The Importance of Customs Being Conformed to Nature | John Calvin

culture nature calvin

Although this excerpt is in relation to 1 Corinthians 11:14 and men having long hair being disgraceful, the argument Calvin makes is more widely applicable to all cultural norms and the importance of them being conformed “to the word of God, the law of nature, and human decency.

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:11-16

 Men, Women, and Order in the Church, pg. 55-59

translated by Seth Skolnitsky

We must learn from these words, that we are not to have a flighty appetite, disposed to change what is accepted; rather we are to follow along. It is true that we must discern whether a custom is good and decent, whether it is according to nature, whether it is edifying and a good example; or if it involves corruption and vice. Whoever would want to keep all customs? Where would that lead? Men, as we know, are rather inclined to evil than to good. And therefore, they give themselves license for debauchery; and once one has begun, others follow; and they make law of common practice, and suppose it legitimate. So if one is going to approve every custom, he will surely produce a hodgepodge of all confusion, indeed of all infection, so that there will be no more balance and uprightness; there will be no more reverence toward God nor decency among men. Here, therefore, prudence and discretion are required.

Even the pagans knew enough to say that we must take our manner of life from decent people, just as our manner of speaking must be taken from learned people. If one is going to say, “there is a good word, and good usage, since the common people talk this way,” there will be nothing but barbarism, and that reason will be deemed insufficient. So also, if one is going to say, “that is accepted,” and it is among ne’er-do-wells, will such a reason suffice to make us follow an evil custom?

This, then, is where we must begin when we speak of customs. That is, let them be (the ones) accepted by those who order their lives according to the word of God, the law of nature and human decency. Where this is the case, we can say that those who seek to change an accepted custom are flighty people, who are only trying to turn everything upside down. This will never be done. And in fact, given the nonchalance and instability of people, and the diversity of spirits and opinions, if one believed us, everyone would want his own custom and then the next day it would have to be changed.

So let us carefully observe that when a custom is good – that is, when it is based on reason – we must acquiesce to it. It is out of the question for everyone to permit himself the liberty of rearranging everything every day. Rather let us maintain and confirm ourselves in what is good and customary.

Let us perceive that there are wicked nations; let us examine their vices in order to keep ourselves from (learning) them. The French, for example, are more corrupt in their attire than the other nations. Why? Because they have always had the folly of having to dress the body now this way, or the neck now that way- there is no style they have not seen fit to try, and God has condemned them and had them in derision, because of this mad curiosity which they have always had. And it is more in sway today than ever.

Thus it is true that all the world must be completely corrupt, and everything in it is topsy-turvy now. Yet, be that as it may, we must still take note of the particular vices of the nations, so that we may know how to keep ourselves from them (i.e., the vices). And let those who practice them also confess it, and then let them reform themselves in accord with God.

If we suggest that this is of no great importance, we see what God says about it by his prophet namely that he will reform the strange clothes [Zeph. 1:8]. So, when our Lord reveals that he will chastise those who have this passion for changing their attire, he thus teaches that we must come to a halt, and that these changes are bad and always bring on bad consequences, because when we allow ourselves so much and such excessive license, men end up not knowing how to behave.

And what, in effect, are the results of these changes of clothing? First of all, ambition; because the fashion leaders are admired from afar. And then, once ambition takes over, ostentation follows, and everyone has to add his bit, and there will always be something to find fault with. Furthermore, people waste their fortune on it. Then, as they go on spending and dissipating, they have to find means to get more, so they rob and steal the wealth of others, and things come to such a state of confusion that some feed on clothing and meadows and fields, and others on houses and possessions. And then, these vanities, which are assuredly accursed by God, bring on bawdiness and other dissoluteness, so that it would be impossible to tell the whole. Moreover, what we have said about clothes must likewise be applied to all the rest [i.e., of the vices].

Let us therefore learn to keep ourselves in such soberness, that we may not be every day changing again. And let us not be so changeable in our appetites that we say, “This would be pretty; that would be nice!” And, in fact, such as are given to that are surely wicked and evil-natured, and one wishes they were in the New Isles, removed from society so that they would not be the occasions of introducing so many new corruptions.

In any case, let us learn that where there is an accepted custom, and it is a good and decent one, we must accept it. And whoever tries to change it is surely the enemy of the common good, and should be held in abomination, and pointed out as a trouble maker. And yet, as I said, let us discern between customs and abuses. Let us consider that customs are well ordered behavior, agreeable to the word of God and unto edification, good example and natural decency. Abuses are all indecencies, excesses, and whatever is not in accord with the word of God; everything that does harm to the common good. Let these abuses be diligently disciplined and eliminated.

If we are hardened in our evil customs, let us take great pain to escape. Let us not be as the obstinate who say, “Hey, look! we were brought up this way, and never saw it any differently:’ Indeed. And yet if there is no foundation, ought one to build upon such obstinacy? Being an old evil makes it so much the worse and more displeasing to God. Therefore let these abuses be reformed, and let no one answer back, “We have grown accustomed to it by practice:’ Indeed. But must God be wronged by an evil practice?

We must also, however, oppose those who [conveniently] appeal to custom, and assert their liberty [as it suits their purpose], in order to change something which is orderly and well established. They say, “What do you mean, ‘changing is not allowed’? Why should we not do as we please? That is outward, and we can do what we like since our Lord has given us no law.” Those who appeal to liberty in order to change every day are trying to reduce everything to chaos. When once they have established something contrary to reason, in order to preserve it, they will say, “it is customary.” “Oh really?” Yet let us see if it has any basis, as we said. Here, then, is what we must learn from this passage.


8 thoughts on “The Importance of Customs Being Conformed to Nature | John Calvin

  1. Thank you these thoughts from Calvin.

    If I may nitpick, the given translation seems a little too informal for my liking. Granted, Calvin here is preaching to the laity, rather than writing his commentaries or the Institutes, but it is hard for me to believe he spoke French that could be translated “Hey, look!” and “Oh really?”. No one talked like that 500 years ago.


  2. “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” Cyprian, Epistle 73, ANF 5.389. (Ad Pompeium contra Epistolam Stephani. Nam consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est. [Epistola LXXIV, §9, Migne, PL 3.1134B).


  3. […] “It is true that we must discern whether a custom is good and decent, whether it is according to nature, whether it is edifying and a good example; or if it involves corruption and vice…. This, then, is where we must begin when we speak of customs. That is, let them be (the ones) accepted by those who order their lives according to the word of God, the law of nature and human decency.” (The Importance of Customs Being Conformed to Nature | John Calvin). […]


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