Archive for November, 2009

The Institutes (31)

Book 1 Chapter 16 Sections 5-9

Jonathan Edwards, the pastor of Northhampton Church during the 18th-century, oversaw and encouraged an awakening of the people to realize their position before God. This was not what was commonly called the First Great Awakening, but a smaller “awakening” that preceded it in 1734 and 1735. Edwards preached on sin, judgment, and the glory and satisfaction of God. The intended effect was to help people turn towards God and away from themselves.

This didn’t always have the intended effect. On the morning of June 1, 1735, a prominent man in the community, Joseph Hawley II, slit his throat. In the sermon the Sunday before, Edwards had spoken about men’s consciences showing them that they were bound for judgment, and the need for them to repent. Although we do not know for sure, there is a good probability that Hawley latched onto the first, and not the second.

Hawley was Edwards’ uncle, and the news of his death absolutely staggered him. This effectively ended the “awakening”, and Edwards struggled to find an answer or reason for what he labeled “awful providence.” And in his mind it must be awful, because a sovereign, huge, omnipotent God who was directly or indirectly controlling all things must be in some sense responsible for Hawley’s death.

Edwards’ viewpoint on God’s sovereignty reflected a Calvinistic worldview, one that Calvin himself would have ascribed to. To Calvin, God’s sovereignty means not just a “permission” for events that take place in time, but a causality. Talking about Augustine’s view of God’s providence, Calvin writes:

How the term “permission,” so frequently mentioned by [Augustine], ought to be understood will best appear from one passage, where he proves that God’s will is the highest and first cause of all things because nothing happens except from his command or permission. Surely he does not conjure up a God who reposes idly in a watchtower, willing the while to permit something or other, when an actual will not his own, so to speak, intervenes, which otherwise could not be deemed a cause.

Calvin goes for the jugular throughout this section; his aim is to show that nothing, small or big, falls outside of God’s control. This is especially true concerning mankind, God’s chief creation. Calvin sums up his view of God’s providence over man:

… it is clear that the prophet and Solomon ascribe to God not only might but also choice and determination… It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills!

To believe Scripture is to believe that God is actually God, not a deity that lacks power or accedes to chance. The rub comes in when dealing with the presence of evil. This is the question that Edwards had to struggle with after the suicide of his uncle. If God is sovereign, why does He let evil exist? Calvin declares that all contingencies and circumstances find their original source in God’s providence, which means that evil must exist at least by His “permission”… but even that is causal. So why does evil exist?

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Evil exists so that we might not only see our need of mercy, but also see the extreme awesomeness of His goodness. The wicked are made “for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4). Is your picture of God this big? That He can allow evil to highlight His goodness?


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Thoughts from a Rock Concert

Two weeks back, Nat and I were given a couple of tickets to see the David Crowder Band in concert. It’s been about six years since I was at such a concert, and I believe it was one of Natalie’s first times at such a “worship” concert. The two acts prior to David Crowder were alright in their own right, although only one of them made any attempt to identify themselves as Christian, and that was only through the clear annunciation of the lyrics in one of their songs.

So, enter David Crowder & co. If you haven’t heard about how his band got its start, its worth a read. Run over and wiki him to get the low-down. In short, it’s not like he’s just in it to make cash. He’s actually got a heart to direct people to worship their Savior and Lord. The execution… or more properly, the reception… is something else entirely. As David went through his litany of songs, there were many that were familiar to me, I’m sure all were familiar to the crowd. Sitting near the back, we saw most of the crowd at any one moment. David’s proclamation that we were going to “have church” didn’t quite ring true, and I knew why: the people weren’t there to worship God, they were there to be entertained.

When everyone is convinced that “worship” in wrapped up in emotion without thought, or emotion without action, then everyone can leave a “worship service” without thinking about the Christ who died for them. Without desiring to be His hands and feet to a lost world. And you know what? That’s exactly what I heard in the week after. “Wasn’t David Crowder great?” And for the life of me, I could not see anyone leaving that concert and the next day talking about how great their God was. Maybe it’s just me… but I doubt it.

As Rich Mullins said a few weeks before his death, we don’t go to concerts to worship. We go to be entertained. If we want to worship, we should go to church.

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The Institutes (30)

Book 1 Chapter 16 Sections 1-4

Moving on from man’s disposition and how it relates to God’s purposes, Calvin begins to discuss the sustaining of all things by God. As we might suspect, Calvin does not pull a Chris Rock and claim that God is “too busy” to pay attention to some things; God is radically and totally involved in every area of life. His sovereignty is total.

Man, even man devoid of God, perceives that the universe is sustained by something. In premodernism, this was most definitely considered divine, before the exaltation of man and reason that came along with modernism. So it’s clear that there is an eternally powerful and divine Creator; it is only by suppression that this truth may be bypassed or supposedly ignored. For many agnostics, the truth of Creation is never perceived.

But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver – not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.

Calvin’s on the warpath again, clearly outlining the view of God that bears his name today.

No Such Thing as Chance

… it has been commonly accepted in all ages, and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance. What we ought to believe concerning providence is by this depraved opinion most certainly not only beclouded, but almost buried… anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan.

Calvin begins to describe the sun, which he readily admits causes life. And yet, even while looking at the sun which is the immediate source of heat on the earth, we must realize Who lies behind the creation of it. This is no God that hides in a box after creating the universe… instead He is personally involved in the creation and sustaining of the universe.

… a godly man will not make the sun either the principal or the necessary cause of these things which existed before the creation of the sun, but merely the instrument that God uses because he so wills; for with no more difficulty he might abandon it, and act through himself.

Which incidentally is the plan, it seems. Check out the last few pages of your Bible.

So chance has no real power in Calvin’s view. There is nothing random, but everything comes about by God’s governance. A hard teaching? Most certainly. But those who chose otherwise have no reason to “cast their cares upon Him” if He is not over all eventualities. If God is not sovereign is this way, He’s not God. So as we see all the so-called “chance occurences” taking place in disasters and accidents…

… it comes about that… fear is transferred from [God] toward whom alone they ought to direct it… Let him, therefore, who would beware of this infidelity ever remember that there is no erratic power, or action, or motion in creatures, but that they are governed by God’s secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.

In the next section of this chapter, Calvin continues to define God’s interactions with man in terms that can hardly befit Him, but at least give some indication as to His sovereignty.

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The Institutes (29)

Book 1 Chapter 15

Calvin moves on from the work of God in creation to anthropology, the study of man. For Calvin, talking about man is still talking about God. Man, he believes, is the pinnacle of God’s Creation, and if there is any battle to be won over the character of God, it must be won as we examine the nature and character of His utmost creation.

For many today, the ultimate proof that God cannot exist is all the death and suffering in the world. All of life is bound to the law of death… no one escapes from it. Many will look at this and claim that God’s goodness must be a farce due to all the pain in the world. Calvin (and many other Christians) would respond that the effect of sin on the world was not brought in by God, but by man. It was man’s sin that brought about God’s curse; God did not arbitrarily determine to place His curse upon the earth. The blame goes to man, not God.

Now we must guard against singling out only those natural evils of man, lest we seem to attribute them to the Author of nature. For in this excuse, impiety thinks it has sufficient defense, if it is able to claim that whatever defects it possesses have in some way proceeded from God. It does not hesitate, if it is reproved, to contend with God himself, and to impute to him the fault of which it is deservedly accused. And those who wish to seem to speak more reverently of the Godhead still willingly blame their depravity on nature, not realizing that they also, although more obscurely, insult God. For if any defect were proved to inhere in nature, this would bring reproach upon him.

Calvin moves on from this initial consideration to the nature of man. Calvin is clearly a dichotomist (man consists of two parts, body and soul/spirit), and goes about proving his point. In the first part of the chapter, Calvin seeks to identify the “image of God” that was present in man at Creation. He believes that “the proper seat of the image is in the soul” and, quoting Ovid, says:

…while all other living things being bent over look earthward, man has been given a face uplifted, bidden to gaze heavenward and to raise his countenance to the stars.

This is Calvin’s take on the imagio deo… an ability to relate to the divine.

… although the soul is not man, yet it is not absurd for man, in respect to his soul, to be called God’s image… the integrity with which Adam was endowed is expressed by this word, when he had full possession of right understanding, when he had his affections kept within the bounds of reason, all his senses tempered in right order, and he truly referred his excellence to exceptional gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. And although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.

It is not uncommon to hear this side in the debate over the imagio deo. Others think that it’s moral accountability, others think that it’s reason. Calvin here asserts that it is the ability to relate to God, which includes all the other viewpoints on the imagio deo. But Calvin doesn’t stop here…

… we do not have a full definition of “image” if we do not see more plainly those faculties in which man excels, and in which he ought to be thought the reflection of God’s glory. That, indeed, can be nowhere better recognized than from the restoration of his corrupted nature… consequently, the beginning of our recovery of salvation is in that restoration which we obtain through Christ.

… “we… with unveiled face beholding the glory of Christ are being transformed into his very image.” Now we see how Christ is the most perfect image of God; if we are conformed to it, we are so restored that with true piety, righteousness, purity, and intelligence we bear God’s image.

The image of God is being restored in us daily as we’re conformed to Christ. Truly there is a restoration taking place in the Creation, and that is part of the Gospel. But it’s not a restoration of the earth in some enviromentalist-friendly way. The Gospel is, in some sense, the restoration of God’s image in mankind.

From the discussion of the image of God in man, Calvin moves onto the constitution of men’s souls. Calvin believes that man’s mind directs the other parts of his psyche. Here Calvin moves outside Scripture, something unusual for the Institutes. No Scripture is mentioned to back all of this up. But it’s thoroughly Scriptural… our minds lead our emotions and actions. So we’re to set our minds on things above according to Colossians 3:2, and on the basis of that we’re to change out the old clothing of evil works for the new clothing of spiritual fruit. Our minds lead our emotions and actions!

… the understanding is… the leader and governor of the soul; and that the will is always mindful of the bidding of the understanding, and in its own desires awaits the judgment of the understanding… shunning or seeking out in the appetite corresponds to affirming or denying in the mind.

Finally, Calvin discusses “free” will and Adam’s original sin.

Man in his first condition excelled in… pre-eminant endowments, so that his reason, understanding, prudence, and judgment not only sufficed for the direction of his earthly life, but by them men mounted up even to God and eternal bliss. Then choice added, to direct the appetites and control all the organic motions, and thus make the will completely amenable to the guidance of the reason.

But upon the snake introducing a new thought, man’s appetite and will was bent to do what was evil. Why had God created man thus? Here, it’s too much for Calvin’s mind, as it should be for any Christian.

… the reason [God] did not sustain man by the virtue of perseverance lies hidden in his plan; sobriety is for us the part of wisdom. Man, indeed, received the ability provided he exerciser the will; but he did not have the will to use his ability, for this exercising of the will would have been follower by perseverance. Yet he is not excusable, for he received so much that he voluntarily brought about his own destruction indeed, no necessity was imposed upon God of giving man other than a mediocre and even transitory will, that from man’s Fall he might gather occasion for his own glory.

If God did allow the Fall in order that the Cross might appear to be more glorious… does that cause us to balk? Do we proclaim the evil of a God who would exalt His own glory in our sin and salvation? Or do we shut our mouths when we realize that the cross is more supreme in God’s own mind than creation? In the cross we find the maximum display of God’s glory… in the cross we don’t just find the means of our salvation. We find the end of our salvation. God Himself.

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21

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Catching Up

Been about a month since I’ve posted; in that time, we’ve started a student outreach on Friday nights at church, we went to the island of St. Vincent and taught systematic theology, and we’ve looked to God for answers in going to seminary. I’ll be taking classes at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville part time this upcoming semester, with the intent of moving down this summer and taking classes full time.

In short, a lot has happened, and this blog has been greatly neglected. I’m planning (key word) on continuing through Calvin’s Institutes, even if it means I take five years to get it done. Reading through Calvin and A Theology for the Church again… after you’ve taught systematic theology, the big textbooks come alive again as you read them. I remember the first time I picked up Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and how impressed I was with the practicality of it all. Now I’m finding that to be even more true. It’s quite the blessing.

Looking forward to getting back to writing…

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