Week 36 of 50 in the Institutes: Helm’s Leap

I find myself conflicted with regard to which direction to take for this week’s blog entry.  Since it is Labor Day weekend, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go in both directions (one serious and one not so serious), so hold on, and keep your hands inside the carriage until the ride comes to a complete stop.

First, I found myself wondering what was going on in Paul Helm’s life when he wrote blogs 174-177 back in 2009 (links at bottom from Reformation 21 Blogs Through the Insitutes)!  He seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed four days in a row, at least where Calvin is concerned.  For instance, in blog 174 (Sept. 8), he observed:  “A read through these sections makes it clear that the establishing and preservation of order is a main Calvinian criterion for the various ecclesiastical rules he proposes at this point.”

I hardly think Calvin deserves such censure, because at the beginning of chapter 3 of book 4, Calvin declared:  “We are now to speak of the order in which the Lord has been pleased that his Church should be governed.”  Then true to form, Calvin proceeded to cite Scripture as he made his case for the form of church polity he advocated.  So while it may be true that Calvin liked order, the order he sought to maintain was the order he understood to be ordained by God in his Word.  Paul Helm leapt over this ongoing commitment to sola scriptura on Calvin’s part, and hence the title for today’s entry.

But Helm wasn’t through leaping.  His final comment in blog 174 was a leap off the page via an undeveloped topic sentence:  “But although church order is necessary, it is not sufficient, of course: a cemetery is the very model of orderliness.”  To end abruptly with such a statement abandons the reader only to guess what conclusions about Calvin or Calvinism Helm was implying, none of which are favorable as far as I can tell.  And it isn’t like 4.3.8 – 4.3.15 comprise all of the Institutes!  So Helm’s parting comment seems like a cheap shot, unbecoming a man of his position.  His other three entries for this week’s assignment had less egregious jabs at Calvin which nevertheless left me wanting more substantive interaction with the text (less leaping and more depth).

Second, reading these sections of the Institutes made me thankful for Presbyterian church polity.  Having come from settings where there was wide latitude given both to pastors and congregations with independent, congregational forms of church government, I can appreciate the checks and balances which a Presbyterian form of government affords.  Calvin’s citation of Cyprian seems like an astute observation of God’s providence with regard to the selection of officers when this model of church government is employed (4.3.15, emphasis added):

Rightly, therefore, does Cyprian contend for it as of divine authority, that the priest be chosen in presence of the people, before the eyes of all, and be approved as worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony, (Cyprian, Lib. 1 Ep. 3). Indeed, we see that by the command of the Lord, the practice in electing the Levitical priests was to bring them forward in view of the people before consecration. Nor is Matthias enrolled among the number of the apostles, nor are the seven deacons elected in any other way, than at the sight and approval of the people (Acts 6:2). “Those examples,” says Cyprian, “show that the ordination of a priest behoved not to take place, unless under the consciousness of the people assisting, so that ordination was just and legitimate which was vouched by the testimony of all.” We see, then, that ministers are legitimately called according to the word of God, when those who may have seemed fit are elected on the consent and approbation of the people. Other pastors, however, ought to preside over the election, lest any error should be committed by the general body either through levity, or bad passion, or tumult.

Finally, on a much less serious note, the above method of recognizing and installing ministers stands head and shoulders above the account I heard Dennis Swanberg give years ago, back when cassette tapes were still predominant (and YouTube didn’t exist).  Swanberg, now a Christian comedian/pastor (don’t ask me to explain, and mention here is by no means an endorsement), shared how he knew he was called to the ministry.  When he was a child, one day his parents left him at home while they ran an errand.  Before they left, they told him he couldn’t watch television while they were gone.  So, of course, as soon as they left Dennis turned on the TV.  They had a gravel driveway, so the instant he heard his parents turn into the driveway, he turned off the television.  But in those days, televisions weren’t instant off and on.  When you turned off the set, the picture would go off but a dot would remain in the center of the screen for a few moments before finally disappearing (remember that?).  Well, Dennis forgot about the dot, so while he was anxiously waiting for it to disappear before his parents came into the house he prayed, “Oh, God, get rid of that dot!  If you get rid of that dot, God, I’ll become a preacher!”  Dennis said the dot went away that day, and he’s been called ever since!

You may safely exit the vehicle now!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

No assignment for Sept. 7th – Labor Day!

Sep. 8: 4.3.8 – 4.3.15

Sep. 9: 4.3.16 – 4.4.4

Sep. 10: 4.4.5 – 4.4.10

Sep. 11: 4.4.11 – 4.5


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