Literal, Christological, Spiritual: A Look Into Calvin’s Approach to Hermeneutics and Preaching

calvinWhat is our aim in preaching?  What should it be?

This is a debated question among preachers who share many of the same evangelical convictions—namely, the authority and sufficiency of Christ. Some argue for a “text-driven approach,” which gives pride of place to timeless truths of the text discovered through a rigorous grammatical-historical approach to the text. Others call for an “apostolic” or “redemptive-historical” approach, where the methods of the apostles are imitated.

Often the former critiques the latter of reading into the text, appealing too much to typology, even straying into allegory. (Full disclosure: I think this argument is a red herring. It applies to some who advocate a figural approach to Scripture. But it falls flat against interpreters like Richard Gaffin and G.K. Beale). By contrast, those who read with an eye to the redemptive-historical nature of Scripture, worry that exegesis which only reads passages at the textual level and makes direct application (e.g., drawing ethical principles from Boaz’s treatment of Ruth) misses the Christological aims of Scripture—not to mention, the way any passage fits into the context of the whole Bible (what is known as the “canonical context”).

Space doesn’t permit a full discussion here. Two helpful books that engage this subject are the edited volume by G.K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text? Essays on the New Testament Use of the Oldand the multi-perspective book Biblical Hermeneutics: Five ViewsThese books will show the turning points in the debate. For now, let me put forward a mediating approach which takes the best of both positions, one historically modeled by John Calvin. Continue reading

What is Calvinism?

Calvinism means different things to different people. Even to those who might call themselves “Calvinist,” what they mean by the term is not always the same. Typically, as a shorthand expression for what I believe about salvation, I am comfortable to call myself a Calvinist. And yet, because that label is so often misused, misunderstood, and misapplied, I am equally desirous to avoid it altogether.

Nevertheless, the question remains: What is Calvinism?

The answer to that question takes more than just two sentence, simple answer. Because it is a term that has historical, theological, and worldview meanings, it takes time to get a handle on it. Therefore, for those who have an interest and an ear to hear, let me give you a five-fold answer to that question: Calvinism is (1) a shorthand expression for the doctrines of grace, (2) a biblical-theological system, (3) an historical phenomenon, (4) a biblical worldview, and (5) an attitude of worship. As always, let me know what you think.  Continue reading

With Calvin in the Theater of God

glory1A few years ago I read through some of  With Calvin in the Theater of God (by John Piper and David Mathis). The book spotlights a reality of Calvin’s theology that has been noticed by many who read him: Calvin was enthralled with the creation of God because in it he perceived the manifold perfections of the God of Creation. Might we all be so observant of God’s glory.

This morning, as I have picked up Calvin’s two volume devotional—what others consider his theological treatise—I was struck by Calvin’s wonder at God’s creation and the way it calls men and women made in his image to see God in his creation. Although the translation below (which is available for free online) is a little more difficult to read than Battles’ translation, it captures the same breathtaking truth: Man is not excused from worshiping God, because all creation testifies to God’s beauty.

Consider Calvin’s Scripture-saturated meditation and drink in the wonder of how God has revealed himself in creation:

Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. Continue reading

Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement

lambIn his chapter on “Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement,” Paul Helm observes that Calvin’s universal language is pastoral in nature and necessary (and biblical) because of humanity’s epistemic condition. In other words, because humanity is ignorant of the future, the decree of God, and who God’s elect are, it is most appropriate for the pastor (and all Christian witnesses) to offer the gospel freely to all people. In fact, it is spiritually dangerous to call men and women to look for evidences of grace in themselves as ‘pre-conditions’ for election. Rather, following Calvin’s teaching, one’s election can only be known in the mirror of Christ.

On this point Helm quotes Calvin who rightly observed,

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion3.24.5, quoted in Helm, “Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement,” From Heaven He Came and Sought Her118)

Accordingly, may we look unto Christ today. The invitation to come is available to all, and all who come will discover God’s covenant love that he set on his elect before the foundation of the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Faithful Exegesis: A Mark of Humility

Colin Adams, at Unashamed Workman, posts a thought-provoking nugget this morning about the faithful exegesis and the example of John Calvin.  He writes:

There are many loose ends in Scripture. All too frequently in my preaching I feel gravely tempted to tie some of those ends together: or at least to make educated guesses regarding ‘unknowns’ beyond the text. I was interested, then, to read of John Calvin’s attitude to these “One might imagine….” comments:

“There were…necessary safeguards to [Calvin’s] reasoning process. In dealing with any biblical text, Calvin purposed not to exceed what Scripture itself taught. The Reformer was careful not to enter the realm of speculation. As Calvin said, ‘Where the Lord closes His holy mouth, let us also stop our minds from going any further.’ In other words, he would say no more than Scripture” (Steve Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, p 79).

With Colin, I have felt that angst, seeing in Scripture possible connections, plausible connections, even probable connections, but connections that lack explicit textual warrant.  This is part of the joy of biblical theology–seeing the intertextual types, patterns, and allusions employed in Scripture.  Nevertheless, making too many connections may become a theological and exegetical snare.

In fact, the temptation to say more than God says, takes us back to the Garden.  It pulls on our sinful longings to be like God (cf. Gen. 3:1-6).  So, I appreciate Colin’s reminder this morning that faithful exegesis is hard and humbling.  Hard because we are called to say what God says, and this is sometimes difficult to grasp; and humbling because it restricts us to say only what Scripture says, nothing more.  Overly speculative exegesis is not faithful exegesis.  In this instance, Proverbs 13:3 is sage advice:  “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”

Deuteronomy 29:29 is another timely word: The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut. 29:29).  God has given us his Word that we might know him; he has fully revealed himself in Jesus, the incarnate Word (cf. John 1:1-3, 14; Heb. 1:1-2:4).  But at the same time, God’s word is not like google.  There is a defined limit and we cannot simply search out whatever our vain curiosities desire.  By design, there is sixty-six book limit, and as such, we are humbled to wrestle with what God has said–not what he might have said, not what he could have said, not what he will say, not what he left out, but should have said.  God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and for that we are eternally helped and gratefully humbled.

This week as we consider God’s word, may we speak the revealed things boldy, loudly, persistently, and may we with reverence and silence cover our mouths concerning the unspoken mysteries of God.  As Solomon tells us “there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7)

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Gregory Nazianzen on the Trinity

In The Holy Trinity, Robert Letham refers to T.F. Torrance’s assertion that John Calvin’s Trinitarian theology was developed, in part, by the Trinitarian formulations of Gregory Nazianzen.  That is a mouthful, and an amazing pedigree–Gregory Naz, John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, Robert Letham (p. 267).  Though Torrance’s connection between Gregory and Calvin  has been debated by some (cf. Tony Lane), Calvin was at least familiar with Greg Naz, as is shown in the following quotation in Calvin’s writings.

I encourage you to meditate on Gregory’s unity and diversity held together in this Trinitarian reflection.  Speaking of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the Cappadocian father writes:

No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.  When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.  I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest.  When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.

May we continue to delight in the immeasurable perfections of our Triune God.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Last Things First: Meditations on the Image of God

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15).

This weekend, I will be preaching from some of the richest Christological verses in the Bible, Colossians 1:15-20.  And in preparation this week, I have been reading JV Fesko’s Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of EschatologyFesko’s treatment of “protology,” eschatology, and Christology are incredible stimulating and illuminating.  Seeing that Genesis 1-3 is not just a polemic against Charles Darwin, nor a proof-text the age of the earth, but rather a glorious beginning to the story of Jesus Christ–his creation, redemption, and new creation.  Fesko effectively demonstrates that these passages are about the Triune God and the true man, Jesus Christ. 

Drawing on a rich history of commentators, Fesko quotes Anthony Hoekema, G.K. Beale, and John Calvin as they seek to explain the context and the concept of the Imago Dei.  Their reflections are worth pondering in order to better understand this tremendous biblical truth–namely, what it means to be made in the image of God, and that Jesus Christ himself is the Image of God!  Quoting from Hoekema’s The Image of God first, Fesko remarks: 

The image of God in man must: “be seen as involving the structure of man (his gifts, capacities, and endowments) and the functioning of man (his actions, his relationships to God and to others, and the way he uses his gifts).  To stress either of the of these at the expense of the other is to be one-sided…To see man as the image of God is to see both the task and the gifts.  But the task is primary; the gifts are secondary.  The gifts are the means for fulfilling the task” (A. Hoekema, quoted by Fesko in Last Things First, 47).

To Hoekema’s balanced representation of structure and function, Fesko incorporate’s Beale’s cultural-historical observations:

G.K. Beale explains the connection between monarchs as images of deities and explains, “ancient kings would set up images of themselves in distant lands over which they ruled in order to represent their sovereign presence.  For example, after conquering a new territory, the Assyrian king Shalmanesar ‘fashioned a mighty image of my majesty’ that he ‘set up’ on a clack obelisk, and then he virtually equates his ‘image’ with that of ‘the glory of Assur’ his god.  Likewise, Adam was created as the image of the divine king to indicate that earth was ruled over by Yahweh” (G.K. Beale, quoted by Fesko, 49).

Finally, Fesko quotes the great reformer, John Calvin, whose comments highlight the dignity bestowed upon humanity’s nature. 

The chief seat of the Divine image was in his mind and heart, where it was eminent…In the mind perfect intelligence flourished and reigned, uprightness attended as its companion, and all the senses were prepared and molded for due obedience to reason; and in the body there was a suitable corresondence with this internal order’ (John Calvin, quoted by Fesko, 50).

In short order, John Fesko, summarizes some of the most important aspects of the doctrine of humanity.  He supports a holistic definition that incorporates Calvin’s substantive understanding, that mankind has essential properties that reflect the Godhead; Hoekema’s dual understanding that mankind is made to rule (function) and that God has given mankind gifts and abilities to carry out that task (structure); and Beale’s cultural-historical understanding of humanity’s place as delegated vice-regents to rule over creation, to expand the glory of God by ruling over creation and proliferating the image of God.

Of course, there is much more to say because this original program was aborted as soon as Adam’s feet touched earth.  Humanity proceded to reflect the image of God, but in a marred and perverted way.  Nevertheless, eternal God’s intention for the true Imago Dei was never thwarted!  As highlighted by Last Things First, Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ was always the intended telos of mankind.  We are made in his image, but He is the image of God (cf. Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4; Heb. 1:3).  Fesko distills the preceding quotations well, so we will finish with his summary:

Set against the ancient Near Eastern religions in which the ‘forces of nature are divinities that may hold the human race in thralldom, our text declares man to be a free agent who has the God-given power to control nature’ (Nahum Sarna, Genesis, 13).  Moreover, no man or any other creature is a deity.  Rather, God’s image, his incommunicable attributes, were given to man so he could rule as God’s vice-regent over the creation (50).

Made in the image of Christ, may we rejoice in the True ImageoDei, Jesus, and press on to Christ-like conformity as we embrace our roles as vice-regents, looking for the day when our bodies are redeemed and we will ever reign with Christ (cf. Rom. 8:23; 2 Tim. 2:12).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss