Calvin: Who Is Faithful To The Church Fathers?

Moreover, they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory — to put it very modestly — would turn to our side. Now, these fathers have written many wise and excellent things. Still, what commonly happens to men has befallen them too, in some instances. For these so-called pious children of theirs, with all their sharpness of wit and judgment and spirit, worship only the faults and errors of the fathers. The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold. Then, with a frightful to-do, they overwhelm us as despisers and adversaries of the fathers! But we do not despise them; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval. Yet we are so versed in their writings as to remember always that all things are ours [1 Corinthians 3:21-22], to serve us, not to lord it over us [Luke 22:24-25], and that we all belong to the one Christ [1 Corinthians 3:23], whom we must obey in all things without exception [cf. Colossians 3:20]. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves. It is not without cause, they say, that Solomon bids us not to transgress the limits set by our fathers [Proverbs 22:28]. But the same rule does not apply to boundaries of fields, and to obedience of faith, which must be so disposed that “it forgets its people and its father’s house” [Psalm 45:10]. But if they love to allegorize so much, why do they not accept the apostles (rather than anyone else) as the “fathers” who have set the landmarks that it is unlawful to remove [Proverbs 22:28]? Thus has Jerome interpreted this verse, and they have written his words into their canons. But if our opponents want to preserve the limits set by the fathers according to their understanding of them, why do they themselves transgress them so willfully as often as it suits them?

It was one of the fathers who said that our God neither drinks nor eats, and therefore has no need of plates or cups. Another, that sacred rites do not require gold, and those things not bought with gold do not please with gold. They therefore transgress this limit when in their ceremonies they take so much delight in gold, silver, ivory, marble, precious stones, and silks; and think that God is not rightly worshiped unless everything swims with untoward splendor, or, rather, mad excess.

It was a father who said that he freely ate meat on the day others abstained from it,because he was a Christian. They transgress the limits, therefore, when they execrate any person who has tasted of meat in Lent.
There were two fathers, one of whom said that a monk who does not labor with his hands must be considered equal to a thug, or (if you prefer) a brigand; the second, that it is not lawful for monks to live off the goods of others, even though they be assiduous in contemplation, in prayer, and in study.
They have also transgressed this limit when they have put the lazy, wine-cask bellies of monks in these stews and brothels to be crammed with substance of others.

It was a father who termed it a dreadful abomination to see an image either of Christ or of some saint painted in the churches of Christians. “What is reverenced is not to be depicted upon walls” was not the mere declaration of one man but the decree of an ecclesiastical council. They are far from remaining within these limits when they leave not a corner free of images. Another father counseled that, after having exercised in burial the office of humanity toward the dead, we should let them rest. They break these limits when they stir up perpetual solicitude for the dead.

It was one of the fathers, who testified that in the Eucharist the substance of bread and wine remained and did not cease to be, just as in Christ the Lord the substance and nature of man remained, joined to the divine nature. Therefore, they overstep the bounds in pretending that when the Lord’s words are repeated the substance of bread and wine ceases and is transubstantiated into body and blood.

They were fathers who, as they set forth only one Eucharist for the whole church and consequently excluded wicked and criminal persons, most gravely condemned all those who though present did not receive it. How far have they removed the boundaries when they fill not only churches but also private houses with their Masses, admitting anyone at all to observe them, each one the more willingly the more he pays, however impure and wicked he may be! They invite no one to faith in Christ and believing communion of the sacraments; rather, they put their work on sale, as the grace and merit of Christ.

There were two fathers, one of whom decreed that those content with participation in one kind, but abstaining from the other, were to be excluded entirely from participation in the Sacred Supper of Christ; the other strongly contends that one must not deny the blood of their Lord to Christian folk, who, in confessing him, are bidden to shed their own blood. They have removed these landmarks when they have commanded by an inviolable law the very thing that the former father punished by excommunication and the latter reproved with a valid reason.

It was a father who affirmed it rashness, when judging of some obscure matter, to take one side or another without clear and evident witness of Scripture. They forgot this limit when they established so many constitutions, canons, and doctrinal decisions, without any word of God. It was a father who reproached Montanus for, among other heresies, being the first to impose laws of fasting. They also passed far beyond those limits when they ordained fasts by very strict law.

It was a father who denied that marriage should be forbidden to the ministers of the church, and declared cohabitation with one’s wife to be chastity. And other fathers agreed with his opinion. By severely enjoining celibacy for their priests,they have gone beyond this limit. It was a father who deemed that one must listen to Christ alone, for Scripture says, “Hear him” [Matthew 17:5]; and that we need not be concerned about what others before us either said or did, but only about what Christ, who is the first of all, commanded. When they set over themselves and others any masters but Christ, they neither abode by this boundary nor permitted others to keep it. It was a father who contended that the church ought not to set itself above Christ, for he always judges truthfully, but ecclesiastical judges, like other men, are often mistaken.

When this boundary is also broken through, they do not hesitate to declare that the whole authority of Scripture depends entirely upon the judgment of the church.

All the fathers with one heart have abhorred and with one voice have detested the fact that God’s Holy Word has been contaminated by the subtleties of sophists and involved in the squabbles of dialecticians. When they attempt nothing in life but to enshroud and obscure the simplicity of Scripture with endless contentions and worse than sophistic brawls, do they keep themselves within these borders? Why, if the fathers were now brought back to life, and heard such brawling art as these persons call speculative theology, there is nothing they would less suppose than that these folk were disputing about God! But my discourse would overflow its proper limit if I chose to review how wantonly they reject the yoke of the fathers, whose obedient children they wish to seem. Indeed, months and even years would not suffice me! Nevertheless they are of such craven and depraved impudence as to dare reproach us for not hesitating to pass beyond the ancient boundaries.

John CalvinInstitutes, Dedicatory Preface (1559)


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