John Calvin Complete Commentary - John 4:20 - 4:20

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John Calvin Complete Commentary - John 4:20 - 4:20

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:

20.Our fathers. It is a mistaken opinion which some hold, that the woman, finding the reproof to be disagreeable and hateful, cunningly changes the subject. On the contrary, she passes from what is particular to what is general, and, having been informed of her sin, wishes to be generally instructed concerning the pure worship of God. She takes a proper and regular course, when she consults a Prophet, that she may not fall into a mistake in the worship of God. It is as if she inquired at God himself in what manner he chooses to be worshipped; for nothing is more wicked than to contrive various modes of worship without the authority of the word of God.

It is well known that there was a constant dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans about the true rule of worshipping God. Although the Cutheans and other foreigners, who had been brought into Samaria, when the ten tribes were led into captivity, were constrained by the plagues and punishments of God (78) to adopt the ceremonies of the Law, and to profess the worship of the God of Israel, (as we read, 2Kg_17:27;) yet the religion which they had was imperfect and corrupted in many ways; which the Jews could not all endure. But the dispute was still more inflamed after that Manasseh, son of the high priest John, and brother of Jaddus, had built the temple on mount Gerizzim, when Darius, the last king of the Persians, held the government of Judea by the hand of Sanballat, whom he had placed there as his lieutenant. For Manasseh, having married a daughter of the governor, that he might not be inferior to his brother, made himself a priest there, and procured for himself by bribes as many apostles as he could, as Josephus relates, (Ant. 11:7:2, and 8:2.)

Our fathers worshipped in this mountain. The Samaritans at that time did, as we learn from the words of the woman, what is customary with those who have revolted from true godliness, to seek to shield themselves by the examples of the Fathers. It is certain that this was not the reason which induced them to offer sacrifices there, but after that they had framed a false and perverse worship, obstinacy followed, which was ingenious in contriving excuses. I acknowledge, indeed, that unsteady and thoughtless men are sometimes excited by foolish zeal, as if they had been bitten by a gad-fly, so that when they learn that any thing has been done by the Saints, they instantly seize on the example without any exercise of judgment.

A second fault is still more common, that they borrow the deeds of the Fathers as a cloak to their errors, — and this may be easily seen in Popery. But as this passage is a remarkable proof how absurdly they act who, disregarding the command of God, conform to the examples of the Fathers, we ought to observe in how many ways the world commonly sins in this respect. For it frequently happens that the majority, without discrimination, follow those persons as Fathers who are least of all entitled to be accounted Fathers. Thus in the present day we perceive that the Papists, while with open mouth they declaim about the Fathers, allow no place for Prophets and Apostles, but, when they have mentioned a few persons who deserve to be honored, collect a vast group of men like themselves, or at least come down to more corrupt ages in which, though there did not yet prevail so gross a barbarism as now exists, yet religion and the purity of doctrine had greatly declined. We ought, therefore, carefully to attend to the distinction, that none may be reckoned Fathers but those who were manifestly the sons of God; and who also, by the eminence of their piety, were entitled to this honorable rank. Frequently, too,we err in this respect, that by the actions of the Fathers we rashly lay down a common law; for the multitude do not imagine that they confer sufficient honor on the Fathers, if they do not exclude them from the ordinary rank of men. Thus, when we do not remember that they were fallible men, we indiscriminately mingle their vices with their virtues. Hence arises the worst confusion in the conduct of life; for while all the actions of men ought to be tried by the rule of the Law, we subject the balance to those things which ought to be weighed by it; and, in short, where so much importance is attached to the imitation of the Fathers, the world thinks that there can be no danger in sinning after their example.

A third fault is — a false, and ill-regulated, or thoughtless imitation; (79) that is, when we, though not endued with the same spirit, or authorized by the same command, plead as our example what any of the Fathers did; as for instance, if any private individual resolved to revenge the injuries done to brethren, because Moses did this, (Exo_2:12;) or if any one were to put fornicators to death, because this was done by Phinehas, (Num_25:7.) That savage fury in slaying their own children originated, as many think, in the wish of the Jews to be like their father Abraham, as if the command, Offer up thy son Isaac, (Gen_22:2,) were a general command, and not rather a remarkable trial of a single man. Such a false imitation ( κακοζηλία) is generally produced by pride and excessive confidence, when men claim more for themselves than they have a right to do; and when each person does not measure himself by his own standard. Yet none of these are true imitators of the Fathers, most of them are apes. That a considerable portion of ancient monachism flowed from the same source will be acknowledged by those who shall carefully examine the writings of the ancients. And, therefore, unless we choose to err of our own accord, we ought always to see what spirit each person has received, what his calling requires, what is suitable to his condition, and what he is commanded to do.

Closely allied to this third fault is another, namely, the confounding of times, when men, devoting their whole attention to the examples of the Fathers, do not consider that the Lord has since enjoined a different rule of conduct, which they ought to follow. (80) To this ignorance ought to be ascribed that huge mass of ceremonies by which the Church has been buried under Popery. Immediately after the commencement of the Christian Church, it began to err in this respect, because a foolish affectation of copying Jewish ceremonies had an undue influence. The Jews had their sacrifices; and that Christians might not be inferior to them in splendor, the ceremony of sacrificing Christ was invented: as if the condition of the Christian Church would be worse when there would be an end of all those shadows by which the brightness of Christ might be obscured. But afterwards this fury broke out more forcibly, and spread beyond all bounds.

That we may not fall into this error, we ought always to be attentive to the present rule. Formerly incense, candles, holy garments, an altar, vessels, and ceremonies of this nature, pleased God; and the reason was, that nothing is more precious or acceptable to Him than obedience. Now, since the coming of Christ, matters are entirely changed. We ought, therefore, to consider what he enjoins on us under the Gospel, that we may not follow at random what the Fathers observed under the Law; for what was at that time a holy observation of the worship of God would now be a shocking sacrilege.

The Samaritans were led astray by not considering, in the example of Jacob, how widely it differed from the condition of their own time. The Patriarchs were permitted to erect altars everywhere, because the place had not yet been fixed which the Lord afterwards selected; but from the time that God ordered the temple to be built on mount Zion, the freedom which they formerly enjoyed ceased. For this reason Moses said,

Hereafter you shall not do every one what appears right in his own eyes, but only what I command you,


for, from the time that the Lord gave the Law, he restricted the true worship of himself to the requirements of that Law, though formerly a greater degree of liberty was enjoyed. A similar pretense was offered by those who worshipped in Bethel; for there Jacob had offered a solemn sacrifice to God, but after that the Lord had fixed the place of sacrifice at Jerusalem, it was no longer Bethel, the house of God, but Bethaven, the house of wickedness.

We now see what was the state of the question. The Samaritans had the example of the Fathers for their rule: the Jews rested on the commandment of God. This woman, though hitherto she had followed the custom of her nation, was not altogether satisfied with it. By worship we are to understand here not any kind of worship, (for daily prayers might be offered in any place,) but that which was joined with sacrifices, and which constituted a public and solemn profession of religion.

(78) “Par les playes et punitions de Dieu.”

(79) “Une fausse imitation, et mal reiglee, ou inconsideree.”

(80) “A depuis ordonne et commande une autre conduite et maniere de faire, qu’ ont a suyvre.”