John Calvin was what you might call “a fan, bigly” of the proper use of the motif of the imitation of Christ. He mentions it in various places; but one that is particularly illuminating is found in his comments on 1 Corinthians 11.1, where Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (ESV).
Calvin notices that the second clause is important, because it sets the parameters in which Christians should take other Christians as their models, i.e., only in so far as the latter have made Christ their own model.
Calvin considers the location of the conventional chapter break between chapters 10 and 11 inane, and instead (correctly) sees 11.1 as the concluding thought of the discussion in the preceding chapter. Here, Paul uses his own example as an incentive to the Corinthians to obey what he has said. As Calvin puts it:
Paul had there brought forward his own example in confirmation of his doctrine. Now, in order that the Corinthians may understand that this would be becoming in them, he exhorts them to imitate what he had done, even as he had imitated Christ.
From these few words, Calvin draws out two points significant to the practice of the faith. He says:
Here there are two things to be observed — first, that he prescribes nothing to others that he had not first practiced himself; and, secondly, that he directs himself and others to Christ as the only pattern of right acting.
The first is straightforward and amounts to an application of “practice what you preach,” or, as here, perhaps rather “preach what you practice.” The second is the point already referred to above: ultimately, it is Christ himself alone who is the “pattern of right acting.” Others can be patterns only in a secondary and derivative sense, to the extent that they have formed their own conduct on the principal archetype and lone specimen of perfect humanity we have to consult.
Why does this matter? It matters for a couple of reasons. First, we are all, and especially those who are in positions of influence, tempted to tyrannize over others and turn our own scruples into laws that others must follow. But this we may not do. Not only does this lead to an irrational autocracy of some over others, but–and as a corollary–it imposes superstitious observance (that is, pure formal replication as such, of what ought to be a proximate representation that has instead itself become an end) on inferiors (that is, those not in positions of authority or influence). By so doing, it reduces reasonable actors to simian copycats (if I may mix animal metaphors for a moment), and, further, obscures and in the end overshadows what ought to have been the point: an ever-increasing directedness to Christ himself as source and goal of the Christian life. Calvin puts it this way:
For while it is the part of a good teacher to enjoin nothing in words but what he is prepared to practice in action, he must not, at the same time, be so austere, as straightway to require from others everything that he does himself, as is the manner of the superstitious. For everything that they contract a liking for they impose also upon others, and would have their own example to be held absolutely as a rule. The world is also, of its own accord, inclined to a misdirected imitation, (κακοζηλίαν) and, after the manner of apes, strive to copy whatever they see done by persons of great influence. We see, however how many evils have been introduced into the Church by this absurd desire of imitating all the actions of the saints, without exception.
He concludes with an exhortation: make Christ the prototype–the “first” or “chief model”–and the saints subordinate models who are themselves dependent on the chief model; who therefore testify, who bear witness, whose lives serve as gestures toward Christ. He who does so will not be led astray but will rather be led, in Lewis’s phrase, “further up and further in.”
Let us, therefore, maintain so much the more carefully this doctrine of Paul — that we are to follow men, provided they take Christ as their grand model, (πρωτότυπον,) that the examples of the saints may not tend to lead us away from Christ, but rather to direct us to him.