John Calvin: On The Superstition of Lent

I’ll happily stand with Calvin on the issue of Lent and leave those who wish to lie in the filth of the pigsty of ‘tradition’ simply for the sake of ‘tradition’ to do so.

Institutes 4.12.20 reads thusly (with particularly useful descriptions of lenten observance and observers bold-faced)

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven.

And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him.

In short, the nature of his fast is not different from that which Moses observed when he received the law at the hand of the Lord (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). For, seeing that that miracle was performed in Moses to establish the law, it behoved not to be omitted in Christ, lest the gospel should seem inferior to the law. But from that day, it never occurred to any one, under pretence of imitating Moses, to set up a similar form of fast among the Israelites.

Nor did any of the holy prophets and fathers follow it, though they had inclination and zeal enough for all pious exercises; for though it is said of Elijah that he passed forty days without meat and drink (1 Kings 19:8), this was merely in order that the people might recognise that he was raised up to maintain the law, from which almost the whole of Israel had revolted.

It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ; although there was then a strange diversity in the mode of the fast, as is related by Cassiodorus in the ninth book of the History of Socrates: “The Romans,” says he, “had only three weeks, but their fast was continuous, except on the Lord’s day and the Sabbath. The Greeks and Illyrians had, some six, others seven, but the fast was at intervals. Nor did they differ less in the kind of food: some used only bread and water, others added vegetables; others had no objection to fish and fowls; others made no difference in their food.” Augustine also makes mention of this difference in his latter epistle to Januarius.

True words, Calvin.  Truly said.   Let’s see how the rabid lent-ianists like those apples.

17 thoughts on “John Calvin: On The Superstition of Lent

  1. irishanglican 18 Feb 2010 at 4:18 pm Reply

    I like Calvin very much certainly, but he lived in the 16th century, and this argument seems a bit ad hoc to me. I will only say this, that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder!’ The Lenten time can be for good or ill, like any other devotions in the Church. The Protestant scholasticism has not always itself been so purist. The in-house arguments of certain Reformed in America, has been odious to my mind. Not picking on them, but we all need to keep our own house clean. Calvin, at times was a puritan in some church efforts. The Church is always a pilgrim body. My two cents on this at least.

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    • Jim 18 Feb 2010 at 4:23 pm Reply

      of course you needn’t agree with calvin. no one agrees with anyone 100% of the time unless he or she is an unthinking fool. but, that said, no one would dare call calvin a moron for expressing his views- except a moron perhaps. similarly, those who describe others, who hold the same view as calvin of the observance, morons, are themselves demonstrated to be fools of the first order.

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  2. Michael Westmoreland-White 18 Feb 2010 at 6:30 pm Reply

    Like Zwingli, Calvin’s response to Lent was contextual. In the 16th C. it really was a legalistic practice (mandatory for the whole society–Christendom) and done as a form of self-justification. That’s hardly the case with the contemporary practice–not as I’ve experienced it.

    And I know very few who follow it simply because of tradition. In fact, most of us who are enthusiastic about it come from traditions where Lent has only recently been recovered as a practice of the church.

    And it is one Christian holy day (or 40 of them), that is unlikely to be hijacked and corrupted by the Great god Mammon. There’s nothing to sell people! So, it is countercultural as is–whereas we have to find new ways celebrate Christmas and Easter in order for them to not be simplhy one more form of conspicuous consumption in our capitalist society.

    Not so with Lent.

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  3. Rabid-lentianist 18 Feb 2010 at 7:20 pm Reply

    I’m giving up apples for Lent.

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  4. Fr. Robert (Anglican) 18 Feb 2010 at 7:26 pm Reply

    For Calvin, also, everything Roman Catholic was under super scrutiny. He had been, so it appears in his pre-conversion days, very much under Rome’s religious attraction. But yes, good thoughts MW White.

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  5. Auggie Webster 19 Feb 2010 at 12:12 am Reply

    Hey Jim,

    Calvin was a moron.

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    • Jim 19 Feb 2010 at 7:17 am Reply

      see- that’s just mean and ugly.

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  6. Brian 19 Feb 2010 at 9:00 am Reply

    MW White said:

    And it is one Christian holy day (or 40 of them), that is unlikely to be hijacked and corrupted by the Great god Mammon. There’s nothing to sell people! So, it is countercultural as is–whereas we have to find new ways celebrate Christmas and Easter in order for them to not be simplhy one more form of conspicuous consumption in our capitalist society.

    Are you sure about that? ‘Cause I have two words for you: Mardi Gras.

    Or Carnaval, if you prefer. Either way, it’s the orgiastic week or two of BTTW hedonism that is justified after the fact (among those who observe it) by Lent. It sort of takes the shine off of that “non-Mammonian” thing, doesn’t it?

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    • Jim 19 Feb 2010 at 10:24 am Reply

      now brian, you know you aren’t supposed to mention the obvious duplicity of an observance which, before observed, revels in hedonism.

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  7. Chris Donato 20 Feb 2010 at 1:05 am Reply

    Albeit situational, Calvin’s resposne still suffers from the all-too-familiar inconoclasm of his day. Luther’s a bit more balanced on this score:

    “This gospel [Matt 4:1-11] is read today at the beginning of Lent in order to picture before Christians the example of Christ, that they may rightly observe Lent, which has become mere mockery…. The Scriptures present to us two kinds of true fasting. …The first kind of fasting, one can end whenever he wills, and can satisfy it by food; but the other kind we must observe and bear until God himself changes it and satisfies us. Hence it is much more precious than the first, because it moves in greater faith” (Luther’s sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, emphasis mine).

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    • Jim 20 Feb 2010 at 8:29 am Reply

      of course luther supported the practice of lent. he was simply a roman catholic without the pope.

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  8. irishanglican 20 Feb 2010 at 10:43 am Reply

    Oh Jim, everything is so black & white for you! I was reading about Zwingli’s “clerical marriage”, or better known simply as a concubinage. Rome should be honest again and allow the Latin rite priests such. Then they could give it up for Lent! lol

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  9. irishanglican 20 Feb 2010 at 1:39 pm Reply

    PS..I was not putting down Sir Zwingli, he did the right thing and later married his concubine, Anna Reinhard, and they had four children. Of course this was after he left the priesthood and Rome. It is certain, that Zwingli has not gotten the light that he deserves fully in history. And far too many on the blogs are simply ignorant of him. His thoughts on many subjects theological were a true contribution to the Reformation! Would that there were more of his works in English.

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  10. irishanglican 20 Feb 2010 at 2:00 pm Reply

    * That was rather poor of me about giving up sexual intimacy in a true male / female marriage, for Lent. I was really reacting to the ridiculous history of the RCC allowing the use of the coucubinage for its priests in the middle ages. Papal Authority? Infallibility?

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  11. Dominic Stockford 8 Mar 2011 at 5:39 am Reply

    Remind me someone, what does the Bible say about the keeping of special days? I believe Paul talks about it without great rancour…

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  12. accidentalthomist 24 Feb 2017 at 2:49 pm Reply

    Do Protestant Bibles not have the ninth chapter of Matthew anymore?

    Like

    • Jim 24 Feb 2017 at 3:52 pm Reply

      yup. and we even understand it!

      Like

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