Category Archives: Knowing God

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.

The mystery of providence

rain-on-a-window2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter V Section 7-15)

It has been a long time since I read John Flavel’s book The Mystery of Providence, but I can still remember how piercing and comprehensive his thoughts, how many and varied his arguments, that God rules everything in this world according to his sovereign or providential will. That God guides all the events in the lives of his children, all the tribulations of the church, all the affairs of governments and nations for the good of his people and the final revelation of his justice.

It is to this topic that Calvin turns in the latter part of Chapter 5. Having highlighted the wonder of God’s work in the design of the natural world and the human body, Calvin moves onto consider the evidence for God’s providential hand in all of life. Although he sees evidence for “so many proofs of divine providence” and fatherly love, it should not surprise us by now to realise that mankind does not recognise this, being “lost in a flood of error”.

Calvin recognises that the divine providence is only partially outplayed in this life; as Augustine says “were all sin now visited with open punishment, it might be thought that nothing was reserved for the final judgement; and on the other hand, were no sin now openly punished, it might be supposed there was no divine punishment”. Thus, from our vantage point we can only see glimpses, the complete and perfect picture will only be displayed at the final judgement.

Response:

Although the evidence is all around us, it is only with the eye of faith that the believer can see the wonder and tenderness of his care towards us. Only once we come to a place of complete dependence on God do we look back at our lives and realise how gently and persistently he has wooed us.  Only with the trust of child can we look forward and anticipate a day when the final chapter will be declared and all will make sense. Until that day we walk by faith.

“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts O God.” Psalm 139 16+17

Father, how many are your thoughts toward us and how tender your care. We see, as if through a muddy window, your deeds and know that they are good, we look forward to the day when the pane will be clear and we will understand fully. Give us the eye of faith to understand your works in our lives, Amen.

Knowledge of God as Creator

Knowledge of God as CreatorBook I Chapter II Section 1-2

In this short chapter Calvin considers what knowledge would have been possible of God as our creator if Adam had never fallen. Later in the book he turns to the knowledge of God as our redeemer, but for now he considers the truths Adam would have understood about God, namely:

  • That God formed and sustained the created order
  • He rules the human race by his sovereign judgement
  • He is the cause of all wisdom, truth, power and justice in the world
  • That we owe everything to his paternal care

Calvin also describes the results of this knowledge in an individual:

  • Causes us to worship
  • Seek everything in him and in none but him
  • Learn to expect and ask all things of him
  • Teach us piety – the union of reverence and love of God
  • Thankfully ascribe whatever we receive
  • Submit to him in voluntary obedience
  • Yield up our whole self in truth and sincerity

So in summary, what are the effects this knowledge should have on us? Firstly, to teach us reverence and fear, and secondly to ask every good thing from him and then ascribe it to him.

Response:

  • True knowledge of God is never purely theoretical, it should firstly transform the mind and then the life.
  • In all my learning am I becoming puffed up or toned up? Are the truths I am learning having an effect on my life?
  • Is my life yielded up completely to him? If not, the problem is my shallow understanding of God – seek more of him and a godly life must inevitably follow

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” 2 Corinthians 3.18

Father, expand our understanding of who you are. As the arid farmland is brought to life by the receiving of water, so we too are changed by a deeper understanding of you. We cannot remain the same once you open our eyes to begin to understand you. Show us more of your glory and transform hearts as we meditate on your character.