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CHAPTER IX

The complaint continued, that this calling is so much neglected, when superstition and sin are embraced and diligently followed

Swinnock has been addressing the issue: if men are not busy making godliness their calling, then what are they busy to do? The first issue, which was addressed in a previous post noted that we are busy to acquire stuff: “wealth and earthly things.” In this chapter he says that we are also busy after superstition and third plain “wickedness”.

[II.        THREE ASPECTS 

This complaint is urged with a threefold consideration.]

B.        Men make superstition their religion

By superstition, Swinnock primarily means false religious practices and beliefs. He is not aiming primarily at carrying a rabbit’s foot for luck as he is in worshipping idols or tormenting one’s own body.

1. What is the basic manner in which superstition is exercised? By inventing religious practice.

Of use here is the notice that Swinnock being the reformed tradition, holds to the regulative or the regulatory principle when it comes to worship: worship is only what the Bible specifies. This is stated in the Belgic Confession as follows:

Art. VII

We believe that these Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures; nay, though it were an angel from, heaven, as the Apostle Paul saith. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away any thing from the Word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in al respects. Neither may we compare any writings of men, though ever so holy, with those divine Scriptures; nor ought we to compare custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times or persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, with the truth of God, for the truth is above all: for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the Apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God; likewise, If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.

Art. XXXV

Therefore, we reject all mixtures and damnable inventions, which men have added unto and blended with the Sacraments, as profanations of them, and affirm that we ought to rest satisfied with the ordinance which Christ and his Apostles have taught us, and that we must speak of them in the same manner as they have spoken.

Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 389, 431.

Secondly, How do men make superstition and idolatry their business? 

Notice that he makes superstition an equivalent of idolatry:

“All worshipping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the relgion of God without his own express commandment is idolatry….All honoring or service of God whereunto is added wicked opinion is abomination.” (John Knox, quoted from Between Wittenberg and Geneva, Kolb & Trueman, p. 224)

a. Men are zealous for their own traditions.

Though they are careless about divine institutions, yet they are zealous for human traditions. How zealous were the pharisees for the inventions of their elders! they called them Mashlamathath, completions or perfections, esteeming them both helpful to the observation of the law of God, and also to the perfection of it. 

b. The psychological motivation for false worship

i.  They think it will please God.

Superstitious persons do naturally think that their postures, gestures, ceremonies, and additions, do render the worship of God more comely and more complete; but truly such embrace a cloud instead of Juno, worship the shadow of Christ, whilst the prince himself goeth unsaluted. 

ii. They think it will make much of their own effort.

Men are exceeding prone to, and earnest for, such vain and false ways and worship, partly because it is pleasing to corrupt spirits, who naturally love a fair show in the flesh; a pompous holiness suits best with a proud heart; partly because these traditions were received from their ancestors; and as Austin observed in his time, men were resolved, right or wrong, to be followers of their fathers. 

This second point is critical for understanding Swinnock’s overall theology: the grace of God saves the unsavable: Not even repentance is the basis of salvation. In terms of the order of salvation, “God calls us, produces regeneration in us, so that we respond with repentance, faith, and obedience.” 

But we have an inherent need to be the causative agent in our salvation: We have a natural desire to make our relationship to God hinge upon what we decide and do. Swinnock is arguing that the desire to be the principal agent of our salvation leads us into idolatry.

iii. An example from Cicero

Suitable to which, Cicero said, I will never forsake that way of divine service which I have received from my forefathers, for any man’s pleasure, or by any man’s persuasion; no, not though Christ himself died to redeem them from their ‘vain conversations, received by tradition from their fathers,’ 1 Pet. 1:1819. Hence, though they are so backward where God commands, yet they are forward when men command. 

2. The intensity of those who engage in false worship.

The story of Micah is found in Judges 17-18. Laban chases down his household gods in Genesis 31. Gideon tears an altar of Baal which brings the wrath of the village down upon him in Judges 6. His point is that people will drive themselves to extremes in false worship.

What an outcry doth Micah make for his idol! What a privy search doth Laban make for his image! Gideon must die for throwing down the altar of Baal. 

a.  An observation on the intensity.

Having provided an example of how false worship drives men, Swinnock provides an observation. This is useful as a technique: give an example and explain what the example illustrates. The image of being scalded by the boil of their zeal is striking.

How earnest are many for priests, tapers, altars, sacrifices, days, meats, consecrations, the holy of holies, crossings and cringings! In these their zeal is hot, boiling over to the scalding of themselves and others. 

Though this fervency is aptly compared to a ship without ballast, overtired with sails, which in a storm casts away all aboard her, they disesteem their estates and possessions in comparison of idolatry and superstition. Such persons are not only liberal, but lavish. 

b. More biblical examples

Jeroboam will be at great cost for his idols; they must be not iron or brazen, no, not silver, but golden calves; not gilded over, but massy, molten gold. ‘They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god, and they fall down and worship it,’ Isa. 46:6. The Israelites will spare their jewels for their idols, Exod. 32:3. Micah’s mother, to make molten and graven images, will lay out eleven hundred shekels of silver, Judges 17:23

3. Polemic

At this point, Swinnock sets his sights on Roman Catholics, “Indians of Ceylon”, Muslims, and returns to Jesuits. This style of apologetics or preaching is not much in fashion in our day. It is interesting to consider the context in which he is making this argument. Armed conflicts over religion were still not over in Europe, particularly since religion and politics were intimately intwined. The War of the Spanish Succession which enveloped all of Western Europe was still in the future. The American armistice whereby we give civil space to one-another was still in the future (although Cromwell did bring a certain measure of toleration).

It is difficult for us to hear this section in the way in which would have sounded to Swinnock.

In addition, we must also understand that Swinnock’s vehemence on this matters was because he is contending this is an absolute matter of life and death. If you saw a friend take up a bottle of poison falsely believing it to be medicine, you would stringently warn him and seek to dissuade him.

So, the question we should ask is the persuasiveness of such arguments. In the case of Swinnock, there is very little chance that any of his readers would be likely to become Hindu or Muslim. However, the question of Roman Catholicism, or more particularly “high church” Anglicanism would be a matter of possible concern.

The papists are so prodigal,—though it is the less wonder in them, because they hold such actions meritorious of salvation, (and what would not a man give or do to be saved?)—that not only their churches, but even cloisters, are stuck and stuffed with costly, pearly presents to their supposed saints. 

The Indians in the isle of Ceylon, having a consecrated ape’s tooth got from them, offered an incredible mass of treasure to recover it. How many zealots, that will hardly give a penny to the relief of a poor Christian, throw away pounds for the maintenance of superstition!

They slight their relations to further their idolatrous devotion. The superstitious Jews would sacrifice their children to Moloch, 2 Kings 17:17. The Carthaginians at one time,1 (after they had received an overthrow by Agathocles,) sacrificed two hundred of their prime nobility to appease their incensed deity. Good God! whither is man fallen, to be more cruel than a beast to the children of his own body! What slavery is it to serve Satan, and what liberty to serve thee!

Nay, they will sacrifice not only their estates and children, but their lives and all their outward comforts, to superstition. How did the worshippers of Baal cut and lance themselves! Ahaz sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that smote him, 2 Chron. 28:23; so fervent he was that he chose rather in the service of false gods to be scourged, than in the service of the true God to be saved.2

Among the Mohammedans are a sect called the dervises,3 whose sharp and strict penances exceed those of the papists; they live on the tops of hills, solitary, for contemplation; fast, till nature be almost decayed; have no clothes but to cover their nakedness; wear such massy fetters of iron upon their legs that they can scarce stir, and yet go as fast as they can with them many miles, to visit the sepulchres of their deluded saints. The Turks willingly lay down their lives in their wars to propagate their religion, which their prophet hath taught them must be done, non disputando, sed pugnando, not by disputing with, but by destroying others. 

When he returns to Roman Catholics in the peson of this “unhappy Jesuit,” we cannot miss that someone advocating Roman Catholicism was not seen as advancing personal liberty of conscience, but rather advocating for overthrow of the crown.

The unhappy Jesuit, though his religion be a heap of formalities, as the Turks’ a bundle of fooleries, is yet so zealous for it, that Campian could impudently, in a letter to Queen Elizabeth’s council, affirm, that as long as there was one Jesuit left for Tyburn, they had vowed never to desist endeavours to set up their religion in this nation. Oh devout ungodliness, or ungodly devotion! how few take such pains to go to heaven, as many do to go to hell!

4. A final plea to leave off false worship

In this final section, Swinnock makes a more emotional appeal than logic argument (albeit this is not illogical). Seeing that he is seeking to induce emotion, he proceeds by figures of expansion, using repetition, alliteration. 

He does this by three examples: First, he laments how men destroy their bodies in false worship. Second, he laments those who undertake needless tasks, such as pilgrimages, for the salvation of their soul.

The following paragraph has been broken down into clauses to more easily see the structures:

Alas! 

what sorrow doth this call for 

and command! 

that men should be so hot and fiery in will-worship, 

in false worship, 

wasting their wealth, 

cutting and carving their bodies 

as if they were made only to be their slaves, 

and themselves to be the tyrants over them, 

laying out so much cost, 

and exercising so much cruelty, 

for that which is worse than nothing, 

for that which will not only not profit them, 

but extremely and eternally prejudice them; 

notice how he breaks up the movement when he comes to Christ.

and in the interim 

the easy yoke of Christ is scorned, 

the power of godliness slighted, 

which might be minded with much more mildness and mercy to their outward and inward man. [note the alliteration in his last clause]

The needless tasks men undertake:

It was a good meditation of a fore-quoted author, Those that travel in long pilgrimages to the Holy Land, what a number of weary paces they measure! what a number of hard lodgings and known dangers they pass! and at last, when they are come within view of their journey’s end, what a large tribute they pay at the Pisan Castle to the Turks! and when they are come thither, what see they but the bare sepulchre wherein their Saviour lay, and the earth that he trod upon, to the increase of a carnal devotion! 

As he did with the example of those who torment their body, he ends with a counter. Following the lament, he holds an offer of peace to be found in true worship.

What labour should I willingly undertake in my journey to the true land of promise, the celestial Jerusalem, where I shall see and enjoy my Saviour himself! What tribute of pain or death should I refuse to pay for my entrance, not into his sepulchre, but his palace of glory, and that not to look upon, but to possess it?


1 Diodor. Sic.

2 Verberari a dæmone mallebat quam a Deo coronari.—Mendoz. in Sam. 8

3 Purch. Pilgrim., p. 1478.