John Calvin on Culture and the Church

In his preface to the institutes John Calvin is writing to the King of France and is largely dealing in regards to the Roman Catholic Church, but he has an interesting paragraph on “custom” (or culture) and why it doesn’t determine what is right. I found it helpful in thinking about so much of western society and culture and why Christians ought not too hastily accept cultural norms. Calvin writes:

Even in their appeal to “custom” they accomplish nothing. To constrain us to yield to custom would be to treat us most unjustly. Indeed, if men’s judgments were right, custom should have been sought of good men. But it often happens far otherwise: what is seen being done by the many soon obtains the force of custom; while the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority. Therefore, the private vices of the many have often caused public error, or rather a general agreement on vices, which these good men now want to make law. Those with eyes can perceive it is not one sea of evils that has flooded the earth, but many dangerous plagues have invaded it, and everything is rushing headlong. Hence, one must either completely despair of human affairs or grapple with these great evils–or rather, forcibly quell them. And this remedy is rejected for no other reason save that we have long been accustomed to such evils. But, granting public error a place in the society of men, still in the Kingdom of God his eternal truth must alone be listened to and observed, a truth that cannot be dictated to by length of time, by long-standing custom, or by the conspiracy of men.

Institutes, Prefatory Address, 5

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