Category Archives: Institutes of Religion

Ultim Scriptura

Calvin’s Institutes, Book 4 Chapter 9

Under what government is the church to be run? Who makes the final decision and decrees in regard to sound doctrine and teaching? The Israelite nation operated under a number of different systems – ancestral tribal leaders (e.g. Jacob); charismatic judges (so called “Kritarchy”); divinely anointed monarchs (e.g. David) and hereditary monarchs (e.g. Solomon). All of these were under the broad dominion of a theocratic system, where the Word of the Lord was (in theory) supreme over the decisions and decrees of men. But what is the government of the church age? Are we still under a theocracy? If so, how does this represent itself, and if not what replaces it? Do we look to our leaders for a final ruling or is it every believer for themselves, as each seeks to understand and interpret the scriptures?

It is to this issue that Calvin turns in Chapter 9 as he probes ever more deeply into the issue of authority. He asks whether the councils that had determined orthodoxy since the fourth century actually had the right to final authority in questions of doctrine. This is remarkably bold from Calvin as the Roman Catholic Church viewed these councils as having the ultimate say in biblical interpretation and church practice. Moreover, these councils were graced by many of the most influential church fathers. Nevertheless, Calvin is unrelenting in his pursuit of defining the limits and jurisdiction of firstly the church (see Chapter 8 ) and now the councils.

Calvin makes sure that his opponents understand his examination of councils does not spring from a lack of respect, for “it is not because I set less value than I ought on ancient councils. I venerate them from my heart, and would have all to hold them in due honour.” But he immediately adds “there must be some limitation” as to their rule, for “it is the right of Christ to preside over all councils” and they must never become a law unto themselves.

Calvin then asks what scripture says about the authority of councils – have they always been viewed as they are in his day? Well, the examples of councils in the New Testament are pretty disturbing – in John 11.47 we see that the Jewish ruling council condemn Jesus to death – not the type of decision you would want from your upholders of truth. Moving away from Jewish councils, Calvin then demonstrates that the early Christian councils were sometimes in opposition to each other, for example the councils of Nice and Constantinople disagree on the use of images in the church – meaning one of them must have been wrong. While his opponents did agree that, in theory, councils may error in areas not essential to salvation, in practice they denied this. For they sought to use the power of the councils “as a pretext for giving the name of an interpretation of Scripture to everything which is determined by councils.” Thus, they seek to justify “purgatory, the intercession of saints and auricular confession”.

Thus, if we cannot demonstrate a biblical mandate for the establishment of infallible councils, what then should be the principals by which the true bounds of authority should be defined? Calvin argues that we should examine each council’s decree on its own merits, seeking to examine: “what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of scripture.” For support of this view Calvin quotes Augustine who stated that the bishops were not bound by the authority of previous councils, arguing instead – “let thing contend with thing, cause with cause, reason with reason, on the authority of scripture.”


Throughout this chapter Calvin repeatedly brings the decrees of the church and councils to the bar of the scriptures as a final examination. Just like a lawyer who relies on the country’s legal rulings for the prosecution of their case, so Calvin draws upon the bible to assess the rules of his day. For while both a judge and a pastor may be misguided, the law that underpins their decisions and doctrines remains uncorrupted. Calvin would be well used to the idea of a written code of practise against which decisions must be referred from his days training to be a lawyer. The only difference being the scriptures can be relied upon as infallible, while all human legal systems have some areas of imperfection.

So what is the result of all this on our church governance? Well, while we recognise that God has appointed pastors and shepards to oversee the flock, and they have been entrusted by the church with leading us wisely, they must always bring all their decisions and decrees against the bar of scripture. Only the scripture is authoritative, not the will of a pastor, the wisdom of a denominational leader or consensus of a local church. Yes, there is an important point to make about the potential risk in this of entrusting the interpretation of scripture to fallen men and women, but if God was willing to take that risk then shouldn’t we?

It is interesting to see Calvin’s use of church history, particularly Augustine throughout the Institutes. While Calvin and Luther are considered champions of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Calvin goes to great pains to demonstrate that his teachings are nothing new. In fact he traces them all back to the early church fathers and shows that he is the one who is being most faithful to early church tradition. Perhaps it would be better to speak of Ultim Scriptura – “scripture final” rather than alone, as the reformed faith never seeks to sever biblical interpretation from church tradition, but faithfully build upon the orthodox interpretation of believers right back to the time of Christ. Thus, just as in the law illustration above, Calvin uses the biblical equivalent of legal precedent in examining the bible – that is, what have hundreds of years of biblical interpretation made of this verse? How has the church understood it and applied this teaching? Only then does the scripture’s final authority come into its own and it alone is the final authority, not tradition. We must never lose sight of this as the only authoritative test for church doctrine.

“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes 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 are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 19.7-11

Father, may you grant that our biblical interpretation would be pure, untainted and Spirit-led. May we not lose sight of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before and grappled with your Word to interpret it faithfully, may we draw deeply from their wisdom. Amen.

Rebecca we’ve found your Dad

Book 4 Chapter 8 Section 1-16

Over Christmas I listened to a great programme on Radio 2. It was all about the Salvation army’s Family Tracing Service – this group work tirelessly to reunite loved ones who have lost contact for one reason or another. The one story that stood out to me was of a young mum who had lost touch with her Dad because of her parent’s divorce. She had little hope that the FTS could help, but sent the application form in anyway. One day she was just about to leave for the shops when the phone went. As she answered she was suprised to hear it was one of the FTS’s workers on the phone. She was expecting bad news, but instead the voice said “Hi Rebecca, I wanted you to know that I have found your Dad.” After 12 years of separation, Rebecca was overcome with emotion to hear that he was found and wanted to meet with her. It reminded me that delivering a simple and honest message, when delivered faithfully can often have a great impact on the hearer.

In this chapter of the Institutes Calvin presents the minister of Christ as the messenger bringing another’s message. It is precisely because the message did not originate in the messenger that it is both authoritative and unchanging. It is authoritative because it is a message from God, delivered to mankind through their peers. It is unchanging because the messengers have no remit to modify that message as they deem fit. Their job is to present the message with clarity and conviction, not decide which bits fit their or their hearer’s scruples.

Calvin begins by address the question: what are the limits of ecclesiastical power? That is, what was the nature of the authority conferred on ministers of the gospel? He begins be reminding us that authority is conferred on the position, not the person. The authority comes from delivering the word of the Lord, “for whenever they are called to office, they are enjoined not to bring anything of their own, but to speak by the mouth of the Lord.” Thus the importance of having a deep understanding of God’s word, that we may have something to say when we stand before people as God’s mouthpiece.

Progressive revelation is the theme of the next section, with Calvin recognising that as redemptive history unfolds, God’s ministers possess an increasing understanding of God’s character and plan of salvation. So, the resolution of the message becomes clearer from the patriarchs, to the prophets and then the apostles, and finally with the revelation of the Son, God’s testimony is now complete. No new teaching, prophecy or revelation is to be added to the testimony of scripture. Thus ministers are to cling solely to the revealed word, and not attempt to “coin some new doctrine”. Why did God do this? Well, “God deprives man of the power  of producing new doctrine in order that he alone may be our master in spiritual teaching, as he alone is true, and can neither lie nor deceive.”

If that is what should have happened, Calvin laments how far the reality is from the ideal. For the 16th century Roman Catholic church maintained that “a universal council is a true representation of the Church” and that “such councils are under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit”. But these councils are called, organised and run by fallen men who then demand that we “assent to all their dogmas, affirmative as well as negative.” Calvin agrees that the Spirit guides the people of God, but it does not perfect them in this life. Contrary to the claims of his opponents, who reason that “since the church is governed by the Spirit of God, she can walk safely without the word”, believers “confine themselves anxiously within the limits of the word of God, lest in following their own sense too far, they forthwith stray from the right path.” True, we enjoy the first-fruits of the Spirit in this present life, but we are also acutely conscious of our great weakness and fallibility. In summary Calvin describes his opponents as placing “the authority of the Church without the word of God: we annex it to the word, and allow it not to be separated from it.”


Far from divesting the messenger of his responsibility for, and connection to, the message he delivers, this knowledge of its divine source affirms and secures such a bond. This is not some dreary announcement by a middle manager of the new company branding – a message that has no interest for the hearers and no conviction from the messenger. No, the gospel must be delivered by people who have so consumed its elements that it has been branded onto their soul. It is a message of life, joy and hope – not unlike the news that a loved one has been found after years of seperation. The way of restoration has already been secured, our duty is to simply deliver this message, faithfully, clearly and with conviction to enable both parties to finally meet. We share in the joy of reuniting family members – lost sons and daughters to their heavenly Father. Our message of reconciliation has never changed and will never change. May we be always found with that message on our lips.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel, therefore hear the word at my mouth and give them warning from me….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.” Ezekiel 3.17 & 2 Corinthians 5.20

Father, rise up those who will faithfully & lovingly proclaim your message to a lost world, a message of hope, life and joy. May we see many come back to their only true Father and be reunited with the parent who formed them before they were born. For your sake, Amen

There was a dream that was Rome

Book 4 Chapter 7 Section 1-30

In a touching scene in the film Gladiator the aging Marcus Aurelius tries to convince the impressive and loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius to take up his challenge to reform Rome as the new emperor. Marcus Aurelius wistfully reminisces: “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile”. But, Maximus cannot be convinced and the emperor’s hopes of reformation vanish. However, Rome would still dominate the world for the next 300 years, during which time a new power would emerge in Rome from amongst the followers of Christ. 

In this chapter Calvin traces the ancient accounts of how the Rome came to dominate all other churches of the West. Although he has briefly touched on some of the main themes in the previous chapter (see Chapter 6), it is here that Calvin deals in detail with the validity, or not, of the various claims of the Roman Papacy. It is a chapter rich in church history and Calvin demonstrates his strength in navigating these ancient times to understand the reason for the rise of Rome.

In what is quite a complex chapter that covers a great deal of early church history, I would suggest there are four main pillars upon which a case for the supremacy of Rome was built.

1. Claim of apostolic foundation & succession
This is a common theme throughout these chapters on the 16th century Catholic church and was dealt with in more detail a previous chapter. Although there seems to be no textual evidence, either in the New Testament or beyond to support the claim, Calvin admits tradition has it that Peter founded a church in Rome. Upon this uncertain event is weaved a web of dubious biblical interpretation that establishes Peter as the de facto leader of the apostles.

Whether this was the case or not, it certainly does not follow that the church which Peter founded must be superior to any other church founded by the other apostles. Finally, even if it was superior to the other churches in the first century, any invested authority was dependent on the purity and faithfulness of the church – a fact that would have disqualified Rome many years before the Reformation, despite their technical claim to have an unbroken line of succession of bishops from Peter to the Pope.

2. Growing influence in the Councils.
Once Christianity became a legal religion in the 4th century, the early church fathers began meeting at General Councils to defend the orthodox faith from certain heresies. Thus, beginning with the Council of Nice, Calvin observes how Rome came to dominate these General Councils. While initially there were no single leaders, by the time of the Chalcedon Council, the Roman Pontiff holds the first place “not because it is due his See, but because the council was in want of a grave and fit moderator.”

Subsequent councils tended to have the host bishops presiding over affairs, for example Mennas at Constantinople and Aurelius at Carthage. There was even an occasion when a universal council was held in Milan with no Roman bishop present. Indeed, there was a strong feeling amongst the bishops that “none should be called chief of the priests, or first bishop.” So for the first few hundred years of the early church, there was no ruling bishop amongst the patriarchs, despite attempts by Rome to the contrary.

3. Growing ecclesiastical power.
According to “Calvin ecclesiastical power can be reduced to four heads: 1) ordination of bishops, 2) calling of councils, 3) hearing of appeals (jurisdiction), 4) inflicting monitory chastisements or censures”. For ordination it was the practise of Italian bishops to be ordained in Rome, with other countries’ bishops ordained at their choice of location.

Regarding the calling of councils each metropolitan area could call a provincial synod, while only the Emperor could call a universal, general council. Appeals were initially held locally, and chastisements were mutual. If this was the situation for the first few hundred years, gradually the centrifugal force of Rome began to centralise these rights to them alone, or at least they would have the final word on an issue. In many respects this was due to our final factor:

4. Centre of the Roman Empire
With the official acceptance of Christianity as a valid religion in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), the way was set for an international power struggle that would last the next several hundred years. Given its place at the heart of the Roman empire, the Roman church was in a strong position to take supremacy, even without the claims to apostolic authority. Thus it proved. The church at the centre of the most important city in the world, eventually became recognised as being first among equals. What at first was offered voluntarily to Rome by its fellow churches in turbulent time, slowly became enshrined as their duty. 

This eventually led to a bitter power struggle between Rome and Constantinople when this latter city became the new seat of the Empire in 337 AD. For all the undercurrents that had led to the Roman church’s prominence as the head of the church, were now pushing in the other direction, in favour of Constantinople. Thus, with the empire moving on, Rome’s claim to apostolic authority became even more vital.


I have never been to Rome but it is one of the few European cities that I really want to see. Although its glory has faded, movies such as Gladiator are able to bring it vividly to life. Arriving in Rome from the provincial cities must have been a truly overwhelming experience for a 4th century bishop. The crowds, the buildings, the wealth, the glory of the city must have been a site to behold. Despite its fall from its past glory, the tremours of its power are still felt today in our everyday language: “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “all roads lead to Rome”, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and other sayings are repeated today in other contexts.

This chapter has demonstrated to me how strong the traditions of man can become if left unchecked. For the reasons described above Rome managed to solidify practises that were initially put into place partly voluntarily, to a point at which its authority was universal in the western church. To have such power and with so little true biblical authority is a lesson to us all in how quickly men can corrupt organisational structures. While God intended us to have freedom in the form of church governance and practise, our forefathers instead chose the traditions of man. How careful we must be in subscribing too much authority to man-made institutions, for the final day will reveal whether their power was derived from God or from man.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth father, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called teacher, for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” Matthew 23.10

Father, we rightly ascribe to you alone the authority to first place in the church. You alone are our Teacher, Master and Father. No earthly person or institution should come between us and you, for we are your children, the sheep of your pasture. Restore to your church the complete and pure dependance on your will in all things. For your glory, Amen

But some are more equal than others

Book 4 Chapter 6 Section 1-17

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegorical novel about the revolt of a group of farm animals against their human rulers. The revolution promises freedom and equality for all. “All animals are equal” being one of the 7 commandments  that unite the animals against their common enemy (humans!). But soon the utopia turns sour as the pigs slowly begin taking more and more authority at the expense of the other animals. Eventually they even modify the founding principles to allow for their new found dominance – “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. They abuse their positions of power and return the farm to the repression that it originally revolted against.

As a scholar in the 16th century Calvin see the repression and dominance of the Roman See and asks – How did Rome achieve this dominance and what were the reasons it used to justify its superiority to the other churches? His proposition is that in a similar way to which the animals in the farm began equal and free, the church began with equal authority amongst its leaders that, over time and with very little justification, a rigid hierarchy was introduced with Rome at the top and all others subordinate. Calvin traces the arguments which have been put forward to justify the fact that “some churches are more equal than others.”

1. The high priest was appointed by God with supreme jurisdiction in Jerusalem. While this is true, Calvin recognises that there is no reason “to extend what was useful to one nation to the whole world.” God appointed such a figure that his people “might not be distracted by a variety of religions…that they might be the better kept in unity.” Moreover, as the high priest was a type of Christ, with the priesthood being transferred to Christ, so also this office.

2. Peter was appointed as the leader of the apostles by Jesus in Matthew 16.18-19. When Christ said “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church etc”, was he appointing Peter as his successor and representative on earth? Calvin argues that just as “Peter had received a command from the Lord, so he exhorts all other presbyters to feed the church (1 Peter 5.2)”. And in the giving of the keys in v 19, there is nothing more here than the power to “retain and remit sins…as ministers of the gospel are commissioned to reconcile men to God, and at the same time to exercise discipline over those who reject the benefit.” Calvin argues that “nothing is here given to Peter that was not common to him with his colleagues.” However, he will concede that “Peter surpasses others in fervid zeal, in doctrine, in magnanimity” therefore we might rightly say he was “first among the faithful”. But “there is a great difference between the honour of rank and the possession of power.” Peter was “one of the twelve, their equal, their colleague, not their master.”

3. Peter ministered at Rome, and as the head of the early church conferred his authority to it. Calvin goes on to say that even if, for the sake of progressing the logic, we concede that “the primacy of the church was fixed in Peter, with the view of remaining for ever by perpetual succession”, how does this then confer on Rome the right to first place? They claim Peter lived and died in Rome, but actually Antioch was his first place of ministry. Why is this not the supreme seat of authority? Well, they claim that when he left Antioch, Peter “transferred the honour which he had brought with him to Rome.”

4. The Early Church recognised Rome as the supreme head. This Calvin admits was the case, but he says this was for three reasons: 1) “the opinion which had prevailed that the church was founded and constituted by the ministry of Peter” (despite there being no textual evidence to support this claim, it somehow became the established view), 2) the seat of the Empire was there and 3) the church of Rome was calmer and less troubled than its compatriots in the East, Greece and Africa. While it may have been the convenient and logical decision to give deference to Rome at the start of the church’s growth, this is a far cry from there being any biblical justification for such a position.

Indeed, Calvin sums up the possible options for perpetual succession  in three options, either the seat of authority is personal (tied to a person), real (tied to a place) or mixed (elements of both the former concepts). From their own arguments Calvin claims they must concede that it is mixed for “the mere consideration of a place is not sufficient unless the person also correspond.” Hence, Calvin reveals how shallow and retrospective are the various arguments that claim Rome as the rightful ruler over Christendom.


While I do not hold to the view that Peter was somehow superior to the other apostles, I think the gospels do show that there were three apostles who were in Jesus’ inner circle. Peter, James and John were the ones who he took with him nearly everywhere, who he revealed himself to on the mount of transfiguration. If there was any form of hierarchy among the apostles and early church then I would say Peter, James and John should have equal weight. Indeed, when Paul comes on the scene, it seems that despite his “unnatural” birth he is recognised as an equal by Peter and the others (Galatians 2.6-10).

It’s interesting how Jesus speaks to Peter throughout his life. He is often directly singled out by Jesus for warnings, challenges, exhortations and praise. I think Jesus knew that Peter was a natural leader with strong passions. When he speaks to him in Matthew 16 about being the rock at the foundation of the church, I think this is preparation for what Peter would learn only a few months later in Matthew 26.31-35 & John 21.17 – that in his own strength he was not equal to such a role. Yes the promise of Matthew 16 was given to all the disciples, but it was said to Peter because Jesus knew that he would need to know the truth of this promise when he failed his test. Jesus never gave up on Peter, and after his failure, enabled him to write two of the most humble, challenging, encouraging and inspiring letters in the New Testament.

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22.31-32

Father, may we learn from Peter’s example that in our own strength we can do nothing, but in your strength we can do all things. Amen

I was there the day the strength of Men failed

Book 4 Chapter 5 Section 1-19

Elrond: “Who will you look to when we’ve gone? The Dwarves? They toil away in caverns, seeking riches. They care nothing for the troubles of others.”
Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”
Elrond: “Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of Men the Ring survives. I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed.”

The words of Elrond, King of the Elves, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could well be used to sum up all that Calvin describes in this chapter about the utter corruption that infested the leaders of the church in his day. This chapter is a scathing account of the character and behaviour of the leaders. It is Calvin’s rallying call for the establishment of a new, purer, more faithful, more biblical church.

He begins his onslaught by considering how these leaders are called to be bishops. Are their life and doctrine assessed against the biblical standards? By no means, instead Calvin laments that “for a hundred years, scarcely one in a hundred has been elected who had any acquaintance with sacred doctrine.” In regard to their morals Calvin finds that there are “few or almost none whom the ancient canons would not have judged unworthy.” But how has this been allowed to happen, that such people have been allowed to govern a church? We find the answer when we consider who appoints them to be bishops.

Any influence of the people has been completely removed for “the whole power has been to the canons alone… (who) confer the episcopal office on whomsoever they please.” And whom do they appoint? “Some owe their promotion to kindred or affinity, others to the influence of their parents, while others procure favour by obsequiousness.” Even “boys scarcely ten years of age are, by permission of the Pope, made bishops.” Then once ordained they are “loaded with five or six, or seven cures (churches), of not one of which they take the least charge, except to draw the income.”

So how do they discharge their office once they have been ordained? Well if the office of a true minister is “to feed the church, and administer the spiritual kingdom of Christ, all those priests who have no work or stipend, save in the traffic of masses, not only fail in their office, but have no lawful office to discharge.” Calvin goes further and claims that “the preaching of the word, the care of discipline, and the administration of the sacraments, they have shaken off as burdens too grievous to be borne.” Instead they prefer to engage in “merely chanting and pompous ceremonies.”

Rather than discharging their office, they hardly even attend their churches, preferring to “spend their lives in devouring the revenues of the church which they never visit even for the purpose of inspection.” While Calvin admits that some do go once-a-year, or send a steward, they “look upon them merely as in the light of farms, over which they appoint their vicars as grieves or husbandmen.”

Finally, Calvin turns to the conduct of the priests. Rather than being the light of the world which Christ required, “in the present day there is no order of men more notorious for luxury, effeminacy, delicacy, and all kinds of licentiousness.” Indeed “nought pleases but what savours of luxury and the corruption of the times” for they “plume themselves on the delicacies of the table, on splendid clothes, numerous attendants, and magnificent places.”

How different to the attitude that should be in Christ’s ministers, who should be “a singular example of frugality, modesty, continence, and humility”. Indeed, the ancient canon of councils stated that “the bishops shall have a little dwelling not far from the church, a frugal table and furniture.” The Council of Aquileia went so far to declare that “poverty in the priests of the Lord is glorious.”

Calvin concludes his penetrating analysis of his contemporary church leadership by challenging them to deny the fact that “among bishops there is scarcely an individual, and among the parochial clergy not one in a hundred, who, if sentence were passed on his conduct according to the ancient canons, would not deserve to be excommunicated, or at least deposed from his office.”


How do we respond to such a devastating critique? While we may want to acknowledge that the picture was not all black, and that there were some who were faithfully seeking to fulfill their calling, church historians agree that this was a time of intense corruption. Practises such as simony are well documented and reflect the moral temperature of the time. Calvin is not afraid to attack the only ecclesiastical authority of his day at the root of the issue – their authority to rule the people of God and impose their doctrine upon them.

By showing that the priests were not only not discharging their office, but that they had actually disqualified themselves from their sacred office, he is completely undermining their authority. Once their control over the people was sufficiently weakened, and a credible alternative proposed, the people were less afraid to reject the priest’s control. Having dealt with the priests and bishops in this chapter, he turns his attention to the pope in the next chapter.

Like a good author Tolkien knows that coming out of the darkest night, the hero shines all the more brighter. So Elrond sets the scene for Aragon to reclaim his rightful throne and lead the people of Middle Earth to victory over their enemies. The parallels to Calvin are stark. He stands at a vital point in history and surveys the devastation wrought my man. Calvin sees the weakness of men, and he renounces the system that allowed it to happen.  He too prepares the way for that Greater King to reclaim his church from the grip of man. He raises his prophetic voice to call the people back to repentance, back to scripture, back to their Saviour.

“Woe to you who long or the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light…  Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5.18-24

The Wonder Years

Book 4 Chapter 4 Section 1-15

The Wonder Years tells the story of Kevin Arnold, a likable kid who lives in 1960s suburban America. The show plays out the life of this young boy as he discovers romance, adolescence and friendship against a backdrop of family tensions and social unrest. With its mix of humour, comedy and feel-good-moments, it was a favourite in our house during my childhood. The show was a nostalgic look on more innocent times, when kids played in the street and built tree houses and right and wrong hadn’t become shades of grey. It took us back to our youth when the world was exciting and new adventures were around every corner.

There was a time when the church had this same sense of excitement and innocence. In the days before it became the organised, wealthy, divided, megalithic institution it is today, it was as fresh as a young green shoot bursting out of the dry ground. With a growing momentum resulting from its increasing influence in society, this new movement was changing the known world. In this chapter Calvin describes how this young church was organised and governed, what the responsibilities of the leaders were and how they distributed their resources.

Calvin begins by looking at the different classes of ministers prevalent in the early church. Reflecting the divisions in the New Testament, the early church distributed its ministers into three orders – pastors, teachers and deacons. To the deacons “belongs the care of the poor and the dispensing of alms.” Calvin also quotes Jerome who describes five orders in the church: bishops, presbyters, deacons, believers and catechumens.

Calvin describes the strategy of the church in each city. All teachers were called presbyters, with one from this group being appointed as a bishop, “lest from equality dissension should arise”. The bishop was not to have “dominion over his colleagues but…collect their opinions, take precedence of others in collecting, advising, exhorting, guide the whole procedure by his authority.” Above the bishops were the archbishops, responsible for a province, with patriarchs above the archbishops “for the preservation of discipline”. A provincial synod decided on matters that couldn’t be resolved by individual patriarchs. If it couldn’t be resolved by this synod a General Council had to be called. This was the hierarchy of the early church.

Calvin goes on to describe the role of deacons in the early church, who were responsible for receiving and distributing the daily offerings. The offerings were distributed into four parts – the clergy, the poor, repair of the church, and the bishop. The bishop’s allocation was not for his personal use, but that he might be hospitable to those in need.


In this chapter Calvin outlines the blueprint that the early church overlaid on top of the biblical principles set down for governing a church. Although these precautions may seem Draconian to us, and in an ideal world we would prefer not to have such a hierarchy in place, they served the church fairly well in the early days. When controversies raged over the deity of Christ the General Councils were able to decree orthodoxy and set the course for future generations. In the early days the bond of continuity was able to ensure that those in positions of responsibility were men of integrity and deep humility. Men like Augustine, Jerome, Cyril and Gregory set the standard in their passion for truth and godliness.

Unfortunately, over the years the rot set in. The responsibility and authority that had been given to individuals in order to bring unity instead brought corruption. Men of weaker character and shallower doctrine reached the highest positions and this opened the floodgates for those below to take advantage of their freedom. The rest, as they say, is history. Calvin will go on to show that this blueprint was lying in tatters by the 16th century.

While many of us may wish that we could go back to the church’s youth, there is no turning back the clock. As an older and wiser Kevin Arnold reflected during one episode “Growing up is never easy. You hold on to things that were. You wonder what’s to come. But that night, I think we knew it was time to let go of what had been, and look ahead to what would be. Other days. New days. Days to come. The thing is, we didn’t have to hate each other for getting older. We just had to forgive ourselves…for growing up.” Looking back it seems that despite starting well, with a good structure and good intentions, every attempt to overlay an organisational structure over the biblical principles has eventually failed. Thankfully God is not content to leave his church alone. He reforms and revives and renews his people and will continue to do so until there is no longer a need for a hierarchy. Let us keep looking forward, to that day when each of us will glory in the splendour of his presence.

“No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying “Know the Lord”, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Jeremiah 31.34

Father, one day we will all be right, we will all have a full understanding of your truth. There will be no dividing lines resulting from our imperfect understanding of your word. All will unite with one accord to praise and magnify your name. These will be the real wonder years, the days of glory and unadulterated joy. These will be the days without end and without disagreement. Then will be finally be fulfilled the prayer of Jesus that we might be one, as you are one. Marantha! Amen

What a piece of work is a man

Book 4 Chapter 3 Section 1-16

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so”
Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

So muses Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he confesses his depressive spirit to them. What an amazing creature man is, but at the same time what weakness he has. In this chapter of the Institutes we turn to the election and office of teachers and ministers in the church. What an honour for man that God should bestow the priviledge of being his representatives on earth. And yet no other aspect of Christian life better illustrates Shakespeare’s reflections on man than this one. History shows what great heights pastors and teachers have attained over the years in their faithful ministry of the gospel. But along the way there have been many notable and costly failures. As Franklin Roosevelt reminded us “with great power comes great responsibility.”

First of all Calvin recognises that God could have acted on his own, or use angels, but that there are several reasons why he chooses to use  men and women. He states that in this way God further condescends to our level, “he shows us by experience that it is not to no purpose that he calls us his temples”. In addition this method provides “a most excellent and useful training to humility when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth.” Calvin argues that if God spoke to us directly it would not be suprising if we obeyed his commands, but “when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant.” Thirdly, using men for the ministry binds us together through our common need, each serving the other in a mutual bond of unity. We cannot say we do not need each other when it is by the ministry of our fellow man that God has appointed our instruction and edification.

Calvin then moves on to consider the honour and importance placed upon the office. He argues that “neither are the heat and light of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a church in the earth.” This is no optional extra that can be dispensed with at a whim, says Calvin. No, it is vital for sustaining the church in each generation. Calvin refers to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul states that “there is nothing in the church more noble and glorious than the ministry of the gospel, seeing it is the administration of the Spirit of righteousness and eternal life.”

Next Calvin looks at the various types of offices within the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And concludes that only the latter two have a continual place in the church, the former three being raised up when “the necessity of the times requires”. Calvin describes the difference between pastors and teachers as being “teachers preside not over discipline , or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of scripture only.” Whereas all these aspects are contained in the pastoral office.

Calvin then turns to the call of the ministry. He asks “who are to be appointed ministers, in what way, by whom and with what rite or initiatory ceremony”. Here he is only dealing with that external confirmatory call of the church towards an individual who has already received the secret call of God. Who? Only those who are of a sound doctrine and holy life, with a good testimony within the church and without. They should be men who are “not unfit for or unequal to the burden imposed upon them” for they should be “provided with the means which will be necessary to fulfill their office.” How? With great seriousness in those appointing them, in earnest prayer for the mind of Christ. By whom? While the apostles were called “at the sole command of God and Christ”, in our day it is by affirming response of the elders in the presence of the people. The form of ordination? The laying on of hands of the elders. That he who is ordained may know that “he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the church.”


Calvin’s chapter on the ministry is a timely reminder of the honour and priviledge that has been bestowed on the office by God. To be God’s representative to his people in his church is surely the greatest of all callings and the highest of all honour. And yet if this is so, it makes me wonder why our colleges struggle to fill places and churches struggle to fill vacancies? Why is it that so few men come forward for the ministry? Has God stopped calling his ministers to this blessed vocation? Or are we failing to find, inspire, train, equip, empower, resource and commission these men?

I must confess that I do not believe God has stopped his calling work in the lives of young men. I believe he is still prompting, challenging and calling men to consecrate their lives to him. But when their are so many distractions and competing voices I believe that still small voice needs fanning into flame. I can think of a number of friends who have the gifting to be great pastors, but in the absence of opportunities and mentoring the call gets stifled. What opportunities are there for aspiring pastors and teachers at your church to gain experience in the ministry of the word? Are we willing to share the limelight to enable those less gifted and less mature to test their gifting? Is our church set up to regularly give opportunities and training to the next generation of leaders? If not then where are they to go to get this experience?

In the sovereignty of God he is able to overcome these problems and raise up his people. But must we make it so hard for his purposes to be accomplished? In an age when millions and millions of pounds are poured into finding the next singing sensation who will be unknown in five years time, can we not invest our time, energy and money in finding and training the next generation of leaders for the greatest of all callings, whose results will remain for eternity?

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men…To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.” 1 Corinthians 4.9+11

Oh that you would raise up an army from your people to live and die for the cause of Christ in Scotland and beyond. That there would not be enough churches to hold all those responding to your call. That your Spirit would move in power to take our eyes off this world and onto the eternal issues of heaven and hell. Father that you would prepare their hearts for the battle ahead and the sacrifice demanded. That they would ask for nothing but souls, expect nothing but a cross and see nothing but Christ crucified. Amen.

Rage against the machine

Book 4 Chapter 2 Section 1-12

Following Calvin’s description of the characteristics of the true church, he now turns his analysis on the Church of Rome. Calvin asks; is it a true church with its fair share of problems or is it actually a false church? It’s important to remember that at this point in history there was only one church and that to leave that church effectively meant being excommunicated from the body of Christ. Notwithstanding the consequences, Calvin concludes that according to the two criteria of the preaching of the word and the institution of the sacraments, the 16th century Roman Catholic church is not a true church.

Calvin says that the corruptions present in Lord’s supper and doctrine had become so bad that the Roman Catholic church had forfeited its status as the true church of God. Thus he argues that it is possible to separate from this false church and yet remain faithful to the true church. He argues that contrary to what the bishops were saying, “in declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being dissevered from the church of Christ.”

How did the bishops respond to such accusations? Well, surprisingly rather than argue on issues of doctrine and practise, they claim that the perpetual succession of the papacy at Rome is evidence of their heritage and authenticity. They appealed to ancient records describing the perpetual succession of bishops from the time of Peter to the present day. They say that history and tradition is on their side and establishes Rome as the centre for ecclesiastical heirarchy. Calvin argues that “the pretence of succession is vain, if posterity did not retain the truth of Christ.” He compares this argument to that of the Jews who believed that as long as the temple and ark of the covenant were present in Jerusalem, then they would be victorious in their battles (Jeremiah 7.4).

Calvin warns them against placing too much emphasis on external evidences as a measure of faithfulness. He says that they should remember the example of Ishmael who was circumcised, and was even the firstborn. And yet for all his outward advantages he was rejected by God in favour of Isaac.  Calvin also points to the perpetual succession of the Jewish priesthood as a warning against relying on succession on its own. He argues that “as soon as they are convicted of having revolted from their origin, (they) are deprived of all honour”, that is, unless we are prepared to say that Caiaphas and the first century Sanhedrin also belonged to the true church of God.

As a result of this teaching Calvin was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic. He describes the former as those who “corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas”, the second as those who “even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union.” Does Calvin admit to these charges? Well, he admits that they “preach a different doctrine, and submit not to their laws, and meet apart from them for prayer, baptism, the administration of the Supper and other sacred rites.” Well not surprisingly Calvin does not accept their criticisms. He argues that as communion is held together by “consent in sound doctrine and brotherly charity”, and that this latter element is dependent upon the unity of faith, to leave those who have previously betrayed the faith is not breaking communion, for it has already been destroyed.

Finally Calvin admits that although the Roman Catholic church had disqualified itself from being the true church, there was still some good within it and does not want to discard it root and branch. He recognises that although there was much decay, it retained “those vestiges of a church”, reflected in his comment that “while we are unwilling to simply concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them.”


Its hard to put yourself in Calvin’s shoes and imagine a time when there was only one authority, one church, one ruling power. Like rebelling against George Orwell’s Big Brother in his book 1984, there could be terrible consequences to fighting the establishment. But that is exactly what Calvin did. His language pulls no punches and in these chapters becomes the most direct and vocal against his opponents of anywhere in the Institutes. He has finally come to the most direct point of conflict – the very right of the Roman Catholic church to impose its authority and demands on the people. Calvin discards this right at its very core, not arguing about superficial rituals or unbiblical doctrines, but as a master lumberjack he aims directly for the trunk of the tree and attacks.

It’s important we don’t confuse the 16th century Catholic church with our modern version. I am sure many of my Catholic friends are uncomfortable with Calvin’s language and views in this chapter. But looking back and reflecting on the depth of corruption prevalent at the time, I believe that drastic reformation was inevitable. Perhaps we wish it had been kept within the one church, perhaps we wouldn’t now have the plethora of denominations and branches of the Christian faith if it had been reformed from within. But it is all speculation now, the Reformation swept away the old ways and provided a credible, alternative church; one which had a renewed focus on the bible and practical godliness.

But in the 500 years since Calvin, who can deny that many of the same problems have not crept into the various branches of the protestant church? By God’s grace there have been instances of reformation across the demonination, but some of these branches stand in great need of a new reformation back to the word of God, back to sola scriptura, sola fide etc. If God tarries and the decline continues then may reformation come again, one day.

“If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7.14

Father restore us to a purity of doctrine and practise, reform our ways individually and corporately. Bring times of refreshing back to your people and bring a revival in this land of truth and godliness. For Jesus sake, Amen.

A diamond in the dust

Book 4 Chapter 1 Section 1-29

If there is one issue that divides modern evangelicalism then it is our ecclesiology – our doctrine of the church. Whether we are denominational, independent or emerging there is a wide disagreement over what the church is. So why did God establish the church and what advice does Calvin have for our 21st century predicament?  Well, after nine months of plumbing the depths of our vertical relationship with our maker, in the early chapters of book 4 Calvin switches the focus to our horizontal relationship with our fellow believer. This first chapter considers the nature and characteristics of the true church.

Why the church?

Why did God institute the church? For two principal reasons says Calvin, firstly to aid believers in their faith and secondly to secure the effectual preaching of the gospel throughout the generations. How does the church strengthen our faith? Well, through the teaching and example we receive from his appointed leaders and through the experiential instruction of the sacraments. Rightly applied, these means will enable us to grow in maturity. But why does it take so long? As Calvin points out “God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the church” and “all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose.” Calvin sees an important lesson in the fact that we must seek our instruction from our fellow man, for having to submit ourselves to the instruction from our equal’s tests our obedience and humility.

But this means of growth is not an optional extra for the believer. For Calvin, the church is the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation and he has little sympathy for those who separate themselves from the church. In a very strong statement he says “all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the church, desire to perish of hunger and famine.” If this sounds harsh to modern ears perhaps we have become too blasé about living as lone-ranger Christians.  But surely Calvin would not have us remain in any church no matter how bad it is? No, we must discern the faithfulness of our church to the standards of scripture.

What are the marks of a true church?

So how can we know the marks of a true church? Calvin states that the two essential features of a genuine church is one where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” Calvin says that these two things should be the yardstick by which we determine whether a church is a true church, “for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.” This is a surprisingly short list for us, and Calvin is quick to point out that even if there are many things wrong with a church, if these two things are there then it is a true church.

So when can we call it a day with a church and move on? Not without much soul searching, for “we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists.” Calvin uses the example of the church in Corinth where he points out that “it was not a few that erred, but almost the whole body had become tainted; there was not one species of sin merely, but a multitude, and those not trivial errors but some of them execrable crimes.” And what was Paul’s response to this situation, does he separate from them? “Does he discard them from the kingdom of Christ? Does he strike them with the thunder of a final anathema? He not only does none of these things, but he acknowledges and heralds them as a church of Christ, and a society of saints.”  If Paul will not separate himself from one of the most corrupt churches of the New Testament era, then, providing the pure ministry of the word and sacrament are still present, we should follow his example in our present-day churches and work for reformation from within, rather than separation and division.


The fact is that we need each other. Despite all the pain that many of us hold in our hearts from our fellow brothers and sisters we cannot live without each other. Yes, there is a time to breakaway from the mainstream church, as Calvin, Luther and many others did during the Reformation. Yes, there are times when new works must be started in order for renewal and revival to take place. But how cautious we should be in separating ourselves from our brothers and sisters. I confess I was impressed with Calvin’s generous response to imperfect churches in this chapter – he warns us to make sure we have the strongest grounds before considering leaving a church. Is it really essential that we start a new church with our own personal brand of Christianity down the road from the established one? Are the differences so great that we can no longer fellowship together? Are the wounds so deep that forgiveness and restoration are impossible? The grace of God is greater than our expectations and deeper than our disappointments.

But we are only human, and we will let each other down and continue to hurt each other. Oh that God would raise up a people who are so passionate for the gospel and are in such unity that other secondary issues remain just that, secondary. Oh that he would raise up leaders of deep conviction and godliness that could lead his people with justice and compassion. For how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity, as the Psalmist says, it is like the warm, comforting feeling of the anointing oil running down Aaron’s beard. There is something in the make up of a child of God that makes them crave for genuine fellowship and the opportunity to hear the voice of God expounded from the scriptures. And although it may mean that we get ourselves a bit dirty looking, when we find a family with this kind of genuine warmth we know that it is as precious as finding a diamond in the dust.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” Psalm 133

Away beyond the blue

Book 3 Chapter 25 Section 1-12

In the final chapter in Book 3 Calvin brings us back to the heart of the gospel and the subject of the last resurrection. After the complex sections on election and predestination, this is a welcome return to the centre of Christianity and a great way to finish off what has been a fruitful journey through the life of the Christian. I have broken this chapter down into three sections:

1. The difficulty of faith – Calvin introduces his topic by stating that unless we understand the nature of hope we will find the path too hard and soon become discouraged with the many difficulties we face. Our hope and faith are in things unseen, and yet our many trials are all too readily before our eyes – how important it is then to have a sure foundation for our hope lest “worn out with fatigue we either turn backwards or abandon our post.” Indeed, we can now understand why faith is so rare in the world for “nothing being more difficult for our sluggishness than to surmount innumerable obstacles in striving for the prize of our high calling.” So how does this tie in with the resurrection? Well, Calvin reminds us that “he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection.”

2. The importance of the resurrection – as we have seen above, the promise of the resurrection is important in sustaining our hope. However, Calvin recognises how rare a belief in the resurrection is among the mankind, particularly the philosophers. Indeed, while many assert the immortality of the soul, few believe in the resurrection of the body. Calvin admits that a belief in a bodily resurrection is above natural human apprehension, but “to enable faith to surmount this great difficulty” scripture has provided two auxiliary proofs: firstly, “the one the likeness (example) of Christ’s resurrection, and the other the omnipotence of God.” Calvin exhorts us to remember our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Knowing that this union must be completed one day by our resurrection to join him where he is. All our hope rests on Christ’s resurrection, for if Christ be not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15.13-17). Secondly, if God is omnipotent, then nothing is impossible for him – Calvin reminds us of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and Paul’s reference to the grain of wheat that even in the midst of its corruption is able to bring forth new life (1 Cor 15.36).

3. The nature of the resurrection – Calvin considers it futile to speculate where the place of abode is until they are raised for “the dimension of the soul is not same as that of the body”. The faithful depart to “the bosom of Abraham”, meaning the presence of the Lord. Calvin also considers the nature of the resurrection body and has little time for those who expect to “obtain a new and different body”. He explains that we shall posses the same body in regard to substance but it will different in quality. The mode of the resurrection will depend on whether we are alive at the time of the last day or whether we died long ago. For the former “it will not be necessary that a period should elapse between death and the beginning of the new life.” Finally we are reminded that “there will be one resurrection to judgement and another to life”, for all will be raised to receive the just reward for their life on earth.

Calvin issues a stark contrast between the destinations for the faithful and the rebellious. For the former he exhorts us to “always remember that the end of the resurrection is eternal happiness, of whose excellence scarcely the minutest part can be described by all that human tongues can say.” However, for the latter, “as language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, unextinguishable fire and the ever-gnawing worm.”


“Away beyond the blue,
One star belongs to you.
And every breath I take
I’m closer to that place.
Yeah baby,
I’m gonna meet you there,
On the outskirts of the sky.
Yeah baby,
I’m gonna meet you there.
And we will fly”

These are the lyrics of Beyond the Blue, a beautiful, soulful song by Beth Neilson Chapman, a song that reminds us of our mortality and the longing for reunion beyond the grave. But in contrast to the ethereal hope described in this song, the resurrection of the believer is something much more down-to-earth. In fact our hope is to come up-from-the-earth, that rather than being a vague spirit wondering the universe, we will once again fill our fleshly bodies. Bodies that will be undeniably and individually “us”, but at the same time have a depth of quality that we have never experienced. Ours is to be a fully human resurrection. This is our hope, and our expectation.

But let us not forget the fate awaiting those without Christ on that day. When they will see the glory revealed in the children of God, the majesty of their creator, the beauty of Jesus, and yet be eternally banished from his presence. They will be given their bodies back, but not for eternal blessedness and communion with God, rather for eternal separation from God. While our minds struggle to grasp the depth of this judgement may we live in such a way as to rescue many “brands from the fire”. Brands that on the final day we will meet again and who will thank us for extending the love of Jesus to them.

“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12.3