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

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.

A week into John Calvin’s Institutes of Religion

So a week in to my plan to read and blog on the Institutes in 2009 and I’m still on track! Its really been a great discipline to pen a concise summary of its teaching and reflect on what I am learning. Its also been good to interact with others doing the same thing.

But, I hear someone say, why bother reading a book that is nearly 500 years old? 

Well, firstly as someone who has been a Christian a long time and has been in Christian circles a long time I think it becomes really easy to accept certain theologians & books as “sound” without ever examining them for yourself. So I have made it my ambition to read the classics for myself, not just hear what people have to say about them. I have my own thoughts but I would be interested to heard of any others that you would recommend as “must reads”?

Secondly, I have been struggling for a while to find the best way to deepen my theological knowledge in a structured way. I don’t have much spare time at the moment and with a young family I find myself in the house most evenings. But its so easy to just turn the TV on in the evenings rather than pick up a church history text book! Having the blog means I will be more disciplined to do the reading and analysis (nearly!) every day.

Thirdly, I believe in the “little and often” philosophy when it comes to spiritual growth. Reading only a short section of a book like this, but doing it every day means I will get a lot more out of it than trying to read longer sections, especially if I take the time to contemplate how I can explain it in a way that a modern reader will understand.

Fourthly, there is a large part of me that thinks the old books are the best! So much of today’s prose is superficial and massively influenced by our culture that its great to transport myself back to a time when things were really different. Its only when we step out of our own generation and read the books written when the world was different that we begin to understand how we got where we are. Having said that I also believe its important to really understand the culture we live in so we can communicate to it effectively, I guess I try to find a balance by alternating an old book with a new book, a secular book with a Christian book etc

So that’s my reasons why I felt compelled to take up this challenge, thanks for stopping by.

Every contact leaves a trace

Book I Chapter V Section 1-6

Those of you that watch CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) will recognise the motto – “every contact leaves a trace”. The evidence can always be found if you know where to look (and you’ve got the latest forensic technology!). Its uncanny how they always seem to be able to figure out the most complex crimes in around 45 minutes, but they manage it.

When it comes to investigating the evidence for a creator, Calvin makes exactly same point in this chapter.  That is, as well as the testimony of the divine seed within us (Chapter 3) we can know God through his creative activity – if we can interpret the evidence before us. We might not be able to see God directly, but Calvin argues that we can see his fingerprints on the world we live in and within our own bodies.

In particular Calvin focusses on the amazing complexity of the human mind and our faculty for reason and judgement. At one point he speaks of “the swift motions of the soul, its noble faculties and rare endowments” and is amazed that the very attributes which point so clearly to the hand of God have been the very things employed to conjure up arguments against the existence of God. He is almost exasperated when he asks the rhetorical question: “are so many treasures of heavenly wisdom employed in the guidance of such a worm as man, and shall the whole universe be denied the same privilege?”.

He goes on to say  “shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven?”. Where then did this innate sense of justice come from?

Response:

We are amazing creatures, but do we really think we are the pinnacle of the universe? If in our daily lives we give so much thought and consideration to what seems a simple task to someone who might observe us, why do we observe the highly complex activities of the natural world and say that it is all driven by chance?

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour…O Lord, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8.3-5+9

Our Father, even when we are amazed at how complex our minds and bodies are, we are microscopic when placed alongside you. Yet you care for us and are tenderhearted towards us, you know our lives intimately and watch our every step. We are humbled by your attention and grateful for all our blessings, Amen.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Book I Chapter IV Section 1-4

In this Chapter Calvin examines how mankind has responded to the sense of the divine that that we read about in the previous chapters. Have they gratefully acknowledged this truth and sought more light? Unfortunately not; rather than lead them to a deeper understanding of God, they have instead suppressed the truth.

Calvin admits that this suppression may be done ignorantly (and lead to superstition), or maliciously (leading to intentional rebellion against God’s rule).  When the superstition is combined with our natural spiritual blindness, as a result of original sin, it results in spiritual pride and stubbornness.  From this position true knowledge of God is impossible, instead a sanitised, impotent god is constructed in our own image and understanding.  Although Calvin has some sympathy for the spiritually blind, he states that they too are without excuse because their pride leads them headlong into error.

On the other hand there are those who willfully suppress the truth that has been revealed to them. They close their own eyes to his truth and he responds by hardening their hearts.  Calvin suggests that they do not deny God’s existence but his activity – “He (the fool) says to himself “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees”” Psalm 10.11. This kind of rebel does not say that God is not there, but that if he is there he will not act.

Calvin’s final point is that a man-made God is always a tame God. True religion is worshipping God on his terms or not at all. Anything else is man’s image projected onto the clouds. Indeed, although the rebel and the superstitious seem poles apart, both groups have this in common – they both abhor the right of God to govern his creatures according to his own justice and truth. The former rejects and runs, the latter kowtows and corrupts – spreading false rumours and misguided opinions from within the walls. Both would rather overthrow God than allow him to exercise his rightful rule and authority.

The true test of whether our religion be superstition or genuine is firstly whether we allow God to be God and not accommodate him to our culture or personal sensitivities and secondly whether the fruit is good. The superstitious would rather indulge than restrain and they finally become lost in “a maze of error”.

Response:

There is a lot to consider in today’s reading. I’m reminded of the passages in the scriptures that speak of those who tried to combine their own misguided views of God with the self-revelation of God through the prophets and apostles. People like Balaam in Numbers 22 and Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 stand out as examples of those who really got it wrong.

But the real challenge for me today is how much do I, as someone who believes in the inspiration of scripture, really allow it to alter my view of God and how much do I still try and tame him to fit my own preferences?

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as god nor gave thanks to him as God, but their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1.21

Father we come before you to seek to know you as you truly are, not as we would like you to be or as we currently understand you to be. Only you can reveal yourself  – open our hearts and minds to spiritual truths and take down every false view of you. Broaden and deepen our understanding of your character and qualities. Open your word to us that we may see you clearly in every verse. We look to you today, Amen.

Can man live without God?

Can man live without God?Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter III Section 1-3)

The title of this post comes from the title of Ravi Zacharias’ classic apologetic book on atheism. Its also summarises Calvin’s central issue in Chapter 3. Having touched on what we can know of God as our creator in Chapter 2, Calvin now moves on to consider whether the stamp of the creator has left a permanent mark on his creation. Thus, is belief in God something that man has invented or is it “indelibly engraven on the human heart”?

Perhaps the question should be posed this way: do all men, everywhere, over all time, have an innate “sense of the divine” (as Calvin puts it)? The evidence of the religiosity of mankind seems to suggest that a belief in, and worship of, God is something that is not due merely to cultural influences. Calvin is certainly convinced that although there are some atheists in 16th century Europe, the weight of evidence is with him.

However, Western society has shifted in the last 500 years and perhaps Calvin would be less inclined to appeal to “men of sound judgement” to support his case if he was writing today. Western society seems to be determined to rid all trace of that divine spark through its aggressive promotion of secular beliefs. If belief in God was something that came through education and culture then we would indeed have cause to worry, but, as Calvin acknowledges, it is in the womb, not the classroom, that man receives that gift of eternity within his heart.

Response:

After readings Calvin’s arguments and pondering this issue for the last few days I’m left thinking that no one really knows the heart and mind of anyone else on the planet. I am sure there are many people who have never given it one thought and the spark within them is only the glowing embers – but I believe it is there. Why? Because as we learnt in Chapter 1, God knows us better than we know ourselves, if his word tells me it is there in all people then I’m with him. So the question becomes: Does God believe in atheists (to quote another book, this time by John Blanchard)?

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.”

Ecclesiastes 3.11

Father, thank you that you have left the marks of your handiwork all over our hearts and minds. You made us to yearn for immortality and eternity, I thank you that this is not a futile pursuit. Thank you for this gift and the flame within us to know you more. 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.

God knows you better than you know yourself

God knows you better than you know yourselfCalvin’s Institutes  (Book I Chapter I Section 1-3)

One of the most famous sentences in the Institutes is the opening line…”almost  all wisdom consists of two parts – knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In this short chapter Calvin describes his thoughts on how we begin to come to an understanding of a real knowledge of ourselves and God.  His thesis is that to know God we must also know ourselves and visa versa.

Calvin sees it as self-evident that mankind’s innate reason, sense of justice and sense of the divine are indicators of the origin of these qualities in the creator. Moreover, the constant stream of blessings from God should lead us back to the origin of such blessings. He goes on to argue that our own natural condition of moral bankruptcy resulting from Adam’s fall should cause us to seek our spiritual sustenance from God and result in humble reverence towards him.

Why then is mankind in such denial of these truths and so unwilling to turn to God? Because they are unaware of their true state. Calvin argues that man naturally doesn’t know himself or realise his true position.

Only when we look into the face of God do we really understand the depth of our corruption – as we really are and not as we see ourselves. Until we stop making created things the measure of goodness we will never realise how bad things are. Its as if we have spiritual cataract that colours everything we view in this world with a misguided view of our true nature, particularly our righteousness, wisdom and virtue. Because everything we have ever seen or contemplated in this world is also tainted we have no conception of the depths of these virtues within God’s being. To prove his point Calvin mentions the cherubim as created beings that are sinless and pure, who yet cover their faces from the holiness of the Lord.

Response:

  • The best of man’s goodness, graciousness and wisdom are mere imaginings of beauty when set beside the divine attributes.
  • If those created beings who are without sin are overwhelmed in God’s presence, what should our response be?
  • If a glimpse of his glory made Moses’ face radiant, then to see his true majesty would truly devastate us and yet how often we come before this God so easily and cheaply.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64.6

Oh Father, we confess our amazement at how patient you are with us. We think we understand ourselves and our hearts, but before you every desire and thought is laid bare. You are the one who see us as we really are, while we only skim the surface of our sinful hearts. Help us always to rely on the complete and perfect redemption that takes away all our known and unknown faults, makes us whole again and one day will set us perfect before you.  We rest in you and the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen

Is it for me?

If your wondering how much commitment would be required before commiting to the reading plan then this is a link to an online version of the Beveridge edition:

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.toc.html

http://www.mountainretreatorg.net/classics/calvin/institutes.shtml

These will help give you an idea of how much reading is scheduled for each day – normally about 3 pages. I read the first day’s section the other day and it took 7 minutes to read. However, understanding it is another issue!!

seeking a reasonable faith

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