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Friday, January 11, 2013

Calvin 365 Week II

Book One: The Knowledge of God the Creator

Calvin begins his monumental work appropriately addressing the topic of knowledge. “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1]

Knowledge is not power; it is everything for Calvin. It is vitally important to understand God, to understand yourself and (perhaps most importantly) to understand your relationship to God.
In our understanding of God we are after knowledge that will lead to a personal understanding of God. He writes, “Now, the knowledge of God, as I understand it, is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits us and is proper to his glory, in fine, what is to our advantage to know him.”[2]

John is in many ways following the logic and argument that Paul presents in Romans chapter 1-3.20.  He does this by demonstrating that everyone has an inborn knowledge of God, that because of the universe we have an external proof of God’s existence and character (providence) and as a result no one is without excuse when it comes to how they live their lives. 

Guido deBres was able to craft his beautiful interpretation of this revelation in the Belgic Confession Article 2:

The Means by Which We Know God
We know God by two means:
First, by the creation, preservation, and government
of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes
like a beautiful book
in which all creatures,
great and small,
are as letters
to make us ponder
the invisible things of God:
God's eternal power and divinity,
as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.
All these things are enough to convict humans
and to leave them without excuse.
Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly
by his holy and divine Word,
as much as we need in this life,
for God's glory
and for our salvation.

We are able to know there is a God through general revelation, that is his “creation, preservation and government of the universe.” As Calvin says, “As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him.”[3] Secondly, we know God through specific revelation through his “holy and divine Word.” 

He spends a great deal of time (I’m now on page 72) building this argument. All in all, there is not much that he is making clear that he didn’t already make clear in the initial opening of this work. It has been a while since I read the first part of the Institutes so perhaps I’m just remembering what I already read as I read and thus feeling a bit…bored.

But with that being said, it is worth noting that there is an important point that Paul, and now Calvin makes: people are without excuse. The argument, “What about those who have never heard of Jesus?” isn’t a valid argument. Just by observing the world around them people are able to discern that there is indeed a God. But that they then do not believe is their own fault, and not the fault of God. This indeed is a hard saying, but the truth is never easy. 

Alongside that, if we are to truly learn about ourselves and who we are then we realize that if we were to rely on human achievements or the human will all would be lost. Only if something from outside ourselves were to enter our reality and rescue us would there be hope. True knowledge of self cannot but help point us to our need for a Savior. 

In the end, this all amounts to misguided knowledge. If knowledge of God and of ourselves is of the utmost importance, and we are honest about ourselves, we must acknowledge that when all is said and done all we have done is spent too much time learning about the wrong things and ignoring, even denying, the true God.

[1] 1.1.1
[2] 1.1.2
[3] 1.1.5

Friday, January 4, 2013

Calvin 365

A συνεργός in this area created an open Facebook group with the intention of encouraging people to read all of John Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion in a year. This group both surprised and encouraged me because I had already been planning on reading through the Institutes this year but as is the case for so much of what I do, I felt this would be something I did alone. So I was quite happy to discover this was not the case and even happier by the prospect that such a group just might keep me accountable in this endeavor.

Shortly after I began to read I had the thought, "you could blog about this." Well, maybe. This blog has become for me an enigma: how should I handle it? When there are prayers that need said, Scripture that needs read, shut-ins that need visited and a personal life that needs attended too (perhaps not in the righteous picture I just painted) should I maintain this blog? Of course I have things to say; but so does that annoying dog I hear barking when I'm out walking. The simple existence of having something to say doesn't necessarily mean that one then needs to share it with others. But, sinfully (or not) the thought came to me that I could blog about it and it didn't go away.

I prayed about it and did not receive any clear direction.

I considered not doing it because it would be "legalistic" to blog every week. But then I reminded myself, so long as I don't think this will somehow help me be saved, it isn't actually legalism. Rather, it would be commitment and commitment is something far too few Christians (regrettably I include myself here) possess.

One of my resolutions for 2013 was to severely limit my time online (EPIC fail this first week out of the gate :( ) So...what follows was typed in word and simply copied and pasted into blogger. My apologies if there is something wrong with the formatting...

John Calvin to the Reader (1559)[1]

In this short address, John Calvin demonstrates two remarkable aspects of his faith.
  All of the success he had experienced with the Institutes in the more than 20 years since their first publication Calvin attributes solely to God.

2.      When he was sick (near death) with a form of malaria, he made all the more effort to work!
Finally, Calvin ends with a fantastic quote by Augustine: “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”

Subject Matter of the Present Work

John Calvin was a man consumed with a desire to instruct people in the authentic Christian faith. He undertook to write the Institutes in the lingua franca of the time, Latin. But as a French refugee living in Geneva, having had to flee his native France due to his faith, Calvin’s heart was always for his French countrymen (9). So in a way, remarkable (perhaps?) like Luther’s translation of Scripture into the common German, Calvin also translated the Institutes into French. Additionally, he addressed every edition of his work to the French King. Finally, Calvin invites disagreement but urges that all those who disagree “have recourse to Scripture in order to weigh the testimonies that I adduce from it.” (8)
And really Scripture is in many ways what the Institutes is all about. Calvin makes it clear that he is providing “a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture.” (7)
Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France

Calvin begins his defense of the faith in his prefatory address to his king.  In doing so, Calvin introduces a Reformed understanding of government: “Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage. Furthermore, he is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God’s scepter, that is, his Holy Word…” (12). From there, he introduces a short summary of the gospel: that there is nothing within humans of which they can boast and that “whereby we have been received into hope of eternal salvation through no merit of our own….” (12). Calvin anticipates the normal response to an honest evaluation of human nature, that we misrepresent humans because human beings are fundamentally good. He then attacks the root of that flawed argument by pointing out that those who disagree “cannot bear that the whole praise and glory of all goodness, virtue and righteousness, and wisdom should rest with God.”

And in this point lies the heart of Reformed theology and all other flawed teachings: is God alone deserving of our praise or not?

Calvin proceeds from there to dedicate a bit of time to reinforcing the idea that the Reformers were teaching nothing new. He states quite clearly that the gospel as presented by the Protestants is in line with Scripture and the church fathers. This is an important point; as Calvin puts it: “by calling it ‘new’ they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new.” (15-16) It logically follows that if one cannot depend on the Word of God to spur worship they will grasp at heretical straws and so Calvin concludes, “They invite no one to faith in Christ and believing communion of the sacraments; rather, they put their work on sale, as the grace and merit of Christ.” (21)
Interestingly enough, Calvin embarks on a discussion of Satan roaring like a lion in this world, opposing the pure doctrine of God. What is interesting is Calvin’s description of how Satan works (28) follows many of the same patterns of the Screwtape Letters. Though C.S. Lewis seemed to despise (from a mistaken understanding) Calvinism, I think they had far more in common than Lewis ever dreamed.

General Conclusions…

Generally speaking none of us manage our time well. Jonathan Edwards, at the ripe age of either 18 or 19 resolved that he should “never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.” He was also resolved “never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.”

Yet nowadays, we do not live in this way. Rather, we live as though our time was infinite—we have all the time in the world. What we don’t get to today will be waiting for us tomorrow. Over and against that, and especially convicting if you happen to call on the name of Christ, Calvin was resolved to work all the more determinedly when he thought he was going to die. So often when I am sick I follow the protocol of rest. I think I am not alone in this rule of thumb. Yet John Calvin followed his faith and desire to always serve the Lord while he could even when he was near death.

How we use our time is a reflection of our faith and devotion to God.

How do you spend your time?

Generally, churches can lose their mission and focus when they either construct a building or become overly proud/protective of their building. Reinforcing his (correct) belief that the true church has always existed no matter how things may appear Calvin points out a dependence on the visual can become a sin. Quoting Hilary of Poitiers Calvin writes, “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them?”

I wonder how many parishioners “love” their building walls and “venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings”? Our weak demands for something concrete to believe in can literally be our downfall.

Speaking of appearances, it is comforting to remember the story of Elijah (1st Kings 10). Calvin reminds us that the true church has always existed since Christ called it into being because Christ still reigns (25). Our hope and glory, our strength, our ability to do “all things” rests in the simple yet profound fact that Christ reigns in glory. Despite all appearances, despite the leaders of the world assembling against the Lord’s anointed, the one enthroned in heaven…is still enthroned in heaven. May that comfort you as it comforted me.

Finally, Calvin points out that the Word of God is unpopular; only Satan’s lies gain the popular approval. “This is the surest and most trustworthy mark to distinguish it from lying doctrines, which readily present themselves, are received with attentive ears by all, and are listened to by an applauding world.” (28) If what is presented in the pulpit is accepted by everyone, then odds are you are only presenting them with exactly what they wanted in the first place (Romans 1.24).

Specific Conclusions…

Specifically, several points really struck a nerve. But one in particular I wish to address. Near the end of his prefatory Calvin writes, “And we have not, by God’s grace, profited so little by the gospel that our life may not be for these disparagers an example of chastity, generosity, mercy, continence, patience, modesty and all other virtues.” (30)

I am often aware simply by driving around that I live in a region where many dwell in mobile homes while I live in a home, and a large one at that. While the church owns this manse my wife and I are very conscious of the fact that this house is larger than anything we ever dreamed of actually owning. I strive to not take such blessings for granted.

Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent to what John is saying: the pastor’s life must at all times be in line with his faith. While this is true for all Christians, no one more so than a pastor can harm a church if their life does not match their faith. This is something I am always seeking, by God’s grace, to do: “Count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3.8-11 ESV) 

Especially with the New Year just past may I use this time wisely and always be found in him.

[1] All citations come from the Battles translation of the Institutes.