I was there the day the strength of Men failed

Book 4 Chapter 5 Section 1-19

Elrond: “Who will you look to when we’ve gone? The Dwarves? They toil away in caverns, seeking riches. They care nothing for the troubles of others.”
Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”
Elrond: “Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of Men the Ring survives. I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed.”

The words of Elrond, King of the Elves, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could well be used to sum up all that Calvin describes in this chapter about the utter corruption that infested the leaders of the church in his day. This chapter is a scathing account of the character and behaviour of the leaders. It is Calvin’s rallying call for the establishment of a new, purer, more faithful, more biblical church.

He begins his onslaught by considering how these leaders are called to be bishops. Are their life and doctrine assessed against the biblical standards? By no means, instead Calvin laments that “for a hundred years, scarcely one in a hundred has been elected who had any acquaintance with sacred doctrine.” In regard to their morals Calvin finds that there are “few or almost none whom the ancient canons would not have judged unworthy.” But how has this been allowed to happen, that such people have been allowed to govern a church? We find the answer when we consider who appoints them to be bishops.

Any influence of the people has been completely removed for “the whole power has been to the canons alone… (who) confer the episcopal office on whomsoever they please.” And whom do they appoint? “Some owe their promotion to kindred or affinity, others to the influence of their parents, while others procure favour by obsequiousness.” Even “boys scarcely ten years of age are, by permission of the Pope, made bishops.” Then once ordained they are “loaded with five or six, or seven cures (churches), of not one of which they take the least charge, except to draw the income.”

So how do they discharge their office once they have been ordained? Well if the office of a true minister is “to feed the church, and administer the spiritual kingdom of Christ, all those priests who have no work or stipend, save in the traffic of masses, not only fail in their office, but have no lawful office to discharge.” Calvin goes further and claims that “the preaching of the word, the care of discipline, and the administration of the sacraments, they have shaken off as burdens too grievous to be borne.” Instead they prefer to engage in “merely chanting and pompous ceremonies.”

Rather than discharging their office, they hardly even attend their churches, preferring to “spend their lives in devouring the revenues of the church which they never visit even for the purpose of inspection.” While Calvin admits that some do go once-a-year, or send a steward, they “look upon them merely as in the light of farms, over which they appoint their vicars as grieves or husbandmen.”

Finally, Calvin turns to the conduct of the priests. Rather than being the light of the world which Christ required, “in the present day there is no order of men more notorious for luxury, effeminacy, delicacy, and all kinds of licentiousness.” Indeed “nought pleases but what savours of luxury and the corruption of the times” for they “plume themselves on the delicacies of the table, on splendid clothes, numerous attendants, and magnificent places.”

How different to the attitude that should be in Christ’s ministers, who should be “a singular example of frugality, modesty, continence, and humility”. Indeed, the ancient canon of councils stated that “the bishops shall have a little dwelling not far from the church, a frugal table and furniture.” The Council of Aquileia went so far to declare that “poverty in the priests of the Lord is glorious.”

Calvin concludes his penetrating analysis of his contemporary church leadership by challenging them to deny the fact that “among bishops there is scarcely an individual, and among the parochial clergy not one in a hundred, who, if sentence were passed on his conduct according to the ancient canons, would not deserve to be excommunicated, or at least deposed from his office.”

Response

How do we respond to such a devastating critique? While we may want to acknowledge that the picture was not all black, and that there were some who were faithfully seeking to fulfill their calling, church historians agree that this was a time of intense corruption. Practises such as simony are well documented and reflect the moral temperature of the time. Calvin is not afraid to attack the only ecclesiastical authority of his day at the root of the issue – their authority to rule the people of God and impose their doctrine upon them.

By showing that the priests were not only not discharging their office, but that they had actually disqualified themselves from their sacred office, he is completely undermining their authority. Once their control over the people was sufficiently weakened, and a credible alternative proposed, the people were less afraid to reject the priest’s control. Having dealt with the priests and bishops in this chapter, he turns his attention to the pope in the next chapter.

Like a good author Tolkien knows that coming out of the darkest night, the hero shines all the more brighter. So Elrond sets the scene for Aragon to reclaim his rightful throne and lead the people of Middle Earth to victory over their enemies. The parallels to Calvin are stark. He stands at a vital point in history and surveys the devastation wrought my man. Calvin sees the weakness of men, and he renounces the system that allowed it to happen.  He too prepares the way for that Greater King to reclaim his church from the grip of man. He raises his prophetic voice to call the people back to repentance, back to scripture, back to their Saviour.

“Woe to you who long or the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light…  Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5.18-24

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