Friday, September 27, 2013

How Calvin and His Institutes Help Us Understand the Authority of Scripture

Louis Berkhoff in his classical work “Systematic Theology” remarks at the outset of the first chapter that as theologians, “We start the study of theology with two presuppositions, namely (1) that God exists, and (2) that He has revealed Himself in His divine Word.”  He goes on to say that “We can turn to His revelation, in order to learn what He has revealed concerning Himself and concerning His relation to His creation.”[i]  These two statements together form the basis for considering John Calvin’s view on the authority of Scripture as understood in his work “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”[ii]

This blog post will not be a complete overview of Calvin’s  ‘staircase of ideas’[iii] concerning the subject but rather it will seek to deal exclusively with his theology as propounded specifically in the first nine (9) chapters.  To understand Calvin’s view of scripture is to first understand his cosmological view on the existence of God as expressed in what we see in the created order[iv], creation and God’s created being (Humans.)   John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him” (NJKV) will serve as the backdrop to frame Calvin’s position.  How do these two ideas (Calvin’s epistemology and the life of Jesus) fit together to frame Calvin’s conviction on the authority of scripture?  How can we understand its importance in our current context?

 1.    The Created Order

The foundational necessity of the Institutes[v] and Calvin’s reasons for writing speak to us of the nature of the created order as essential (However, not clearly defined as such) in Calvin’s theology.   His address to King Francis I detailed the life of certain of his French countrymen who were ‘hungering’ and ‘thirsting’ after Christ but remained under the persecution of the Roman Church.  His epistle was meant to highlight the various aspects of this persecution as it affected these men and women not just in a religious sense, but socioeconomically as well.  His letter is not a lament.  It is not a statement of defeat and a plea for the King to intervene necessarily, but it is an appeal to the King’s conscience.

Calvin’s letter is to show that the sufficiency of God’s word is under girded by the sufficiency of His faithfulness to stand by His word.  It is an admonition for the King to be cognizant of both the wickedness of the persecutors (In that these antagonists led these reformers about as ‘laughingstocks’ and submitted them to savage torture of the acutest kind… Beatings, burnings, scourging, etc.,) but it is also reinforces the meta narrative received from the scriptures that clearly depict God as providential in the lives of men. It is obvious from the following statement that the scriptures were important in informing Calvin’s view on life and godliness;

Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one could add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of His wisdom, yet a person who has not much practiced in it has good reason for some guidance and direction, to know what he ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing to the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him. [vi]

The description of the scriptures is hard to miss.  A ‘perfect doctrine’ is not shy language.  Only a perfect doctrine, that needs no addition, can suffice to guide Calvin (Who has a very high view of God) and his reformed brethren in their everyday struggle against an oppressive enemy. 

This perfect doctrine not only suffices to inform Calvin’s life, but remains the doctrine that will keep a man on a ‘sure path’ if he is indeed called and if he received the proper guidance from it.  These ‘infinite treasures’ of wisdom are what we see guiding Calvin. These treasures stand as the bulwark from which a persecuted Christian people can receive strength and encouragement during their pilgrimage in what amounts to be a hostile world. 

Calvin’s definitive statement, “Since we must first recognize that all truth and sound doctrine proceed from God...” (pg. 7) is reminiscent of the words of Jesus Christ to Satan (When the Christ was being tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread) in Mathew 4:4 “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” because in the context of Calvin’s writing, his temptation and that of his brethren were in a context of hunger and deprivation.  The created order and the unkind world around them suffered not simply from a lack of propriety towards them, but were actively bent on destroying them. 

Jesus Himself expounds the basis for this (Meaning the world’s hatred towards His disciples) in John 15:18 and also Mathew 10:22.  Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, not only created man (John 1:3) but as the transcendent God who also penetrated our time space continuum, Jesus also knew man…”But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.” (John 2:24-25 NKJV)  Being that Christ was ‘tempted at all points’ (Assuredly from birth to death) and because He was ‘in the world’ He understood how men strive and how his disciples would be tempted.  He set a framework of gospel discernment against the created order[vii] and commanded allegiance to Him for redeemed man's salvation and perseverance sake. 

The manner in which Christ described man, and therefore the manner in which man is, tells us of the validity of scripture.  Consider what Calvin says,

When Paul wished all prophecy to be made to accord with the analogy of faith, he set forth a very clear rule to test all interpretation of Scripture.  Now, if our interpretation be measured by this rule of faith, victory is in our hands.  For what is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God?  That we are empty of all good, to be filled by him? That we are slaves of sin, to be freed by Him?  Blind, to be illumined by Him?  Lame, to be made straight by Him?  Weak, to be sustained by Him?[viii]

By virtue of Calvin’s statement, one would be led to believe that Calvin had reason to trust and believe that no amount of material provision added to his or his colleague’s subsistence would have prevailed against the longing in their souls for the reprieve from sin.  From a cosmological perspective, this is what Calvin was experiencing.  And in a broader sense, this is what Jesus encountered in the flesh which was a created order that was sufficiently described in Scripture (Although providentially governed) as sinful and ‘exceedingly wicked.’

This created order  can be fairly assessed by either a cursory glance at human interaction and/or through careful observation into the annals of history (Biblical and Non-biblical) and particularly by Calvin through the personal and interpersonal experiential knowledge of the cruelty and wickedness of man as evidenced by his struggle with his enemies.  The fact that the Scriptures are so adequate in describing the nature of man, strike for Calvin, the proper cord to believe in the authority of them.

 2.    Creation
Calvin expressed this concerning God in creation,

Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed Himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.  As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see Him.  Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence his divineness far escapes all human perception.  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.[ix]

This statement also serves as a major tenet in Calvin’s theology concerning the authority of scripture.  What man sees in creation should serve as evidence to the validity of scripture.  This mirrors Paul’s speaking concerning this in the book of Romans,

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.[x]

Of course in Paul’s discourse, the inference of man’s inability to accommodate to this knowledge is clearly seen; however we will deal with that later.  The issue at hand is Calvin’s assertion in creation itself to being an insurmountable piece of evidence to substantiate 1) the very existence of God 2) that God reveals Himself as creator in the Scriptures.  This point is well taken.  If man is wholly unable to discern himself properly aside from the scriptures; then he is incapable of adequate discernment.  Therein lies the preeminent need for an objective authority to describe not only the world in which man lives, but also how that world was created.         

Without the scriptures there is no adequate means by which to describe creation.  Much of it would be speculative and founded in fables and myths.  Even Georges Lemaitre’s[xi] theory of the Big Bang (Which itself is scientific speculation) has some of the so-called adherents of the Christian faith steeped in a confounded stupor.   Man’s natural desire to explain and give meaning to his world seeks to override God’s revealed account of how the universe was created.  As such, scientific speculation has driven a rift in the hearts and minds of even professing Christians.

H. Jack Forstman says “In order to lift man from this morass of error God communicated to him a history of the creation.  This history serves both to dispel false notions about the creation and to set bounds to the questions one can legitimately ask concerning the creation.”[xii]  This is Calvin’s contention as his cosmology cannot be separated from his view of Scripture.  It is informed and marked by it.  His high view of God, and low (Some would say properly estimated) view of man, sets the table for his theology.  In Calvin’s view, man’s ‘stupidity’ clearly necessitates the need for an authoritative objective view.   Man is unable to fully comprehend his Creator, so the Scripture stands as the only means by which men can experience the revealed words of God. The Bible propagates an assertive creation account, and therefore by virtue of its other plain and obvious revealed truths, it can be trusted as an objective authoritative source.  Dr. John H. Armstrong echoes this sentiment when he says, “Besides fides divina we also recognize a fides humana, or an argument for the authority of the divine word based on human reason.  This argument says: As a natural, rational observation of creation reveals God as its Creator (cf. Romans 1:18ff.), so a rational observation of the teaching of Holy Scripture points to God as its author.”[xiii] (Pg. 129)

Jesus Christ enters this discussion as pronounced in John 1:10, that the “world was made through Him” and as such exalt Christ the Savior as also being the Divine Logos that was preeminent in creation.  This is what separates the Scriptures and differentiates them from other so-called holy writings.  The Scriptures give us an account of creation (Among other things) and they prognosticate the existence, preeminence and presence of Christ during creation.  But just as in other ways, Christ is rejected in this manner too.

Calvin though is not surprised by this rejection, in fact, his observation concerning is the foundation for what make the Scripture authoritative.  Without the articulations of God concerning creation in His Word, man would have no idea of the origins of the universe.  In fact, he would not know the revealed God of Scripture in spite of his inner conviction that God is existent.   Revelation in creation is not enough to bring man to knowledge of God in a saving way.  In spite of the majesty of the Creator, in spite of the manifold glory of His handiwork in creation, without the Scriptures revealing who God is, man is wholly ignorant of Him.  It is the Scriptures that speak and reveal to man who God is, and it is the Scriptures that dictate and command men that it is through Christ that man is to approach and be received as acceptable by God.  The proof of salvation by the work of the Spirit is the trustworthy machination that has affirmed this over the centuries, and therefore the Scriptures, which speak simultaneously of the physical creation and the new spiritual creation, can be trusted.  

 3.    God’s Created Being

The next level of Calvin’s defense of the authority of scripture exists in the very essence of man’s denial of what is so obvious to him.  Man’s inability to comprehend spiritual things apart from the illumination of God by His grace, is paramount to his theology.  Just as the world did not ‘know Christ’ the world does not know God apart from His grace.  It is only through the Scriptures that man comes to the knowledge of God.  This is where God reveals Himself.  Calvin says,

That brightness which is borne in upon the eyes of all men both in heaven and on earth is more than enough to withdraw all support from men’s ingratitude – just as God, to involve the human race in the same guilt, sets forth to all without exception his presence portrayed in his creatures.  Despite this, it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe.  It was not in vain, then, that he added the light of his Word by which to become known unto salvation; and he regarded as worthy of this privilege those whom he pleased to gather more closely and intimately to himself.[xiv]

 Forstman in his writings asserts that the Bible is ‘pure’ and that all men are “mean, ignorant, and utterly incapable of comprehending God,” (Forstman Pg. 14.)  From this pure writing come the diagnosis for the incomprehensive-ness of man which is displayed in the sinfulness of man and his inability to naturally receive (Or even fully understand) God’s good grace towards him.  Calvin thought it incredulous that the weight of the authority of scripture be measured against the dictates of the church (Comprised of men.)  He asserted that ‘sacrilegious’ men meant to set a tyranny over the ‘simple-minded’ in order to convince them that the church had authority over all things.  This is not to be born in the mind of Calvin!  Rejecting the Word of God as authoritative in and of itself is tantamount to rejecting Christ, who is the Divine Logos.  So there is much to be said in that men who are blinded to this, are also blinded to the fact that church itself is founded upon Scripture (With Christ being Head,) and that a church that feigns to preside over Christ is profane indeed.  Christ’s prescription to this error is that men would, by His grace, have their eyes open to truth; and then as Calvin says “the majesty of God will immediately come to view, subdue our bold rejection, and compel us to obey.” (Pg. 79)

4.    Conclusion

 So how does this help us in our daily walk with God? 

We are God’s creatures.  Designed and fashioned by Him.  It was God who breathed into man the breath of life, and it is God who deems when that breath is taken away.  It is rather foolish to assume that men have the ability to discern properly apart from God, and this is evident in the ways in which men, historically (Even currently) professed to be doing that which was pleasing to our Lord by persecuting Calvin and His colleagues in what they considered a means to stomp out a heretical movement.  On the one hand, they may have been wholly unaware; or perhaps this demonic activity may have been deliberate against these Christians.  Either way, it was these men (And women's) willful desire to stand above God's word (Both subjectively and ecumenically) which promulgated these vicious attacks.   

 When properly reading the scriptures, there is nothing that should confuse us to think that murder, lynching, burning and scourging need be done on behalf of the church; and yet all throughout the annals of history, this has happened.  Man has rejected the necessity of placing the created order under the Lordship of Christ.  Man has rejected the historicity of the Biblical narrative of the creation account.  Man has ultimately rejected Christ and his atoning death to reconcile the created being back to his Creator. 

This is detailed in the pages of Scripture.  The beginning, the middle of the story and the consummation of all things lies within the context of an objective and authoritative Bible that shows us ourselves and shows us our Savior.  Those that God has saw fit to draw to Himself know that no amount of convincing the unregenerate that the Bible is real, will make it real to them.  Calvin asserts that it is the Spirit of God and the Witness of the Holy Spirit that exists as the most comprehensive and rational proof of the Authority of Scripture.  The observable attributes of the world around us (As expressed through looking at the created order, creation and the created being) tell us of the Scriptures authority because it is distinctly descriptive in how all of it works together.  In other words, the way things are in our world, is described in the text itself.  Further, we see that by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit validates scripture as true and authoritative for the sake of God’s glory.  It is for His glory alone that His redeemed are converted through the right preaching of the Word.  This is a glorious work, and one in which God alone receives the praise!

Soli Deo gloria!!

[i]Berkhof, Louis. “Systematic Theology.” Grand Rapids:WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1941. (Pg.1)
[ii]The copy of the Institutes used for this assignment was translated from Calvin’s updated version of 1559, as opposed to the original published in 1536.  Battles, Ford Lewis. “Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Edited by John T. McNeil, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.
[iii]By the staircase of ideas’ I mean the manner in which Calvin’s articulations on the authority of scripture were communicated in his writings and sermons as his proclamations and convictions concerning this developed over time and in a gradual sense. 
[iv]Orders of creation, a Lutheran concept of how God interacts in family, church, state and economic social structures; described by Martin Luther has having distinct divisions: status economicus, status politicus, and status ecclesiasticus.
[v] Letter written to the King
[vi] Ibid. 6
[vii] Luke 14:26 - “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.
[viii] Ibid. 12-13
[ix] Ibid. 52
[x]New King James Version (Romans 1:20)
[xi]A trained Catholic priest and scientist who first introduced the idea of an expanding universe.  When the Pope declared this theory to be consistent with the teaching of the creation story, Lemaitre persuaded the Pope to not discuss religion and science in the same vein; even convincing Pope Pius XII to stop making proclamations concerning cosmology.
[xii] Forstman, H. Jackson. “Word and Spirit: Calvin’s Doctrine of Biblical Authority.” Standford:
 Stanford University Press, 1962. Pg. 13
[xiii] Armstrong, John. “The Authority of Scripture.”  In Sola Scriptura!: The Protestant Position on the Bible. Edited by Don Kistler. 96-150 Morgan: Soli Gloria Publications, 1995.  
[xiv] Ibid 69-70

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