Blog 206: 4.13.18 - 4.14.3

Iain D Campbell

Calvin concludes his discussion on vows by discussing a misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 5:12 regarding widows who married, and whom Paul accuses of abandoning the faith. Calvin's view of this passage is that they renounce the promise of their commitment to Christ only if marrying prevents them from fulfilling the work they had undertaken. Paul's reasoning is no argument for perpetual celibacy; nor is it a justification of asking young girls to enter a convent and take vows of lifelong virginity, since the passage in question deals with widows of mature and senior age.

Calvin is concerned lest his scruples over rash and illegitimate vows should leave people concluding that it would be better to undertake no vows at all. That is far from the case. His argument has only been that 'all works whatsoever which flow not from a pure fountain, and are not directed to a proper end, are repudiated by God' (4.13.20).

Calvin now turns to deal with the sacraments. In some ways this was fundamental to the reformation and lay at the heart of the spiritual movement in which Calvin was caught up. What is the true nature of a sacrament? Calvin's definition is that a sacrament 'is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of goodwill toward us .. and we in our turn testify our piety toward him' (4.14.1).

Calvin reminds us that the church Fathers often used the Latin word 'sacramentum' to translate the Greek word for 'mystery'. 'Great is the sacramentum, the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh' (1 Timothy 3:16). In this passage, the hidden purpose is made manifest by an external sign: God's way of salvation revealed externally, for example, in the incarnation.

There is an important principle here: 'there never is a sacrament without an antecedent promise, the sacrament being added as a kind of appendix, with the view of confirming and sealing the promise' (4.14.3). The promise is self-attesting, and stands in need of no sign, but the fact that God has given one is a mark of his condescension, mercy and favour.

To use Calvin's language, 'our Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that .... he declines not by means of these earthly elements, to lead us to himself' (4.14.3). Calvin's principle of accommodation is an important one, and is worth pondering. Every act of revelation on God's part is an act of accommodation. How else could the finite ponder the infinite?