“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
We can’t say he didn’t warn us.
I was struck by that thought as I was watching the opening of the classic, 1955 Southern Gothic film The Night of the Hunter the other night. The film opens with a saintly, older Sunday School teacher Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), reading these verses to her children, then leads into the story of Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a melodramatic huckster, traveling preacher who makes a habit of ingratiating himself with widows, killing them, and using the money to further his ministry to the Lord. I won’t go into the film, at length, but I’ll simply say that it’s one of the most brilliant explorations of true and false religion in modern times.
Back to Jesus, though, I find it fascinating that he goes out of his way to tell us that false teachers are coming. And it’s not like he was the only one, either. In many ways, he was just following the warning of the Old Testament Law and Prophets that warned against false, abusive religion. What’s more, he was echoed this warning by most of the apostles in the New Testament letters–correcting false teachers was about half of what they seemed to spend their time doing. So the Bible is thick with warnings about the distortion and corruption of religion truth for power and gain.
And yet despite all that material and some 2,000 years of Christian history to confirm it, we’re still surprised when it happens. We’re shocked at false religion. We’re astonished to hear about the abuses of power that happens in the church up the street. We turn on the TV and we’re outraged at the way so many of these televangelists are out there fleecing people for all their worth, leading them astray with all sorts of blatantly absurd heresies and false teachings. We still have trouble heeding Christ’s warning.
Commenting on Jesus’ warning here, Calvin gives us two helpful insights on what it means to “beware of false prophets.”
These words were intended to teach, that the Church would be exposed to various impositions, and that consequently many would be in danger of falling from the faith, if they were not carefully on their guard. We know what a strong propensity men have to falsehood, so that they not only have a natural desire to be deceived, but each individual appears to be ingenious in deceiving himself. Satan, who is a wonderful contriver of delusions, is constantly laying snares to entrap ignorant and heedless persons.
Essentially, where there’s a demand, there’s usually a supply. There are false teachers–and an abundance of them–because there are false hearers. Something in us loves to be lied to. As Calvin says there is a “strong propensity” in humanity to accept what false–we have a “natural desire to deceived.”
This isn’t very groundbreaking, but the point is that some part of us actually wants to believe in the prosperity gospel. It’s attractive to me. And so, for that reason I ought to be on guard against temptations in my own heart that render me prone to believe false teachers. I am not above being deceived and, in many ways, am prone to complicity with deceivers. I am not above this.
Second, to the discouraged, Calvin offers a surprising word of comfort:
Hence too we infer, that there is no reason why believers should be discouraged or alarmed, when wolves creep into the fold of Christ, when false prophets endeavor to corrupt the purity of the faith by false doctrines. They ought rather to be aroused to keep watch: for it is not without reason that Christ enjoins them to be on their guard. Provided that we are not led astray through our own sluggishness, we shall be able to avoid every kind of snares; and, indeed, without this confidence, we would not have the courage necessary for being on our guard.
The presence of false teachers in the church doesn’t threaten to disconfirm the truth. Nor should we be worried that the church will be overcome because of it. As Calvin notes elsewhere in the passage, Christ has promised to preserve his church and his sheep will recognize the voice of their master (John 10:3-5). No, instead of discouraging us, this ought to put us on our guard. Indeed, Christ himself puts us on guard against those who would pervert his work. This warning is actually part of how he cares for us and confirms his lordship to us.
Actually, this is one of those important apologetic points to preachers ought to regularly remind their people of: many of us are often tempted to chuck the whole thing because of the repeated failures we see among religious leaders and within the Church as a whole. We see it as proof that the whole thing’s a sham, a joke, a set-up. And yet here we see that Christ himself says that Christianity will be twisted. So how is that evidence against it, when the founding documents of the New Testament say its going to happen?
In any case, to wrap up, when we run across false teaching and are threatened with discouragement and despair, we should take heart. Jesus warned us this was coming, so we can trust him to bring us through it.
Soli Deo Gloria
Calvin’s comment that directly confronts the problem seems to be this:
“We know what a strong propensity men have to falsehood, so that they not only have a natural desire to be deceived, but each individual appears to be ingenious in deceiving himself.”
The irony for an Anabaptist like myself comes from seeing the Reformed tradition as rooted in the self and other deception that had reigned since roughly the Constantinian conformity to the powers of the world. It is not hard to see the church-state alliance of that long era as a form of Prosperity Gospel for those in power, a self-deception charmed by those ‘powers of the air’ which still dominate collective human movements. Jesus’ example and teaching and embodiment of radical resistance to and overcoming of the powers of deception is our only place to find the clues we need to overcome our self and other deceptions. Calvin’s words but not his life or example may help us toward the Jesus way beyond deception.
Of course, the irony for a reformed person is hearing an Anabaptist criticize the Reformed tradition as rooted in the self given the way Anabaptist enthusiasts often put aside the Word for the inner leading of the Spirit within the self.
I thought about adding a comment alerting the readers to my awareness of the minority divergence of the generally then and thoroughly thereafter dis-avowed trans-scriptural spiritist Anabaptist enthusiast groups, but I figured it shouldn’t be necessary. It is not as though every Anabaptist should be tarred with the feathers deserved by those who grossly diverged from the majority non-violent free church Anabaptists, especially not by those who warmly embrace the Reformed tradition down though Westminster, etc., but somehow now find church state separation normative. In any case we now both have Health and Wealthists and democratic capitalists to burn at the metaphorical stake with other idolaters. 8>)
“Calvin’s words but not his life or example may help us toward the Jesus way beyond deception.”
Thanks for highlighting that unfortunate reality of Mr. Calvin’s life and deeds. This seems to be a good time to highlight the entire section of Jesus’ words here:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Mat. 7:15-20).
So it seems to me that according to Jesus’ statements here, John Calvin would be regarded as a diseased tree/false prophet?
If this were the whole of his life, and an accurate reading of what he has done then maybe. But of course is completely neglect all of the wonderful things he did in his reformation of Geneva, the services to the poor, reorganization of preaching, the founding of a school for training seminarians, helping other, housing and feeding refugees fleeing from persecution throughout Europe, and dozens and dozens of other good works of flow from his understanding of the gospel.
This is reminiscent of contemporary claims that those known to be committed to non-biblical sexual relations show evidence of the fruits of the spirit and hence faithful in Christian practice. In light of Calvin having been devoted to the Swiss power dynamics of lording it over others through violence I still doubt his proximity to the Gospel as taught by Jesus.
This is ludicrous. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that history is complicated. God happens to save sinners in varieties of social locations and often-times redemption and sanctification are slow processes. Calvin was, in many ways, a man of his times. And this is so, even theologically. The fact of the matter is that Servetus was a dead man in just about any city he traveled to–Roman Catholic, Lutheran, etc. What’s more, Calvin himself traveled at risk to his life to meet him once to reason with him. Beyond that, he warned him not to come to Geneva to force a fight, and when we finally did show up, the record is that he pleaded for a lesser form of execution. That doesn’t seem like much, but it was something for the time. And that’s what we’re talking about, right? Servetus? Because unless you’re still basing your information on the pathetic, unhistorical, pop-Anabaptist, anti-Calvin propaganda that’s floated around for years, the broader Calvin-As-Tyrant meme has taken a serious beating by recent scholarship.
I’ll just go on and say that if you truck through the lives of the saints, both biblical and historical, you’re going to find a mixed history for most of them. Some come off fairly pure, but there big question marks around many of our greatest saints, even after their salvation. Then again, this might come down to the differences in our soteriology. Anabaptism of a certain sort has always had Donatist, purist streaks with no concept of a more dynamic, slow, messy process of sanctification, especially when it comes to the issues of non-violence (despite how disputed the issue has been throughout church history).
So maybe your doubt *does* come from a different of the Gospel of Jesus–only the deficiency of understanding isn’t on Calvin’s part.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. The term “ludicrous” seems a bit excessive, and may be a bit more appropriate for some of the other more extreme and seemingly judgmental comments, but I might have gotten carried away with my thinking so I’ll take another look at it.
First off, I know that what I said isn’t what you said. By saying it was “reminiscent” of contemporary moral rationalizations I was suggesting that showing how “loving” or “good” someone is by listing his/her good works doesn’t necessarily address whether there are major parts of his/her life and teaching that diverge substantially from that of Jesus. I didn’t say or suggest I thought Calvin wasn’t a believer or wasn’t saved. Secondly, and still now again, being “a man of his times” is a bit like saying “of course he was a slave owner” everyone was, or “we don’t think that way anymore “on the other end of that issue. Third, I wasn’t even thinking about Servetus, but since you mention it, arguing for a less painful execution just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. If I may be allowed a bit of sarcasm, I guess Jesus wasn’t enough of a man of his times to be more like Calvin. I’ve just read that Servetus was “just about a dead man” in Catholic areas at least in part because Calvin gave the Inquisition his name and writings, exposing him as the author of condemned writings. So, I’m not thinking there is much substance behind your efforts to clean up his image.
You might just be having a bit of an off day, but apologizing for Calvin’s dealings with heresy seems rather more ludicrous than my moral argument analogy. No, I don’t think I derive my thinking from pop anabaptist memes. There are no doubt many willing to kick Calvin around a bit unfairly, but I don’t think I go there. My point is to contrast Calvin with the non-violent Anabaptists who advocated a separation of the state from violent control of Christian religion. The whole of what I originally said was intended to convey the reality of Christendom-As-Tyranny, that all of (non-Anabaptist) Protestant theology was inherently tyrannical. Far be it from me to think Calvin is more worthy of censure for his un-Jesus like thought and practice than the rest of the Reformed or Lutheran or Roman Catholics of the day.
Servetus, by the way, was also condemned to death for rejecting paedobaptism and advocating believers’ anabaptism just as many sincere Anabaptists were condemned and murdered by the Reformers’ governments. The first 300 years of the Church saw no disputes about the rejection of violence by believers, other forms of sanctification being perhaps more debatable. It does seem quite odd that you suggest I might be tarnished with Donatist purism since it is the Reformed, etc., all except the Anabaptists, who thought of themselves as being the “we are the true Christians and you are the heretic scum that deserve no part in Christian ministry but do deserve the death we are going to inflict on you.” I’m guessing you missed that irony. Perhaps my objection to the theology of those who simultaneously and inherently abused fellow believers to their violent deaths is too simple an argument for you, but I’ll keep trying to walk with Jesus and keep applying his simple saying: “you’ll know them by their fruit.” Maybe it will some day sink in.