To the Evangelical Nicodemites

Over the last few years there have been a few laments about “Reformed rocks stars.” Carl Trueman has rightly warned against the cult of personality. Now I would like to turn the tables. If we should be concerned about rock stars and personalities in evangelicalism and Reformed-dom then we should also be concerned about about another party to all this: those who attend those conferences and those who do not.

First, there are lots of Christians who attend congregations which, shall we say, are part of the problem more than they are part of the solution, where the gospel is not preached purely, where the sacraments are not administered purely, and where discipline is not practiced. These folk also attend Reformed conferences. They attend because they are “fed” there, because they can fellowship with like-minded folk there, because, in some cases, it’s a relief from their congregation. Still they stay in their congregations.

I know this happens because I have heard the stories and I’ve met such. They bring to mind Nicodemus (John 9), who came to Jesus late at night when it was safe to visit, so that he would not have to pay the price for being publicly associated with Jesus. In the 16th century, there was an analogous group whom the Reformed called “Nicodemites.” These were Roman Catholics who professed to hold the evangelical faith but who, nevertheless, were unwilling to leave their Roman congregations. They told their Reformed friends and sometimes even wrote to the reformers themselves to ask for counsel about this very problem. They felt the tension themselves. They were fearful of offending family. They feared leaving the familiar and the comfortable. They feared social consequences, even economic consequences, losing a job or an inheritance. In some cases it might have meant leaving town for purely religious reasons. There were strong external incentives to remain in the Roman Church while practicing the evangelical faith privately.

There are discontinuities, of course, between 16th-century Roman Catholics and 21st-century evangelicals, but there are continuities too. There are strong external reasons not to leave the local mega-church. There is a comfortable anonymity and safety in the theater seating, at the coffee bar, or on the couch with the candles. The services might not be great but the small groups are fantastic. It is the place to be. The band is hot. One can dress casually. All one’s friends attend. There’s a peer pressure or family pressure to conform.

There are things to be lost in walking away from one’s comfortable evangelical congregation. Indeed, I have known more than a few Reformed folk who, upon leaving their evangelical congregation have been shunned, have lost business or business opportunities and have hurt family connections. Calvin addressed these very problems in a number of letters and in A Short Treatise Setting Forth What the Faithful Man Must Do When He is Among the Papists and Knows the Truth of the Gospel (1543). It is worth considering this treatise and it is useful to apply it to our evangelical Nicodemite friends in hopes of encouraging them to identify with those churches who were, in the 16th century and who, in the late modern period, are once again “under the cross.”

In his brilliant work, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Carlos M. N. Eire adds some context to the Nicodemite problem as Calvin faced it. As Eire, notes, the problem was not in Geneva, but in France (235) where “French Protestants lives in an environment that was hostile to their beliefs and practices, making the threat of idolatry even greater.” Before “such pressure, some Protestants assumed the attitude of compromise and deceit that came to be known as Nicodemism” (236). Beza explained.

There were also at that time in France certain persons, who, having renounced the protestant religion at the commencement, through fear of persecution, had begun afterwards so far to flatter themselves as to deny there was any sin in being present with their bodies only at the celebration of the mass, provided they embraced the true religion in their hearts. Calvin, whom they blamed for the excess of his severity, plainly refuted, by his clear and elegant writings, this very pernicious error, which the fathers had long ago condemned. He annexed also the opinions of the most learned reformers, Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr, Bucer, and the church of Zurich, and so far restrained the progress of this error, that the Nicodemites, which name they had acquired by adducing the example of this most holy person as a pretext for their false sentiments, he fell into bad repute in the church.

As Beza noted (and as Eire follows him) Calvin wasn’t the only one to face this problem. It was universal to the confessional Protestants. The confessional Lutheran theologian, Johannes Brenz used the adjective “Nicodemish” in 1529. Calvin wrote Luther to and translated two books into Latin just for him to ask him to speak out against it (but Melanchthon pocketed the letter because, as he told Calvin, “Pericles” was in no mood just then to hear from the Reformed about worship). There is a debate in the scholarship over whether Nicodemism was a coherent movement. Carlo Ginzburg argues it was and Eire disagrees (239). If we compare the 16th-century “Nicodemites” to today’s churchless evangelicals wandering from congregation to congregation to to no congregation at all, we can see how there can be a sort of intellectual community with no organization. There seem to be a lot of folk who share certain ideas but just as they seem to be allergic to the visible church so they lack any formal organization. It is hard to imagine any sort of formal organization of people afraid to identify publicly as Protestants or as Reformed or as evangelicals.

Calvin was conscious that there were some difficulties in calling these “dissemblers” Nicodemites. He didn’t regard Nicodemus as a dissembler (Eire, 243). The cowardly Nicodemus became a faithful man. He even describes his contemporaries as “pseudo-Nicodemites” because at least Nicodemus came forward to identify openly with Jesus. By 1562 he stopped using it as an epithet altogether. Nevertheless, we persevere if only for the ease of the label. He identified 4 different classes of Nicodemites:

  1. Those who do it for money
  2. Those who try to convert high-born ladies, but who do not take the gospel seriously.
  3. Those who try to reduce Christianity to a philosophy
  4. Those merchants and common people who fear danger.

Not everyone in Paris was pleased with Calvin’s critiques. Some, of a certain social status, felt he was rocking the boat too much. They thought he was too harsh. The more they complained, the more Calvin pushed. “When I heard that many people complained about my strictness, especially those kinds of people who think that their wisdom increases proportionately to the care they take in protecting their lives, I wrote an apology which made their ears twitch even harder than the first book….” (Letter to Luther; Eire, 246). Calvin was less worried about what French elites thought than what Christ thinks.

The problem of the refusal of crypto-evangelicals to come out of the Roman church and into the confessing Protestant churches (and especially into the Reformed Churches) troubled Calvin enough to cause him to write on the topic repeatedly and to publish several letters and other short writings through his career until the early ‘60s.

In the 1562 treatise he concluded, “That if no service is agreeable to God, except that which comes from an honest conviction: the opposite holds true, that no simulation can displease him, when one only pretends to adore the idols without having devotion in order to please the unbelievers.”

For Calvin, one cannot separate body and soul. They can be distinguished, but Calvin was an anti-Gnostic. We are embodied persons. We cannot worship Christ with our “souls” if our bodies are in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing (violating his moral will). It’s a 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 problem. It’s one thing to eat meat offered to idols. It’s another thing to sit at table with one who involves one in his offering. Once it’s not just a meal anymore, then we have communion with idols and, for Calvin, as for Paul, one cannot be joined to Christ and to idols.

In France and in modern Belgium there were a considerable number of people who privately, personally identified with Reformed or evangelical theology (in the 16th century “evangelical” meant confessional Lutheran or Reformed theology. Calvin frequently spoke of “the evangelical” view when describing his view of this or that) but they did so without leaving their local Roman congregation. These churches were the status quo. They had family ties or political connections or perhaps there was no local Reformed congregation with which to identify. In some cases to leave the Roman Church meant leaving a Roman city and moving to an “evangelical” city where there was a Reformed congregation. In some cases the local Roman Cathedral was the local mega-church. It was the biggest or best show in town. After all, a high mass was quite a sight. It was high, visual drama. It produced intense religious feelings, people “experienced” God.  It was the “place to be” and the “place to be seen.” But what about those poor souls who weren’t allowed to “by the papists to worship God purely”?

Calvin said the answer is easy, “if their hearts were fully resolved to follow everything that God declares to them completely and unquestioningly.”  The problem is “most men , having learned a thing to be displeasing to God, nevertheless give themselves leave to go seeking its defence.” [sic] Calvin said that “a hundred people” had asked him about this in the same way Balaam asked God for leave to go before King Balak (Num 22). He knew it was contrary to God’s will but he asked anyway. In the same way, crypto-evangelicals (my term; perhaps better than “Nicodemites” and in our case we might speak of “crypto-Calvinists”) attend the mega-church because of the youth group or or the praise and worship or what have you.  Calvin says these folk are “fairly convinced in their consciences that it is wrong to bow down before idols , inquire and query about what they should do, and not to subdue their affections to God by submitting to his word, but so that they may have free rein, and having an answer to their liking, may flatter themselves enough to remain in their evil doing.” He says that this lot is looking for “cushions to put their consciences to sleep, and for someone to make them believe they are alive when really they are dead.”

Remember, he was speaking to people who were “not allowed” to worship God according to the Scriptures. In some cases obeying God would have meant tremendous hardship and possibly the most extreme hardship: arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. In the 16th century probably no fewer than 62,000 Calvinists were martyred for the faith by Roman authorities. Tens of thousands of those died in one week, in 1572, during the “St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” The rest were systematically hunted and murdered by Spanish troops in the Netherlands. In many places, knowing the Calvinist and Reformed conviction that only God’s Word may be sung in worship (and that often meant the psalms), authorities banned the singing of psalms and then, when Christians were found to be singing the psalms, they arrested them. When people were converted through watching the Calvinists go to the stake singing God’s praise in his own Word, in their own language, the Roman authorities began cutting out the tongues of the martyrs to prevent them from praising God.

Calvin was well aware of what he was about to ask of the crypto-Calvinists or secret Calvinists. He wrote letters of comfort to some of them as they languished in dark, rat-infested prisons, awaiting a sham trial and a bloody, fiery death. He also understood that what he was saying was controversial. Some influential Parisian Protestants thought or alleged that he was saying that the only way to go to heaven was to be a member of the Genevan church. Of course he was not saying that at all. Some of Calvin’s critics were misrepresenting his argument in order to discredit it. They were attempting to justify themselves. At the same time, despite their scorn, he was loving them. He was concerned that those Roman Catholics who did not “come out” of the Roman communion and identify publicly with the evangelical (in the 16th-century sense, which today would mean “confessional Protestant” or as the Synod of Dort put, “who profess the Reformed Religion”) church would find themselves in genuine spiritual danger.

This attempt to discredit Calvin was, of course, self-serving since some of these folk were well placed and would have suffered significant personal setbacks and loss by leaving Rome and uniting with the suffering French Reformed Church.  Despite the scorn, Calvin persevered.

However, since our office is to give pure testimony to the truth, I cannot dissemble or draw back from saying what I think of things which are useful to know, even when it is required of me to do so. However, since the whole difficulty stems from our being more interested in remaining the good graces of the world than in pleasing God, I exhort every believer in the name of the Lord Jesus to compel his affections to, in order to make them obedient to the Master’s will.

He understood

it is a hard thing to put oneself in danger of losing body and goods, of arousing everyone’s ire against oneself, of being held in contempt and scorned, of leaving the land where one can live comfortably in order to depart for a strange land, like someone lost. Yes, what is the first lesson we must learn in the school of Jesus Christ, but to renounce ourselves?

In contemporary evangelicalism, words such as “mortification”  and “self-denial” are not fashionable. One is much more likely to hear about “self-affirmation’ and improving one’s “self-image.” To be sure, as a pastor and as one who grew up in the lower Midwest, where everyone is or used to be, as Garrison Keillor says, “a dark Lutheran,” (even those who aren’t Lutherans) people do suffer real damage to their self-image and there is psychological harm done by sin and by sinners. Nevertheless, the fundamental Christian message is not, “You’re okay, I’m okay,” but “God made us good, we fell, Christ obeyed and died for sinners and was raised on the third day for their justification.” Our self-image rests in the image of God and in his grace in Christ.

For Calvin, denying to self, dying to sin (mortification) was of the essence of the Christian life. We do by God’s grace alone. It’s a catch-22. The crypto-evangelicals (or today’s crypto-Reformed) aren’t going to grow as they ought in their present circumstances but they won’t really grow until they leave. They need to leave to grow but in order to leave they need to trust Christ enough (which implies growth) to leave!

Indeed, no one but Calvin is calling them to identify  with Christ, to suffer, to change. The current congregations and their friends are all telling them to stay, that religion is a private matter, an interior matter. But real mortification is interior with exterior consequences. Comfort is borne of security and familiarity, even when that comfort and familiarity are wrongly, even wickedly placed.

Calvin understood:

Now, if there are some who are so weak, that they cannot determine from the word ‘go’ to do what they should, I beseech them at least not to flatter themselves, looking for subterfuges and frivolous excuses to conceal themselves. This is nothing but reckoning without one’s host. Such ways of escape shall not deliver them fro God’s judgment.

He knew whereof he spoke. There was a period of murkiness as he became an evangelical. There must have been a period of transition in Paris, an inward wrestling with whether or when to stop attending Mass. Whether and when to identify with the evangelicals. How? Where? At what cost? His public identification with the evangelical church in Geneva, his virtual imprisonment by Farel, being pressed into service in Geneva against his will, having been unceremoniously dismissed by the City Council and then recalled from a much more pleasant place–Calvin only wanted to study and write–these were all crosses he bore. He considered that living in Geneva was like being crucified 1000 times a day. He did it at the expense of his own health, his own happiness, his own peace of mind, against his better judgment and personal inclinations, because his Savior did it for him.

He writes, “Indeed, we shall see that this has been, as it were, the part of the ruin of those who have become alienated from the grace of God: seeing that it was not safe for them to reveal themselves openly before men as true servants of god, in order to duly honor him, and they wanted to be considered just and above reproach because they polluted themselves in many idolatries. ” This passage from Calvin’s 1543 short treatise against the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals who refused to leave the Roman communion and identify openly with the Reformation cause illustrates two very important Reformed doctrines.

First, because we do not know the divine decree ahead of time, we must deal with life in the covenant of grace as it unfolds before us. Call this the “Hebrews 6/10” view of the church, i.e. this is the view taken in Hebrews chapters 6 and 10. People are in the external covenant community, they “taste of the powers of the age to come” and the “trample underfoot” the covenant when they apostatize. When they are with us, professing faith, we regard them as believers, as members of Christ according to the judgment of charity. After they have apostatized, however, we realize that, in fact, they were only members externally, that they lacked true faith and genuine union with Christ.

So, for Calvin, it was with the crypto-evangelicals who remained in false churches. He was willing to accept the genuineness of their profession provisionally and to be understanding about the difficulties they faced in leaving their current congregation in order to join a true church. At a certain point, however, the understanding changes. If the profession is never matched by action a discontinuity arises. They say that they are Protestants (evangelicals) but they continue to worship outwardly like Romanists, they continue to attend mass, they continue to participate in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Session 22, Council of Trent, Canon 3)—which Calvin and all the Protestants regarded as an abomination to God and “an accursed idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 80).

In view of the existential reality of the outward reality of their evangelical profession Calvin warned of the very real possibility of their “ruin” and becoming “alienated” from grace. This is a genuine spiritual danger to the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals. This is also a genuine danger to the crypto-Calvinists in the evangelical mega-churches and other congregations that lack the marks of a true church, in which the crypto-Calvinists find themselves. How long can they sit through therapeutic, moralistic, Deistic sermons and worship without doing real harm to themselves? I’ve had correspondence from people in such circumstances and they testify that the are “dead inside” and that they “dread” going to church. Sometimes they just stop going. After all, if what happens on Sunday morning is a poor imitation of Oprah or George Will, what’s the point?

The second truth here, however, is reflected in Calvin’s phrase, “as it were.” This is the difference between Calvin’s handling of this problem and the way the so-called, self-described Federal Vision movement handles this same situation. The FV says that every baptized person is, by virtue of his baptism, united to Christ. They reject any distinction between those who are merely outward members of the visible church or of the administration of the covenant of grace, and those who are outward and inward members [Rom 2:28] of the church and the covenant of grace. Because they reject this distinction they have it that one can be actually united to Christ, elect, regenerate, justified, adopted etc and yet still fall away. In this view their view is formally like the Remonstrants who were rejected at the Synod of Dort.

Calvin and the Reformed Churches understood, however, that only those who are actually united to Christ, sola gratia et sola fide  (by grace alone and through faith alone) in Christ alone, are actually united to Christ and receive his benefits. This is because Calvin and the Reformed Churches made a distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Not everyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace is necessarily elect, regenerate, or united to Christ. This is the force Calvin’s little phrase, “as it were.” All forms of rationalism, whether Open Theism or the FV, ignore this “as it were” qualification. The Heidelberg Catechism says “by his hand, as it were…” signaling that we understand that God, considered apart from the incarnation, does not have a body. We are not Mormons.

When Calvin wrote “as it were,” he recognized the tentative nature of human judgment in this world. He recognized that we are not God and that we do not know things as God knows them. We make the best judgments we can and we urge folk to live according to God’s self-disclosure (Deut 29:29) in God’s Word. We do not play “guess the elect.”  Christ has a church, and it exists where ever the gospel is preached purely, where ever the sacraments are administered purely, and where ever discipline is administered. From all one can tell these are not the three marks of most so-called evangelical congregations today. They are marked by programs, power points, and puppets.

Lest my evangelical friends think I’m being too hard on then, I well recognize that too many nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregations are indistinguishable from the great mass of therapeutic, moralistic Deism that passes for Christianity in our age. It may well be possible to be a crytpo-Calvinist in a nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregation where the substance of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice has been replaced with weak alternatives.

Calvin continued:

Then later, seeing that they still could not avoid all suspicion in this way, they considered it to be doing their duty when they concealed their Christianity altogether, not speaking a single word about God, except when they were with their close friends and family members, well enclosed in some room. Meanwhile, they permitted the truth of God to be blasphemed and whatever dishonor anyone did Jesus Christ, not only did they not say anything against it, but they put on a good show of consenting to it, being concerned only to take care that no one perceive that they were Christians.

Remember, when he said “Christianity,” he’s not speaking about people living in a predominantly pagan world or in a post-Christian culture (or in a pre-Christian culture). He’s speaking about crypto-evangelicals who are, for reasons of safety or comfort, hiding in Roman congregations. The blasphemies to which he refers are either Roman criticisms of the evangelical (i.e. confessional Protestant) faith or/and the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice and the like.

In response, the cryptos clam up. If they do not say anything then no one will know that they dissent inwardly. When folk around them slander the evangelicals or invoke saints or pray to the BVM, they keep their mouths shut.  Calvin reminded the cryptos that, in redemptive history, God dealt harshly with those who practiced “wicked subtlety,” that God “let them stumble into a n abyss of darkness, depriving them of the knowledge he had formerly given them.”

The proper response is not that one should seek to “justify himself in his iniquity” but rather that we should “give glory to God” by “confessing our wretchedness, rather than doubly confounding and condemning ourselves by squirming about  and seeking vain excuses.”

Over the years I have had posts from crypto-Calvinists who hide themselves in the local megachurch. Sometimes they seek to justify themselves by arguing that they are seeking reformation of the congregation. If so, then they are not really “crypto” (secret) Calvinists or Reformers at all, are they? If they are seeking reformation then the ministers and congregational leadership will be aware of them and of their efforts. If this megachurch is worth its salt as a megachurch, they have a plan and they have read the church growth literature. Rule #1 of the church growth program is to get rid of dissenters. Any “reformer” worth his salt is a dissenter from the tawdry songs, puppets, Playdoh, and powerpoint that passes for public piety in the megachurch. Immovable object meet irresistible force. Something has to give. Maybe the megachurch leadership will be struck in the heart but maybe not. What then? Most of the time, however, the cryptos remain just that: hidden, quiet, secret.

For Calvin, the core issue of the Nicodemite (crypto-evangelical) problem is the Lordship of Christ, not necessarily in the sense in which that word was used in the recent American evangelical controversy but in the sense that the cryptos are acting as if they were God’s “counterparts.”  The issue is whether the Christian will submit to the revealed will of God. He appealed to the example of Cyprian to illustrate what he meant obedience. He reminds his readers that “St. Cyprian, after being condemned to death, because he was unwilling to sacrifice to idols, was asked to consent to it in order to save his life.” The judge did not want to put Cyprian to death and urged him to simply say the magic words. Cyprian, however, was so determined to follow God’s will that he would do it even if death was the necessary result. For Calvin, Cyprian is a perfect example of one who “did not take counsel from” his “own” head, “turning aside from his Word….”  Calvin offered several proofs that, in fact, it is the Lord’s revealed, moral will for the cryptos to identify publicly with the Reformation. First he appealed to Jesus saying in Luke 9:26 that “if we are ashamed of him before me, he will likewise be ashamed of us when he appears in his majesty with the angels of God.” He appealed to Romans 10:10, that if we “believeth with the heart unto righteousness” then one will confess “with the mouth unto salvation.” True faith produces confession.  “Whoever draws back from doing so must seek another master.”

Calvin anticipated the objection that he was attempting to make all believers into preachers. Not at all. “For, since it is a particular office to preach publicly, it is not necessary, nor even expedient or suitable for everyone to intrude himself in it….I do not therefore mean for everyone to climb up into a pulpit to prove their Christianity…. However, let everyone take thought to give God glory in the vocation in which he finds himself.”

He would have it that every professing Christian should confess his faith in the place and station in which he finds himself. He appeals to 1 Peter 3:15. We should each be ready to give an account of his faith. It is “the office of every believer” to “take his neighbor by the hand and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Zion, to the house of Jacob, and he shall teach us to talk in his ways (Isa 23:3; Mic 4:2).

What does this have to do with crypto-Calvinists in the local evangelical congregation? Well, the fundamental point, about submitting to the revealed will of God applies to all Christians everywhere but particularly where a crypto-Calvinist finds himself in a congregation dominated by therapeutic, moralistic deism, where the gospel is absent, the means of grace are deformed or ignored, and discipline was banished by the church growth gurus as impractical.

Calvin did not call the cryptos in his day to superhuman feats. He only wanted them to speak to the truth in love and to trust the providence of God. It’s true he was, in effect, calling many to great suffering and possible even death. In our case, however, there is much less at stake and even less reason why our cryptos cannot confess their faith openly before men, since, in many cases, it merely involves stopping at that local NAPARC congregation by which they drive on the way to the mega-church.

Once more an admonition to my NAPARC brothers and sisters. If our evangelical crypto-Calvinists do step out in faith to lay hold of the blessings of the heritage of the Reformation, what will they find this Sabbath in your congregation? Will they find what they just left behind, cliques, clans, and clowns or will they find the law distinguished from the gospel and the latter preached sweetly? Will they find joy in the Lord or some nasty congregational contention over who is in charge? Will they find a socio-political rant or the ministry of Christ? When they visit, our evangelical friends are looking for three things: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Indeed, that is what the Lord asks of us. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should be doing these things, even if no crypto-Calvinists visit.

Calvin recognized that there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding “how far and how much we must proceed….” Therefore each one must “pray our Lord to direct him in true prudence, in order to judge what will be suitable.” For Calvin, the driving principle, is the same in any case: “there must be in us such a seal, both exalt the reign of God and to edify our neighbors, that we extend all our powers and apply all our efforts to it.” In other words, because Calvin wouldn’t go beyond Scripture and good and necessary deductions and because he recognized that circumstances would vary he was unwilling to legislate exactly how each one must act in every case. Nevertheless, it was clear to Calvin that each one must act.Our goal is the appropriate imitation of Christ, who was consumed by zeal for the house of God (Ps 69:9; John 2:17). This zeal caused Christ to be restless in his desire to glorify and serve his Father. Calvin reminds us that some of his followers “did not dare to confess Jesus Christ after having believed on him: ‘They loved the glory of men better than that of God’ (John 12:43). How sad and perverse a choice is it to prefer men to God!”

The question, for Calvin and for us, is “whether the Christian man, being rightly instructed in the truth of the gospel, offends God or not, by doing as the others do when he is among Papists, by going to Mass and other such ceremonies.” The first part of the question is that of “dissumulation” or “hiding the truth one has within the heart. The second part concerns “simulation” or “pretending and faking something that is not so. In short, what lying is in words, simulation is in deeds.”

This a question because we are not disembodied. We are not Gnostics seeking to overcome the body (contrary to the repeated Romanist criticism of historic, confessional Protestantism). Rather, Calvin recognized that because we are body and soul we must love God with our bodies and our souls. We owe to God a “two-fold honor—namely the spiritual service of the heart, and outward worship — likewise there is a, on the contrary, a twofold sort of idolatry. First, when man corrupts and perverts the spiritual service of the only God by a lying fantasy. The other sort is when he transfers to some creature, such as an image, the honor which belongs to God alone.”

To those crypto-Calvinists in broad, mega, “evangelical,” congregations which offer neither the “evangel,” or are hardly “congregations,” (but rather a collection of “venues” — someone recently asked one of our members which “venue” he attended? Puzzled, this member said, “Well, the worship venue.” “Which one is that? Do they serve coffee? Is there a praise band?” “No,” the member replied, “It’s the whole congregation together, worshiping God, singing psalms, listening to the sermon.” Talk about a clash of paradigms. Our member was mystified by the “venue question and the broad evangelical fellow was completely mystified by historic Reformed worship) the question remains. There may not be the memorial, ritual, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass but there there are “dramas” and there is clowning, and Narcissism and the trivialization of God and of his Christ so that the service is hardly recognizably “Christian”  any longer. Few strangers are in jeopardy of walking into such services and of being confronted by the awful reality of the living God so that they might want to throw themselves to the ground (1 Cor 14:25).

In their own ways the broad “evangelical” seeker service (with all its venues) and the Roman Mass seek to tame God. Since Rome made Jesus so utterly transcendent (because of their Christology and their piety) his place as a truly human Mediator was taken by saints and the BVM. By transubstantiation God the Son becomes manageable. The Mass, confession, and penance are all things that we do. We process in, we adore, we remember, we offer. So too in the evangelical megachurch, we worship, we praise, we experience, we entertain, we choose the venue by which we shall approach God. Different dramas, same story.

The God is scripture is not manageable. He has a nasty tendency to “break out” against sin or trivialization. The golden calf trivialized God. The golden calf made them comfortable. It allowed them to approach God on terms that were familiar. The God of history, the God of Scripture, the God who is, however, will not be approached, not that way. He comes to us on his terms and calls us to respond, to come to him, on his terms. There are no venues for approaching God except humble and holy worship in response to his Law and his Gospel. Calvin understood this and knew that God, the God of Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To illustrate and prove the connection between inward and outward piety, between body and soul, Calvin turned to 1 Corinthians 8. When eating food offered to idols leads others to worship the idols it’s obvious that eating the food isn’t innocent. At stake is the spiritual well being of “one for whom Christ died.” The case is even clearer in 1 Corinthians 10. Participating in ritual sacrifices to God makes one a “partaker of the true consecration” and participating in sacrifices to idols also makes one a participant in idolatry. The true worship of the true God is exclusive. It is impossible to worship the true God false or to truly worship a false god. “Whoever takes the one, utterly renounces the other.” That principle of exclusivity alone explains Daniel and his companions. Were it otherwise they would have been able “to escape by this subtlety.” Indeed, were it otherwise it would have been foolish for them to “expose themselves to death.”They could have said, “others will worship the statue, nut  our spirit shall be lifted up to heaven to worship the living God….” Either they were guilty of “ill considered zeal” or the Nicodemites are wrong.

What about the ordinary, mere Christian? After all, “not everyone can be so steadfast?” Calvin accused those who make such pleas  of “seeking cover-ups for our sins….” They argue that 1 Corinthians 10 was about rank paganism, not about the Roman mass and, however corrupt, the intention of the mass is to worship the God. It seems to them that “there is not so great a danger in partaking in idolatry which is cloaked in the name of God….” To which he responded by pointing to the example of the brass serpent (Num 21:8). Here is an example of a “holy sacrament of Jesus Christ” instituted by God that had been corrupted into idolatry. They too “pleaded the fair colors of the name of God.” Then there is the case of the golden calf (Ex 32) which was “designed to represent” God.” Nevertheless it was “false and perverse” and idolatry.  The same was true of the calves erected by Jereboam at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28). They were dedicated to the worship of God and yet they were idolatrous. The same was true of the temple in Samaria. It was not dedicated to Jupiter, but to God.  “I therefore conclude that it is no more permitted to partake in idolatry wich has the name of God imposed upon it than if it was purely something of the Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or pagans.”

What Calvin saw, which we in our late modern subjectivist time have difficulty seeing, is that intention is not everything, it doesn’t change the truth, the reality. Christ died for our bodies and our souls and demands that we return to him true, grateful worship without bodies and souls, inwardly and outwardly. There is more to worship than intention. Actions matter. Location matters. There is an objective reality that cannot be denied. Participating in false worship, however sincerely, is still participating in false worship. It offends God and hurts other Christians. For Calvin it was indefensible on both grounds.

He  recognized that difference between some of the biblical narratives and his own time and yet he also recognized that some of the narratives described situations quite like his. Mutatis mutandis (with the changes having been changed), he moved from the biblical narratives to his own time. If there were difficulties for Calvin so there are for us. This series is not aimed at Roman Christians who profess the Reformed faith but to those in nominally evangelical congregations where the preaching of the gospel has been replaced with therapy and the sacraments are absent or corrupt and where the 2nd commandment isn’t even a distant memory. Yes, these congregations may be nominally Protestant, but how different are they really from those of which Calvin was thinking? The most fundamental issue remains the same: the ostensible good intention of private worship in a corrupt congregation that has rejected reformation is corrupt whatever the private intention of the crypto-Calvinist.

Sometimes it seems as if Calvin were living in our day. Sometimes his criticism of our hypocrisy is so penetrating that it’s hard to believe that it was written more than 400 years ago. The next section in his Short Treatise (1543) is a good example. He addressed first those who “wish to be perceived as more devout than others” who attend the “daily” mass. “Anyone who has made modest progress in the gospel knows that what the priest does there is sacrilege and abomination.” For Calvin it was obvious that it was the moral equivalent of prostrating oneself “before an idol.” It was sin. It was partaking of the “useless works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). How can one participate in it, pretend “to acknowledge it” then later wash ones hands of it? Does God see nothing? Here Calvin penetrated the heart: “But they say, ‘We are not the ones who commit the evil. What more can we do, since it is not up to us to correct it?’ I answer that the evil that I reprove in them is that they do not abstain from what they know to be bad….”

The “parochial Mass” (weekly) is a similar case. The Nicodemite defends himself by arguing that at least there, despite the great corruption, they may participate in the Supper “‘because it is a memorial to us of the Supper of the Lord, we take it thus.’” Calvin replied to the crypto-evangelical, “Indeed? Can we thus transform things to our taste, and say that darkness is light?” Once more his arrow hit dead center. Ours is an age of extreme subjectivism, i.e. the thought and attitude that says that how one experiences something (or someone) is the most important thing. Indeed, in our time, it is widely held that experience determines reality. Of course this is complete rubbish and is easily shown to be so. Try “experiencing” a red light as a green light. Try explaining to the nice police officer that you experienced the light as green and that it was green for you. In response, he will explain that he is writing you a citation for $271 and that the law expects your experience to conform to objective reality henceforth.

What is fascinating here is that, in the crypto-evangelicals, Calvin faced the very same subjectivism that dominates American religion and particularly the religion of American “evangelicals,” including that of our “crypto-Calvinists” who make the very same argument in defense of their remaining in the mega-church, multi-venue worship services. Since they receive the service in a certain way, it is that way to them.

Calvin was not having any of it:

I ask you, what similarity is there between the holy sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus, and this mixture made up of all sorts of garbage? First do they thing it’s nothing that the Mass is accounted a sacrifice, whereby God is appease not only concerning the living, but also concerning the dead? Is it nothing that the canon, which is the main substance of the Mass, is full of abominable blasphemies? Again, is it nothing that the prayer is made for the souls in purgatory, which we know to be utterly superstitious? However, were there only the diabolical delusion of sacrificing Jesus Christ to God, so that such a work could a satisfaction and payment for the living and the dead, this is not altogether a patent renunciation of his death and passion, which is nullified if one does not recognize it as a unique and perpetual sacrifice? Is it not a direct corruption of his sacred Supper? Certainly these to such execrable pollutions cannot be separated from the Mass anymore than heat can be separated from fire.

The objective facts of the Roman Mass are too plain to be denied. Our experience does not create or norm reality. God spoke creation into existence. Certainly we do experience reality, but our experience of it isn’t normative. We cannot transform, as if by fiat, sins into righteousness, whether those sins be part of the parochial mass or the “evangelical” skit. Are puppets, playdoh, and powerpoint really any better than the sorts of things about which Calvin complained concerning the Roman Mass?

Finally, we should not miss the obvious tension that now exists between Calvin’s (and that of Reformed orthodoxy) understanding of the Roman Mass and the understanding that which is being promoted in certain borderline (see Recovering the Reformed Confession, 1-2, 169) Reformed communions. They cannot both be right. Either the Roman Mass includes an ostensible memorial, propitiatory, sacrifice or it does not. The Council of Trent, Session 22, in 1562 declared that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice. It condemned anyone who denied that doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) perpetuates that dogma. That is what Calvin, who was raised in the Roman Communion, was taught and that is the view he rejected as completely inimical to biblical doctrine of the Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism rejected the same doctrine in Q. 80. The Reformed did not misrepresent the the Roman doctrine and practice. As with the doctrine of justification, it seems that their desire to be ecumenical has caused our friends to attempt to transform (to use Calvin’s word) certain unpleasant realities in the Roman doctrine and practice in order to justify their ecumenism.

[This essay was first published serially in 2009 and appears here slightly revised]