Posts Tagged hamartiology

The Institutes (26)

Book 1 Chapter 14 Sections 1-12

Calvin moves into Angelology, offering a somewhat  guarded examination of angels. Why guarded? Because, as Calvin readily admits, there’s not a lot of information on angels in Scripture. However,

… to prevent believers from deserting to the fabrications of the heathen, we must depict the true God more distinctly than they do. Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers’ eyes, a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know him more intimately, lest we always waver in doubt.

[J]ust as eyes, when dimmer with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.

Calvin prefaces all of his remarks about angels with the above for one simple reason: for Calvin, understanding angels is understanding God. This is probably the primary thing about popular conceptions of angels, whether they be in Frank Peretti’s novels or the HBO series that’s named after them. Angels are not operating independently of God, much less existing apart from His knowledge and interest. Instead, they always come as messengers, pointing back to God. This is what is missing from all our conversations about angels. Their interactions with mankind always include God.

Beginning with the creation of angels, Calvin notes that they were all created perfect. It was because of sin that any of them fell. Christians are not dualists, thinking that Satan has equal power with God. His pithy statement comes in the middle of section three. “For the depravity and malice both of man and of the devil, or the sins that arise therefrom, do not spring from nature, but rather from the corruption of nature.” Nothing is naturally evil, in the sense that God didn’t create anything that way. Instead, it was only because of Satan’s fall and man’s fall that evil entered the world.

Calvin’s goal in all this is to head off at the pass any vain speculation. This is typical of his age, when theologians a hundred years later would not easily be stopped by the silence of Scripture. The coming Enlightenment would affect even theology… so depending on your perspective, Calvin’s insistence not to pursue some of these things further is either refreshing or frustrating. For me, I find it to be both. I think he can go farther with some things, and doesn’t with others. Here, though, he seems to be on solid ground.

He points out his objective before launching into the meat of his examination of angelic beings:

The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.


Calvin’s stresses the angel’s role as protector to the believer, and the messenger of and one who “renders conspicuous” God’s majesty. Still, it is we who benefit from them, not God. Angels, as our protector, are meant to

One thing, indeed, ought to be quite enough for us: that the Lord declares himself to be our protector. But when we see ourselves beset by so many perils, so many harmful things, so many kinds of enemies – such is our softness and frailty – we would sometimes be filled with trepidation or yield to despair if the Lord did not make us realize the presence of his grace according to our capacity. For this reason, he not only promises to take care of us, but tells us he has innumerable guardians whom he has bidden to look after our safety; that so long as we are hedged about by their defense and keeping, whatever perils may threaten, we have been placed beyond all chance of evil.

They are agents of grace, under God’s sovereign hand. Calvin may paint too rosy a picture here, as if God will not allow trial or evil to come into our lives. However, Calvin is so explicit on this point elsewhere so as to negate any objection here.

The thing that I’ve seen in American culture, and noted above, is the obsession with angels as good beings. “Touched By an Angel” is probably notable for this, that angels can operate independently of God. So much other speculation has been stirred up so as to make angels the subtle enemies of God, stealing away from Him His rightful glory and honor. Calvin speaks, as it were, into our own time:

How preposterous… it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us!

God does not make them ministers of his power and goodness to share his glory with them… he does not promise us his help through their ministry in order that we should divide our trust between them and him.

Angels are extensions of His grace, add to His glory, and point back to His throne. Everything about them is entrenched in Yahweh and His Son, Christ, whom they serve and worship (Psalm 91:11-13, Hebrews 1:6).

In the next section, Calvin will explore what Scriptures have to say concerning fallen angels.


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The Institutes (8)

Book 1 Chapter 5 Sections 11-15

With all the clear testimonies, why doesn’t man respond to God as he should? With all this weighty evidence of the Creator, surely man should be seeking Him wholly. But, we do not.

For as rashness and superficiality are joined to ignorance and darkness, scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God.


… no mortal ever contrived anything that did not basely corrupt religion.

Men’s hearts are inclined towards the production of and clinging to idols. The testimony of God in nature (human and otherwise) and His sovereignty over the affairs of man are not enough to overcome our insistence on idolatry given to us by our earthly father, Adam. And yet, we are still left without excuse.

For at the same time as we have enjoyed a slight taste of the divine from contemplation of the universe, having neglected the true God, we raise up in his stead dreams and specters of our own brains, and attribute to anything else than the true source the praise of righteousness, wisdom, goodness, and power. Moreover, we so obscure or overturn his daily acts by wickedly judging them that we snatch away from them their glory and from their Author his due praise.

Any smothering of the internal witness to God (conscience and the construct of our natures), or of the inestimable ways in which His power is displayed in society, history, and nature is to rob Him of His glory and attribute it to another. It’s a subtle idolatry that debases God. I wonder what it will be like when I get to heaven and all the ways in which I wished away God’s sovereignty are exposed, and His hidden purposes in human history are revealed. No doubt I will bow myself and exalt Him.

So are we stuck? Without hope? Our perception is flawed enough that we cannot (in of ourselves) grasp the character of the One Who created everything from our souls to the stars.  And it’s not just lack of ability: we must have inward piety to see God, and instead we have the baseness of Adam that regresses towards complete godlessness apart from God’s grace. So what must be done? Where will we see God for Who He truly is?

Therefore, since either the custom of the city or the agreement of tradition is too weak and frail a bond of piety to follow in worshiping God, it remains for God himself to give witness of himself from heaven.

The Scriptures!

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The Institutes (5)

Book 1 Chapter 4 Sections 1-4

The knowledge of God that is evident in natural revelation is “smothered and corrupted” in man. How can we tell this?

… vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations.

Romans 1 is seen again… they trade the glory of God for images resembling themselves or created things. We know what the root of this suppression is, but Calvin won’t deal with Adam’s sin in great detail until the second book of the Institutes, which I probably won’t get to until next month. At this point he is only concerned with the outward manifestations of man’s interactions with knowledge of the divine. This means he references sin, but doesn’t delve deeply into studying its root. Yet.

Here, Calvin points out how men fly off into speculation, and then asserts that this is conscious on their part. Men wish to hide under their own ignorance so as to delay (at least in their own mind) accountability. These words are incredibly true, and didn’t settle in until the second read-through. Think about when you speak to someone about eternity, and its as though they are considering it for the first time. For decades they’ve lived life as though there was no hereafter, and now they’re reminded that death is coming, and eternity awaits.

Calvin goes on to indict religious speculation in general:

… all who set up their own false rites to God worship and adore their own ravings. Unless they had first fashioned a God to match the absurdity of their trifling, they would by no means have dared trifle with God in this way.

… and specifically legalism. Legalism seems to be, in Calvin’s mind, the worst form of religious innovation. In it, the grace of God is touted but denied. It is truly having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor. Nay, more, with greater license they sluggishly lie in their own filth, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.

Then while their trust ought to have been placed in him, they neglect him and rely upon themselves, his creatures though they be. Finally, they entangle themselves in such a huge mass of errors that blind wickedness stifles and finally extinguishes those sparks which once flashed forth to show them God’s glory.

All this  springs up from man’s conscious turning away from God’s truth. We want our own way, and that’s what we pursue, to the exclusion of God. Next chapter, Calvin will probe the depths of natural revelation, the ways in which man is held accountable by Creation, and how this revelation is not enough to know God properly.

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The Institutes (3)

Book 1 Chapter 2 Section 1-2

Hebrews 12:14 tells us that without holiness, no one will see the Lord. In the last chapter, the holiness of God was shown in juxtaposition to the sinfulness of mankind. Since we are sinful, how is it that we can see God as He should be seen? This question is brought up and not answered in this section. In this chapter, Calvin defines that which is essential to the Christian life: piety.

I call “piety” that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.

This is the crux of the matter, but presents a dilemma. How can we, who are not pious, become pious so that we might properly know God? Again, it’s a question that’s presented without answer. Instead, Calvin presents this in an idealistic fashion: our knowledge of God would be perfect except for the sin of Adam. We would be pious, but now we cannot. Along with piety, trust and reverence are required as the proper responses towards God. Piety frames the picture of God’s holiness, and trust and reverence are our reaction to the picture. And, as the above quote indicates, this is no forced trust and reverence. This is happy trust, willing reverence.

Calvin tells us what should have been, and what is:

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this dear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law. And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence him.

“Very few really reverence Him”… the only One who is due real reverence. The One who spans the heavens. And we have been entrusted with the only message that can show mankind where they truly stand.

The outward manifestation and reason for this lack of reverence will be examined in the next two chapters. Calvin will examine the root in due course.

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The Institutes of the Christian Religion (2)

Book 1 Chapter 1 Section 1-3

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and or ourselves.

– John Calvin

At Northland, our classes concerning basic Christian living and counselling had a catchphrase: “your view of God affects your view of yourself.” By this, it was meant that until you properly understood God, you could not properly understand yourself.

Calvin takes this theme as essential to the understanding of Christianity. Even as I type, we’re watching Judgment at Nuremberg, the 1961 Spencer Tracy movie where Nazi war criminals stand on trial for crimes committed during World War II. Right now, they’re showing real footage of the concentration camps after the liberation. Are these things morally wrong? Is there such a thing as right? By what standard do we judge these things as wicked? Calvin writes in the first chapter, titled “The Knowledge of God and that of Ourselves are Connected. How They Are Interrelated”:

Because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure – so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. Just so, an eye to which nothing is shown but black objects judges something dirty white or even rather darkly mottled to be whiteness itself. Indeed, we can discern still more clearly from the bodily senses how much we are deluded in estimating the powers of the soul. For if in broad daylight we either look down upon the ground or survey whatever meets our view round about, we seem to ourselves endowed with the strongest and keenest sight; yet when we look up to the sun and gaze straight at it, that power of sight which was particularly strong on earth is at once blunted and confused by a great brilliance, and thus we are compelled to admit that our keenness in looking upon things earthly is sheer dullness when it comes to the sun.

So it happens in estimating our spiritual goods. As long as we do not look beyond earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods.  Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power – the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.

When things like the holocaust are brought to mind, it is easy for mankind to shape, after a fashion, their own standards of right and wrong without regard to God. Indeed, many call God to account for such atrocities, or claim that an all good, all sovereign God cannot exist. But when we behold the holocaust, there is no moral meaning to these events. And when the existence of God is included, and His holiness is examined, we see that every human is dirt compared to the sun. Every human is unworthy of heaven, unworthy of God. For, as Calvin says later, every human has the contagion of sin coursing through their soull.

Thus, to know God is to know yourself. And this means to know that God is holy, and we are full to the brim with sin. This is the foundation of all Christian theology. Calvin will continue to build on this foundation throughout the Institutes.

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The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1)

Just finished the first book of Calvin’s Institutes, which covers the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man, and how those two are intricately connected. But even before that, he prefaces the whole thing with a letter to Francis I, the king of France. In it, he makes a sustained and persuasive argument against the 16th-century Catholic Church and for an orthodox understanding of faith that is firmly rooted in the Word and true grace. It’s rather good… good for Christians to read to see how to argue for the faith. An excerpt:

The sight of God’s glory defiled with manifest blasphemies does not much trouble them [the beuracracy of the Catholic Church], provided no one raises a finger against the primacy of the Apostolic See and against the authority of Holy Mother Church. Why, therefore, do they fight with such ferocity and bitterness for the Mass, purgatory, pilgrimages, and trifles of that sort, denying that there can be true godliness without a most explicit faith, so to speak, in such things, even though they prove nothing of them from God’s Word? Unless for them their “God is the belly”; their kitchen their religion! If these are taken away, they believe that they will not be Christians, not even men!

For, even though some glut themselves sumptuously while others gnaw upon meager crusts, still all live out of the same pot, a pot that without this fuel would not only grow cold but freeze through and through. Consequently, the one most concerned about his belly proves the sharpest contender for his faith. In fine, all men strive to goal: to keep either their rule intact or their belly full. No one gives the slightest indication of sincere zeal.

Calvin certainly wasn’t lacking in sincere zeal, as the whole book seems to indicate. This is not an intellectual exercise; this is real, pastoral theology even. It was originally designed to be for the layman… only in the later editions did it take on more of the difficult questions of his (and our) day. He spends plenty of this first book punching both Catholicism and heretical cults straight in the face.

I’ll blog about more of that in the days to come. The plan is to spend the remainder of the summer and part of the fall blogging my way through the Institutes. You know, for all the controversy that the name “Calvin” brings up today and the calls of man-centeredness that his name supposedly represents, I’m finding him to be incredibly precise in his interpretation of Scripture. This is the best thing I’m getting out of my reading: everything is based on Scripture! This is the only thing we have to offer anyone: no clever tricks or arguments. Just God through His Word. I pray it’s a boon for the faith of those that read this blog.

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The Subtle Sovereign (4)

Romans 12:1-2. Quoted endlessly by those in pulpits who want the Christian to make the “decision for Jesus,” or “take the next spiritual step,” or perhaps “rededicate your life to the Lord.” The point of the passage seems to be much more complex than that, but these calls are not wholly without merit. Starting in verse 36 of chapter 11, Paul summerizes much of what he’s just said throughout chapter 11: 

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Within this context we must understand 12:1-2. All things are from Him… through Him… to Him. Everything finds their origin in Him. Everything is sustained by His power. And everything finds their purpose in Him. He is the center of all of history. This is reality. And our purpose is wrapped up in Him. This is how I take Romans 12:1-2… in order that He might receive glory forever, and in order that He would not just be Lord but be seen as Lord, we are commanded to live as a sacrifice. 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Our little place in this reality of all things being for God. We are from God, through God, for God. And this looks like us living as a sacrifice. I think it’s really important to see the passage that way. Rather than just us laying down our lives once and then we never have to worry about it (something many assume the aorist verb for “present” denotes here), we are to live as a sacrifice every single day. 

What does this have to do with the world and worldliness? The contrast is competing realities. One is true reality… “from Him, through Him, to Him”, and the other is a counterfeit reality, called “this world.” Literally the word means “age.” Do not be conformed to this contemporary age. The word can also be translated as “world,” as it sometimes is in the NT. But think about it with me. This transcendant, eternal reality where everything centers around God, compared to the passing, temporal reality that stands in opposition to this true reality.

This age wants us to deny any one of those three truths about God. The world wants us to deny that God is the origin of all things. The world wants us to deny that God is the sustainer of all things. And most of all, this contemporary age wants us to deny that God has created all things for a purpose… namely to bring glory to Himself. To be conformed to this world seems to imply these things. The opposite of the reality mentioned in 11:36. 

Do we succomb to the passing? To the lie that God isn’t sovereign? Don’t be conformed to this world. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The mind is the battleground here. How do you deny in thought, word, or deed that God is the origin, sustainer, and purpose of all things? This denial, in any form, is the heart of worldliness.

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