Posts Tagged ‘Calvin’

Hilary on Scripture and Theology

January 6, 2010

Hilary of Poitiers was one of John Calvin’s favourite theologians. Writing in Latin in the 4th Century, he gave a remarkably lucid and clear account of the doctrine of the Trinity in “On the Trinity” (356-360).  Discussing the question of religious language and how we can even begin to describe God, he writes that we must not hesitate to affirm that which God has made known about himself in Scripture. We must believe what God says about himself, and our theology must come from Scripture. But we should not twist Scripture or take it out of context (what was later called “proof-texting”) – for doing so is easily deceitful. Instead, we must pay careful attention to the context and circumstances of the texts we quote. There is a need for careful exegesis in the move from biblical studies to systematic theology. It’s easy to see why Calvin found him so helpful:

“We must believe God when he speaks about himself and we must not resist those truths which he has revealed to us for our understanding. We must either deny Him after the manner of the heathens if we reject His proofs or, if we believe Him to be God as He is, then we cannot have any other concept of Him than that which He has revealed about Himself. Let there be an end, therefore, to the personal opinions of men, and do not allow our human judgement to trespass upon the order established by God! For this reason we pursue the godless and impious teachings about God by the very same texts of the divine words, and we shall base everything on the testimony of Him who is the subject of our investigation, and shall not attempt to deceive or to mislead our unlearned listeners by merely citing some quotations from the texts without explaining all the attendant circumstances. The understanding of the words is to be deduced from the reasons why they were spoken, because the words are subordinated to the event, not the event to the words (non sermoni res, sed rei sermo subjectus est). But we shall examine everything, while at the same time we shall explain the reasons why they were said and the meaning of the words.”
On the Trinity, 4.14

What’s your C-factor? (Calvinism!)

July 11, 2009

Quiz here. This is a fairly lighthearted and unscientific quiz that covers not only the theological distinctives of Calvinism, but also attitudes to work, society and relationships. I got 81% Calvinist overall, with 100% in the “Beliefs” category, which sounds about right. I once came extremely close to ordering a T-Shirt from the web that read “Servetus had it coming” so clearly I’m too Calvinist for my own good…

(I don’t really!)

In fact, I found this quiz thanks to an article on BBC News: “Economic crisis boosts Dutch Calvinism”. Unfortunately, unlike the quiz which is actually pretty good at showing that the social and cultural aspects of Calvinism stem from the theology – i.e. taking the Bible seriously – the impression you get from the BBC article is that Calvinism is only about “hard work and frugality”.

Does Calvin espouse hard work and frugality? Well, yes, but in the context of “Christian liberty” as a response to grace:

“Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God, permitted, not destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the means are presented to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with the present, and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God purely with a pure conscience … to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, “therewith to be content,” to know “both how to be abased,” and “how to abound,” “to be full and hungry, both to abound and suffer need” (Phil 4:11).
Institutes III:19.9

Calvin urges moderation in the enjoyment of the gifts God has given – knowing both that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1Timothy 4:4) but that immoderate use of created things can quickly become spiritually distracting or even idolatrous. To “wallow in luxury” keeps our attention on the present, feeds a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, and teaches us to ignore God.

But Calvin would have recoiled in horror from the idea that economic and social moderation is virtuous outside of its connection with Christ. Calvin’s motive for enjoining moderation and Christian liberty is to encourage Christians to glorify God in their living by enjoying His gifts without letting them eclipse Him. It is not even hard work done to merit salvation, but freedom given by salvation by grace to live for the glory of God. The motive is also (contra the BBC article) not political or to encourage hard work for hard work’s sake; it is theological, theocentric, God-exalting living completely informed by the unearned grace he has described only a few paragraphs earlier:

“…the law … leaves not one man righteous [and so] we are either excluded from all hope of justification, or we must be loosed from the law, and so loosed as that no account at all shall be taken of works… Therefore laying aside all mention of the law, and all idea of works, we must in the matter of justification have recourse to the mercy of God only; turning away our regard from ourselves, we must look only to Christ. For the question is, not how we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be regarded as righteous … when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God, as to the answer it could give, the confidence it would feel, if brought to his judgement seat, in such a case the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness.
Institutes, III:19.2 (emphasis mine)

If that excerpt had you nodding along in agreement, or even punching the air and saying “Amen!”, then you’re well on the way to being a Calvinist, no matter what you got on the quiz!

Seeing as I’ve stolen a cartoon from them, this is also worth a read: “Why I am a Calvinist” by C. Matthew McMahon.

Ascension Day

May 21, 2009

“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.””
Acts 1:6-11

There are two great reasons for Christians to remember the ascension. The first is to remind ourselves that Jesus is coming back: just as certainly as he has ascended to heaven, so he will certainly return. This world is not all there is, or all there will ever be, and it is in this wider perspective that we are to set our lives as Christians. Paul sees this as a tremendously encouraging truth for Christians: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1Thess 5:9-11) .

The second is to remind ourselves of the mission given to the church – to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in all the world (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ disciples were to understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not the political, ethnic and geographic one they were expecting, but one that is not of this world (John 18:36) and which is to be proclaimed “to the ends of the earth”. Calvin commented on the disciple’s question in 1:6, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” that “there are as many errors in this question as there are words” and it remains a telling and valid point! It seems the disciples still need to be told that Jesus’ kingdom is not the materialistic worldly kind; but something much different and much better. The expansion of this Kingdom requires, however, that the disciples go from Jerusalem, outwards in the concentric circles the Book of Acts is structured around, to the ends of the earth. Their task remains the task of every generation of Christians since them – to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to all the world; bringing people into Jesus’ Kingdom, which will be fully revealed and realised at his return.

The Ascension reminds us of both of these elements of the Christian life, which is why celebrating Ascension Day is such a good idea (even if, like me, you’re not an Anglican!)

Some more thoughts on Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman

May 6, 2009

Having handed in my exegetical study last week, I’ve had a few thoughts on the implications of Matthew 15:21-28 for us. I think a good starting point is from the exegetical observation that Matthew’s primary accent or concern in his presentation of this episode is salvation-historical; that is, with reference to Jesus’ consciousness of a mission (primarily) to ethnic Israel before Easter (c.f. Matthew 10:5); only after which does a mission to the nations (i.e. non-Jews) become explicitly commanded (c.f. Matthew 28:16-20). In other words, Matthew agrees with Paul’s dictum in Romans that salvation is “first for the Jew, then the Gentile” – and thus the exorcism of the Gentile woman’s daughter in this passage is, as Calvin noted, a prelude to the situation after Easter. (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, 2:116)

Taking this as the primary concern of the passage, we run into the problem in seeking out the implications for us today that we exist in a predominantly Gentile church, where the “grafting in” of the nations to the people of God (to use Paul’s metaphor) is taken for granted. There is no perception of shock or impropriety for us in this, as in this passage (15:26!). So how would we preach from this passage? We are left only the (subsidiary!) point the passage makes about faith.

Ulrich Luz makes a (helpful, I think!) suggestion in his commentary on Matthew:

“In a situation in which the gentile church was solidly established and Jewish Christianity had practically disappeared, the salvation-history interpretation of our text no longer demonstrated bthe power of God’s love that bursts the borders of Israel; it almost exclusively justified the legitimacy of the church’s status quo in history. It no longer opened new doors; it merely injured the Jews who were not present in the church. What might a new “salvation-history” interpretation that preserves something of the explosive power of the old text look like today? The text might receive new power, for example, ecumenically explosive power, if an interpreting church community were ready to identify with the Pharisees and scribes from whose territory Jesus withdrew, rather than with the Canaanite woman or her daughter as is usually done…”
(Matthew 8-20 [Hermeneia], p.341)

It’s an idea that is both intriguing and pregnant, and subversive/offensive, that we as modern Gentile Christians might have more in common with the Pharisees than we do with the woman in this text. But perhaps we do, if we are too satisfied with largely middle-class churches who do mission to largely middle-class communities. Preaching from this text should remind us again of our responsibility to take the gospel to all people – both people of all nations, and people of all social groups (perhaps Marx and Engels were onto something with the suggestion that, in the modern world, class divides more deeply than nationality? – that’s quite a rare intellectual tradition for me to agree with!) It should also remind us of grace – for in actual fact we shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as more like the Pharisees if we realise that we are actually recipients of undeserved and unmerited grace; like the woman in the text. Realisation of God’s surprising and sovereign grace in the justification of the ungodly should remind us of just why we can and should proclaim the gospel beyond our social boundaries and comfort zone – because if nobody earns God’s grace then everybody should hear the gospel. If we’ve lost sight of the shock this passage presents to conventional religious wisdom then maybe it is time to start reading it with ourselves as the Pharisees, if only to remind us of God’s powerful love and refusal to constrain it to the social or ethnic boundaries we try and impose on it.

Creationism: All Luther and Calvin’s fault?

April 10, 2009

I managed to catch “Did Darwin Kill God” on iPlayer before it disappeared into the digital ether.  One of the members of staff in the Theology Department at Nottingham, Conor Cunningham, presented perhaps the most interesting (to me!) parts of the BBC’s Darwin season. Essentially, Cunningham was arguing for the “no conflict” position – belief in some form of evolution is compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, the programme shared remarkable affinity with the argument of the evangelical scientist Denis Alexander’s recent book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?, both even quoting Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. What was especially interesting was how modern the Young-Earth Creationist position is.

However, one thing that stuck out as odd in the programme was how Conor Cunningham introduced the idiosyncratic views of Bishop Ussher with a sideswipe at Protestantism:

“The Reformation saw some Christians reject the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, embracing instead the Bible as the sole source of authority. Scripture, not the Pope, was now their master. The decision of Luther and Calvin to question Papal authority opened the floodgates for anyone to read the Bible as they wished.”

To be sure, Protestantism’s sola Scriptura has been at least partly responsible for its “genius for fission” (A.E. McGrath) and denominalization. But I doubt either Luther or Calvin would recognize themselves in the description as encouragers of “anyone reading the Bible as they wished”. Such a way of phrasing it implies that the authority lies with the interpreter, not with the Bible. But for Luther and his followers, “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura ipsius interpres) and questions of interpretation cannot be resolved by an authority above the Bible (since no such authority exists) but by the Bible itself, as J.I. Packer argues:

“Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance… The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others.”

With an issue like Evolution and Genesis 1-2, different interpretations are bound to arise – but the Reformers would insist that any proffered interpretation be subject to the authority of the Bible, and weighed on its intrinsic merits – including its plausibility (“Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by plain reason… I cannot and will not recant” – Luther). This is completely different to the idea that sola Scriptura and private interpretation amount to letting anyone make the Bible say just what they want it to say. Private interpretation of the text does not mean that the reader gets to interpret the Bible however they wish, but that they are to seek out the true meaning whether they like it or not. (In fact, it may well be that the Roman Catholic approach of resolving differences of interpretation by an authoritative judgement by the Church’s magisterial authority is more vulnerable to an accusation of placing the interpreter above the Bible)

Perhaps the problem is that so much of Protestantism believes the myth that private interpretation means exactly what Cunningham suggests it does – and so in practice actually reject the authority not only of the Pope but also of the Bible – the classic error of liberalism.