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Sursum Corda

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image of Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis / Dutch Review of Church History
For more content, see Church History and Religious Culture.

The knowledge we have of the so called 'Nicodemites' is based on Calvin's polemical treatises against them. By 'Nicodemite' we mean someone who did not confess his-evangelical-faith openly but kept his conviction a secret in face of persecution. Calvin's treatise Response à un certain Holandois is remarkable, because it is his only work against a known Nicodemite: the Dutchman D.V. Coornhert. All his life Calvin combatted those who, in spite of evangelical opinions, did not break with the Roman Catholic Church. The arguments he used against them, were also used by Marcourt, Viret and Farel: They all stated that one should choose between God and Baal; one should follow the example of Daniel and his friends; and those who pretend not to know the Lord on earth, would not be known by Christ at the last judgement. The other arguments were aimed at the mass: the mass was idolatrous so therefore one should not attend. The central focus was the eucharist: Christ was in heaven at the right hand of the Father and not in the bread and wine; the mass had nothing to do with the true celebration of the Lord's supper; one should pray to the Lord in spirit and truth, not in physical things. Ceremonies belonged to the Mosaic law which is why they were abolished. These arguments had been used before by Oecolampadius. In 1560 Coornhert reacted against Calvin with his treatise Verschooninghe van Roomsche Afgoderye. He argued against ceremonies in general with the same arguments Calvin had used against the mass. Coornhert, inspired by S. Franck, defended a spiritualistic point of view. The external, visible things were unimportant, so one should not put one's life at risk for it. Ceremonies did not help the believer. On the contrary: they obstructed him. In the apostle Paul Coornhert saw the example of a spiritualistic man: one who was not bound anymore to the Old Testament ceremonies. Outwardly, corporal things did not count. All a believer had to do was to love the Lord and his neighbour. Coornhert blamed Calvin for bringing back his followers to the Mosaic law, and for making them suffer for 'childish things'. Supposing it was by some Dutch evangelicals, Calvin got Coornhert's Verschooninghe and wrote his last anti-Nicodemite work. The translation Calvin used must have been accurate. He maintained the arguments he had used before. There is one specific element in the controversy between Calvin and Coornhert and that is their focus on Saint Paul. The polemic between the two makes clear that the position of Calvin and his followers was not that easy. Arguments against an outward Roman Catholic religion, could be used to defend a spiritualistic point of view as well.


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