Category Archives: Church History

Calvin’s Magnum Opus: A Critical Essay

A “magnum opus” is an author’s greatest work.  When it comes to John Calvin that should obviously be a reference to his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This work is one of the classics of Protestant theology.  It is often referenced but seldom read as a complete work from front to back.  I first purchased my copy of the McNeill/Battles edition before starting pre-seminary studies in university.  Over the years I have read bits and pieces and there, often as a need or interest required.  But until this past year I have never read the Institutes through from beginning to end.

In this essay, I will share some of the highlights of my complete tour through this theological masterpiece.  I have points both of appreciation and critique.  I doubt anything I say here will be new – the volume of literature on the Institutes is vast and surely someone, somewhere has made similar observations.

I read the two-volume McNeill/Battles edition published in the Library of Christian Classics.  This edition is based on the final version Calvin published in 1559.  I also occasionally referred to the older editions of Beveridge and Allen, and even sometimes checked the original French and Latin.

Calvin originally wrote the Institutes in 1536 as a sort of catechetical handbook.  It was never designed to be a systematic theology – such a creature did not yet exist.  It was also not designed to be a book of extensive commentary on Scripture.  No, its original purpose was catechetical – to summarize the teaching of Scripture on essential matters of faith and life.  As the work progressed to its final form in 1559, it did however take on a more systematic form (the technical term is loci communes).  In some places there is limited commentary on Scripture – for example, when dealing with the Ten Commandments (2.9) or the Lord’s Prayer (3.20.34-49) – and there are extensive references to Scripture, but generally Calvin leaves biblical exposition to his commentaries.

His approach is typically theological with the Scriptures explicitly as a foundation.  However, by way of exception, there are parts that are more philosophical.  For example, in 1.15.6-8, Calvin discusses the soul.  There is almost nothing directly from Scripture in this discussion.  Instead, Calvin works more with philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato.  For a modern reader unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, this discussion is difficult to follow.

Related to that, there are places where Calvin follows Platonic notions instead of biblical ones.  One of the most well-known examples is how Calvin speaks of the body as the prison house of the soul.  He does this in at least four places (1.15.2, 2.7.13, 3.7.5, 3.9.4).  This devaluing of the body does not accord with the biblical worldview.  In Scripture, the body is redeemed by Christ just as well as the soul (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and will be raised at the last day (1 Cor. 15).

Some have claimed Calvin as the high point of the Reformation.  This has been often asserted especially in relation to “scholasticism.”  The old narrative was that the medieval church was plagued with scholasticism.  The Reformers came and brought the church back to the Bible.  Then, sadly, a following generation reversed many of the gains and scholasticism again crippled the church.  In this old narrative, scholasticism is usually not carefully defined.  If we define it as a method of teaching theology which includes clear definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques, the narrative shifts rather dramatically.  In fact, if we define scholasticism in this way, Calvin himself has plenty of scholastic method in the Institutes (this was originally something I learned from Richard Muller in his The Unaccommodated Calvin).  I have outlined here the many different distinctions Calvin used and discussed.  Throughout the Institutes he pays careful attention to definitions.  There are numerous places where he employs syllogisms and other forms of logic/reasoning (e.g. 2.5.1).  It would not be fair to say that Calvin is scholastic, but it is completely justified to argue there are scholastic elements in the Institutes.

The attentive reader will pick up on Calvin’s copiousness.  He had read widely.  Throughout the Institutes, Calvin refers to numerous authors going all the way back to the early church.  Two stand out in particular.  The most quoted and referred to author is Augustine.  This is not surprising since Augustine is the most influential of the church fathers on the Protestant Reformers in general.  Most of the time Calvin quotes Augustine approvingly, but there are also occasions where he dissents.  The other author is Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who lived from 1090 to 1153.  While Bernard lived before the worst developments in Catholic theology, he was still not exactly a medieval quasi-Protestant.  Nevertheless, Calvin made use of Bernard’s best insights.  In 2.16.1, Calvin gives this beautiful quote from Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs:

The name of Jesus is not only light, but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever is set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine.  Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor.

Calvin appreciated Bernard’s fervour for Christ and his felicitous turn of phrase.

Calvin likewise employed language with a skilled eye to felicity.  Trained as a humanist (in the classical sense of the word), Calvin valued beautiful rhetoric.  Throughout the Institutes there are words so well-crafted you may occasionally feel some salty moisture rolling down your cheek.   If you compare these Institutes with those of a later Genevan theologian named Francis Turretin, the contrast could scarcely be starker.  The language of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology is technical and pays little attention to aesthetics.  It is often like reading a car manual for theology.  However, Calvin’s Institutes feature numerous sections like this in 3.2.42:

Accordingly, in brief, hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.  Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith.

Calvin was indubitably a master of using language to powerful effect.

Regrettably, I have to say I also encountered instances where Calvin uses strong, questionable, or even offensive language.  He uses strong language when it comes to unbiblical and dangerous ideas.  But he also uses strong words for the person of his theological opponents:  “blockheads” (3.20.25), “stupid men” (3.21.7), “swine” (3.23.12), and many other such insults.  I have read enough Reformation literature to know Calvin was not unusual in using this kind of language – and our day tends to be far more sensitive about throwing invectives around in our theological polemics.

I am far less inclined to give Calvin a pass on some other language he uses.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it is clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I have encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and I cannot find a way to excuse it.  I would suppose that, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

For readers today there are some challenges in reading and benefiting from Calvin’s Institutes.  Some of the discussion has less relevance to us.  For example, I found the discussion about the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church to be one of the most tedious parts of the work.  It may be interesting from a historical standpoint, and it might still be valuable to someone actively engaged in apologetics with Roman Catholics, but for the rest of us, the temptation to skip through this section is difficult to resist.

Persevering readers will encounter some of Calvin’s best and most well-known theological insights.  Among them:

  • The Scriptures serve as spectacles to help us see God clearly (1.6.1, 1.14.1)
  • “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” (1.11.8)
  • Calvin believes the world to be less than 6000 years old (1.14.1, 3.21.4)
  • Justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns.” (3.11.1)
  • Fasting “is an excellent aid for believers today (as it always was)…” (4.12.18)
  • If baptism is to be denied to the infant children of believers because Scripture is silent on the explicit practice, then women should also be denied access to the Lord’s Supper (4.16.8)
  • The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently, preferably every week (4.17.43)
  • Aristocracy, or perhaps a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy “far excels” all other systems of government (4.20.8)
  • Revolts are possible when led by lower magistrates (4.20.30)

Reading Calvin’s Institutes will remind Reformed believers today that Calvin is not the gold standard for what it means to be Reformed.  After all, there are several points at which much contemporary Reformed faith and practice departs from Calvin.  For example, in 4.3.16, he discusses the laying on of hands in connection with office bearers.  This laying on of hands ought to be practiced not only with the ordination of “pastors and teachers,” but also deacons.  Interestingly, the original Belgic Confession also said that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.

Let me conclude with noting that the McNeill/Battles edition is generally well-done.  There are comprehensive indices.  There are immense numbers of helpful explanatory footnotes. It must be said, however, that some of these footnotes reflect the editor’s liberal theological bias.  For example, in a footnote in 1.8.8, the editor informs us that Calvin did not hold to the modern view of a late date for Isaiah 45 and its mention of Cyrus.  Well, I guess not, seeing as how Calvin believed the Bible to be the Word of God!   As another example, in a footnote in 4.8.9, the editor claims Calvin does not explicitly support biblical inerrancy anywhere.  While it would obviously be anachronistic to expect Calvin to affirm every jot and tittle of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, there is plenty of evidence to affirm Calvin has far more in common with biblical inerrantists today than their opponents.

For most Reformed people today, Calvin’s Institutes will remain a reference.  No one should expect regular church members to pick it up and read it straight through with profit.  Those who try will almost certainly get frustrated and give up.  We must be realistic.  It is a work from an era in which theologians could expect far more from their readers.  I wonder whether even many of today’s pastors would be able to digest everything Calvin serves up.  Some of his discussions and references certainly went beyond my ken.  We live in a strange time where we have more access to information than anyone else in the history of world, and yet, compared to Calvin from 500 years ago, we are dullards.  Reading through the Institutes certainly drove that point home to me.


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: Filioque

Today’s bit of helpful Latin was one small word that played a big role in splitting the church:  Filioque — that’s pronounced “Fili-o-kway.”  In English it translates to “and the Son.”  “Filioque” was a word added to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church at the Third Council of Toledo in 589.  In the original form of the Nicene Creed, adopted in 381, the Holy Spirit was confessed only to proceed from the Father.  However, in 589, the Western Church decided to insert “Filioque,” meaning that the Holy Spirit is confessed to proceed from both the Father and the Son.

This change was never accepted by the Eastern Church.  To this day, Eastern Orthodoxy continues to hold the original Nicene Creed with a single procession, while in the West confessional Protestantism and Roman Catholicism maintain a double procession.  The Third Council of Toledo was not an ecumenical council and therefore the Eastern Church did not participate.  They were later astounded to discover that the Western Church went ahead and unilaterally changed an ecumenical creed at a non-ecumenical council.  Adding further fuel to their ire was the fact that there was an explicit Nicean canon that the wording of the creed was not to be altered.  Of course, beyond procedure there was also the question of whether the Filioque clause was theologically correct — the East insisted it was not.

As mentioned, the West made this change in 589, but the Great Schism between West and East didn’t happen until 1054.  The Filioque was a major thorn in the East’s side for nearly five centuries.  But there were other irritations contributing to gradual estrangement.  Finally, in 1054, things boiled over with leaders from each side excommunicating one another.  While these excommunications were undone in 1965, the rift between East and West remains, as does the Filioque in Western editions of the Nicene Creed.

The history is interesting, but the more important question is whether the Filioque is biblical.  I believe it is.  Let me just mention two places where I see this truth revealed in Scripture.  In Acts 2, we read about Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  In Acts 2:33, Peter says that Christ “has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”  The Holy Spirit was poured out by Christ.  No, it does not say “proceeds,” but the thought is the same.  The Holy Spirit has come from Christ to be poured out on the church.  There is also John 15:26 where Jesus says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”  In this instance, there is a clear reference to the Spirit’s procession from the Father.  Yet it should not be overlooked that Christ also speaks of his own sending of the Holy Spirit.

But what does it mean exactly to confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son?  What exactly is “procession”?  There is mystery here.  We can safely say what it is not.  It is not the same as the begetting that we confess of the Son in relation to the Father.  But beyond that, I find myself sympathizing with Donald Macleod in Behold Your God:  “What this ontological procession actually is or what is meant by the Father and the Son spirating or breathing the Spirit, we simply do not know” (p.198).

Finally, does it really matter?  For the sake of recovering unity with the East, could we not shelve the Filioque?  In response, the East has far more problems than this that would stand in the way of rapprochement  with biblical Christians.  And it does matter, because despite the procedural issues which led to its acceptance in the West, the Filioque is biblical.  Theologically speaking, it matters because it’s a matter of honour for our Lord Christ.  As Donald Macleod notes, “To deny that the Son participates in the procession of the Holy Spirit is to reduce His status” (p.202).

In theology, words matter supremely.  Just one word can make a huge difference.  So, the next time you confess the Nicene Creed in public worship, don’t gloss over “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Think about that and then honour and adore also the Son for his role in blessing us with the Holy Spirit.


Catechism and the Synod of Dort

This year and next we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort.  The Synod of Dort 1618-19 is remembered most for the Canons of Dort dealing with the Arminian problem.  However, the synod actually discussed and decided on far more matters.  One of the topics discussed was catechetical instruction.

Early on at the synod, there was a significant discussion held on the best way to catechize the youth and others in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Advice was requested from the foreign delegates and many of them obliged. It’s interesting that a number of these foreign delegations wrote about the importance of involving parents in catechesis. For instance, the theologians of Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.” Parents who were nonchalant about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families. Similarly, the theologians of Bremen advised the synod that they recognized three sorts of catechesis: scholastic (i.e., in the schools), ecclesiastical, and domestic. Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.

On Friday November 30, 1618 in its morning session, the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the manner of catechesis. Dort followed Bremen’s division of catechetical duties. The work of parents, however, was put up front. According to Dort, it is the work of parents to instruct their children and the whole family with all diligence in the elements of Christian religion. With an eye to each one’s capacity, parents are to seriously and diligently exhort their families in the fear of God and sincere piety. They are to discuss the sermons and especially the teaching of the Catechism. They are to read the Scriptures and explain them. If parents were not faithful in these duties, they were to be admonished by the pastors, and if necessary reprimanded and censured by the consistory.

It’s unfortunate that parental or domestic catechesis has been lost in so many places. It’s regrettable that many Reformed parents today expect the church to do virtually everything when it comes to the catechesis of covenant youth. The first responsibility lies with parents. Dort was right.


New Dutch Articles

In the last little while, I’ve added a couple of new articles in “de Nederlandse taal”:

Zo dankbaar voor de actieve gehoorzaamheid van Christus

De kerk en de rechtvaardigmaking

Thanks to R. Sollie-Sleijster for translating.  Originally published at Een in Waarheid.

 


Quotable Church History: “…so thankful for active obedience of Christ”

This is the tenth (and last) in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was an epic battle for the gospel going on in North America.  When I say, “the gospel,” I really do mean the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.  Theological liberalism was assaulting churches that had once stood firm for the biblical faith, churches such as the Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Among other things, liberalism was denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures, miracles such as the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ, and the need for penal substitutionary atonement.  God raised up powerful prophetic voices to protest.  Amongst them towered J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).

Machen is best known for his 1923 book Christianity & Liberalism.  Machen deftly argued that liberalism was not biblical Christianity — the book is still relevant for our day, only the names have changed.  At one time a professor of New Testament at the storied Princeton Seminary, Machen ran afoul of the powers that be and became a leading figure in the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  His continuing battle against liberalism also led to his being defrocked in the Presbyterian Church in 1935.  The following year, Machen was at the fore of forming a new church:  the Presbyterian Church of America.  This church would later become known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In late 1936, Machen was 55 years old.  He had long been an avid walker and mountain climber, but that winter saw him in poor health.  Despite a nasty cough and cold, Machen headed west to North Dakota to speak for some churches during the Christmas break at Westminster Seminary .  His health rapidly deteriorated over the course of his time of his time on the prairies.  Before long, he was in the hospital in Bismarck with pneumonia.  On January 1, 1937, Machen was slipping in and out of consciousness.  During one of his lucid moments, he dictated a brief telegram to his friend Prof. John Murray back at Westminster.  The telegram was brief:  “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”  Those were his final recorded words — he died around 7:30 PM on New Year’s Day, 1937.

Christianity & Liberalism may be top of the heap in Machen’s literary legacy, but his final telegram definitely contains his most quoted words.  They bear a closer look.  What did Machen mean by “the active obedience of Christ” and why was it so encouraging to him?  Sinful human beings have a two-fold problem.  First, because of our sin we have an infinite debt to God’s justice that we cannot repay.  Second, even if our debt were paid, we would still be confronted with the ongoing demand of God’s law for our consistent obedience going forward.  Jesus Christ addresses both.  With his suffering God’s wrath in our place, he has paid our infinite debt.  In theology, we call that his passive (suffering) obedience.  With his 33 years of perfect law-keeping, Christ has also obtained for us perfect obedience to God’s law.  We call that his active obedience.  His righteous life is imputed or credited to us — as the Belgic Confession puts it in article 23, “…his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”

Romans 5:19 speaks directly of this gospel truth:  “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  The Holy Spirit points to two men.  One, Adam, was disobedient and his guilt-laden failure has been imputed to his descendants.  The other, Jesus Christ, was obedient, and his righteous accomplishments have been imputed to believers for their justification.  When we have Christ as our Saviour, we not only have forgiveness of all our sins, but also positive righteousness in the eyes of God.  On the basis of both, God declares that we are right with him.  He views us as forgiven AND perfectly obedient.

This gospel teaching was fresh in Machen’s mind as he was dying because a couple of weeks earlier he had done a radio broadcast on it.  Prior to that, he had been discussing it with John Murray at the seminary.  As he knew he was dying, he looked, not to his imperfect life of following Christ, but to Christ’s perfect life lived for him.  Machen found comfort in knowing he would appear before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.  His account was not only cleared of all debt, but filled to overflowing with the imputed merits of Christ.  You can see why Machen finished with “No hope without it.”  We can even flip it around:  “The active obedience of Christ:  much hope with it!”