Saturday, January 31, 2009

0 The Institutes: The Heart of Idolatry, Part II

Calvin takes the remainder of chapter 11 of book I to condemn the use of images in worship, and in particular addresses various arguments the church of his day used to support their production and use.

His issue in this section of the Institutes is NOT to deal in particular with saint worship (though it's related, since many of the statues used by the Roman church at the time and today are of the saints, and which do receive idolatrous worship), but with the use of images to represent God as an aid to worship. He calls the practice idolatry, and brings up the case of Aaron and the Israelites in the wilderness, saying that the Jews
"weren't so thoughtless as to forget that it was God by whose hand they had been led out of Egypt [Lev. 26:13] before they fashioned the calf [Ex. 32:4]. But when Aaron said that those were the gods by which they had been set free from the land of Egypt, they boldly assented [Ex. 32:4,8], obviously meaning that they wished to retain that liberating God, provided they could see him going before them in the calf. And we must not think the heathen so stupid that they did not understand God to be something other than stocks and stones. For while they changed images at pleasure, they always kept the same gods in mind. (pp. 109-110, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
The heart of the matter, again, is this - to use images for the purpose of worship - exciting worshipful attitudes, praising God by using those images to bring to mind the reality of God Himself, etc - is the kind of activity the second commandment forbids. It is NOT helpful in the least, Calvin rightly argues, but leads one into false understandings of God, and into false worship of Him. God has not any form whatsoever - and Scripture gives us no description of Christ Himself, that (I believe) we might not be led into fashioning images of Christ, either, for the purpose of worship. The heart of the commandment, again, is not that we worship false gods in these images. That is a violation of the first commandment, a taking of other gods. The second deals with physical representations, and the fact that God commands that we worship Him in spirit (no images) and truth (no image can represent Him properly - or even represent Jesus Christ properly, since in order to properly represent Jesus Christ, we must not simply represent His physical body - for that would not be a true representation of Him as God-Man).

Among the arguments the Roman Church used in Calvin's day was that these images were supposed to be the "books for the laity" - for the ignorant, who couldn't read the Scriptures. Of course it didn't help those ignorant that the clerics kept the Word of God from them by insisting that it appear only in the ecclesiastical tongue, Latin, and then only in the possession of the priests. Thus, since they couldn't understand God's Word, the priests argued, they must have images. A whole industry was constructed around the "need" (artificially created) for images that served only to keep the clerics in power, and suppress the ability of the laity to know and serve God according to His will. Calvin argues forcefully that the existence of the ignorant masses is entirely of the doing of the priests... and he argues that by them, the priests made idolaters of many. Thank God for John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and Martin Luther, who, among others, insisted on the importance of the Word being understandable to all, that we might all be instructed in the truth, and not kept in the dark, confused and distracted by images!

To return to the heart of the matter. Calvin, in section 9, refers back to Augustine, 1100 years prior to Calvin's day, speaking of images, and the excuses offered even then, to the complaint that images are impermissible as aids to worship. Here in closing is the relevant section, for your consideration:
Read the excuses that Augustine refers to as having been pretended by the idolaters of his own age: when they were accused, the vulgar sort replied that they were not worshiping that visible object but a presence that dwelt there invisibly. Those who were of what he called “purer religion” stated that they were worshiping neither the likeness nor the spirit; but that through the physical image they gazed upon the sign of the thing that they ought to worship. What then? All idolaters, whether Jews or pagans, bwere motivated just as has been said. Not content with spiritual understanding, they thought that through the images a surer and closer understanding would be impressed upon them. Once this perverse imitation of God pleased them, they never stopped until, deluded by new tricks, they presently supposed that God manifested his power in images. In these images, nevertheless, the Jews were convinced that they were worshiping the eternal God, the one true Lord of heaven and earth; the pagans, that they were worshiping their gods whom, though false, they imagined as dwelling in heaven. (pp. 110, Institutes of the Christian Religion)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

3 The Institutes: The Heart of Idolatry

When discussing idolatry, and in particular whenever the question of images of Jesus Christ is brought up, the discussion (by those who approve of images of Jesus) usually turns to the question of what lies at the heart of the 2nd commandment. The defense offered by those who support the use of images (whether images of Jesus Christ, or of a dove, or of a flame, both meant to represent the Holy Spirit) is that "we don't bow down and worship these images, so they are permissible".

Calvin questions this right at the start of his chapter on images, chapter 11 of Book I of the Institutes. His target in the first four sections of this chapter is the illegality of images, according to God's Law, considered in and of itself. A key concept around which Calvin builds his case is stated in the first paragraph of this passage: "for God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself." (p. 100, Institutes of the Christian Religion) For Calvin, the argument begins here - God alone is the one who can authorize representations of or physical manifestations of himself, and nobody else. Hence the commandment, Calvin argues, that NO likeness or image of God in any way may be made. He elicits a principle from the Scriptural text, too - that "God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him." (ibid.) There is no way to present to us an image of God that is truthful, or that fails to detract from His glory. We can do all we want to wiggle around the letter of the Law given in Exodus 20:4, but it must be recognized that even the letter of the Law given there elucidates a principle that is at the heart. It is not possible, period, for a man to construct any kind of image whatsoever and, without sin or blame, represent God with it. This includes, I firmly believe, images of Jesus Christ, the God-Man (but Calvin doesn't go into this here, though I am equally firmly convinced that he repudiated images of Jesus Christ just as much as images of Mary). Calvin here is discussing the representation of the divine being - the one true and living God, who is spirit and whose worship must be according to spirit and truth.

It is sometimes argued (and I have argued with people putting forth this argument) that images like the dove, or the flame are appropriate for use in worship and guiding thoughts and prayers because God Himself used those images as representations of Himself. To that I say, first, that nevertheless, God has condemned such images by His direct command in Exodus 20:4; but secondly, the fact of God using such representations of Himself has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is right for us to do so. If God's physical presence was "in" those manifestations - it would have been appropriate to offer Him worship through them, as HE designated those manifestations as representing Himself. Moses spoke to the flame in the bush, rightly, because God was *there* in a particular way. Would it have been appropriate later for Moses to recreate the event, in order to have an image by which to worship Almighty God? NO.

Christ, too, was the Divine and simultaneously human - He was and is the express image of God, we are told in Scripture. Was worship offered to Him, properly, being venerated as He stood there with the disciples? Indeed! Is it appropriate to make a statue of Christ in order to have a focal point for prayers, to excite the emotions and raise up our thoughts to the divine reality of Jesus? NO - for the same reason as it would be wrong for us to have a bonfire to represent God and worship Him through it - even if our minds were solely focused on worshipping the true and the living God.

I firmly believe that many who were condemned as guilty of idolatry in the episode of the golden calves, truly believed they were worshipping God through them (not worshipping the idols themselves, but using them to direct their prayers). This is the heart of idolatry - worshipping God in a way that He has not prescribed. He condemns the use of images. Period. We mustn't then use or allow them, even with the best of intentions. So argues Calvin, and with him I couldn't agree more completely.

0 The Institutes: God Presented in the Word and in the World

Calvin makes a very important point in chapter 10 of Book I of the Institutes, which I'll comment on only briefly. God's revelation to us in Scripture, that perfect, sufficient presentation of His Holy attributes, is primary - all other information, including the work of His hands that we see in us and in the rest of creation, is secondary. The two - just as Spirit and Word are consonant and never contradict one another - speak the same things about God to the ear that hears and present the same information to the eyes that see.

When we are brought to a proper fear of the Lord, we can see, then, that our experience of God's self-revelation in the world is entirely consistent with the presentation of Himself in His Word.. nowhere finding a whit if contradiction, but being parallel descriptions of who He is. Calvin writes,
"...and nothing is set down there [TKP - in Psalm 145, to which Calvin just referred] that cannot be beheld in his creatures. Indeed, with experience as our teacher we find God just as he declares himself in his Word. In Jeremiah, where God declares in what character he would have us know him, he puts forward a less full description but one plainly amounting to the same thing. "Let him who glories, glory in this," he says, "that he knows that I am the Lord who exercise mercy, judgment and justice in the Earth" [Jer. 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:31]. (p. 98, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
God's two books - of revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture, speak with one voice to God's power, authority, and glory, and to His attributes. When one only has the book of nature to look at - and hasn't been brought to his knees in adoration of God through the powerful two-edged sword of the Word, one inevitably misreads the world, and is liable to all manner of idolatrous error. When the Word is active and powerful and has brought a man to humble adoration and fear of the Lord, instead, nature provides powerful testimony to that which Scripture has told him. As we will see when Calvin further discusses the role of the Holy Spirit in believers' lives, it is the presence of God by His Spirit that opens the eyes to these truths. Without His presence with us, we are blind and deaf to all that God has said - and turn inward to ourselves, and fall prey to the fate presented in Romans 1. Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of His Spirit to His people - that he opens the eyes of the blind, and unstops the ears of the deaf - and unleashes the tongues of the dumb, that they might praise Him for His works and for His very being.

0 A Rash Oath

24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:24-25, ESV)
What a horrific cry! As I read this this morning I am reminded of the rashness of things we say at times, and how our words often make trouble for us. How much more so this statement from the Jewish crowd, in throwing aside their King! How lamentable is their loss, as we see the Lord Jesus crushed in response to their arrogance and blindness! Let not the weight of this moment in history miss us; Christ the Lord, Messiah, root of Jesse, David's Son, Lion of Judah, Lamb of God - rejected with a defiant oath, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

0 The Institutes: The Spirit of God - Witness to the Word of God

John Calvin, in chapter 9 of book I of the Institutes, sounds as though he's writing to late 20th century America. How reminiscent were his admonitions to his readers that they not dispense with the Word of God in favor of 'new revelations' of the Spirit. 450 years have passed since the 1559 edition of the Institutes, and how much has changed? Not much.

Today we are besieged with voices telling us not to be so strictly observant of God's Word, and to 'relevantize it' to post-modern sensibilities and situations. We are supposed to be listening for 'fresh moves' of the Holy Spirit, it is said, so that we know what God is saying now, rather than hold ourselves too strictly to the written Word. Somehow, it seems to me from what such voices are saying, the dusty old Word is to step aside, so that new things can be said for today's believers - that old Word was written to people who didn't face what we face, and therefore it's too inelastic for what we need today. We're supposed to listen for a 'still, small voice' that will tell us something more pertinent.

It's astounding how poignant Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes can be at times like this - there is indeed nothing new under the sun. The same heresies that exist today, including the quest for illegitimate 'new words' from God, existed in his day. The listeners on the Areopagus also were always after something new. I suspect it goes further back than that, too - but 2000 years is a long time to be repeating the same errors.

Calvin lays out several important facts concerning the ministration of the Holy Spirit as connected to God's Word. These were helpful, I am certain, in his immediate context, but are also very helpful today as we encounter people who'd rather 'listen for the Spirit' then subject themselves to God's Holy written revelation, and find those of us who hold ourselves under the final authority of God's Word to be 'missing out' on what God's doing today. Calvin would argue, as I would, that such an opinion is truly the one missing what God's doing today in His people, as they feed on His abiding, living, everlasting Word.
For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter. But I should like to know from them what this spirit is by whose inspiration they are borne up so high that they dare despise the Scriptural doctrine as childish and mean.
...
What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?
...
Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.
(p. 93-94, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin writes simply that the Spirit - who inspired the prophets and the apostles, who put together, by means of these human instruments, a perfect record of revelation for us - does not speak with two tongues. He has revealed Himself in the Word of God, and since His Word is a perfect guide for leading the children of God to perfection (witness 2 Tim 3:16) then why would He give new doctrine over and above what has already been given us, and which the apostles themselves praised as perfect and sufficient for leading God's people home?

Calvin also gives rather simple and straightforward instruction concerning the Spirit's role today - there is no separation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit from God's Word, period. The test of all spirits - which we are told to do by the Apostle - is God's Word. (section 2, chapter 9, book I) Those who argue that today (or in Calvin's day) we need more, are looking for something illegitimate - some sort of religious experience (Yes, I'm reading Recovering the Reformed Confession too, and it's providentially dovetailing nicely with my reading in Calvin at the moment!) that "transcends the Word". They want something more than a dry, dusty old book to "inspire" them. Sorry - wrong answer. The Holy Spirit has had one role, and one role only, in the end - to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word. Again, He speaks not with a forked tongue, but with one voice - and will not contradict Himself. There is an inseparable union between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Again, Calvin:
For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God's face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word. So indeed it is. God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word. (p. 95, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Those who are bent on having spiritual revelations, new things taught them apart from the Word of God show their disdain for God's Word, to their peril. We must take heed of the Apostles' teaching through their example - to live daily by the Word of God - studying, meditating, and living it. It is our daily bread, much moreso than the bread we eat physically. It is a perfect preparation for us, as Paul wrote to Timothy. What more do we need to feed on, meditate on, and study? There is more than enough in it to teach us more than we'll ever learn on this side of glory - let us be content with what God has provided, and not seek for illegitimate trinkets and things that tickle the fleshly ears.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

0 The Highest Good, a la William Ames

William Ames's sermons on themes from the 52 Lord's Days of the Heidelberg Catechism, newly published by Reformation Heritage Books, can be bought here, as I noted a while back on this blog. This is one of three major works of Ames, and is one of two that is now readily available - the third, "Conscience, with the Power and Cases Thereof" is not out in any recent printing that I'm aware of (much the pity!) and hence seems nearly impossible to come by.

This wonderful collection contains brief expositions worthy of studying alongside the Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day by Lord's Day; each week a short section of Scripture which illustrates the theme of that Day's Catechism selection is exposited by way of several short lessons. This would make for excellent family devotional material. As an example, here is a part of the first Lord's Day's study on Psalm 4:6-8 that I just finished reading. Ames is dealing with the duty of the Christian to seek the highest good above all other things, and he supports that duty with these reasons:
1. The goal of our life consists in this highest good, and this goal ought to be considered in regard to all things. Someone who does something without a goal is the sort of person who acts rashly and without reason. Someone who lives in such a way, without considering the highest good, lives rashly - like a brutish and irrational creature.
2. All our actions must be directed according to the consideration of this goal; the only actions that are right are those that extend like a straight line to this goal. All other actions are warped and distorted. Therefore, whoever lives without regard to this highest goal acts just like someone who shoots arrows without aiming. Or he lives like someone who commits a battleship to the waves or winds when he has disregarded the North Star or all concern for a safe haven where he ought to land.
3. The highest good has the highest dignity and excellence. It thus deserves the primary place in our thoughts and pursuits. Therefore, those who have neglected the highest good in allowing themselves to be detained in other matters are living like toddlers who, after indifferently considering the best things, occupy themselves, while surrounded with their trifles. (pp. 6-7, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames, RHB)
In the rest of Lord's Day 1, Ames addresses the questions of worldly pleasures vs. divine pleasures, joy that is the believer's in seeking the highest good, and the precious connection between the seeking after that highest good and communion and fellowship with God that thereby obtains. In short, this is full of excellent pastoral and meditative delights. I very much look forward to the coming year as I incorporate this wonderful work into my Lord's Day reading.

Friday, January 23, 2009

0 The Institutes: The Scriptures - God's Word

Chapter 8 of The Institutes is a multifaceted panegyric of God's Holy Word by our elder brother in the faith. He addresses in sections 1-4 (the reading for January 21) the pure majesty of Scripture in its antiquity and in the clear superiority of its character compared to ANY human writing. He isn't discussing here style or eloquence, or remarking about the beauty of a turn of phrase, but rather expressing the fact, clear to anyone who is able to read the Word with understanding, that its content - the truth it expresses, and the glorious revelation of God that it is - is what sets it apart from anything else ever conceived.

God's word is spoken through human agents - and the variety of their writings shows forth, so that in some places, expressions sublime ring forth with God's truth - in others, the simple words of a herdsman proclaim in a much less refined manner the glory of God. The thoughts and teachings therein, however, are above ALL human wisdom, and are without compare in all of human history. Calvin pithily expresses this in the following:
As far as Sacred Scripture is concerned, however much froward men try to gnaw at it, nevertheless it clearly is crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived. Let each of the prophets be looked into: none will be found who does not far exceed human measure. Consequently, those for whom prophetic doctrine is tasteless ought to be thought of as lacking taste buds. (p. 83, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
I very much appreciate Calvin's wit, particularly in phrases such as the above - if prophetic doctrine is tasteless to someone, then there can only be one reason. Very well put. :)

He follows this discussion in the remainder of the chapter (the reading for January 22) with several arguments to those whose hearts have been changed - who look at Scripture as God's Word, and understand it as his perfect revelation to man - these are arguments often used by some as though they were sufficient to prove Scripture to the unbeliever... arguments which Calvin denies (and I with him) are able to do so by force of logic. They are, as Calvin wrote earlier, nevertheless useful for the strengthening of the faith of the believer.

Among these are the records of miracles (his discussion of Moses's miracles and their veracity in section 6 is particularly interesting and worthwhile) and the confirmation and fulfillment of various prophecies in sections 7 and 8. These things the modern liberal scholar dismisses almost with a wave of a hand... which shows the presuppositions with which they read Scripture. The Word is FULL of fulfilled prophecies, particularly of Christ our King - but to the dead, such arguments and demonstrations fall on lifeless ears. Calvin sums up this chapter, with the following words:
There are other reasons, neither few nor weak, for which the dignity and majesty of Scripture are not only affirmed in godly hearts, but brilliantly vindicated against the wiles of its disparagers; yet of themselves these are not strong enough to provide a firm faith, until our Heavenly Father, revealing his majesty there, lifts reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy. Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known. Augustine therefore justly warns that godliness and peace of mind ought to come first if a man is to understand anything of such great matters. (p. 92, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Scripture is either accepted as God's Word a priori, or it is rejected as such, and deemed to be merely the collected words of men in a similar way. One cannot be argued from one side of this divide to the other - but may cross over only under the guidance of the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit. Attempting to prove Scripture to one who will not accept it as God's word is both foolish and bad stewardship of time... rather, time is better spent in learning and conveying the truth of God's Word in an understandable manner. Let it be so done in our churches.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

0 The Institutes: Scripture and The Duty of the Scripture Teacher

The last two sections of chapter 7 in Book I of the Institutes dwell on the Holy Spirit's indispensible role in a man's understanding of what God has spoken in Scripture - and that Scripture itself is self-authenticating - a concept which many scoff at, I am sure, but which is what one naturally comes to as he realizes, by the grace of God present with him by the Holy Spirit, that GOD Himself speaks in those words on the page.

A powerful illustration begins section 4, and I've just alluded to it. Scripture's highest proof, Calvin says, "derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it." (p. 78, Institutes of the Christian Religion) There can be NO higher proof, in fact - and in the absence of recognition of this fact, no doctrine is secure. Calvin bears witness to this by invoking the prophets and apostles, none of whom claimed a prideful stance with respect to their own intellectual prowess or abilities, but simply "bring forward God's holy name, that by it the whole world may be brought into obedience to him." (p. 78, Institutes of the Christian Religion)

My reflections today are going to be limited to this item - teachers of truth and their responsibility. It is a weighty thing those of us who teach God's word in any capacity - ANY capacity, whether it is the pastor preaching God's Word from the pulpit, or the elder/teacher instructing others in the Word through Bible Study or Sunday school. It is true even of parents instructing their children in the faith - or lay Christians instructing unbelievers in their workplace. Let Calvin's implicit teaching be heard here. One had best be careful saying "God says THIS in His Word".

Care must be taken that when we teach, we teach with humility - WE are not the originators of Holy doctrine, GOD is. When we claim that what we are teaching is the truth God has revealed in Scripture.... we'd best be certain, as far as it is possible to do so, that what we're saying is what is found there. As fallen human beings, we certainly are prone to extend or deviate from the path laid down by God in His Word - we are prone to inject our own thoughts and piously label them with God's assumed appropbation, most of the time, I suspect, unconsciously. How delicate is the job of handling God's Word so that we do not make an idol out of our own minds and perceptive abilities, and denigrate the giver of that Word.

I am sure I'm guilty of this in all settings above, and am convicted today that it must be my first priority whenever my lips are opened to speak about God's Word that I have prayerfully considered and searched the Scriptures to be sure that what I am about to say is consistent with what God has taught in the passage in question. Let the Lord's correction do its good work in those of us who teach, that His name might be glorified and moreso tomorrow than yesterday as He sanctifies our lips.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

0 The Institutes: Scripture the Ground of the Church, not Vice Versa

It seems a canard that was raised against the Reformed teaching of the primacy of Scripture, by those who were steadfastly opposed to deposing the Papal authority over all things was that the Holy Scriptures were the product of the church, and therefore that Scripture could not be used to argue against the excesses of the Papal system.

Calvin effectively argues against this "most pernicious error" in sections 1-3 of Book I, chapter 7. It is an arrogant position to take, that the church somehow, which is instituted in God's word, governed by God's word, and led by God's word, has the primacy when conflict arises between churchly practice and the plain Word of God.
When that which is set forth is acknowledged to be the Word of God, there is no one so deplorably insolent-unless devoid also both of common sense and of humanity itself-as to dare impugn the credibility of Him who speaks. (p. 74, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Yet the church who opposed Calvin and his teaching did -
But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men!
...
Again, to what mockeries of the impious is our faith subjected, into what suspicion has it fallen among all men, if we believe that it has a precarious authority dependent solely upon the good pleasure of men! (p. 75, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Rather, the apostle Paul himself speaks with great clarity in Ephesians 2:20, when he declares plainly that the church is grounded "upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles". We have no commandments outside of Scripture which declare to us how the church is to be organized, and how the authority structures within are to be arranged - how we are to worship, and what we are to be dedicated to. Of human invention are many errors - yet Scripture plainly tells us what we are to be about in the church - and has ultimate authority over the church in worship, faith and practice. Calvin continues,
But such wranglers are neatly refuted by just one word of the apostle. He testifies that the church is "built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles" [Eph. 2:20]. If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation, this must have had authority before the church began to exist. Groundless, too, is their subtle objection that, although the church took its beginning here, the writings to be attributed to the prophets and apostles nevertheless remain in doubt until decided by the church. For if the Christian church was from the beginning founded upon the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles, wherever this doctrine is found, the acceptance of it-without which the church itself would never have existed-must certainly have preceded the church. It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture. (p. 75-76, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Thank God the Scriptures undergird the church's practice, and govern all. Thank God for Paul, who wrote clearly, instructing us to search the Scriptures and study them in order to seek authenticity in a man's teaching - even his. Thanks be to God for the inestimable gift to us of His Holy Word.


Monday, January 19, 2009

2 The Institutes: The Primacy of the Gift of Scripture

Turning from his discussion of natural revelation, and its insufficiency, Calvin next takes up in Book I, Chapter 6 what became a great rallying cry of the Reformation - Sola Scriptura. God's revelation of Himself to mankind is only truly complete in His Word. In it, God speaks clearly and in a way which particularly displays His glory to us - as such, it is a glorious gift to His church, as Calvin says. Often as I pray while walking on the way to work, I am reminded of God's glory in the creation surrounding me - but also, reminded of the fact that if left to that revelation alone, none could know God truly, I find my thoughts returning to thanksgiving for His gift of His Word. He has not left His children to grasp as Plato's men in the cave, blindly imagining who God is and trying to come to some sort of image of Him. Instead, He has revealed Himself savingly to those whom He has chosen, by means of is own perfect speech. As Calvin writes,
Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips. Not only does he teach the elect to look upon a god, but also shows himself as the God upon whom they are to look. He has from the beginning maintained this plan for his church, so that besides these common proofs he also put forth his Word, which is a more direct and more certain mark whereby he is to be recognized. (p. 70, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
If left to our own minds, and our own inventions we cannot, as fallen men, do anything but build up false gods - and this is what men have done for millenia, apart from God's Holy Word. Left to ourselves, we are lost. Inevitably pride takes hold, and we invent religious conceptions that lift men up and enable us to follow after the flesh (while vainly imagining that things are right with us, not only here, but to eternity). We can, left to ourselves, only devise error.

If we wish to glorify God, then, not only must our conceptions of God and His attributes come from Scripture alone, but we must also strive to know His Word through and through - that we might most honor and glorify Him. We must
strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God. We must come, I say, to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls "unapproachable" [I Tim. 6:16], is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it. (p. 72-3, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This is one of the chiefest beauties of the Word of the Lord. Even when we are only beginning to learn, as much as when we are at the end of our lives, having devoted ourselves to the Lord's service, God's Word is sufficient food for us. We may plumb the depths of His Word for our entire lives, and never come up at a loss - it is all gain. And, as we strive to learn from Him in His Word, so long as we approach Him with submission and a humble Spirit, ready to learn and hear what He has to say - we glorify Him... even in our immaturity. Better to limp along His path, as Calvin writes, than to dash speedily on another road. May Holy Scripture be for us that guide and rule of faith and all of life that God has intended it to be. May we dedicate ourselves to its study, submit ourselves to its authority, and commit ourselves - especially those of us who are fathers and husbands - to its instruction for our families. Thanks be to God for the wonderful gift of His Word.

Friday, January 16, 2009

0 A Present Salvation

Creator and Redeemer God,
Author of all existence, source of all blessedness,
I adore thee
for making me capable of knowing thee,
for giving me reason and conscience,
for leading me to desire thee;

I praise thee
for the revelation of thyself in the gospel,
for thy heart as a dwelling place of pity,
for thy patience and thy graciousness,
for the vastness of thy mercy.

Thou hast moved my conscience to know how
the guilty can be pardoned,
the unholy sanctified,
the poor enriched.

May I be always amongst those
who not only hear but know thee,
who walk with and rejoice in thee,
who take thee at thy word and find life there.

Keep me always longing
for a present salvation in Holy Spirit comforts and rejoicings,
for spiritual graces and blessings,
for help to value my duties as well as my privileges.

May I cherish simplicity and godly sincerity of character.

Help me to be in reality before thee
as in appearance I am before men,
to be religious before I profess religion,
to leave the world before I enter the church,
to set my affections on things above,
to shun forbidden follies and vanities,
to be a dispenser as well as a partaker of grace,
to be prepared to bear evil as well as to do good.

O God, make me worthy of this calling,
that the name of Jesus may be glorified in me and I in him.

"A Present Salvation" from The Valley of Vision

Get the book at the above link, or the audio CD by Max McLean
here
(well worth it!)

1 The Institutes: Human Contrived Religion ("Peaceful" or otherwise) Condemned

In the closing sections of Book I, Chapter 5, Calvin spares little time in discrediting all religious practice that derives from human reasoning about the world and its creator. I'm sure the statements Calvin makes in these sections grates on the ears of those who are influenced by "tolerant" thinking - and of that I'm not surprised. The author clearly grounds his arguments on Scriptural grounds, and we know what Scripture says about itself and the reception of it by many.

If we accept the doctrine of the Fall, then we know that all men's eyes are blind, and ears deaf to the truth of God - and perceptions of God's works in nature are corrupted. Therefore we should readily stand with Calvin when he proclaims that all religion that is grounded on the revelation of God in nature, and on men's reasoning therefrom, is necessarily false. He writes:
Paul declares that the Ephesians were without God until they learned from the gospel what it was to worship the true God [Eph. 2:12-13]. And this must not be restricted to one people, since elsewhere he states generally that all mortals "became vain in their reasonings" [Rom. 1:21] after the majesty of the Creator had been disclosed to them in the fashioning of the universe. For this reason, Scripture, to make place for the true and only God, condemned as falsehood and lying whatever of divinity had formerly been celebrated among the heathen; nor did any divine presence remain except on Mt. Zion, where the proper knowledge of God continued to flourish [Hab. 2:18, 20]. Certainly among the pagans in Christ's lifetime the Samaritans seemed to come closest to true piety; yet we hear from Christ's mouth that they knew not what they worshiped [John 4:22]. From this it follows that they were deluded by vain error. (p. 67, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Religions abound today that are "peaceful" and "kind" to others... but even that faith that is dedicated to serving others is sin - apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ. There can be much good ethical behavior in the world, among those even who claim no god - but again it is not to be approved of, where the true and living God is not praised and submitted to as King.
It is therefore no wonder that the Holy Spirit rejects as base all cults contrived through the will of men; for in the heavenly mysteries, opinion humanly conceived, even if it does not always give birth to a great heap of errors, is nevertheless the mother of error. And though nothing more harmful may result, yet to worship an unknown god [cf. Acts 17:23] by chance is no light fault. Nevertheless, by Christ's own statement all who have not been taught from the law what god they ought to worship are guilty in this matter [John 4:22]. (p. 67, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin continues in the last two sections to argue that there is no excuse for those who have followed their own whims and created their own gods, nice though they might be. God has revealed his Holy attributes to men (Romans 1:19) and men, through their fallenness and consequent inability to see clearly that revelation, have not sought out the true and living God to worship Him aright. The fault lies not in God, nor in His common revelation in creation, but upon men themselves.

Calvin doesn't shy away from calling those who do not worship the God of Scripture as professors of a false and condemned religion. He doesn't make excuses, where there are none, for those who have not professed faith in Jesus Christ - rather, he, like Paul before him, states plainly that he who does not worship the Lord God in spirit and truth according to His Word, is standing before God unprotected from the just wrath which falls upon him for his sin. Calvin doesn't try to construct some sort of 'fairness doctrine' or plea on behalf of the one who doesn't know God, but is trying to serve humanity by being kind to everyone. I'm quite certain Calvin would be looked upon as a bigot and by some even a blasphemer for suggesting that not every religion is a true path to salvation. I'll stand with Calvin, though and together with him on the pure Word of God whose witness on this matter is clear as a bell, and thank Him for having mercy upon us so that we are led to know Jesus Christ His Son and our salvation, for we never would have aimed for or found Him on our own.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

0 The Institutes: Men Missing the Point and Missing God

Calvin has spent the better part of the first five chapters of the Institutes addressing the revelation of God and how men react to that revelation, and he continues in sections 10-12 to reiterate the purpose of God's revealing Himself to men, and the errors men are subject to when that revelation is ignored or suppressed. It's interesting to consider one of the points made in this section in light of what passes for "thoughtful contemplation" today.

We are surrounded at times by exhortations from "wellness advisers" to get outside and enjoy the outdoors for the health of it - to be well. "Take a look at the beauty of the forest and the hills, and walk in it and take it in," we are told as part of our "wellness" training. Indeed - this is good advice, so long as it doesn't stop at an appreciation for beauty.

Calvin notes the following, along these lines:
But although the Lord represents both himself and his everlasting Kingdom in the mirror of his works with very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us. For with regard to the most beautiful structure and order of the universe, how many of us are there who, when we lift up our eyes to heaven or cast them about through the various regions of earth, recall our minds to a remembrance of the Creator, and do not rather, disregarding their Author, sit idly in contemplation of his works? (p. 63, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Many are satisfied, it seems, to look at a beautiful mountain vista, and remark about how beautiful it is - but such a statement, disconnected from the recognition and praise of its Creator, is void of significance. God has created a stunning display of His creative power in the world, and indeed the universe around us. Yet, if He is missed in it all, to what real end is that getting out the door and enjoying everything? Wellness educators tell people of all spiritual walks that their experience of enjoyment of beauty is a spiritual thing - with the implicit and sometimes explicit statement appended that everyone's spiritual experience in it, whether connected with God, Allah, Vishnu, or no god at all, is equivalent, and equally promoting of "wellness".

When one's thoughts turn from the revelation God has given to all in the works of nature, to his own contemplations of things above himself, it is not surprising that myriad errors come forth from such contemplations. With no mooring, men will take that innate drive to seek something higher and turn it into the false worship of Allah, or Vishnu, or something else. There is nothing new under the sun; what occurs today has already been. Calvin remarks on the diversity of opinions and gods that have arisen from men's contemplations -
For each man's mind is like a labyrinth, so that it is no wonder that individual nations were drawn aside into various falsehoods; and not only this- but individual men, almost, had their own gods. For as rashness and superficiality are joined to ignorance and darkness, scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God. Surely, just as waters boil up from a vast, full spring, so does an immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind, while each one, in wandering about with too much license, wrongly invents this or that about God himself. However, it is not necessary here to draw up a list of the superstitions with which the world has been entangled, because there would be no end to it, and so without a word of them it is sufficiently clear from so many corruptions how horrible is the blindness of the human mind. (p. 64-65, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin is building up to a crescendo that will arrive with chapters 6 and 7 of book I - that Scripture alone is our guide, and the Holy Spirit a necessary illuminator. Scripture can tell us things about God that Creation fails to tell us - and without the Holy Spirit indwelling us and illuminating the Scripture text, we will, because of our fallen nature, misread, misapply and misunderstand what it teaches about God.

2 Published Today: William Ames' Sketch of the Christian's Catechism


It's here, and on its way to you, soon!

A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, by William Ames

Here's the blurb from heritagebooks.org:

In stock now!

Ames’s method in this book is not an analysis of the Catechism itself. Rather, he chooses a particular text of Scripture that supports the main thoughts for a given Lord’s Day. While the exposition is directly from the Bible, Ames’s doctrinal conclusions interact with the corresponding Questions and Answers of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Joel R. Beeke and Todd M. Rester’s introduction provides valuable background on Ames and his work. Rester’s fresh translation from the Latin opens several avenues of interest for modern day English readers. Historians of 16th and 17th century thought will value the critical English translation of a much neglected text, and the fact that it demonstrates the interaction between English Puritanism and the Dutch Further Reformation. Reformed pastors will also take interest in this, as it provides another important resource on a classic doctrinal standard.

Classic Reformed Theology

Ames’s Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism is the inaugural volume of the Classic Reformed Theology series, edited by Dr. R. Scott Clark. This series seeks to produce and provide critical English translations of some of the more important but generally neglected texts of the orthodox period. It is the sincere hope of the editor and the board that at least one volume shall appear annually.

We call this series Classic Reformed Theology because, by definition, a period is classical when it defines an approach to a discipline. During the period of Protestant orthodoxy, Reformed theology reached its highest degree of definition and precision. It was in this period when the most important Reformed confessions were formed, and when the Reformed churches took the form they have today.

There are at least three reasons why classic Reformed theology ought to be studied and thus why this series of critical English translations should exist. First, Reformed orthodoxy forms the intellectual background of modern theology. Second, Reformed orthodoxy merits attention by those who identify with the Reformed confessions because it is their heritage and thus shapes their theology, piety, and practice. Third, contemporary scholarship has shown that it must be regarded as a vital intellectual and spiritual movement, and thus an important subject for continued study.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

0 The Institutes: God's Lordship Expounded

After taking some time to reflect on Man's sinful rejection of God, Calvin returns to the grandeur of our Almighty God and His Sovereing Rule. At the start of section 6 of Book I, chapter 5, Calvin makes an important transition:
Let us therefore remember, whenever each of us contemplates his own nature, that there is one God who so governs all natures that he would have us look unto him, direct our faith to him, and worship and call upon him. (p. 58, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Again, Calvin is attesting to the fact of God's supremacy in all things - and turns our thoughts, as we think of our own nature, to the God who gave us our lives and rules us in every aspect of them. He's turning us to the chief end of man, "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever". His contemplations in sections 6 to 9 concern God's Sovereignty and our enjoyment of the fact of His righteous rule. Since God has revealed Himself in nature, it is the responsibility of all to seek Him out and worship Him in spirit and in truth. In creation, Calvin writes, He gives ample warning and sufficient beckoning to His creatures.

Not only does God beckon forth His creation to His worship (notice that the Psalmist proclaims that God's inanimate creations praise Him - Sun, Moon and stars, trees and mountains!) but His works of administration and providence over the affairs of men also attest to His glorious reign. In particular, His works among men that display His attributes are seen when, as Calvin writes,
His power shows itself clearly when the ferocity of the impious, in everyone's opinion unconquerable, is overcome in a moment, their arrogance vanquished, their strongest defenses destroyed, their javelins and armor shattered, their strength broken, their machinations overturned, and themselves fallen of their own weight; and when their audacity, which exalted them above heaven, lays them low even to the center of the earth; when, conversely the humble are raised up from the dust, and the needy are lifted up from the dung heap [Ps. 113:7]; the oppressed and afflicted are rescued from their extreme tribulation; the despairing are restored to good hope; the unarmed, few and weak, snatch victory from the armed, many and strong. Indeed, his wisdom manifests his excellence when he dispenses everything at the best opportunity; when he confounds all wisdom of the world [cf. I Cor. 1:20]; when "he catches the crafty in their own craftiness" [I Cor. 3:19 p.; cf. Job 5:13]. (p. 60-61, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
When God turns the tables of life over, lifting up the downcast, or toppling the haughty from their lofty heights, this is when God's Sovereignty is at center stage for us to appreciate and give praise to Him for.

In all these things, Calvin writes, we ought to be observant and expectant of opportunities for worship and praise of our God. It is not within our purview to endlessly speculate reasons, causes and mechanisms - but to come to knowledge of God through our observation, and to recognize His glory in all His works. Calvin concludes,
And here again we ought to observe that we are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart. For the Lord manifests himself by his powers, the force of which we feel within ourselves and the benefits of which we enjoy. We must therefore be much more profoundly affected by this knowledge than if we were to imagine a God of whom no perception came through to us. Consequently, we know the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence, which we ought more to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself. (p. 62-63, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
The proper response is not the inward self-gratifying reflection of the New Age seeker of God within, but the outward, God-glorfiying reflection and mediation on the good attributes of God that He has revealed to us, in His world as well as in His Word. We will find things that our feeble minds cannot penetrate - and we must be content with that. God has chosen to reveal of Himself what is necessary for our good, our edification, the building up of His church, and the glorification of His name. No more has He chosen to reveal, and no more do we need. Let us sing His praises, therefore, and call fervently upon His name in worship.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

0 The Institutes: God Rejected

Calvin continues in sections 4 and 5 of Book I, Chapter 5, to describe the suppression of the knowledge of God by men. When men discover the gifts they have, and the abilities they have been given to explore, think and study, as Calvin writes, they become prideful - and reject the very giver of those gifts as irrelevant to them. Calvin is clearly writing before mechanistic evolutionary thought gained the ascendancy, for he writes:
They will not say it is by chance that they are distinct from brute creatures. Yet they set God aside, the while using "nature," which for them is the artificer of all things, as a cloak. They see such exquisite workmanship in their individual members, from mouth and eyes even to their very toenails. Here also they substitute nature for God. (p. 55-56, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Not only today is "nature" used for "God" - but indeed the argument is that "chance" is what distinguishes men from brute creatures. No design, no purpose, no plan, but mere chance. It is no wonder that animals gain preference over human beings when push comes to shove - we are no different than dogs or worms, say today's academics, and therefore dog rights, and pig rights line right up with human rights when conflict comes about. We must be good stewards, yes - but animals do not bear the image of God.

In section 5, too, Calvin presages popular opinion of our day. He continues,
But now I have no concern with that pigsty; rather, I take to task those given to fanciful subtleties who willingly drag forth in oblique fashion that frigid statement of Aristotle both to destroy the immortality of the soul and to deprive God of his right. For, since the soul has organic faculties, they by this pretext bind the soul to the body so that it may not subsist without it, and by praising nature they suppress God's name as far as they can. Yet the powers of the soul are far from being confined to functions that serve the body. Of what concern is it to the body that you measure the heavens, gather the number of the stars, determine the magnitude of each, know what space lies between them, with what swiftness or slowness they complete their courses, how many degrees this way or that they decline? (p. 56-57, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
The soul is under question... thoughts and dreams are electrical impulses and chance reactions to various stimuli. The soul itself is denied any existence at all - and therefore, here today, gone tomorrow, is the motto. Given, in the popular view, that we are chance results of directionless evolutionary processes, we are, of course, "the tops", "the crowning glory"... there could be nothing higher, since we are the most capable animals, they say. Having dispensed with God by a presuppositional declaration, they then go on to attribute to mankind the abilities of God - judgment of right and wrong based on an arbitrary human standard, and the like. We become gods, as it were, of our own making. We become our own idols. Alas, for man! What has been wrought by that first sin!

2 The Institutes: God Plainly Revealed to All

As he opens chapter 5 of The Institutes, John Calvin notes what every five-year-old knows... that the universe was made by God, and that its beauty and awesome scale are a testament to the glory and supremacy of its maker. My children are eloquent in their praise of God's wondrous creation, and have been since they could say the words "The Lord God made it all". Why does society desire to crush the correct understanding of these mere babes, and even destroy the foundation of their hope? Pride. There is NO other explanation. Pride and the idolatry of self, and of man in community.

Calvin writes that the Lord's handiwork is evident to the most brutish of men, to the most infantile of children.
But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance. Therefore the prophet very aptly exclaims that he is "clad with light as with a garment" [Ps. 104:2 p.]. It is as if he said: Thereafter the Lord began to show himself in the visible splendor of his apparel, ever since in the creation of the universe he brought forth those insignia whereby he shows his glory to us, whenever and wherever we cast our gaze.
...
Even the common folk and the most untutored, who have been taught only by the aid of the eyes, cannot be unaware of the excellence of divine art, for it reveals itself in this innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host. It is, accordingly, clear that there is no one to whom the Lord does not abundantly show his wisdom. (p. 52-53, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Furthermore, as Calvin notes, the human body - the gloriously complex and gifted body that God has given each of us - is the most clear witness of the power, wisdom and goodness of God.
The child at his mother's breast, Calvin writes, is the most eloquent of speakers of praise of God. As I watched with tear-filled eyes (tears of joy and praise of God Almighty) my youngest daughter, sick with a nasty cold, cuddled up on my wife's belly, nursing away for comfort and nourishment, I saw what Calvin notes - eloquent praise of the Lord for his perfect provision of a child's needs. Naomi knows what we must; God in Heaven is our hope, and His providential care of His children is a gracious gift.

Yet we, in our "wisdom" have decided that we know best, and that the creation cannot give evidence to His hand being in its fashioning from nothing. It is a pitiable loss, and a testament to the magnitude of man's arrogance - a danger to the souls of children as they are taught, virtually from the get-go, that God must be removed from sight and smushed into the recesses of the church corner, back behind the last pew, there to be "clung to" by the ignorant masses. What a pathetic state of affairs this is.

Monday, January 12, 2009

0 The Law, as God's Standard of Righteousness which Shows us our Wretchedness

In chapter four of “A Life of Justification Opened”, John Brown of Wamphray expounds the classic understanding of one of the functions of the Law – to show us clearly our sin and leave us with no ground for trusting in anything we have done as a means to our salvation. He heads this chapter with the subtitle, ”Justification is so contrived, in the Gospel, as man may be abased, and have no ground of boasting.”

As a means of laying down this thesis, Brown begins by talking about the Lord’s means of bringing people to a state of justification. He writes,
The Lord’s ordinary and usual method, in bringing his chosen ones into a justified state, is first to convince them of their sin and misery, by setting home the Law, and awakening their consciences… (p. 22, John Brown of Wamphray, ‘A Life of Justification Opened’)
If the Law doesn’t act to convict – then I don’t know how one can come to any true understanding of himself (and, corollary to this, of God). We see the attitude of ‘self-worth’ whenever George Barna makes his polls of the American public, and even worse, the American church-going public, embodied in such statements as ‘I’m not an evil person – I’ve never murdered anyone!’ and ‘Most people are basically good at heart – they don’t have any evil orientation’ that come out repeatedly in such studies. People with this kind of attitude truly don’t understand what is expected of them, and what standard they should truly be paying attention to.

But when a person comes face-to-face with God’s demands, he must own up to the truth… Brown writes that it is at this point that
…the man is made to renounce all his former grounds of hope, and confidence, all his former duties, good works, civility, negative holiness, and whatever else he placed his confidence in formerly; yea all his righteousness are as filthy rags, and accounted as loss and dung. So that he hath nothing within himself, as a righteousness, that he can expect to be justified by, before God… (p. 22, John Brown of Wamphray, ‘A Life of Justification Opened’)
Again, without the Law serving the function of showing us who we are before God, we are extremely apt to hold ourselves as righteous, acceptable, ‘basically good’. Quite probably, I’ve been overly generous with ‘we are extremely apt to’. More accurate might be ‘we undoubtedly will’. The Fall has twisted and ruined our self-perception in such a way to make us ready to justify ourselves based on a standard we know that we can achieve. We know that acceptance before God is something we must have (or we perish), and therefore we make up a standard that is achievable, so that our wounded consciences are eased. This, however, puts God in a place of dishonor, and removes Him from His appropriate seat of judgment and Sovereign headship over all men.

As contrasted to this man-centered approach, God's way of justification, Brown writes,
…is so contrived, and the awakened man (whom God is about to justify) is now convinced of it, that man must be abased; for he is now able to see, that he is empty and poor, and hath nothing to commend him to God, no righteousness of his own to produce; nothing within him, or without him, except the alone righteousness of Christ the Mediator and Cautioner, that can stand him in stead; nothing of his own must here come in reckoning, neither alone, nor in conjunction with the righteousness of Christ; for what is of grace, must not be of works, otherwise grace is no more grace Romans 11: 6. (pp. 22-23, John Brown of Wamphray, ‘A Life of Justification Opened’)
It seems clear that part of the reason some reject the teaching of the necessity of God’s imputing both Christ’s obedience to the precepts of the Law AS WELL as his so-called ‘passive obedience’ to the ceremonial Law of atonement is that their view of the Law’s demands on the individual is low indeed. If one believes that full obedience to God’s Law in exhaustive detail as never required of any, then one needn’t have Christ’s obedience in that sense attributed to him. One can then, in this view, pass the standard required by some sort of ‘evangelical obedience’, or by the acceptance by God of sincere intention to obey and submit as a righteousness of a sort.

This isn’t the way the Law has historically been understood by the Reformed church, as Brown expounds the doctrine here. One of the clear functions of the Law, as described by the Apostle Paul, is to drive the individual away from reliance upon self, and a sense of worthiness to a truer sense of who he is before God – one who has no claim to righteousness in himself, and no means of restoration but grace.

0 The Institutes: Striving to be Wise, They Made Fools of Themselves

In the fourth chapter of book I of the Institutes, Calvin takes on the corruption of the knowledge of God that arises in men as a result of their sinful condition after the Fall. One line of thought in this chapter that's quite interesting to follow is the fact that as finite beings, we fail in our conception of God when we try to package God in a way that fits neatly into our own imaginations. When we thus limit God in this way, demanding our ability to comprehend Him fully, we inevitably fashion a god of our own creation, an idol. Calvin writes,
Indeed, vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations. They do not therefore apprehend God as he offers himself, but imagine him as they have fashioned him in their own presumption. When this gulf opens, in whatever direction they move their feet, they cannot but plunge headlong into ruin. (p. 48-49, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
"By the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity". Today, this is rampant - we want God to act in a way that is consistent with modern sensibilities, or perhaps as one who is limited in his nature in a way like us. We make God out to be someone who shares our frailties, for whatever reason. Others, for example, who are unwilling to allow God to transcend our ability to neatly explain His character, and are unwilling to simply let Scripture speak for itself (e.g. those who refuse to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity) thereby create a god of their own construction.
Indeed, whatever they afterward attempt by way of worship or service of God, they cannot bring as tribute to him, for they are worshiping not God but a figment and a dream of their own heart. Paul eloquently notes this wickedness: "Striving to be wise, they make fools of themselves" [Rom. 1:22 p.]. He had said before that "they became futile in their thinking" [Rom. 1:21]. (p. 48, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This is exceedingly dangerous - and must be with pleading and concern for the soul withstood in our friends. Calvin warns, in section 3 of chapter 4, that fashioning God according to our own whim is strictly forbidden.
For they think that any zeal for religion, however preposterous, is sufficient. But they do not realize that true religion ought to be conformed to God's will as to a universal rule; that God ever remains like himself, and is not a specter or phantasm to be transformed according to anyone's whim. (p. 49, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Zeal ill placed is not worthy of praise, but worthy of deep concern for the souls of those so zealous. When we fail to let Scripture speak for itself, and tell us exactly who God is in exhaustive detail, in such a way as we are able to comprehend Him fully, we have molded our own god for ourselves. Mysteries like the Trinity, and the hypostatic union are essential doctrines - they reflect what God has revealed of Himself in Holy Scripture - and they will not be completely understandable. The fact of one God, three persons, and that of one person, two natures, fail to fit into our measly brains - and we must be content with this fact, and not demand to be able to mathematically fit God into a functional form that is completely comprehensible. Such a demand is evidence, I think, of a lack of submissive attitude and an unwillingness to fully bend the knee to God.

It is easy to point out errors like this, and label them as such - but let us always strive, for our own understanding of God, to subject ourselves FULLY to the rule of Scripture. May we repent of our erroneous human constructions and let God speak for Himself. He has revealed Himself perfectly in the infallible Word - and where there are things too lofty for us to fully understand, may we always be willing to bow before Him, and leave it at that.




Saturday, January 10, 2009

0 The Institutes: The Knowledge of God and its Suppression

Calvin's third chapter of the first book of the Institutes takes an interesting turn - toward the natural knowledge of God that all have, even in the face of the Fall. The Apostle Paul tells us quite clearly in Romans, chapter 1, that all men have an innate understanding that there is a God - whether it is admitted by them or not. Calvin firmly affirms this truth, and two natural corollaries - that religion is no arbitrary invention of men, and that actual godlessness is an imposibility.

All people have some form of religious belief: Calvin notes,
Yet there is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God. And they who in other aspects of life seem least to differ from brutes still continue to retain some seed of religion. So deeply does the common conception occupy the minds of all, so tenaciously does it inhere in the hearts of all! (p. 44, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
When one reaches an extreme level of entrenchment in man-centeredness and sin, one throws off the natural understanding that there is in fact a God entirely and claims atheism. It is easy for people like Richard Dawkins and other atheistic secularists to maintain the non-existence of God, while they have life and breath. One well-known scientist, who maintains a weekly email list of science news updates, wrote:

1. JESUS: EARTH IS RIVEN BY CONTINUOUS RELIGIOUS WARS.

WN promised to contrast Jesus of Nazareth with Isaac Newton, who came along 16 centuries later. What was I thinking? A third of the all the people on Earth count themselves as followers of Jesus. Do I need 2.2 billion people mad at me? They believe Jesus, an itinerant Galilean preacher and healer, to be the divine Son of God. All that's known about him comes from the four gospels. The earliest copies are in Greek and, according to biblical scholar Bart Ehrman in "Misquoting Jesus" (Harper, 2005) they contain a multitude of mistakes and intentional alterations by earlier translators. In 585BC, long before Jesus, the Greek philosopher Thales of Mellitus concluded that every observable effect must have a physical cause. The discovery of causality is now taken to mark the birth of science, and Thales is immortalized as its father. But causality also means the death of superstition. What went on in the 1600 years between Jesus and Newton? It was the Middle Ages; religious superstition was the dominant belief. (What's New by Bob Park, January 9, 2009)
I finally unsubscribed from this guy's list this week, after years of insults tossed at believing scientists. He will have much to answer for when he faces God, finally; that is, unless he comes to his senses and realizes that he owes God all, and repents. I pray for this man to come to repentance and faith - but as for now, I can't any longer listen to his rotten bile and rancor. He has deeply suppressed that knowledge of God which he was born with - and this kind of evil ranting is what one obtains when that knowledge is so deeply suppressed and twisted.

I wonder, though, how many claimed atheists truly, if given the opportunity for reflection at the end of their lives, remain firm and steadfast in their rebellion. How many find that there are stirrings of angst and concern that they might be wrong in their arrogance? I'm not sure we'll know. Certainly those who steadfastly maintain their atheism aren't going to be willing to admit their fears when faced with grave illness or when sitting alone at night. I should simply be content to let sleeping dogs lie, and not peer into what I'll never have access to - their own private thoughts.

Friday, January 09, 2009

4 Ungodliness in the Church and the Role of the Elder: Autonomous Sheep or A Cared-for, Led and Guided Flock?

Rev. Bud Powell, over at Basket of Figs, posted a wonderful reflection last night on the Christian life. One cannot go too far in the evangelical world without encountering the opinion that those in leadership in the church shouldn't pry too far into their lives, and be too strict about expectations vis a vis holiness and godliness of the Body. This is completely contrary to the Biblical witness, as evidenced in passages such as Titus 2:11-12, for starters. Rev. Powell writes,
So, why would those who talk of grace lie to one another? Why would they lie about their ministers and elders? Why would they thumb their noses at the judicatories of the church? Why would they say, "Lord, Lord," and do not the things that Jesus said?

Must the minister apologize to his congregation for teaching them what the Scriptures say about esteeming highly those who are over them; a text that specifically applies to the officers of the church who are to admonish the unruly? [1Thess. 5:12-14] "Are over" means to have rule, to preside, to administer. The Lord Jesus has prescribed a government and order to His church. Must he be sorry that is written in the Scripture and apologize for it? Must parents apologize to their children because the Scripture says, "Honor your Father and your Mother?" Does the Scripture and grace teach us to hate our parents and spurn them even unto their deaths? To defy and slander those who try to obey this order? Even worse, are we to be abettors of those who live unruly lives?
The attitude in question here is classic autonomy - I am who I am, and I can do what I want to, and whatever happens it's between me and God.

The fact of the matter is, though, for the sheep in the flock of God, it's truly NOT just between "me and God". The elders of the flock are given for instruction, rebuke and correction - they are humbly to undertake these tasks of service to their Lord, and will be held accountable for those Christ has entrusted to them as His undershepherds. Sin and ungodliness among the flock are every bit part of the elders' concern. We are not a church made up of autonomous individuals, walking roughly parallel paths toward eternity - but the flock of God, following Christ our shepherd by means of the elders, His flock's caretakers. Sin is between us and God, indeed - but it is also between us and our elders.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

0 Conference at WSC, January 16/17 - Calvin's Legacy: Reforming the Church Today


This is an event, if you're in the area and can attend, that will pay you back double for what it costs for you to attend. From the Westminster Seminary California webpage, here is the description:
2009 is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Since 1509, John Calvin has been one of the most influential and insightful figures in the history of the church. He was a man of effective action and profound thought. But Calvin’s significance is not limited to the past. His reforming work and biblical teaching are arguably more needed today than they were in the sixteenth century. Vital reforms which he championed are being abandoned in the life and doctrine of many churches in our time. Our conference will examine the ways in which John Calvin’s life and theology can help the church of the twenty-first century rediscover the biblical path of faithfulness and fruitfulness.
For those (like me) unable to attend, Dr. R. Scott Clark will be live blogging the conference, at this location:

Live blog of Calvin's Legacy Conference, January 16-17

links, etc., will also be posted at the Heidelblog.

0 The Institutes: The Essence of Pietas

Calvin himself calls his work not a summa theologiae but a summa pietatis. This distinction is significant - for Calvin, piety, in its best sense should characterize the life of the Christian in everything. Love, honor, and reverence for the true and living God - this is what Calvin calls piety, and in chapter 2 of the Institutes, he argues that true piety is a prerequisite for a true knowledge of God - for how can one know who God is and understand His revelation of Himself in His Word without first humbling himself and laying all before God?

As Calvin begins, he gives an important caveat - the knowledge of God he's talking about he limits in this way:
Here I do not yet touch upon the sort of knowledge with which men, in themselves lost and accursed, apprehend God the Redeemer in Christ the Mediator; but I speak only of the primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright. In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation, or favorable in any way, until Christ the Mediator comes forward to reconcile him to us. (p. 40, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This first book involves God as Creator - not as Redeemer, which he'll take up in book 2 (or 2-4, really).

He next discusses the connection of knowledge of God with that trust and reverence that characterizes piety. True knowledge of God, Calvin writes,
serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account. For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him?-that whatever you undertake, whatever you do, ought to be ascribed to him? If this be so, it now assuredly follows that your life is wickedly corrupt unless it be disposed to his service, seeing that his will ought for us to be the law by which we live. Again, you cannot behold him clearly unless you acknowledge him to be the fountainhead and source of every good. From this too would arise the desire to cleave to him and trust in him, but for the fact that man's depravity seduces his mind from rightly seeking him. (p. 42, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin is very clear here and elsewhere to note that the Fall of Adam wrecked our nature in such a way that seeking God in Spirit and Truth is impossible. Knowledge in a true sense accompanies love and reverence for God - and ultimately that, as Calvin writes, is ours only if we are in Christ, and our hearts of stone replaced by hearts of flesh. With love and reverence for God comes the willingness to submit fully to God's own revelation of Himself as defining who God is. I suspect Calvin's day wasn't so different than ours - that is, many people said, if not in so many words, "my God isn't like that" when faced with a difficult doctrine concerning God and His works (e.g. election, the doctrine of Hell, God's ordaining evil acts of men, etc). But if we are truly reverent - truly trusting in Him for all things, then will we construct a god of our own liking? Or, would we submit to His Word and what He says about Himself in it?

A pious mind, Calvin writes, seeks to know God and His will only as He has revealed Himself - for to construct false notions of God is an act of distrust - an act of irreverence. Finally, to add a comment concerning a definition of piety that is contained in a footnote, and not the text of the 1559 Institutes - Calvin in 1937 wrote:
The gist of true piety does not consist in a fear which would gladly flee the judgment of God, but ... rather in a pure and true zeal which loves God altogether as Father, and reveres him truly as lord, embraces his justice and dreads to offend him more than to die. (p. 40, footnote 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
May this definition of piety characterize us -

0 Another Pebble En Route Tossed at the Doctrine of Justification

N.T. Wright has another book coming this spring (expected in June) attacking the Biblical doctrine of Justification. Check out this post from the Reformation Theology Blog, and Scott Clark's note concerning who's endorsing this book.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

0 Not To Be Missed: The Sum of Saving Knowledge

For a sound summary of the doctrine of salvation, take a look at David Dickson's wonderful work, entitled

THE

SUM OF SAVING KNOWLEDGE:

OR,

A BRIEF SUM OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE,

CONTAINED IN

THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, AND HOLDEN FORTH IN THE
WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH
AND CATECHISMS;

TOGETHER WITH

THE PRACTICAL USE THEREOF,


available here.

1 The Institutes: Want to Know Yourself? Know God!

At the beginning of Calvin's Institutes I am always struck by what I find to be a most useful summary of "wisdom":
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (p. 35, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This statement and the accompanying chapter lay out a very important foundation for our pursuit of any wisdom at all - in this brief chapter, Calvin lays out the bare facts of life - that one cannot possibly know God without obtaining true knowledge of our frailty; and that one cannot truly know onesself until he knows the power and majesty of God. This seemingly circular argument is neverthless flawless - and ultimately is undergirded by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, which is required for either of these true conceptions to come to us.

In section 1.1, Calvin writes that we cannot, without understanding the weakness and impotence of ourselves, lift our eyes out of the muck in which we live. If we are enabled to examine ourselves in any light at all, our thoughts upon reflecting on the facts of our existence will necessarily rise above ourselves... though this requires us to get out of our natural pridefulness and man-centeredness. We must be discontented with our state, or we won't look.
Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and-what is more-depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. (p. 36-7, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Isn't this evident, today? We see millions of self-impressed individuals, looking after man's achievements, and man's self-perfectability - man's thoughts and man's dreams are seen as paramount... and this because we cannot be bothered to consider our REAL state.

In section 2, Calvin turns the other side of the card... we cannot know ourselves without knowledge of God. He writes,
Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself5 unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy -this pride is innate in all of us-unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured. For, because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure-so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. (p. 37-38, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
One is truly ignorant of self-knowledge without knowledge of the almighty God - for if our thoughts never ascend upward, will we not be doomed to live with our eyes trained on things below, with excessive delusions of human grandeur? Our world is full of those satisfied with ethics derived from humanistic considerations, as though they are on good ethical ground in their systems that fail to reference God almighty "I am a good person" is the motto of the day - but this cannot last when brought face to face with God Himself. Calvin is rather pointed on this subject, writing
As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power-the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God. (p. 38, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Finally in section 3, Calvin addresses the impact of this vision of God upon a man. When even the most holy of men encounters the living God, there is but one reaction... awestruck amazement and self-abasement. Holy fear. This Calvin illustrates by his examples of Job, Abraham and Ezekiel (and I would add, Isaiah), who fell down on their faces, literally or figuratively, when encountered by God Himself. I fail to understand how today's "buddy-buddy god" has taken the place of Jehovah God, the God of all power and might, holy and awesome. That those who content themselves with this view of God can consider their view "humble" is far beyond me. How any can claim humility and a true knowledge of self if God is not known as absolutely Holy and Sovereign is something I cannot grasp. It is inconsistent with the examples of our most holy elder brothers in the faith, and with the Biblical picture of who we are and who God is.

In the next chapter, Calvin takes up the subject of knowing God - what is that knowledge, and what is its purpose.
 

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