Blog 94: 3.2.22 - 3.2.27

Calvin continues his discussion of faith by addressing the issue of fear, talking his cue from Paul's reference in Phil. 2.12 to `fear and trembling.'  Fear can, of course, be a very bad thing, antithetical to the kind of assurance which lies at the heart of a robust Christian faith.   Such is servile fear, a fear of punishment, a fear which derives from a failure to grasp the mercy of God as manifest in Christ and offered in the promises of the gospel.  Yet Paul teaches clearly that fear is also an essential part of the Christian's walk, given that God is holy, we are sinful, and only Christ can stand between as mediator.
Godly fear is, in fact, a function of knowledge of God and knowledge of self.  Calvin started the Institutes by making it clear that true Christian knowledge, or piety, depends upon knowledge of God and of ourselves.  Here, in the discussion of the Christian's experience of faith, we see some of the outworking of that point.  Knowledge of our own sin, of our precarious existence, and of the holiness of God all drives us towards despair; knowledge of the love of God manifest in Christ raises our souls heavenward and imbues us with a fear that is reverent rather than servile.   To support his point, Calvin draws on Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval mystic and preacher, indicating nicely that Calvin does not `just have his Bible' and thus doom himself to reinventing the faith; rather, he draws judiciously on the fruit of past exegetical, theological, and pastoral reflection upon scripture.
For Calvin, this fear of God is central to Christian piety.   It combines love and reverence, adoption and servanthood, in a manner that shapes our entire relationship with God and thus our entire relationship with the world around.  Only as we come to know who we are as sinners, and only as we come to know who God is as both holy and merciful, in a way that refuses to isolate either attribute from the other, will we develop that ture knowledge of God which is the constant theme of Calvin's life and work as a theologian, chrchman, and pastor.
Ironically, we live at a time when fear is more pervasive than ever in society - fear of the government, of global warming, of our neighbours, of crime, of superbug diseases etc.  Yet we also live at a time when fear of God is virtually non-existent, even with the church.  In terms of wider society, this fear indicates what happens when we strike out on our own and lose sight of the one who sustains the world; within the church it speaks of a culture where the therapeutic obsessions of the world around have become the pathologies of what now passes for our theology.  Only a return to the word of God as the measure of man, and not vice versa, will reverse this trend both in society and in church.