Results tagged “Institutes” from Reformation21 Blog

An Intro to the Institutes

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The opening sentence of John Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion alone is worth a lifetime's contemplation: 'Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.'

What is it about Calvin that so inspires me? This: his disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God's words, his submission to Christ's Lordship, his sense of the holy, his concern to be as practical as possible; the fact that godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it. In a forest of theologians, Calvin stands like a Californian Redwood, towering over everyone else.

The Institutes begins with an introductory, "To the Reader" making references to the unexpected "success" of "the first edition" (1536), the "summary" nature of its contents, the publication of further editions (in Latin: 1539, 1543, 1550 and 1559; and in French: 1541 and 1560), and the hope that in this (1559) edition he has "provided something that all of you will approve," written in the winter of 1558 when in the grip of a fever which he believed threatened his life and a rumor that he had defected "to the papacy." His aim throughout, he tells us, is "to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness" and providing "the sum of religion in all its parts" arranged in such a manner so as to indicate what is fundamental in doctrine.

Calvin saw the Institutes as a handmaiden to his commentaries; the latter, as he explains in the Epistle Dedicatory to his commentary on Romans, written with "lucid brevity." The exegete cannot interpret soundly without the control of systematic theological formulation. The part cannot be understood without a firm grasp of the whole. Readers of Calvin's commentaries need to have a copy of the Institutes at hand.

The Institutes as we now have it is the product of a lifetime's thought and reflection by one of the greatest theologians the church has known. In part, as it grew from six to eighty chapters, it reflects Calvin's own growth in his understanding of the Christian life. In all of its pages it reflects, as the preface to the first edition had indicated, not so much (as in Aquinas) a sum of all theology (summa theologiae), but a sum of all piety (summa pietatis). Theology and ethics have a symbiotic relationship.

Although The Institutes itself grew five-fold from its first to the fifth edition, the contents of the Preface written to King Francis I remained largely the same. Precedent for publishing an introductory theological essay to the King had been set by both Guillaume Farel and Huldrych Zwingli in 1525. Thus, in 1536, at the occasion of the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin wrote what was in effect a letter (a "Prefatory Address") to the King, which was included in all succeeding editions, both Latin and French. Though minor changes were made, reflecting historical developments in the 1550s in France and elsewhere, Calvin retained the original date at the close of the Address: "At Basel, on the 1st August, in the year 1536."

The occasion - false and base rumors concerning evangelicals which no doubt the king was disposed to believe - required from Calvin both firmness and finesse in persuading His Majesty to examine the accusation justly - indeed it will be the measure of his leadership that he do so! Calvin's case is that all matters be judged according to the "analogy of faith," that is, according to what the Scriptures teach (rightly interpreted). For this cause, "shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders, and treated in most shameful ways." As Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:11: "the Church of Christ has been from the beginning so constituted, that the cross has been the way to victory, and death a passage to life."

Rome's antagonism towards the Reformers, and Calvin in particular, was that what they taught was "new" and "of recent birth." To this charge Calvin responds with evident feeling: "First, by calling it "new" they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that "Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification" [Romans 4:25], will find nothing new among us." For Calvin, an appeal to Scripture is itself an appeal to something ancient! But Calvin's point remains vulnerable to the charge that the Reformers were disregarding church teaching - teaching which had fifteen hundred years precedence.

The charge may be brushed aside lightly in an age when modernity is valued above antiquity, but it was a serious and potentially deadly accusation in the mid-sixteenth century. The Reformers did not see themselves as the Anabaptists did in forming a new church. They saw themselves in the line of the ancient church and the early church fathers, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the church of the medieval period.

Calvin was unmoved by the charge--not because he saw the issue as irrelevant but rather because he knew antiquity lay on his side: "If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory--to put it very modestly--would turn to our side." It is almost unimaginable that such a thing could be said of evangelicalism five hundred years later.

So, how is the true church to be known?  Calvin's response in the preface to The Institutes is clear: it is known by "the pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments." Contrary to Roman insistence that the church is always marked by great pomp and is always visible, Calvin (perhaps to the encouragement of beleaguered evangelicals in France secretly meeting is small numbers and without outward show) reminds King Francis that the church often appeared in less than glorious form to the human eye, both in the Old Testament and in church history.

It is important to see this emphasis on the church in Calvin. He commented on psalm 115:17, "The whole order of nature would be subverted, unless God preserved the church. For the creation of the world would serve no purpose if there were no people to call upon God." And it is well to remember that Calvin was, at every point in his adult life and ministry, a pastor as well as a theologian.

The rancid tone of these sections of the preface, aimed as they are against the bishops and prelates of the Roman Church, are not an indication of Calvin's low view of the church and the ease with which one could criticize or leave it.  On the contrary, Calvin viewed schism as "the worst and most harmful evil in the church of God" (Commentary on John 9:16), and warned in Book 4 of the Institutes "it is always disastrous to leave the church" (4.1.4). In the words of Charles Partee, "Calvin insisted that the Protestants were reformers of the church, not its deformers." (The Theology of John Calvin [Westminster: John Knox Press, 2008], 267).

"Catabaptists" is Calvin's term for "Anabaptists" - the sixteenth century radicals who basically wanted nothing to do with the earthly state, and did not encourage concern for the office of a magistrate or (in this case) the monarch. Calvin is keen to demonstrate to the King that Protestants, whilst critical of religious matters, are of a different stripe. Protestants prove loyal citizens, regularly pray for the King, demonstrate courage and fortitude as both citizens and soldiers and are the salt of the earth. Calvin is speaking of himself in these closing lines of the preface; speaking, let it be said, with uncharacteristic personal reference and self-defense. Employing a touch of irony, Calvin concedes: "We are, I suppose, wildly chasing after wanton vices!" since this is, presumably, what some had been saying to the King.

In truth, he and his fellow-evangelicals were doing nothing of the sort. Nevertheless his colleagues were being treated brutally, some (as the five prisoners of Lyons could testify) unjustly imprisoned and facing martyrdom. It is Satan's work: "when the light shining from on high in a measure shattered his darkness, when that "strong man" had troubled and assailed his kingdom [cf. Luke 11:22], he began to shake off his accustomed drowsiness and to take up arms."

The preface has grown into what now looks like a "full-scale apology," and Calvin pleads with the King hoping that by these words "we may regain your favor, if in a quiet, composed mood you will once read this our confession, which we intend in lieu of a defense before Your Majesty."

Whether or not King Francis ever viewed Calvin or his Institutes in a better light as a result is doubtful. Nor can we be sure if he ever read this preface. Those of us, on the other hand, who have (or are committed to doing so on this, on the quincentenary year of his birth) will discover a mine that "keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith" (J. I. Packer, Foreword, Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, Eds. David Hall and Peter Lillback [P & R, 2008], xiii).  


*This post is a compilation of posts that originally appeared as part of the Ref21 series, "Blogging the Institutes," published in 2008.  

Calvin on the Sacraments

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For some, John Calvin seems to be at his most feisty when he writes on the sacraments. Against those who complain that infant baptism is a travesty of the Gospel, in the Institutes he stoutly insists, "these darts are aimed more at God than at us!" But a little reflection reveals he is also at his most thoughtful, and his analysis of sacramental signs can strengthen credobaptists as well as paedobaptists.

If repentance and faith are in view in baptism, how can infant baptism be biblical?  Calvin responds: the same was true of circumcision (hence references to Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Deut. 10:16; 30:6), yet infants were circumcised.

How then can either sign be applicable to infants who have neither repented nor believed? Calvin's central emphasis here is simple, but vital.

Baptism, like circumcision, is first and foremost a sign of the gospel and its promise, not of our response to the gospel. It points first of all to the work of Christ for us, not to the work of the Spirit in us. It calls for our response. It is not primarily a sign of that response. So, like the proclamation of the gospel (of which it is a sign), baptism summons us to (rather than signifies) repentance and faith.

In fact all believers are called to grow into an understanding and "improvement" of their baptism. This is as true for those baptized as believers as for those baptized as infants.

Consequently, whether baptism follows faith or precedes faith, its meaning remains the same. Its efficacy in our lives is related to (life-long!) faith and repentance. But its meaning is always the same--Christ crucified and risen, outside of whom there is no salvation.

To see baptism as a sign of my repentance and faith, then, is to turn it on its head. It diminishes, if not evacuates, the sign of its real power in our lives--which is to point us to Christ and to the blessings which are ours in him, and thus to draw forth faith.  Grasp this whole-Bible principle, holds Calvin, and all the New Testament's teaching on baptism beautifully coheres.

While Calvin was a theologian of the ages and his theology comes to us clothed in the garments of the sixteenth century some things never change--including many of the arguments, pro and con, in relation to the baptism of infants. This he passionately believed to be a biblical doctrine.

Calvin meets many of the arguments against infant baptism head on. Typically he deals with them by underlining ways in which they depend on a mis-reading of Scripture.

Thus faced with the insistence that regeneration is required for baptism, he questions the use of Scripture that lies behind such thinking.  Rebuffed by arguments that the order of biblical language ("teach, baptize") presupposes instruction prior to baptism, he points out that of course this is the order when adults are hearing and responding to the gospel for the first time. It would be a logical fallacy to think that the corollary of "adults should hear, believe and be baptized" is "infants must not be baptized"!  One would no more deduce that infants must not be fed because Paul states that 'those who do not work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

But there is one argument that credobaptist proponents, then and now, have often used as a kind of reductio ad absurdum: if you baptize infants, you ought also to give them the Lord's Supper.

Calvin sees a serious flaw here. For while both baptism and the Supper point to Christ, they each point to different aspects of union with him. Baptism points to a once-and-for-all initiation into Christ. It is done to us, not done by us. We do not baptize ourselves, we are baptized.

The Supper, however, is not a sacrament of initiation but of communion.  That is why we are active and engaged at the Lord's Table. For it is essential to be able to

• Discern the Lord's body 
• Examine oneself 
• Proclaim the Lord's death 
• Celebrate the Supper "in remembrance" of Christ.

Just why is Calvin so passionate about this--when, after all, baptism is never more than a sign?

One of the perplexities we modern Christians encounter in admiring magisterial Reformers like Calvin is the severity of their attitude to, and treatment of, Anabaptists. In Calvin's case this may seem all the more mysterious since he married the widow of a former Anabaptist! Our problem is partly--if only partly--due to the unspoken assumption that credobaptism involves, virtually by definition, personal faith and a commitment to evangelical fundamentals.

Sadly it has become clear that there is no necessary connection between the two. If a credobaptist can point the finger at the baptized babies who now have no connection with the church, the paedobaptist can note churches of fourteen thousand members baptized on profession of faith with a weekly attendance of only eight thousand. The sign is not the reality it signifies.

Perhaps this makes it possible for us to understand Calvin a little better. For him "Anabaptist" was not a synonym for "Evangelical."  After all, the best known Anabaptist with whom he had long-term, if profoundly unhappy personal dealings, was Michael Servetus. Horrific though it may sound to an enthusiastic credobaptist, Servetus held to "believer's baptism."  His attempted demolition job of orthodox Christianity--none too subtly titled Christianismi restitutio (guess what book that rhymes with!)--included an attack on infant baptism.

Calvin responds in the Institutio with twenty theological "karate chops." Again his underlying contention is that a false hermeneutic is at work--"He always falls back into the same false reasoning for he preposterously applies to infants what was said concerning adults alone."

It is in this context (Institutes IV. 16. 31) that Calvin reveals the reason for his passion in the whole controversy. Baptism is intended to give the Lord's people the assurance of sight (in the visible sign) as well as of sound (in the audible word of promise). Ignore the sign of the promise and little by little the promise itself will be obscured.

For Calvin, the obscuring of any, and every, divine promise is attributable ultimately to one being: Satan. That being the case, the little Frenchman will muster all the weapons he can to vindicate the promise of God that--even after our death--our God and Father will be to our children everything he has been to us--all within the context of faith. The sign is no more than a sign, but it is never a bare sign (signum nudum)--not so long as the one who gives it is the covenant making and covenant keeping God!

Calvin next turns to the theme of the Lord's Supper. His concern is twofold: (i) to provide a simple explanation of the Supper and (ii) to resolve difficulties related to it. What he does in IV. 17. i is worthy of imitation, namely the provision of a simple but rich exposition of the meaning of Communion. This at least we should share with Calvin: a concern that the Lord's people understand what they are doing at, and how they are to think about, the Supper: What is the Lord showing us at the Table?

The Supper is the Father's provision of nourishment in Christ for his children (Calvin's use of adoptio--adoptive sonship--is particularly striking here, and underscores again how important this is in his theology--as it was in his life). By it the Father means to give assurance to his children.

In essence the Supper is a gospel drama:

• Christ is set before us as the One who was crucified for us 
• Christ is offered to us as food to be received by us 
• Christ is received by us so that we feel him to be working in us.

Calvin's poetic eloquence here should be allowed to stand on its own:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, 
he has made with us; 
That, becoming Son of man with us, 
he has made us sons of God with him; 
That, by his descent to earth,    
he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; 
That, by taking on our mortality, 
he has conferred our immortality upon us
That, accepting our weakness, 
he has strengthened us by his power
That, receiving our poverty into himself, 
he has transferred his wealth to us; 
That, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us) 
he has clothed us with his righteousness.

So--urges Calvin--let us make neither too little of the signs by severing them from the living Christ, nor too much so that we obscure him.

As he moves forward in his teaching on the Supper, Calvin's great concern is that Christians should "rightly use the Lord's Supper." He is, from beginning to end, a pastoral theologian. In seeking to serve the church he wants to be sensitive to two things: (i) the mystery of the Lord's Supper, and (ii) the nature of communion with Christ...

With respect to (i) he urges those who can to go beyond him. With respect to (ii) a number of  reformed writers have felt that he has already gone too far!  Statements such as his words in Institutes 4.17.8-9 are typical: "Whoever has partaken of his flesh and blood may . . . enjoy participation in life...The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself."

These words need to be read in context. Calvin's logic here is: 

• The Father gave life to the incarnate Son so that he might give us life. 
• This life is in the incarnate Son. It is not a commodity extraneous to him. 
• In order to enjoy this life we must be united to the incarnate Son. 
• This union with the incarnate Son is realized through the Holy Spirit

In a word--our salvation and eternal life are resourced in Christ, incarnate, crucified, buried, raised, exalted, ascended, reigning, and returning. Our experience of salvation comes only from Spiritual union and communion with his still-incarnated Person. There is no other source of salvation and life than this incarnate Person. The life he received from the Father he now gives to us.

In our Table communion with Christ, we share his life--just as we share that life in all communion with him.  What is unique about the Supper, therefore, is not so much the mysterious nature of the communion, but the focus in that communion on the bodily Christ specifically as crucified and now risen.

For Calvin, therefore, the communion of the Table is not a communion with the Spirit, but a communion with Christ in and through the Spirit. But there is no other Christ with whom we can have communion than the embodied Son of God.

Sometimes Calvin's view is described as "spiritual." Indeed it is Spiritual (i.e. through the Spirit). But it is so because it is Christological. The Spirit glorifies the incarnate Son in our eyes. In this way, in our Table communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, we "feel his power in partaking of all his benefits" (Institutes 4.17.9).

 

*This post originally appeared as a series of posts on the Institutes, published at Reformation21 in November 2009. 

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.