Calvin on removing idolatry from worship (2 Kings 18:4)

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Reminded of this today on Facebook. This comes from issue 8 of The Confessional Presbyterian, sort of the key pull out section of a never before translated track by Calvin, translated from French by our own @VictorBravo . It points to a principle that many of the Reformed confessions and theologians hearken to, such as George Gillespie in his English Popish Ceremonies and the necessity of removing monuments of idolatry; one could call it the principle of the bronze serpent. Happily, or sadily the issue 8 joined issue one as out of print. Get one if you can find it used.

Recognizing that God’s law commands the form of his worship, and by this he expresses detestation of all false gods, of course it is a repugnant thing to say that in pleasing men something must be added to his Commandments. The vile buffoonery of the Papacy soils all religion. This also is not a thing suitable to good conscience. If some customs are useful and of good faith, I confess that the error that detains the spirits of some must not stop those who are well instructed to use only that which is good—provided that it would not become a common error confirmed by use. But because superstition is bindingly connected with many ceremonies which in themselves are good, anyone who would want to keep them shows in effect that he is of those who fall short. In this way, a false opinion, commonly received, will soil by abuse customs that otherwise are good. It becomes not only necessary to flee from it in your personal observation, but also that the fault be liberally noted out of fear that simple people would be hardened by it more and more. For it is not proper for a zealous Christian to say, “To each his own,” without also admonishing the others to be on their own guard.​

Similarly, what is alleged of an Italian writer, that abuse does not take away good use, will not be true if one holds to it without exception: because it is clearly commanded to us to prudently watch that we would not offend the infirm brothers by our example, and that we should never undertake what would be illicit. For Saint Paul prohibits offending the brothers in eating flesh that was sacrificed to idols [1 Cor. 10:28], and speaking to this particular issue he shows a general rule that we are to keep ourselves from troubling the consciences of the weak by a bad or damaging example. One might speak better and more wholesomely if he were to say that what God himself ordains may not be abolished for wrong use or abuse that is committed against it. But even here, it is necessary to abstain from these things if, by later human ordinance, they have become corrupt with error, and if their use is harmful or scandalizes the brothers.​

Here I marvel how this “Reformer,” after granting that superstitions sometimes have such strong popularity that it is necessary to remove from the realm of man those things once ordained by public authority (as we read of Hezekiah doing with the bronze serpent), finally does not consider even a little that his shrewdness is a horror to the ways of good action: as if in defending supportable rituals, he would oblige that all superstitions should be considered as safe and whole because they are weighty. For what is there in the papacy now that would not resemble the bronze serpent, even if it did not begin that way? [Numbers 21:9.] Moses had it made and forged by the commandment of God: he had it kept for a sign of recognition. Among the virtues of Hezekiah told to us is that he had it broken and reduced to ash [2 Kings 18:4]. The superstitions for the most part, against which true servants of God battle today, are spreading from here to who knows where as covered pits in the ground. They are filled with detestable errors that can never be erased unless their use is taken away. Why, therefore, do we not confess simply what is true, that this remedy is necessary for taking away filth from the church?​

In Translatiōne: Calvin’s Response to a Certain Tricky Middler, translated from the French by R. Victor Bottomly, The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012) 263-4.
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