Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading Calvin, Part 3: The Address to the King of France

The Reformers were bold.  They had no choice. They were standing against a great tide, a massive power.  They probably took to heart Jesus’ words, “And the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (the rock upon which the church was built, or the church itself” and many probably saw the Roman Catholic Church as the gates of hell. 

This address is a defense of the evangelicals in France who were being persecuted by those who blamed them for, among other things, the incident of the Placards on October 18, 1534, when “copies of a handbill containing crude attacks on the mass were in the night attached to public buildings” (from the notes to the translation I am reading and referenced earlier).  To be a Protestant was to be a seditionist, the charge went.  How far we’ve come!  Separation of church and state today means that Christians of all stripes can be attacked publicly with no concern for the government being part of the bargain.  Since Muslims do not have a “church,” they get special treatment.  If a church is burned, it is arson, and a local crime.  Is a mosque is burned, it’s a hate crime and a federal issue!

Calvin’s original plan was simply to write a Bible study; but it has now had to morph into something else.  Calvin knows what his fellow countryman have been accused of, but “accusation is not proof of guilt.”  Calvin tells the king that the king has only heard the half of what is being said of the Protestants, and if that half were the truth, one would think Protestants existed for no other purposes than treason and overthrowing the government of France.  Calvin isn’t just writing this so he can come back to France.  He’d like to but it’s better he didn’t, all things considered.  Calvin appeals to the King’s role as minister of God on earth.  He counters the Machiavellian ideal of power as the only goal and everything else subsumed to its pursuit.  “A king who does not govern to God’s glory is a pirate (brigand, bandit),” Calvin says.  “On the other hand, we recognize ourselves as lowly sinners, as does the Bible.”  We do not say we are morally sinless, Calvin argues, only that we are not guilty of the treason we are being accused of. 

In fact, Calvin goes on, we depend totally on Christ because we acknowledge ourselves total sinners.  We are called arrogant for having total trust.  Essentially, we are oppressed for trusting God and the Bible.  In our accusers’ eyes nothing is wrong except speaking against the Pope and the church and its doctrines of purgatory, pilgrimages, mass—things for which there is no Biblical proof.  And they live high while others go poor. 

As a good rhetorician, he addresses their arguments against the Protestants, and these are arguments that have some strength.
  1.  The doctrine of the Reformers is new.  Yes, it is new because it hasn’t been heard—for a while.  It’s what Paul taught, not new.  It’s been buried for centuries, yes, but that’s man’s fault.
  2. The doctrine of the Reformers is uncertain and doubtful.  But the Reformers are willing to die for their doctrines.  Will the adversaries die for theirs?
  3. The Reformers have no miracles.  But, Calvin says, we have the New and Old Testament ones; miracles can have Satanic origin; miracles confirm the gospel already given and accepted, but do not prove it or validate it (I’m not so sure of this one, since Pentecost came before the inpouring of believers into the church).
  4. The church fathers disagree with Calvin and Luther, etc.  The opponents here pick and choose which fathers they want to follow; the church fathers themselves disagreed among themselves.  Calvin’s knowledge of the church fathers is massive, so no one is going to win this argument.
  5. The Protestants go against custom.  Who cares, Calvin says, if custom is wrong?  This is the fallacy of appeal to the majority.
  6. The church must be a visible, institutional, building-based entity with a pope and ceremonies and power and numbers.  Where did they get that idea, since in the first 300 years it was the minority, not the majority, and powerless.  Calvin, of course, equates Israel with the true church, a Reformed error.   He minces no words, and takes for granted the Roman Catholic Church is full of Pharisees at best and adulterers, thieves, gluttons, drunks, etc. at worst.
After addressing the issue that the Reformers’ accusers, who had run the French Protestants out of France to Switzerland and the Netherlands and other points, do not understand the nature of the church, Calvin goes on to the seventh section to defend against the charge that the Reformers have caused tumults.
Historically, Calvin cannot deny this.  The European world has been turned upside down.  So he attacks the causes.  Satan has been aroused from his apathetic slumber to cause the problems, doing two things:  he has worked by direct persecution, and he has worked through causing divisions and contentions with groups such as the Anabaptists, whom he calls rascals and refers to as catabaptists.  Further, we have Old and New Testament examples of the same kind of reaction to the preaching of God’s word, so this is nothing new.  Christ himself is a rock of offense.
In the final section, Calvin appeals, in good Ciceronian manner, to the King not to listen to accuser witout real evidence, and the evidence shows that Protestants were never seditious in action or word.  He reminds the king there are laws to convict those commit specific crimes, but that does not mean everyone who has some connection to them should be punished also.

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