All posts by Martyn Link

A month into Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

Well a month in and I’m only a couple of days behind schedule, however the last couple of weeks have been tough to stay on track.  Work, family, illness and traveling are taking their toll on my regular reading. Also, the chapters are getting longer and deeper…I must admit that Chapter 13  on the Trinity was tough, both to understand and to blog.

So…if you are still with me after a month then give me a shot in the arm and leave a comment. All you need to do is click on the comment hyperlink below and leave your name, email address and hit submit. It would help tonnes to know people were still enjoying reading the blogs. Thanks to those of you who have encouraged me so far.

Only 11 more months to go and three more books………. I must be crazy!

The Triune God, part 2

Book I Chapter XIII Section 14-29

In this section Calvin seeks to demonstrate the divinity of the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. He points to the Spirit’s omnipresent ministry as an evidence of His divine nature. He also points out the indiscriminate way that scripture ascribes authoritative utterances from God to the Holy Spirit – thus making the Spirit equivalent with God. Finally he raises the question that if the Spirit is the author of our spiritual gifts and means of regeneration and sanctification then how can He not be divine and yet accomplish all this?

In the final section Calvin moves on to discuss in more detail some of the controversies that have arisen over the issue of the Trinity. His strategy to counter them is to repeatedly draw out the unity and distinction within the Trinity found in the scriptures. The Persons of the Trinity are united in respect to their substance and yet distinct in respect to their relationship to each other and role in the creation and redemption of the world.

Response:

This chapter has been the most challenging so far, not because of the length or depth but because of the limitations of language. The Trinity stretches the ability of English, French, Greek etc to its limit in order to try and explain the infinite, to comprehend the impossible, to express the unimaginable. It reminds me of the apocalyptic literature when John, Daniel and Ezekiel etc struggled to capture and record what they were seeing. So we have Ezekiel describing his vision of “wheels within wheels…full of eyes” (Ezekiel 1.16-18).

Similarly when we are trying to understand and describe the Trinity, we are at the limit of simile and metaphor. Even with our most precise language there is very little we can definitively say about the Trinity, but that there is one God in three Persons, each united in substance but distinct in relation to each other.

Like Calvin our response must be one of wonder and awe, not idle curiosity or vain speculation. It is easy to get lost in such mysterious truths and we would do well not to go one inch beyond the revealed truth.

“He (the Spirit) will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” John 16. 14-15

Father, like David we feel that such knowledge is “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”, help our finite minds to grasp something of the wonder of your essence – who you are within yourself – your self-existent, self-sufficient nature. Amen.

The Triune God, part 1

Book I Chapter 13 Section 1-13

Calvin now addresses the knowledge of God as He reveals Himself in three Persons. He starts by pointing out that although some have objected to the use of the word “person” to describe God, Calvin argues that it is an important term and that it, along with the word “trinity”, are invaluable to aid our understanding of God and defend against heresies (these will be addressed in more detail in Section 21-29 of this chapter).

Interestingly, Calvin confesses he would happily drop all such terms “provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence” (persona). Unfortunately history shows that the early church was assailed with all manner of hereies about the Trinity.  Calvin mentions two characters for illustration – Arius and Sabellius.

Arius taught that although Christ was God, He had been created and had a beginning like other creatures. In response the truth was declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father and is “consubstantial with the Father” i.e. of the same substance. By contrast Sabellius recognised the triune Godhead, but merged the Father, Son and Spirit together so their was no distinction between them. In reply the church fathers declared that a “Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God”.

In order to convince his readers of the truth of the Trinity, Calvin moves on to demonstrate the divinity of the Son of God. Calvin does this by firstly highlighting the role of the Son in the creation and sustaining of the world. He then moves onto a number of passages where Jesus expressly takes Old Testament references to Jehovah and applies them to Himself.

Response:

I love how Calvin uses his powers of reasoning in this chapter to expose the falsehood of the Arians and Sabellians. In Section 5 he runs through a mock conversation with them and has them openly confessing the official line on the one hand, but then muttering a whispered caveat to their followers. It’s a great technique to engage his readers and drive the point home of how they deviate from the truth.

It reminds me that heresy is not a word that we hear often these days, but it is still around. And its nature has not changed – it is still half full of orthodox doctrines (so that some would be convinced), but half full of error (so that the convinced are led astray). We still need technical terms that can provide clarity to our creed that can be used to defend against attack. Even if we can never ultimately fully understand or define something as mysterious and wonderful as the Trinity, often the critical thing is to define what it is not so that errors and hereies can be clearly ruled out.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” Hebrews 1.3

Father, thank you for those early believers who fought for a correct understanding of who you are. We confess our finite minds cannot fathom the mystery of the “Trinity of persons in one Divine essence”, but we praise you Father, Son and Spirit for your external existence and redeeming work. Amen.

You gotta serve somebody

Book I Chapter XII Section 1-3

What is worship? How does it differ from respect or reverence? How does serving God differ from how we are to serve people? This is the issue Calvin addresses in Chapter 12. While the scriptures teach that all honour and worship should be given to God alone, Calvin recognises that mankind instead “gives Him the highest place, but at the same time surrounds Him with a tribe of minor deities”.

After this Calvin goes on to consider the false worship of dead saints through a discussion on the difference between latria and dulia. These are two Latin words that have been used to distinguish between the worship (latria) due to God alone, and the service (dulia) given by some to revered saints. Calvin states that the words are sometimes used indiscriminately in scripture, pointing to Galatians 4.8 as an example of the term “service” being used in reference to the worship of idols. But even if the distinction is allowed, he asks whether to serve something is any lesser than to worship it, “for it were often a hard thing to serve him whom you would not refuse to reverence” i.e. you can more easily pay reverence to someone that to serve them.

Calvin then looks at a number of examples in scripture of inappropriate worship (Matthew 8.10, Revelation 19.10, 22.8-9 & Acts 10.25) and concludes that “we can never appropriate the minutest portion of his glory without retaining what is His due”.

Response:

We should remember and have respect for all those who have walked the path ahead of us – that great cloud of witnesses. Moreover, we are commanded to honour our parents and respect those leaders who oversee us in the church. This is the proper attitude towards created beings, anything more is beyond the scriptures for they are clear that there is only one class of people in the world. All have sinned and fallen short, none have sought God, everyone has turned away.  God and God alone should receive our prayer, adoration, confession, supplication, thankfulness and praise. It is Jesus and Him alone who interceeds on behalf of His people at the right hand of the Father. Supplicating dead saints is something King Saul tried, and while it worked, I don’t think Samuel appreciated it, or God approved of it (1 Samuel 28.7-24).

When we look at worship in the bible the more important distinction is not between latria and dulia, but between light and darkness, between God and mammon and between Jesus and Satan. There are the two choices when it comes to worship and service. We either worship and serve Jesus or we serve ourselves, and unwittingly we serve the Prince of this world. Bob Dylan got it right when he said:

“You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage,
You may be a business man or some high degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Father, give us an undivided heart to worship and serve You only, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Perfect in purity, majestic in power, we worship and adore You today. Amen.

Images of the invisible God

invisible-man4Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter XI Section 1-16)

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of idolatry and, interestingly, includes in the discussion his thoughts on the appropriate use of images in the worship of the church. Calvin begins by considering God’s opposition to any representation of Himself in Exodus 20.4 and how God “makes no comparison between images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them”.

Following this, Calvin exclaims how absurd it is when mankind tries to represent the invisible, omnipresent Spirit by a visible, inanimate piece of wood or stone. God Himself is at liberty to manifest His presence by signs – but each of these point to His “incomprehensible essence”. For example the cloud, smoke and flame on Mount Sinai and the Shekhinah glory over the ark of the covenant, both illustrate His unapproachable and awesome nature. Other manifestations of God in the bible include the figure who had a form of a man walking in the fiery furnace (which may be a theophany – or pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God) and the dove at Jesus’ baptism.

For the remainder of the chapter Calvin addresses the issue of images and pictures in the church. He traverses many topics, including statues, crosses and pictures (either historical or pictoral). He concludes that only the historical pictures, which “give a representation of events” are of some use “for instruction and admonition”. In fact he is in favour of having no representations of any kind within the church, pointing to the success of the early church in its first 500 years when there were no images in the churches. Moreover, he points out that the church already has two “living symbols, which the Lord has consecrated by His word”, ie baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Response:

It is sad to think that while God was manifesting His presence at Mt Sinai, Aaron was leading the people in the worship of a golden idol. Moreover, even the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence among the people, became something of a lucky charm to the people. They believed that it would lead them to victory irrespective of their covenantal backsliding.

Although I may draw the line on what images and pictures are acceptable in the worship of the church in a slightly different place to Calvin, I agree with his principles on imagery. In driving the Reformation away from the intense pageantry that had been associated with the worship of God he called for a clearer statement of what was essential. In examining the two images that are essential we find that they are also are most instructive. We ourselves become part of the living illustration of Jesus’ death and resurrection (baptism) and His coming again (communion). Let us not neglect these symbols that have been given to us as divinely appointed reminders of God’s redeeming work.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens; who created all these?” Isaiah 40.25+26

Father, grant us to make use of the symbols you have given us to illustrate your great love and forgiveness. Help us to remember and be thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate our obedience and love for you in our act of baptism and fellowship around the Lord’s table. Amen.

The relational God

labyrinth2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter X Section 1-3)

In Chapter 10 Calvin returns to the theme of the knowledge of the Creator God as found in the scriptures. By now we appreciate how hard it is to come to a real understanding of who God is. Indeed in Chapter 6 Calvin is honest enough to recognise how hard it is for anyone to come to a true understanding of the Living God. He says “we should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even the apostle declares to be inaccessible, is a kind of labyrinth, – a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word does not serve as a thread to guide our path: and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it.” (I.VI.3).

But now Calvin is ready to introduce us to God as he reveals himself in His interactions with mankind.  This enables us to more fully understand and appreciate his attributes as He relates to us as our Creator. The three foundational attributes that God reveals about himself are His:

  1. Loving-kindness – His loving care for His children
  2. Judgment– His disciplining work as a just Sovereign
  3. Righteousness – His saving and preservation of the righteous

His other attributes of truth, power, holiness and goodness are encompassed by these three.

Response:

How true it is that so many today are lost in this labyrinth, dashing headlong towards another dead-end. If, by the Grace of God, we have been shone upon by a shaft of divine light illuminating His character, let us give thanks rather than pretend it was any wisdom or virtue of ours.

God reveals Himself as the relational God, but no one ever said that a relationship with God would be easy. We can’t pick and choose the attributes we would like God to have. We may wish he only had certain attributes that we are comfortable with, but if we are to have a true and meaningful relationship with Him then we must come to Him as He is, not how our culturally moulded sensitivities dictate.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103.13+14

Father thank you for revealing something of Your character to us, we confess our limited understanding and corrupt minds. Help us to love and adore you as you are and not try to make you fit into our finite minds. We embrace your Fatherhood today and your right to govern this world by Your wisdom and truth, Amen.

Word and Spirit in harmony

libertine2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter IX Section 1-3)

In this short chapter Calvin address the error of the Libertines – not the British punk-rock band, but a group in Calvin’s day that claimed the Spirit spoke to them apart from the written word. They are even so bold to “reject all reading of scripture themselves, and deride the simplicity of those who only delight in what they call the dead and deadly letter”. Thus they promote the superiority of the Spirit over the word of God and separate the two by their teaching.

Calvin shows how ridiculous this position is by drawing attention to the attitude of the apostle Paul who, although he received direct revelations from God, always had the utmost respect and reverence for the written word. Paul exhorts Timothy to commit himself to the public reading of scripture and describes every part of the written word as useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16). The witness of the other bible authors is the same – despite many of them hearing God directly or seeing visions and dreams, they all have the deepest regard for the scriptures.

Indeed, in contrast to the view of the Libertines, the role of Spirit is “not to form new and unheard of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends”. Calvin finishes by admitting that the letter of the law can indeed be dead when not read with the grace of Christ, and when it only “sounds in the ear without touching the heart”.

Response

The word without the Spirit leads to legalism and dead orthodoxy, the Spirit without the word quickly leads to error and false teaching. Both are necessary to a healthy discipleship where our lives are brought under the authority and teaching of the word, powerfully applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is where real liberty is found.

“Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. Ephesians 6.17

Father, keep us from the errors of empty orthodoxy and passionate error. We rely on the final and sufficient revelation found in your word, send your Spirit to transform our understanding of you. Magnify the Lord Jesus through your word by your Spirit today, Amen.

An argument for the credibility of scripture

Witness2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter VIII Section 1-13)

Having established in the previous chapters that the witness of the Spirit is essential to believing in the divine inspiration of the bible, Calvin does not leave the issue there. In Chapter 8 he turns to “proofs” that demonstrate the reasonableness of this belief. He uses a number of arguments to demonstrate the credibility of scripture, including its majesty, simplicity, antiquity, preservation by the Jews and testimony of the martyrs.  But it is his arguments regarding Moses that I had found most interesting.

Calvin points to four things in the life of Moses that enhance the credibility of his writing as being divinely inspired:

1. The honesty of Moses. When Moses was writing the account in Genesis of Jacob’s benediction to his sons, he writes that Jacob says to Simeon and Levi (whose tribe Moses belonged to) “Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly…I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Genesis 49.6+7). If Moses was creating a work of fiction would he not make his ancestor the most blessed of all the children rather than the one cursed? Or consider “why does he not bestow the office of High Priest on his sons, instead of consigning them to the lowest place” when by his word he could command the entire nation?

2. The miracles of Moses. How many miraculous signs and wonders happened during Moses ministry and yet, despite all the grumbling of the Israelites and all the challenges to his authority, none of the Israelites ever disputed these events. The mighty acts testify that Moses was a prophet from God and was speaking on behalf of God.

3. The character of Moses. Again, throughout his ministry Moses’ leadership and authority was repeatedly challenged. The people challenging him were eye witnesses to the miraculous events and had a very strong oral tradition regarding the life of the Patriarchs and would have known if he had made the slightest exaggeration or embellishment in his writing to enhance his status.

4. The predictions of Moses. Turning again to the account of Jacob’s benediction, Moses relates that Judah will be given the ruler’s scepter (Genesis 49.10). There is no evidence for this prediction coming true during, or for 400 years after, the life of Moses. Indeed, the first king chosen is from the line of Benjamin. How could Moses have known that God would remove the kingship from Saul and grant it to David – of the tribe of Judah.

Response:

In the 500 years since Calvin penned these words the credibility of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and traditional views of the Old Testament has been viciously attacked by academics and liberal philosophy. Calvin’s arguments in this chapter need to be supplemented with a response from modern day theologians.

However, I believe he makes a good point when he  reminds us of the power of eyewitnesses in the scriptures, not only in the Gospels, but also in the Pentateuch. As the accounts of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings were committed to manuscripts there would be those alive who could testify to the truth or error of the writings. They would keep the author accountable to the truth of the events they related.

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty”. 2 Peter 1.16

Father, thank you for the testimony of reliable, trustworthy men who were led by the Holy Spirit to commit your words and deeds to writing. Strengthen the confidence of your people today in the credibility of your word and guide your theologians to present the reasonableness of this belief to our generation. For your glory and honour, Amen.

The secret testimony of the Spirit

A forestCalvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter VII Section 1-5)

After contemplating why we need a written record of God’s activity in Chapter 6, Calvin goes on to now ask – “how can we be sure that the bible is God’s word?” and “where does the authority of the bible come from?”. His first concern is to refute the error that the authority of the bible is due to its sanction by the church.  He also addresses the role of the church in the formation of the canon of scripture. He argues that the church “does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful, but acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent”.

Calvin argues that to have our assurance of the bible based on man’s judgement is a mistake and does not provide any real assurance. Rather, the evidence for its inspiration comes from the “secret testimony of the Spirit” confirming in our hearts the truth of its inspiration. The same Spirit that spoke through the prophets must convict us of the truth of their words. Yes, there are “proofs”, which will be considered in the next chapter, that can confirm to the believer the reasonableness of believing in divine inspiration. But these are not sufficient in themselves to convince us that the bible is the very words of God.

Many times in this chapter Calvin delights to exalt the sufficiency of the Spirit alone in bringing assurance to believers. He writes that “the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason” and that we know it is God’s word because “we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it”. This is not the language of some purely rational, cerebral philosopher, but rather a devoted, humble worshiper.

Response:

Reading this in the 21st century, you realise just how much the whole landscape of Christianity has been turned on its head. Calvin’s primary concern was that people would not unthinkingly follow what they were told by the powerful religious leaders of his day. Today the influence of the church on society has almost completely waned (in the UK) and even those inside the church often have very little respect for the authority of their leaders. Both positions are extremes and somewhere between the two is the heathy place to be – to respect those who are over you in the Lord, but to test everything against the scriptures.

Following hundreds of years of attack on the doctrine of the divine inspiration of scripture, many believers today are confused about the authority of the bible. Others are better placed than I to mount a defense of this truth, but for me a point Calvin makes is key to starting to understand the bible as God’s word. Calvin says that “our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the character of him whose word it is”.  For me this is the key, I do not expect those who do not know God to acknowledge the divine authority of the bible. However, for those of us who have come to know the author and have the witness of the Spirit within us, then we have all we need to assure us of this truth.

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord radiant, giving light to the eyes.” Psalm 19.7-8

Father, give us that assurance of faith that comes from the Spirit witnessing with our spirit that your word is trustworthy. Help us to meditate on its truth and allow it to penetrate our heart. Lead us to know for certain that you are speaking to us through your word, and may we respond in obedience, Amen.

Knowledge of God through obedience to the Word

submission2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter VI Section 1-4)

In the previous 5 chapters Calvin has sought to establish the key principle, that although God has used many means to awaken our minds to his presence and grant us knowledge of himself, they have all proved ineffectual due to our blindness and corruption. The main means being – 1) the implanted sense of the divine within us, 2) the glorious wonder of the created world and 3) God’s gracious providential care in our circumstances.

All the time Calvin is seeking to draw out what it would have been possible to know of God as our Creator had Adam never fallen and had God not gone on to reveal himself as our Redeemer, which led to a much deeper revelation of his character and will be discussed in Book II.

So, at the right time God spoke directly to individuals, breaking into their worlds and revealing himself to them. People such as Noah, Abraham and Moses, who heard God speak to them out of the darkness. Not only did God speak to them, but he caused them to record their experiences so that the next generation could learn of him too.

Calvin identifies three objectives of recording these experiences in writing:

  • To prevent it from perishing from neglect
  • To prevent if vanishing away in error
  • To prevent it from being corrupted by men

Response:

A tangential comment by Calvin in this chapter stopped me in my tracks these last few days. While speaking of the absolute necessity for scripture in having any right thinking about God, he states that the first step in true knowledge of God is taken when we embrace God’s testimony of himself contained in the bible. For “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”.

How easy it is to see knowledge as a collection of facts gained through study and application. Yes we should seek to convince others of the reasonableness of our faith, but in the end remember that spiritual knowledge is revealed to those who humble themselves. This is a kind of knowledge very different to every type of knowledge we have ever experienced.  It must be revealed rather than researched. And who does God reveal it to? The obedient.  This is exactly what Jesus says in John 7.17 – that if we really want to know if it is all true, then we should follow in his footsteps and we will come to know God as we move in obedience.

For the last 5 chapters Calvin has been building the foundation for our understanding concerning our corrupt nature and the impossibility of knowing God due to our natural spiritual blindness. Now we begin to see that God has taken the initiative in entering into our lives directly, and that our response is now to obey the word he has spoken.

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” John 7.17

Father, thank you for the recording of your encounters with mankind. Open our eyes that we may see you in your word, change our wills that we may learn how to live and fill us with a knowledge of yourself. Amen