The Nicodemites

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction

We devoted the last several articles to examinations of heresies which Luther faced in the course of his reformatory work in Germany. With this article we turn to Calvin's struggle against heretics of different kinds. Calvin was subject to countless attacks in the course of his work in Geneva and Strasburg, and in his defending of the faith he became a formidable polemicist.

Because of Calvin's influence throughout Europe and because the Reformation knew no more able defender of the faith, Calvin was subject to almost continuous attacks. It sometimes seemed that every enemy of the truth considered it his solemn duty to attack Calvin. If ever a man's life was filled with controversy, it was Calvin's; although we might add immediately that the devil well understands those who are particularly important in the defense of the cause of God, and they soon become the objects of the devil's attacks.

Without doubt, the Romish Church was Calvin's chief enemy, and Rome would have given much to silence his powerful pen. It was in the nature of Calvin's reformatory work that much of his polemical writings should be directed against the false doctrines and abuses of the church from which all the reformers parted ways. It is not, however, our intent to go into the errors of Rome and the answers to these errors which the reformers made. That would require too many articles in this rubric. Our readers are, however, urged to read Sadolet's letter to the citizens of Geneva. This Romish prelate tried to lure the people of Geneva back to the Romish fold while Calvin lived in banishment from the city in Strasburg. And, having read that letter, one must also read Calvin's answer to Sadolet. It is far and away the clearest, most forceful, and most powerful defense of the entire Reformation which came from any of the reformers, either on the continent or in the British Isles. It is a masterpiece of the first sort. It can be found in Volume I of Calvin's Tracts and Treatises, and it has been published in a separate volume.

There were various heretics who barked at Calvin and nipped at his heels with whom we want to deal, but in this first article I have chosen to deal with a group of people, primarily to be found in France, who have come to be called Nicodemites. These people were of concern to Calvin throughout most of his lifetime; in fact, he wrote no fewer than six treatises against them. The most popular and best known of these six is one with the imposing title: "On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion: A Letter by John Calvin to his Dear and Very Excellent Friend N.S." In fact, the letter was written to Nicholas Chemin, with whom Calvin had stayed for a time and whose hospitality Calvin had enjoyed in Orleans. The tract was written in 1537 and can also be found in Calvin's Tracts and Treatises, Volume III.

 

The Error of the Nicodemites

 

These people, mainly in France, were not, strictly speaking, heretics. They taught no heresy but rather expressed agreement with Calvin in all his teachings.

To understand the position of these people we must know, first of all, that the Calvin Reformation had had great influence in France. The Lutheran Reformation had touched the French people only slightly, but, partly because Geneva itself was of French-speaking Switzerland, partly because Geneva sent preachers into France, and partly because Calvin himself was from France, Calvin's teachings had sunk deep roots and had produced, by God's work of gathering the church, an abundant harvest.

At the same time, Rome was firmly in control of France. The strongest and best Romish universities were in France, and the monarchy was under the control of powerful French prelates. The result was fierce persecution. With the possible exception of the Lowlands, no country in Europe knew such terrible persecution as the French Protestants. Every form of torture and cruel death was inflicted on them in a vain effort to destroy those who held to Calvin's teachings.

Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor, describes the Nicodemites in these words:

At this time also there were some persons in France, who, having fallen away at first from fear of persecution, had afterwards begun to be satisfied with their conduct as to deny that there was any sin in giving bodily attendance on popish rites, provided their minds were devoted to true religion. This most pernicious error, which had been condemned of old by the Fathers, Calvin refuted with the greatest clearness ... the consequence was that from that time, the name of Nicodemite was applied to those who pretended a sanction for their misconduct in the example of the holy man Nicodemus.

Calvin, in the tract mentioned above, says this about them:

When those who live in the difficult position which you now occupy perceive that they can neither maintain their tranquillity, nor live on harmonious terms with their neighbours, unless they make a pretence of indulging in Idolatry—amid the difficulties which thus beset and perplex them, they attend more to what may be expedient for themselves than pleasing to God—more to what may gain human favour than secure Divine approbation. Meanwhile they devise a defence by which they may keep their consciences at ease in the view of the Divine tribunal, pretending that they are far from giving an internal heartfelt assent to any kind of impiety, but only have recourse to a little harmless pretence as a necessary concession to the ignorant, and also as the most promising means of gaining over persons who it were foolish to irritate by a course which could not lead to any beneficial result, and would be attended with the greatest danger.

In brief, the Nicodemites, fearful of persecution, took the position that God was pleased if they confessed His truth in their minds and with their hearts, while they outwardly conformed to all the practices of the Romish Church. Thus they received the name Nicodemites, because they were said to hide their faith, as Nicodemus ostensibly did when he came to Jesus by night for fear of the Jews.

They defended their position with various arguments. They claimed that many of the Romish rites that they attended were indifferent matters, which could be observed without sin. They argued that God looks on the heart and not on the outward appearance. They maintained, somewhat ridiculously, that they could be better witnesses to other Roman Catholics when they were not hounded and persecuted. And they appealed to the case of Naaman, who received permission from Elisha to enter the temple of Rimmon with his king and bow before the idol. (Calvin has a powerful refutation of this appeal to Naaman in his tract mentioned earlier.)

There were different kinds of Nicodemites. There were some who, though they agreed with Calvin's teachings, stayed in the Romish Church (as many today remain in apostatizing churches) and, for the most part, kept silence. There were some, like some of the Humanists (Erasmas, d' Etaples, Thomas More, etc.) who wanted reform in the Romish Church and who even expressed agreement with some of the teachings of the reformers, but who never left their church. But Calvin's attention was especially fixed on these folk in France who found the way of Nicodemus to be the better way to live their Christian life.

 

Calvin's Condemnation of Nicodemites

 

Calvin had little patience with these people and condemned them in no uncertain terms. Take, for example, what Calvin writes immediately after the quotation given above in which he summarizes their position: "By such beginnings they commence their own ruin." It was not as if Calvin did not appreciate the sufferings to which the French Protestants were subjected. Never, so far as I know, did he ever mention one of these people by name—as if to spare them shame. And when Calvin did write to those who were imprisoned and awaiting death for the cause of the gospel, he wrote in the most tender way, fully aware of the agony of suffering martyrdom. Some of his most poignant letters are written to these persecuted saints.

But such deception as was practiced by these Nicodemites was, for Calvin, intolerable. He insisted that, however unimportant Romish rites might seem to some (worship of relics, adoring images, and the like), all these rites were in one way or another bound up in the mass; and the mass was an idolatry of the worst sort. Anyone who even outwardly engaged in these rituals was guilty of idolatry.

Calvin also maintained that the motive of these people was simply fear of persecution. And while he
could understand this fear, nevertheless, he pointed out that such fear drowned the fear of God by which Christians are to live. People who were threatened with suffering for Christ's sake had two options: they could either flee their land and live in exile—as Calvin himself had done and as the French refugee church in Geneva urged persecuted Protestants to do; or they could stay where they were, maintaining their faith, and dying for it if that was required of them.

A major point which Calvin made in his condemnation of the behavior of the Nicodemites was that, whether they liked it or not, they were approving the wrong and condemning the right in the eyes of all who knew them. Thus they were unfaithful witnesses to their faith and came under the terrible judgment of Christ Himself, who said, "He who denies me before men, him will I deny before my Father in heaven."

In other words, Calvin took the firm position that one cannot separate what one believes in his heart from what one confesses in the whole of his life by his words and conduct. If one hides his faith from others, especially when the occasion demands a firm and clear testimony to the truth, one does not really believe in his heart what he claims to believe. 

And cowardice with respect to persecution is in flat contradiction to the words of the apostles after they had been beaten by the Sanhedrin. They considered it an honor and a singular favor of God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ's sake.

Conclusion

It seems to me that there are many instances when the term Nicodemites could, with justice, be applied to us. Even in our daily contacts with the world about us we are hesitant to confess what we believe and to live as Scripture requires, because we fear the hatred, mockery, and laughter of wicked men. We justify our conduct before our own consciences, if not before God. It all comes down to cowardice.

Because much of the church today already lives in persecution and because persecution is right around the corner for us all, it is well that we read what Calvin has to say about these people who in their own day denied their Lord because they were unwilling to suffer for His sake.