Tag Archives: John Calvin

Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.


What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

************

What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.


Calvinist Monks?

I’ve been reading Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. It’s an enjoyable survey of this time period, though approached from the angle of a historian who presents himself as having no dog in any of the theological fights described. Chapter 12 is on “Calvin and Calvinism” and I thought this excerpt was particularly thought-provoking and worth sharing here:

One of the first reforms instituted by Calvin upon his return to Geneva in 1542 was the creation of a Psalter, a hymnal composed entirely of psalms from the Bible. Subsequent editions added more psalms to the original Geneva version, culminating with the 1562 edition, which contained all 150 psalms in French, the language of the people, set to simple, singer-friendly tunes in poetic meter. The Genevan Psalter was a collaborative effort, but chiefly the work of the musician Louis Bourgeois, the poet Clement Marot, and the churchman Theodore de Beze. Eventually reprinted hundreds of times and translated into many other languages, the Geneva Psalter would come to have an enormous influence on Calvinists everywhere, as the psalms became both a way to pray to God and a way to listen to God. It helps to keep in mind, however, that while the psalter sought to make a biblical text the heart and soul of the liturgy — to ritualize the sola scriptura principle — it was not at all a Protestant invention, but rather a continuation of monastic piety.

In many ways, Genevans lived up to the imperative ideal of St. Benedict’s monastic rule: ora et labora (Pray and work)! Ironically, Calvinists ended up worshiping in a way similar to that of the medieval monks they so despised, singing the Psalter on a regular basis as a community. They also sanctified work itself, as a holy calling, and the practiced discipline and exclusion. Geneva, like a well-run monastery, was no welcoming refuge for sinners or slackers. But the parallels end there. Calvinists were committed to transforming the world by living in it, not by setting themselves apart, and there is a world of difference between these two ways of life. Calvinists saw themselves as a continuation not of monasticism, but rather of Israel, as God’s chosen people. And within this self-conception one very important difference distinguished Calvinists from the ancient Israelites: the Promised Land of the Calvinists was the whole world, not just some tiny patch of arid land wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Carlos Eire, Reformations, p.316

Some of my own thoughts:

The idea of a continuation of monastic piety is interesting, but I doubt it would have resonated with Calvin or other Genevan clerics. They would probably have argued that psalm-singing is part of the church’s patristic, rather than monastic, heritage. In other words, it goes back to the early church and the Reformation was recovering early-church practice.

Second, the expression ora et labora certainly has had currency in Reformed churches. In Canada I remember a Bible study group for young people which bore that name — one which is indeed derived from Benedictine monasticism.

Finally, I appreciate Eire’s contrast between Calvinism and monasticism in terms of how to regard life in this world. The idea of cutting yourself off from the world (or world-flight) is indeed not historically Calvinistic. In this regard, some streams of Anabaptism are more in line with monastic ideals.


Homosexuality, the Bible, 1946 and all that

I’m just going to say it, no holds barred:  one of the shallowest objections to traditional Christian sexual ethics is that “the Bible didn’t even use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.”  I’m gobsmacked that people actually get taken in by this special sort of tomfoolery.  I know a lot has been written on this canard already, but it can only aid the cause of truth to get one more voice sharing the facts.

Here’s the thing:  it doesn’t matter that the Bible didn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ until 1946.  The point is completely irrelevant.  Let me illustrate with other phenomena.  Consider:

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘evolution.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about Darwinian macro-evolution?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘transgender.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about the transgender ideology?

No Bible translation has ever used the word ‘racism.’  Does it follow that the Bible has nothing to say about that?

Christians understand that the Bible’s relevance is not bound up with the use of an exact word.  It would be juvenile to take a word designating a topic (any topic), check an online concordance and, failing to find the word mentioned, conclude that the Bible has nothing to say on that topic.  The classic example is the Trinity.  Imagine someone checking a concordance for any mention of the word ‘Trinity’ in the Bible and, not finding it there, concluding that the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible.  No, the word isn’t there, but the concept or doctrine certainly is.  Christians realize that, to do the Bible justice, we have to take the totality of its witness — that goes far beyond the usage of individual words.

Language is always in flux.  During our family worship, we take turns reading from the Bible.  My wife and kids read from the ESV while I read from the KJV.  I’m always surprised at how words change over the centuries.  For example, the KJV uses the word ‘corn’ in several places.  When we think of ‘corn,’ we think of the crop developed from maize.  It’s a New World crop — it didn’t grow in Israel in biblical times.  However, the KJV simply used the word ‘corn’ to describe any type of grain.  The English language has changed and Bible translations change with it.  Today there’s no corn in modern English translations.

While language changes, biblical truth does not.  Bible-believing Christians didn’t suddenly start seeing homosexuality as a problem in 1946.  Nor did Bible-believing Christians wake up one morning in 1946 and decide that they needed to have a Bible translation that supported their views.  History matters and history testifies that Bible-believing Christians have consistently maintained that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Let me give two examples to illustrate.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1563 for the teaching of children in the German-speaking region known as the Palatinate.  Lord’s Day 41 deals with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Someone might read Lord’s Day 41 and note that it makes no mention of homosexuality.  But you shouldn’t conclude that Reformed churches therefore have no problem with homosexuality.  Answer 109 says that God “forbids all unchaste acts.”  One of the biblical proof-texts is 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, a passage which has traditionally been understood to refer, in part, to homosexual behaviour.  Zacharias Ursinus was the main author of the Catechism and he wrote a commentary on it — actually lectures to his seminary students.  While the Catechism addressed to children understandably avoids this subject, his commentary definitely discusses homosexuality.  He speaks of it as being “contrary to nature.”  Homosexuality, according to Ursinus, is a heinous sin and an abominable transgression.  True, he doesn’t use the word ‘homosexuality’ — he couldn’t because it didn’t exist yet!  Nevertheless, the concept is there.

You can see the exact same thing in John Calvin’s commentary on Romans 1:26-27.  Again, Calvin doesn’t use the word ‘homosexual’ and neither should you expect him to.   Yet he still speaks of “the dreadful crime of unnatural lust” and of a “filthiness which even brute beasts abhor.”  Calvin found what we call ‘homosexuality’ to be contrary to God’s will, even though he didn’t use the word itself.  Were he alive today, he would no doubt find it ludicrous that some would argue that the Bible has anything other than condemnation for such things.

What Christians need to learn today is another important word:  revisionism.  In an effort to make homosexuality acceptable to Christians, progressive sorts are constantly trying to revise our theology and history.  This revisionism ought to be self-evidently anti-biblical.  In other words, it isn’t true to the Scriptures.  However, it can appeal to those who, for whatever reason, wish for a happy union between Christianity and homosexuality.  It appeals to those who think:  “Wouldn’t it be nice if our Christianity wasn’t so counter-cultural?”  Yet:  let no one join together what God has put asunder.


Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.