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Come Out From Among Them: ‘Anti-Nicodemite’ Writings of John Calvin, by John Calvin. Tr. Seth Skolnitsky. Dallas, Texas: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001. 317pp. $29.95 (cloth). [Reviewed by the editor.]

For this book, we have been waiting. An editorial in the March 1, 1990 issue of the Standard Bearer urged that Calvin’s writings on the “Nicodemites” be translated and published:

Would someone translate into English, and publish, Calvin’s writings against the “Nicodemites,”…. So far as I am aware, the only work of Calvin on the subject in English is his letter of 1537 which appears in volume III of his Tracts and Treatises as “On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion.” But there are at least several other similar works of Calvin on this very important theme, none of which to the best of my knowledge is available in English. Calvin’s view of the necessity of belonging to a church that manifests the marks of the true church is not only of historical significance but is also of great practical importance for Protestants in departing churches today.

The “Nicodemites” were Protestants in France during the Reformation who participated in Roman Catholic worship, not because they believed Roman Catholic doctrine or regarded Roman Catholic worship as pure, but because of various pressures on them to conform. These pressures included the threat of persecution, their own desire to maintain their social standing in the community, and the influence of Roman Catholic family members and friends. The Nicodemites deliberately dissembled. Outwardly they performed all the rites of Roman Catholic worship, including the celebration of the Mass. Inwardly, they said, they rejected Roman Catholic worship as false and worshiped God according to the Reformed faith.

Since they justified this behavior by an appeal to Nicodemus, who came to Jesus secretly at night while retaining his position on the Sanhedrin, Calvin called these people “Nicodemites.” Later, he would call them “pseudo-Nicodemites.”

Come Out From Among Them contains most of Calvin’s writings against the Nicodemite error, including “A Letter to Some Friends,” “A Short Treatise Setting Forth What the Faithful Man Must Do When He is Among Papists and He Knows the Truth of the Gospel,” “Answer of John Calvin to the Nicodemite Gentlemen Concerning Their Complaint That He is Too Severe,” “Four Sermons from John Calvin Treating Matters Which Are Very Useful for Our Times with a Brief Exposition of Psalm 87,” and “A Response to a Certain Dutchman Who, Under Pretence of Making Christians Really Spiritual, Suffers Them to Defile Their Bodies in All Sorts of Idolatries.” Most of these, if not all of them, are now translated into English for the first time.

One important work by Calvin against the Nicodemite error—the earliest—is not included. No doubt this is because it appears in English translation in Calvin’s Tracts Relating to the Reformation, tr. Henry Beveridge, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851). The English title is “On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly, and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion.” Calvin wrote this in 1537. In this treatise Calvin established the line he would take, and marshaled the texts he would use, throughout the entire body of his anti-Nicodemite writings.

It is not without significance that Calvin’s controversy with the Nicodemites spanned his entire ministry. He wrote the first of his treatises (we would call them pamphlets) at the very beginning of his ministry in 1537. He wrote the last of them at the end of his ministry in 1562. This was the treatise entitled “A Response to a Certain Dutchman.” Obviously, the Nicodemite error persisted. Obviously also, Calvin viewed this error as grievous, one that demanded his unrelenting attention.

The Nicodemite error is with us today. This makes the publication of these treatises extraordinarily worthwhile. Professing Reformed believers remain in countries or areas where worship in a true Reformed church is impossible, excusing themselves by appeal to the hardships of moving. Or men and women who confess the Reformed faith worship in churches that are not Reformed, because this is convenient. Or those who claim to know and love the Reformed faith stay in churches that depart from the faith, corrupt the Word and Sacraments, and pollute the worship, because of family or social pressures. All of these are modern Nicodemites.

The Calvin scholars, some of whom are themselves Nicodemites, will no doubt welcome the book as a valuable contribution to the academic study of Calvin’s mind in English. Our interest is more spiritual and practical. To Reformed believers in foreign lands who cannot publicly worship God in a true Reformed church because such a church is lacking, Calvin now says in plain English, “Emigrate to another country, regardless of the cost!” To Reformed Christians who remain in apostatizing churches because of the influence of their wife, or children, or parents, or grandparents, or because leaving for the true church will mean ridicule and the loss of friends, Calvin now says in plain English, “Leave that church and its God-dishonoring worship for a church that worships God rightly.”

To participate in corrupt worship, regardless that one inwardly dissents, is forbidden:

I answer that part of the yoke of Jesus Christ is to confess his name, and to declare that we desire to purely worship God alone. I say that faith is not buried in the heart, but produces fruits outwardly. From this it is clear that those who dissemble in order to please idolaters, signifying that they are of their band, have neither faith nor zeal to obey God. Rather they are like lost beasts, taking cheer in a wicked and perverse license (p. 283).

The believer must be member of a true, instituted congregation, where the gospel is purely preached, the truth is confessed, and God is worshiped as He requires in His Word. The fundamental trouble with the Nicodemites is that they do not appreciate

what a treasure it is to have freedom, not only to serve God purely and to make public confession of one’s faith, but also to be in a well ordered and governed church, where the word of God is preached, and where the sacraments are properly administered, since these are the means by which God’s children may be confirmed in the faith and are stirred up to live and die in his obedience.

Calvin added: “Now, it seemed to me that this point was very needful in our day, because there are many fanciful Christians who mock those who take pains to get to foreign and far off countries in order to enjoy such freedom” (pp. 130, 131).

So much is it the duty of every believer to be an active member of a true church that “they are without excuse, who are in a far-off land and are kept by the world from every means of relocating to a country where the gospel is preached” (p. 212). Indeed, “for the sake of God’s worship we ought to forget everything, to the point of renouncing our own lives” (p. 293).

Some of the Nicodemites repented and moved to Geneva and other places where Reformed worship was possible. Others reacted by criticizing Calvin for his rigor and his alleged lack of sympathy for their plight. One Nicodemite charged Calvin with teaching that “one cannot get to paradise except by way of Geneva.” The equivalent in our day is the angry accusation that “you people think that you are the only ones going to heaven.”

Many will find the book offensive. All hardened Nicodemites will stumble at it. So also will the delicate “brothers of charity.” In his zeal for the glory of God in right worship and in his holy anger against our readiness to put our own convenience and ease before God’s honor, Calvin is ironic and severe. He grants that contemporary Nicodemites resemble the original in one respect: both bury Jesus. In his “Response to a Certain Dutchman” who defended Nicodemism, among the names that Calvin calls the wicked Dutchman are “oaf,” “crackpot,” “blunderer,” “wretch,” “dog,” ” wild animal,” “beast,” “baboon,” “clod,” “joker,” “dimwit,” “blockhead,” and “bulldog.”

This book is long overdue and sorely needed. It is divine encouragement (for Calvin derives his instruction and admonition from Holy Scripture) to those who take seriously membership in a true church and participation in the right public worship of God.

Unfolding Covenant History: An Exposition of the Old Testament, Volume 1, From Creation to the Flood. Homer C. Hoeksema, author. Mark H. Hoeksema, general editor. Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000. 327pp. $27.95 (cloth). [Reviewed by Rev. Steven R. Key.]

The Reformed Free Publishing Association continues to make a significant contribution in the publication of substantial Reformed and biblical books with the printing of the first volume in a new series entitled Unfolding Covenant History: An Exposition of the Old Testament. The first volume, From Creation to the Flood, was written by the late Homer C. Hoeksema, my esteemed professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament History in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Those of us who were privileged to sit under Prof. Hoeksema’s teaching are happy to see the content of his instruction now being made widely available by the RFPA. Prof. Hoeksema’s love for the Old Testament was well known. It was evident in his teaching and preaching. It is evident also in his writings.

The value of this volume—as will be seen in the rest of the series as it is published, God willing—is found in its careful, exegetical unfolding of the history of God’s covenant.

That perspective is rare in our day. Not only is the literal interpretation of these opening chapters of the Bible steadfastly maintained and reasonably expounded by Prof. Hoeksema, but there is a unique covenantal perspective in his exposition. His development of Old Testament history takes into account the organic perspective of all history, as well as the unity of sacred history with its focus always upon Christ and the realization of God’s covenant with His people in Christ.

This kind of treatment of Old Testament history, and particularly this covenantal and organic perspective, has been sorely lacking. In fact, one searches for it largely in vain even among other Reformed theologians. It is a refreshing approach to the unfolding of biblical revelation.

Adding to the value of this volume is a 17-page introduction to the series written by the editor, Mark Hoeksema. This introduction explains the organic unity of Bible history and the covenant character of that history as it also determines our approach and method in Bible interpretation. Prof. Hoeksema’s book illustrates that concretely, as will all the books in this series.

Because of the importance of the opening chapters of Genesis to the whole of biblical doctrine, this volume is particularly valuable.

Prof. Hoeksema’s treatment of the creation account shows his unwavering devotion to the historical and literal interpretation of this portion of Scripture. In his words, maintaining the truth of God as Creator and maintaining the biblical account of creation is a matter of life and death for the church. “The church herself must not exchange the testimony of revelation for the language of the wisdom of man.” We must sit humbly at God’s footstool to learn of Him. Scripture, after all, is God’s own narrative with regard to His own work. The creation account is a matter of clear revelation. “There simply is no room in the record of scripture for a process of any kind…. Scripture certainly presents the work of creation as immediate and instantaneous.”

Already in the opening chapters, Hoeksema gives careful attention to the time factor inGenesis 1, repudiating theistic evolution (or what since has been more deceivingly named by its promoters “progressive creationism”), the framework hypothesis, and other theories that reject the clear teaching of the Genesis account and its literal interpretation.

Hoeksema develops the truth, which is often overlooked, of creation as an act of the Triune God. The book also contains a careful treatment of each day of creation week, including the significance of man as “the crowning work of God in the earthly creation,” God’s covenant friend. Hoeksema repudiates any idea of a “covenant of works,” and shows that the covenant that God established with man is a relationship, a “living bond of communion, that highest and most perfect form of the bond of life,” indeed, a reflection of God’s own life as the covenant God.

The significance of both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil is spelled out—the establishment of God’s antithesis for man.

Careful attention is also given in this volume to the fall of our first parents and the devastating effects of that fall for the whole human race and the creation. Resulting from the fall is death, the universality of sin, the total depravity of all persons, and therefore the need for the revelation of the wonder of grace in Christ Jesus.

The book goes on to take us through the history of Cain and Abel and faithful Enoch, the development of sin in the world, and the salvation of Noah and his family by the waters of the great flood, a universal flood which brought such drastic change to the world that “we do not live in the same kind of universe as did the prediluvian generations. We now live in the second world, as, by the wonder of God’s grace, it emerged from the waters of the deluge.” This, Hoeksema points out, is the plain teaching of II Peter 3:5, 6.

Not to be overlooked in the book is Hoeksema’s treatment of the genealogy of Genesis 4:16-5:32. The professor’s fascination with the genealogies of Scripture is revealed in his devotion of a chapter to that genealogy with its data and significance.

There is a wealth of sound instruction in this book. Although the material was prepared for the instruction of seminary students, it is written in a form understandable by those who are high school age and older. Much of it, in fact, is written in a preaching style. It is valuable for all.

In my review of this book, I found one thing missing that would enhance its value, and that is a subject and textual index. Because this book is not a verse-by-verse commentary, a subject and textual index would enhance its value as a reference work. Even so, the book is readable from cover to cover, and highly recommended.