Calvin’s 5 Steps for Fashioning an Idol or Counterfeit God

A famous five points have been attributed to or at least are derivative of the teaching of John Calvin.  But, believe it or not, Calvin wrote about topics other than reformed soteriology.  In preparation for teaching on 1 John 5.18-21, and particularly verse 21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” I read an excerpt from Calvin’s institutes on idolatry.  So for the sake of good teaching, I want to divulge to you the five steps to fashioning an idol or counterfeit god per John Calvin.

1. Man has a fallen nature and “is a perpetual factory of idols.”  Calvin gathers this in that it seems from the earliest moments after the Fall of man, humanity began to make idols.  So before Abraham’s birth, Terah and Nahor were worshipers of false gods (Josh 24.2).  Moreover, Jacob’s wife Rachel stole her father’s household idols (Gen 31.19).  Such, says Calvin, intimates that this was common to man.  He writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.”  This sentence, though 500 years old or so, sounded quite fresh and culturally relevant to me.  See “12 Step Program” and “god of your own understanding” therapies.

2. So nature, the fallenness of the human heart is the root and fundamental cause.  From this, then, secondly — we conceive of an idol.  A fallen human nature is not mutually exclusive with worship.  The propensity towards worship does not cease to exist but exists in a polluted and ignorant direction.  So we conceive of a god to worship.  Calvin writes, “To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived of.”  So — idol making factory with a polluted “creativity team.”

3. If you read the last quote carefully, you observed the third step: expression!  Again, “To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived of.”  To this he adds, “Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth.”  What he writes next is helpful.  He illustrates by way of the Israelites once they have been redeemed out of Egypt.  Once Moses has been gone too long with God for their liking, they have Aaron make two golden calves for them.  “They knew, indeed, that this was God whose power they had experienced in very many miracles; but they did not trust that he was near them unless they could discern with their eyes a physical symbol of his countenance, which for them would be a testimony of the ruling God.”  Again, we are worshiping beings, but, on account of our corrupted natures, we are not content to believe or trust in a God that is invisible, a God so glorious, so — in a very real sense — incomprehensible and infinite, that He cannot be fathomed much less fashioned by the finite mind of man.  We believe what we can see, so we trust what we can create, what we can fathom, what we can rule (though, in truth, it rules us).  So — idol-making factory with polluted “creativity and development team.”  I have to say, what a burdening — I mean heart-renting burdening — corruption of the glory that we were created to enjoy in the one true and living God.

Insert — It is not as if God left Himself hidden, you know.  God has revealed Himself in the Bible and, climactically, in His Son, Jesus Christ.  In a book and in His Son, there God is seen.  He calls all peoples to believe in Him thus revealed.  This requires a new birth, a righting of the heart, a restoring of sight to the blind, and it is precisely this that God accomplishes for everyone who believes — we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6).

4. To what we fashion as a god, we fasten the attributes of God.  He writes, “Just as soon as a visible form has been fashioned for God, his power is also bound to it.  Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him.”  This dollar bill, this same dead material, same stuff that I wipe my . . . well, you know where I’m going, this dollar bill is my god.  See, it will save me.  In it is all my joy, satisfaction, hope, fulfillment — and ruin, for it is no god at all.  The same paper that we worship we flush down the toilet.  Money is not bad.  It can be good.  And it is usually good things made ultimate things that become counterfeit gods.

5. To whatever we fasten the attributes of God, that we are bound to adore or worship as God.  Calvin again, “Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him; and hence they cannot but adore.  And there is no difference whether they simply worship an idol, or God in the idol.  It is always idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol, under whatever pretext this is done . . . whatever is conferred upon the idol is snatched away from (God).

Corruption, conception, expression, fasten, adore.  The five steps for fashioning an idol or counterfeit god.

If you missed it, here are six steps for “keeping yourselves from idols.”  May the Lord give us grace, practical and powerful, that we may with a whole heart delight ourselves in Him.

All quotes from: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book 1, ch. XII (12), pg. 108-09.


One Response

  1. It almost seems like people think Calvin always had a tulip in his hand or something. Not only that his longest chapter in the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was on prayer….go figure.

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