Calvin and the “Wrong Side of History” Argument (Or, Calvin and cultural peer pressure)

“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?” There are many presuppositions to be found in this oh-so-leading question. For instance: there is a tautological progression from ignorance to knowledge and history is a simple unfolding of this process. The former things are inferior to the latter. We are much closer to a perfect world than those who lived 1000, 100, and even 10 years ago. But what it all really boils down to is the same reasoning undergirding this playground observation: “Everybody else is doing it. You don’t want to be left out, right?”

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTcyNDg2MTU1I’ve recently started reading through John Calvin’s “Institutes” as a supplement to my personal devotions and my class readings. I’ve tried to be realistic and yet aggressive in my goals by only aiming to read 10 minutes or so a day of this religious tome. So my progress has been happily tortoise-like (slow and steady and all that). But it’s been lovely to savor each snippet of Calvin’s magnum opus.

While reading Calvin’s Prefatory Address to the King of France, one of his arguments leapt off the page for its enduring relevance. Calvin’s critics have called him “to the bar of custom,” that is, they are arguing against him because that’s just not the way most people think or things have been done. History has spoken and it is on their side. In reply, he states:

Human affairs have scarcely ever been so happily constituted as that the better course pleased the greater number. Hence the private vices of the multitude have generally resulted in public error, or rather that common consent in vice which these worthy men would have to be law.

Calvin’s observation is that, although we may wish that it was that simple, might does not make right. A simple majority does not immediately equate to automatic morality and correctness. How then are we to respond as Christians? What do we appeal to if not established custom or current majority views? He continues:

But be it so that public error must have a place in human society, still, in the kingdom of God, we must look and listen only to his eternal truth, against which no series of years, no custom, no conspiracy, can plead prescription. Thus Isaiah formerly taught the people of God, “Say ye not, A confederacy, to all whom this people shall say, A confederacy”; i.e., do not unite with the people in an impious consent; “neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa 8:12). Now, therefore, let them, if they will, object to us both past ages and present examples; if we sanctify the Lord of Hosts we shall not be greatly afraid.


To paraphrase: what are we afraid of more? Are we concerned about not agreeing with most everyone else (and them not agreeing with us)? Or are we concerned about not agreeing with the Lord of hosts? Does the fact that “this is how things have been done by most people” OR “this is how most people are going to do it in the future” rival God’s supremacy in the matter? Shall we fear the opinions of others or the Lord himself?

Would you rather be on the wrong side of history or the wrong side of eternity? 


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