Tag Archives: John Calvin

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!

 


Must-Have NT Commentary Set

There are questions that I wish people would ask.  Questions like:  “If I had the means, what one set of New Testament commentaries should I purchase?”  I’ve never been asked that.  But it’s a great question and perhaps answering it will lead to some people actually thinking about it and then following up on it.

One possible answer would be John Calvin’s commentaries.  I love John Calvin’s expositions of Scripture.  I often refer to them.  Even after nearly 500 years, Calvin almost always has something valuable to offer.  But…there are three things that put Calvin in second place.  First, it’s not complete.  Calvin didn’t produce a commentary on the book of Revelation (in the Old Testament he also missed Judges, Samuel-Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs).  Second, when it came to the synoptic gospels (Matthew-Luke), he chose to work with a “harmony” method, rather than commenting on each book individually.  That has its advantages, but it can be difficult to find commentary on a particular passage in those books.  Third, Calvin was commenting nearly a half millennium ago.  He worked in literary Latin or French and had a rhetorical style with which many people today struggle to readily connect, even when he’s translated into English.  So Calvin is great, but would not be my first recommendation.

My first recommendation is the New Testament Commentary set produced by William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker.  Hendriksen (1900-1982) was a Christian Reformed minister.  He also served as a New Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1942-1952.  The first volume of his New Testament Commentary was on the Gospel of John and it appeared in 1953.  He later wrote volumes on about half of the books on the New Testament.  After his death in 1982, Simon Kistemaker began the work of completing the set.  Also with a Christian Reformed background, Kistemaker served as a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.  He wrote the volumes on Acts, 1-2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and James-Revelation.

Why would I recommend this commentary set?  First, it is complete, covering the entire New Testament verse by verse.  Second, it is written with exceptional clarity.  Both Hendriksen and Kistemaker were scholars and gifted communicators.  The average person in the pew shouldn’t struggle with these volumes.  Third, most importantly of all, Hendriksen and Kistemaker had a high view of Scripture.  They were Reformed in their theological perspective, confessional men.  Consequently, the New Testament Commentary set is trustworthy.

When I say that it’s reliable, I don’t mean to say that I always agree with Hendriksen or Kistemaker.  I have my differences on various passages — for example, I don’t follow Hendriksen on Romans 11:26, “And in this way all Israel will be saved…”  As he typically does, he lays out several of the options and chooses for one, but I disagree with his choice on that passage.  Same thing for 1 Timothy 2:15, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…”  Nevertheless, it’s not the case that the interpretations with which I disagree result in an attack on the Reformed faith.  They still fall within the pale of confessionally Reformed orthodoxy.

So, if you’re in the market for one set of NT commentaries, I highly recommend the New Testament Commentary set published by Baker. When I just need to quickly check out at least one reliable Reformed interpreter, NTC is my first stop.  It’s getting on in years now, but still valuable and still faithful.  It’s worth having on your shelf.

NOTE:  Sadly, it appears that this set is out of print.  That means you’d you have to find it used.  It’s also available electronically for Logos. 


The Reformation and Psalm-Singing

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Worship was one of the key issues that led to the break with Rome.  The Reformation was not only about theology, but also about doxology — about the proper way of giving all glory to God.  When I speak about worship here, let me clarify that I’m referring to the corporate worship of the church.  This is about what happens when the church gathers together for public worship.

When it comes to the Reformation of worship in the 1500s, there are several directions we could go.  A fruitful area of consideration for our day would be the singing of Psalms.  This is because of the fact that so much Protestant worship today either totally ignores the Psalms, or reduces them to the occasional singing of something like “Create in Me a Clean Heart.”  As in the medieval church prior to the Reformation, the Psalms have fallen on hard times.

In the early church, the Psalms were highly valued and extensively used in worship.  In his dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, Hughes Oliphant Old notes that Augustine indicates several times in his sermons that his church in Hippo customarily sang the Psalms.  Basil the Great also spoke in a similar vein, as did John Chrysostom.  Old concludes, “The early Christians sang psalms in the celebration of the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper] and in the daily morning and evening prayers during the week.  Psalms were sung at meal time as a table blessing, they were sung at work and during the quiet times of meditation at midday and evening” (258).  While the Psalms were not used exclusively, they were given preference and formed the primary song material of the Church.

This pattern continued into the medieval period.  For most of the Middle Ages, the Psalter was the primary material for the singing and chanting of the Church.  This singing and chanting were done by the clergy and in Latin, and thus disconnected from the congregation.  Yet the primary material remained the Psalter.  This began to change in the early 1300s.  During that time, we see the introduction of numerous Latin hymns and the primary place of the Psalter begins to slip.  When there was singing or chanting of the Psalms, often this was reduced to one or two verses.

During the 1500s, God brought about the Reformation of the Church and this included changes in how God was worshipped in song.  I’ll mention five specific changes.

First, the Psalms were translated into the common language of the people and then set to metrical tunes.  In Geneva, under Calvin’s leadership, the Psalms were translated and versified by Clement Marot and others.  Musicians such as Louis Bourgeois composed the tunes — they were custom-made for each of the psalms.

Second, the Psalms were to be sung by the entire congregation.  Since they were in the common language, and since they were set to tunes that were (relatively) easy to sing, this was now feasible.  You did not need to be a professional musician to sing in church.  That said, in places like Geneva, the Reformation did introduce an emphasis on music education.  Why?  Because church leaders wanted congregational singing to be as beautiful as possible to give the maximum glory to God!

Third, there was a movement back towards the priority that the early church gave to the Psalter.  Says Old, “It was simply a matter of preferring to sing the hymns that had been inspired by the Holy Spirit” (259).

Fourth, the Reformation brought back the singing of all the Psalms.  When the Genevan Psalter first appeared in 1542, it only contained 30 psalms.  However, the goal was always to include all 150 Psalms, and by 1562 that goal had been accomplished.  Not only were all the Psalms included, but the intention was to sing all of them.  The 1562 Genevan Psalter included a type of schedule by which the church would sing each of the Psalms in the course of six months (see here for more details).

Finally, the Reformation reintroduced the singing of whole Psalms.  While it was not always possible, the preference was to sing the entire Psalm from beginning to end.  That this was the preferred practice is clear from the source mentioned above in my fourth point.  This was possible because the Genevan tunes were originally composed to be sung briskly, not at a funereal pace.  How and why they came to be sung otherwise is another story, but for now let’s just note that the singing of whole Psalms was the ideal which the Reformation restored.

This history is relevant at several levels.  In much of evangelical worship today, it’s almost like we’re back to the worst of the medieval period.  Instead of congregational singing, there are worship leaders doing the singing for the church.  Oftentimes the music is so technical and the material so unfamiliar, that congregational singing in worship is virtually impossible (see Tim Challies’ reflections on this here).  It’s like the Reformation and its return to congregational singing never happened!

That particular trend has been resisted in many confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  Yet we still have our problems.  Think of the primacy of the Psalter.  In churches that practice exclusive psalmody, it’s not an issue.  The Psalms are their only song material.  But for those of us who see the Scriptures as commending or even commanding hymnody alongside the Psalter, the challenge is there to keep the Psalter in the highest place.  Especially when we don’t understand what we’re singing, the tendency is going to be to drift towards more uninspired hymnody.  Pastors especially have a calling to make sure that our churches understand the Psalter, especially in how it speaks of Christ.

Another problem faced by Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the singing of only some Psalms, and then also the singing only of partial Psalms.  I am as much a part of this problem as anyone else.  There are Psalms that I have never chosen for singing in public worship in my nearly 18 years of preaching.  There are reasons for this (difficulty of the tune, not relevant to the sermon for the day or the occasion, etc.).  That can be overcome by revisiting the idea of a psalm-singing lectionary (see here again).  The other problem is easier to overcome.  If a metrical Psalm only has three or four stanzas (or less), why not sing the whole thing?  Especially if our accompaniment keeps the tempo brisk (as intended!), I can hardly think of a reason not to.

I love the Psalms.  I love the way this inspired songbook honestly acknowledges the whole range of human emotions.  We are led to praise God with explosive joy, but also to lament with flowing tears.  We see Christ the Redeemer prophetically represented, but we also encounter our sin which put Christ on the cross.  We’re taught to pray and give thanks.  We’re taught to confess and repent.  I can’t imagine worship without the Psalms.  Let’s be thankful to God that the Reformation restored their rightful place in our worship!


What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!