Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin

These pages: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Dedication and Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV: I–XIV; XV–XX (here)



index pages:

Institutes of the Christian Religion

translated by John Allen

from the 1559 Latin edition, with comparison to French translations


Book IV: On the External Means or Aids by Which God Calls Us Into Communion with Christ, and Retains Us in It


XX God pronounces that he adopts our infants as his children, before they are born, when he promises that he will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. This promise includes their salvation. Nor will any dare to offer such an insult to God as to deny the sufficiency of his promise to insure its own accomplishment. The mischievous consequences of that ill-stated notion, that baptism is necessary to salvation, are overlooked by persons in general, and therefore they are less cautious; for the reception of an opinion, that all who happen to die without baptism are lost, makes our condition worse than that of the ancient people, as though the grace of God were more restricted now than it was under the law; it leads to the conclusion that Christ came not to fulfil the promises, but to abolish them; since the promise, which at that time was of itself sufficiently efficacious to insure salvation before the eighth day, would have no validity now without the assistance of the sign.
XVIPædobaptism Perfectly Consistent with the Institution of Christ and the Nature of the Sign
XII In this language we discover, indeed, a small spark of truth; but it is a great error of these persons, that while they lay hold of whatever first comes to their hands, when they ought to pursue it much further, and to compare many things together, they pertinaciously insist on a single word; hence it necessarily happens that they are often deceived, because they acquire no solid knowledge of any thing. We confess that the natural seed of Abraham did for a time hold the place of those spiritual children which are incorporated with him by faith. For we are called his children, notwithstanding there is no natural relationship between him and us. But if they understand, as they certainly do, that no spiritual blessing was ever promised by God to the carnal seed of Abraham, they are greatly deceived.
XVIIThe Lord’s Supper and Its Advantages
XIII For it is evident in what profound superstition not only the people in general, but even the principal men, have now for several ages been involved, and are involved, at the present day, in the Papal churches. True faith, which is the sole medium of our union and communion with Christ, being an object of little solicitude to them, provided they have that carnal presence which they have fabricated without any authority from the Divine word, they consider him as sufficiently present with them. The consequence of this ingenious subtlety, therefore, we find to be this, that bread has been taken for God.
XVIII For though he has removed his flesh from us, and in his body is ascended to heaven, yet he sits at the Father’s right hand, that is, he reigns in the power, and majesty, and glory of the Father. This kingdom is neither limited to any local space, nor circumscribed by any dimensions; Christ exerts his power wherever he pleases in heaven and earth, exhibits himself present in his energetic influence, is constantly with his people, inspiring his life into them, lives in them, sustains them, strengthens and invigorates them, just as if he were corporeally present; in short, he feeds them with his own body, of which he gives them a participation by the influence of his Spirit. This is the way in which the body and blood of Christ are exhibited to us in the sacrament.
XIX Let us never suffer ourselves to be driven from these two exceptions; that nothing be maintained derogatory to Christ’s celestial glory; which is the case when he is represented as brought under the corruptible elements of this world, or fastened to any earthly objects; and that nothing be attributed to his body incompatible with the human nature; which is the case when it is represented as infinite, or is said to be in more places than one at the same time. These absurdities being disclaimed, I readily admit whatever may serve to express the true and substantial communication of the body and blood of the Lord, which is given to believers under the sacred symbols of the supper; and to express it in a manner implying not a mere reception of it in the imagination or apprehension of their mind, but a real enjoyment of it as the food of eternal life.
XXX [...] though Christ is every where entire, yet all that is in him is not every where. And I sincerely wish that the schoolmen themselves had duly considered the meaning of this observation; for then we should never have heard of their stupid notion of the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament. Therefore, our Mediator, as he is every where entire, is always near to his people; and in the sacred supper exhibits himself present in a peculiar manner, yet not with all that belongs to him; because, as we have stated, his body has been received into heaven, and remains there till he shall come to judgment.
XXXI The only question between us, therefore, respects the manner of this presence; because they place Christ in the bread, and we think it unlawful for us to bring him down from heaven. Let the readers judge on which side the truth lies. Only let us hear no more of that calumny, that Christ is excluded from the sacrament, unless he be concealed under the bread. For as this is a heavenly mystery, there is no necessity to bring Christ down to the earth, in order to be united to us.

All these things lead the pious reader to consider how unsafe it is, in matters of such importance, to leave the pure word of God for the reveries of our own brains. [...] If it be the design of the sacrament to assist the mind of man, which is otherwise weak, that it may be enabled to rise to discover the sublimity of spiritual mysteries,—those who confine themselves to the external sign, wander from the right way seeking Christ. What, then, shall we deny it to be a superstitious worship, when men prostrate themselves before a piece of bread to adore Christ in it? There is no doubt that the Council of Nice intended to guard against this evil, when it prohibited Christians from having their attention humbly fixed on the visible signs. And this was the only reason for that custom in the ancient Church, that, before the consecration, one of the deacons should, with an audible voice, admonish the people to have their hearts above.

XVIIIThe Papal Mass Not Only a Sacrilegious Profanation of the Lord’s Supper, but a Total Annihilation of It
V For does not every separate mass promise a new remission of sins, and a new acquisition of righteousness; so that there are now as many testaments as masses? [...] The mass pretends to exhibit a new testament of Christ; therefore it requires his death. Moreover the victim which is offered must, of necessity, be slain and immolated. If Christ be sacrificed in every mass, he must be cruelly murdered in a thousand separate places at once. [...] In reply to this, I confess, they are ready to charge us with calumy; alleging that we impute to them sentiments which they never have held, nor ever can hold.

Note (Hal’s):
This impasse demonstrates the problem with reductio ad absurdum when the argument is pursued on a rhetorical level, rather than a mathematical one. Interpreting the mass as a sacrifice is a valid metaphor, and of course any metaphor can be pushed too far. It is no more fair to push it too far, and then accuse Catholics of authoring the result, than for them to insist on universal adoption of a metaphor some of us find inapt.

— end note

XIXThe Five Other Ceremonies, Falsely Called Sacraments, Proved Not to Be Sacraments; Their Nature Explained
VI For it was necessary that the first preaching of the gospel, and the kingdom of Christ, at its commencement, should be illustrated and magnified by miracles never seen or heard before; the subsequent cessation of which does not argue the Lord’s desertion of his Church, but is equivalent to a declaration from him that the magnificence of his reign and the dignity of his word had been sufficiently manifested. In what respect, then, will these impostors affirm that they imitate the apostles? They should have effected, by imposition of hands, that the evident power of the Spirit might immediately show itself. This they do not practise.
XXXIV If by a sign they merely understand that which is adduced as a similitude, I will show how acutely they reason. [...] Upon this principle, every thing will be a sacrament; as many parables and similitudes as there are in the Scripture, there will be so many sacraments. Even theft will be a sacrament; because it is written, “The day of the Lord cometh as a thief.”
XXXVI For, after having dignified matrimony with the title of a sacrament, what brainless versatility is it for them to stigmatize it with the characters of impurity, pollution, and carnal defilement! What an absurdity is it to exclude priests from a sacrament! If they deny that they are interdicted from the sacrament, but only from the conjugal intercourse, I shall not be satisfied with this evasion. For they inculcate that the conjugal intercourse itself is part of the sacrament, and that it represents the union which we have with Christ in conformity of nature; because it is by that intercourse that a husband and wife become one flesh. [...] There is also another absurdity in their doctrine. They affirm that the grace of the Holy Spirit is conferred in every sacrament; they acknowledge that the conjugal intercourse is a sacrament; yet they deny that the Holy Spirit is ever present in that intercourse.
XXOn Civil Government
VIII The forms of civil government are considered to be of three kinds: Monarchy, which is the dominion of one person, whether called a king, or a duke, or any other title; Aristocracy, or the dominion of the principal persons of a nation; and Democracy, or popular government, in which the power resides in the people at large. It is true that the transition is easy from monarchy to despotism; it is not much more difficult from aristocracy to oligarchy, or the faction of a few; but it is most easy of all from democracy to sedition. Indeed, if these three forms of government, which are stated by philosophers, be considered in themselves, I shall by no means deny, that either aristocracy, or a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others; and that indeed not of itself, but because it very rarely happens that kings regulate themselves so that their will is never at variance with justice and rectitude; or, in the next place, that they are endued with such penetration and prudence, as in all cases to discover what is best. The vice or imperfection of men therefore renders it safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hands of many, that they may afford each other mutual assistance and admonition, and that if any one arrogate to himself more than is right, the many may act as censors and masters to restrain his ambition.
IX Therefore, as religion holds the first place among all the philosophers, and as this has always been regarded by the universal consent of all nations, Christian princes and magistrates ought to be ashamed of their indolence, if they do not make it the object of their most serious care. We have already shown that this duty is particularly enjoined upon them by God; for it is reasonable that they shuold employ their utmost efforts in asserting and defending the honour of him, whose viceregents they are, and by whose favour they govern. And the principal commendations given in the Scripture to the good kings are for having restored the worship of God when it had been corrupted or abolished, or for having devoted their attention to religion, that it might flourish in purity and safety under their reigns. On the contrary, the sacred history represents it as one of the evils arising from anarchy, or a want of good government, that when “there was no king in Israel, every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” [...] But a rage for universal innovation, and a desire to escape with impunity, instigate men of turbulent spirits to wish that all the avengers of violated piety were removed out of the world.
X If by the law of God all Christians are forbidden to kill, and the prophet predicts respecting the Church, that “they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord,” how can it be compatible with piety for magistrates to shed blood? But if we understand, that in the infliction of punishments, the magistrate does not act at all from himself, but merely executes the judgments of God, we shall not be embarrassed with this scruple. The law of the Lord commands, “Thou shalt not kill;” but that homicide may not go unpunished, the legislator himself puts the sword into the hands of his ministers, to be used against all homicides. To hurt and to destroy are incompatible with the character of the godly; but to avenge the afflictions of the righteous at the command of God, is neither to hurt nor to destroy.


Capital punishment

XVI Equity, being natural, is the same to all mankind; and consequently all laws, on every subject, ought to have the same equity for their end. Particular enactments and regulations, being connected with circumstances, and partly dependent upon them, may be different in different cases without any impropriety, provided they are all equally directed to the same object of equity. Now, as it is certain that the law of God, which we call the moral law, is no other than a declaration of natural law, and of that conscience which has been engraven by God on the minds of men, the whole rule of this equity, of which we now speak, is prescribed in it. This equity, therefore, must alone be the scope, and rule, and end, of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed according to that rule, directed to that object, and limited to that end, there is no reason why we should censure them, however they may differ from the Jewish law or from each other. [...] For the Lord gave not that law by the hand of Moses to be promulgated among all nations, and to be universally binding; but after having taken the Jewish nation into his special charge, patronage, and protection, he was pleased to become, in a peculiar manner, their legislator, and, as became a wise legislator, in all the laws which he gave them, he had a special regard to their peculiar circumstances.
XX For it truly behoves Christians to be a people, as it were, formed to bear injuries and reproaches, exposed to the iniquity, impostures, and ridicule of the worst of mankind; and not only so, but they ought to be patient under all these evils; that is to say, so calm and composed in their minds, that, after having suffered one affliction, they may prepare themselves for another, expecting nothing all their lifetime but to bear a perpetual cross. At the same time, they are required to bless and pray for them from whom they receive curses, to do good to them from whom they experience injuries, and to aim at that which constitutes their only victory, to “overcome evil with good.” With this disposition they will not demand “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” as the Pharisees taught their disciples to desire revenge; but, as we are instructed by Christ, they will suffer injuries in their persons and property in such a manner as to be ready to forgive them as soon as they are committed. Yet this equanimity and moderation will be no obstacle, but that, without any breach of friendship towards their enemies, they may avail themselves of the assistance of the magistrate for the preservation of their property; or, from zeal for the public good, may bring a pestilent offender to justice, though they know he can only be punished with death.
XXIX As it is incumbent on all, not to inquire into the duties of one another, but to confine their attention respectively to their own, this consideration ought particularly to be regarded by those who are subject to the authority of others. Wherefore, if we are inhumanly harassed by a cruel prince; if we are rapaciously plundered by an avaricious or luxurious one; if we are neglected by an indolent one; or if we are persecuted, on account of piety, by an impious and sacrilegious one,—let us first call to mind our transgressions against God, which he undoubtedly chastises by these scourges. Thus our impatience will be restrained by humility. Let us, in the next place, consider that it is not our province to remedy these evils, and that nothing remains for us, but to implore the aid of the Lord, in whose hand are the hearts of kings and the revolutions of kingdoms.

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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