Category Archives: Scripture

Why is the Old Testament shut out of church?

I recently read this interesting article by Dale Ralph Davies and thought it fitted in well with where we are in the Institutes regarding the value and place of the Old Testament.  Thanks to Reformation21 for posting it on their website: http://www.reformation21.org/articles/why-is-the-old-testament-shut-out-of-church.php

“I don’t want to begin this lecture by spiritualizing a text but…the Old Testament is good bit like Jephthah the Gileadite in Judges 11:1-3.  His brothers so much as booted him out of their father’s household because of his illegitimate birth.  That’s the way it is with the Old Testament in much of the contemporary church.  The church seems to feel that it’s okay if the Old Testaments stays in the land of Tob with Jephthah, but let’s not even give it the status of step-testament in the household of faith.  In short, there are certain barriers that keep–and have kept–the Old Testament from being heard in the church and I want us to understand what some of them are; it should help us understand the problem.

I.  Scholarly Barrenness

I don’t care if many beg to differ, professional study and teaching of the Old Testament has largely killed the Old Testament for the church and wrecked it for hundreds of theological students.  I speak especially of the so-called higher critical position regarding the OT.  (Now don’t accuse me of being anti-intellectual; in fact, I think that any MDiv grad from an evangelical seminary should know the critical position(s) regarding especially the Pentateuch, should know–and be able to refute–the criteria scholars have used to carve up the canonical text.  A little time with Kenneth Kitchen or R. K. Harrison is time well-spent).  We have had about 150 years of this anti-supernaturalist scholarly study of the OT and it has produced results as cold as concrete and as appetizing as stewed okra.  Let me give examples.  

Here’s a commentary on Exodus 14:5–the first part of the verse speaks of ‘the king of Egypt,’ while the 2nd part refers to him as ‘Pharaoh’ and so ‘there can be no doubt’ that the verse is ‘composed of two different sources.’  Naturally, we find that very moving.  Or go to Exodus 34:6-7; this commentary says that Yahweh’s self-proclamation here (‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious…’) is ‘out of place’ and is ‘an addition which is made up of customary, stereotyped phrases.’  Here is the crucial, climactic, consoling self-revelation of Yahweh, brimming with theological profundity and devotional power–and Martin Noth never heard it.  The Fountain of living waters overflows and Noth spends eight lines of critical hogwash on him.  

Or here is a commentator on 1-2 Kings.  At 2 Kings 2:23 we read of Elisha going up to Bethel, where apparently the incident of the bears tearing up 42 lads occurs.  But this commentator says there is nothing in the narrative itself to suggest that this happened at Bethel except that introductory comment that Elisha had gone up to Bethel.  This amounts to saying that the text says this occurred in Bethel but we can’t be sure because the next two and a half verses don’t mention Bethel–no landmarks like the Bethel Moose Lodge, I suppose–so we really can’t be sure it happened in Bethel.  One could forgive such nonsense were it not for worse stuff.  The same commentator, writing on 1 Kings 8:27 (where Solomon prays, ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!’), tells us this verse must be deleted as ‘secondary’ and that it looks like a ‘marginal comment which later found its way into the text.’  Leave aside the critical issue.  Even if he were right on that (and he’s not), how can he ignore, how can he pass by without any comment the massive, head-throbbing theology of that verse?  

On and on it can go.  You can find out, for example, that 1 Samuel 3 may not be a prophetic call but an ‘auditory message dream theophany,’ and then like Lucy in Peanuts you think:  Now that I know that, what do I do?

And so theologs tend to give up on the Old Testament.  If it involves such complex, intricate analysis by the high priests of whatever the reigning German-geschichte is, then surely it is ‘too complicated for me for bother with.’  Use a psalm or two for funerals and a quote from Amos for Social Justice Awareness Sunday, but otherwise forget the OT.  Mainstream critics may mock evangelical use of the OT, but they have not given us any help.  Unbelieving biblical interpretation cannot nurture life–it cannot even arouse interest.  It is worse than lethal–it is boring.  


II.  Evangelical Sloppiness

 We have our own boners, of course.  We may ring the changes and make the jump from Rahab’s scarlet cord (Josh. 2:18) to the cross; there’s a proper way of doing that in Joshua 2 but not by hanging from Rahab’s cord–it won’t bear the weight.  Someone may make Jael’s hammering Sisera in Judges 4 a picture of the mortification of sin.  One should never dispute with Spurgeon, I suppose, but one might be excused for thinking that the writer of Judges would be surprised to know that that was what he was suggesting.  That ‘take’, however, is preferable to the one that sees in Jael a true picture of the Christian evangelist, for she ‘went softly to him’ and we ought to be gentle in the work of evangelism.  (One may as well see in Sisera’s drinking Jael’s yogurt a foreshadowing of the Lord’s supper!)  Or, does the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter for baby Moses (Exod. 2:5-6) point to the need we should all feel to exercise empathy with people?  

This sort of thing does not come from the sterile biblical critics but from our own camp, the Bible-thumpers.  Naturally, we would distance ourselves from most of the samples just cited (though some might want to hold on to one or two of them!).  Still, evangelical-types have their own problems with tone-deafness to Scripture.  How easy it is for a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching interpreter to take up Genesis 39 and zero in on verses 7-12 and start pressing home ‘principles for overcoming temptation.’  Now it doesn’t matter whether Potiphar’s wife was an old bag or a real doll, this approach will likely miss the main point.  The whole narrative of Genesis 39 is framed with these notices that ‘Yahweh was with Joseph’ (vv. 2, 3, 21, 23).  These notes do not eliminate the temptation theme, but don’t they say that the presence of God is more primary than the temptation?  The testimony of the whole chapter is then that Joseph had Yahweh’s presence in his forsakenness (vv. 1-6), in his temptation (vv. 7-18), and in his probable disillusionment (vv. 19-23).  The accent falls not on principles we follow but on the presence of the God who keeps us.  It’s almost a case in point contrasting man-centered and God-directed hermeneutics.

I know we want to show how ‘applicable’ Scripture is to our people’s needs and some apparently fear that having a God-focused approach to Scripture will sabotage that.  On the contrary!  It’s when you keep seeing the splendor of God in Scripture that you will address the needs of your people.  Ah, but here I have left lecturing and gone to meddling.  

I simply want to note that not even the Bible-packers have done the OT right.  We often need to be cleansed of our hermeneutical leprosy.  Having a right view of inspiration does not guarantee a proper practice of interpretation.  I think Walt Kaiser said something like that.  So you know it’s true.  

III.  Superficial Assumptions

One morning when we were in Baltimore, my wife called me on the manse-to-study intercom.  I had left a note for her about the repair of our washing machine.  She told me that she could not ‘make out one word’ of that note.  Then she had to gall to proceed to read the note to me over the phone.  My anger began to ignite over the paradox:  she had just said she could not make out one word of my note and here she was reading it off perfectly easily to me!  Then she stumbled on a word–it was the one word she could not make out.  I had assumed when she had said she could not make out one word that she was making a snide remark about left-handed handwriting and that she meant ‘not any word’ instead of ‘just one word.’  I thought she was speaking extensively, whereas she was speaking literally.  It was one of those quick but mistaken assumptions.

I think assumptions like that are made about the Old Testament.  We may make such assumptions because pastors or teachers have passed on their attitudes about how dull or uninspiring many sections of the OT are.  Or we may get that attitude by our own superficial reading of it–there is nothing useful here, we say, or, the writer of Judges 1 must’ve been an unemployed geography teacher angry over the demise of his subject in the public school system and so taking out his vengeance on generations of Bible readers.  I can only say that this attitude keeps you from hearing the OT.  I can only say that I find the apparently dullest and deadest texts to be brimming with vitality and excitement.  I think our real problem is that we don’t want to sit before the Lord’s word and think.  

Take Genesis 25:12-18.  It begins, ‘These are the generations of Ishmael…’, and you say, ‘Ugh, this looks like a downer.’  No sparkling narratives in this section; after all, you’re never going name your kids Mibsam or Mishma.  Twelve sons of Ishmael and so on.  Then what?  Then ‘the generations of Isaac’ (v 19).  Here is the promise line.  Did I say line?  Well, not quite.  Isaac’s praying because Rebekah, like Sarah (see 11:30), is barren (v. 21).  Do you catch the contrast?  Here is the non-promise line, here is the kingdom of this age, Ishmael’s line, and it is going to town with furious fertility (vv 12-18), and here is the promise line, the kingdom people, who can’t even get out of the starting gate.  Isn’t this the way it often is?  The kingdom of God is there but in such mustard-seed form, in such hidden and obscure and fragile fashion, that it doesn’t seem to hold a candle to the virility and vitality of the kingdom of this age.  You still will not likely feel a wave of devotional warmth come over you, but you should see that the biblical writer was making a point when he placed the dull list of Ishmael’s fertility side-by-side with Isaac’s sterility.             

Or take Genesis 23.  Interesting but seemingly not very vital.  Sarah has just died and Abraham is under the gun to get a place to bury her.  He doesn’t want to borrow a grave from the locals but to obtain his own burial plot.  Any mortician with a marketing heart would tell you that you shouldn’t wait till then–arrangements should be pre-planned.  Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the Hittites and you know they will put the screws to you.  But there’s more here than the last rites for Sarah and Ephron’s deposit in First National of Kiriath-arba.  The story brackets itself as occurring in ‘the land of Canaan’ (vv. 2, 19), which might seem trivial except that it was the land Yahweh promised Abraham in 12:7 (‘to your seed I will give this land’).  And four times we read that what Abraham wanted was a ‘possession’ (one time the Hebrew word varies but this does not affect the idea; vv. 4, 9, 18, 20).  And that’s what he got.  Do you see what happened the moment that wry smile wrinkled crafty old Ephron’s face as he felt the 400 weight of Abraham’s silver?  Yahweh had begun to fulfill his promise of a home to Abraham and his seed.  True, it wasn’t much.  But more than he had asked for–Ephron insisted he buy not only the cave but the field it was in!  It was only a cemetery plot, but it was a part of Canaan that now belonged to Abraham.  Yahweh was being faithful to his promise of 12:7!  Sometimes that is the way Yahweh shows himself–as the God who is faithful in little.  And note when he does that–at the death of Sarah.  You can say what you want about a ‘redemptive-historical hermeneutic’ but don’t leave the flesh and blood out of it.  Verses 1-2 (Sarah’s death and Abraham’s mourning) show that covenant people meet common sorrows, and it is interesting that it is precisely in this time of grief and trouble that Yahweh gives Abraham this tiny token of his firm faithfulness.  

Sometimes it’s the commentators who are superficial.  Take the axe-head story in 2 Kings 6:1-7.  One writer says this story illustrates how trivial some of the OT miracles are; another dismisses the whole episode in less than six lines and says it has ‘no particular merit or significance’ apart from showing the power the man of God possesses.  But think a little and put this ‘rinky-dink’ episode in its context.  Before it is the ‘Naaman’ chapter, with all its high-powered political tension.  Well, ask the king of Israel:  the Syrian king sends this high-profile military man to Israel and is obviously trying to foment an ‘international incident.’  And then, post-axe, in 6:8ff. there are these military conflicts between Syria and Israel.  And in the middle of anguished diplomatic maneuverings and military conflicts the God of Israel cares about a dirt-prophet who has lost a borrowed axe-head.  That may be trivial and without merit or significance to some; others, however, will see flashes of glory in it.  They will say, “That’s just vintage Yahweh!  Having his eye on his most obscure servant amid all the stuff that steals headlines in the evening news!”  There is much more in this text but we can’t take the time this morning to–shall we say?–sharpen the axe.

IV.  Hermeneutical Intimidation

Another barrier to the use of the OT in the church is what I call hermeneutical intimidation.  I’m thinking of those OT passages that depict events so racy or so appalling that we wonder whether we dare sully the sermon space with such material.  Or there are texts where God seems to act with such harshness or abruptness that we fear we cannot ‘explain’ them adequately.  The laws of uncleanness in Leviticus 11-15 suddenly seem more preachable than Genesis 38 or Judges 19 or 1 Samuel 15.  Even explaining the ‘sin unto death’ in 1 John 5:16 seems like a piece of cake beside trying to handle a story of a concubine who has been gang-raped and whose corpse has been hacked up into 12 pieces and parcel posted throughout Israel.  Even safer is a nice exposition from Philippians 1.  Now Philippians needs to be preached (and I have done so) but why are we so wary of these wild and unruly OT texts?  I think we are intimidated by them, and wrongly so, for I hold that these terrible texts hold tremendous treasure.  

Take 2 Samuel 6, for instance.  David wants to bring the ark of Yahweh out of obscurity into the city of David.  The celebration begins by transporting the ark, Philistine-like, on a new cart.  Somewhere on the trek the oxen get clumsy and Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark.  Next thing we know, Uzzah is writhing on the ground, the music fades, the gasps begin.  The EMTs arrive but can do nothing.  And the text won’t allow you to say, ‘Well, Uzzah had always had trouble with angina,’ for verse 7 is clear:  ‘The anger of Yahweh burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there.’  Of course, questions pile up.  Well, Uzzah was in the wrong, but why didn’t Yahweh cut him some slack?  Why was he so abrupt?  So severe?  Now you can explain some items.  You can say that Yahweh had spelled out how the ark was to be moved and apparently no one thought Numbers 4 was that important.  You can probably say that this was not a final but a temporal judgment on Uzzah, i.e., it did not involve his salvation but was a temporal punishment for his error.  In one way, however, that is little help:  how can you say he ‘only’ lost his life?  When all is said and explained, the story leaves you with the impression that Yahweh is a scary God.  I think that’s the point the story wants you to get:  you don’t mess with a God who is both real and holy; you can be angry like David if you want (v 8), but you will do better to join his later response and tremble (v. 9).  Maybe there’s a message for the church here.  We’re always hearing that we should have more emotion and feeling in our worship.  Okay, so how about fear?  That’s emotional.  How about trembling?  How about some God-induced terror?

Then note what the narrative does.  The presence of the ark seems to bring blessing to Obed-edom, its interim caretaker (vv 11-12a), and someone had apparently read the Pentateuch, and so they bring up the ark with joy and celebration.  In the second half of the story, note the emphasis on joy, dancing, and shouting (vv. 12-16).  And there’s another tragedy; this time not Uzzah but Michal–she does not delight in God.  Second Samuel 6 may be a troubling text.  But do you see the theology of the chapter when you put both halves together?  To rightly respond to Yahweh you should both shudder and dance.  Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24) but he should also be our exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4).  This holy and happy God wants us to reject both irreverence and coldness.  Have you ever wondered what Psalm 2:11 means when it says to ‘rejoice with trembling’?  Don’t we see a narrative incarnation of it in 2 Samuel 6, that leprous text we may have wanted to ignore?  Where can you get a better balance of truth than that?

But let’s face it.  A lot of this ‘hermeneutical intimidation’ comes not from difficulty in understanding the OT text but rather from the way the text will grate on the sensibilities of contemporary culture.  The text is not unclear; it’s the sovereign God of Israel who aggravates the daylights out of proud post-moderns.  Take the first hunk of 2 Kings 1.  King Ahaziah takes a tumble out of an upper storey and is pretty mashed up apparently–enough to be concerned whether he will survive.  So he sends messengers to ask Baal-zebub god of Ekron if he will recover.  Yahweh sends Elijah to intercept his lackeys.  Elijah tells them:  ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire from Baal-zebub god of Ekron?  Now therefore, here’s what Yahweh says:  “The bed to which you have gone up–you will not come down from it, but you will surely die”‘ (vv. 3-4).  But folks are offended at such virile biblical theism.  It’s okay for Yahweh to put the first commandment on the books but no need for him to take it so all-fired seriously.  Here is a man in anguish at the most critical hour of his life and is seeking to ‘re-discover some spiritual roots’–and he’s sentenced to death for it.  Just because he prefers a ‘different meta-narrative’ he is doomed.  Why does Yahweh have to love truth that much?  Why is the heat of his holiness always turned up so high?  Why won’t he allow us to shape him in our image?  This not only offends crass pagans but tends to embarrass soft-around-the-edges evangelicals as well.  Sometimes our problem is that the text is all too clear.  

V.  Spiritual Deficiency

I thought I might end on a little piece of heresy–or at least some might think it so.   
Let me do this through the back door.

I remember preaching in one of our Mississippi churches one Sunday evening while I was serving at this fine institution.  After the service a faithful member of that congregation, a lady around 80 years of age who had almost lost her eyesight (but carefully listened) gave me her reaction to the Old Testament text that had been preached:  ‘Isn’t God dear?,’ she said.  She did not mean that in a schmaltzy or mushy sense.  She meant:  Isn’t God delightful?  Isn’t he marvelous?  Doesn’t he act in such ways toward us that stir up our love for him?  She may have been nearly blind but she saw something with keen clarity–if you keep your eyes on God himself you will be thrilled, or at least immensely satisfied.  

Maybe this is why the OT is shut out of the church.  We do not have the right approach.  I am not convinced that there is a ‘problem’ with the OT.  I do not think the ‘strangeness’ or ‘distance’ or the language of the OT is much of a problem; nor is our difficulty with the OT mainly a matter of techniques.  Rather we get off track in our interpretation of the OT because our eyes are fastened on the wrong ‘object.’   I do not mean that we cannot consider methods and genre and criticism and problems, but for crying out loud there is a living God waiting to reveal himself in the OT and we so easily take our eyes off of him!  If he is my exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4) then I should delight in seeing him in the OT.  If he is the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13), I should be thirsting and craving for him as I read its texts.  

So much depends on this.  Don’t tell me, ‘But Leviticus is so dull.’  I know the provisions for the sin offering in Leviticus 4-5 aren’t nearly as racy as Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38), but when, for example, you read that if the offender can’t afford a lamb, he can bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, and that if he can’t afford those, he can bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour–Yahweh is telling you something about himself.  He is saying that he will never let anything get in the way of his finding an atonement for your sins.  For the present he’ll do it with two quarts of flour if he has to.  What kind of a God is that?  Who’s ever heard of such massive, world-moving, guilt-drowning grace?  

Well, we mustn’t get sucked into giving more examples here.  I simply wonder if a good bit of our ‘problem’ with the OT might be a heart problem.  Maybe our problem is a spiritual one–maybe we are not salivating for the triune God as we read our Bibles.  Maybe we’re focused on sermons rather than worship.  If once you have found God fascinating…that goes a long way towards curing the ‘problem’ of the OT. 

_____________________________________________________________________________
Incessantly interesting God, your character is our rest, your ways our relish;
you have left your fingerprints all over your word–you tempt us to come find you in it!  Oh, grant that we will faithfully yield to this temptation, and in and through these pages come to you, to ‘God our exceeding joy.’  Amen.

Ralph Davis is the Pastor at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburgh, MS, former professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and the author of several commentaries published by Christian Focus.”   

http://www.reformation21.org/articles/why-is-the-old-testament-shut-out-of-church.php

From fading glory to surpassing glory

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 14.44.32Book 2 Chapter 11 Section 1-14

During the last few chapters Calvin has been at pains to stress the unity and connection between the Old and New Testaments. However, now he focuses on how they are different. He concludes that the major differences lie principally in the mode of administration between the two covenants rather than the substance. Calvin groups these into five points:

  1. In the Old Testament the future inheritance is foreshadowed by earthly blessings, in the New it is more clearly revealed in the gospel and the physical evidences are no longer necessary. Calvin argues that although the Jews were encouraged to regard Canaan as their promised inheritance, the physical land was not the totality of their inheritance. Indeed, God was trying to build the concept of an eternal inheritance through the giving of a temporal land. “He promised them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, not that it might be the limit of their hopes, but that the view of it might train and confirm them in the hope of the true inheritance, which, as yet, appeared not.”
  2. Types are used in the Old Testament, whereas the reality is found in the New Testament.  The idea here is that the God introduced concepts through the Old Testament that were physical expressions of spiritual truths that were later explained and fully realised in the New Testament. An example would be the Scapegoat – where a goat would be symbolically portrayed as receiving the sins of the community and then being taken outside the camp. On one level this illustrated the removal of the sins from the community by God, but as a “type”, this law reveals something of the real scapegoat – the Lord Jesus, on whom our sin was placed and who received the judgement of God.
  3. The Old Testament is literal, the new is spiritual. The former relies on the letter of the law, the latter on the Spirit of the lawgiver. The Old brought death and condemnation, the New life and freedom. Calvin summarises the Old Testament this way: “it commands what is right, prohibits crimes, holds forth rewards to the cultivators of righteousness, and threatens transgressors with punishment, while at the same time it neither changes nor amends that depravity of heart which is naturally inherent in all.”
  4. The Old Testament brings bondage, the new freedom. The Old breeds fear, the New confidence and security. Indeed, the former “filled the conscience with fear and trembling” the latter “inspires it with gladness.”
  5. The Old Testament belongs to one people only, the new to all. Calvin is here referring to the bringing in of the Gentiles to God’s plan of salvation through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In light of the significant differences between the two testaments, and the subsequent confusion that blights many believers when studying the Old Testament, in the final section Calvin considers why God bothered to use two testaments at all. Why didn’t God go straight to the New Testament without the introduction of the Old? Why bother with physical illustrations of types and figures rather than going straight to the reality and underlying spiritual truths? Indeed, some have become so confused that they claim that the God of the Old Testament was different to the God of the New Testament.

  • Firstly, because in His infinite wisdom God saw fit to use this means to glorify Himself and tutor His children in the depths of His grace and mercy. God was pleased to use earthly blessings to reflect spiritual blessings and physical punishments to reflect the horror of spiritual punishments.
  • Secondly, God should not be criticised because He adapts different forms to different ages. Calvin uses the methods employed by a father to instruct his children compared to those he uses when they have reached adulthood – different methods for different times.
  • Thirdly, as a wise and loving Creator, God is pleased to adopt the best method at the right moment in history. We should not wonder that God used a different set of signs to prepare for Christ’s first coming than He uses now that Jesus has been manifested to the world.

Response

It seems to me that many believers today are confused about the place and value of the Old Testament. Over the last few chapters we have thought about how the two testaments are similar and different. When Calvin draws the connections between the Old and New Testaments he draws out the beauty in the former and enables us to see the jewels scattered broadly throughout the law and the prophets. When he now turns to show us the greatness of the New in comparison to the Old he helps us to see that the beauty of the Old is like shiny copper compared to the sparkling emerald of the New.

“Now if the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” 2 Corinthians 3. 9-11

 

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