Tag Archives: Calvin’s Institutes

Week 13 of 50 in the Institutes: Nothing Superstitious About Being Sabbatarian

How ironic it is that in week 13 of our 50 week jaunt through Calvin’s Institutes, our reading includes most of Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment, wherein we find him deriding “Sabbatarian superstition”  (in 2.8.34; not that I’m superstitious, by any means you understand!).

I was delighted to discover Sinclair Ferguson was the blogger on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments, and, being the gentleman and scholar that he is, he simply noted that Calvin takes the “continental view” on the Sabbath, and he didn’t bother critiquing or comparing the “continental view” with that of the Puritan view espoused in the WCF (see the Reformation 21 April 3rd blog).

I hesitate to take up this topic, since Ferguson (perhaps due to word count blog limitations) sidestepped it entirely.  And besides, who wants to be a picker of nits?  Nevertheless, I am compelled to share my reflections, critical as they are of some of what Calvin espoused, because I don’t think the issues involved are inconsequential.  So despite the risk of rushing in where angels dare to tread, here goes.

To begin with, let’s compare the most concise formulations of the Continental and Puritan views on the fourth commandment. Let’s start with the Continental view as found in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q104: What doth God require in the fourth commandment?  Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.  Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

By way of contrast, here are the pertinent sections from the Westminster Confession:

20.7  As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

20.8 This sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest from all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Calvin identified three conditions involved in keeping the fourth commandment:

  1. A day of spiritual rest in which believers lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.
  2. A stated day for worship and meditation.
  3. A day of rest for servants and those under the authority of others.

As Ferguson observed, for Calvin, the second and third conditions remain, and Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the Sabbath, foreshadowed in the OT (2.8.31).

But even Calvin’s observance of the Lord’s Day would very likely be labelled “sabbatarian” by those outside that camp today.  As Ferguson noted, Calvin himself was accused of nourishing people in Judaism (2.8.33). And we shouldn’t overlook Calvin’s longing to have a daily assembly for preaching and ministry of the word (third to last sentence of 2.8.32).

If we could time travel back to Calvin’s Geneva, we would find three church services held on Sunday: at sunrise, nine o’clock, and three o’clock.  At noon there was a children’s service which taught catechism.  And that was just on Sunday.  During the week, the city council had decided there should be more preaching, and so there were sermons given every week day.  This resulted in Calvin preaching three times on Sunday and five times during the week every other week (a rotation shared with other ministers), for a total of ten sermons every fortnight.  So Ferguson’s point is well taken (April 3rd blog) that “a day for worship and meditation has not been reduced to a morning,” either in Calvin’s day or ours.

Some say that the Sabbatarian principles of the WCF and the HC are different in argument, but the same in practice (follow this link for a discussion on The Puritan Board, later!).  As a Sabbatarian, I would have been very much at home with the Lord’s Day observances in Calvin’s Geneva.

Having said that, I want to point out a couple of the issues I have with Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment.  As hinted in the title of this blog, it isn’t a matter of superstition to observe the fourth commandment as understood from Scripture and in good conscience, any more than it is to keep any of the other commandments (keeping the Lord’s commands is by no means superstitious).  Superstition by its very definition is a blindly accepted belief or notion.  The observance of the fourth commandment, as delineated in the WCF, is rooted in a particular understanding of the teaching of Holy Scripture, which leads me to the second issue I have with Calvin’s treatment.

Calvin seems to jettison sola scriptura and concede to the church the ultimate authority in establishing a particular day for worship and assembly.  In 2.8.34 we find this deference to ecclesiastical authority in selecting a day of worship (emphasis added):

The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us.

For those interested in a fuller treatment of the Puritan view, in addition to the Westminster standards I recommend James Fisher’s catechism, questions 57-62, which are available here.

If Calvin were alive today, I venture to say he would be appalled by the essential abandonment of the fourth commandment in our age.  And when he inevitably expressed his concerns, he would be labelled a staunch Sabbatarian, by today’s standards.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 30:  2.8.2 – 2.8.7

Mar. 31:  2.8.8 – 2.8.14

Apr. 1:  2.8.15 – 2.8.19

Apr. 2:  2.8.20 – 2.8.26

Apr. 3:  2.8.27 – 2.8.32


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Week 7 of 50 in the Institutes: Theism, Providence, and the Abyss

I remember listening to a talk given by R. C. Sproul wherein he recounted an occasion when he was asked to speak to a certain group, which was apparently eager to seize upon any bit of Reformed theology he might present in order to call it into question.  Interestingly enough, Sproul put forward chapter three section one of the Westminster Confession of Faith for their consideration:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Sproul then asked his audience if they believed that statement.  After some exchange he went on to say that the opening phrase (God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass) is a statement of theism, and not a special doctrine of Reformed theology.  While few if any, in that particular group, wanted to be considered Reformed in any way, all considered themselves to be theists, as opposed to atheists.

The God of the Bible is not presented as a local deity, unlike those of pagan mythology which had limited realms (sun, sea, fertility, thunderbolt, etc.). The God of the Bible is declared to be the creator of the heavens and the earth.  As such, he reigns with absolute authority over everything, such that he has unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.  In other words, reality is what God has ordained it to be, and not any man perceives it to be.

Providence comes from the Latin, prōvidēre, which, taking the word roots, yields “to see beforehand”.  Calvin pointed out that this is not what is meant by the term, however, in that God does not look down through time and see in advance what will happen and put his approval on it like a spectator.  Rather, providence refers to God’s active governing of the universe (1.16.4, Beveridge’s translation, available online):

First, then, let the reader remember that the providence we mean is not one by which the Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world, but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and overrules all events. Hence his providence extends not less to the hand than to the eye.  When Abraham said to his son, God will provide (Gen. 22:8), he meant not merely to assert that the future event was foreknown to Gods but to resign the management of an unknown business to the will of Him whose province it is to bring perplexed and dubious matters to a happy result. Hence it appears that providence consists in action.

The WCF echoes Calvin’s view of God’s absolute rule over all things.  And Calvin calls for humility and adoration in 1.17.2 as one considers what Battles translated as the “abyss” where Calvin referred to the secret things of God (Beveridge rendered it as “deep”):

It is true, indeed, that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which far transcend the measure of our sense; but since God, to enable his people to understand those mysteries which he has deigned to reveal in his word, enlightens their minds with a spirit of understanding, they are now no longer a deep, but a path in which they can walk safely—a lamp to guide their feet—a light of life—a school of clear and certain truth. But the admirable method of governing the world is justly called a deep, because, while it lies hid from us, it is to be reverently adored.

I’m interested in coming to Calvin’s treatment of the active/passive will of God.  J. Todd Billings recently posted a related blog on the Reformation 21 website which you may find interesting, wherein he wades out a little into the abyss.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Feb. 16:  1.15.1 – 1.15.3

Feb. 17:  1.15.4 – 1.15.7

Feb. 18:  1.15.8 – 1.16.3

Feb. 19:  1.16.4 – 1.16.8

Feb. 20:  1.16.9 – 1.17.2

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Week 6 of 50 in the Institutes: The Chicken or the Egg?

As point man in our reading group, I stay a week ahead of the daily assignments so as to provide my reflections in advance.

The following passage in 1.14.1 reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago (emphasis added):

In fine, let us remember that that invisible God, whose wisdom, power, and justice, are incomprehensible, is set before us in the history of Moses as in a mirror, in which his living image is reflected. For as an eye, either dimmed by age or weakened by any other cause, sees nothing distinctly without the aid of glasses, so (such is our imbecility) if Scripture does not direct us in our inquiries after God, we immediately turn vain in our imaginations. Those who now indulge their petulance, and refuse to take warning, will learn, when too late, how much better it had been reverently to regard the secret counsels of God, than to belch forth blasphemies which pollute the face of heaven. Justly does Augustine complain that God is insulted whenever any higher reason than his will is demanded. He also in another place wisely reminds us that it is just as improper to raise questions about infinite periods of time as about infinite space.

I was having a conversation with a chemical engineer on staff at a chemical company where I was working as a summer intern during college.  He wasn’t a believer, and we were discussing the age of the universe.  We were considering the account given in Genesis 1-2 which, on the face of it, doesn’t allude to eons of time involved in creation.  This engineer pointed out how the vastness of the universe itself was prime evidence that everything began billions of years ago, because, after all, we know that the nearest star is over four light years away, and the diameter of the universe is (now) believed to be 93 billion light years.  He further contended that, if God had created the universe and it in fact wasn’t as old as it appeared to be, then such a “god” was deceptive, and a deceiver himself.

That assertion is an insult to God, as Calvin pointed out in 1.14.1 (highlighted above), in that it seeks to subject God’s will to man’s, and requires God to limit his ways to man’s.  Besides this, my friend’s assertion was fallacious on two accounts.  In the first instance, if God cannot make anything except by natural means, he cannot create anything, since the first law of thermodynamics is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.  But if God is God, he can suspend natural, physical laws (even before they exist) to create the universe and everything in it however he may desire.  My friend was saying, in a sense, God can’t create a full grown chicken, only the egg (or less), because if he creates a full grown chicken, he is a deceiver because it will appear that the chicken is older than it really is.

And this brings up the second fallacy of my friend’s contention.  God hasn’t been deceptive in any way about his creation, because of special revelation.  In addition to the heavens declaring his glory, he has spoken in his Word and revealed “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  Bible scholars disagree about what fits into that account (days are ages, etc.,), and many seek to read into it long eons of time.  Calvin went the other direction, rightly noting that God could have created the entire universe in a moment, if he so desired (1.14.22):

Moreover, as I lately observed, the Lord himself, by the very order of creation, has demonstrated that he created all things for the sake of man. Nor is it unimportant to observe, that he divided the formation of the world into six days, though it had been in no respect more difficult to complete the whole work, in all its parts, in one moment than by a gradual progression. But he was pleased to display his providence and paternal care towards us in this, that before he formed man, he provided whatever he foresaw would be useful and salutary to him.

So it is not with glee but rather with appreciation of Calvin’s sense of humor that I close with his reference to Augustine’s Confessions, in 1.14.1:

It was a shrewd saying of a good old man, who when some one pertly asked in derision what God did before the world was created, answered he made a hell for the inquisitive (August. Confess., lib. 11 c. 12). This reproof, not less weighty than severe, should repress the tickling wantonness which urges many to indulge in vicious and hurtful speculation.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Feb. 9:  1.13.26 – 1.13.29

Feb. 10:  1.14.1 – 1.14.5 

Feb. 11:  1.14.6 –  1.14.11

Feb. 12:  1.14.12 – 1.14.18

Feb. 13:  1.14.19 – 1.14.22

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Week 5 of 50 in the Institutes: Pondering the Trinity with Calvin and Morris

I have misplaced my file with notes from a book by Henry Morris which contained the best illustration of the Trinity I have ever encountered.  Most illustrations get a failing grade in that they either separate the essence of the three Persons, or they maintain the common essence but obliterate any distinction, but Morris’ use of the universe seems safe enough.

Let’s begin with Calvin’s very succinct summary of the doctrine of the Trinity in 1.13.4 (emphasis added):

Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence.

Further in 1.13.5 we read similarly:

Say, that there is a Trinity of Persons in one Divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop his empty prattle.

So at the risk of providing what Calvin described as an occasion “of calumny to the malicious, or of delusion to the unlearned” (1.13.18), I’m going to share my recollection of the way Henry Morris thought the universe itself functions as the best illustration of the Trinity (see his book, Studies in the Bible and Science, for the full treatment, and forgive any misstatements on my part if you have the pleasure of locating a copy of the book, since I’m going by memory).

Morris observed that everything in the universe consists of three aspects: space, time, and matter. Space he related primarily to the Father, time primarily to the Spirit, and matter primarily to the Son. But he didn’t stop there, because in each one he found a trinity of trinities. Space has three dimensions of length, width, and height. Time consists of past, present, and future. Matter consists of energy in motion manifested by phenomena (the hardest one to explain).

Now I need to interject a bit of Calvin’s Institutes here, where he characterized the distinctions expressed in Scripture in regard to the persons of the Trinity (1.13.18):

This distinction is, that to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of action is assigned to the Spirit.

Combining Morris’ illustration with Calvin’s distinctions, we may consider the trinity of trinities in the universe. Space (Father) is the beginning of action, where all matter (Son) is arranged, and experienced through time (Spirit). And yet space consists of three dimensions: length, width, and height. Just as no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), so no man has seen a line at any time (having only length but no width), even so the Son of God has declared him (length plus width), and this manifestation includes depth or height (by the Spirit). Morris applied the formula for volume here, noting that 1 ft x 1 ft x 1 ft = 1 cubic foot, not three (not three gods).

Morris associated time with the Holy Spirit in that we experience the universe over time. The Father he related to the unseen future, the source of all time. The present, where the unseen future becomes manifest moment by moment, he related to the Son. The past is our cumulative experience of time, which he related to the Holy Spirit. One second in the future equals one second in the present and one second in the past, so here again we have one essence with distinctions.

Matter is the hardest one to explain, but why should we be surprised when it relates to the second person of the Trinity! He employed Einstein’s theory of relativity to show the relationship between energy (Father) and matter (Son) through phenomena (Spirit).

By now, if you can’t appreciate the remark Sinclair Ferguson’s then middle-school-aged son made when learning about the Trinity (“Daddy, this makes my head hurt”), you haven’t been paying attention.  I’m glad Rick Phillips included that little tidbit in his blog!

Follow this link for more on Morris’ illustration, but still lacking the detail found in the book (if I could only find my notes!).

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: (all by Rick Phillips this week)

Feb. 2:  1.13.4 – 1.13.7

Feb. 3:  1.13.8 – 1.13.12

Feb. 4:  1.13.13 – 1.13.17 

Feb. 5:  1.13.18 – 1.13.22

Feb. 6:  1.13.23 – 1.13.25

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Week 4 of 50 in the Institutes: Idolatry Is the Epitome of Weakness

If asked to describe, as briefly as possible, the marks of a strong Christian, what comes to mind?  Would it be faith?  Love?  Assurance of salvation?

We do well to consider the prayer what Paul prayed for the Ephesians, as found in Eph. 4:14-19, when defining spiritual strength, because that text paints a picture of spiritual strength that catches the casual reader off guard, and at the same time it reveals how diametrically opposed spiritual strength is to every form of idolatry.  So keep reading and I will show how it ties in with the origin of idolatry which Calvin exposes in 1.11.8 of the Institutes.

Let’s consider briefly the context of Ephesians 4:14f.  Paul wrote this epistle to the church at Ephesus during his first Roman imprisonment, so it would seem natural for the believers there, the recipients of his letter, to be concerned, not only about Paul, but about themselves.  After all, if the apostle Paul himself wound up in prison for believing and preaching the gospel, what is to prevent any disciple of his from experiencing a similar fate?  Paul seems to have anticipated this concern, since he added in 4:13 “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (ESV) Thereafter Paul shares his prayer for them:

14 Because of this I bow my knees to the Father, 15 by whom every family is named, in heaven and on earth, 16 that he would grant you, according to the wealth of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love, 18 in order that you may be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and so to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (my translation)

I have translated the first part of verse 17 “so that Christ would settle down in your hearts” which more accurately reflects the meaning of the verb in its context here, and is key to understanding the picture of spiritual strength which I think Paul has in mind here.  Paul is not praying that the Ephesians would come to faith in Christ in 3:17.  The larger context prohibits such an interpretation.  We see this in the opening of the letter which began with praise to God for the salvation they have experienced (1:3-14).  He also described the Ephesians as those who were formerly dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3), but who now have been made alive, raised with Christ, and seated with Him in the heavenly places (2:4-6), all because of God’s almighty work of salvation in their lives.  So it is unthinkable that he is praying for their conversion in 3:17.

Rather, Paul is praying that the Ephesians will come to know Christ in such a way that, despite whatever circumstances in which they may find themselves, they will be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ with the result that nothing can ever call into question His love for them.  This is the essence of what it means to be spiritually strong, and is so far removed from what I’m going to call the weak, immature, daffodil believer.  Like a child plucking petals from a daffodil, when bad things happen, the daffodil believer concludes God doesn’t love him.  When good things happen, he concludes God loves him.  So he goes through life never settled in the love of God, like so:  “He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . Oh, I don’t know whether He loves me or He loves me not!”  So how is it possible to move beyond this doubtful state?  How does a person become assured of God’s love?  The answer isn’t found in circumstances.  Rather, we must look to one place only: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There is the place we know the love of God: But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, ESV)

But the next two words in the passage are very important: so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith. The way a person comes to know the love of Christ is by faith.  This is what it means to be spiritually strong.  But it takes a work of the Spirit in our heart, as Paul puts it, to be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is truly inexhaustible and unknowable: the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

And now we come to consider the origin of idolatry which Calvin identified in 1.11.8, and I hope we can perceive it as the epitome of spiritual weakness, because it must operate by sight instead of the currency of true spiritual strength, which is faith:

That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: ‘Up,’ said they, ‘make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him’ (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.  (1.11.8)

And while Calvin was directing his comments against the use of images found in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, we must not fail to recognize the idolatry that is alive and well throughout secular society today in the 21st century.  Man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory, as Calvin also noted in 1.11.8, and the output is so immense that I cannot chronicle it here.  But any image used in the worship of what the Puritans called the carnal trinity, known as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is an idol, whereby significance, status, prestige, security, sensuality, power or acquisition is pursued.  In this generation they are manifest as any number of fortune 500 company trademarks or those of their products, team logos (be it NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, etc.), or the obscene images spewed out by peddlers of the multibillion dollar porn industry.  Yes, idolatry thrives in our midst today such that we fool ourselves if we attempt to relegate it to the past or to less developed cultures.

So we must pray fervently and frequently, as Paul did: Your face, full of grace and truth, Lord, do I seek.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes (all by Phil Ryken for this week):

Jan. 26:  1.9.3 – 1.11.1

Jan. 27:  1.11.2 – 1.11.6

Jan. 28:  1.11.7 – 1.11.12 

Jan. 29:  1.11.13 – 1.12.2 

Jan. 30:  1.12.3 – 1.13.3 


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Week 3 of 50 in the Institutes: Your face, LORD, do I seek (in this labyrinth)

In John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis notes how Calvin took the term labyrinth from the humanistic tradition where it was used in a pejorative way against scholasticism, and re-cast it to refer to a type of thinking that kept a person from a true knowledge of God and self.  In the reading assignment for January 20th, we discover Calvin referring to God’s countenance as an inextricable labyrinth such that a person cannot keep to the path without the thread of God’s word (1.6.3, emphasis added, Beveridge translation):

It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God – we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved judgement, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course. We should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even an apostle declares to be inaccessible (1Ti. 6:16), is a kind of labyrinth – a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word do not serve us as a thread to guide our path; and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it. Hence the Psalmist, after repeatedly declaring (Psa. 93:1-5, Psa. 96:1-13, Psa. 97:1-12, Psa. 99:1-9, &c.) that superstition should be banished from the world in order that pure religion may flourish, introduces God as reigning; meaning by the term, not the power which he possesses and which he exerts in the government of universal nature, but the doctrine by which he maintains his due supremacy: because error never can be eradicated from the heart of man until the true knowledge of God has been implanted in it.

One of the main reasons I love to read the Puritans and Reformers is because of the light they shine on the Scriptures and the human heart (knowledge of God and of self), and thus become a means of beholding His face in a mirror more clearly, albeit dimly, in comparison to what is to come (1 Cor. 13:12; Psa. 27:8).  And so on we go, by the grace of God!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes for upcoming daily readings:

Jan. 19:  1.5.12 — 1.6.1

Jan. 20:  1.6.2. – 1.7.2

Jan. 21:  1.7.3 – 1.8.1

Jan. 22:  1.8.2 – 1.8.9

Jan. 23:  1.8.10 – 1.9.2

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Week 2 of 50 in the Institutes: Usurpers Anonymous

The concept in the film The Bourne Identity comes to mind when considering parts of the first three chapters of the Institutes.  Like Jason Bourne, all humanity has a natural instinct or awareness of an identity that goes beyond what immediately meets the eye (in this material world), but it is suppressed in many ways, often seeping out in various forms of idolatry (1.3.1):

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. Certainly, if there is any quarter where it may be supposed that God is unknown, the most likely for such an instance to exist is among the dullest tribes farthest removed from civilisation. But, as a heathen tells us, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Even those who, in other respects, seem to differ least from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion; so thoroughly has this common conviction possessed the mind, so firmly is it stamped on the breasts of all men. Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart. Nay, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature – these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God.

Whenever God isn’t acknowledged, man acts as a usurper of his glory, because, as Calvin points out in 1.2.1, all human skill, intellect, and power (indeed, life itself) are gifts from God:

My meaning is: we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgement, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive.

And so, working backwards, we can appreciate the wisdom in the opening of the Institutes where Calvin declares the absolute necessity of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God.  Any individual or society which lacks a knowledge of God will remain oblivious to its true identity, and perpetual usurpers of God’s glory, claiming for self what belongs to God alone.  In the end, the very definition of what it means to be human is lost.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes for the upcoming week’s reading assignments:

Jan. 12 – 1.1.1 thru 1.2.1

Jan. 13 – 1.2.2. – 1.3.3

Jan. 14 – 1.4.1 – 1.5.1

Jan. 15 – 1.5.2 – 1.5.5

Jan. 16 – 1.5.6- 1.5.11

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Countdown to Calvin: One Week to Go!

Our Dead Theologians Society small group is now just a week away from a fifty week excursion through Calvin’s Institutes, beginning January 5th.

The collective decision to take up this next selection is an event of no small significance for our reading group:

  • It is the 20th selection since the group was formed on March 30, 2009.
  • It is only the second non-Puritan work (the first was our previous read, Octavius Winslow’s Personal Declension & Revival of Religion in the Soul), and hence the earliest selection.
  • The charter members of the group have read a total of 4461 pages, an average of 2.2 pages per day, excluding breaks. Reading the Institutes in 2015 will require that pace to double to 4.4 pages per day for 344 days (94% of the year).
  • The highest number of books finished in a year so far is four, both in 2013 and 2014, and the Institutes will tie that number, if we consider it as four books in one.
  • The highest number of pages assigned for completion in a year was 893 in 2011. Reading the Institutes in 2015 in the McNeill-Battles 2 volume edition will exceed that record by 69%, with 1512 pages to cover.

Following the reading schedule developed by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, we will spend roughly a third (35%) of our time in books 1 and 2, a third (31%) in book 3, and a third (34%) in book 4 as follows:

Book Start Date End Date # Days % Time Start Page End Page # Pages % Pages
1 1/5 2/26 52 15.1% 3 237 235 15.5%
2 2/27 5/6 68 19.8% 241 534 294 19.4%
3 5/7 8/25 110 32.0% 537 1008 472 31.2%
4 8/26 12/18 114 33.1% 1011 1521 511 33.8%
344 100.0% 1512 100.0%
Daily Avg: 4.4

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren included the Institutes in their recommended reading list as one of those books that is typically over people’s heads (How to Read a Book, Appendix A: A Recommended Reading List). The Institutes of the Christian Religion is considered to be among the top 1% of books in the Western tradition that will significantly reward the reader for the efforts made to read them. And lest anyone become puffed up with the notion of this undertaking, please realize that some people make it a habit to read the Institutes every year, in addition to their annual reading through the Bible.

So rest now, but prepare to TAKE UP AND READ on January 5th!

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Countdown to Calvin: Three Weeks to Go!

Our Dead Theologians Society will embark on it most ambitious expedition yet when we take up Calvin’s Institutes in 2015, beginning January 5th. Using the reading schedule prepared by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, available online here, the pace will require reading an average of 5-7 pages per day of the Battles/McNeill edition of the Institutes, five days a week for 50 weeks (no sweat, just 10-15 minutes per day, 5 days a week).

Any cost-conscious enthusiast eager to join this expedition may obtain Beveridge’s translation (1845) for around $20 from the WTS Bookstore. If you want the more recent, two-volume Battles translation edited by John T. McNeill (1960), it will cost you a little more. If you don’t want to spend anything, Beveridge’s translation is accessible online for free.

As background on the life of Calvin, Jeremy Walker’s An Outline of the Life of John Calvin is handy. And J. I. Packer wrote an excellent preface, as always, to A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis. Ligon Duncan gave 10 good reasons to read through the Institutes in 2009 (the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth), so we are only six years behind, but the days of the week fall out exactly the same.  So Dr. Goodloe’s reading schedule will serve us well in 2015!

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Week 22 in Fisher: Communing With Your Own Heart

A few weeks ago I heard about a recent study which surprisingly concluded that men would prefer an electric shock to spending time alone with their thoughts (full article is available at: http://www.futurity.org/alone-thoughts-pain-729012/). I suspect that such aversions to introspection arise from the absence of a vital spiritual life, and yet, a majority of Christians will confess to having a prayer life that is lackluster, and less than they would like it to be. However, it is only a true knowledge of God that enables us to look within honestly, deeply, and relentlessly without despairing.

Two prerequisites to meaningful communion with God involve a knowledge of God, and a knowledge of ourselves. Calvin revised his Institutes several times, but one thing he never revised was the opening section wherein he identified the need for these two types of knowledge, thus demonstrating his ability to get to the kernel of true wisdom early on:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. (Institutes, 1.1, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.ii.html)

At the end of end of the section dealing with the uses of the law in The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher exhorts his reader to commune with his own heart especially before receiving the Lord’s Supper for the following reason:

Because the more sinful you see yourself to be, the more need you will see yourself to have of Christ; and the more need you see yourself to have of Christ, the more will you prize him; and the more you prize Christ, the more you will desire him; and the more you do desire Christ, the more fit and worthy receiver you will be.”

Being honest with ourselves as we relate to God is at the heart of communion with him. I’m indebted to John Owen for depicting this honesty in what he described as the daily commutation that occurs between every believer and his Savior:

“They [believers] hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’ Why? what to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot. Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins. Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’ Hereupon, —

“They lay down their sins at the cross of Christ, upon his shoulders. This is faith’s great and bold venture upon the grace, faithfulness, and truth of God, to stand by the cross and say, ‘Ah! He is bruised for my sins, and wounded for my transgressions, and the chastisement of my peace is upon him. He is thus made sin for me. Here I give up my sins to him that is able to bear them, to undergo them. He requires it of my hands, that I should be content that he should undertake for them; and I heartily consent unto.’ This is every day’s work; I know not how any peace can be maintained with God without it.” (Volume 2 of The Works of John Owen, On Communion With God, Chapter 8, p. 194; bold emphases mine, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/communion.i.vii.viii.html).

Yes, sadly, as long as we are in this body, this commutation is every day’s work. But, blessed be the Lord, he commands us to come to him as we are, with all our sins, asking him as our King to overcome all his and all our enemies. I prefer this communion with Him to an electric shock any day!

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