The gospel according to Enoch: Calvin on Gen. 5.21-24
Calvin's comments on chapter 5 of Genesis barely fill a handful of pages in his lengthy commentary on the first book of the Bible. He evidently struggles to find significance in a passage of Scripture largely devoted to genealogy, and he sounds a note of minor frustration over the fact that many "great and memorable events" which almost certainly occurred during the years represented by this genealogy were left "unrecorded."
Calvin does, however, discern value in the record of "a number, though small, who worshipped God" in unbroken succession, being "wonderfully preserved by celestial guardianship, lest the name of God should be entirely obliterated, and the seed of the Church should fail." The genealogy of Seth, in other words, witnesses to God's faithfulness in cultivating and preserving a people for himself through that rather ordinary means of believers having children and raising them to know and cling to God's promise of salvation through the coming Seed.
Calvin discovers further value, first of all for the historical Church just described and secondly for the Church in subsequent centuries, in the specific albeit rather terse record of the miraculous translation from this world to the next which befell Seth's great-great-great grandson Enoch (the godly counterpart to the ungodly Lamech, both men being seventh in line from Adam). According to Scripture "Enoch walked with God; and he was no longer, for God took him." Calvin explains: "Enoch, in the middle period of life, suddenly, and in an unexampled method, vanished from the sight of men, because the Lord took him away."
Where did God take Enoch? In Calvin's judgment Enoch "was taken to a better abode," a "heavenly country." Enoch was, in other words, translated into the intermediate state, a happy place where he could enjoy fellowship with God and those members of the Church departing life in the ordinary way (i.e., death), while he awaited with them the ultimate end of resurrected life in "celestial glory."
Why was Enoch taken in such an extraordinary and apparently public (in the "sight of men") manner? According to Scripture Enoch "walked with God," testimony to his "pious and upright life." Yet Calvin refuses to make Enoch's piety the basis for that peculiar privilege he enjoyed. Enoch's righteousness was admittedly "rare" when viewed in relation to the impiety which characterized those outside the Church. But within the Church, Calvin notes, it was not entirely unique: "Seth ..., and Cainan, and Mahalaleel, and Jared, were then living, whose piety was celebrated in the former part of the chapter." Enoch's piety, then, fails to provide a wholly sufficient explanation for the extraordinary exemption from ordinary death which he received.
More importantly, Enoch's piety was not sufficient to atone for either the guilt he had contracted from Adam's sin or the sins he himself had committed in keeping with that innate corruption which characterized him as a natural son of Adam. Enoch's admission ticket first to the intermediate state and then to the eternal state of glory was purchased by the coming Seed - the one who would conquer death and secure eternal glory for all who looked to him in faith by perfectly obeying God's law and suffering the penalty for sin in their stead.
Calvin's point is not to minimize Enoch's righteousness. Enoch was genuinely an extraordinary man because he framed his life according to God's law instead of imitating the "perverse manners" of the great majority living in his day. Enoch thus serves as a pious example to believers in every age. But Enoch, like every child of God, was judged righteous by God on the basis of Christ's right-doing reckoned to him before he ever engaged in any genuine right-doing of his own. Enoch "walked with God" in grateful response to the heavenly treasure he was given by God as a pure and simple gift.
Ultimately God "took [Enoch] away" in the very "sight of men" because he wished to communicate something to those who witnessed that miracle, and to all those whom they in turn would tell about the miracle they witnessed. "In the translation of Enoch, an example of immortality was exhibited; there is no doubt that God designed to elevate the minds of his saints with certain faith before their death, and to mitigate, by this consolation, the dread which they might entertain of death, seeing they would know [from the translation of Enoch] that a better life was elsewhere laid up for them."
In Calvin's judgment, then, Enoch's translation is a clear statement and expansion of the Gospel promise first delivered to humankind in Gen. 3.15. Having promised his people one who would conquer sin, death, and hell and so restore fellowship with himself, God here reminds his people that temporal death is not the end, and that the work of the Seed entails life for them beyond the grave. Thus God sustains his people's faith in his positive intentions on their behalf. Indeed, Gen. 5.24 constitutes the first explicit promise of eternal life in fellowship with God, though that promise was certainly implicit in the earlier witness to the coming, conquering Seed.
Why such a pronounced instance of promise at this particular junction in salvation history? Calvin, as intimated above, reads Hebrew genealogies as rather straightforward accounts of successive generations. On that basis, he calculates that Adam had been dead for about 150 years when Enoch was translated into the age to come. Adam and Eve were, of course, the only human beings who received God's promise of the coming Seed (Gen. 3.15) in person; they were the only human beings in existence when that promise was made. Their believing children received only their testimony to God's intention to conquer sin, death, and hell for his people. Indeed, Calvin views Adam as the first person properly entrusted with the ordained ministry of the word; (Pastor) Adam was tasked by God to preach the Gospel which he had heard from God's own mouth to God's people, thereby sustaining their confidence in God's plans for their future.
The Church, of course, did not lack subsequent ministers, even presumably while Adam was still living, to proclaim God's promise. What it did lack in Enoch's day was any living person who had received God's promise immediately from God himself. The time was ripe, then, for God to renew his promise in an extraordinary way, and so to invigorate the faith of the Church.
The record of Enoch's translation, then, speaks not to what a man might merit, in distinction from his peers, by virtue of his righteous walk or talk. It speaks, rather, to the peculiar mercy of God, who responds to the need of his people to have their faith in him and his promise buttressed by clear and repeated reminders of his character and his promise. And in itself it constitutes an instance of God's promise, reminding God's people that death is no final word even for those who, unlike Enoch, must undergo it. Enoch inherited a "better abode" by a rather peculiar means; but every true believer is an heir of that "better abode," and so ultimately of the God whose presence defines that place.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.
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