Category Archives: Book notes

Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?


Unbelief in the Institutes

There are several English translations of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The most popular is the Ford Lewis Battles translation edited by John T. McNeill and published by The Westminster Press.  When I first became serious about studying theology, my pastor at the time recommended I buy this edition — and so I did.  My copy of this two-volume set was purchased way back in 1992.

Over the years, I’ve referred to it often.  I’ve also encountered criticisms both of the translation and the notes.  In The Unaccommodated Calvin, Richard Muller complains that all three modern translations (Allen, Battles, Beveridge) are deficient in the way they translate Calvin’s technical vocabulary (p.177).  Somewhere, I’m not quite sure where anymore, Muller mentions that, overall, he still prefers the Allen translation (find it online here).  Muller and others have also noted that the Battles/McNeill edition has theological issues — the translator and editor were not exactly confessionally Reformed.

I recently encountered a notable instance of liberal bias in Institutes 1.8.8.  Calvin is writing about Scripture.  He notes how the prophets predicted events long before they happened.  He provides an example from Isaiah:

Let us grant that to predict, long before, what at the time seemed incredible but at last actually came to pass was not yet a clear enough token of divine inspiration.  Yet from what source but God shall we say have come those prophecies which Isaiah at the same time utters concerning release?  He names Cyrus [Isa. 45:1] through whom the Chaldeans had to be conquered and the people set free.  More than a hundred years elapsed from the time the prophet so prophesied and the time Cyrus was born; for the latter was born about a hundred years after the prophet’s death.  No one could have divined then that there was to be a man named Cyrus who would wage war with the Babylonians, would subdue such a powerful monarchy, and terminate the exile of the people of Israel.  Does not this bare narrative, without any verbal embellishment, show the things Isaiah recounts to be undoubted oracles of God, not the conjectures of a man?

Beautifully put.  However, the editor J. T. McNeill goes and tries to deflate Calvin’s whole argument with this footnote:

The modern view of the late date of Isa., ch.45, does not of course enter Calvin’s mind in this argument.

There are indeed modern scholars who hold to a late date for that part of Isaiah.  They actually deny that Isaiah wrote it.  They say that it was someone else using Isaiah’s name and writing about the events long after they occurred.  This view would never enter Calvin’s mind not only because it would not surface for a few hundred years, but also because Calvin believed the testimony of Scripture.

So there’s unbelief in the Institutes, but it’s not coming from the pen of Calvin himself.  The unbelief is from his unbelieving English editor.  If you’re referring to the Battles edition of the Institutes, be careful with the footnotes!


Nailing the 95 Theses: Legend or Fact?

This year we hear repeatedly that it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  But did he?  Where is the proof for this?  I remember the first time I encountered skepticism about this claim — I found it intriguing and, the more I looked into it, I became skeptical too.  I’m currently reading Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther and she mentions this question as well.  Here’s what she writes on page 92:

Interestingly, Reformation scholars today still debate whether or not Luther actually posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Martin Brecht notes that the posting of the Theses on the church doors was first mentioned well after Luther’s death by his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon, who wasn’t even living in Wittenberg in 1517, the time of the alleged posting.  In his thousands of Table Talk entries Luther never told the story of posting the Theses, nor did he mention it in any of his own writings that detail the beginnings of the reform movement.  Brecht guesses that Luther probably did post the Theses, as nailing a notice on the church door was standard protocol for academics who wished to engage in a public debate, but the truth is, no one knows for sure if Luther stood before the doors of Castle Church with a hammer in his hand.

There’s a bit more information about this matter here.  And over here at the Heidelblog is where I first read about the skeptical approach (thanks, Scott!).

Tetelestai — It is Finished

Good Friday is coming later this week and I’ll be preaching on Jesus’ “Word of Victory” from the cross:  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In this connection, I did some research into the meaning of the one Greek word behind the English, tetelestai.  For those interested in things grammatical, that’s the third person singular, perfect tense, of the verb teleo.  Now what stirred me up to research this was something I read a while back in Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality (see my review here).  Koukl writes:

When a debt was owed in the first century, a “certificate” of the debt was made, much like the notice placed about Jesus’ head.  When the obligation was settled, it was officially resolved with a single Greek word placed upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai.  It meant completed, paid, finished, done.  Archaeologists have unearthed ancient receipts that have been “canceled out” in this way using the word tetelestai or its abbreviation. (page 127)

When I first read this, I thought, “I’ve never heard that before.  Hmm…interesting.”  I placed a mark in the book and made a note of it.  I knew I was going to preach on John 19:30 shortly, so I would come back to this and take another look at it.

Koukl has a footnote with this paragraph and it points to a website,  The particular page can be found here.  For our purposes, this is the relevant section:

The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times to show indicating that a bill had been paid in full. The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan says this:

“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630). The connection between receipts and what Christ accomplished would have been quite clear to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins.

So now the plot thickens!  The anonymous author of this page points us to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyrii and Other Non-Literary Sources, by James Moulton and George Milligan.

The relevant page from Moulton and Milligan can be found online here.   There we find the words quoted by, but also some words left out.  Crucially, Moulton and Milligan relate that these papyrii are mostly belonging to the second century A.D. (I’m thinking:  “What do you mean by “mostly”?”)  Moreover, Moulton and Milligan provide their source:  New Classical Fragments and Other Greek and Latin Papyrii, by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

As the saying goes, “Ad fontes!” (to the sources).  The relevant pages from Grenfell and Hunt begin here.  The papyrii in question come from the second and third century A.D. — not exactly “New Testament times.”  Moreover, they come from receipts “for various taxes paid by persons transporting goods on baggage animals from Fayoum to Memphis and vice-versa across the desert road.”  For the geographically challenged (or curious), Fayoum and Memphis are located in Egypt.   I trust you can see the problem.

I can only say, “This myth is busted.”   These paypyrii have to do with the paying of taxes, not of debts.  You might argue that a tax is a kind of debt, but we generally distinguish between the two.  More importantly, these papyrii are from a time and place removed somewhat from the New Testament.  Koukl also said that there was a “single Greek word” on the parchment’s face.  When you look at the text of the papyrii in Grenfell and Hunt, there’s definitely more than a single Greek word to signify the payment of the tax.  It is highly unlikely that Jesus said “tetelestai” (or that John translated his Aramaic to this word) with the idea that there’s a direct reference to the cancellation of a debt.  Certainly when Jesus says, “It is finished,” he does mean that the work of our redemption on the cross has been fully accomplished.  However, any reference to the full payment of our debt is only indirect.

UPDATE:  After posting the link to this blog post on Facebook, I had some discussion with a colleague and did some further research.  There is a papyrus from somewhere between 180 and 168 BC which is a receipt for “payments of an unspecified nature.”  This papyrus uses tetelestaiSee here.  There is also a customs receipt from 49 AD — see here — and a number of others.  However, there are still questions regarding:  1)  How widespread this technical usage was, 2) whether the original Greek readers of John’s gospel were indeed familiar with this technical use of tetelestai, 3) Whether this word in this form was actually used for payments other than taxes, 4) The fact that tetelestai never occurs by itself as a word in isolation.  Furthermore, I surveyed a number of commentaries on John.  I found one that mentioned the “bill paid” interpretation (Richard Phillips in the Reformed Expository Commentary series).  The others (Carson, Hoskyns, Ridderbos, Hendriksen, Michaels, Morris) I surveyed make no mention of this.  Finally, there’s no mention of this in a number of standard references including Dictionary of New Testament Background, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Considering also the overwhelming reticence of commentators and scholars on this point, it is best to simply understand tetelestai in John 19:30 as meaning, “It is finished” or “It is accomplished/completed.”


Top Three Marriage Books

Over my years in the ministry, I’ve taught many marriage preparation classes.  From time to time, I’ve also counselled couples with marriage problems.  In my preaching, I’ve had many opportunities to speak about marriage.  Besides all that, I’ve been married myself for what’s going on to 23 years.  All these things give me a vested interest in good books about marriage.  I’ve read a few.  Almost all of them have something worthwhile, but there are some that really stand out.  Here are my top three, in order of importance:

When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Dave Harvey.

This one tops the list because of the author’s relentless focus on the gospel.  Written in a warm, personal style, Dave Harvey helps couples come to terms with the biggest problem that all marriages face and the solution to this problem.  Along with some of the other topics one would expect in a marriage book, he also discusses one you don’t often encounter:  death.  If you’re going to read just one book about marriage, make it this one.

Strengthening Your Marriage, Wayne Mack.

Are you ready to get to work on your marriage?  Then this is the book you’re looking for.  It’s not just a review of biblical teaching about marriage, but a very practical workbook.  It contains a variety of exercises for husbands and wives to complete.  The idea is that they would be done with a pastor or counsellor, but certainly couples could benefit from doing them on their own too.  I use Wayne Mack’s book Preparing for Marriage God’s Way for my marriage preparation classes and I appreciate his biblical approach.

Each for the Other: Marriage As It’s Meant To Be, Bryan Chapell with Kathy Chapell

I really like this one for three reasons.  One is that it includes the perspective of a woman.  Another is that it has great stories and illustrations to drive home the points of the authors.  Finally, I value the clear explanations and applications of biblical submission and headship.  This book also includes discussion questions to go with each chapter.