Results tagged “Calvin” from Reformation21 Blog

Wisdom Christology in James and 1 John

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In the previous post in this series, we briefly considered how Calvin's appreciation of wisdom theology is particularly present in his comments on the Johannine literature. In Calvin's commentary of 1 John, we discover one of the marks of the wisdom theology, namely, its appreciation of the transcendent nature of God's Word. For Calvin, The Word "which believers we have heard and believed" is the same Word who is from the beginning the divine Wisdom. We find this very clearly in the following comment by Calvin:

"Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word."

The Word of God is a transcendent reality. In fact, it is the fundamental transcendent reality of our salvation. We also notice from Calvin's commentary that the Word of God has the capacity to enliven. Wisdom, as it is understood in Scripture, is far removed from the sort of abstract intellectualism that many associate with an education in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. Wisdom is a way of life, but more than that, it is a power and "sacred vitality". This, too, is a mark of wisdom theology. When the text speaks of the "Word of life", Calvin interprets this to mean the "vivifying Word." This vivifying "Word of life" was with the Father, according to the text. Calvin comments:

"This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for He was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by His eternal wisdom."

As Calvin understood, the eternal Wisdom is a creative, redemptive, and sanctifying wisdom; therefore, this Wisdom is a fountain of life. This divine Wisdom is a redemptive, transforming power. The ability of the Word to transform human life is the basis of its authority and its glory. It is this Word of life - the divine Wisdom - which brings us into fellowship with God and restores the bond of love between believers and God, and between believers one with another.

A very different aspect of the biblical wisdom theology is found in the Epistle of James. James describes Christian wisdom - both its theoretical knowledge and practical application - as embodied within the covenant community. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, is a collection of wise sayings on good conduct which reverberates with themes from the biblical wisdom tradition. Neither of these books tells a story nor develops a systematic line of thought. Typical of the wisdom writers (such as the sages of ancient Israel) is this delight in collecting proverbs on living the godly life.

As is well known, Luther had little appreciation for the moral concerns of James because it seemed to him to be be bogged down in works righteousness. Calvin was of a different mind, as he relates in the introduction to his commentary on James. In responding to the claim that James was not as clear on the subject of the grace of Christ as an apostle ought to be, Calvin commented:

"See how the writings of Solomon differ widely from the style of David. The former was concerned with the training of the outward man, and with handing down rules of social behavior, while the latter is noted for his profound attention to the spiritual worship of God, peace of mind, God's lovingkindness, and the free promise of salvation. Such diversity does not make us praise one and condemn the other."

This passage clearly indicates that Calvin recognized a "Solomonic theology", that is, a wisdom theology. By saying that James is to the rest of the New Testament as the writings of Solomon were to the Old Testament, we discover Calvin agrees in substance with what modern biblical scholarship has recognized concerning the strongly Semitic and sapiential character of James. The whole nature of Calvin's piety was positively disposed toward those beautiful passages in the Epistle of James which speak of the character of wisdom. Consider Calvin's comments on James 3:13-18:

"For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious... For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others."

Consistent with the sages of Old Testament Israel, Calvin understands that wisdom is truly a divine gift. The notion that wisdom is obtained by asking God for it is rooted in the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 3) and the relationship between wisdom being a gift and, therefore, the need to ask for it is developed in Wisdom of Solomon 8:17-9:18. In addition, because true wisdom comes "from above" it is inappropriate to boast about it. True wisdom is therefore humble. Calvin elaborated on this point further in his commentary, when he wrote:

"He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity."

It's clear that Calvin appreciated wisdom that was calm and well composed - the kind of wisdom that was learned but without pretension. Rather, Calvin admired simplicity, sincerity, and sobriety. Following the biblical wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, this sobriety is most clearly demonstrated in speech ethics (cf. James 3:1-12) and humility (cf. James 3:13-18). Calvin understood that true divine wisdom produces ethical fruit primarily because it is the "vivifying Word". Because this divine Word transform human lives, it is expected that the wisdom from above produces true humility, true learning, and true godliness. The Epistle of James taught exactly the sort of piety that he so much admired and that he lived to emulate throughout his life.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a conference which explored the promise that careful attention to Protestantism's past holds for Protestantism's future. It was exciting to see scholars, students, and interested laypersons gathered around a common concern for the future of our various Reformation-based communions, and a common conviction that our past holds significant resources for navigating the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Too many of this years Reformation-themed events, I fear, will prove to be little more than Protestant pep rallies, championing slogans rather than critical engagement with the past. Such pep rallies will likely do more long-term damage than good to Protestantism, leaving folk enthused but neither informed about Protestantism's core convictions nor equipped to maintain those convictions moving forward. The pep rallies will draw large crowds and turn large profits for those hosting them. But the enthusiasm they generate will fade away (like the proverbial "camp high," or the applause at the end of a celebrity Christian's conference talk), and will leave the formerly enthused exposed to stock criticisms of Protestantism and susceptible to the siren call of communions with purportedly deeper roots, greater stability, more serious or beautiful worship of God, etc. The smaller events characterized by genuinely thoughtful conversation about where we've come from and where we're going will draw smaller crowds, but will serve the church far better in the long run. "C'est la vie," as Calvin never said at a conference he never spoke at.

In any case, one of the issues that generated much conversation among those who attended this conference last weekend was that of how Protestants should understand and properly relate to Protestant tradition as well as the broader (catholic) Christian tradition from whence Protestantism originated. How, in other words, can we respect and afford due weight to the theological ruminations and the practices of our forefathers in every age without turning those ruminations and practices into a doctrinal and/or liturgical straightjacket in our age? How can we steer a safe path between the Scylla of those who elevate Tradition to the status of an infallible voice in the life of the church and the Charybdis of the chronological snobs who would, without a second thought, gag the saints who have gone before us?

In chewing over these questions the past several days, it seems to me that a healthy understanding and appropriation of both our Protestant and our larger, catholic past corresponds with a right understanding of Scripture's authority and the respective roles that individual interpreters and ecclesiastical bodies play in the interpretation of Scripture's teaching. We need, in other words, to be clear on what the Protestant principle sola Scriptura means (and, perhaps more significantly, doesn't mean) before we can think clearly about how to approach tradition.

Fortunately, good resources exist for helping us understand precisely what sola Scriptura meant to the reformers who established that principle and the orthodox divines of subsequent centuries who upheld it, as well as what it should (but doesn't always) mean to us as present-day Protestants. Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001) and Michael Allen and Scott Swain's Reformed Catholicity (2015) should, I think, be required reading for every person signing on the dotted line of Protestantism in our time. Both works do an excellent job of defining sola Scriptura, and of pointing us, in that process, towards a right way of understanding and appropriating "tradition" in its various manifestations.

But we would be remiss (particularly so, given the topic at hand) not to note older resources that might help us think carefully about what Protestantism's claim regarding Scripture's ultimate authority has and hasn't meant in Protestant history (and thus, should and shouldn't mean today!). One such resource, easily accessible online both in its original Latin and in English translation, is John Calvin's 1547 work Acta synodi Tridentinae cum antidoto ("Acts of the Synod of Trent with the Antidote").

Calvin wrote his "antidote" to Trent in 1547, one year after the Council of Trent had clarified Rome's understanding of the respective authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium. Needless to say, perhaps, Calvin was keen to discredit Rome's insistence upon granting Tradition an equal role with Scripture in speaking infallibly into the life of the Church, and her insistence upon naming the Magisterium as the infallible interpreter of both Tradition and Scripture. But he was equally keen to make it clear that he and his fellow reformers had no intent of disregarding insights into Scripture's meaning advanced by the church in the previous 1500 years. Indeed, they had every intention, he argues, of submitting entirely to the authority of those insights.

"In order to cast obloquy upon us," Calvin writes, "they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. [...] [But] there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

The force of Calvin's rather remarkable statement here is considerably lessened by the rather unfortunate, 19th century choice to translate the latin lucubrationes with "lucubrations," an obvious English derivative of its Latin counterpart, but a word that no normal person knows. Strictly speaking, "lucubrations" name the results of study by lamplight. In context, it's clear that Calvin is referring to insights into Scripture's meaning obtained by evangelicals, insights obtained not by facile appeals to Spirit-induced aha! moments but by Spirit-led labor late into the night. In other words, lucubrationes refer to careful and informed judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. And, remarkably, Calvin insists upon the willingness of all within the evangelical party to submit those judgments to the church's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning.

Of course, Calvin's comment raises the question "who or what is meant by 'church'?" Although he doesn't unpack the point in much detail here, it's clear that Calvin has a more expansive understanding of "church" than his Roman opponents. His opponents, he notes, include in their definition of "church" only those who acknowledge "Cephas as [the church's] head," and ultimately encourage all, in aiming to understand Scripture, to submit themselves to "whatever dreaming monks" determine Scripture to say. When Calvin speaks of the "church," he has in mind rather the "Church [that] Scripture itself portrays," a body that, for instance, includes the vast number of Christians through the centuries who would not have been able to give unequivocal support to the claims made regarding Rome by Trent.

In any case, I wonder how many Protestants today would be willing to admit Calvin's point regardless of how "church" is properly defined? How many Protestants today, that is, could (or would) insist upon their own readiness to submit their determinations about Scripture's meaning to "the judgment of the Church." Calvin's argument does not disallow individuals to obtain new insights into Scripture's meaning, nor to share them with others. It does, however, force the individual to bow before the authority of a collective majority in assessing such insights, a pill few individuals in our time will swallow easily. Self-idolatry in our day very often takes the form of every individual thinking that he or she knows best, even (or perhaps especially) in the matter of reading and understanding God's Word.

Perhaps, as Protestants, its time we got our lucubrations in line. Doing so might give us a more credible position against the extravagant claims of Rome regarding her right and ability to translate the Bible. It might, for instance, give us a more credible response to the charge that Protestantism creates 900 million popes over against Rome's one. The sooner we tame our lucubrations the better. The health and future of Protestantism may depend on it.

John Calvin on the True Church

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When is a "church" not a church? How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ? And how do we discern the false? Calvin's answer, in the Institutes 4.2.1 - 4.2.12, to what was in his day--and remains--an important question, is, essentially: the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are the hallmarks of the true church. Where these are lacking, "surely the death of the church follows." 

Why should this be so? Because the church is built on the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). They have a primacy of role in person in the course of redemptive history; but their teaching is the foundation for every generation of Christian faith. Substitute another foundation for the church and the whole building will crumble. 

But in Calvin's eyes Roman Catholic theology failed to grasp this, and effectively transferred the authority of the once-for-all written apostolic word to the questionable strength of a chain of bishops of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability. 

Physical succession may be attractive, but it guarantees nothing. That is precisely why we have the written Scriptures, so that the truth of God may be carefully preserved and passed on intact from believing generation to believing generation. Neither biblically instructed Christians of the 16th century nor the Fathers of the church in the early centuries believed that a mere succession of bishops guaranteed that the gospel message would be maintained in its pristine purity. 

This is why Calvin's departure from the community of physical succession was not schism. For how could agreement in the word of God be regarded as schism from the church of God? 

The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man's but Christ's. The unity of the church, therefore, is not a formal, historical reality made concrete in an institution (the college of bishops or the pope). Rather it is a dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with the one true bishop of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. Rome's fault was not only its boast in the historic episcopacy but in its failure to make confession of biblical truth and in its anathematizing of those who did. 

If the truth be told, not Geneva but Rome is schismatic. More than that, Rome harbors idolatry within its bosom in the celebration of "the Mass, which we abominate as the greatest sacrilege" (4.2.9). 

Yet, it remains true, Calvin acknowledges, that there are believers--however confused--within the pale of Rome. Correspondingly there are "traces of churches," but Rome itself cannot be considered a true church or part of the one true church. In fact, Rome gives expression to the spirit of antichrist. 

Here again is Calvin's ability to see with both eyes. In some Roman communities he was sure there were true believers; in that sense they are churches. Even major distortions of truth and failures with respect to grace do not necessarily mean there are no believers in the community. 

The truth is that the heart may be regenerated while the head is not finally cleansed. Calvin appears to have thought that some of them were in fact true believers, however inconsistent theologically and perhaps intimidated personally they were. He understood, and while he disapproved he struggled to exercise wisdom and patience. But in the end Christ was being obscured. And if Christ is obscured for long, man-centered, self industriousness, and ritualism always seems to follow in its train. That is always an explanation for the (ongoing) necessity of reformation. 


*This was first published on Ref21 in September of 2009. You can find the original postings here and here

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John Calvin on the Keys of the Kingdom

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Calvin's teaching has never been for shrinking violets, nor is John Calvin himself thought of as "soft."  He uses strong language about those who are enemies of the gospel ("pigs," "dogs"). 

In discussing church discipline he notes the special responsibilities borne by pastors (some are not sufficiently watchful, others tend to be over-lenient).  But he also grants that pastors are often hindered from consistency by those who belong to the church they serve.  The truth is, elders can turn down the thermostat of a congregation virtually at will. Yet Calvin is also concerned about Christians who acts in haste and without grace and precipitously separate from the church because of its faults.  The individual dare not do that simply out of personal whim or a unilateral declaration of independence. He is, after all, a member of the church, not a lone-ranger believer. Unwise zeal, pride and arrogance, false views of holiness (or, more accurately, false views of other's holiness or lack thereof) need themselves to be disciplined. 

Separation from the visible church is, therefore, to be considered only when it actually ceases to be the visible church--for in its very nature its sanctity is mixed with ongoing sin and failure.  Thus, when the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Savior himself are considered, we learn a biblical balance of commitment to truth with commitment to the imperfect community.  It is inexcusable for an individual to abandon the church so long as it remains a real church. 

Forgiveness is always a watchword in church life. Calvin strikingly points out the significance of words many of us recite every Lord's Day: "I believe in the holy catholic church, the forgiveness of sins . . ."  The former (church) is the context in which the latter (forgiveness) is realized.  The very forgiveness by which we enter the church is the forgiveness in which we are ever and again sustained. 

The 16th century Reformers fought to win back the keys of the kingdom. Calvin held that ordinarily there is no salvation outside of the church, but he did not hold that the church itself was the repository of forgiveness. No, forgiveness comes through the preaching of the gospel and its application to the conscience through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Rome, therefore, had usurped the role of the word of God and the Spirit of God. 

God's people stand daily in need of forgiveness and an ever-deepening assurance that they are forgiven. All sins repented of may be forgiven. This is the testimony of the patriarchs, of David, of the prophets, of Simon Peter and of all Scripture. There is forgiveness of sins at the entry into the Christian life; but it is ever and again available to us. 

Especially when we are engaged in the discipline of sinners we need to remember that its function is to lead to a fresh sense of divine forgiveness and church forgiveness and restoration.  For that reason its rigor must not endanger, and then destroy,  the very pardon and restoration it seeks to produce. 

"Therefore," says Calvin, "in the communion of saints, our sins are continually forgiven us by the ministry of the church itself when the presbyters or bishops to whom this office has been committed strengthen godly consciences by the gospel promises in the hope of pardon and forgiveness. This they do both publicly and privately as need requires. For very many, on account of their weakness, need personal consolation." 

This post is a combination of two previously published posts by Sinclair Ferguson on Calvin's Institutes 4.1.5 - 4.1.29. You can find the original posts at Ref21 here and here.

Calvin discovers in Gen. 21, with its record of Isaac's birth and Ishmael's banishment from Abraham's house, a contrast between two kinds of laughter, one "holy and lawful," the other "canine and profane." Holy laughter -- not (of course) to be confused with the phenomenon of inexplicable giggling that cropped up in certain late-twentieth century charismatic circles of the church -- flows from sheer wonder and astonishment at God's unexpected and undeserved goodness to his people. It is an expression of pious and believing disbelief (as it were); the fruit of recognition that the most appropriate response to "Can it be that I should gain?" is simultaneously "of course not" (given sin) and "yes, I not only can, but already have" (by God's sheer grace).

In Gen. 21 it is Abraham and Sarah who thus laugh wholly and holily in response to God's goodness to them. Their laughter is prompted by God's fulfillment (at last!) of his promise of a child to them. "The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, ... and Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age" (Gen. 21.1-2). Calvin comments: "Isaac was to his father and others the occasion of holy and lawful laughter; ... [he] brought laughter with him from his mother's womb, since he bore -- engraven upon him -- the certain token of God's grace." The laughter which Isaac engendered in his parents and others finds reflection in his very name: "Isaac" means "laughter."

Such "holy and lawful laughter" is contagious and inviting. It includes rather than excludes. The inviting and inclusive nature of holy laughter is witnessed in vs. 6, when Sarah notes that "everyone who hears will laugh with me." It is equally witnessed in vs. 8, when Abraham throws a large party on the occasion of Isaac's weaning -- a context for joyous and grateful laughter by all. "It is not [God's] design," Calvin notes on this score, "to prohibit holy men from inviting their friends to a common participation of enjoyment, so that they, jointly giving thanks to God, may feast with greater hilarity than usual." Of course, Calvin quickly adds, "temperance and sobriety" are always in order. But "God does not deal so austerely with us as not to allow us, sometimes, to entertain our friends liberally." Calvin goes so far as to note several appropriate occasions for festive "hilarity," for instance "when children are born to us" or "when nuptials are to be celebrated." Calvin's rather blunt endorsement of parties to celebrate births and marriages would no doubt have caused some of his seventeenth-century Scottish heirs some discomfort.

But, of course, not all laughter is holy. "Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.  So she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac'" (Gen. 21.9-10). Sarah's response to Ishmael's laughter is harsh, but is not, in Calvin's judgment, "without cause," because Ishmael's laughter was prompted not by joy, but by ridicule and hatred. "Therefore, as an impious mocker, [Ishmael] stands opposed to his brother Isaac.... [Isaac] so exhilarates his father's house that joy break forth in thanksgiving; but Ishmael, with canine and profane laughter, attempts to destroy that holy joy of faith." Ishmael's laughter was thus ultimately an expression of "manifest impiety against God."

If holy laughter is inclusive, unholy laughter of the kind expressed by Ishmael is exclusive. It is forbidding and divisive, rather than inviting. Ishmael is not among the number laughing "with" Sarah, as she predicted in vs. 6 that some would do. Ishmael is among the number laughing "at" Sarah and her child, and thus he ultimately mocks not only God's goodness, but God's peculiar promise and fulfillment of a seed (from which would come the Seed) to Abraham.

Considered in relation to its roots, then, Ishmael's unholy laughter provides ample justification for the apparently severe treatment he subsequently receives at Abraham's hand. "For nothing is more grievous to a holy mind than to see the grace of God exposed to ridicule." Indeed, given Isaac's peculiar identity, Ishmael's laughter at him ultimately constitutes persecution of the church in Calvin's estimation. The Reformer reads Gal. 4.29 ("just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit") as a direct reference to Ishmael's laughter in Gen. 21.9. "Was it," Calvin asks, "with sword or violence [that Ishmael persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit]?" "Nay," he answers, "but with the scorn of the virulent tongue, which does not injure the body, but pierces into the very soul." Unholy laughter, in sum, is murderous, reaching its intended victim with a force more deadly than bullet or blade.

Gen. 21 ultimately points to the eschatological outcome of holy laughter and its unholy imitator. Holy laughter leads to a "great feast." Unholy laughter brings exile and banishment in its wake.  In light of the same, the contrast between holy and unholy laughter in Gen. 21 invites us to honest and critical examination of our own merriment and its sources. What prompts genuine laughter from us? Is our laughter inclusive or exclusive? Inviting or forbidding? Are we laughing with or at others? Most importantly, are we laughing with or at the ultimate Child of promise? If the former, our laughter will culminate in the participation of the greatest "feast" of all. As Calvin once noted in a letter to a friend, "we can only really laugh once we have left this life" (emphasis mine). If the latter, our laughter will culminate in eternal banishment and exile from the true Father and his household.

But Gen. 21 (and Calvin's comments on it) also invites us to laugh considerably more than we currently do, even if, as just noted, ultimate laughter belongs to the age to come. If God's fulfillment of the promise of a seed to Abraham and Sarah was funny (in the best sense of the word), how much more funny (again, in the best sense of the word) the fulfillment of his promise of the Seed (Gen. 3.15) in whom we have forgiveness of sins and life everlasting? How much more frequent, how much more joyous, how much more hilarious ought to be our laughter when we ponder the sheer enormity and extravagance of God's unexpected and liberal grace to us in the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ.

So "laugh often," as Bessie Anderson Stanley advised. But make it holy laughter, as I'm sure Calvin himself would have quickly added.

Of the twelve affirmations that constitute the Apostles' Creed -- perhaps the most regularly recited statement of basic Christian doctrine in the western Church of the last 1500 years -- none has caused greater uncertainty and debate over the centuries than that declaring that Jesus Christ "descended into hell." This affirmation, wedged between assertions that Christ "was crucified, died, and buried" and "rose again" on "the third day," received fundamentally different interpretations by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians of the Reformation era. The sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Church staked out its understanding of this affirmation in the Catechism of Trent, suggesting it named Christ's visit not to "hell strictly so-called," but to that "limbo" where "the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of pain... they enjoyed peaceful repose." Christ, according to Rome, spent the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday -- "Holy Saturday" as it is sometimes called -- in this limbo, freeing the souls therein to enter into heavenly bliss.

The (arguably) inherent ambiguity of the Creed's claim regarding Christ's descent into hell, coupled with Rome's rather speculative interpretation of the same (itself rooted in late-medieval Christian thought which, without clear biblical warrant, added purgatory and several limbos to heaven and hell in the landscape of the afterlife), has caused (even) some Reformed churches to revise the Creed's affirmation to something less confusing (namely, "he descended into the grave"), or to omit the phrase entirely.

John Calvin strongly warned against such tampering with the Creed, even before there were many noteworthy efforts to do so. "We ought not to omit [Christ's] descent into hell," the Reformer warned, calling that descent "a matter of no small moment in bringing about [our] redemption." Calvin was decidedly keen not to deprive (Reformed) believers of the opportunity to confess their faith in the very words that Christians for centuries before them had used. He was quite sure that, properly understood, there was nothing in the words of the Creed -- every last one of them -- to cause genuine believers alarm. "We have in [the Creed] a summary of our faith," Calvin wrote, "full and complete in all details, and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God." Calvin was even more keen not to deprive believers of the opportunity, every time they recited the Creed, to reflect upon a very critical aspect of Christ's saving work which, in his judgment, is embodied in the affirmation in question: "If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."

Calvin denied that Christ's descent into hell merely named his descent into "a grave," thus simply repeating "in other words what had previously been said [in the Creed] of his burial." He argued, rather, that Christ's descent into hell complements the preceding clause which describes Christ's death, alerting us to the spiritual dimension -- the sustaining of God's wrath on behalf of our sin -- of Christ's suffering upon the cross. God incarnate, after all, did not merely undergo physical torment and physical death upon the cross. Indeed "if Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual [for our salvation]." Upon the cross, rather, Christ endured "the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment." And this, according to Calvin, is precisely what the Creed's affirmation that Christ "descended into hell" describes. "Christ was put in [the] place of evildoers as surety and pledge -- submitting himself even as the accused -- to bear and suffer all the punishment that they ought to have sustained.... No wonder, then, if [Christ] is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered [there] the death that God in his wrath [has] inflicted upon the wicked!"

Calvin has a ready answer for those who find it strange to find this affirmation of Christ enduring hell on the cross situated subsequent to the affirmation that Christ "suffered, died, and was buried." He argues that the Creed's affirmation constitutes grammatical apposition -- a phenomenon where some noun or clause restates an immediately preceding noun or clause, but adds something to it. An instance of apposition is discovered in the sentence: "This is my daughter, Kaitrin." "Kaitrin" in that sentence (who, by the way, is my daughter, not Calvin's) renames or restates "daughter." Similarly, "he descended into hell" renames or restates what occurred when Christ "suffered" and "died," but fleshes out that preceding clause with rather significant detail. "The point," Calvin concludes, "is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price [by] suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."

No wonder, in short, that Calvin felt so strongly about retaining this affirmation of the Creed. Stripped of this affirmation, the Creed fails to speak meaningfully of what Christ actually suffered upon the cross, as his eternal Father -- in light of our sins imputed to Christ -- turned his back upon him. Indeed, provided we accept Calvin's interpretation of this Creedal statement, it becomes (arguably) the pivotal affirmation of the entire Creed, the hinge upon which our salvation turns, the basis of the remarkable benefits, subsequently listed in the Creed, that belong to us ("the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting").

Of course, it takes some effort to educate believers about what Christ's descent into hell actually entails. But thus educating believers is a far better option than revising the Creed or simply omitting a statement which admittedly requires explanation (and by explanation, I mean opportunity to instruct others in the meaning of the cross).

An examination of Christ's suffering upon the cross under the rubric of "hell" also stands, incidentally, to help us understand hell itself better. Hell, like every other created reality (or perversion of the same), can only properly be understood in relation to the Creator. Our own thinking about hell should begin, not end, with attention to Christ's endurance of it upon the cross. Such is the proper path towards a theological rather than physical or metaphysical understanding of hell. Such is the proper path, in other words, towards properly understanding the horrible fate, irrevocable estrangement from God, that awaits those who reject the grace of God that is offered to us in Christ Jesus.

In short, we should continue to confess that Christ "descended into hell" not only for the sake of catholicity (though certainly for that), but also in the interest of regularly affirming the profound reality of what Christ endured for us upon the cross. To steal and tweak a phrase from J. Gresham Machen, "I'm so thankful for Christ's descent into hell. No hope without it." Indeed, no description of Christ's person and work is complete without reference to the same -- reference, that is, in some form at least to the reality that Christ has suffered hell itself on behalf of his people.

Christ inhabited hell. But not, as Rome would have us believe, tomorrow in the liturgical calendar (Holy Saturday). He inhabited hell today (Good Friday), when he drank the cup of God's wrath against our sin to the very dregs, and so freed us from ever having to down a single drop of the same. Praise be to God for Christ's descent into hell.

Calvin apparently lived with a profound awareness of the potential for death that constantly accompanies us as human beings. In 1.17.10 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer provided a rather sobering catalog of the "innumerable ... deaths that threaten" us in our day to day existence. It's intriguing, and perhaps profitable, to explore that catalog and reflect upon the ways in which our modern (sense of) vulnerability to death measures up to at least one man's (sense of) the same five hundred years ago.

"We need not," Calvin begins, "go beyond ourselves [to discern danger of death]. Since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases ... a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction and without [living] a life enveloped, as it were, with death." No doubt the bubonic plague, which by some accounts destroyed nearly half of Europe's population in the 14th century, figured among the "thousand diseases" Calvin has in mind, even if in his day the plague appeared only in regional outbreaks. Of course, vaccines and antibiotics have recently given humankind the edge over this and many other diseases, but fatal diseases (for example, various forms of cancer) persist, as most of us know only too well.

"For what else would you call it [but 'life enveloped, as it were, with death']," Calvin continues, "when [man] neither freezes nor sweats without danger?"  It's easy to forget, living in our climate controlled environments, how susceptible we actually are as human beings to cold and heat. Apparently humans must retain a body temperature between 70 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit to stay alive, and this requires avoiding any protracted exposure to external temperatures below 40 degrees or above 95, a rather alarming truth given temperatures nearly everywhere on earth that regularly transgress those boundaries. However talented we've become, at least in developed portions of the world, at shielding ourselves from fatal temperatures, we've not discovered ways of making our bodies per se less vulnerable to heat or cold. Extreme temperatures still take lives.

"Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs." Calvin perceived every mode of early modern transport to pose at least some danger of death. I suspect that we as modern folk are more vulnerable to transport-related death than our early modern counterparts. For one thing, we're much more mobile. For another, we've employed our God-given intelligence to develop modes of transport that are surely expedient but only relatively safe, especially when compared with the slow but steady art of walking to one's destination. We insist, for example, in hurtling past one another at insane speeds in small metal boxes, trusting in a pair of thin yellow lines and one another's eyesight and sanity to keep us from fatal collision. Or in launching ourselves 30,000 plus feet in the air, trusting not only in the skill of engineers and pilots (whom we've never met) but also in the ability of mechanics to slow the inevitable progress of the larger metal boxes we fly in towards mechanical failure and (mid-flight) breakdown. And so on. Travel is fatally dangerous, as -- again -- many of us know only too well.

"If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend's, harm awaits." It's intriguing that Calvin anticipates harm -- and especially death -- from a weapon in "your hand" or "a friend's" to the exclusion of other potential weapon-bearers. The danger posed by a weapon in the hand of an enemy is ostensibly so obvious it doesn't even merit mention. Calvin clearly can't be marshalled in defense of that opinion expressed by so many that more guns equals greater safety for everyone. I'm sure many modern Americans will wish to take exception -- whether on the basis of political persuasion, a particular interpretation of the second amendment, or sheer enthusiasm for weapons -- to Calvin's claim that arming one's self equals greater danger than safety, but the reality that legalized, private weapons in America (at least) are much more commonly employed in suicides and accidental deaths than self-defense lends some support to his perspective.

"All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden." I appreciate Calvin's singling out of snakes as particularly dangerous to human beings. It makes me think he might have shared something of my own admittedly neurotic fear of even the most harmless of snakes (just ask my wife). Nothing baffles me more than the choice some people make to keep snakes as pets within their homes. Surely that kind of insanity must be wholly modern in origin.

"Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you." What home owner hasn't experienced this sentiment? Perhaps our modern homes are more structurally sound than early modern buildings were. And, best case scenario, fire alarms alert us to the danger that flames pose to us in our places of residence. But even the most solid of our homes are susceptible to destruction from a number of elements and/or natural disasters. And, thus, so too are we within them.

"I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad." Actually, Calvin, you've not passed over these things. You've just mentioned them. And rightly so. Few realities pose as much danger to us in this fallen world as one another. Historical research into crime and murder in pre-modern times is a fairly recent academic phenomenon, and the initial results may surprise some. The medieval and early modern periods were apparently much more violent than our own modern age. In fact, the western world's overall homicide rate declined rather significantly in the seventeenth-century, and (thankfully) hasn't rebounded. The jury is still out on exactly why, but most scholars believe it was a product of stronger, more centralized states possessing the machinery to deal more effectively with perpetrators of violent crime. On the other hand, aggravated assault and robbery rates did climb significantly during the last several decades of the last century in America (even if the homicide rate remained more or less constant). Whatever the numbers ultimately mean, we're still rather obviously a threat to one another.

"Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?" Calvin rarely receives criticism for being too cheery. But his real point in highlighting the dangers that folk in his day (and ours) face is not to induce despair. It is, rather, to make us grateful for God's providential care that keeps us from any number of disasters, and permits those (and only those) to reach us which are ultimately for our good. Herein lays great comfort and joy. When "a godly man" comes to understand God's providence, "he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. [...] His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it."

Perhaps, then, regular and sober estimation of the dangers of death surrounding us is in order. Such should finally lead us to grateful and confident reliance upon our Father, who has, after all, wisely determined the boundaries of our existence. And God's providence in our lives, we must remember, is wholly informed by his tender love for us, love evidenced by the fact that he gave us his very Son to suffer true death, alienation from Him, in our stead, and on the basis of the same extends to us the ultimate gift of eternal safety in his own presence.

Sodom's Great Sin?

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Sodom. Arguably the most notorious city in Scripture. We cannot read or hear its name without our thoughts running to certain sins (most likely sexual in kind) that famously found a home there.

Given John Calvin's reputation for a certain moral rigidity and/or prudishness, we might expect him to find much fodder in the biblical narrative of Sodom's demise (Gen. 19.1-29) for pontifications against sexual perversion. Indeed, we might expect to find in Calvin's comments on Sodom moral judgments and consequent rhetoric applicable to our present day cultural setting, wherein certain sexual acts which Scripture denounces have been normalized if not glorified.

On both scores Calvin disappoints. Indeed, if we approach Calvin expecting him to guide us, with his comments on Sodom, into a parable of the modern West's moral failures and pending destruction at God's hand, we will walk away frustrated and -- best case scenario -- alert to the fact that Calvin, in the moral judgments he forms on the basis of Sodom's history, is pointing a finger at us more than our secular contemporaries.

It's not that Calvin is uninterested in the apparent attempt of Sodom's male populace to rape two visitors to the city. He labels that attempt "execrable wickedness" and "vial and outrageous barbarism." He deems it "diabolical" that "all [of Sodom's men] so readily conspired to perpetrate [that] most abominable crime." But his judgment of that "crime" is tempered by at least three convictions: firstly, that "it is probable that there were some" among Sodom's residents "who fanned the flame" more than others; some, that is, who were culpable above and beyond others for inciting the "collected troop" to propagate such wickedness. Secondly, that this level of wickedness in Sodom was "quite a new thing." Calvin supposes, in other words, that immorality in Sodom reached its peak at precisely that point when God sent his ministering Angels both to judge Sodom and rescue Lot and his family from the same. And thirdly (and most critically), Calvin believes the "execrable wickedness" on display in Sodom in Gen. 19.1-10 has roots which run much, much deeper than sexual perversion.

Calvin takes his cue in this regard from Ezekiel 16.48-49, in which text God reproves his bride, Israel, by likening her to Sodom, and in that process names Sodom's fundamental sin. "Now this," God himself says to his people, "was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Calvin comments: "Although Moses ... explains [in Gen. 19] the most filthy crime which reigned in Sodom, we must nevertheless remember what Ezekiel teaches, that the men of Sodom did not fall at once into such execrable wickedness; but that, in the beginning, luxury from an abundance of bread prevailed, and that, afterwards, pride and cruelty followed." Calvin judges this development of more heinous practices in Sodom an instance of that divine retribution for sin described in Rom. 1.18-28. "At length," he writes, "when they were given up to a reprobate mind, they were also driven headlong into brutal lusts." Nevertheless, there is notable continuity between Sodom's final and most brutal act of perversion, the attempt to rape strangers, and their earliest and fundamental perversion, the hoarding of food and wealth and reluctance to share the same with those in need. A lack of love for others is apparent from the beginning to the end of Sodom's moral slide.

Sodom stands in stark contrast, then, to Lot, who much like Abraham in Gen. 18, proves to be an exemplar of charity in the particular form of hospitality offered to Sodom's angelic visitors (Gen. 19.1-3). Sodom's citizens seek to exploit these strangers; Lot offers them accommodation, food (indeed, "a feast" according to Gen. 19.3), and -- at length -- protection (at rather considerable peril to himself). Lot receives much praise from Calvin in this regard: "It appears from the fact that Lot went out and exposed himself to danger how faithfully he observed the sacred right of hospitality. It was truly a rare virtue that he preferred the safety and honor of the guests whom he had once undertaken to protect to his own life. Yet this degree of magnanimity is required from the children of God: that where duty and fidelity are concerned, they should not spare themselves." In sum, Lot preferred the needs and desires of others -- even those who could not to all appearances reciprocate his kindness -- to his own, while his compatriots were happy to sacrifice the dignity and well-being of others on the altar of their own lust.

The crucial question for us, then, is this: do we more reflect the character of Lot (and Abraham, as like Lot a paragon of charity) or Sodom's citizens in our own lives? If we define Sodom's sin by its most extreme manifestation, we very likely lose the opportunity -- and it is, by God's grace, an opportunity -- to see that sin reflected in our own lives, and so to repent of it. But if, like Calvin (and following Scripture's own lead), we define Sodom's sin according to its root -- if we define it, that is, as arrogance and abundance coupled with disinterest in the plight of those in need -- we might find that we have more in common with Sodom's infamous citizenry than we initially supposed. Arrogance, abundance, and disinterest in the poor and needy can, after all, be found in persons and institutions that take the name of Christ as much, arguably, as they can be found in persons and institutions that don't.

"Therefore," Calvin advises, "let us cultivate temperance and frugality" -- as well, of course, as charity -- "and let us always fear, lest a superfluity of food should impel us to luxury; lest our minds should be infected with pride on account of our wealth, and lest delicacies should tempt us to give the reins to our lust." 

But in the midst of such warnings, Calvin reserves an implicit word of comfort and encouragement for those who find themselves without a superfluity of food and/or other necessities and goods: "Let us also hence learn that God best provides for our salvation when he cuts off those superfluities which serve to the pampering of the flesh; and when, for the purpose of correcting excessive self-indulgence, he banishes us from a sweet and pleasant plain to a desert mountain."

Somewhat curiously, Calvin judged "the great number of inns" populating the landscape of his day to be rather obvious "evidence of our depravity" -- the "our" in question being, in the first instance, early modern Europeans. What prompted such disapproval of something as seemingly innocuous, if not romantic to modern eyes, as the early modern inn? Early modern inns provided food and lodging for travelers, as well as a convenient place, especially in urban settings, for locals to gather, have a drink, and take in the recent gossip. Such being so, it's tempting to assume Calvin's disparagement of inns stemmed from simple aversion to drinking and gossiping as such. Or perhaps the innkeeper's wish to turn a profit in providing food, drink, and accommodation to others prompted Calvin's censorial comments. Calvin, after all, was known to take a swing now and then (cf. his commentary on Isaiah 58.7) at those who pursued their vocation toward the end of padding their pockets rather than serving their fellow man -- no matter the efforts of certain folk to enlist Calvin as a champion for modern day economies which make peace with, or even endorse, human greed.

But no. Whatever Calvin's views on (excessive) drinking, gossiping, and profiting/profiteering, his distaste for inns stemmed from other considerations. Calvin disapproved of inns because he believed that persons travelling -- i.e., those who frequent inns -- should be offered food, drink, and accommodation cost-free in private homes. Inns, simply put, testify to the failure of (Christian) folk to extend hospitality -- that is, food, drink, and accommodation -- to those in need. Inns, in other words, "prove...that the principal duty of humanity has become obsolete among us."

Calvin's admittedly brief tirade against inns and insight into what the same say about the ethical state of a culture follow from observation of Abraham's apparent zeal for hospitality as evidenced by the events of Genesis 18.1-8. In that text Abraham spots "three men" (vs. 2) -- three travelers -- making their way past his home and prevails on them to stop, rest, and eat. In doing so he proves to be the perfect model of hospitable behavior. And Calvin judges hospitality, in turn, to be utmost proof and the principal instance of charity towards others.

"Hospitality," the reformer writes, "holds the chief place among [the] services [of charity]" which one might perform in relation to another. Why so? "Because it is no common virtue to assist strangers, from whom there is no hope of reward. For men in general are wont, when they do favors to others, to look for a return; but he who is kind to unknown guests and persons, proves himself to be disinterestedly liberal." Abraham's actions toward the three passersby of Gen. 18 are, then, perfect illustration of the disinterested liberality which exists at the heart of hospitality: "Wherefore the humanity of Abraham deserves no slight praise; because he freely invites men who were to him unknown, through whom he had received no advantage, and from whom he had no hope of mutual favors."

So remarkable, in fact, is Abraham's apparent disinterested liberality in Gen. 18, that Calvin questions -- following other unnamed interpreters -- whether Abraham recognized those whom he served to be more than men. The biblical narrative, of course, eventually unmasks two of these three men as angels, and the other -- at least in Calvin's judgment -- as Christ in pre-incarnate human form (i.e., a Christophany). But Scripture also leads Calvin to reject the notion that Abraham recognized the genuine identity of the three persons before him. There is, firstly, the statement of Gen. 18.2 that Abraham looked and beheld "three men" before him. There is, secondly, the statement of Heb. 13.2 that certain persons in salvation history have "entertained angels unawares," which statement Calvin reads as a direct reference to Abraham and the events depicted in Gen. 18.

The angels of Gen. 18 were, then, "received by the holy man as by one who intended to discharge a duty towards men.... It was therefore a merely human and civil honor which he paid them." Of course, the fact that Abraham initially recognized (and fed) his guests as men doesn't preclude the reader from recognizing their true identity from the first, and so from asking -- as Calvin does -- how beings without natural (or permanent) bodies can eat food at all, or what happened to the food they ate when their temporary human bodies were discarded! Calvin seems to entertain the possibility that when these beings laid aside the human form with which they were temporarily entrusted, the food they had eaten remained, dropping to the ground in whatever state of digestion it had reached in those temporary bodies. But he concludes otherwise: "As God speedily annihilated those bodies which had been created for a temporary use, so there will be no absurdity in saying that the food itself was destroyed together with their bodies."

However speculative and ultimately unfruitful Calvin's thoughts on angelic digestion might be, his comments on hospitality (or the lack thereof in modern cultures) bear much practical import for present day persons. If Calvin judged early modern Europe depraved on account of the presence of numerous inns, what would he make of modern day America, with its cluster of hotel and motel chains competing for business at nearly every exit on the nation's freeways?

Whether the number of hotels, motels, lodges, and inns at any given location is really inversely proportionate to a nation's moral health is, of course, debatable. Regardless, Calvin recalls us to a virtue -- namely, hospitality -- which is decidedly biblical and, arguably at least, much neglected in the present. The author of Hebrews states our obligation rather bluntly: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers." Most of us, I'd wager, struggle to muster up the moral energy to extend hospitality to persons we don't know all that well in our own churches. Extending hospitality to those who occupy even more remote circles of our attention -- to those who genuinely have very little if anything, even appreciation, to offer us in return -- never crosses our minds. On this score we might take a lesson from Abraham, and from Calvin who highlights the patriarch's remarkable charity to what at (his) first glance appeared to be nothing but tired travelers -- persons least in a position to reciprocate kindnesses received. 

Scripture's account of God's command to Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" (Gen. 17.11; KJV) affords Calvin ample opportunity to reflect on the reality and nature of sacramental signs. Thus he is keen, in his comments on this and surrounding verses, to emphasize the close relationship of sacramental signs to God's covenant word of promise (and so the need to articulate that word of promise when administering said signs). He is equally keen to highlight the critical role that such signs, being "sculpture[s] and image[s] of that grace of God which the word more fully illustrates," play in sustaining human faith. He is likewise keen to insist that God's promises are themselves, apart from those signs, "effectual to... salvation," and so to discourage his readers from "restrict[ing] God's own effectual working [of the spiritual realities that sacraments signify] to those signs." And closely following from the last point, he is keen to censure any person who holds God's sacramental signs in contempt, and so -- "feigning himself to be contented with the bare promise" -- violates God's covenant "by an impious severance of the sign and the word" (i.e., by a failure to observe the sacrament).

Yet Calvin does not fail, in the midst of such sacramentologizing, to note the remarkable character of what God actually commands Abraham to do in Gen. 17.11. God's bidding of Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" is particularly noteworthy, in Calvin's estimation, given the unprecedented nature (to Calvin's knowledge) of such a surgical procedure in the ancient world, not to mention the primitive nature (again to Calvin's knowledge) of ancient medicine if measured in terms of proper surgical tools, adherence to principles of hygiene, possibilities for anesthesia, and so on.

"Very strange and unaccountable would this command at first sight appear," the Reformer reckons. Calvin further speculates about what Abraham's thought process might have been regarding this "strange and unaccountable... command": "this might [have] come into his mind, '...if, by this symbol, [God] would consecrate me to himself as a servant, why has he put me off to extreme old age? What does this mean, that I cannot be saved unless I, with one foot almost in the grave, thus mutilate myself?'" Reservations about circumcising himself (and his household) might, Calvin reflects, have likewise stemmed from the prospect of "acute pain" associated with the act, some "danger of [the loss of] life," and the almost certain consequence of being made the "laughing-stock" of his immediate world. 

Such consideration of Abraham's sentiments toward the act he was bid to perform ultimately serves to highlight the remarkable character of Abraham's faith and obedience. "He must, of necessity, have been entirely devoted to God," Calvin reasons, "since he did not hesitate to inflict upon himself [that] wound." Abraham likewise "circumcised the whole of his family as he had been commanded," testimony both to Abraham's obedience and to the respect and trust he had previously earned from his servants, who "meekly receive[d] the [same] wound, which was both troublesome and the occasion of shame to carnal sense." Abraham's promptness in obeying God also deserves note: "he does not defer the work to another day, but immediately obeys the Divine mandate."

All in all, one gets the impression that Calvin considers Abraham's willingness to trust and obey God in this command almost as extraordinary as his subsequent willingness to trust and obey God when ordered to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar some years later.

But Calvin is equally keen to discern some motive on God's part for issuing such a strange command, beyond (of course) the appropriateness of the ritual commanded to represent the peculiar promise of God's covenant. And, naturally, Calvin succeeds in this, ultimately arguing that God's command served its own peculiar role in humbling Abraham.

On this score again the sign corresponds to God's word of promise, which itself elicits humility by reminding Abraham (and every true believer) that ultimate blessing lies outside any person's grasp and is freely offered to those (and only those) who understand and feel their inability to seize such blessing by some effort or merit of their own. God's command to Abraham to circumcise himself and his household humbles the patriarch in two distinct ways. Abraham is humbled, first of all, by the sheer and simple "shame" associated with the act he is ordered to perform. "It was necessary," Calvin comments, "for Abraham to become a fool , in order to prove himself obedient to God."

But Abraham is humbled even more profoundly by God's further instructions, having just identified circumcision as "a sign of the covenant between you and me," to circumcise both his sons and his slaves without any apparent distinction between the two. By these further instructions "the pride... of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons, gathers together both freemen and slaves."

Calvin's logic runs something like this: by administering the sign of the covenant to his slaves, Abraham was -- at God's express bidding -- extending God's twofold promise of redemption through the Seed and inheritance of a (heavenly) land to persons who, at least according to their earthly station, never expected (nor were expected) to inherit much. Abraham was, in other words, reminded that God shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11) in the distribution of his grace and gifts, no matter man's natural proclivity to privilege sons over slaves in the bequeathing of material blessings. The truth so clearly expressed in Gal. 3.28-29, then, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female," but all are equally "heirs according to promise" was foreshadowed at the earliest expression of God's promise, when Abraham extended the sign of said promise to all (both slave and free) within his household.

Calvin's teaching on this point yields several practical considerations. For one, it reminds us that God seldom -- or rather, never -- shares our biases, whether such be founded on social, economic, racial, or other differences. For another, it reminds us that humility is indispensable to securing a share in God's promise of eternal fellowship with himself. Indeed, God's promise itself induces humility (inasmuch as faith entails humble recognition of one's need). But even in our day, the signs that God has attached to his promise can do their part to hasten the debasing of our pride. Few things, after all, are as un-cool (by the standards of the world) as having water applied to oneself in the Triune name, or regularly breaking bread and sharing a cup in remembrance of Christ with fellow members of Christ's church.

"Hagar, servant of Sarai." So the angel of the Lord addressed the Egyptian slave (Gen. 16.8) who had the great misfortune to be drawn into Abraham and Sarah's scheme to assist the realization of God's promise (Gen. 16.1-6). Upon the surface, this address -- and especially the appellation "servant of Sarai" -- may seem fairly innocuous. But Calvin discovers profound truth in these words.

"By the use of this epithet," he writes, "the angel declares that [Hagar] still remained a servant, though she had escaped the hands of her mistress; because liberty is not to be obtained by stealth, nor by flight, but by manumission." By addressing her as "servant of Sarai," in other words, the angel makes it clear to Hagar that her goal -- namely, riddance of a jealous and harsh master -- is not really within her power to obtain. She remaines a "servant of Sarai" no matter how much distance she puts between herself and Sarah; all she has really secured by her flight, then, is culpability for that flight. Calvin reinforces his reading of the angel's intent in so addressing Hagar by highlighting biblical texts which, to his thinking, confirm the responsibility of servants to remain subject to their masters, however "unjust" such masters might be (cf. Eph. 6.4).

Calvin's point is fair (though arguably curious in light of his previous claim, with reference to Gen. 12.5, that slavery as such constitutes a violation of the "order of nature"). The subsequent point he draws from God's address to Hagar is perhaps less (exegetically) obvious or persuasive, though may be more practical to at least the majority of present-day readers. "Moreover," Calvin continues, "by this expression God shows that he approves of civil government, and that the violation of it is inexcusable."

Given the absence of any obvious reference to "civil government" (or the Christian's responsibility toward the same) in the text, Calvin's transition to this subject seems strange. It's tempting to dismiss this as a random effort on Calvin's part -- largely unrelated to the biblical text in hand -- to reassure civil authorities (say, Geneva's small council or the French crown) that he and like-minded reformers (and their followers) posed no threat to any given state (i.e., that they were not Anabaptists). But as he continues, the logic of Calvin's transition becomes clearer (if not more compelling).

Calvin views the relationship between Sarah and Hagar -- the relationship, that is, between master and servant -- as paradigmatic for the relationship between "lawful authorities" of every kind and their rightful subjects. Thus he ultimately discovers in Hagar's flight and God's corrective to her assumed success in "shaking off the yoke" of Sarah's authority a lesson not only for other slaves (though he judges, somewhat prematurely as it turns out, the "barbarity" of slavery to be largely "abolished" in his time), but also civil subjects (in relation to civil authorities) and children (in relation to their parents). "If the flight of Hagar was prohibited by the command of God, much less will he bear with the licentiousness of a people who rebel against their prince; or with the contumacy of children who withdraw themselves from obedience to their parents."

Calvin is not blind to the reality that "lawful authorities" of each named kind regularly abuse, to some extent or another, the power they lawfully hold over others. "They who have proudly and tyrannically governed shall one day render their account to God." But abuse of authority provides no license to disregard or disobey the same: "meanwhile their asperity is to be borne by their subjects." Elsewhere Calvin qualifies this point ever so slightly by reminding his readers that obedience to God trumps obedience to human persons and institutions. He thus provides some space for (civil) disobedience, but only that which is entirely passive in form, and likely to lead to persecution if not martyrdom.

In sum, then, we gain a rather practical exhortation from Hagar's example: "Whenever it comes into our mind to defraud any [authority] of his [or her] right, or to seek exemption from our proper calling, let the voice of the angel sound in our ears, as if God would draw us back, by putting his own hand upon us." When tempted, in other words, to offer our parents, employers, and/or civil authorities anything less than proper obedience, or otherwise to challenge our station in life, let us hear the words "servant of Sarai" spoken over us and repent of our own rebellious flights (whether real or metaphorical in kind).

But if we stand to learn, from Hagar's flight, a lesson on proper submission to "lawful authorities," we also stand to learn something about Almighty God's tender and fatherly care -- even for the runners -- from God's dealings with Hagar. Calvin discovers tenderness and grace in God's response to Hagar in at least three regards. Grace is evident, first of all, in the gentle, questioning approach the angel of the Lord takes towards Hagar. "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" the angel asks, obviously knowing the answers since he has just addressed her by name ("Hagar") and station ("servant of Sarai"). These questions are, of course, pointed, and intended to produce repentance, but nevertheless tender in comparison to more direct words which might justifiably have been spoken.

Grace is evident, secondly, in the angel's subsequent affirmation to Hagar that "the Lord has listened to your affliction" (Gen. 16.11). Hagar's plight with Sarah, in other words, is fully on God's radar screen, and he will take up her cause. Calvin deems God's interest in Hagar and her predicament all the more remarkable since "we do not read that Hagar, in her difficulties, had recourse to prayer." In other words, God heard Hagar's complaint even when such wasn't directed to him in the form of petition. "It is therefore to be observed," Calvin reasons, "that there are two ways in which God looks down upon men, for the purpose of helping them; either when they, as suppliants, implore his aid; or when he, even unasked, succours them in their afflictions."

But God's tenderness and grace is most evident, thirdly, in the instructions given to Hagar to "return to your mistress and submit to her" (Gen. 16.9). This is counter-intuitive, of course. How can it be gracious to send Hagar back into the storm (as it were) -- back into the hand of a master who resents her and has mistreated her? The profoundly gracious nature of this command stems from the true identity of that specific home towards which Hagar is here (re)directed. As Calvin explains, "that house ... was then the earthly sanctuary of God." In other words, the command issued to Hagar to "return to your mistress" was really a command to return to the bosom of the Church, the peculiar object of God's love and recipient of his promises. By sending Hagar back into "the earthly sanctuary of God," God was essentially situating her as an heir and beneficiary of those things he had pledged to Abraham -- namely, a Seed who would come to rescue God's people from guilt and sin, and a heavenly land in which God himself would be the principal joy and delight.

To put it another way, God sent Hagar back into slavery in order, ultimately, to make her truly free. Armed with that perspective, one suspects Hagar returned to her rather unsavory circumstances with much joy and confidence in her God (cf. Gen. 16.13).

Sarah's problem, in Calvin's estimation, was that she believed the promise of God. Or at least, that was part of her problem -- part, that is, of what actually drove her to let those very strange words pass the threshold of her lips: "Go, sleep with my slave" (Gen. 16.2; NIV).

There's no question, Calvin concedes, that Sarah desired a child per se. But Sarah's "natural impulse" to hear the pitter patter of little feet on ancient near eastern floors hardly accounts for the desperate lengths she went to -- offering her servant to her husband as a concubine -- in order to bring a baby into their nest. Had this merely been a case of pining for a child, the Reformer reasons, "it would rather have come into her mind to do it by the adoption of a son, than by giving place to a second wife." After all, Calvin adds, "we know the vehemence of female jealousy."

It was, rather, knowledge of -- and indeed, confidence in -- God's repeated promise of a child to Abraham (Gen. 12.1-3; Gen. 15.1-4) that drove Sarah to do precisely what she did. Calvin takes it as given that Sarah was "cognizant of those promises which had been so often repeated to her husband." Indeed, the rather desperate plan she hatched in Gen. 16.2 very likely reflected specific familiarity with God's most recent statement to Abraham in Gen. 15.4 that his own biological child would be his heir. Thus far in salvation history neither Abraham nor Sarah had received, at least to our knowledge, any corresponding affirmation that Abraham's offspring would also be her biological child. One can, then, perhaps understand her reasoning: "While contemplating the promise, she becomes forgetful of her own right, and thinks of nothing but the bringing forth of children to Abram. [...] While she reflects upon her own barrenness and old age, she begins to despair of offspring" -- she begins, that is, to despair of the realization of God's promise through her -- "unless Abram should have children from some other quarter."

Calvin goes so far as to discover something "laudable" in "Sarai's wish, as regards the end, or the scope to which it tended." Her actions, in other words, reflected a genuine and proper desire to see God's promise come to fruition. Nevertheless, "she was guilty of no light sin." So what precisely was her crime?

Calvin finds fault with Sarah in two regards. First of all, she failed to realize that when God promises some end, he sovereignly supplies and/or orchestrates the means to that end (as he orchestrates all things), and so achieves that end in his own time and manner. God, Calvin thus reminds his readers, is no consequentialist. In God's estimation, the end never justifies the means. The means themselves must conform to God's holy standards, regardless of whether the particular end in view is one of man's devising or God's promising. "However desperate" Sarah considered the situation, "still she ought not to have attempted anything at variance with the will of God and the legitimate order of nature." She should not, in other words, have violated that "divine law by which two persons [are] mutually bound together," regardless of her (possibly) proper desire to see God's promise realized.

Sarah's plan and efforts, together with her husband, to help God's promise along (so to speak) were, ultimately, a failure in faith. "The faith of both of them was defective; not indeed with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded; since they hastened to acquire the offspring which was to be expected from God without observing the legitimate ordinance of God." In other words, faith at times looks directly to God's promises -- Abraham and Sarah had this part figured out. At other times faith looks not directly to God's promises but to God's character and commandments. After all, God has not revealed to us every detail of what he has in store for us, whether in this life or the next. It is, accordingly, an exercise of faith to conform to God's righteous standards even when we can't for the life of us figure out what God is up to, or how our present circumstances might lend themselves to the realization of his ultimate purposes for (and promises to) us. Abraham and Sarah failed in this regard. With eyes fixed on God's promise, they lost sight of God's law, and stumbled and fell.

But with characteristic insight (not to mention a slight tendency to indulge in speculation), Calvin discovers one further fault in Sarah that led her to plan and execute her crime. "What fault then shall we find in her? Surely that she did not, as she ought, cast this care into the bosom of God, without binding his power to the order of nature, or restraining it to her own sense. And then, by neglecting to infer from the past what would take place in future, she did not regard herself as in the hand of God, who could again open the womb which he had closed." Simply put, Sarah failed to pray. She failed to take her anxiety about the fulfillment of God's promise to God himself, and cast it upon him. And she failed to pray because she lost sight not only of God's power to achieve whatever he purposes, but also his tender and fatherly compassion towards her and her plight.

Calvin's claim regarding Sarah's failure to "cast [her] care into the bosom of God" is, as intimated above, speculative. But it rings true. And it provides us with an important lesson. It reminds us, which is just what Calvin intends, that prayer and faith are mutually supportive. Prayer is itself an act of faith. Prayer, in turn, sustains faith. Prayer sustains a similar, symbiotic relationship with our perception of God's tender and fatherly concern for us. Prayer is itself an acknowledgement of God's compassion. Prayer, in turn, stretches and informs our sensitivity to God's tender care.

In sum, then, we learn two valuable things from Sarah's unfortunate example in Gen. 16.3. First, we must trust God not only to deliver upon his promises, but to do so in his own time and manner. Faith sometimes leans more heavily upon God's character than upon any specific promise. And faith in who God is naturally prompts obedience to God's commandments. Second, we pray not only because we do believe, but also in order to believe. The frequency and fervor of our prayers provides some indication of the measure of our faith. But where faith proves to be weak, prayers proves to be one critical remedy -- which is, of course, good reason to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5.17), "casting all [our] anxieties on [God], because he cares for [us]" (1 Peter 5.7).

Given the controversies surrounding justification in his day, it's no surprise that Calvin camps out on Gen. 15.6 ("[Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness") for a significant space of time in his commentary on the first book of the Bible. This text, after all, figures critically in Paul's defense of justification by faith (alone) in both Romans and Galatians (cp. Rom. 3.21-4.25 & Gal. 3.1-9). Operating (like Paul) on the principle that "what is... related concerning [Abraham]" in Gen. 15 "is applicable to all," Calvin reflects at length on the nature and named fruit of Abraham's faith in God's repeat promise of a spiritual seed/Seed and a heavenly inheritance (Gen. 15.1-5; cf. Gal. 3.16). 

More surprising, albeit limited, is what the Reformer says in this context about Abraham's (and thus our own) doubt in relation to God's promise. No matter its ultimate theological import, Calvin reads Gen. 15.6 in its immediate context, and consequently notes the rather remarkable expression of Abraham's uncertainty regarding God's purposes for him that occurs just two verses after we read of Abraham's faith and its justifying fruit. When God reiterates, in Gen. 15.7, the promise of a (heavenly) land for Abraham and his (spiritual) children (the very promise Abraham has just believed), Abraham responds, in Gen. 15.8, with a question which suggests something other than complete confidence in God's ability and/or purpose to deliver on the same: "Lord God, how am I to know that I will possess [this]?"

One might expect Calvin to censure Abraham for this apparent instance of doubt regarding God's promise. In fact, however, he is rather forgiving of the Patriarch. The grace he extends to Abraham stems in part from the observation that "the protracted delay" between God's promise and its fulfillment "was no small obstacle to Abram's faith." It stems, I think, in equal part from the observation that every true believer who lives between the promise of eternal reward and its fulfillment is, like Abraham, plagued at times by some uncertainty about the things for which he has come to hope and/or the purpose of the One who promises those things.

In his treatment of Abraham's faith, Calvin goes out of his way to insist that good works are antithetical to genuine belief (in the context of justification). This follows from "the mutual relation between the free promise and faith." Insofar as forgiveness and restoration from sin are freely offered to sinners on the basis of the promised Seed's person and work, efforts to earn forgiveness and restoration constitute insults of the highest order. Only the worst kind of ingrate, after all, responds to the receipt of a birthday present by pulling out his wallet and insisting upon paying the giver for the gift.

But doubt, unlike good works, can apparently coincide with genuine belief. Indeed, doubt can point to the existence of true faith: "[Abraham's] questioning with God is rather a proof of faith than a sign of incredulity." Calvin explains: "The Lord... concedes to his children that they may freely express any objection which comes into their mind. For he does not act so strictly with them as not to suffer himself to be questioned. Yea, the more certainly Abram was persuaded that God was true, and the more he was attached to His word, so much the more familiarly did he disburden his cares into God's bosom." Of course, such an assumption (or rather, conviction) frees believers to deal with doubt exactly as Abraham did: taking it directly to God in prayer.

Calvin's comments on doubt in relation to faith and God's promise are heavily informed, I suggest, by the Reformer's characteristic sensitivity to the tender, fatherly nature of God's relationship to believers. After all, a kind father (such as God truly is) who has guaranteed some good (say, a trip to the sea) to his children doesn't reprimand them for unbelief when they pester him with questions about whether and when he will deliver on his promise. Indeed, such pestering is proof that his children nourish a proper expectation and hope for the joy held out before them. The absence of such pestering would point to a conviction that the promise itself was vapid, or to indifference towards the good promised, sentiments opposed to faith and hope respectively.

If there is solace to be found in Calvin's conviction, drawing on Abraham's example, that true (justifying) faith leaves room for doubt, there is equal solace to be found in his observations regarding God's response to Abraham's uncertainty. God does one better than reassure Abraham (or us) with a further word of promise, as thoroughly sufficient as such a word should be. God answers Abraham's doubt regarding his covenant word with a covenant ritual, a veritable feast for Abraham's senses in which God essentially pledges himself to Self-destruction should he fail to deliver on his promise (Gen. 15.9-21).

God's response to Abraham's doubt is every bit as paradigmatic for present-day believers' experience as Abraham's faith and doubt as such. "For the Lord, in order more deeply to affect his own people, and more efficaciously penetrate their minds, after he has reached their ears by his word, also arrests their eyes by external symbols, that eyes and ears may consent together." The rituals by which God confirms his word of promise to us (namely, baptism and the Lord's Supper) may, upon the surface, seem as strange and irrelevant to our doubts as God's solution to Abraham's doubt first (perhaps) did to the Patriarch. It's unlikely, after all, that Abraham immediately felt his anxieties regarding God's purpose for him resolved when God, in response to his questioning, told him to gather a cow, a goat, ram, and two birds (Gen. 15.9). But if, like Abraham, we wait and see how God employs such "external symbols" to confirm his promise to us, we stand to gain substantial (divine) medicine for our doubt. Thus the sacraments, which both symbolize and secure/enlarge our union with Christ, our designed by God to resolve our anxieties and bolster our confidence that we will one day possess in full the fruit of our union with Christ, which is nothing less than eternal fellowship with God himself. "Let us therefore learn meekly to embrace those helps which God offers for the confirmation of our faith."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, and your exceedingly great reward." So says God to Abraham in the opening verse of Genesis 15. Upon first glance, Calvin admits, God's encouragement to Abraham "to be of good courage" seems strange if not "superfluous." In the immediately preceding chapter Abraham has waged a rather successful war against five local kings who had the cheek -- on the heels of their own successful military outing -- to carry off Abraham's nephew Lot and his belongings (along with the rest of Sodom's people and possessions). Abraham has also demonstrated his financial security (and, more importantly, faith in God's provision) by refusing the King of Sodom's generous (sycophantic?) offer to let him keep the town's recovered goods. And, most remarkably of all, he has received the blessing of "God Most High" (Gen. 14.19) from the upraised hands of the Priest-King Melchizedek, and in that process glimpsed an "image of Christ" himself, the true Priest-King whom Melchizedek prefigured. All in all, it would seem that "Abram's affairs were prosperous and were proceeding according to his wish." Why, then, the encouragement not to fear?

Calvin notes that some commentators, not seeing any obvious reason why Abraham should be frightened at this point in the biblical narrative, "conjecture" that the patriarch, "having returned after the deliverance of his nephew, was subjected to some annoyance of which no mention is made by Moses." Calvin, for his part, refuses to engage in such speculation about events which Scripture doesn't record, and succeeds -- through careful consideration of those which it does -- in discovering plausible reasons why Abraham might require such encouragement specifically in light of his recent achievements.

Calvin supposes, first of all, that Abraham might have rightly reckoned on reprisal from the kings he had so recently routed. "Abram had so provoked them that they might with fresh troops, and with renewed strength, again attack the land of Canaan." Calvin also notes that "as signal success commonly draws its companion envy along with it, Abram [likely] began to be exposed to many disadvantageous remarks, after he had dared to enter into conflict with an army which had conquered four kings." Calvin further guesses that Abraham's military feats would have engendered "an unfavorable suspicion" among his nearest neighbors that "he would turn the strength which he had tried against foreign kings" against them.

In short, Calvin judges that Abraham's accomplishments in Genesis 14 "rendered him formidable and an object of suspicion to many, while it inflamed the hatred of others." It is no big surprise, then, that come Genesis 15 Abraham "should have been troubled, and should anxiously have revolved many things, until God animated him anew, by the confident expectation of his assistance."

However curious Calvin's efforts to understand the fonts of Abraham's fear might seem, they ultimately serve to highlight the tender and timely fashion in which Almighty God addressed the patriarch. In Calvin's estimation God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15:1 in order to "soothe his sorrowing and anxious servant with some consolation." Interestingly, Calvin has emphasized -- in his comments on the immediately preceding recorded speech of God to Abraham (Gen. 13.14-17) -- God's concern to alleviate Abraham's sadness with his word of promise. Here the Reformer emphasizes God's concern to alleviate Abraham's anxiety with that same word of promise.

And God's word to Abraham is once again a word of promise. The imperative "do not be afraid," which introduces God's speech, is no bare precept (as it were), no injunction to buck up and cease being so cowardly without consideration of any positive reasons for courage. It is a precept rooted in a particular promise (or rather, two): that God himself is Abraham's shield and exceedingly great reward. "Although the promise comes last in the text," Calvin observes, "it yet has precedence in order; because on it depends the confirmation, by which God frees the heart of Abram from fear." And again: "The promise... that God will be Abram's shield and his exceeding great reward holds the first place; to which is added the exhortation, that, relying upon such a guardian of his safety, and such an author of his felicity, [Abraham] should not fear."

Rightly understood, the promises made to Abraham on this occasion are no less promises to us, and so equally means by which we might suppress our own anxieties. "Let us know that the same blessing is promised to us all, in the person of this one man. For, by this voice, God daily speaks to his faithful ones." In other words, God is our shield and our exceedingly great reward. But what do these things mean, and how might they encourage us in times of fear and trembling?

"God ascribes to himself the office and property of a shield, for the purpose of rendering himself the protector of our salvation; we ought to regard this promise as a brazen wall, so that we should not be excessively fearful in any dangers." Significantly, God's commitment -- by virtue of this promise -- "to defend us," "to preserve us in safety under his hand," and "to protect us by his power," is specifically one to safeguard our salvation. This promise does not, in other words, render us imperviousto every temporal foe; it does render us impervious to every eternal foe (sin, Satan, death, hell, etc.). Our paths may yet lead through darkness and the shadow of death in this world, but nothing can breach the wall (God himself) that safeguards our salvation and eternal inheritance.

Of course, the second part of God's promise tells us something significant about what that eternal inheritance is. "The other member of the sentence follows, in which God declares that he alone is sufficient for the perfection of a happy life to the faithful.... In God alone we have the highest and complete perfection of all good things.... [God] not only pours upon us the abundance of his kindness, but offers himself to us, that we may enjoy him. Now what is there more, which men can desire, when they really enjoy God?"

This latter promise reminds us that our salvation and hope consists not primarily in a place or possessions (even gold-plated ones), but in a Person -- or rather, Persons; i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eternal fellowship with the Triune God (and secondarily with other believers) is the true and happy end prepared for God's people, and that "reward" is and will be, well, truly rewarding. It is a pleasure we know now in part, but will know more fully in the life to come.

In sum, then, the promises which God delivers to Abraham on this occasion, much like his previous promises (rightly understood), serve to orient believers first of all to the redemption which is theirs in Christ, and secondly to the eternal inheritance which is theirs by virtue of Christ's person and work. As such they are proper medicine for fear of every conceivable kind. When our fears are fueled by some perceived jeopardy to our person or possessions in this life (as Abraham's fears apparently were, and ours so often are), these promises serve, at least by implication, to remind us that something much more fearful rightly belongs to us as sinful children of Adam (cf. Matt. 10.28). They simultaneously remind us that sin and its deadly consequences -- those things which should really make us afraid -- are, after all, nothing to be afraid of. God encircles us with a wall that cannot be breached. He will let nothing jeopardize our most valuable possession and inheritance, which is nothing short of himself (Rom. 8.28; John 17.3).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Calvin assumes that Abraham's divorce from his nephew Lot (Gen. 13.8-9) caused the eminent patriarch considerable pain. "There is no doubt," the Reformer writes, "that the wound inflicted by that separation was very severe, since he was obliged to send away one who was not less dear to him than his own life."

Such assumptions about Abraham's regard for Lot might surprise present-day students of Scripture. The biblical text, after all, seems to say precious little about the patriarch's sentiments towards his nephew. One could, perhaps, deduce some degree of affection towards Lot from Abraham's later efforts at intercession on behalf of Sodom after Lot had taken up residence there (Gen. 18.22-33). But Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for his brother's son (Gen. 11.27) seem to stem from other considerations.

There is, firstly for Calvin, the simple fact that Lot is family to Abraham. Calvin, in other words, seems to take it for granted that extended family relationships necessarily entail fondness. That assumption might prove foreign to present day (especially American) persons, simply because, whatever expectations we harbor for affection within the nuclear family, we tend to accept cooler relations with extended family members as fairly common. There may be multiple reasons for that reality; the fact that modern folk are far more mobile than their predecessors, and thus less likely to live in the vicinity of extended family members, surely plays some part. Whatever the case, it's likely that Calvin's expectation of closer extended family relations reflects, more so than modern (American) social norms, ancient near eastern reality.

Calvin's assumptions about Abraham's feelings for Lot seem to stem, secondly, from consideration that Abraham had, thus far in his life, no immediate children of his own. God's promise of progeny for Abraham was yet to be fulfilled. This, coupled with the fact that Lot's father Haran had died when the entire family still lived in Ur, leads Calvin to suppose that Lot was something like an adopted child to Abraham. The patriarch, Calvin asserts, "held [Lot] in the place of an only son."

Thirdly - and, I think, most compellingly - there is the fact, well spotted by Calvin, that Scripture goes out of its way to highlight the fact that God spoke to Abraham in the immediate aftermath of the split between uncle and nephew. "The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, 'Lift up your eyes and look..., for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever'" (Gen. 13.14-15; emphasis mine). Calvin reasons that God addressed Abraham at this precise juncture, and repeated his promise of offspring to him, precisely in order to lift Abraham's spirits from his state of sadness. "When it is said, therefore, that the Lord spoke," Calvin writes, "the circumstance of time requires to be noted; [it is] as if [Moses] ... said that the medicine of God's word was now brought to alleviate [Abraham's] pain."

Calvin is not, of course, claiming that God repeated his promise to Abraham at this precise juncture solely for the sake of providing the patriarch with a pick-me-up. The repetition of the promise also (or rather, ultimately) served to "cherish and confirm Abraham's faith." Calvin is ever keen to make the point that faith rests wholly upon God's promises, and cannot be sustained without regular recourse to them. God's promise of a seed as numerous as the sand (Gen. 13.16), and his promise of the Seed (Gen. 3.15; cf. Gal. 3.16) among Abraham's seed who would ultimately reverse the effects of the fall, was necessary to keep Abraham's expectation and reliance upon God's (saving) provision alive and well.

Nevertheless, Calvin emphasizes more than once his conviction that God's word of promise to Abraham at this particular juncture was both a prop to Abraham's faith and medicine for him in his season of sorrow. "Thus we see how greatly the [divine word] had profited him: not that he had heard anything from the mouth of God to which he had been unaccustomed, but because he had obtained a medicine so seasonable and suitable to his present grief, that he rose with collected energy towards heaven."

Abraham's orientation towards heaven in response to God's promissory medicine requires careful note.  Calvin makes it abundantly clear, with this and more extended statements, that Abraham discovered solace in God's word because he grasped the true nature of God's promise. Abraham realized, in other words, that God was offering him and his (spiritual) descendants, based on the person and work of one particular Descendant, much more than a piece of prime ancient near eastern real estate. And, to be sure, Abraham would appear somewhat ignoble if his sorrow over the loss of one whom he "held... in the place of an only son" could be remedied by reminders of his own pending biological children and increased land holdings. The source, rather, of Abraham's succor was his conviction, based on God's word, that he was ultimately heir to the true Canaan, a land where pain and sorrow have no place (Rev. 21.4) and perfect, permanent relationships -- with God, and with one another -- prevail.

This point is particularly important, since it permits us to recognize that God offers us -- with equal generosity and equal sensitivity to our own seasons of grief -- the very same "medicine" he proffered to Abraham in the patriarch's time of sadness. Indeed, Scripture's record of "the medicine of God's word" of promise which answered Abraham's "pain" ultimately "teaches us that the best remedy for the mitigation and the cure of [our own] sadness is placed in the word of God."

Sadness, of course, can stem from any number of factors. The loss of loved ones, whether through death or the breakdown of relationship, poses particular pain to God's people. Calvin's reflections upon Abraham's grief over the loss of Lot, and God's tender "remedy" to him in the form of his promise, point us towards the best source of solace when we find ourselves suffering similar sorrow. Worldly pleasures might provide temporary distraction from heartache, but God's people have recourse to "medicine" which is particularly "seasonable and suitable to... grief," and they would do well to swallow it whole, as often as they can.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Scripture's account of Abraham's trip from Ur to Canaan via Haran, subsequent ramble through the Promised Land, and short but eventful stay in Egypt before rewinding his course through Canaan, provides Calvin with ample opportunity to reflect upon the nature of human faith in response to God's vocation and promises. "All should form themselves," Calvin contends, "to the imitation of [Abraham's] example" -- his example, that is, of faith. No matter his wife's barren status, Abraham took God at his word when God pledged himself to multiply Abraham's progeny (Gen. 12.2) and make him the father of one particular Man, the long promised Seed (Gen. 3.15), who would bless all peoples with restoration from their guilty and depraved plight (Gen. 12.3; cf. Gal. 3.16). Of course, nothing short of a share in "heaven itself" is at stake in our own "imitation" of Abraham's faith in God's promises (see Rom. 4).

The same narrative affords Calvin the chance to reflect on the less significant, albeit intriguing, subjects of human slavery, travel/expatriation, and worldly wealth.

Comments on slavery follow from the reference to such in Gen. 12.5: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." According to Calvin, "this is the first mention of servitude" in Scripture. Thus "it appears," he suggests, "that not long after the deluge the wickedness of man caused liberty which, by nature, was common to all, to perish with respect to a great part of mankind."

Calvin spends some time pondering how it came to pass that "a great part of mankind" found their natural freedom forfeit. Two possibilities present themselves: either men were driven to sell themselves into slavery by their own poverty, or the victors in some war "compelled those whom they took in battle to serve them." Regardless, "the order of nature was violently infringed" by the introduction of slavery into human experience," because "men," Calvin opines, "were created for the purpose of cultivating mutual society" -- not servitude -- "between each other." Calvin is not, of course, opposed to positions of authority in society: "It is advantageous that some should preside over others." But slavery, he believes, crosses the line into human oppression and violates the basic "equality" which "ought to have been retained" among men "as among brethren."

Calvin's disapproval of slavery, however, does not lead him to endorse uprisings for those who find themselves victims of it. "Although slavery is contrary to that right government which is most desirable, and in its commencement was not without fault; it does not, on this account, follow, that the use of it, which was afterwards received by custom, and excused by necessity, is unlawful." This claim, of course, goes some way toward vindicating Abraham for having apparently possessed "both servants bought with money, and slaves born in his house." It's probable that Calvin also has an eye towards the apostle Paul's apparent instructions to slaves not to seek freedom through dubious means, but to submit to their masters. However much slavery might constitute a "violent infringement" upon the proper "order of nature," no rebellious corrective to such infringement is warranted.

Calvin's comments on travel and expatriation are more scattered, cropping up at various points where Abraham and family are on the move in the narrative. One gets the impression in reading Calvin's comments here that he was rather uncomfortable with the extent of Abraham's migrations, no matter their divine impetus, and wished to discourage his readers from imitating Abraham's movements in addition to Abraham's faith. Thus Calvin accents the divine word which demanded Abraham's initial exodus from Ur, and notes that Abraham and travelling company "were not impelled by levity" to leave their homeland, "as rash and fickle men are wont to be; nor [were they] drawn to other regions by disgust with their own country, as morose persons frequently are; nor were [they] fugitives on account of crime; nor were [they] led away by any foolish hope, or by allurements, as many are hurried hither and thither by their own desires." Calvin's fairly exhaustive list of inappropriate reasons for leaving one's homeland leaves few valid reasons for doing so beyond, of course, that of (like Abraham) being "divinely commanded to go forth."

Calvin is subsequently eager to make it clear that Abraham's migrations within the Promised Land were fueled by persecution from its Canaanite inhabitants, and ultimately served to orient him towards Heaven, and in no way sprung from his having been bitten by the travel bug. "It is certain that he did not voluntarily, and for his own gratification, run hither and thither (as light-minded persons are wont to do); but there were certain necessities which drove him forth, in order to teach him, by continual habit, that he was not only a stranger, but a wretched wanderer in the land of which he was the lord.... In this respect [Abraham] is very unlike many, who are hurried away, by every slight occasion, to desert their proper calling."

Calvin's comments on prosperity follow Scripture's observation that Abraham, following his exodus from Egypt, was "very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 13.2). The Reformer capitalizes on this reference to Abraham's apparent wealth to observe "two extremes" which should be avoided in our own thoughts on prosperity. "Many," he observes, "[wrongly] place angelical perfection in poverty; as if it were impossible to cultivate piety and to serve God, unless riches are cast away." Calvin reprimands such "fanatics [who] repel rich men from the hope of salvation, as if poverty were the only gate of heaven," and astutely observes, without further explanation, that poverty "sometimes involves men in more hindrances [to true faith] than riches."

"On the other hand," Calvin notes, "we must beware of the opposite evil; lest riches should cast a stumbling-block in our way, or should so burden us, that we should the less readily advance towards the kingdom of heaven." Calvin's comments on poverty/prosperity demonstrate a good grasp of the truth that it is not wealth (or the lack thereof) per se, but how one deals with wealth, that dictates the degree of difficulty wealth poses to salvation. After all, Scripture names "the love of money," not money itself, as "the root of all evil" (1 Tim. 6.10), and Paul encourages his readers to imitate him in learning contentment (and, presumably, every other virtue) whether they discover themselves "living in plenty or in want" (Phil. 4.12).

In the end, Calvin's comments on slavery, travel/expatriation, and prosperity are more connected than they might seem, and more connected to the main theme of divine promises and human faith in this biblical passage than they might seem. There is an emphasis in Calvin's comments on each of these subjects upon accepting one's station and place in this life, and -- like Abraham -- setting one's sights upon the Heavenly Canaan that God still promises his children. Whether one finds himself slave or free, Spanish or French, scraping the bottom of the barrel or minted, he shouldn't chiefly busy himself with reconfiguring his earthly portion, but with fulfilling his duties, wherever God has placed him, in humble but confident hope of a heavenly inheritance that will render all earthly circumstances and stations deplorable by comparison. Such resignation, as it were, to one's place and station in life might prove a hard pill to swallow to present-day persons who are regularly sold (and regularly purchase) the gospel of self-reinvention which the modern world peddles. But Calvin's advice, as usual, might have merit.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Scripture's account of Terah and Abraham's departure from Ur of the Chaldeans for Canaan (via Haran) presents Calvin with a difficulty. In Genesis 11.31 it appears that Terah takes the initiative in quitting Chaldea for the greener pastures of some other place. In Genesis 12.4 it appears that Abraham, in response to the divine call (Gen. 12.1), takes the initiative to abandon country and kindred in favor of a land yet to be named.

Calvin takes the line that Abraham, not Terah, orchestrated the family's departure from the city of Ur. In support of this position there is, first of all, the fact that God's call to Abraham to "go from your country and your kindred" makes precious little sense if Abraham had already done so in filial submission to his father. Had Abraham already left Chaldea in Terah's train, he might, Calvin wryly observes, have responded to God's command by insisting: "I have left my country, I am far removed from my kindred." The very substance of God's directive to Abraham, in other words, supposes that Abraham was "settled in his [Chaldean] nest, having his affairs underanged, and living quietly and tranquilly among his relatives."

There is, secondly, the evidence of subsequent canonical references to Abraham's call. In Gen. 15.7, God, again in dialogue with Abraham, names himself as the one who brought Abraham "out from Ur of the Chaldeans," not as the one who directed Abraham to Canaan after Terah had already uprooted the family. So also Joshua names Abraham, not Terah, as the one whom God brought forth from an eastern land of (un)happy idolaters (Joshua 24.2-3). Most definitively, perhaps, there is Stephen's testimony in Acts 7.2-4: "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.' Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans...."

Calvin is also sensitive, thirdly, to the paradigmatic nature of God's call to Abraham. In his view, the divine call which triggers Abraham's departure from idolatrous Ur for an eventual land of Yahweh worshippers serves as a theological model of sorts for that divine call which prompts elect sinners to quit the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of God's Son. Should Abraham have already left idolatrous Ur when God's call came, one might get the impression that God helps those that have to some degree already helped themselves -- that God, in other words, privileges sinners who have cleaned up their act to some extent (and thus set sail from the shores of the kingdom of darkness, even if they haven't yet determined a destination). 

Calvin puts it this way: "This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God. Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works? Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favour? Nay, we must ever recall to mind, (what I have before adduced from the passage in Joshua,) that he was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer." Calvin's understanding of divine election and the outworking of the same in vocation, justification, sanctification, and glorification leaves no room for sinners to prepare themselves for grace.

What, then, are we to make of Genesis 11.31, which seems to suggest that Terah orchestrated the family's departure from idolatrous Ur with the express intent, at least, of reaching Canaan? Based on the evidence cited above, Calvin argues that Terah "was not so much the leader or author of the journey, as the companion of his son." After all, Calvin notes, "the divine command to Abram respecting his departure did not prohibit [Abram] from informing his father that his only reason for leaving him was that he preferred the command of God to all human obligations." When Scripture, then, seemingly "assigns the priority to Terah [in Gen. 11.31], as if Abram had departed under his auspices and direction, rather than by the command of God," it does so with rhetorical respect to that "authority" that Terah naturally had over Abraham. In other words, "this is an honour conferred upon the father's name." "Nor," Calvin adds, "do I doubt that Abraham, when he saw his father willingly obeying [God's call to Abraham], became in return the more obedient to him."

Calvin reserves profuse praise for Terah with regard to his willingness to follow his son from Chaldea to Canaan. "It was," Calvin judges, "difficult for the old man, already broken and failing in health, to tear himself away from his own country.... [But] when he knew that the place, from which his son was commanded to depart, was accursed, it was his wish not to perish there; but he joined himself as an associate with him whom the Lord was about to deliver.... Easy and plausible was the excuse which he might have alleged; namely, that he would remain quietly at home, because he had received no command" (emphasis mine).

We present day believers tend to celebrate Abraham's faith, and make it a model for our own. And rightly so -- Scripture calls us to exercise faith just like that by which Abraham was justified (cf. Rom. 4 & Gal. 3); faith, that is, in the one who leads his people to the eternal Canaan. But if Calvin's take on Terah is right, we would do well to emulate Abraham's father's faith as well. Indeed, Terah's faith was, at least in one regard, more remarkable than his son's: Abraham directly received the divine call; Terah had to trust his son when his son claimed to have received that call.

Of course, in so trusting, Terah became -- ironically -- Abraham's first true son. Scripture, after all, identifies all those who look in faith to God's (ultimate) deliverer/deliverance as "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. His father Terah was one of them. Not the stuff of Sunday School songs, perhaps, but interesting, and potentially inspiring, nonetheless.

Let each of us, then, dare to be a Terah. Terah left Ur for Canaan clinging to the coattails (or their ancient near eastern equivalent) of his son. He made himself "an associate [of] him whom the Lord was about to deliver," however humbling such a move must have been, since that one was his own child. May we, with like determination (and humility), set a course for the true promised land by clinging to the coattails of Abraham's seed and God's own son, him whom the Lord has already delivered from death. Association with him is our only hope.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

In Calvin's estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness -- we can and should say "thank you" to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God's remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam's sin and our own. God's greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us -- gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated.

Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin's standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: "It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness."

It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to "gratefulness" but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government -- this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. -- that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the "best kind of government" (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an "idle pastime" for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each "kind" of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: "All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live" (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you've been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.

Why should government inspire gratitude in us? Most obviously, of course, there is (or are) the benefits that accrue to us from the existence of government per se. These benefits pertain to the individual, the family, and the Christian church. Government preserves the "public peace" and "provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound." Countless families will sit down this evening to sup together in relative safety because their governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Government, moreover, prevents "public offenses against religion," and so -- without assuming any functions of the church -- creates safe space for the church to be the church. Countless ecclesiastical families will sit down to hear God's Word proclaimed and (ideally) to Sup Together this Sunday in relative safety because their specific governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Therein lies cause for gratitude.

There is further cause for gratitude in recognizing the giftedness which permits sinful human beings to devise, implement, and perfect government per se. Fallen human beings, in Calvin's understanding, make poor work of discerning anything true about God and his ways (apart from special revelation and saving grace). But they manage remarkably well, in his view, when they devote themselves to such human subjects and endeavors as "government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts." Devising and implementing good government, then, is not a matter of poring over Scripture to discover a blueprint for some specific form of government or specific laws and penalties, but one of putting to good use "universal impressions" that "exist in all men's minds" of "a certain civic fair dealing and order," and constructing specific laws on the basis of that natural law which God has imprinted on every human heart.

Those who would insist upon discovering a biblical model of government and its laws are, in Calvin's words, both seditious (turbulentus) and stupid (stolidus). More to the point here, they fail to properly appreciate the gifts which God has given even (or especially) to unbelievers, gifts which allow unbelievers to craft good governments. Thus they fail to properly appreciate the giver of all good gifts. "We ought not to forget," Calvin writes, "those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he will, for the common good of mankind." Indeed "if we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth" -- including truth about good governmental theory and practice -- "we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God" (emphasis mine). These comments from Calvin's Institutes form the proper backdrop for understanding Calvin's claim in his Genesis commentary that "astronomy, ...philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government" are sciences which have been perfected not, principally, by Christians, but by "the heathen" on the basis of those "excellent gifts of the Spirit [which have been] diffused through the whole human race." In sum, then, recognizing mankind's capabilities to create and carry on good governments, however diverse those governments might be in specific form, is a matter of admiring and giving thanks to God for "the riches of his favor which he has bestowed" on mankind in toto.

Calvin is not naïve. He's well aware that governments are prone to abuse the power they've been providentially given. Such abuse never provides license for private citizens to actively resist or disobey government. Christians must, of course, obey God rather than man when God and man impose contradictory obligations. Such obedience to God might create martyrs; it should never create militia with revolutionary aims. But Calvin provides no avenue of escape from governmental orders which do not directly contradict divine mandates. If a government orders its citizens to walk on one foot for one hour per day, Christian citizens will hop to it. If legally imposed "tributes and taxes" -- the "lawful revenue of princes" -- become a form of (supposed) "tyrannical extortion," Christians citizens will continue to ante up.

The simple fact that lawful authority can be abused serves as a sufficient reminder that gratitude is not the only legitimate sentiment that civil government might properly inspire in her subjects. But, if Calvin is right, it should be one such sentiment, perhaps even the most dominant one. Moreover, whatever other sentiments gratitude might properly make peace with in our posture towards the government(s) we find ourselves living under, I seriously doubt that contempt is one of them. I suspect that many of us need some reproving on this score.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Shamelessly stealing Aaron's "Calvin contra . . ." title form while trying to slip into Mark's stream of interest in merit, I thought this might be a good time to indulge a little excursion in Reformed diversity by noting Calvin's peculiar position on the source of Christ's merit.

At least since Anselm the merit of Christ's satisfaction on our behalf has been linked to the infinite worth of the divine person accomplishing that work. As the eleventh century closed, the good Archbishop of Canterbury, while in exile, famously asked Why the God-man (Cur Deus Homo)? To answer, he argued that only God could satisfy what humanity owed, and strongly suggested a line of argument later elaborated by Thomas Aquinas (among others), who grounded the merit of Christ in the person of the Son. The idea is probably familiar to most readers: the great worth of Christ's work comes from the fact that he is the infinitely worthy Son of God who freely assumed a fully human nature in order to accomplish our redemption.

Obviously, significant differences exist between Medieval and later Reformed thinkers on the merit of Christ. Yet, on the source of Christ's merit, the bulk of the Reformed tradition, it seems, follows Thomas. Richard Muller makes this very point in his entry on meritum Christi in his Dictionary:

The argument most often found among the Protestant scholastics, both Lutheran and Reformed, received its clearest medieval formulation in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The source of the meritum Christi is the persona Christi who performs the work of satisfaction. . . . Since the person is the divine Word, the infinite Second Person of the Trinity, the work performed by that person, even though accomplished through the instrumentality of his human nature, must be infinite.

This is exactly the argument we find in that titan of continental Reformed scholastics, Francis Turretin. Maintaining that the perfection of Christ's satisfaction excludes any possibility of a human contribution in this life or need for purgatory in the next (contra "the Romanists"), he contends that "the perfection of this satisfaction" is due,

First, [to] the dignity of the person satisfying; this was not only holy and most pure, but also truly divine. . . . We cannot doubt that this satisfaction which he has made is one of infinite value and efficacy and therefore of such fulness and all-sufficiency that nothing can be added to it. For although his human nature (which was the instrument in the obedience and sufferings) was finite, yet the satisfaction itself does not cease to be infinite (relative to the person, which is here the efficient cause and to which they ought to be attributed) (Elenctic Theology, Q14.12.7).

Here, Turretin follows Thomas, reasoning that the infinite merit of Christ's satisfaction is due to the divine person who rendered that satisfaction on our behalf.

Calvin, however, develops a different line--one that makes no appeal to the infinite worth of the divine person but looks instead to the decretive will of God. We find this in his discussion of how we can correctly say that Christ has merited grace and salvation for us. Here he argues that,

When we treat of the merit of Christ, we do not place the beginning in him, but we ascend to the ordination of God as the primary cause, because of his mere good pleasure he appointed a Mediator to purchase salvation for us (Institutes, 2.17.1).

Instead of an appeal to the divine person of the Word incarnate who was that mediator, Calvin appeals to the arrangement decreed by God out "of his mere good pleasure." The argument is important to Calvin, in context, because it demonstrates, he believes, that the merit of Christ is not opposed to the mercy of God. On the contrary, it was God's mercy to appoint a mediator and arrange the state of affairs by which that mediator could merit salvation for us. In this way, he argues, the merit of Christ is always "in subordination to" the "mere mercy of God" (2.17.1).

Calvin goes so far as to argue that "Christ could not merit anything save by the good pleasure of God," meaning that "the merit of Christ depends entirely on the grace of God (which provided this mode of salvation for us)" (2.17.1).

Curiously, Calvin's argument has a decidedly Scotist ring to it. In typical Duns-ian fashion, the Scot developed a voluntaristic alternative to Thomas's appeal to the divine person, arguing that since Christ's work was accomplished by the Son as a man it necessarily has a finite value. As such, the sufficiency of Christ's work--its infinite merit--is grounded in God's counterfactual acceptance of his work as a full satisfaction for sin.

That, to be clear, is not Calvin's argument. Although both Scotus and Calvin agree that the will of God is the source of Christ's merit, Calvin argues that Christ's work has infinite merit on the basis of God's decree. The difference may seem subtle but is significant: Scotus's argument from the divine will to accept Christ's work as counterfactually sufficient is later developed by Hugo Grotius into his moral governmental theory of the atonement. Calvin's view precludes such development just as completely as Thomas's before him or Turretin's after him, but on a surprisingly different premise.






Calvin contra Caterpillars

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"Many things which are now seen in the world are rather corruptions of it than any part of its proper furniture. For ever since man declined from his high original, it became necessary that the world should gradually degenerate from its nature." So wrote Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 2, with reference to the contrast between the world as it was originally created and the world as it became in consequence of man's rebellion against his Creator.

Rather curiously, Calvin seems to suggest, immediately on the heels of this comment, that certain features of post-fall reality are not so much corruptions of some original good, but post-Fall creatures per se. Calvin suggests, in other words, that certain entities originated after the fall to serve the solitary end of aggravating man for his sinful rebellion. "Truly these things were made by God, but by God as an avenger." Included in this category are "fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects." Calvin doesn't really develop the point, but perhaps his inclination to view certain creatures as purely post-fall divine productions stemmed from uncertainty on his part about what positive role such pests might have performed in the pre-fallen, perfect world of Eden.

I'm always reluctant to disagree with Calvin, but I do question how theologically responsible it is to give evil the power, as it were, to introduce new animal species into the world. More pressing, however, is the question of why Calvin would have included "caterpillars" in the dubious category of "noxious" creatures of a post-fall origin serving the solitary purpose of inflicting misery on man for his defection. Caterpillars? Really? Granted that caterpillars can inflict some agricultural damage (or so Wikipedia tells me), surely they have enough redeeming features to merit their inclusion in that original creation which received God's stamp of approval as "very good" (Gen. 1.31). Caterpillars -- or at least certain kinds of caterpillars -- give us silk, right? Silk is good. And, regardless of their productivity, they're so clearly fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Five pair of legs. Three pair of eyes. A variety of rather marvelous color schemes and appearances. And, best of all, they tuck themselves away into mid-life cocoons and become moths or butterflies. I have trouble imagining an Eden without creatures as cool as that.

So why Calvin's distaste for caterpillars -- to the point of relegating them to post-creation creaturely status? Several possibilities present themselves. One is that Calvin really was the hater of beauty he's so often depicted as. Perhaps his cold, calculating heart -- a heart two sizes too small, by all spurious accounts -- simply had no room in it for creatures as magical as caterpillars/butterflies. The problem with this theory is that Calvin, in his writings, expressed considerable appreciation for beauty -- both as discovered in the natural world and as produced by human art -- and the pleasure which beauty properly affords human beings.

Maybe Calvin's sentiment towards caterpillars is a reflection of some disturbing childhood or adolescent event that he endured. An image of Calvin as an awkward fifteen year old student at the Collège de Montaigu springs to mind, the future Reformer lying with arms pinned to the ground while senior students take turns placing caterpillars on his pimple-covered face, in his ears, up his nose, etc. Surely there's fertile ground for the psycho-historians here.

Or maybe Calvin's point was a more subtle, theological one. Maybe he protested the presence of caterpillars pre-Fall because he recognized the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly as a naturally occurring type of human death and resurrection/glorification. Maybe Calvin's real objection, then, was to the existence of prophetic pictures of death and resurrection prior to the Fall, that event which introduced death as such into human experience. Why speak prophetically, even in typological form, about death's ultimate defeat in resurrection before death itself, the fruit of sin, exists?

Or maybe Calvin never actually said a negative word about caterpillars at all.

Rather anticlimactically, this last option turns out to be the most likely. The Latin term translated as 'caterpillar' in Calvin's commentary is actually bruchus, which in early modern times indicated a kind of wingless locust -- something which today might be classified as a weevil or beetle. The Reformer, it turns out, never spoke critically or spitefully -- at least to our knowledge -- about actual campae (caterpillars).

I'm still not convinced that any species of creature -- wingless locust, weevil, beetle, or otherwise -- came into existence subsequent to creation per se, but I am considerably relieved to know that Calvin didn't despise caterpillars. Calvin has always struck me as the kind of man that, upon seeing a caterpillar or its butter-flying counterpart, would have paused to appreciate the same, and to have praised God for his profound wisdom and creativity in conceiving such a creature. I'm happy for that image of Calvin to prevail, at least in my own mind.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"I come to the right of interpreting [the Bible], which they arrogate to themselves.... It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce." Thus Calvin summarizes the fourth and final point of Trent's teaching on Scripture. Trent's words were as follows: "No man... [should] dare to interpret the Holy Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and holds" (emphasis mine).

Few things annoyed Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth-century more than Rome's repeated claim, in the midst of theological disputes, to own the exclusive right to determine what the Bible actually says about the matters disputed. The intent of that claim, of course, was to force an immediate stop to all conversation, let alone controversy, about what Scripture teaches regarding justification, the sacraments, religious images, indulgences, and so on. Luther expressed his frustration with such posturing on Rome's part thus: "Were this true" -- that is, were it true that sola Roma possessed the right and requisite spiritual gift to interpret Scripture -- "where [then] were the need and use of the Holy Scriptures" at all? "Let us burn them," Luther continued, "and content ourselves with the unlearned gentlemen at Rome, in whom the Holy Ghost dwells.... If I had not read it, I could never have believed that the devil should have put forth such follies at Rome and [have found] a following."

Nearly three decades after Luther wrote those words, Calvin sounds a similar note of annoyance and disbelief in his response to Trent's teaching: "What hinders them," he asks, "from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts' content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in [this] decree?"

To gain some sense of the reformers' frustration at Roman claims of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture, one might imagine how a wife might feel if, in the midst of a dispute about who said what and thereby broke the marital peace, her husband invoked his own infallible knowledge of what was actually said, as well as his own unimpeachable right to declare the same and level blame or demand repentance accordingly.

Calvin's actual argument against Rome's claim to own the right of biblical interpretation is similar to his argument against Rome's claim that extra-scriptural tradition, in addition to the Bible, constitutes a source of saving truth (see part one of this series). Calvin could, of course, have simply required Rome to prove that she alone was entitled to adjudicate competing readings of the Bible. After all, the burden of proof clearly rests upon those who would hazard such obviously dubious claims, just as the burden of proof would rest with the husband in our proposed analogy to prove his infallible knowledge of what was said and his right to interpret the same.

Calvin takes a different tack, appealing again, albeit negatively this time, to tradition. He recounts examples of official but clearly preposterous Roman interpretations of Scripture, which he reckons anyone endued with any degree of sense will see for what they are. These examples are all taken from the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea which defended the existence and veneration of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in places of worship. So, for instance, Calvin observes that this council cited Psalm 16:3 ("As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight") in defense of religious images, on the rather ludicrous assumption that the "saints" mentioned by the Psalmist were those depicted on the walls of some worship space.

As far as ridiculous Roman interpretations of Scripture go, I personally would have cited Pope Boniface VIII's use of Luke 22:38 in the papal bull Unam sanctam to establish his claim that ultimate ecclesiastical and civil authority are divinely entrusted to the papacy. But to each his own; Calvin's references do the job.

Calvin is, however, sensitive to a potential counter-charge from Rome -- namely, that each reformer rejected Rome's fallible interpretation of Scripture in favor of his own fallible interpretations of Scripture, and so failed to improve upon Rome's position (by effectively establishing as many popes as there are Protestants, and, in that process, destroying the unity of the faith).

In response, Calvin -- rather remarkably -- acknowledges the need for individual interpreters of Scripture to "willingly submit" their own judgments about Scripture's meaning "to the judgment of the Church." Calvin, in other words, unabashedly prefers a corporate, churchly interpretation of Scripture to any private individual's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning. "We neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

Remarkably, then, Calvin ends up asserting something like the position of Rome against which he argues -- that is, that "it belongs" to the Church "to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures." But Calvin's own view differs from Rome in three essential regards: First of all, he recognizes the Church (with a capital C) as the collective body of visible churches (lower case c) where God's Word is rightly preached and God's sacraments are rightly administered -- where, in other words, there is integrity of doctrine and practice. Calvin thus deems it doubtful that the institution which, under the authority of the papacy, answers to the name "Roman Catholic Church" is even part of the true Church, much less the whole of it.

Secondly, Calvin entrusts doctrinal authority in the visible Church to persons properly trained to study Scripture from every age and region of the church, rather than any given person (the pope) or ecclesiastical body (a council) at any given point in time. This makes corporate, churchly judgments regarding the meaning of a text rather more difficult to discern, and -- since the Church consists of believers yet to be born -- points to the necessarily open-ended nature of ecclesiastical judgments about Scripture's meaning.

Thirdly, Calvin freely acknowledges the fallibility of the Church, which once again points to the provisional nature of corporate, churchly judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. The Church, being fallible, must intentionally and constantly render itself correctable in relation to God's infallible Word.

Calvin's argument against Rome's claim of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture might surprise many Reformed believers today. In the final analysis, Calvin assaults Rome's claim to the title "Church" more than Trent's claim that biblical interpretation properly belongs to the Church. "I wish," he concludes, "they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself portrays; we should easily agree as to the respect" -- and privilege? -- "due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?"

Indeed.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Thirdly," Calvin writes in description of Rome's teaching on Scripture, "repudiating all other versions [of Scripture] whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic." Thus Calvin summarizes the following words from the Council of Trent:

[This] Holy Council -- considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic -- ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

The Latin edition of the Bible thus approved and privileged by Trent was that which Jerome produced in the late fourth century. Jerome's Latin Bible -- the Vulgate -- was rather controversial in its own time because Jerome chose to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the received Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). But, whatever qualms initially existed regarding Jerome's conviction that Scripture should be translated from its original languages rather than other translations, Jerome's Vulgate eventually became the Church's standard version of Scripture. As knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of Germanic tribes, few biblical scholars cared enough -- or were, for that matter, competent -- to compare the Vulgate's rendering of Scripture to surviving manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, those languages in which Scripture was originally penned.

But late-medieval Europe witnessed a rebirth of interest in the languages of antiquity and, correspondingly, ancient texts. Western European scholars re-learned Greek and Hebrew, and so stood equipped to evaluate Jerome's translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. In 1516, the prince of humanist scholars Desiderius Erasmus produced a new edition of the New Testament in Greek, having compared all the Greek manuscripts available to him in order to adjudicate textual variants and recover, as closely as possible, the original words of Scripture. In a parallel column in the same work, Erasmus offered a new Latin translation of the Bible based upon the Greek -- a Latin translation which highlighted quite a few points at which Jerome's translation was significantly flawed.

By the time that the Council of Trent got around to addressing the doctrine of Scripture in 1546, quite a few scholars had followed Erasmus's lead. They had, in other words, studied the Bible in Greek and/or Hebrew, highlighted flaws in Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, and offered superior translations in Latin or in vernacular languages (German, English, etc.).

The Roman Catholic fathers at Trent obviously found it rather unsettling that intelligent and highly skilled persons were consulting Scripture in its original languages, finding the Vulgate's translation of Scripture in its original languages wanting, and offering their own (perhaps competing) translations of the text. A reasonable response to such discomfort might have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical body to offer an approved, corporate critique of Jerome's translation and improved translation of the Bible. Calvin expected the Romanists to "make some show" at least, "of executing a new version," even if they assigned the task to "sworn adherents" of their own corrupt doctrine. Instead, Trent adopted the decidedly un-reasonable approach of authorizing Jerome's unquestionably flawed translation of the Bible over all would-be competitors.

This, of course, was a serious blow to biblical scholarship of the period, and one that was certain to raise the humanist hackles of Protestant and Roman Catholic intellectuals alike. Calvin describes Trent's "error" as "gross" and its "edict" as "barbarous." "Those," he writes, "who are acquainted with the [biblical] languages perceive that this version [i.e., the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors, and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence." Nevertheless "the Fathers of Trent contend that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain [i.e., study Scripture in its original languages] and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listed to."

Calvin offers numerous examples of mis-translation on the part of the Vulgate, particularly with regard to its rendering of the Old Testament, which proceeded from Jerome's somewhat dubious knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Jerome's failures in translation hardly need be rehearsed here; they are, just as Calvin noted, obvious to any and all who compare the original Hebrew to Jerome's Latin Bible. Perhaps the most famous of doubtful translations offered by Jerome is discovered in his description of Moses's "face" (faciem) as "horned" (cornutam) as the Prophet descended Mount Sinai (Ex. 34.29). Medieval and early modern artists read Jerome's description of Moses's "horned face" rather literally, and accordingly gave Moses horns in their artistic depictions of him:


moses2.jpg

One could, perhaps, place blame for the tradition of giving Moses' horns on medieval mis-interpreters of Jerome rather than Jerome himself. There are, however, plenty of passages in the Vulgate where Jerome cannot be so easily excused. So, for instance, in Psalm 2, a Messianic/Kingship Psalm where the Psalmist exhorts his hearers to "Kiss the Son," Jerome's translation of the Hebrew had Adprehendite disciplinam ("Embrace discipline"). "The former is clearly correct," Calvin observes. The former, in other words, clearly communicates what one finds in the Hebrew text. So "why," Calvin asks, "should the latter be held the more authentic?"

Trent's decision to authenticate the Vulgate translation of the Bible isn't as curious as it seems upon the surface if one remembers the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's meeting. Rome clearly felt threatened by persons who challenged traditional dogmas on the basis of Scripture's original words, and decided to stop the mouths of such persons by taking Scripture in its original languages (or superior translations) from their hands and replacing it with a text which was less threatening since it was familiar to them, and could -- following well-worn patterns of argument -- be more easily turned to the defense of traditional, albeit ultimately unbiblical, doctrines. Of course, purely reactionary measures, such as this decision by Trent was, rarely produce sound practice or doctrine. This particular move on the part of Trent -- rejecting every Latin translation of Scripture but the Vulgate (no matter its obvious flaws) -- was at best obscurantist, at worst completely ludicrous. Indeed, Trent essentially adopted a position akin to that of twentieth-century fundamentalists who argue -- if it can be called argument -- that the King James Version of the English Bible is divinely inspired and must, therefore, reign supreme over other (better) translations of Scripture.

In Calvin's concluding words: "were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Follow the links to read the introduction and part one of this series.

"In forming a catalogue of Scripture," Calvin writes, "they [the Roman Catholic Council of Trent] mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others." Thus Calvin summarizes the second of the four points he discerns in Trent's teaching on Scripture. There is little need to repeat Trent's words in their entirety. The decree in question provides "a list of the Sacred Books" comprising those books that Protestants are accustomed to finding in their Bibles and some books, commonly called Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical), that they are not -- namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The decree concludes by anathematizing any and all who "shall not receive these entire Books, with all their parts ... as sacred and canonical," thereby despising "the foresaid traditions" -- a reference back to those "unwritten traditions" which, alongside of Scripture, has already been identified by Trent as a unique source of Christian doctrine.

Calvin offers a two-pronged response to Trent's "admitting" of "all [these] Books promiscuously into the Canon." The first prong advances his preceding argument from Christian tradition itself against recognition of tradition as an infallible source of unique Christian doctrine. Calvin now observes how un-traditional the inclusion of these Apocryphal books in the Canon is: "I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church."

In support of this claim, Calvin references the writings of two late-fourth/early-fifth century Church Fathers: Jerome and Tyrannius Rufinus. Oddly enough, Calvin doesn't seem all that interested in the opinions of Jerome and Rufinus per se regarding the Apocryphal books. He's interested, rather, in the testimony these Fathers provide in their writings to even earlier Christian judgments about the canonicity of the books in question. Thus he cites Rufinus's assertion in about 408 that "our fathers" -- that is, Rufinus's "fathers" -- judged the books in question to be "not Canonical," named the same "Apocrypha," and "would not have [them] read in the Churches" (The Creed of Aquileia, para. 38). With regard to Jerome: "It is well known," Calvin observers, "what [he] states as the common opinion of earlier times." Presumably Calvin has in mind something like Jerome's observation that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." Jerome made numerous, similar statements about the Church's historic stance towards the other Apocryphal books.

Calvin could, of course, have made further appeal to Jerome's own opinion. Jerome, after all, cited "the common opinion of earlier times" in defense of his own very clear denial of canonical status to the Apocryphal books (as seen, for instance, in the prefaces he drafted for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome did, however, include -- with a clear disclaimer regarding their non-canonical status -- the Apocryphal books in his Vulgate, presumably in deference both to the merits of said books as ancient and useful (albeit uninspired) writings and to the opinion of those who disagreed with him about the canonicity of the books in question.

And there were, as Calvin himself readily acknowledges, some who defended -- contra Jerome and Rufinus -- the canonicity of the Apocryphal books, among them the famous contemporary of Jerome and Rufinus, Augustine of Hippo. Calvin seems to think the opinion represented by Jerome and Rufinus has an older pedigree than that represented by Augustine, but he doesn't press the point. He concludes rather modestly with "let us assume that the point was then undecided."

The ambiguity in early judgments about the Apocryphal books ran substantially deeper than Calvin seems to realize. In fact, it pre-dated Christianity as such. The books in question were denied canonical status in the Hebrew Bible by Palestinian Jews, but afforded canonical status by Hellenistic Jews (Greek speaking Jews living outside Palestine) and so included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in Alexandria (the Septuagint). In the second century following Christ's birth, the Jews finally reached consensus among themselves in favor of the narrower canon (that which excluded the Apocrypha).

Their disagreement lingered on, however, in Christianity, with Eastern Christians typically following the Palestinian Jews in denying canonical status to the Apocrypha, and Western Christians typically following the Hellenistic Jews in affording canonical status to the Apocrypha (Jerome and Rufinus constituting two notable exceptions). Those who defended the canonicity of the books in question, for example Augustine, typically bought the now largely discredited story about seventy 3rd-century B.C. Jews translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek independently of one another and -- miraculously -- arriving at the very same (inspired) translation. In other words, their preference for the Septuagint's canon was informed by rather misguided assumptions about the Septuagint's nature and origins.

Calvin, had he only known, could have included such Eastern luminaries as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus among the ranks of Fathers who denied that the Apocryphal books belong to the Bible. In truth, however, ambiguity in early Christian judgments about the Apocryphal books is all that Calvin needed to discredit Trent's teaching on the issue. Trent, after all, in claiming that the "sacred and canonical" status of the Apocryphal books has the (infallible) authority of "unwritten tradition," presumes that some largely univocal tradition concerning the Apocryphal books actually exists. Either the Roman Catholic Fathers at Trent purposed to deceive in this regard, or they made a rather unfortunate historical blunder on the basis of their own ignorance. The implicit claim of a univocal "tradition" on the Apocrypha is a historical blunder not, perhaps, on par with the Book of Mormon's populating the Americas with horses hundreds of years before their (re)introduction there by European explorers, but it's not too far from the same. And, critically, it's a historical blunder in a place where no such blunder should exist -- the canons and decrees of an (infallible) ecumenical council.

Trent's apparent ignorance regarding those early Christians who -- in keeping with the more orthodox of Jewish traditions -- rejected the canonical status of the Apocryphal books, along with its subsequent anathematizing of all who reject said books as "sacred and canonical," has the further (and rather unfortunate) effect of damning such Fathers as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome, among others. That seems a rather un-catholic (not to mention uncharitable) gesture on the part of the "Catholic" Church.

The ambiguity in early Christian opinions about the Apocrypha also highlights the ultimate need to evaluate claims of the Apocrypha's canonicity by some higher standard than tradition. Thus Calvin introduces the second prong of his response to Rome, showing how the Apocryphal books, unlike Sacred Scripture, fail to testify to their own inspired and infallible status. Calvin points, for instance, to the concluding remark of the author of 2 Maccabees: "I ... will here make an end of my narration," the author writes, "which if I have done... not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me." The Holy Spirit, Calvin observes, begs no forgiveness for errors or faults in His words.

The author of Maccabees' words, it must be said, do seem a far cry from the confidence informing the Apostle John's rather dire warning against making additions or subtractions to his inspired text, and by implication at least, making additions or subtractions to the entire canon as such (Rev. 22:18-19).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

For an explanation of what follows, see the previously posted introduction to this series.

Calvin discerned four basic claims in Rome's teaching on Scripture as discovered in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The first claim was comprised in the opening sentence of the first decree of that Council's fourth session (the 'decree concerning the canonical scriptures'). That sentence reads:

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -- lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein -- keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both--as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.

That sentence is a bear by anyone's reckoning. Calvin helpfully and accurately summarizes it thus: "First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition."

In responding to Rome's teaching, Calvin -- interestingly -- doesn't bother defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture. Presumably that's because he realizes that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually agree that Scripture constitutes the "Word of God" rather than the "word of man" (1 Thess. 2.13), and is therefore inspired and authoritative (cf. 2 Tim. 3.16). The Roman decree cited above, after all, acknowledges that "saving truth" is contained in the "written books" of Scripture, which books are thus deserving of our affection and reverence. Protestantism, of course, stops there. Rome carries on, and makes a positive claim about another source of "saving truth" -- namely, "unwritten traditions ... which have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

The burden of proof that something other than Scripture constitutes a source of "saving truth" -- whether that something be "unwritten traditions" or Chinese fortune cookies -- rests entirely with those making such claims. This is often overlooked by would-be Roman apologists who require Protestants to defend from Scripture their principle that Scripture alone is authoritative, and fail to realize that sola Scriptura is not a positive claim per se, but a denial of the positive claim that "unwritten traditions" or anything else deserve the moniker "Word of God."

Calvin could, then, have simply highlighted the failure of Rome to prove that "unwritten traditions" constitute a source of "saving truth" and called it a day. But he does one better. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the Church Fathers, he points out that the earliest Christian thinkers themselves recognized no infallible authority but Scripture. In other words, he argues from tradition against the view that tradition constitutes an authoritative word on par with Scripture: "In regard to Traditions," he writes, "I am aware that [frequent] mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it." Calvin supports this claim with a quote from the prince of Church Fathers himself: "We must ever adhere to Augustine's rule, 'Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.'"

For what it's worth (which is quite a lot, actually), Calvin's reading of the Church Fathers is supported by the best of recent Patristic scholars. So, for instance, J.N.D. Kelly notes that up until the fourth century, the Fathers were univocal in affirming Scripture as the exclusive source of Christian doctrine. The words of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century might be taken as representative: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures." Athanasius put it this way: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth."

When the Fathers did speak of tradition (as Calvin acknowledges they did), they typically understood it not as a source of unique Christian doctrine, but as the Church's universal interpretation of Scripture's most fundamental teachings, handed down from one generation of believers to the next. To put it another way, traditional teachings were considered necessary to be believed not because they were traditional, but because they were Scripture's teachings. It wasn't until the late fourth century, in fact, that Christian thinkers began to toy with the possibility that certain truths or (more commonly, at least early on) customs could be traced back to the Apostles even if they weren't reflected in Scripture. In the medieval period the notion of extra-scriptural apostolic truths became more common (though many medieval thinkers retained the earlier, Patristic perspective of Scripture as the solitary source of saving truth, and tradition as the means by which Scripture's truth is transmitted through the centuries).

When Trent, then, affirmed that "saving truth" is contained in both Scripture and "unwritten traditions," it canonized a view on the source(s) of Christian doctrine which was an aberration from the understanding of the earliest Christians.

Calvin's argument from tradition against tradition (understood as a source of unique Christian doctrine) constitutes a case of rather clever argument. He takes Rome to task on its own turf (tradition) and shows how un-traditional Rome's teaching is. But in the process Calvin also demonstrates his own profound appreciation for tradition properly understood; indeed, Calvin honors tradition much more than his Roman counterparts by actually following the Fathers in their own insistence upon the ultimate authority of Scripture alone to define Christian beliefs. The champion of sola Scriptura proves, ironically, to be the traditionalist, to be more catholic than his Roman Catholic counterparts.

As Reformed Protestants today, we would do well to take a page from Calvin's apologetic in defending Scripture as the sole infallible norm of Christian beliefs. We would likewise do well to follow his lead in listening carefully to the Church Fathers and letting their engagement with Scripture and theological reflection inform our own convictions -- not least on the matter of how much, or rather what kind of, authority ought ultimately to be imputed to the Fathers themselves and other saints who have gone before us. 

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

I intend to offer, over the next several weeks, a four part series on Calvin's response to Rome's doctrine of Scripture as discovered in the fourth session of the Council of Trent. It's my impression that very few Protestants today -- even the confessing kind -- have informed views on what Rome actually says about the most important theological issues of every age (namely, how we know anything about God and his ways, and how we sinners can be reconciled to the God whom we have offended by our sins).

The first and foremost purpose of this brief series, then, is to let readers see what Rome, in her own words, says about Scripture, and to let Calvin guide us in an intelligent (and, ultimately, biblically based and theological nuanced) critique of Rome's doctrine. Careful attention to Rome's teaching on Scripture (not to mention Justification, the Sacraments, etc.) and careful critique of the same will, I think, shed light upon the reason(s) that confessional Protestants remain, well, Protesters -- that is, why they refrain as a matter of principle from expressing doctrinal solidarity with Rome.

A secondary reason for offering this series is that I suspect Calvin's own teaching on Scripture in response to Trent might surprise -- even challenge -- Reformed folk at some points, and there's few things more beneficial to any confessional group than being surprised and challenged by the Genevan Reformer on matters where, perhaps, no surprise or challenge is anticipated.

A brief word of historical context: The Roman Catholic Council of Trent convened in 1545 with the express intention of responding to the teaching of both magisterial (Protestant) and radical reformers. It met on and off until 1563. Already by 1547, however, the Council had tackled some of the fundamental issues at stake in the Reformation -- namely, Scripture, Original Sin, Justification, and the Sacraments. By the end of that same year (1547) Calvin had produced his Antidote to Trent (in Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 3), and stood ready to administer the same to anyone who was foolish or unfortunate enough to confuse Trent's poisonous teachings for something nutritious.

Stay tuned for the first installment of our consideration of Trent's teaching and Calvin's response to the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Without a hint of shame or embarrassment or any sort of profound internal conflict, Jesus openly admits he is--or at least was, while living under the conditions of the fall and fulfilling all righteousness for us--ignorant of at least one thing: "concerning the day and hour [of my return] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matt 24:36 || Mk 13:32).

Though it may not have created any difficulties for Christ, this passage is notorious in theological discussions of the incarnation. Predictably, some argue it's evidence Jesus was not divine. That, of course, is impossible to square with the rest of Scripture. Others, with Peter-like zeal, deny he ever said such a thing--hence the footnote on Matt 24:36 in your ESV, that "some manuscripts omit nor the Son." But that's a favor too far, and one that robs us of the wonder of the cross just as Peter would have done when he rebuked Jesus for announcing he was going to be crucified (Matt 16:22).

God insists we contemplate the scandal of the incarnation: the eternal Son had to become fully human; he had to be the anti-Adam and empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and obey all the way to being crucified. There's no way around the scandal and offense of these things, and there's no way around the fact that the omniscient and eternal Word endured ignorance for us and our salvation.

Just how he was able to endure ignorance is not entirely clear to us (more than one possible explanation is on the orthodox table). But he did and this is no small matter. Consider Calvin's comment on Matt 24:36 || Mk 13:32:

The chief part of our wisdom lies in confining ourselves soberly within the limits of God's word. That men may not feel uneasy at not knowing that day, Christ represents angels as their associates in this matter; for it would be a proof of excessive pride and wicked covetousness, to desire that we who creep on the earth should know more than is permitted to the angels in heaven. . . . And surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account. 

To say that the omniscient Son endured ignorance on our account is in no way "an insult offered to the Son of God," he argues. On the contrary, it shows how great his grace is toward us in how far he has gone in self-denial to save us from our sin:

For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator. There would be no impropriety, therefore, in saying that Christ, who knew all things, (John 21:17) was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us, (Heb 2:17).

Calvin continues,

the objection urged by some--that ignorance cannot apply to Christ, because it is the punishment of sin -- is beyond measure ridiculous. For, first, it is prodigious folly to assert that the ignorance which is ascribed to angels proceeds from sin; but they discover themselves to be equally foolish on another ground, by not perceiving that Christ clothed himself with our flesh, for the purpose of enduring the punishment due to our sins. And if Christ, as man, did not know the last day, that does not any more derogate from his Divine nature than to have been mortal.

To be clear, Calvin does not argue that the Son ceased to be divine or omniscient in the incarnation, only that he denied himself, for the purpose of accomplishing our redemption, the benefit or use of his omniscience. It was a voluntary act of self-denial in which the divine nature "did not at all exert itself." In other words, Jesus lived among us, while fulfilling all righteousness for us, just as one of us--and this is a glorious thing.

The details of the story are fairly well known: Noah's descendants, still within Noah's lifetime (by Calvin's reckoning), pooled their various talents and employed their common tongue towards the end of building a really big tower. God, unimpressed by their design, confused their common tongue and chased them away, "driving them hither and thither like the members of a lacerated body."

Their crime, judging by its punishment, was grievous. But what exactly was it? Calvin denies that building a big tower was (or is) a sinful thing per se: "to erect a citadel was not in itself so great a crime." Calvin also denies that building a big tower was their ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal was "to raise an eternal monument to themselves, which might endure throughout all the ages." Their sin, in other words, was one of "headstrong pride, joined with contempt of God." They refused to employ their God-given talents for God's glory. They sought, rather, their own glory, and indeed, ultimately hoped that future generations would revere them as gods in light of their accomplishments. Such, indeed, "is the perpetual infatuation of the world; to neglect heaven" -- even, ironically, when trying to build a tower that reaches there -- "and to seek immortality on earth."

Calvin's reckoning of these men's exact sin, based largely on their own stated desire to "make a name" for themselves (Gen. 11.4), raises the moral bar for all of us. He reminds us that morality is rarely reducible to the rightness or wrongness of specific, concrete acts. Morality takes measure of motivation. If building a big tower were the crime committed by these men, we'd know how not to be like them; namely, by not building big towers ourselves. But since, in fact, "headstrong pride" and a self-idolatrous desire for glory were their sins, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we're guilty of the very same sins in whatever tasks we pursue. Arrogance and the desire for human praise can, of course, find expression in any number of human endeavors, from pushing a pencil to pumping petrol to preaching a sermon. Avoiding the crime of these men, then, is not so easy a thing as steering clear of skyscraper construction courses at the local college, it's a matter of regularly and honestly examining our hearts and asking ourselves why exactly we do the things that we do.

To put the matter another way, Calvin recognizes that there are two ways to build a tower. One is by rightly employing the gifts we've been by God; the other is by wrongly employing the gifts we've been given by God. Calvin, it should be remembered, thinks very highly of the abilities that human beings have been given by God, and the things they can and do accomplish through the exercise of those abilities. Indeed, he identifies human abilities in "matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies" as gifts (dona) from God's Spirit, and warns us against despising such gifts, and the fruits they bear, in others (even, or especially, in the unregenerate), thereby despising the Giver of the gifts (cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.2.13-16).

Proper employment of the gifts we've been given is a matter of putting them to use in fulfillment of God's mandates to work and worship, enjoying the exercise of them (as all gifts should be enjoyed), and setting our sights on God's glory (rather than our own) in the same. Noah's descendants might, in other words, have pooled their talents in brick-building, not to mention their obvious abilities in architectural design and construction, to "raise an eternal monument... which might endure through all the ages" to God, just as they might and should have employed their "community of language" towards proper "consent in [true] religion." And, not to be overlooked, they might have experienced considerable joy in the task--such is part of God's creative design for human work.

Instead they employed their gifts and their "community of language" to "excite war against God." In short, they built a tower the wrong way. God's punishment was appropriate to their crime. "The division of tongues" was "divinely inflicted upon men, because they impiously conspired against God."

Yet, true to divine form, the punishment of men revealed in Gen. 11 becomes a platform for the exercise and pageantry of divine grace. Diversity of tongues proves a platform, first of all, for the exercise of common grace. "In the midst of punishment, and of the most dreadful proofs of Divine anger against the pride of men, the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, because the nations hold mutual communication among themselves, though in different languages." In other words, the ability among human beings to learn foreign languages, and so to overcome the barrier between different peoples established by language, is evidence of God's persistent good-will towards his human creatures.

Diversity of tongues proves a platform, more significantly, for the exercise of saving grace. "[God] has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world, and has endued the Apostles with the gift of tongues. Whence it has come to pass, that they who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith." The Gospel triumphs over man's sin and its consequences, uniting in Christ and his Kingdom those who have been linguistically and culturally divorced from one another. At Pentecost, where Christ's disciples proclaim their Lord in one language and our heard in others by the foreigners they address, the ultimate impotence and eventual ruin of Babel -- that is, of man's pride and its consequences -- is put powerfully on display.

We who have been made recipients of the grace that turns Babel on its head -- the grace that unites folk from every tribe, nation, and language into a single people and puts them in God's presence to praise and enjoy him forever (Rev. 7.9) -- have all the more reason (namely, gratitude) to build towers for our remaining days on earth in the right way, employing the gifts we've been given for the glory of the One who gave them and our own greater joy.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

The flood waters having receded, and Noah and family having disembarked from the ark, it was back to business as usual on earth in a number of discernable ways.

Thus we see, firstly, the restitution of the creation ordinance of marriage (Gen. 9.1), and, at least by Calvin's reckoning, a rather remarkable population boom in the first few centuries of post-flood human history. Noah's family was directed to "recover the lawful use of marriage," and so to rest assured that "the care of producing offspring" remained "pleasing to [God]." Accordingly, they returned to the pattern of marrying and procreating that characterized their pre-flood days; indeed, they did so with notable success, producing "within one hundred and fifty years" an "astonishing increase" of offspring, which "doubtless" resulted in "unbounded joy" for Noah, for it spoke clearly of "divine favor towards him."

We see, secondly, a return to work. "Noah, ...though now an old man, returned to the culture of the fields, and to his former labors." The resumption of his farming career must have felt rather anti-climactic to Noah, given the nature of his recent adventures. But work (along with rest/worship) is part of the normal pattern which God established for man even before the fall (Gen. 2.15). Calvin concedes that Noah may have added 'viticulturist' to his job description for the first time following the flood ("it is... uncertain whether he had been a vine-dresser or not") but he is not willing, being after all a good Frenchman, to concede that viticulture as such was strictly a post-flood pursuit. "It does not appear to me probable that the fruit of the vine, which excels all others, should have remained neglected and unprofitable [before the flood]."

We see, thirdly, a return to eating and drinking, a return to the enjoyment of the fruits of human work. Calvin refuses to see the permission to eat animals in Gen. 9.3 as something unique to the post-flood setting: "God here does not bestow upon men more than he had previously given." Men were, in other words, "permitted" from the very first "to kill wild beasts" for the very specific purposes of making "garments and tents" and padding their diet with protein. However, no license was given, before or after the flood, for superfluous shedding of "the innocent blood of cattle." As already indicated, Calvin believes God's "most precious gift" of wine was likewise entrusted to men from the very beginning, and so merely re-entrusted to men following the flood. Both gifts of God -- food and drink -- are, of course, susceptible to "shameful abuse." Neither gift should be despised on that or any other grounds.

We see, finally, a return to man doing what (fallen) man does, and God responding as God does. We see, in other words, man sinning (and sometimes, by God's grace, repenting), and God responding to man's sin in judgment, mercy, and promise. The flood was, of course, no ultimate resolution of sin. God's own post-flood observation that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Gen. 8.21) quickly proves concretely true in a series of incidents. Noah, first of all, engages in the "filthy and detestable crime [of] drunkenness" and prostrates himself "naked on the ground, so as to become a laughing-stock to all." Then Ham, who "must have been of a wicked, perverse, and crooked disposition, ... not only took pleasure in his father's shame, but wished to expose him to his brethren." Calvin supposes a deeper motive than simple scorn to Ham's mockery of his father: "It is probable that he thus perversely insulted his father, for the purpose of acquiring for himself the license of sinning with impunity. We see many such at this day, who most studiously pry into the faults of holy and pious men, in order that without shame they may precipitate themselves into all iniquity."

In the face of such (continuing) human sin, God remains God, and responds as God responds. Indeed, God responds to human sin even before man perpetuates any (recorded) concrete sinful acts after the flood. He responds with his covenant -- that is, his promise not to destroy the earth with flood-waters again, even though man's sin be great. God's word of promise serves, Calvin notes, as a "thousand bolts and bars" restraining the waters of his wrath, "lest they should break forth to destroy us." For man's greater confidence in God's mercy, God assigns a "new office" to "the celestial arch which had before existed naturally;" the rainbow henceforth serves as a "sign and pledge" of God's promise to restrain his own anger at human impiety.

In more immediate response to the instances of sin just noted, God responds in judgment and promise. Judgment is leveled against Canaan and the Canaanites, descendants of Ham, for Ham's actions. Calvin restrains us from overmuch speculation about why Canaan bears the brunt of cursing for Ham's sin. God is never, he notes, "angry with the innocent, because even they themselves are found in fault." Beyond that we must "remember that the judgments of God are not in vain called 'a great deep,' and that it would be a degrading thing for God, before whose tribunal we all must one day stand, to be subjected to our judgment." And so "let every one of us, conscious of his own infirmity, learn rather to ascribe praise to God's justice, than plunge, with insane audacity, into the profound abyss."

Of course, more remarkable than God's sentence of condemnation, whatever its own peculiarities, is God's promise -- directly in the face of man's sin -- of a hope and salvation far greater than that which Noah and his family had recently enjoyed. In this post-flood setting where God is obviously keen to re-establish so much of what pertained to the original creation, he is most eager to repeat the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would one day come to reverse the consequences of that sin which wreaked such havoc on the original creation (Gen. 3:15).

That Seed and his saving work bear proleptic fruit, of course, in the free pardon granted Noah for his drunken escapade (a pardon which can be deduced, Calvin argues, from Noah's faith and the prophetic role granted Noah immediately after his recovery in Gen. 9.25). The concrete repetition of the promise as such occurs in Gen. 9.26-27, where Shem and Japheth are blessed. The blessing of Shem anticipates the eventual blessing of Abraham, through whom the Seed would come, and in whom all nations would themselves be blessed (Gen. 12). The blessing of Japheth points, in Calvin's judgment, to the gathering of "the Gentiles and the Jews... together in one faith," the joining together of "scattered sheep to join his flock" in the singular "covenant of life." "It is truly no common support of our faith," Calvin observes, "that the calling of the Gentiles is not only decreed in the eternal counsel of God, but is openly declared by the mouth of the Patriarch; lest we should think it to have happened suddenly, or by chance, that the inheritance of eternal life was offered generally to all."

It was, then, truly business as usual after the flood, for both good and ill. Sinful man returned to his ways of marrying and making babies, eating and drinking, working and (for some) worshiping, and, of course, sinning. God remained God, and so returned to the business of pursuing sinners with his "paternal love," sustaining them by the word of his promise in the hope of eternal life with him.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Noah's first deed upon exiting the ark -- at least as recorded in Scripture -- was to build an altar and offer unto God sacrifices from the "clean" animals and birds which had accompanied him and his family on his recent water-based adventures. God, for his part, smelled Noah's sacrifices and apparently found the scent of them agreeable (Gen. 8.20). Calvin is quick to point out the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic nature of the activity and sentiment thus attributed to God, lest anyone think that God actually has nostrils or, even worse, actually deems pleasing per se the "filthy smoke of entrails, and of flesh."

Calvin is, of course, equally keen to discover what it was about Noah's sacrifices that particularly pleased God, and so to learn how we might perform acts of worship that bring pleasure to the one who has redeemed us from the flood-waters of sin, death, and hell. Calvin ultimately discovers two ingredients in Noah's worship that rendered it pleasing to God.

The first is Noah's faith. Faith is, according to the author of Hebrews, the sine qua non of pleasing God (Heb. 11:6). Noah was a man who, by virtue of his recent experiences, had a fair share of confidence in God. Calvin discovers evidence of just how strong Noah's faith had grown in the biblical record of Noah's departure from the ark. Even when Noah had removed the door of the ark and found the earth dry (Gen. 8.13), he remained in the ark until God bid him leave it (Gen. 8.15). "Thus we see,"Calvin observes, "that by a continual course of faith, the holy man was obedient to God; because, at God's command, he entered the ark, and there remained until God opened the way for his egress; and because he chose rather to lie in a tainted atmosphere than to breathe the free air, until he should feel assured that his removal would be pleasing to God."

Noah's reluctance to exit the ark without divine bidding was apparently informed by the tremendous episode of judgment and salvation he had just witnessed/experienced. God, it was clear to Noah, was no one to be trifled with. God, it was equally clear, was a God who kept his promises and was absolutely reliable. The only sensible thing to do, in light of who God had just revealed himself to be, was to cast himself entirely upon God's mercy and obey his word even to the minutest detail. It was this very remarkable sense of God's reality and power, and God's utter trustworthiness, which informed Noah's sacrifices and rendered them fragrant to God. Such faith should, of course, inform every person's worship of God: "This general rule, therefore, is to be observed, that all religious services which are not perfumed with the odour of faith, are of an ill-savour before God."

We should not, however, conclude that any old act of worship informed by faith is pleasing to God. The second ingredient -- also absolutely essential -- to sweet-smelling worship is careful attention to God's own instructions regarding how he wishes to be worshiped. Calvin admits that no explicit command to Noah to offer sacrifices is discovered in the biblical text, but nevertheless argues that Noah "rested upon the word of God, and... in reliance on the divine command... rendered this worship, which he knew, indubitably, would be acceptable to God." God's intention for Noah to offer animal sacrifices to him as an expression of gratitude for his salvation following the flood is discernible, Calvin argues, in the pre-flood instruction to take on board seven (three pairs plus one) of every clean animal, the seventh, un-paired animal being included "for the sake of sacrifice." It would, of course, have been useless to include a seventh specimen of every clean animal "unless God had revealed this design to holy Noah, who was to be the priest to offer up the victims."

The pre-flood "divine command" to sacrifice post-flood is also discernible in the distinction noted between clean and un-clean animals as such. "It is certain that Noah did not invent this distinction for himself, since it does not depend on human choice." All in all, it is apparent, in Calvin's judgment, that God had given Noah fairly detailed instructions regarding the sacrifices that he should make following the flood, even before the first drops of rain fell. "We conclude that he undertook nothing without divine authority." Calvin's argument certainly makes good sense of what Noah actually did upon exiting the ark. Noah got busy making sacrifices as soon as his feet hit dry ground because God, who had just revealed himself to Noah in a remarkable episode of judgment and salvation, had previously instructed him to do just that.

The lesson we are meant to take from this is decidedly not that we, however full of faith, should offer animal sacrifices unto God. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were picture prophecies of the Seed who would come to crush the head of the Serpent by offering himself up as an atonement for the sins of his people. "It was right that [Old Testament believers] should always have before their eyes symbols, by which they would be admonished, that they could have no access to God but through a mediator. Now, however, the manifestation of Christ has taken away these ancient shadows." For that matter, however, Noah's sacrifices (in Calvin's judgment) were more like the "first fruits" offerings the people of Israel would eventually bring God in grateful acknowledgment of God's deliverance of them (cf. Deut. 26) than those sacrifices which properly pre-figured Christ (the true sin-bearing sacrifice).

In any case, the lesson we are meant to take from Noah's sacrifices is that our own worship, if we would have it be pleasing to God, must likewise be performed in faith and careful attention to God's own instructions about how he should be worshiped. We are, of course, not free to simply go through the proper motions of worship, without hearts full of faith. We are, equally, not free to worship God in whatever way we deem suitable, provided our hearts are full of faith. Both worship uninformed by faith and worship unsolicited by God are putrid in his nostrils. Only when we worship him as he has expressly commanded us to do, and do so in faith, is our worship fragrant to him.

Noah's faith, as noted, was informed by his participation in a rather remarkable episode of judgment and salvation. We who stand on this side of the Cross have been made witnesses to and participants in a rather more remarkable episode of judgment and salvation; we have been spared the flood-waters of God's wrath insofar as they have been poured out on our substitute. The faith that informs our own worship has no less substantial a foundation than Noah's faith had. 

And we, like Noah, have been given very clear instructions in Scripture concerning the kind of worship we should offer unto God, whether in private, familial, or corporate-ecclesial settings.

May we, then, be as quick and ready as Noah was to offer unto God our own faith-full and obedient sacrifices.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

In Calvin's judgment, the biblical story of Noah's ark constitutes "history" in the proper sense of the term (i.e., it happened more or less as described). Calvin is quite concerned, however, to emphasize to his readers that God played an active role -- in the particular form of miraculous intervention -- in every stage of that biblical story. Indeed, he suggests that a failure to recognize miraculous intervention in each chapter of the unfolding drama of Noah's ark-building efforts and subsequent salvation from the flood ultimately serves to cast doubt upon the historicity of the biblical story in question. "If you exclude the extraordinary power of God from this history, you declare that mere fables are related. [...] This entire narration of Moses, unless it were replete with miracles, would be... ridiculous."

Calvin first highlights the element of miracle in this biblical story in connection with Gen. 6.14-15, where the dimensions of the ark are detailed. He notes that "certain profane men [have] ridiculed Moses [for] having imagined that so vast a multitude of animals was shut up in so small a space, a third part of which would scarcely contain four elephants." Calvin seems happy to acknowledge that the ark, at least as described, was too small to contain all the animals, and simply appeals to the "secret and incomprehensible power of God" as sufficient explanation for how they might all have squeezed in regardless of the ark's apparent limitations in space. One gets the impression that Calvin viewed the ark as something akin to one of those magical tents in the world of Harry Potter, which invariably prove much larger inside than they look (or rather, are) from the outside.

Miraculous intervention is again apparent, according to Calvin, in Gen. 7.9, where according to his translation the animals followed Noah into the ark well before the waters were actually unleashed. Interestingly, Calvin believes that Noah and his family were responsible for "collecting from woods, mountains, and caves" the "multitude of wild beasts, many species of which were perhaps altogether unknown," without supernatural help. This, indeed, was part of the extraordinary work which Noah performed in consequence of his remarkable faith. Calvin cannot, however, bring himself to believe that Noah and his family would have been capable of actually getting the animals into the ark when the final boarding call sounded. It took a miracle, then, to get "lions, wolves, and tigers" to willingly board the ark. For that matter, it took a miracle to keep the ark from devolving into a ghastly dinner cruise with "oxen," "lambs," and human beings featured on the menu.

But the clearest instance of divine miracle(s) in the ark narrative occurs in Gen. 7.16-17 in connection with the door of the ark. There is, first of all, the matter of how Noah could, on his own, have closed the door, which "must have been large" enough to "admit an elephant." Scripture makes it clear, however, that Noah accomplished no such thing. Rather: "The Lord shut him in." There is, secondly, the matter of how Noah could have sufficiently sealed the door, once he was in, to prevent water from penetrating and ultimately sinking the ark. In Calvin's judgment, the reality that "the waters... bore up the ark" (Gen. 7.17) is testimony not to Noah's carpentry and/or pitch-spreading skills, but to "the secret power of God," who upheld the ark "by the interposition of his hand." He concludes: "The ark was made secure from the deluge, not by human artifice, but by divine miracle."

Calvin's acknowledgement of miraculous elements in the biblical story of the ark/flood has not been shared by all. In fact, very conservative students of Scripture have been among the most reluctant to acknowledge that the flood narrative smacks of the miraculous. So, for example, the 19th century editor of Calvin's Genesis commentary -- who had a bad habit of interjecting his disagreement with Calvin on trivial matters into the footnotes of the text -- noted in connection with Calvin's judgment of the ark's dimensions: "Calvin takes for granted that there was a miracle, when a close examination" -- i.e., some careful math -- "would have convinced him that there was none." More recent efforts to prove the "feasibility" of the ark/flood narrative without appeal to the miraculous could be observed. John Woodmorappe of the Institute for Creation Research laments the reality that "many sincere believers have felt that the only solution to [a] vast array of 'impossible' difficulties with the Ark [has been] to posit miraculous solutions to them."

Calvin, interestingly, believed it was necessary to acknowledge miraculous elements in the flood narrative long before liberal biblical scholars, with their assumptions of a closed natural universe (not to mention Scripture's fallibility), starting poking holes in the plausibility of the biblical story of Noah. His conviction on this score apparently stemmed from both exegetical observations (for example, the explicit reference to divine agency in the closing of the ark's door) and a bit of common sense (it is surely unlikely that Noah, given the tools available to him, would have succeeded in perfectly waterproofing his floating zoo).

It also, I think, stemmed from sensitivity to the theological significance of Noah's ark. In his concluding comments on Gen. 7, Calvin notes that the Apostle Peter "teaches that Noah's deliverance from the universal deluge was a figure of baptism," and thus of the salvation from sins which the sacrament of baptism signifies and seals (I Pet. 3.20-21). Though Calvin doesn't connect this acknowledgement of the ark as a type (a picture prophecy) of salvation from eternal judgment to the miraculous elements in the narrative, it must have informed his conviction that "the ark was made secure from the deluge... by divine miracle." If in fact Noah had secured temporal salvation from the flood purely by his own efforts (albeit in pursuit of God's rather detailed instructions), what would that say about eternal salvation? Salvation would become a matter of human achievement, a matter of proper compliance to directives given by a God who provides instructions for self-salvation but never intervenes to rescue persons from his own pending wrath, rather than the wholly sufficient work of God for sinners that it properly is. An ark which ultimately proves, no matter Noah's role in constructing it, to be a miraculous (that is, divine) vehicle for salvation points more appropriately to that eternal salvation of sinners which God, not sinners, accomplishes through the work of Jesus Christ and the application of that work through word and sacrament.

In the end, then, the question of whether or not the ark/flood narrative includes miraculous elements proves more significant than it may appear at first glance. But even apart from the typological/theological significance of the ark, it's not entirely clear to me why someone would, unlike Calvin, want to insist that Noah's ark building project and the salvific fruit it bore can be explained without appeal to divine intervention. As Benjamin Warfield famously put it, Christianity is nothing other than "unembarrassed supernaturalism." That being so, it seems appropriate that we not seek to explain away miraculous elements in certain episodes of biblical history, but rather highlight them, defend them, even revel in them. Doing so will, I think, prove more conducive to the sense of awe and wonder that should inform lives lived in conscious relationship to the eternal God who miraculously spoke our world into existence, and by the miraculous incarnation and resurrection of his Son secured our eternal future with him.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

"In a few words, but with great sublimity, Moses here commends the faith of Noah." Thus comments Calvin on Scripture's record that "Noah... did all that God commanded him" (Gen. 6.22). The terseness with which Scripture registers Noah's obedience is remarkable in light of the proportions of that obedience; what Noah "did" was devote "more than a hundred years" of his life to building a "triple story" boat of sufficient size to house and preserve his own family as well as select pairs of birds, mammals, creepers, and crawlers, from a flood of world-wide extent.

Interestingly, Calvin finds principally a commendation of Noah's faith, rather than his labors per se, in Scripture's record of Noah's accomplishments. Obedience of the kind exercised by Noah necessarily rests on a firm foundation of confidence that God will be true to his promise of both pending judgment and salvation. "Whatsoever... was worthy of praise in this holy man... sprung from this fountain." The nature of Noah's faith requires greater detail, but first it's worth noting the obstacles Noah would have encountered in his ark-building endeavors, and so to be impressed by how extraordinary Noah's faith and the obedience stemming from it actually were.

Calvin identifies five obstacles in particular. There was, first of all, the sheer enormity of the task itself. "The prodigious size of the [proposed] ark might have overwhelmed all his senses, so as to prevent him from raising a finger to begin the work." Noah, in other words, might have balked from the job entrusted to him upon considering "the multitude of trees to be felled, ...the great labor of conveying them, and the difficulty of joining them to together." The time scale for this building project was also rather intimidating: "the holy man was required to be engaged more than a hundred years in most troublesome labor."

There was, secondly, the snickers and insults of Noah's peers to deter him from his work. Noah's contemporaries can hardly have failed to have taken him to task for his "promising himself an exclusive deliverance" from the wrath to come. Calvin reckons that the "natural ferocity" of Noah's contemporaries may have been compounded by concerns on their part regarding the depletion of natural resources resulting from Noah's doings: "Noah, by felling trees on all sides, was making the earth bare, and defrauding them of various advantages." No doubt some evangelicals today would be pleased to think that Noah's iniquitous peers constituted the world's first tree-huggers, but Calvin appears to suppose that Noah's contemporaries wished to exploit earth's riches for their own (sinful) purposes, not to preserve them as such, and for that reason (rather than environmental concerns) took offense at Noah's apparent hoarding of the same.

There was, thirdly, the ironic truth that God commanded Noah to reserve "a two years' store" of food for both human and non-human ticket-holders for the ark after effectively calling him to trade in his farming career for that of a ship-builder. Noah was "disengaged from agriculture in order to build the ark," a fact which necessarily rendered difficult "the providing of food for [the] animals." Indeed, Noah might "have suspected that God was mocking him" on this score.

There was, fourthly, the difficulty involved in gathering all the wild animals together as such -- "as if, indeed, he had all the beasts of the forest at his command, or was able to tame them; so that, in his keeping, wolves might dwell with lambs, tigers with hares, lions with oxen." A background in zoo-keeping might have proved beneficial in this regard; there's little evidence to suggest Noah had one.

Fifthly, and most substantially, there was the rather dire reality of actually entering the ark once it was complete and thus voluntarily depriving himself "of air and vital spirit." Calvin likens Noah's entrance into the ark to a descent "into the grave." His abhorrence at the thought of what it was like to actually inhabit the ark is informed by attention to its relatively limited dimensions, its lack of translucent windows, the presence of animals, and the apparent lack of a latrine for either human or animal use. "The smell of dung alone, pent up as it was in a closely filled place, might, at the expiration of three days, have stifled all the living creatures in the ark." The repulsion thus expressed by Calvin at the thought of being in the ark may reveal more about his own psyche (perhaps betraying degrees of claustrophobia, scotophobia, and/or scatophobia?) than anything else.

Calvin discovers several practical exhortations for believers in the narrative of Noah's obedience, particularly so with reference to the obstacles that Noah actually faced in fulfilling God's instructions to him. So, for instance, we are reminded by Noah that we must set our sights firmly on our heavenly inheritance -- the eternal fellowship with the Triune God and other believers that awaits us in the world to come -- if we are to persevere in obedience in this world. Calvin feels quite certain that Noah kept heaven in his sights, rather than temporal life beyond the flood, as he built the ark, because -- quite frankly -- the temporal life he (re)inherited after the flood was hardly worth the bother of building the ark. "Better to die a hundred deaths, than to undertake a work so laborious, unless he had looked to something higher than the present life."

On this score, however, Calvin is keen to emphasize that Noah's heavenly inheritance in no way depended upon his obedience in that particular task assigned to him on earth. Noah, like Enoch before him in Gen. 5, was judged righteous on the basis of the coming Seed's right-doing before he embarked on any right-doing, or in this case ark-building, of his own, a point Calvin finds reflected in the first words said about Noah in Gen. 6.5: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Noah built an ark in keeping with God's instructions because he had already been accepted by God and given the extraordinary gift of a heavenly inheritance, not in order to secure that acceptance or heavenly inheritance.

Another lesson we learn from Noah is the importance of regularly hearing and clinging to God's promises; indeed, it was God's promises -- both those of pending judgment and those of salvation through the ark -- that fueled Noah's faith, which faith in turn fueled his extraordinary obedience. "Let us therefore know, that the promises of God alone are they which quicken us, and inspire each of our members with vigour to yield obedience to God; but that without these promises, we not only lie torpid in indolence, but are almost lifeless, so that neither hands nor feet can do their duty. And hence, as often as we become languid, or more remiss than we ought to be, in good works, let the promises of God recur to us, to correct our tardiness."

In sum, then, "a remarkable example... of obedience is here described to us." But a proper learning from Noah's example will not lead us immediately to ark-building or any other act of supposed obedience which God solicits from us. A proper learning from Noah's example will lead us to set our sights on that eternal fellowship with God secured for us by the Seed that crushed the Serpent's head, and to have regular recourse to God's promises, which should inspire faith within us, and so ultimately obedience to whatever ordinary or extraordinary (and potentially even smelly) task God requires of us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose" (NASB). It is not entirely obvious who the parties ("sons of God" and "daughters of men") to the historical event (or rather historical crime, cf. Gen. 6.3) thus described in Gen. 6.2 actually were. Calvin identifies several possibilities. Some -- namely, persons "fascinated by ravings... gross and prodigious" -- have thought the "sons of God" to be angels, who in defiance of divine design engaged in "intercourse with [human] women." Calvin rejects this interpretation on the grounds of "its own absurdity." Angels, by common theological consent, are by their very nature spiritual beings that lack the corporeal presence and procreative impulse necessary to marriage and intercourse (cf. Matt. 22.30).

Calvin is equally dismissive of a second interpretive option which identifies the "sons of God" as nobility who violated proper social hierarchy by marrying "the daughters of plebeians." This view he merely labels "frigid." Gen. 6 is not, in his judgment, included in Scripture for the purposes of reinforcing any given caste system.

Calvin adopts the view that "sons of God" is here a reference to the descendants of Seth, among whom "the pure and lawful worship of God" had thus far prevailed, while "daughters of men" refers to "the children of Cain." In part he adopts this perspective by a process of elimination: when in doubt, choose the interpretive option that doesn't entail ascribing corporeality and corporeal functions to angelic creatures or serve to absolutize a social construct like the relations of nobility to peasantry. Calvin's view also, however, has the merit of respecting its context; the chapters leading up to Gen. 6 serve to detail the genealogies and differences of Cain's and Seth's lines respectively. It is, then, most natural to read the reference to "sons of God" in Gen. 6.2 as a further reference to Seth's line, which has already been identified as proper worshipers of the true God, and so to see Gen. 6 as advancing the great drama of that conflict between the respective seeds of the woman and the serpent -- a conflict which will reach its apex in Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

Calvin's interpretation has the further benefit of yielding both a significant theological truth as well as a very concrete and practical exhortation regarding how Christian believers should approach the task of finding a spouse. The theological point really stems from a potential problem with Calvin's interpretation, the fact that his reading has "sons of God," persons ostensibly characterized by sanctity, committing an act which effectively proves them to be decidedly un-sanctified.

Calvin sidesteps this problem rather easily by observing that these guilty "sons of God" were designated so by virtue of their "external vocation" and outward participation in the people of God, not by virtue of that "eternal election" which properly defines a person as an adopted child of the Eternal King. These men were, in other words, "wolves... within the fold;" members of the visible Church who were not invisibly joined to Christ. Thus Calvin finds in Gen. 6.1-3 the first biblical reference to the distinction between that broad circle of those who belong to the covenant and participate in the rituals and external blessings of the same and that narrower circle of those within the covenant who, properly elected by God, enjoy the spiritual reality (salvation through union with Christ) which all the rituals and external blessings point towards. Gen. 6.1-3, in other words, introduces a categorical distinction within God's people which will persist until the final judgment (the over-realized eschatological objections of our Baptist friends, who wish to discover a covenant and covenant sign which pertains only to indubitably true believers, notwithstanding).

The practical exhortation Calvin discovers in these verses stems from careful consideration of the crime which the "sons of God" here committed. "It is not fornication [or some other sexual sin] which is here condemned in the sons of the saints, but... too great indulgence of license in choosing themselves wives." These nominally Christian men sinned, in short, by marrying the wrong women, not because the women in question were committed to other men, but because they lacked that saving faith in God which renders a potential spouse appropriate to a believer.

The moral implication for single believers today is, I suppose, rather obvious; but before we let Calvin make the point explicit, it's worth noting several things for which Calvin doesn't incriminate these "sons of God." First, he doesn't incriminate them for marrying per se. Marriage as such is an honorable institution (cf. Gen. 2.21-24), and there's nothing in Gen. 6 or in Calvin's reading of it to indicate that fault should be found with these "sons of God" for preferring the married to the celibate life.

Secondly, Calvin doesn't incriminate these men for exercising the faculty of choice in marrying. Individuals should, Calvin seems to assume, have the principal say in who they wish to marry (within those boundaries established by God). The fault of these persons did not lay in any failure to honor someone else's conviction about who their spouses should be. Calvin at least allows, if he does not implicitly encourage, the view which Martin Luther made explicit: that -- all things being equal (i.e., all potential spouses being godly) -- marriages should be contracted on the basis of love and the free decision of the parties involved, and that no one (particularly parents) should interfere in such arrangements without good cause.

Thirdly, Calvin doesn't incriminate these men for choosing beautiful wives: "Moses does not deem it worthy of condemnation that regard was had to beauty in the choice of wives." Physical attraction to a potential spouse is not only lawful but desirable. Physical attraction can, however, turn problematic; in Calvin's judgment the unlawful decision on the part of the "sons of God" to marry beautiful but unbelieving women stemmed from unbridled lust for them. "Our appetite becomes brutal, when we are so ravished with the charms of beauty, that those things which are chief [i.e., godliness in a potential spouse] are not taken into the account."

All of this, of course, contains fairly obvious moral implications for believers in every subsequent age. "We are taught... in these words, that temperance is to be used in holy wedlock, and that its profanation is no light crime before God." The profanation of holy wedlock consists in the sin -- and it is, for Calvin, very clearly a sin -- of marrying someone who does not belong to the people of God. It is a sin that will, Calvin thinks, inevitably lead to more sin and ultimately even apostasy: "It is impossible but that, in the succession of time, the sons of God should degenerate, when they thus bound themselves in the same yoke with unbelievers."

Step number one for choosing a spouse, then, is this: choose a believer. Calvin's rather black and white moral exhortation, and the rather overt assumption underlying it (that single Christians are not in fact free to marry absolutely anyone they might wish), will undoubtedly prove jarring (even to some Christians) in our present day culture, which is squeamish about moral absolutes pertaining to relationships and seems particularly hell-bent on stripping away restrictions on who individuals can lawfully set their affections upon. C'est la vie, as Calvin never said. The good news for single Christians is that Calvin has no problem with you pursuing, with the intent to marry, a believing person of the opposite sex because you think that person's smoking hot (among other virtuous qualities, of course).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

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.

It's well known that Calvin frowned upon religious images in churches and the use of musical instruments to accompany singing in the corporate worship of God. Religious artwork in churches served, he believed, to distract worshipers from those "pictures" of Christ and his redeeming work which God himself had placed in worship (that is, baptism and the Lord's Supper) and from the sermon, which in his view should set Christ crucified before the eyes of worshipers more vividly than any painting possibly could (cf. Gal. 3.1). His distaste for musical instruments in worship stemmed from his conviction that corporate singing is essentially an act of prayer; musical instruments, he believed, could only distract worshipers from that act, drawing their thoughts away from the Person to whom they were praying to the sounds and melodies emitted by whatever instrument -- in his day, the organ -- was employed to accompany the singing.

It is sometimes assumed that Calvin's reticence regarding artwork and musical instruments in churches reflected reservation on his part regarding the arts more generally. Not so. In his chapter on religious images in the Institutes Calvin unabashedly insisted that "sculpture and painting are gifts of God." Though ill-suited to capture "God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes," these "gifts" undoubtedly serve "a pure and legitimate use." Calvin actually identified two discrete uses for artwork depicting "histories"/"events" and simple "images"/"forms of bodies" respectively: a didactic use ("teaching and admonition") and that quite simply of affording "pleasure" to the beholders. Significantly, he condemns neither use of art outside of worship.

Calvin's comments on the "legitimate use" of artwork in the Institutes find a parallel in remarks he makes regarding music and musical instruments in his commentary on Gen. 4.21. These remarks occur within a broader consideration of the "preeminent endowments" which God has entrusted to the unbelieving persons in Cain's lineage (Gen 4.20-23). Calvin has no doubt that persons in Seth's lineage were likewise busy in the "invention and cultivation of arts;" that Cain's descendants are specifically singled out for their artistic skills reflects God's enduring benevolence specifically to them. Calvin does, however, believe that "the heathen" have generally outstripped the church in the cultivation of "the liberal arts and sciences." Indeed, "we are... compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them."

The benefits to all men of these named sciences cultivated by "the heathen," as well as more practical skills like "the art of the carpenter," are deemed fairly obvious by Calvin. But what benefit is gained by "the invention of the harp" and "similar instruments"? Musical instruments (and, by implication, the music performed on them), he suggests, "minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity."

This is no word of censure on Calvin's part. Human pleasure "is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned." But Calvin is concerned to carefully qualify his approval of an art which primarily serves the end of pleasure. He acknowledges that lawful pleasure can become "foolish delight;" that is, a kind of unconstrained and selfish pleasure which ultimately "seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity." What is ultimately required, then, is that the pleasure we derive from music be "combined with fear of God."

Calvin's point is not that any pleasure we derive from music ought to be mitigated by a certain anxiety about enjoying music too much; that is not what is meant by "fear of God" in this (or any) context. Calvin's point, rather, is that we should acknowledge God's incredible benevolence, even to those who spurn him, as we find pleasure in music (and every other good gift). In other words, the pleasure which music affords should lead us to God rather than from him. "Such is the nature of music," then, "that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men." When Calvin speaks of "religion" here he means not corporate worship, but the entire life of a man or woman lived in concrete relationship to the Triune God. Music can, in short, serve -- that is, enhance -- that relationship.

There are echoes here of a distinction which St. Augustine drew centuries before Calvin between the enjoyment of something as an end in itself (frui; diligere propter se) and the enjoyment of something in relation to something greater than itself (uti; diligere propter aliud). Only God, according to Augustine (and, I think, Calvin) is meant to be enjoyed in and for himself. All other realities should be enjoyed because of the relation that they sustain to him. If we seek to enjoy other realities apart from God (i.e., without any sense for how they relate to him), our affections have become disordered; we have become idolaters.

The irony of this truth is that when we seek to enjoy music or any other reality which potentially brings us pleasure in conscience relation to God, our enjoyment of that reality is heightened, not decreased. Who, after all, enjoys a diamond ring more: the man who stumbles across it on the beach with the aid of his metal detector? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her as a token of his affections and intention to marry her? Obviously the latter. For the girl, the ring points to a reality -- a value -- greater than the ring itself (someone's love for her), and this increases her enjoyment of the ring (which sustains the same exact monetary value in each scenario).

So too with music or any other gift that comes from God. When we acknowledge a fine musical instrument or the songs produced on it (or them) as gifts ultimately from God, who has entrusted to all men creative abilities of remarkable proportions, the pleasure we gain from the same increases. Every beautiful song, like every breathtaking piece of art, becomes a token of divine love and generosity, pointing us towards the Creator whose creative abilities men merely image, and his astounding affection for all men, especially his adopted children (to whom even greater gifts are given).

Calvin, then, hardly turns out to be the enemy of the arts, or for that matter pleasure, he is sometimes taken for. Indeed, he provides for us a method of hearing and enjoying music, or feasting our eyes upon the visual arts, that will maximize pleasure, insofar as he provides for us a method for enjoying the arts that will not distract us from God, but draw us directly into contemplation of God's staggering generosity to us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

By virtue of his sin Adam "was banished from that royal palace of which he had been the lord." Yet God did not leave Adam homeless; "he obtained elsewhere" -- somewhere east of Eden -- "a place in which he might dwell."

Adam quickly learned how complicated life in his downgraded digs would be. Everywhere he turned he was confronted with the consequences of his sin: "innumerable miseries;" "temporal exile;" ultimately "death itself." Everywhere he turned he was equally confronted with evidence of God's "paternal love" for him, even in the face of his rebellion, and sustained by reminders of the promise delivered to him and his wife of the "seed" who would one day triumph over the Serpent and thus regain for true believers that "life from which he had fallen."

Calvin discovers a case study in the complexities of life lived between the fall and the consummation -- life lived, that is, with constant reminders of both sin's consequences and God's "paternal love" -- in the meal plan that comes with Adam's new accommodation. Adam was "bereft of his former delicacies," but "he was still supplied with some kind of food." Adam could fill his belly, but nothing tasted quite so good as Eden's fruits had, and he had to eat his food with bandaged fingers (having wrestled with thorns and thistles to secure his meal).

A far more poignant reminder -- or two reminders, as it happens -- of the complexities of life lived between the fall and the consummation presents itself to Adam and Eve in the opening verses of Genesis chapter 4, in the form of twin baby boys. Calvin concludes that Cain and Abel were twins from the fact that Genesis mentions only one act of conjugal relations between Adam and Eve and one subsequent conception (Gen. 4.1), but two births (Gen. 4.1-2). According to Calvin's reasoning, humanity's first naturally born children were actually identical twins, though Calvin wouldn't have had the biological wherewithal to grasp the point. Twins, in Calvin's judgment, were far more common in the early years of humankind's history, "when the world had to be replenished with inhabitants."

"Adam recognized, in the very commencement of having offspring, the truly paternal moderation of God's anger." He recognized, in other words, how good God intended to be his human creatures, even when he had every reason to withdraw his goodness from them entirely. Few human pleasures, to be sure, compare with the birth of healthy babies, or speak so loudly of God's liberality towards us. Newborn babies trigger emotions of love, joy, and responsibility within us that we wouldn't have known we were capable of, and those emotions, most importantly, give us a partial glimpse at least into the "paternal" nature of God's sentiments towards his own image-bearing offspring.

But as every proper parent knows, the birth of children can also trigger emotions of fear and anxiety. The world is full of sinners (not least of all us), and we cannot help, as we hold our newborn children in our arms, but wonder what crimes will be committed against them (or, worse, what crimes they will commit) in however many years God gives them.

Of course, the worst fears of Adam and Eve for their twin boys came true. One son was brutally murdered. The other son committed the brutal murder in question. Adam must have felt both realities in a particularly poignant way, since his own personal decision to violate God's commandment lay at the root of his children's wayward inclinations and the tragic outworking of those inclinations. Adam's sense of horror at the perversity he had unleashed on the world by his defection from God could only have deepened as he lived to witness Cain's great-great-great-grandson Lamech both up the ante on Cain's violence (Gen. 4.23) and "violate the sacred law of marriage ... [and] perpetual order of nature" by committing polygamy (Gen. 4.19).

So "horror-struck" were "our first parents... at the impious slaughter" of their son and the subsequent crimes of Cain's lineage that they "abstained for a while from the conjugal bed." It would seem that Adam and Eve stayed out of "the conjugal bed" for quite a long "while" in fact, since Calvin apparently reads the renewal of relations and conception of Seth (Gen. 4.25) as chronologically subsequent to Lamech's misadventures (Gen. 4.19-24); i.e., Adam and Eve effectively "abstained ... from the conjugal bed" for a succession of five generations. Adam and Eve thus became the first of many human beings to wonder whether it's really a good idea to bring kids into this messed up world.

Calvin offers no insights into what, on his admittedly suspect reading of Adam and Eve's marital relations, eventually incited our first parents to re-ignite the procreative flame. But if we were to adopt his reading and push it even further, we might speculate that Adam and Eve's renewed inclination to have children was driven by the hope that their next named child, Seth, would be exactly who Seth turned out to be -- that is, one who, like his brother Abel before him, "called upon the name of the Lord," which Calvin reads as shorthand for engaging in "the whole worship of God." In Seth, and in Seth's own "rightly constituted family, the face of the Church began distinctly to appear, and that worship of God was set up which might continue to posterity."

Adam and Eve, in other words, overcame their fear of whatever evils their children might encounter or propagate in this life by resting upon God's promise that his ultimate gift, paradise regained, belonged to them and to their children. And in Seth (as in Abel) the highest hope that believing parents can sustain for their child, the hope that their child will himself or herself also believe by virtue of God's own faithfulness and gift, was realized. Adam and Eve eventually recognized that the worst thing about Cain's crime was not the crime itself, but the unbelief that informed his aggression against Abel and marked him as an alien to God's eternal fellowship. They likewise realized that however horrible the loss of Abel had been, Abel was an heir with them of God's eternal promises appropriated through faith; although they were deprived of Abel's company in this life, they would enjoy his company in the life to come forever.

Adam and Eve thus experienced the ultimate joys and sorrows of parenting. But the ultimate joy (the believing child) was joyful enough to lead them to entrust their future children's fortunes to God and fulfill his abiding command to be fruitful (Gen. 1.28). Though they had experienced the ultimate sorrow  (the unbelieving child), Adam and Eve moved forward in faith, confidant that even their tears over Cain and his sin would, in some way presently incomprehensible, be one day wiped from their eyes (Rev. 21.4).

As a footnote, it's worth noting that Calvin himself, when he wrote these comments on Gen. 4, had himself experienced his share of sorrows relative to children. During the nine years of Calvin's marriage to his wife Idelette (who was five years dead when Calvin published his Genesis commentary), none of the several children they conceived survived birth. Calvin knew the unfathomable sorrow which the loss of children can bring. But he, also, I think, knew some significant joy in the midst of the pain that losing children brings. He almost certainly had his own stillborn children in mind when he noted in his Institutes that "God... adopts our infants as his children before they are born." Though deprived of the company and joy of his children in this age, Calvin had every expectation of enjoying the company and joy of his children for eternity in the age to come.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Calvin takes as given the historicity of Adam and Eve and the events surrounding their creation and fall. He rebukes, on this score, the 3rd century theologian Origen and "others like him" who -- finding little of value in Adam and Eve's historical personages -- "took refuge" in allegorical interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Such interpretation generally discovered nothing but moral(istic) import (in medieval technical terms, a tropological meaning) in the events depicted in these chapters.

Yet Calvin has no qualms whatsoever about discerning in our first parents' rebellion and God's response to the same a pattern which finds expression in every subsequent generation of rebels-without-good-cause doing their rebel thing against God. In other words, a careful consideration of Adam's sin and God's response to it has much to teach us not only about Adam's sin and God's response to it, but also about our own sin, our efforts to evade culpability for sin, and God's work of exposing sin for what it is and then dealing with it far more effectively that we ever could.

What might we learn from Adam's response to his own sin? We learn something about our persistent efforts to evade responsibility for what we've done and, when such evasion proves unsuccessful, to make satisfaction for our guilt on our own terms. 

Efforts to evade culpability for sin generally involve a fair bit of finger-pointing at others. Thus Adam points his finger first of all at God and tries to blame him for his dire situation. Discovered by God in the garden (vs. 9) after trying to hide himself among the trees (vs. 8), Adam names his nakedness, rather than his crime, as the reason for his reluctance to face God. It was, of course, God himself who created Adam "starkers" (as my wife would say); thus, Adam's naming of his nudity as the source of his shame was essentially an attempt on his part to "transfer to God the charge which he ought to have brought against himself." It was, in other words, an effort to root "the origin of evil in nature," and so to make God -- the author of nature -- morally responsible for Adam's shame and everything which informed it.

When asked more pointedly whether he had broken God's commandment (vs. 11), Adam merely doubles down in the blame game, simultaneously putting forward "his wife as the guilty party in his place" and advancing yet another "accusation against God," inasmuch as Eve "had been given [to him] by God." Eve, for her part, learns a quick lesson from Adam: "[Eve] is not struck dumb" (as she should have been by the gravity of her guilt), "but, after the example of her husband, transfers the charge to another; by laying the blame on the serpent she foolishly, and indeed impiously, thinks herself absolved."

So it goes with each of us: "We also, trained in the same school of original sin, are too ready to resort to subterfuges of the same kind," ultimately daring even to blame God for the sinful desires which we indulge. But our own finger-pointing is "to no purpose," Calvin reminds us, "for however much incitements and instigations from other quarters may impel us, yet the unbelief which seduces us from obedience to God is within us; the pride which brings forth contempt is within." 

Even more futile than Adam's attempts to evade culpability is his effort to deal with his shame by cloaking himself with "a girdle of [fig] leaves." "There is none of us," Calvin comments, "who does not smile at [such] folly, since, certainly, it was ridiculous to place such a covering before the eyes of God." 

Yet our own efforts to deal with our guilt often prove more laughable than Adam's. Calvin insightfully identifies the simple passage of time as one of the more flimsy cloaks we seek to cast over our sin and culpability. The more minutes, hours, and days that intervene between us and our transgressions, the less we feel the sting of guilt for what we've done. And so we delude ourselves into thinking that God, like our own forgetful consciences, is actually appeased by time. "By an oblivion of three days' duration, we imagine that we are well covered." Unfortunately for our delusion, God transcends time, and so our criminal actions and our guilt are ever present (tense) to him. Time may heal certain wounds between human parties, but before God, time proves just a futile as a pair of fig-leaf undies for covering our guilt.

From God's response to Adam's sin we gain insight into what God continually does with sin (and, in that process, sinners), first naming it for what it really is, and then dealing with it through the atoning work of his own Son.

Calvin discerns a two-part movement in God's response to Adam's sin; God first convicts Adam, and then consoles Adam. God convicts Adam by coming "nearer" to him and -- both literally and metaphorically -- drawing him out, "however unwilling and resisting," from "the tangled thicket of trees" where he has hidden himself. The exposure of Adam ultimately consists in God's reminder to him of that single explicit command given to him when the garden of delights was entrusted to his care. 

Thus God's commandments ever serve to convict sinners of their guilt: "In the same manner we also are alarmed at the voice of God, as soon as his Law sounds in our ears." In most cases, of course, genuine admission of guilt requires sustained exposure to God's Law. "We snatch at shadows, until he, calling upon us more vehemently, compels us to come forward, arraigned at his tribunal."

Having humbled and convicted Adam by means of his Law, God consoles Adam with the good news of One who would come to reverse the fall and its catastrophic consequences, and through his perfect obedience to God's Law and suffering for sin provide a covering far more substantial than fig leaves for Adam's guilt and shame; a covering, indeed, which God himself would prove unwilling and unable to penetrate with his gaze. God consoles Adam, in other words, with the promise of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who in due course would fulfill God's law and suffer death in the stead of Adam, Eve, and every subsequent sinner willing to place his or her confidence solely in him.

Jesus Christ was named rather obscurely to Adam and Eve (in the midst of God's rebuke of the Serpent) as "the seed of the woman" who one day would crush the Serpent's head (vs. 15). "Certainly in that [promise] the remission of sins and the grace of eternal salvation is contained." The precise woman in view in this prophetic text is not, Calvin argues, the Virgin Mary (contra Roman interpretation), but Eve, who "being first deceived... had peculiar need of consolation." 

The "seed" who would triumph over sin and all its consequences is, of course, Jesus Christ, who crushes the Serpent's head in his death and resurrection. But it is not him alone. Noting the collective sense of the word "seed" (i.e., descendants), Calvin discovers in Genesis 3.15 an additional promise that every believer who joins himself or herself to Christ will, in him, equally triumph over the Serpent (and so over sin, death, and hell), and thus be restored to eternal fellowship with God. Genesis 3.15 contains, then, nothing short of the promise of one whose work would eradicate the guilt and shame of every person willing to take off his or her fig leaves and put on the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

In sum, while Adam is, according to Calvin, a genuine historical person, there is also a genuine sense in which Adam constitutes a symbol of every man (and woman). Adam's sin and God's response to it serve as a (prophetic) picture of every individual's response to his or her guilt and God's own, more radical response - namely, that of bringing the sinner to the depths of despair by confronting him or her with his Law, only to raise the sinner to the highest peaks of hope by consoling him or her with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his sin-atoning work.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Calvin thinks none too highly of persons who covet the lives of pigs and dogs. It seems to have been a considerable problem in his day; he refers in his comments on Genesis 3 to the "well-known complaints" of persons who consider the lot of "swine and dogs" (porci et canes) in life preferable to their own. 

Upon encountering Calvin's passing condemnation of such individuals, I initially felt a bit nervous. I can't recall ever having coveted the life of a pig, but -- I confess -- I have cast an envious eye upon my dog on occasion. It's not so much his diet (primarily whatever scraps "fall" from my daughters' plates) or routine (napping, playing, eating, napping again, etc.) that spark jealously in me, though the latter does seem rather desirable. It's more the reality, or at least my sneaking suspicion, that he ranks ever so slightly higher than I do in my wife's affections, even on my best days. I can't really blame my wife; our dog is rather endearing, even if at times annoying. I, on the other hand, am not endearing at all, and am almost always annoying.

I suspect Calvin would have some significant words of reproof for me on this score (both for being envious and for being annoying). Upon closer reading of his rebuke of swine-and-dogs-coveters, however, I'm not sure that my envy of Oakley (our dog), if viewed in relation to its roots, is really the kind of thing that was worrying him. That rebuke occurs in the midst of reflection upon "the number and nature of those evils" which humankind has brought upon itself by its defection from God. Calvin observes that many persons, with a view towards the difficulties that human sin has introduced to human experience, prove "unable to restrain themselves from raging and murmuring against God," professing among other things "that God has acted more mercifully to swine and dogs than to them." Thus they fail, Calvin observes, to "refer [their] miserable and ruined state... to the sin of Adam as they ought," and they "fling back upon God the charge of being the cause" of said evils.

Calvin's accusation against such "raging and murmuring" men is, ultimately, one of blasphemy more than one of envy. His particular concern with how persons relate the consequences of human sin to God requires further note, but first it may be useful to categorize such consequences of Adam and Eve's sin as Calvin sees them. 

1) Human sin entailed consequences, first of all, for human nature. Corruption resulting from Adam's sin infects every faculty of the human soul of every natural child of Adam; "no part is free from the infection of sin." The "mind" in particular, from which all affections and decisions flow, has been made subject to "horrible blindness, contumacy against God, wicked desires, and violent propensities to evil." Calvin is keen to point out that the "whole perverseness of our disposition" is "adventitious" (not to be confused with advantageous); i.e., human beings, prior to the fall as such, knew nothing of such "perverseness" in their inner persons. Perversity attached itself to human nature at a specific point in time; it is not, therefore of the essence of what it means to be human.

2) "The earth [was] cursed on account of the sin of man," thus becoming "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Such "deformity of the world... ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God." Under the rubric of "deformity of the world" belongs "inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, [and] hail," as well as "diseases" and (sinful) human activities which serve to further destroy, rather than cultivate, the world entrusted to humankind.

3) Sin has introduced "strife, troubles, sorrow, dissensions, and a boundless sea of evils" into human relationships. Calvin offers as a particular case study of this point the institution of marriage: "It has happened by our fault, and by the corruption of nature, that [the] happiness of marriage has, in a great measure, perished, or, at least, is mixed and infected with many inconveniences." (Calvin, interestingly, had nearly a decade's experience of marriage when he wrote these words. He spoke of his late wife in other contexts as his "best companion" and "faithful helper." It appears, nevertheless, that he could remember the occasional spat or rough patch from his married years.)

4) Most seriously, sin has brought about "alienation from God," who created human beings in his own image and endowed them with every good gift from the first moment of their existence. "Alienation from God" is, in fact, that very "death" which God promised to Adam and Eve as the consequence of transgressing his law. In Calvin's view, then, the cessation of breath and brain waves constitutes the culmination but not the substance of death. The "life of man without God," being "wretched and lost," is the experience of death in its truest sense.

So, to return to pigs and dogs: Calvin's concern is that, in experiencing these consequences of sin on a day to day basis, we give blame where blame is properly due. He recognizes within us a tendency to immediately credit God for whatever ills -- perverse inclinations, ruined relationships, disease, death, etc. -- befall us, when in truth we should consistently credit ourselves for the same. It was, after all, we -- in solidarity with Adam -- who turned our backs on God, thereby inviting such ills into human experience. 

It seems to me that, somewhat ironically, it is Reformed Christians -- Calvin's heirs, if you will -- who might be most prone to do exactly what Calvin here denounces, that is, wrongly credit God, rather than human sin, for the inward perversity and outward deformity they experience in life. It is Reformed Christians, after all, who are typically quickest to recognize and (rightfully) assert that all things happen in accordance with God's perfect will (Eph. 1:11). And there is, to be sure, great comfort to be had in the knowledge that God has decreed and providentially rules over even the sin and evil in our lives. But ordering and providentially ruling is not the same as causing, and we must be careful -- even as we find comfort in God's sovereignty over every detail of our lives -- not to be guilty of laying upon God "the charge of being the cause of all... our evils." 

If anger at God, rather than trust in God, is our default response to troubles in life, we may be guilty of that very act of blasphemy which Calvin decries, even if pigs and dogs don't immediately figure into our outlook. And if, moreover, we're busy blaming God for whatever evil we encounter in and around ourselves, we miss the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to engage in "humble confession of our fault, [and] to bewail our evils," even while we rest and take comfort in the knowledge that absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside of the sovereign control of the one who never causes, but rather provides the ultimate answer to, sin and all its consequences.

Aaron Denlinger is blogging a series of reflections based on Calvin's Genesis Commentary. Catch up with the series here, here, and here.

The curious decision of Adam and Eve, having been the recipients of such goodness from God, to defect from their Maker, thus spoiling the "native excellence" of both themselves and "the whole world which had been created for them," raises "many difficult questions." Chief among them, Calvin acknowledges, is "why God permitted Adam [and Eve] to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Two further questions lurk behind Calvin's discussion of the Fall: First, was God in some way responsible for Adam and Eve's defection (that is, did he instigate or cause their sin)? And second, does the Fall constitute a lapse in God's providential rule of his created world and its history?


Calvin's starting point in approaching these questions is the assumption that we, as creatures of God, stand "to be judged by God," not to "pass judgment on him." His goal, then, is never to vindicate God before the bar of human moral judgment. He does, however, feel it proper to represent God's character faithfully and truly in all our talk about God and his ways, and he seeks to do just that as he narrates the origin of human sin. He thus provides to us a model for God-honoring thinking and speaking about the Fall.


Faithful representation of God's character means, first and foremost, observing that God created all sentient beings -- angels, men and women, and even animals -- upright in nature. God is not the author of evil; he created all things "very good." Calvin goes to great lengths to emphasize the integrity of the created natures of all four participants in the event of the Fall: the serpent, the Devil, Adam, and Eve.


The need Calvin feels to defend the created nature of the serpent stems not only from its role in tempting Eve, but also from Scripture's description of it as "more subtle" or "crafty" than the other animals. Calvin worries, first of all, that some might conclude from this description that the serpent determined "to deceive man" by virtue of "its own malignity," and so fail to recognize that behind the serpent lay Satan, who used the serpent as his "instrument" for "effecting the destruction of man."


He worries, secondly, that some might consider "craftiness" a created flaw or vice in the snake as such, and thereby conclude that God purposefully made an evil-prone being. Thus Calvin labors to render "craftiness" not only innocuous but even virtuous: Scripture "does not so much point out a fault as attribute praise to [the serpent's] nature, because God had endued this beast with such singular skill, as rendered it acute and quick-sighted beyond all others." Proof that craftiness per se is no vice is drawn from Christ's instruction to his disciples to be as "subtle as serpents" (Matt. 10:16). The Savior, it seems, encouraged his followers to exercise the very quality which rendered the serpent an apt "instrument" of the devil; the quality as such, then, cannot be considered sinful.


But what about Satan, who through the serpent deceived God's image bearers? Satan, of course, is not explicitly named in the Fall narrative. That, and the consequent truth that Genesis provides no account of "how the tempter himself had revolted from God," has led certain "fanatical men," Calvin notes, to believe "that Satan was created evil and wicked, as he is here described." Calvin firmly insists that Satan's own wickedness cannot be traced back to God's creative activity, and is therefore unnatural, in the truest sense of the term, to the wickedest of all beings. "The principle of evil with which Satan was endued was not from nature, but from defection; because he had departed from God, the fountain of justice and of all rectitude."


What about Adam and Eve? Does the apparent ease with which they were led astray suggest that God himself, in creation or at any point prior to their actual sin, endowed human nature with some proclivity towards sin? Calvin shudders at the very thought: "It is an impious madness to ascribe to God the creation of any evil and corrupt nature; for when he had completed the world, he himself gave this testimony to all his works, that they were 'very good.'" How, then, do we explain the fact that Adam and Eve sinned? According to Calvin, Adam and Eve simply exercised their "free choice," a capacity he unreservedly attributes to them as pre-fallen divine image-bearers.


The "free choice" Adam and Eve made was, of course, an act of "contumacy against the Divine Law-Giver," and as such "it was against the will of God." But nothing happens in human history unbe(fore)knownst to God. Indeed, God is sovereign even over free human choices. There is a real sense, then, in which Adam and Eve sinned in accordance not only with God's permission, but with his express ordination. Calvin expresses this truth in no uncertain terms: "evil did not take place except by his permission." But he hastens to add, lest this truth cause confusion, that God's active permission of the Fall does not imply that Adam and Eve's sin was "pleasing to him," or that "he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated." Sin remains sin (that is, abhorrent to God and "against [his] will") even when it occurs in accordance with God's purpose and decree, and so even by a certain kind of necessity.


So why, again, did God permit the temptation and defection of his creatures, "seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Why has God apparently willed that which is, well, contrary to his will? In the end, Calvin offers no answer, but rather asserts that God's reasons for this, like many things, remain "to us unknown."


There is, in fact, a notable and rather obvious lack of anxiety pervading Calvin's acknowledgment that we, as creatures of God, do not know -- and should not guess at -- why God permitted humankind's defection. Scripture, after all, tells us not everything we wish to know, but everything we need to know. For Calvin, it is enough to know that proper responsibility for sin and all its attendant miseries must be laid at the doorstep of our first parents (and so, in truth, at our doorstep). It is enough to know, moreover, that God, who providentially rules all things but never creates or causes sin, does something about sin in the person and work of His Son, thereby restoring us to friendship and fellowship with him. Any attempt to rise above the God-fixed limits of our understanding of these things and view them from God's own perspective is, in the final analysis, a reenactment of Adam and Eve's initial failure to let God be God, to acknowledge our creaturely limitations, and to confidently rest in the wisdom, sovereignty, and fatherly care of our Creator.


We tend towards one of two extremes in our attitudes towards work: either we make too little of it, or we make too much of it. We make too little of work when we regard it with contempt, when we treat it as an evil -- albeit a necessary one since it supplies the financial resources necessary to pursue the things we actually value (relationships, possessions, status, leisure, etc.).
 
Against any such tendency, we need to be reminded that God gave Adam a job immediately after he made him. "The earth was given to man... that he should occupy himself in its cultivation." Calvin doesn't hesitate to draw a universal principle from this -- not that we should all, in imitation of Adam, set ourselves to farming (or even manual labor), but that we should set ourselves to doing something. "Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness." Indeed, "nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do."

Calvin has much to say, in due course, about how we go about choosing something "to do." Selecting a job or career is a matter of measuring one's desires and abilities, and determining how one might best serve God and others -- not so much one's self -- with those desires and abilities. The fundamental point here, however, is that work is a good thing, an integral aspect of creaturely existence in a pre-fallen world, and so also in our fallen world. Work is not the product or penalty of humankind's rebellion against God, granted that some -- indeed a fairly significant -- degree of frustration has been introduced to all human work in consequence of that rebellion (Gen. 3.18-19).

But recognition of work's intrinsic goodness can leave us exposed to that other error to be avoided, making too much of work. We make too much of work when we treat it - rather than glorifying and enjoying God - as man's chief end, or as an indubitably permanent feature of creaturely existence. Against any tendency to over-value work, we must be reminded of two things: first, the relationship which work sustained to rest/worship in Eden; and second, the relationship which Eden itself as a whole, with work as one ingredient, sustained (and still sustains) to the eternal state (heaven, if you will).

According to Calvin, God's image bearers had a corporate calling which was higher than their individual vocations from the very beginning; namely, that they "daily exercise themselves to consider the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, in this magnificent theater of heaven and earth." God, in order to direct his image bearers towards that end, set apart one specific day--first by his own example, and then by benediction made upon his own day of rest (Gen 2:2-3)--for the exercise of such activity. In Calvin's judgment, the obligation for all men and women to desist from "other business" and "apply their minds to the Creator of the world" can be traced back to creation; it is, of course, an obligation binding "the whole human race."

God's sanctification of the seventh day (Gen. 2.3) and the peculiar responsibilities entrusted to us on that seventh day -- both rest, in imitation of God's own cessation from the work of creation, and worshipful contemplation of God and His ways -- mutually indicate that man's seventh-day activities are more significant than his other-six-day doings. If is, of course, a more profound thing "to celebrate the justice, wisdom, and power of God" in worship than it is to cultivate the soil (although both work and worship, in Calvin's vision, should ultimately be done to God's glory). This privileging of rest/worship over work, the latter succumbing to the former in a weekly pattern established by God, puts work in proper perspective.

Considering the relationship of the original, Edenic state to the eternal, heavenly state also serves to put work in proper perspective. In Calvin's judgment, Adam's life in Eden was ultimately a temporary one, regardless of whether he stood or fell. "His earthly life truly would have been temporal; ...he would have passed into heaven without death, and without injury." Thus Adam too, before he fell, was called to "meditate on heavenly glory" while "passing through his earthly life." This was no idiosyncratic view on Calvin's part; both before and after the Reformation the view was prevalent that God always intended something surpassing Eden's splendors for his human creatures.

If Adam's "earthly life" was in fact temporary, so also was the job he was given. In other words, even in a sinless world, work would have given way to that eternal rest, worship, and fellowship with God which was from the very beginning prophetically imaged in humankind's weekly rest, worship, and fellowship with God. This may prove a hard pill to swallow for those who, quite frankly, value work so highly, or so find identity in their occupations, that the promise of a heaven without work sounds like the loss of all they cherish and the dissolution of self (i.e., hell). But neither Calvin nor Scripture offer any suggestion that work in general, or our specific callings in this life, will survive the transition to the next. Our lives in the life to come will, I suspect, be rather busy (without being tiring), but that busyness won't entail finishing up those projects we never quite managed to complete before the present heavens and earth were rolled up like scroll (Isa. 34.4).

Calvin calls us to walk a fine line in our assessment of work, neither underestimating nor overestimating its value. His vision of a work/rest pattern for God's image bearers makes ideas about work championed by our present-day culture seem rather thin by comparison. His vision simply cannot be reconciled with models which treat work as the rather unpleasant but necessary price of admission to weekends and holidays of self-indulgence, or those which make occupation the definition of a person, and offer him or her weekends and holidays (rest) as a mere chance to recharge the batteries for greater productivity. Against either unsatisfactory view, Calvin offers us his vision: six days of fruitful, God-glorifying work (a high calling) culminating in one day of rest and concentrated worship and enjoyment of God (an even higher calling), which day of rest and worship anticipates and prophetically images that eternal rest and enjoyment of God which he, the fall notwithstanding, has prepared for his people (the highest calling).

Calvin's commentary on the creation narrative of Genesis 1.1-2.3 is dominated by one particular metaphor--that of God as the builder and decorator of a luxurious house.  The creation days, in Calvin's perspective, mark successive stages in God's construction project. In the first triad of creation days, God performs the role of a proper builder, directing his energies to the foundation and fabric of his cosmic domicile. In the second triad of creation days, he performs the role of interior designer, supplying his house with both "furniture" and "garniture" (ornamenta).

God, in Calvin's estimation, is no minimalist when it comes to interior design. "The heaven without the sun, and moon, and stars," and the "earth... destitute of animals, trees, and plants" would, indeed, make for a "poor and deserted house," a "dismantled palace." The presence of heavenly bodies and earthly flora and fauna make for a "house well supplied and filled."

This "wealthy house, well supplied with every kind of provision in abundance and variety," was built with a specific tenant in mind, even if that tenant didn't yet exist during the designing, building, and decorating process. "In the very order of the creation the paternal solicitude of God for man is conspicuous, because he furnished the world with all things needful, and even with an immense profusion of wealth, before he formed man. Thus man was rich before he was born."

Calvin's attention to the "paternal solicitude" apparent in God's act of creation evokes images of wealthy parents-to-be preparing their home for their anticipated first child, eager to provide for that child's well-being and enjoyment. Socket covers and safety latches for cabinets and drawers are installed, potentially dangerous items are locked away or placed out of reach, the pantry is stocked with formula milk and baby food. Particular attention is given to the nursery: a baby cot fitted with musical mobile is secured, the walls are painted pleasant colors and covered with vibrant images, stuffed animals are placed in the cot and on shelves in anticipation of the baby's arrival. In sum, these soon-to-be parents, brimming with expectation, secure everything they can think of to provide both nourishment and delight to their future child.

Similarly, the "house" which God prepared as man's "happy and pleasant habitation" was tailored both to man's well-being and his enjoyment; it was, indeed, a "variety of delights." Calvin's description of the newly-created world drips with references to "abundance," "affluence," "profusion," and "sweetness," particularly so with regard to Eden--the nursery, as it were, in this house prepared for man. 

Of course, anyone with a reasonable grasp of child psychology knows that the most important thing in any home for a child's flourishing is no thing at all, but the parents themselves. No amount of stuffed animals or toys can fill the void created in a child's heart from absent or indifferent parents. 

Similarly, the principal necessity and delight in God's cosmic house is God himself. God no more built his house with any intention to hand over the keys to his human creatures and take his leave, wishing them all happiness in their new residence, than parents purpose to suddenly vacate their home after bringing a child into it. God built his house with every intention of living there with his children--of fostering relationship and intimacy with them in that place. (Calvin anticipates, on this score, recent studies which identify Eden as the prototypical sanctuary, a place for man to enjoy fellowship with and worship God.) As Calvin reflects, then, upon the gifts which God has prepared for and bestowed upon his image-bearers in this "house well supplied and filled," he notes the proper, relational response these should trigger in their recipients; namely, reliance upon God, gratitude for his plentiful provision, and "wonder" (literally stupor) at the sheer immensity of his generosity.

Our first parents failed, of course, to sustain such attitudes towards God. Their rebellion against their benefactor impacted the entire world--God's "house"--in addition to themselves. "The earth," which as a whole "would have remained the fairest scene both of fruitfulness and of delight," has become "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Yet much good remains; indeed, "thorns and thistles" are, in the final analysis, parasitic upon the fundamental goodness and beauty irrevocably invested in humankind's primal residence.

There is a temptation among those living on this side of the fall to turn blind eyes to the "abundance," "sweetness," and "variety" which persists in this world, and either focus only on the thorns and thistles, or look entirely to the world to come, with (proper) expectation of its surpassing goodness. Calvin has significant advice for us on this score: "Since the eternal inheritance of man is in heaven, it is truly right that we should tend thither; nevertheless, we ought to fix our foot on earth long enough to consider this house (hospitium), which God wishes man to use for a time."  The meditation on this world which Calvin encourages should evoke, in addition to sorrow for the obvious fruits of humankind's rebellion, those very same responses which God's house in its original splendor was calculated to excite: reliance, gratitude, wonder.

Calvin invites us, in sum, to pause from our busy lives and take time to "consider this abode," still bearing evident traces of its original "abundance" and "sweetness." Study a tree. Smell a flower. Savor the taste of some choice fruit. Pet a dog. Look at the stars. But be careful as you do so. Any appreciation for the goodness and beauty of this created world without acknowledgement of the Creator is a serious crime. "Those who perceive by the moon the splendor of night are convicted, by their enjoyment of it, of perverse ingratitude if they do not acknowledge the beneficence of God." So as we contemplate the goodness of this world, let us turn our thoughts very intentionally to the "wonderful Artificer, who has so beautifully arranged all things," and may the peculiar utility and beauty of all that we encounter "constrain us to wonder."

Many thanks to the fine folk at Ref21 for inviting me to contribute to the website.

I'm intending to launch, in a day or two, a series of posts reflecting upon bits and pieces of Calvin's Genesis commentary. Several weeks ago I decided to read through the entirety of Calvin's commentary set--not so much in the interest of learning more about Calvin's theology or approach to exegesis (though that in itself would be rewarding); more as an exercise in reading Scripture in the company of a trusted friend and teacher who has many more and far deeper insights than I into Scripture's meaning and relevance. 

Thus far I'm only a few chapters into Genesis, but it has already been an immensely rewarding experience. So I hope to share with readers of this blog some of the insights Calvin has into the biblical text that I've found especially intriguing and/or edifying. I won't be offering a comprehensive account or even an overview of Calvin's interpretation of every chapter and verse. I'm intending, rather, to pick out certain thoughts and themes expressed by Calvin--thoughts and themes which I find illuminating, sobering, comical, etc.--and bandy them about a bit.

So, thanks--in advance--to anyone who cares to follow along. And thanks again to the Ref21 folk for bringing me on board as a contributor. I count it a real privilege.

New Book on Calvin's Polish Connections

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Our friend and fellow contributor, Dr. Dariusz Brycko alerted us to this very important work on Calvin. Dr. Brycko writes:

"I have the privilege of volunteering as international secretary at the University of Warsaw's Committee on the Reformation in Poland and East-Central Europe, formed in 2008 by Prof. Piotr Wilczek. Its main goal is to facilitate research on the history of the Reformation in Poland and the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (including today's Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine). Many well-known researchers of the early modern period already have joined the committee, such as Howard Hotson (Oxford), Karin Maag (Calvin College Meeter Center), and Richard Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary). Its 2010 Warsaw conference hosted Irena Backus (University of Geneva), Willem Van Asselt (Utrecht University), and many others.

Despite very limited resources, the committee is publishing an academic series. The third and newest volume is an annotated bibliography of sources dealing with John Calvin's Polish connections, authored by Wieslaw Mincer. This long-overdue bibliography includes an English translation of the author's foreword and is a valuable source concerning Calvin's forgotten influence in Central-Eastern Europe. For more information, see here."

Hunting with a Lion

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Now that B. B. Warfield's theology is back on the scene with Fred Zaspel's The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway), I thought I'd point out a few comments by the Lion of Princeton in his Collected Works on the faithful and fearless John Calvin. What struck me this week was Warfield's assessment of what made Calvin tick, what drove his most profound theological reflection, what conditioned all of his work at Geneva, and what suffused his every religious impulse with devotional fire.


What was it for Calvin that, according to Warfield, "did not stand for him out of relation to his religious consciousness" but was essentially given "in his experience of salvation itself"? What was that "great and inspiring reality" that situated "his profoundest religious emotions"? Was it the compelling narrative of Scripture? A renewed cosmos to come? Small groups?!? No, for Calvin, it was that vital and mysterious truth that we worship one absolute God in three Persons.


Now I confess, I wouldn't instinctively place the doctrine of the Trinity at the center of a church growth strategy. But Calvin knew something we too often don't remember; namely, that God as Trinity permeates and conditions all that is genuinely Christian, including church worship, prayers, providence, salvation, Scripture, sacraments, preaching, and, indeed, all of life and creation.


So 400 years from now, what would an observer say is the ultimate conviction of your (or your pastor's) ministry? What truth undergirded each sermon, Sunday School lesson, or session meeting? Of course, I'm not advocating tossing out words like "hypostases" or "perichoresis" from the pulpit each week. But let us increasingly yearn to become self-consciously Trinitarian in the deepest fibers of our being in order that we might better know and commune with the only God who is.

Calvin For Today

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Calvin For Today, is a new volume including essays by Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and others. It is a compilation of the addresses given at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary's annual conference in August 2009. The book contains a wealth of information and practical applications about how to use Calvin's thought in our challenging day. Topics include Calvin on preaching Christ from the Old Testament, missions, the church, Scripture, the Spirit's work, redemption, ethics, believers' benefits, the early church, reprobation, marriage, and reforming the church.

A highlight is Ligon Duncan's chapter on "The Resurgence of Calvinism in America." The book concludes with a summary chapter by the editor, Joel Beeke, who expounds twelve reasons Calvin is important for us today. Additional writers include Jerry Bilkes, Michael Haykin, Nelson Kloosterman, David Murray, Joseph Pipa, Neil Pronk, Donald Sinnema, Derek Thomas, and Cornel Venema. Written at the lay person's level, and retaining a flavor of the spoken style, it is informative, stimulating, and practical.

Available through the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals at ReformedResources.org.

So now what do we do without a Calvin birthday conference?  I did think of one anniversary we could celebrate.  This is, after all the 400th birthday of the Remonstrance.  Think about it.  Without those five points of the Remonstrance, we would have had no Dort, and no, centuries later, reduction of Calvin's momentous teachings on the doctrines of grace to that beloved Dutch flower the TULIP.

 

So let's get on with it, in the spirit of evangelical ecumenism, in the spirit of balance in the theological universe, if 2009 was the year of Calvin, then let it be in 2010:  The Year of the Remonstrance.

 

The question is how do we celebrate?  I spoke at a Calvin conference where they had a kids program complete with bobbing for heretics [apples] and another that had (my favorite) pin-the-beard-on-the-theologian.  How, indeed, could we honor the Remonstrance?

 

I remember reading somewhere about the Flushing Remonstrance.  Now that just sounds mean. 

 

I think, though, it was an actual document that had something to do with the Dutch Reformed and their Quaker neighbors in Flushing, Queens, New York.  So if we want to have the year of the Flushing Remonstrance we'll have to wait until 2057, when it turns 400. 

 

The Dutch, apparently, like to remonstrate.

 

That takes us back to the Remonstrance.  The only thing I can think of has to do with daisies.  Have you ever heard the old joke?  The Calvinist has the TULIP, the Arminian has the daisy . . .

 

He loves me, He loves me not.

 

All in jest, my friends--too much caffeine this morning? 

 

Hope you have a blessed year ahead, despite Calvin's year being over, enjoying all the riches we have in Christ Jesus--including knowing that He is ours and we are His. 

For the New Calvinist in You

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My artist friend, Ned Bustard, at Square Halo Books and World's End Images has come up with a great way to celebrate the New Calvinist milestone of recognition in Time.  He's set up four designs that can don t-shirts, mugs, buttons, and even a throw pillow.  Here's the link http://www.cafepress.com/worldsendimages/1070311.

My favorite is Comrade Calvin.  Be sure to pick up yours today.  You wouldn't want to be the only one showing up at a Calvin500 festival without the coolest apparel ever.

The Legacy of John Calvin

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51mUwmraQuL._SL500_AA240_[1].jpgThe second volume in the Calvin 500 Series has appeared, a series of volumes written or edited by David Hall celebrating the 500th anniversary (in 2009) of the birth of John Calvin. I've just finished reading The Legacy of John Calvin (published this month by P & R). It is by far and away the best short biography (100 pages more or less) I have read on Calvin and the section on Calvin's humility (a half dozen pages) are worth the price of the book alone. An extraordinary achievement.