail, as this preface already approaches the size of a full apology; whereas I intended it not to contain our defence, but only to prepare your mind to attend to the pleading of our cause; for, though you are now averse and alienated from us, and even inflamed against us, we despair not of regaining your favour, if you will only once read with calmness and composure this our confession, which we intend as our defence before your Majesty.
But, on the contrary, if your ears are so preoccupied with the whispers of the malevolent, as to leave no opportunity for the accused to speak for themselves, and if those outrageous furies, with your connivance, continue to persecute with imprisonments, scourges, tortures, confiscations, and flames, we shall indeed, like sheep destined to the slaughter, be reduced to the greatest extremities.
Yet shall we in patience possess our souls, and wait for the mighty hand of the Lord, which undoubtedly will in time appear, and show itself armed for the deliverance of the poor from their affliction, and for the punishment of their despisers, who now exult in such perfect security.
May the Lord, the King of kings, establish your throne with righteousness, and your kingdom with equity.
Basil, 1st August, 1536.
John Calvin was born at Noyon, Picardy, France, in 1509, and died at Geneva in 1564.
He joined the Reformation about 1528, and, having banished from Paris, took refuge in Switzerland.
The “Institutes,” published at Basle in 1536, contain a comprehensive statement of the beliefs of that school of Protestant theology which bears Calvin’s name; and in this “Dedication” we have Calvin’s own summing up of the essentials of his creed
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