Part 15: The Institutes > God is One (1.12)
We’re on a brisk walk through the 450 year-old Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin to learn Humble Calvinism firsthand. Up to this point (and for a few remaining posts) we’re looking at Book 1: The Knowledge of God as Creator.
Last time Calvin warned us against the idol factory of our minds. We are prone to venerate and honor images and symbols of God’s glory. The next chapter is a lengthy definition of the Trinity. But what connects Calvin’s arguments on idolatry in chapter 11 and the Trinity in chapter 13 is very simple: God is One. Before Calvin defends the nature of God in three Persons, he wants us to grasp the Oneness of God.
That God is One, is a theme throughout Scripture (1 Cor. 8:6, Eph. 4:6, 1 Tim. 2:5). Calvin is not so interested in a defense of God’s Oneness as he is of the implications of this Oneness. And there is a series of building consequences.
First, if God is one, His glory cannot be transferred to another. God’s glory must fully reside within himself. Calvin writes, “as often as Scripture asserts that there is one God, it is not contending over the bare name, but also prescribing that nothing belonging to his divinity is to be transferred to another” (117).
Taking some of God’s glory or honor or worship and transferring that to another person, place or thing is dangerous. Calvin writes, “unless everything proper to his divinity resides in the one God, he is despoiled of his honor, and the reverencing of him profaned,” and, “The glory of his divinity is so rent asunder (although stealthily and craftily) that his whole glory does not remain with him alone” (118).
This leads to the next implication. If God is One, and His honor rests within Himself alone, then other displays of His glory are dangerous (as we saw in chapter 11). If God is One God and His glory is not shared with another, then there is no place for religious veneration given to images, dead saints, or religious leaders. All religious reverence and veneration is due to the One invisible God.
These conclusions force Calvin to see no distinction between Rome’s “honoring” God alone (latria) and “serving” images and saints (dulia). To serve or honor anyone or anything else is wrong. Calvin writes,
“the distinction between latria and dulia, as they called them, was invented in order that divine honors might seem to be transferred with impunity [without dishonoring Him] to angels and the dead. For is it obvious that the honor the papists give to the saints really does not differ from the honoring of God. Indeed, they worship both God and the saints indiscriminately, except that when they are pressed, they wriggle out with the excuse that they keep unimpaired for God what is due him because they leave latria to him” (118).
So is there a difference between religiously reverencing images and saints and reverencing God? No. Calvin understands any reverence towards anything but God is idolatry. He makes this argument from three texts.
The first comes in the context of Satanic temptations of Christ. We are told,
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me [Gk. proskynëseis].’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship [Gk. proskynëseis] the Lord your God and him only shall you serve [Gk. latreuseis]’” (Matt 4:8-10).
Calvin understood the Greek word for “worship” [proskynëseis] — while it certainly can reference outright worship — it’s also used simply as a general word for “venerating,” “prostrating” or “honoring.” Satan was not asking for outright worship but “only a reverent kneeling” (119). But Jesus equates this reverent kneeing towards Satan [proskynëseis] with directly serving [latreuseis] Satan. This was objectionable because any religious reverence towards Satan – bowing, honoring, praising, serving — was wrong because all reverence and honor must be directed only towards the One God!
Two clearer illustrations follow. First, the Apostle John was chided for “reverently kneeing” towards an angel (Rev. 19:10, 22:8-9). Calvin writes, “we ought not to suppose John to be so senseless as to wish to transfer to an angel the honor due God alone. But because any reverential act that has been joined with religion cannot but savor of something divine, he could not have ‘knelt’ to the angel without detracting from God’s glory” (119). God’s Oneness forbids reverent kneeling towards angels.
The clearest argument is the account of Cornelius “reverently kneeling” to the Apostle Peter. “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped [proskynëseis] him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man’” (Acts 10:25-26). Peter would not stomach veneration of anyone but God. Religious bowing to men was forbidden.
Calvin argues from Scripture that “reverent kneeling” is reserved for God alone.
So why all the higgle and haggle about Greek and Latin terms? Calvin is arguing that Scripture forbids all “reverent kneeling” towards religious authorities, angels, saints and images. Because God is One, God alone gets the kneeling, worship, praise and glory. Both the latria and dulia are His alone. Calvin reminds us that “we must not pluck away even a particle of his glory” and “whenever any observances of piety are transferred to some one other than the sole God, sacrilege occurs” (119-120). God is One.
For the purpose of illustration and contrast we return to the Roman Catholic catechism of 1992 to see if the reforms proposed by the Reformers were taken seriously. After earlier stating, “Through sacred images of the holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented” (1192) the catechism goes on to state, “The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God” (2112). True, polytheism is dangerous. But the danger is much larger because idolatry extends to any sharing of God’s glory with others by keeling to Apostles, angels, images and all religious authorities. For Calvin the bottom line is this: God is One and sinners are inclined to take His glory and “distribute” that glory “among a great throng” (120).
Finally, some may grow restless with all this nitpicking talk about theology. You may recall Calvin began this chapter by reminding us that “the knowledge of God does not rest in cold speculation, but carries with it the honoring of Him” (116-117). Our relationship and piety rest squarely in properly understanding God through His Word.
Calvin was not opposed to idols because they contradicted his worship style, he opposed them as theological threats to genuine piety.
Humble Calvinism today …
1. Pluralism robs God of His glory. Our culture tells us there are many ways and religions to God. This is precisely why to gain popular support presidential candidates must deny the authority of Scripture. If Scripture is true there is One God and there is only one way to this God, through the God-Man Jesus Christ. In our culture the temple built to pluralism is bustling with worshippers. However, God is One and He shares His glory with no other.
2. Be suspicious of your religious inclinations. Because of our sinful tendencies, all Christians need to be guarded against idolatry (1 John 5:21). Jesus chided the religious establishment of his day when He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous” (Matt. 23:29). Religiously devout sinners become idolaters by venerating the dead and richly adorning religious shrines. Jesus’ words are a good reminder for us today. But we should not point our finger at others too quickly. If the Scriptural warnings are correct, our own idols may already be in the kiln of our imagination.
3. Idols are crutches to worship. If I understand Calvin correctly, ‘Christian’ idols are anything from dead saints, statues, special crosses, paintings, icons or religious symbols that receive adoration and veneration. Supposedly the veneration of these icons is a method of worshipping God. If this is correct, idolatry hits close to home. In fact Calvinists may have their own set of idols. What if I can only worship God through hymns? What if I can worship best through contemporary music? What if the style of the service hinders your worship? What if the dress code of the preacher makes worship easier for you? If we can pinpoint what our worship rests upon, we can pinpoint our idols. Never should our worship ultimately depend on anything other than the gospel! I’m guessing about ninety-five percent of people leave churches because of their own personal idols. Five-percent go looking for more of the Cross.
4. The doctrines of the Gospel sufficiently fuel our worship. We don’t need created things. Time and time again Calvin points us back to the teachings of Scripture. The Gospel alone is sufficient to turn our affections towards God. We do not need means and helps and crutches. We have confidence to enter into the presence of God because Christ died for our sins (Heb. 10:19-20). The invitation, merits and means to God are in the blood of His Son. So don’t bow in religious reverence towards men, statues, paintings, Apostles, angels or shrines on your way to God’s presence. Christ opened the way for you!
God is unseen Spirit, therefore do not worship Him through the visible, but in Spirit and Truth (John 4:23-24). The precious doctrines of the Gospel are means of worshiping His justice, mercy, grace and kindness! When sermons, worship and fellowship center on the Gospel, images become worthless and worship styles become trivial.
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