Tag Archives: John Calvin

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.


Can a Christian Eat Black Pudding?

To my mind, black pudding is one of the few great contributions the Brits have made to global cuisine.  For the uninitiated, we’re not talking about pudding in the sense of a gelatinous dessert.  Instead, black pudding is a sausage, a blood sausage to be more precise.  It’s made with pork blood, fat, and some type of cereal, usually oats.

Some find the idea of black pudding repulsive, but there are also Christians who argue it is unlawful for believers to eat and enjoy it.  I had a seminary professor who held this view.  He believed Christians are permitted to enjoy neither rare steak nor black pudding.  Your steak must be well-done and your pudding white (yes, there is such a thing as white pudding and it has no blood).

Part of the rationale for this view is God’s command to Noah in Genesis 9:4, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”  The question is whether this was meant to be a binding restriction for all time or whether this was a restriction owing to the circumstances of that age.  Most interpreters tend to the latter view.  For example, John Calvin writes in his commentary, “Yet we must remember, that this restriction was part of the old law.”  In other words, this restriction presaged the Mosaic dietary laws concerning the consumption of blood (Leviticus 17:10-12).  Since Christ declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), these sorts of laws are no longer relevant to us in the same way.

The other part of the rationale at first glance seems stronger.  In Acts 15, the apostles met together in Jerusalem to resolve some issues vexing the Church.  The issues had to do with the relationship between Christian Jews and Gentiles and observance of the Mosaic laws.  After some debate, James made a proposal which found acceptance with all the apostles and elders.  The adopted written judgment read as follows:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.  (Acts 15:28-29)

My seminary professor believed this sealed the deal.  Surely these are binding stipulations for the Church of Jesus Christ in all ages and places.  Ergo, no black pudding, no rare steak.

But let’s think about this further.  Not all the stipulations in Acts 15 are of the same nature.  What was said about sexual immorality is obviously a matter of God’s abiding moral law — this is the seventh commandment.  However, the three other matters are regulated as a matter of not giving offense to other believers.

In an essay entitled “From Dissension to Joy: Resources from Acts 15:1-35 for Global Presbyterianism” (in China’s Reforming Churches, ed. Bruce Baugus), Guy Prentiss Waters discusses the question of how we can “categorically assign normativity” to Scriptural examples or precepts.  He notes James Bannerman’s insight that things are binding so long as we are in similar circumstances.  The true test is in the question:  “Am I in ‘like circumstances’ as the original audience?” (p.225).  So, when it comes to the stipulation to abstain from blood, we conclude that we are not bound: “The reason is because the circumstances that occasioned the church’s exercise of the power of order in Jerusalem no longer exist today” (p. 238).  In other words, we’re not faced with a significant Jewish population in the Church who would take offense at the eating of blood.  John Calvin commented in a similar vein:

Wherefore, what Tertullian relates, that in his time it was unlawful among Christians to taste the blood of cattle, savours of superstition.  For the apostles, in commanding the Gentiles to observe this rite, for a short time, did not intend to inject a scruple into their consciences, but only to prevent the liberty which was otherwise sacred, from proving an occasion of offence to the ignorant and the weak.  (Commentary on Genesis 9:4)

Thus, I conclude that Acts 15:28-29 does not make it unlawful for Christians today to consume blood.

If you’re not convinced, I have some good news:  even if you can’t/won’t eat black pudding, you can still enjoy your steak rare.  Those red fluids coming out of a rare steak aren’t blood, but myoglobin.  Myoglobin is a protein found in muscles — it turns red when it comes into contact with oxygen.  So even if you believe Acts 15:28-29 to be binding on Christians today, go ahead and order that steak rare or medium rare.  You’re not eating blood.

If you are convinced, then I have even better news:  a great (but simple) recipe to enjoy black pudding.  This is my favourite way to have it for breakfast, a Saturday morning treat!

FRIED BP AND WAFFLES

Serves two.  The recipe is easy to adjust for more.

Prep time:  less than 10 minutes.

Ingredients:

One small black pudding (in Australia usually available from Coles’ deli section)

Two Belgian waffles

Two eggs

Butter

Maple syrup

Instructions:

  1. Cut the black pudding into long, thin (1 cm) slices at an angle
  2. Put the waffles in the toaster
  3. Fry the black pudding till crispy on the outside (in a med-high fry pan, about 2 minutes each side)
  4. At the same time, fry the two eggs to your liking.
  5. By this time the waffles should be toasted, butter them to your liking and then add some maple syrup.  I like to add just enough to fill all the little pockets.
  6. To complete, put a fried egg on each waffle, and then slices of fried black pudding on top.  Enjoy!

An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth 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.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.

 


Quotable Church History: “Our heart is restless…”

This is the third 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.

Africa’s greatest theologian of all time must surely be Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  His influence has spanned the centuries.  Reformation theology, too, owed a huge debt to Augustine.  For example, no other author is referred to more often by John Calvin in his Institutes than Augustine — in the McNeill/Battles edition there are over six pages of indexed references.  Augustine is remembered for several memorable expressions.  One of them is the Latin “tolle legge” (take up, read) — life-changing words he overheard chanted by some children in a Milan garden.  But the most well-known quote from Augustine is undoubtedly this:  “For you made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  For the Latinists:  “Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.”

The quote comes from Augustine’s Confessions.  In fact, it occurs almost at the very beginning of the book — depending on the translation, it comes at the third or fourth sentence.  The Confessions is a remarkable book.  When God caused me to become serious about being a Christian, this was one of the first books I read.  Despite its antiquity, this is one of the most readable works by any early church father.  Augustine wrote it in the middle of his life as a reflection on his spiritual journey up to that point.  It is a sort of spiritual autobiography, filled with insights not only into Augustine’s conversion, but also his subsequent struggles with sin.  As Peter Brown describes it, this book is “not the affirmation of a cured man:  it is the self-portrait of a convalescent” (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 171).  The book deftly speaks of God’s redemptive grace to a sinner and how that sinner’s affections and will were slowly being transformed.  Struggling sinners in any era can and should read this volume and take heart from Augustine’s experiences and encouragements.

Looking at the quote in more detail, Augustine draws attention to the purpose of our creation.  Human beings were created not as ends unto themselves, but for the purpose of glorifying God by living in fellowship with him.  This was the Creator’s design.  When the design is forsaken, there are consequences.  Among those consequences is a restlessness within.  We are out of sorts when we reject the purposes for which God created us.  Later in his Confessions (6.16.26), Augustine aptly compares this restlessness to insomnia:  “O crooked ways! Woe to the audacious soul which hoped that by forsaking you it would find some better thing! It tossed and turned, upon back and side and belly — but the bed is hard, and you alone give it rest.”

The most important question of all is:  are these biblical sentiments?  Most certainly!  The Bible teaches that we were created by God and for God (Rom. 11:36).  We were designed to exist for his glory — “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1).  When we reject God’s plan for us, there are consequences and they extend to our inner life.  This finds powerful expression in Isaiah 57:20-21, “‘But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.  There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'”  Those alienated from God through their rebellion can’t expect to have rest or peace within.  Instead, there is a tumultuous restlessness akin to a raging ocean.  But when the gospel is heard and believed, we do find rest in God.  The gospel is about rest.  Jesus promised that we will find rest for our souls in coming to him (Matt. 11:28-30).  Ultimately, the good news promises that we will experience the full scope of spiritual rest in the hereafter — then there will no more struggles with sin or coping with the consequences of sin, whether ours, others’, or of sin in general:  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).

My hope is that this brief reflection on Augustine’s famous words will stir up your curiosity to see what other spiritual treasures might be found in his Confessions.  To use his other well-known quote, tolle lege (take up, read!).  You won’t be disappointed.

Previous posts in this series:

“The blood of the martyrs…”

“Outside the church no salvation.”