John Calvin on Condoning Theological Delusion

from Jan 10, 2015 Category: Articles

In Calvin’s judgment, there are times when it is not only permissible, but in fact necessary, to “condone” some degree of “delusion” on the part of others, even—or especially—with regard to theological subjects. Such is the cost of maintaining unity and fellowship with persons of genuine Christian faith. “All men,” he writes, “are beclouded with ignorance.” Translation: everyone gets it wrong on some point of doctrine/practice or another. “Either,” then, “we must leave no church remaining”—i.e., we must break fellowship with absolutely everyone—“or we must condone delusion in those matters which can go unknown [i.e., in those matters where ignorance/error can be tolerated] without harm to the sum of religion and without loss of salvation.”

Certain qualifications are in order. First, condoning delusion is never a matter of concealing disagreement. “I would not support even the slightest errors,” Calvin explains, “with the thought of fostering them through flattery and connivance.” Christians must openly acknowledge and “try to correct”—with all due charity and in deference to the church’s “peace and duly ordered discipline”—doctrines or practices which they deem misguided. Christians should expect their brothers and sisters to reciprocate in kind, even if that means their own ideas and customs stand exposed to potential criticism. But where disagreement, despite genuine dialogue, persists, Christian fellowship should not be broken: “We must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.”

Second, condoning delusion is never a matter of tolerating error on essential matters of the faith. Calvin draws a profoundly critical distinction here—one which informed every episode of ecclesiastical politics he found himself engaged in during his career. “Not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. […] There are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith.” The distinction defended here is that between fundamental and secondary doctrines. Calvin provides as examples of the first category the truths that “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like.” As an example of a secondary doctrine—a matter disputed which need not lead to separation—Calvin points to opinions about where precisely Christian souls reside in the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection).

The distinction Calvin draws here—a distinction which the Reformed tradition has consistently recognized—is not, it should be noted, one between biblical doctrines and speculative ideas lacking scriptural foundation. It is, rather, a distinction between biblical doctrines which are essential to one’s salvation—doctrines one must get right—and biblical doctrines which one might potentially fumble without impairing one’s hope of salvation.

One may perhaps get a better sense for where, in Calvin’s understanding, the line between fundamental and secondary doctrines lies by observing Calvin’s interactions with the major ecclesiastical identities of his day. Christian fellowship with Rome, in Calvin’s view, was utterly impossible. Rome’s insistence upon ascribing some merit to human works in salvation—not to mention its recognition of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering to God the Father in atonement for the sins of the people (contra Heb. 10:14-18)—constituted an unsurmountable obstacle to Christian fellowship in Calvin’s reckoning. Yet Calvin freely encouraged Christians of his own Reformed persuasion to fellowship and worship with Lutheran and Anglican believers who, despite their differences with Reformed believers of the Genevan stripe, subscribed like them to the Reformation principles of sola scriptura and sola fide. So, for instance, when a group of French exiles living in Wesel, Germany, were denied their request to celebrate the Eucharist apart from the Lutheran churches (because of some queasiness on their part about Lutheran Eucharistic doctrine and practice), Calvin advised them to submit themselves to the civil authorities and to worship and commune with the Lutherans; Lutheran errors regarding the Supper “do not,” he noted, “affect the substance of our faith.” Calvin similarly encouraged believers in England to put up with the tolerabiles ineptias—the “tolerable trifles” in doctrine and worship—imposed upon them by the 1552 Book of Common Prayer.

Few Reformed Christians today are likely to find themselves forced by law to worship in churches which, by their reckoning, are flawed to some degree. But Calvin’s encouragement to “condone delusion” on some matters, and the underlying assumption that some doctrines are of fundamental and some of secondary significance, still has relevance today. It should inform decisions we make about where we worship (or, even more so, where we choose no longer to worship). And it should inform the nature of our interactions with other Christians, both within and outside of our own communions.

Given the quickness one sees today of some to leave perfectly legitimate Christian congregations (regardless of their membership therein and, thus, commitment to), as well as a visible tendency among Christians to squabble and break fellowship over what are almost certainly secondary doctrines, one might conclude that condoning delusion is a lost art in Reformed circles today. It is, regardless, an art that should be (re)cultivated. The ability to accurately gauge the significance—whether fundamental or secondary—of theological or practical errors one perceives in a church or a conversation partner, and thus to respond to said errors appropriately, could provide much stability to church membership rolls and improve the health of our Christian exchanges, especially those which revolve around differences among ourselves.

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Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.