doctrine

ignoring context to sustain an existing interpretation

On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.

In the first instance, I heard a pastor[1] use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment.[2] In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.

In the second instance, I read a scholar[1] who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.

With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.

I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians,[3] specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”

Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos[4] continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).

With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).

However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.

My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it.[5] Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.

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[1] This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
[2] For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
[3] Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
[4] In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
[5] At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.

feeling feisty

Ever since a well-meaning individual tried to convince me of the merits of Dispensationalism,[1] I have done my best (when I have the spare time) to become acquainted with its ideas/teachings/hermeneutic/etc. I do this because I want to be sure that I am either accepting or rejecting something for the right reasons. That study began just over 6 years ago, and I’m sure it will continue for many more–and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with are the repeated attempts by some Dispensationalist scholars to (try and) substantiate a position or interpretation that is otherwise passé or even unsustainable. In particular, I am thinking of the twin (and necessarily linked) ideas of: 1) a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, and 2) the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. To put it mildly: both of these are crap (especially the second one) and there is no biblical support for either one–or both. The only way one reaches something remotely close to these ideas is if one presupposes the “truth” of both and then imposes them onto a small handful of text(s) that supposedly teach them.

However, throughout 6 years of studying Dispensationalism and reading through countless books and articles on the subject, I cannot begin to recall the number of times I’ve seen people still trying to uphold these two points and claiming them as taught/supported/proved in the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this sort of thing persists. The only guess I can fathom is that such scholars are seeking to preserve loyalty to Dispensational teaching rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. (That may be a tad extreme…). One fairly recent example should suffice, which comes from an article by the late Zane Hodges (1933-2008).  Please note the assumptions and presuppositions driving his entire line of argument:

A growing number of evangelicals question the doctrine of the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, claiming that the New Testament nowhere teaches it.  Even proponents of the Pre-tribulation Rapture often defend it as if it results from a series of inferences drawn from scattered biblical texts.  Or, they may cite a few isolated proof-texts (like Revelation 3:10).  Unfortunately, few pre-tribulational expositors attempt to justify this doctrine by appealing to a coherent exegesis of an extended passage of Scripture.  Yet, the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as a deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

–Z. Hodges, “1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture,” CTS Journal 6 (2000): 22

There are so many things I could say about this paragraph, but for the sake of my own sanity I will confine my remarks to Hodge’s final point: “the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.” Let me see how I can say this… Paul teaches no such thing–not in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 or anywhere!  (I think that works). In order to say that Paul does teach such a thing, one has to presuppose a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, which further presupposes (and requires) separate divine agendas for each, and then read 1Thess 5.1-11 through that lens.  Moreover, one has to do all of this in spite of the fact that Paul would never endorse that twofold presupposition–in fact, his arguments (elsewhere) about “Israel” and the church obliterate the foundation for such a distinction. Thus, if Hodges is going to follow the principle of “interpreting Scripture with Scripture”, then he’s going to have a difficult[2] time squaring what Paul does say about “Israel” and the church with what Dispensationalism assumes the Bible/Paul says about them.

I’ll finish reading Hodges article, primarily because I already started it but also fairness dictates I consider the whole of his argument. However, I have terrible suspicion that it’s going to be nothing but a Dispensationally-driven eisegesis of a Pauline text that deserves more respect than that.

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[1] I should point out that, based on several conversations with the individual noted, the “Dispensationalism” in question is an amalgam of the Classical and Revised (or Modified) varieties.
[2] On this point, I’m being kind.

not a knockout punch; more of a glancing blow

In what little spare time I have at the moment, I’ve been slowly working through 2 Thessalonians, especially the eschatological section of 2Thess 2.1-12. This portion of the letter has been a veritable hotbed of debate, although for various reasons. On one extreme, since the work of Schmidt (1801), furthered by Kern (1839) and Baur (1845), most critical scholars see it as evidence that Paul did not compose the letter.¹ On another extreme, since (at least) the work of Scofield (1909), furthered by a number of Dispensational writers since then, many evangelical scholars see this passage as evidence of Paul’s knowledge of what will take place at the eschaton.

Both of these perspectives have their merits (and faults) and both should be examined carefully and honestly by all who engage with this letter. Since Paul Foster recently addressed the issues in the first extreme (see “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35.2 [2012]: 150-75), and since I agree with most of what he argues, there is no need for me to enter into that discussion. Instead, my concern here is with the second extreme, specifically the kind of knowledge that Paul had about the eschaton and the reasons why he says what he does.

I make this my focus partly because David Dean (tenuously) argues for Paul’s knowledge of these events as being chronological in nature, and it was this chronological knowledge that he imparted to the Thessalonians during his brief sojourn.² That seems to handle the “kind” question. With regard to the “reason” question, Dean sees this imparting of chronological knowledge as necessary for a right understanding of the eschaton–particularly the timing of the (so-called) “rapture.” Specifically, for Dean, the “rapture” takes place before all of the other events described and Christians can rest assured that the other events have not taken place because the “rapture” has not yet happened.

Dean makes this argument on the basis of what he sees Paul saying in 2Thess 2.1-12. By way of summary: after stating the concern (cf. 2.1-2)–i.e. a faulty teaching concerning the return of Christ–Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to remain true to what they know (cf. 2.3a). He then launches into what appear to be “signs” that will precede Christ’s return (cf. 2.3b-12)–e.g. the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, the removal of the evil that prevails, the defeat of the man of lawlessness at Christ’s return, and judgment.³ In fact, the logical and syntactical construction of the Greek reveals a necessary causal relationship between the “signs” and Christ’s return. Paul’s remarks, therefore, could be seen as endorsing a chronology.

However, I am not so sure that Paul’s knowledge is necessarily chronological–in the strict detailed sense that Dean proposes. Specifically, I do not see Paul saying: “Before the return of Christ happens: first, there will be ‘the apostasy’; second, there will be the ‘unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” ‘; third, this ‘man’ will oppose God and exalt himself over all gods; fourth, he will take ‘his seat in the temple of God’ and claim to be God; fifth, that which prevails will be revealed and then taken out of the way; sixth, the ‘lawless one’ will be defeated by Christ; etc.” Paul’s language in this text does not come across as being that precise.

Moreover, contrary to what Scofield argued (cf. notes on 2.3) and Dean rehashes, I don’t think Paul sees all of the “events” in 2Thess 2.3b-12 as reserved exclusively for the distant future. In particular, and contrary to how the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NCV, and CEV translate it, the details pertaining to the “man of lawlessness” are not waiting to be climatically revealed (cf. 2.4); Paul’s language stresses that nearly all of the details are already taking place. In other words: the “man of lawlessness” is presently opposing (ἀντικείμενος) God; he is presently exalting (ὑπεραιρόμενος) himself over all other gods; and he does this because he has already taken his seat (καθίσαι) in the temple of God and is presently displaying (ἀποδεικνύντα) himself as God. The only detail waiting fulfillment in the future is this “man” unveiling (ἀποκαλύπτω; cf. 2.3b), which Paul goes on to describe as contemporaneous with the appearance (ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ’s return/coming/presence (παρουσία; cf. 2.8). And since the bulk of what Paul says up to 2.5 is about the man of lawlessness, the reminder in 2.5 would seem to refer to that previous teaching and not Dean’s proposed chronological eschatology.

At the very least, this creates problems for the rather absurd theories of Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye (again) and Thomas Ice (et al), who both drone on about the birth, upbringing, ethnicity, political affiliations, and identity of this “man of lawlessness”, whom they inappropriately call the “Antichrist”. Such suggestions reveal a lack of understanding of Paul’s overall meaning and his use of apocalyptic language. The contemporaneity of the “man’s” unveiling (and subsequent defeat) and Christ’s appearing also create problems for the usual (Classic) Dispensationalist eschatological “timeline”. In particular, the contemporaneity raises serious doubts about the so-called pretribulation rapture of the saints, which is based on the more troubling notion of a two-stage return of Christ. Moreover, a “rapture of the saints” or even its (supposed) timing is not even close to being Paul’s concern–either here in 2Thess 2.1-12 or the only passage in the whole of the NT that indicates something like a “rapture”: 1Thess 4.17.

As he states at the beginning of his argument, Paul’s concern (for both the Thessalonians and anyone else who might read his letter) is about faithful patience, allegiance to truth about what God has done and will do in and through Christ, and not being swept away by speculative theories about Christ’s return. You know, theories like those (explicitly or implicitly) proposed by: Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles T. Russell (twice), later Jehovah’s Witnesses (multiple attempts), Hal Lindsey (twice), Edgar Whisenaunt (twice), John Hinkle, Harold Camping (repeatedly), etc.

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¹ The letter is dislodged from Paul’s hands on account of its (apparently) different eschatology vis-a-vis that of 1 Thessalonians. Specifically, 2Thess seems to advocate a recognizable chronological sequence of events that precede Christ’s return (cf. 2Thess 2.3-12), whereas 1Thess appears to indicate that the return will be without warning (cf. 1Thess 4.13-5.11). Moreover, while 1Thess reads as though Paul sees himself as alive when Christ returns, 2Thess gives the impression that Paul is giving up on that hope. In other words: 1Thess anticipates an imminent return (i.e. in Paul’s lifetime) whereas 2Thess allows for considerable delays (i.e. well after Paul’s death). Thus, the “consensus” for how to explain these differences is that Paul wrote 1Thess and someone writing in his name penned 2Thess.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?” (Bibliotheca Sacra 168 [2011]: 196. I plan to deal with some of the finer points of Dean’s argument in a different post.
³ Props to those who recognize the variant I proposed. Don’t worry, I have reasons for doing so; I’m not just making stuff up for the Gehenna of it.

asking for trouble

My day typically begins c. 6.45am; 7.00am if I’m feeling lazy. By 7.15am/7.30am the first round of coffee is about to be consumed, and I start my search for mental jolt. (For some reason, for me, coffee fails in the jolting business). This usually means finding a book or article that I know will bug me and put me on the defensive. The sooner I’m kicked into critical thinking mode the better. This morning, the chosen jolt was an article with the prickly title, “Who Is Wrong? A Review of John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth” (R.L. Mayhue in The Master’s Seminary Journal 3.1 [1992]: 73-94).

To clarify the basic tension of the article (for those who are unaware): Gerstner’s book, as the tagline reveals, is a “Critique of Dispensationalism”, and his chosen adverbiage, “Wrongly” indicates where he comes down on that critique.¹ He ain’t in favor of it (at least its particular hermeneutic). The Master’s Seminary Journal is produced and disseminated by none other than The Master’s Seminary (California), and TMS, as their statement of faith indicates (briefly here and especially here), is an advocate of Dispensationalism. Since Mayhue is on staff at TMS, we can safely guess where his “review” of Gerstner’s critique is headed. (The implied either-or of his title and the choice to use TMS’s journal to offer the “review” are telling clues).

Here’s what bugged me about the article, and it’s something Mayhue said quite early in his discussion/monologue. Mayhue states (more or less; more on the less side) one of Gerstner’s key problems with Dispensationalism–i.e. it fails to do proper justice to biblical soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, and the necessary links between them. Mayhue accuses (albeit in subtle ways) Gerstner of allowing his Reformed tradition (i.e. Calvinism, specifically) to govern his interpretation of both the biblical doctrines in view and Dispensationalism. The implication is that Mayhue see such allowance as inappropriate. Then Mayhue asserts:

[Gerstner] seems to debate from the following basic syllogism, though he never states it so succinctly as this:

Premise 1: Calvinism is central to all true theology
Premise 2: Dispensationalism does not embrace Calvinism
Conclusion: Dispensationalism is a ‘spurious’ and ‘dubious’ expression of true theology (p. 2).

Thus, he strongly calls for dispensationalism’s quick surrender.

–Mayhue, “Who Is Wrong?,” 75.

The reason this bugged me has three parts. First, Mayhue (subtly) criticizes Gerstner for allowing his theological tradition (i.e. Calvinism) to dictate his interpretation. On this point, Mayhue (rightly) states: “Presuppositions and assumptions undergird all reasoned thought” (81). However, Mayhue does not acknowledge (or recognize) that Dispensationalism must necessarily be included in that truth. He overlooks the fact that Dispensationalism has its own presuppositions and assumptions and they necessarily govern the interpretative process. In fact, Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism² essentially require loyalty to the interpretative system they establish in order to understand properly the theological conclusions they find.

Second, Mayhue’s “review” (=polemic) operates on the basis of the suggested syllogism, which Mayhue acknowledges as never clearly articulated as he gives it. This means Mayhue’s criticisms focus on Mayhue’s interpretation of Gerstner’s logic as though that interpretation is an accurate reflection of what Gerstner clearly argues. (Admittedly I have not read Gerstner’s book, so I do not know for sure how accurate Mayhue’s interpretation is).

Third, Mayhue’s own argument in particular and Dispensationalism in general are not exempt from the charges of the suggested syllogism. To say this differently: the same argument Mayhue uses against Gerstner can be turned around and used against Mayhue. In effect it would go something like this:

Premise 1: Dispensationalism is central to all true interpretation of Bible (i.e. “rightly dividing the word of truth”)³
Premise 2: Non-Dispensationalists do not embrace the hermeneutical system of Dispensationalism
Conclusion: Non-Dispensationalist readings do not represent true interpretations of the Bible; they are all ill-informed, dubious, spurious, liberal, and unorthodox.

The implication of this argument is that if one does not embrace Dispensationalism, then one does not embrace the true meaning of the Bible; and if one does not embrace that true meaning, then one cannot be faithful to its message; and if one is not faithful to its message, then how can that person truly claim to be evangelical? The trouble is that the Dispensational hermeneutic and its particular emphases are what need to be embraced, and they tend to be prioritized over core tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy. In the words of Levar Burton: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is a confession from a former Dispensationalist named, Clarence Bass (in the 1960s):

Even today some of my dearest friends are convinced that I have departed from the evangelical faith. No affirmation of my belief in the cardinal doctrines of faith–the virgin birth, the efficaciousness of Christ’s death, the historicity of the resurrection, the necessity of the new birth, even the fervent expectancy of the person, literal, actual bodily return of the Lord to earth–will convince them, because I have ceased to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’.

–quoted in S.J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze (1992), 92–emphasis original.

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¹ Also, for those who don’t know, Gerstner’s title takes a not-so-subtle jab at an earlier work called, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (1896) by C.I. Scofield–the champion of Dispensationalism in the US.
² While I am generally not a fan of Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism (and its proponents), I am more appreciative of so-called Progressive Dispensationalism (and its advocates). However, please do not mistake appreciation for acceptance.
³ What Scofield meant by this phrase (taken from 2Tim 2.15) is not what Paul meant by that phrase. In fact, how Scofield uses that passage to construct and justify his Dispensational interpretation reveals his ignorance of Paul’s meaning.

quote of the morning

When F.H. Elpis argued that in baptism, believers are united with the second person of the Godhead (i.e. Jesus), yet confirmation is the necessary second-stage for receiving the indwelling presence of the third person (i.e. the Spirit), G.W.H. Lampe ably retorts:

This is wholly false. The Church was not told to await the Paraclete after being already united with the Second Person of the Trinity; the disciples were promised the coming of the Paraclete to be the mediator to them of the glorified Christ: to make them Christian believers, united with the Lord and receiving new life through him. The idea that we can be Christians, united by faith with Christ, and yet be without the indwelling of the Spirit, is a basic Trinitarian error, resting on a tritheistic theology.

–G.W.H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit (1967), xxiii-xiv

calvin, times three

My apologies for the lack of ‘Calvin in a year’ posting; the laptop has been acting up, and I hesitate to use it for long periods of time. That being the case, while covering three specific readings, I’ll need to keep this post somewhat brief–albeit brevity times three, seeing that I’m a bit behind with the daily quotes.

1) As noted in the last post, Calvin makes a case for ‘knowledge of God [being] implanted in the human mind’ (Inst 1.3) and how some attempt to excise that knowledge from who they are–so that they can (attempt to) become who/what they desire. Next, Calvin explores more of this compulsion to separate oneself from the knowledge of God (see Inst 1.4). The result of the separation is a callousness or hardness of heart, which in turn leads to repulsion and even hatred toward God. However, Calvin notes the (unacceptable) paradox within such people when he says:

[A] sense of Deity is naturally engraven on the human heart, in the fact, that the very reprobate are forced to acknowledge it. When at their ease, they can jest about God, and talk pertly and loquaciously in disparagement of his power; but should despair, from any cause, overtake them, it will stimulate them to seek him, and dictate ejaculatory prayers, proving that they were not entirely ignorant of God, but had perversely suppressed feelings which ought to have been earlier manifested.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.4.4

2) The next reading (see Inst 1.5.1-4) continues the ‘knowledge of God’ theme, only this time Calvin’s focus is on external support for such knowledge–i.e. what we might loosely call cosmology (or, ‘natural theology’).* As he argues (and I paraphrase), a key point of this chapter is to show that while God displays his wisdom and power throughout creation, it is only by ‘extreme stupidity’ that  people continue to ask, Where is God?

Moreover, below the surface of the argument, I almost hear Calvin saying: God is not some vicious tyrant demanding loyalty without just cause (as tyrants do); instead God has lovingly and patiently gone out of his way not only to reveal his existence by also show himself worthy of respect.** Two examples of this are: the innate knowledge of God, given by God himself; and the external reality of creation, which he made. Specifically thinking of the wonders and depths of the cosmos, Calvin says:

none who have the use of their eyes can be ignorant of the divine skill manifested so conspicuously in the endless variety, yet distinct and well-ordered array, of the heavenly host; and, therefore, it is plain that the Lord has furnished every man with abundant proofs of his wisdom. The same is true in regard to the structure of the human frame. To determine the connection of its parts, its symmetry and beauty, with the skill of a Galen . . . requires singular acuteness; and yet all men acknowledge that the human body bears on its face such proofs of ingenious contrivance as are sufficient to proclaim the admirable wisdom of its Maker.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.5.2

3) The final reading related to this post (see Inst 1.5.5-8) seems to respond to the explanations given by those who not only suppress (or even excise) innate knowledge of God but also deny God as Creator. In other words, Calvin appears to confronting those who wish to say, ‘By my own skill and knowledge, I can define life and existence apart from God.’ To which Calvin rightly says:

Nothing, indeed, can be more preposterous than to enjoy those nobel endowments which bespeak the divine presence within us, and to neglect him who, of his own good pleasure, bestows them upon us.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.5.6

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* While Calvin divides this chapter into two parts (i.e. 1.5.1-10 and 1.5.11-15), the reading plan I’m following divides it into four parts.
** Cue the criticism of Bertrand Russell.

calvin for today

Today’s reading comes from a chapter bearing the ostensibly positive title, ‘Knowledge of God Implanted in the Human Mind’ (Institutes 1.3). I say ‘ostensibly’ because, even though the chapter is bracketed with positive affirmations, the substance of the chapter is rather grim. I may be speaking out of turn, but it appears as though Calvin introduces this grimness now in order to preface a later (and fuller) critique of the human condition. We’ll have to wait and see if that is indeed the case.  For now, I offer two quotes from today’s reading–both are admittedly quite grim, but I will try to draw out some positives. First:

For the world (as will be shortly seen)* labours as much as it can to shake off all knowledge of God, and corrupts his worship in innumerable ways.  I only say, that, when the stupid hardness of heart, which the wicked eagerly court as a means of despising God, becomes enfeebled, the sense of Deity, which of all things they wished most to be extinguished, is still in vigour, and now and then breaks forth.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.3.3.

One positive that comes out of this is that in spite of human efforts to jettison God, God still remains; he is unmoved and undaunted by man’s kicking and screaming against him. (The whole, ‘kicking against the goads’ [cf. Acts 26.14] thing comes to mind). And second:

It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals, as a means of keeping the body of people in due subjection, while there was nothing which those very individuals, while teaching others to worship God, less believed than the existence of God.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.3.2.

Two positives can be recognised here.  One, criticisms are nothing new. Modern critics of religions (specifically Christianity) are neither pioneering new ground nor championing a novel or even profound assessment; they are merely repeating tired and insubstantial conclusions proffered by earlier generations. And second, these sorts of criticisms only work if the caricature against which they are levelled is in fact a true representation of religion (especially Christianity). However, I think Calvin wants to show that such caricatures are indeed false portraits of true Christianity, and that if the criticisms thrown at the caricature were aimed at what Christian truly is, their feebleness (nay, impotence) would be exposed.

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* It is this parenthetical statement that makes me see this chapter as a preface to a later discussion.

planned thought of the day

Yesterday I mentioned the plan to read through Calvin’s Institutes in a year.  Day three is now finished. Prior to that I gave a summary of my (meagre) blogging efforts in 2011.  In the latter post, I proposed the idea of trying to blog more often (and hopefully with better content); and in the light of former post (still with me?), I came up with an idea: to meet the goal of ‘more often’ (in terms of quantity), why not give a ‘thought of the day’ from Calvin?  So that’s what I’ll do.  Sound good?  Here’s today’s:

[I]t is not the mere fear of punishment that restrains [the pious man]* from sin. Loving and revering God as his father, honouring and obeying him as his master, although there were no hell, he would revolt at the very idea of offending him. Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear–fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law. And it ouught to be more carefully considered, that all men promiscuously do homage to God, but very few truly reverence him. On all hands there is abundance of ostentatious ceremonies, but sincerity of heart is rare.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.2.2.

This brought to mind Hos 6.6: ‘For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, an in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’ (cf. Isa 1.11-17).

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* I am using the term ‘man’ in the sense that Calvin most likely used it–i.e. an ancient classification term denoting a particular species, in this case: a human being. And because the ancient term, α͗νθρωπος is grammatically ‘masculine’ all related pronouns will agree in ‘gender’ with this antecedent.