Calvin on Ceremony

This post was published on Tuesday 3 February 2009.

Writing on John 4.20, Calvin writes that error lies in ‘the confusing of different ages’:

Later generations devote themselves to the examples of the fathers, not thinking that a different law of action has been enjoined on them by the Lord.   We can ascribe to this ignorance the huge mass of ceremonies with which the Church under the Papacy has been buried.   Immediately after the beginning of the Church they began to sin in this way from a foolish and undue affectation of Judaism.   The Jews had their sacrifices; and therefore, that Christians also might not be without a show, the rite of sacrificing Christ was invented. ... This madness later broke out more strongly and spread beyond all bounds.

Therefore, that we may not fall into this error, we must always heed the following rule: Incense, lights, sacred vestments, altar, vessels and ceremonies of this kind were formerly pleasing to God; and the reason was that nothing is more aceptable or precious to Him than obedience.   We must therefore regard what He enjoins us in the Gospel, so that we may not unthinkingly follow what the fathers observed under the Law.   For what was then a sacred observing of the worship of God would now be a wicked sacrilege.

John Calvin, John 1-10 (trans. THL Parker), Paternoster (Carlise, 1995): p.96-97.

The Anglican Church tries to hold together those who lean towards a more Roman Catholic practice of worship, and those who lean towards a more Protestant/Reformed simplicity.   Many of us regard this as acceptable, that ceremony is a ‘matter of indifference’.

However, here Calvin sees it to be a matter of great significance.   He argues that if we ‘unthinkingly follow’ what was commanded of our fathers, and in so doing ignore what we are commanded to do, we are guilty of ‘a wicked sacrilege’.

Calvin’s argument is that the practice of ceremony, with ‘Incense, lights, sacred vestments...’ etc, belongs to a former time, and is not now commanded.   In fact (if I understand him correctly) it distracts us from what is enjoined in the Gospel, and so is a matter of disobedience, not indifference.