Category Archives: John Calvin

Calvin Thoughts, Institutes 1.10.1-3

My Calvin reading schedule has no readings for the Lord’s Day, but I didn’t read yesterday’s, so I’m reading on the Lord’s Day. I’m not sure what was the intention of taking the Lord’s Day off, although I suppose it’s a sort of Sabbath keeping. And now that I think of it, it really functions as a gift of Sabbath. Even if I am reading other days’ passages today, the absence of a new passage, a new task, does give me rest. It gives me opportunity to catch up, not scramble to catch up, as I would if the flow of new passages were relentless. No. I can pause, because the flow is paused, and in my leisure and rest, relax and read.

It’s hard to explain. I was all set to say What’s the point of having a day without a new reading, especially when, so far anyway, I’ve had a reading to do on that day? But it has a whole different feel to it and now it’s left me thinking about the Sabbath in general. The gift of a pause in our days. The Sabbath made for man, not simply a day about getting everything “just right” for God, dedicating it solely to his worship and glory, not engaging in any other activities, holding firm to the letter of the law in refraining from work.  Rather the gift of Sabbath, a pause in the days, a rest from the relentless flow of our daily tasks, a day to catch up, catch our breath, recover, regroup.  Then tomorrow we can get back to business as usual, refreshed and ready to face the day.  Or something like that, anyway.

I started writing this simply to post today’s (well, yesterday’s) grab-me thought from Calvin.  Here it is.

Indeed, the knowledge of God set forth for us in Scripture is destined for the very same goal as the knowledge whose imprint shines in his creatures, in that it invites us first to fear God, then to trust in him. By this we can learn to worship him both with perfect innocence of life and with unfeigned obedience, then to depend wholly upon his goodness.

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Calvin Thoughts, Institutes 1.8.5-13

Calvin goes into great depth and detail arguing for Scripture’s authenticity and authority using the witness of Scripture itself.  It’s interesting to me how the whole historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture  has rendered many of Calvin’s arguments moot even within segments of the church.  I don’t consider this to be progress.  For Calvin, a whole lot rides on Moses’ being the writer of the Law, Isaiah–really all of the prophets–writing when he says he’s writing it, the miracles described in Scripture having happened as Scripture says they did.  I know a whole lot of people who have thrown out a whole lot of that stuff.  A whole lot of Scripture.

Of all his arguments and specific commentary on Scripture in this little chunk of the Institutes, I am particularly fond of what he has to say about the Gospel according to John.  Maybe because I just love John.  I just love it.  First he describes the other Evangelists this way, “Three Evangelists recount their history in a humble and lowly style.”  He doesn’t mean that in a bad way, really.  He soon addresses John the Evangelist:

But John, thundering from the heights, lays low more mightily than any thunderbolt the obstinacy of those whom he does not impel to the obedience of faith. Let all those sharp-nosed faultfinders-whose highest desire is to drive the reverence for Scripture from their own and others’ hearts-come into the open. Let them read John’s Gospel: whether they want to or not, there they shall find a thousand sayings to arouse, at least, their dull minds-nay, I should rather say, to burn a dreadful brand upon their consciences for the restraint of their mockery.

Sharp-nosed faultfinders, lays low, thunderbolt, obstinacy, dull minds . . . Why aren’t we allowed to write like this anymore?  Maybe the free-for-all blogosphere will bring it back.  Carnal stupidity, sharp-nosed.  I like it.  Though I was reading the discussion forum at PTS and somebody there was offended at Calvin’s willingness to call people stupid.  Meh.  Stupid is as stupid does.  Calvin just calls ’em like he sees ’em.  I admire that in a theologian.

Anywhoooo . . .

This was my real point.  To include the following passage from Calvin himself, his far more eloquent words addressing what I was talking about yesterday.

“There are other reasons, neither few nor weak, for which the dignity and majesty of Scripture are not only affirmed in godly hearts, but brilliantly vindicated against the wiles of its disparagers; yet of themselves these are not strong enough to provide a firm faith, until our Heavenly Father, revealing his majesty there, lifts reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy. Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known. Augustine therefore justly warns that godliness and peace of mind ought to come first if a man is to understand anything of such great matters.

Feebleness.  Foolishness.  Academic writing is simply too polite these days.  At least the stuff I’ve been reading.

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Calvin Thoughts, Institutes 1.7.4-5

We ought to remember what I said a bit ago: credibility of doctrine is not established until we are persuaded beyond doubt that God is its Author. Thus, the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it. The prophets and apostles do not boast either of their keenness or of anything that obtains credit for them as they speak; nor do they dwell upon rational proofs. Rather, they bring forward God’s holy name, that by it the whole world may be brought into obedience to him.

The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.

It is God’s Holy Spirit that makes the words of Scripture the Word of God. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is words on a page. The conviction that these words are indeed God’s Word is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Can I tell you this is why I question the wisdom of those within the church who appeal to Scripture to call the secular world into obedience to God? A non-believer, one who has not been called by God and gifted with his Holy Spirit does not give a whit what it says in the Bible. They will not be persuaded by our argument, reason, or logic simply because it is rooted in Scripture.

Calvin says earlier in this same paragraph, “Yet they who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards.” When I first read it, I was hearing it speak to those who are trying, for themselves, to build up their own faith in Scripture through debate intended to reveal the truth (disputations). But now I’m hearing it speak to those who try to convince non-believers that they need to do what the Bible says, arguing in the context of an informal debate over morality they wield the Bible as the source of Truth. And Scripture is the source of Truth. But these folk are, in the words of Calvin, doing things backwards. The truth of Scripture does not lie in its words, nor in our ability to convince someone of its truth. Rather the truth of Scripture lies in the gift of God’s Holy Spirit bestowed upon his believers (I would say, his elect, but I don’t want to get into that just yet). And it is the Holy Spirit who inwardly convicts a person of the truth of Scripture, illuminating his mind and heart, quickening his will to obedience. That’s God’s work. Not ours. And, I think, as long as believers keep appealing to Scripture in their debates, they’re going to keep coming up empty. Because the non-believers are empty. Of God’s Spirit. First one must be convinced of the Gospel, convicted by the Truth of God in Jesus Christ, before they will be convinced or convicted by that same God into a life of obedience.

Let us first pray for those whose hearts are not illumined by the Holy Spirit, who live apart from the truth of Scripture and the obedience thereof because they live apart from God. They wallow in misery that goes far beyond their lifestyle choices or the visible consequences of their grave sins. They languish unknowing, unbelieving of the grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ who provides the way out of their misery. Let us first witness to that truth. May we pray “Lord, illumine their hearts, draw them to you, give them the gift of faith in you. Use me. Use me as a witness to your saving grace. A witness to your grace, that by your power they would come to know you, and by knowing you be released from the bonds of their sins.”

Something like that, anyway. Because until a person is enlivened by the Holy Spirit, all our appeals to the Bible are merely Bible thumpin’. Banging our hands 0n a book.

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Calvin Thoughts, 1.4.1-4

Indeed, vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations. They do not therefore apprehend God as he offers himself, but imagine him as they have fashioned him in their own presumption. When this gulf opens, in whatever direction they move their feet, they cannot but plunge headlong into ruin. Indeed, whatever they afterward attempt by way of worship or service of God, they cannot bring as tribute to him, for they are worshiping not God but a figment and a dream of their own heart.

Is it wrong that I mostly like this quote because of the phrase “carnal stupidity”?

Obviously there is more to it than that.  We make God in our own image.  Often.  And badly.  And I’m struggling to come up with a category of people who don’t do it.  Non-believers do it.  There’s definitely a strain of “spirituality” out there that holds on to a god that is the best of what people can come up with.  A great person to the Nth degree.  Agnostics do it.  There may or may not be someone/something out there who is bigger/better/stronger/more powerful than I/we/you/they.  More comparisons.  More extrapolations.  I even think atheists do it.  Taking earthly constructs and rejecting them.  But.  As troublesome as these things are, there is a more dangerous category.

Christians. I’ll be honest.  This quote grabbed my attention because in the struggles my denomination is currently undergoing I feel like I’m seeing a whole lot of people looking to themselves to determine who God is and what he wants from us.  Our presbyteries are currently voting on an amendment which is built on a foundation they view as, in their own words, fundamental to our denomination’s constitution.  In their understanding there exists a “hierarchy of authority in which [the church is] to obey Jesus Christ its Head, and, additionally, to heed first the Scriptures and then the confessions [referring to our denomination’s Book of Confessions, an authoritative compilation of ecumenical and Reformed confessions], to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will.”

As I said, this particular group believes this notion is fundamental to our constitution, I couldn’t disagree more.  The consequence of this notion–that we can somehow separate Christ’s will from Scripture–is striking me as downright ludicrous.  Help me out here, with that quote, if you can.  The phrase “to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will,” what is its antecedent?  To what does it refer?  To the confessions only?  Or to Scripture, too?  Because I worry they’re talking about Scripture, too.  You can qualify the confessions.  They are indeed written by men (mostly, though some of the later ones had women involved), and while they were entered into prayerfully and while I trust God’s Holy Spirit was involved in their writing, they are not Canon.  They are not the Word of God.  They are some folks’ best efforts at articulating in a particular context within a specific crisis what Scripture reveals to be the nature of God.  They are authoritative only “to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will.”

But Scripture?  Well, that’s exactly how we determine Christ’s will.  We read Scripture.  There can be no hierarchy where Jesus Christ and Scripture are concerned.  Especially from the Reformed perspective.  Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, the Scriptures are the Word of God written.  God’s Word, living breathing in the flesh by his Holy Spirit on/in/off/through the page.  By God’s divine providence, our one source of knowledge of  our Lord in Jesus Christ is Scripture, his written Word.  God’s Holy Spirit lives and breathes through God’s Word, revealing Christ’s will.  How else would we determine it?  By looking to ourselves and our experiences, measuring him by our carnal stupidity and flying off into empty speculations.  Did I mention how Calvin keeps reminding me that there is nothing new under the sun?

I’d like to end my musings there.  Really I would.  It’s all a rant against the “other” in my denomination.  They are full of carnal stupidity.  However.  That’s too easy.  It’s too easy to look only to where other folk are getting it wrong.  I started by saying I can’t think of a single category of people to whom this passage does not apply.  That includes fine, upstanding, orthodox Christians as well.  I want to say it’s only “them”:  the non-believers, the atheists, the agnostics, the humanists, the flamin’ liberals.  But I can’t.  Today Calvin God challenges me to reflect on the ways I seek to make him over in my own image, to ask myself, “How do I, as a believer, seek to imagine God based on my own yardstick?  In what ways do I look to myself first to determine who God is?”  He convicts me to look more closely, more deeply, more often at his written Word.  To seek his revelation of himself to me.  To trust him to know himself better than I can contrive.  Lord, illumine my mind, my heart, my soul to know you better and to love you more.  Amen.

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Some Background on Calvin and his Institutes

I was looking at the Calvin’s Institutes stuff on the Princeton Seminary website and came across this.  It’s a great introduction to Calvin and his Institutes, written by one of my former church history professors, Dr. Elsie McKee. For anyone interested in more info–and a correction, as I was thinking Calvin was still in his twenties when he finished the final edition, but that wasn’t even remotely right.  His first edition was much, much shorter than the rest (only six chapters) and completed when he was 28 (I am sooo behind).  I didn’t realized–or I had forgotten–just how many editions there were.  The final edition was published in Latin in 1559 and in French (Jean Cauvin’s native tongue)  in 1560, when–now check my math here–Calvin was 52.  I’m still behind.  Even if I’m not 52 yet.

Anyway . . . point really was, I provide this link in case anyone is interested in more background info, but also so that I know where to find it when I want it.  It’s chock full of Calvin-y goodness.

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Calvin Thoughts, 1.6.1-4

We must come, I say, to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal.

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Calvin Thoughts, Institutes 1.3.1-3

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops.

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