In the Seat of Moses

From Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.10 (1559)

Why then, they ask, did Christ say that the intolerable burdens, imposed by Scribes and Pharisees, were to be borne? (Matt. 23:3) Nay, rather, why did he say in another place that we were to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees? (Matt. 16:6) meaning by leaven, as the evangelist Matthew explains it, whatever of human doctrine is mingled with the pure word of God.

What can be plainer than that we are enjoined to shun and beware of their whole doctrine? From this it is most certain, that in the other passage our Lord never meant that the consciences of his people were to be harassed by the mere traditions of the Pharisees. And the words themselves, unless when wrested, have no such meaning.

Our Lord, beginning to inveigh against the manners of the Pharisees, first instructs his hearers simply, that though they saw nothing to follow in the lives of the Pharisees, they should not however cease to do what they verbally taught when they sat in the seat of Moses, that is, to expound the Law. All he meant, therefore, was to guard the common people against being led by the bad example of their teachers to despise doctrine.

But as some are not at all moved by reason, and always require authority, I will quote a passage from Augustine, in which the very same thing is expressed: “The Lord’s sheepfold has persons set over it of whom some are faithful while others are hirelings. Those who are faithful are true shepherds; learn, however, that hirelings are also necessary. For many in the church, pursuing temporal advantages, preach Christ and the voice of Christ is heard by them, and the sheep follow not a hireling, but the shepherd by means of a hireling. Learn that hirelings were pointed out by the Lord himself. The Scribes and Pharisees, he says, sit in Moses’ seat: do what they tell you; but do not do what they do. What is this but to say, Hear the voice of the shepherd by means of hirelings? Sitting in the chair, they teach the Law of God, and therefore God teaches by them; but if they chose to teach their own [Law], neither hear them nor do what they say” (Augustine, Tractates in John 46).

John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who served for many decades as the chief pastor of Geneva. His Institutes of the Christian Religion was a summary of Reformed doctrine he worked on through most of his ministry The definitive final edition was published five years before his death. Cis commemorated on May 26 or May 28 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.


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