Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols?

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[Question: what to do with things abused to idolatrous use? See George Gillespie, Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (Naphtali Press, 2013), 156-157. This book is on currently on sale here, but this entire section has been posted in PDF since I bring it up often enough; this is an important scriptural rule often neglected in discussions of reformation of church practices.]

Dr. Forbes’ answer is, that not only things instituted by God are not to be taken away for the abuse of them, but farther, neither must indifferent matters thoughtfully introduced by men always be done away with because of ensuing abuse. The papists have abused temples, and places of prayer, and cathedrals, and holy vessels, and bells, and the blessing of marriage; however, thoughtful reformers have not proposed that such things must be abandoned.[1]

Answer. (1) Calvin,[2] answering that which Cassander alleges out of an Italian writer, abusu non tolli bonum usum [abuse does not take away the good use], he admits it only to be true in things which are instituted by God Himself, not so in things ordained by men, for the very use of such things or rites as have no necessary use in God’s worship, and which men have devised only at their own pleasure, is taken away by idolatrous abuse. Pars tutior [The safer part] here, is to put them wholly away, and there is, by a great deal, more danger in retaining than in removing them.

(2) The proofs which I have produced [see previously] for the proposition about which now we debate, do not only infer that things and rites which have been notoriously abused to idolatry should be abolished, in case they be not restored to a right use, but simply and absolutely that in any wise they are to be abolished. God commanded to say to the covering, and the ornaments of idols, “Get thee hence” (Isa. 30:22). It is not enough they be purged from the abuse, but simpliciter they themselves must pack them and be gone. How did Jacob with the earrings of the idols; Elijah with Baal’s altar; Jehu with his vestments; Josiah with his houses; Manasseh with his altars; Moses with the golden calf; Joshua with the temples of Canaan; Hezekiah with the brazen serpent? Did they retain the things themselves, and only purge them from the abuse? Belike [Suppose], if these our opposites had been their counselors, they had advised them to be contented with such a moderation; yet we see they were better counseled when they destroyed utterly the things themselves, whereby we know that they were of the same mind with us, and thought that things abused to idolatry, if they have no necessary use, are far better away than a-place [in place]. Did Daniel refuse Bel’s meat because it was not restored to the right use? Nay, if that had been all, it might have been quickly helped, and the meat sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. Finally, were the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira reproved because they did not restore things sacrificed to idols to their right use? Or, were they not rather reproved for having anything at all to do with the things themselves?

[1] . Irenicum, lib. 1, cap. 7, 9, 6. neque res mediæ ab hominibus prudenter introductæ, propter sequentem abusum semper tollendæ sunt. Abusi sunt Papistæ templis, et oratoriis, et cathedris, et sacris vasis, et campanis, et benedictione matrimoniali; nec tamen res istas censuerunt prudentes reformatores abjiciendas [7–6, p. 43]. [The quotation comes from section 6. Section 9 reads: “IX. Atqueita iam paret justas fuisse & idoneas rationes, ex ipsarum rerum intuitu, propter quas Patres Perthenses articulos à Rege propositos, partim potuerunt, partim etiam admittere debuerunt. Nam in rebus illis quædam sunt necessariæ, omnes autem licitæ ac laudabiles: illæ sine peccato contemni non possunt; istæ licitè et laudabiliter admittuntur” (7–9, p. 45). Cf. The First Book of the Irenicum, trans. E. G. Selwyn, p. 118–119, 121–122.]

[2] . Responsio Ad Versipellem Quendam Mediatorem, p. 41–44. [Cf. CR 37 (CO 9), 542. Cf. [French] “Response a Un Certain Moyenneur Rusé,” Recueil des Opuscules (Geneva: Stoer, 1611) 2191–2192. “Similarly, what is alleged of an Italian writer, that abuse does not take away good use, will not be true if one holds to it without exception: because it is clearly commanded to us to prudently watch that we would not offend the infirm brothers by our example, and that we should never undertake what would be illicit. For Saint Paul prohibits offending the brothers in eating flesh that was sacrificed to idols [1 Cor. 10:28], and speaking to this particular issue he shows a general rule that we are to keep ourselves from troubling the consciences of the weak by a bad or damaging example. One might speak better and more wholesomely if he were to say that what God himself ordains may not be abolished for wrong use or abuse that is committed against it. But even here, it is necessary to abstain from these things if, by later human ordinance, they have become corrupt with error, and if their use is harmful or scandalizes the brothers. “Here I marvel how this “Reformer,” after granting that superstitions sometimes have such strong popularity that it is necessary to remove from the realm of man those things once ordained by public authority (as we read of Hezekiah doing with the bronze serpent), finally does not consider even a little that his shrewdness is a horror to the ways of good action: as if in defending supportable rituals, he would oblige that all superstitions should be considered as safe and whole because they are weighty. For what is there in the papacy now that would not resemble the bronze serpent, even if it did not begin that way [Num. 21:9]? Moses had it made and forged by the commandment of God: he had it kept for a sign of recognition. Among the virtues of Hezekiah told to us is that he had it broken and reduced to ash [2 Kings 18:4]. The superstitions for the most part, against which true servants of God battle today, are spreading from here to who knows where as covered pits in the ground. They are filled with detestable errors that can never be erased unless their use is taken away. Why, therefore, do we not confess simply what is true, that this remedy is necessary for taking away filth from the church?” See the translation of this tract by Raymond V. Bottomly, The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012) 264.]
 
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