Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chapter 14 Angels

John Calvin now turns to another realm of God's created universe, that of angels. He expends a fair amount of ink in debunking what had apparently become a favorite parlor game of the theologians of his day, that of categorizing, naming, numbering, and otherwise speculating about angels. Soli scriptorum always being his rule, he nevertheless thoroughly handles the nature of angels, including refutation of various errors concerning their essence and relation to God. He turns to their office and mission, including their role as messengers to and protectors of the elect. He summarizes by stating that angels, as all other aspects of God's creation are to bring us to Himself.
He then turns to Satan and his angels and discusses fallen angels. As with holy angels, he pleas for avoidance of speculation regarding how and when they fell.
He ends the chapter with a brief treatise on creation of the world on which we live, and again concludes that it's purpose is to draw men to Himself. For those who might avoid reading "The Institutes" because it may be cold and lacking in passion, I quote:

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 salutory to him. How ungrateful, then, were it to doubt whether we are cared for by this most excellent Parent, who we see cared for us even before we were born! How impoous were it to tremble in distrust, lest we should one day be abandoned in out necessity by that kindness which, antecedent to out existence, displayed itself in a complete supply of all good things! Moreover, Moses tells us that everything which the world contains is liberally placed at our disposal. This God certainly did not that he might delude us with an empty form of donation. Nothing, therefore, which concerns our safety will ever be wanting. To conclude, in one word; as often as we call God the Creator of heaven and earth, let us remember that the distribution of all the things which he created are in his hand and power, but that we are his sons, whom ge has undertaken to nourish and bring up in allegiance to him, that we may expect the substance of all good from him alone, and have full hope that he will never suffer us to be in want of things necessary to salvation, so as to leave us dependent on some other sounce; that in everything we desire we may address our prayers to him, and in every benefit we receive acknowledge his hand and give him thanks; that thus allured by his great goodness and beneficence, we may study with our whole heart to love and serve him.

Take Home Pearl: Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Triune God

Chapter 13 ... Calvin now moves to theology proper, and discusses first God's personhood. and quickly moves to the doctrine of the trinity. In language which often left me in wonderment at how a 26 year old man could achieve such intellectual stature, he deals with the unity, and the separatness of the trinity. Through the ages, Christians have struggled with how the trinity is of one essence, yet in three distinct persons, and Calvin deals with the extremes in both directions ... from only God the Father being God with the Son and Spirit coming from Him and only deriving deity from Him to pantheism where God is everywhere and in everything. Calvin makes broad use of two terms: essence and hypostasis. He takes great pains to point out that each person of the trinity possesses the same essence, and at the same time, three distinct personhoods, united hypostatically. The hypostatic union is usually used to describe the union of the divine and human nature of God the Son, but here Calvin uses it to describe the union of the three persons of the trinity. I finished this 30 page chapter exhausted!

Take Home Pearl: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Images in the church

Images in the church

Chapter XI … Calvin now turns to the subject of idolatry and its application in his time, that of images and sculptures in the church. With the exception of some stained glass images in today’s Protestant churches, this issue has been settled, but Calvin clearly took the practice in the Roman and Eastern churches of representations of deity to task as a violation of the 2nd commandment.

He show that idols are yet another symptom of mankind’s basic problem with God: rebellion. He refutes various arguments put forth by the church in the defense of images even claiming that they are often immodestly dressed, thus poor instructors for the masses. He deals with the argument oft heard even today that the images are only honored, not worshipped. There were even bishops that he quoted who explicitly anathematized those who did not worship images.

The human is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. The human mind … dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity. The mind conceives the idol, the hand gives it birth.

He deals with art in general and allows that which does not depict deity, e.g. representations of historical events and pictures.

Chapter XII … Calvin gives the clarion call to worship only God, and no thing or no one else.

Question: We often hear the following definition of idolatry from the pulpit. “If it takes the place of God in your life, it’s an idol … money, power, fame, beauty, etc.” I wonder if Calvin would agree. What really is idolatry? I suspect he would refer to the imprint upon humankind of deity, and our attempts to run or rebel from facing the holiness of the God of the Universe, and the above as licentiousness, pure and simple.

Another question: What about galleries of art by the masters which depict deity?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Scripture brings Man to God; Man Rebels

Chapter 6 … Whereas the knowledge of God is imprinted on every human heart, and this knowledge is made know to us by creation, by observation of our own selves, by the operation of men in this world, the knowledge of God also produces fear in that we are aware of our own shortcomings to the character of God. There is no remedy for this proclaimed in this knowledge. For this God has supplied his written word to His elect. Even apart from the redemptive plan, Calvin demonstrates from the oracles of the patriarchs and the prophets and the New Testament authors, that the search for the true god leads us to Jehovah, and brings us to the point of redemption.

Take Home Pearl: Beholding God as we see His hand in nature is insufficient to point out that we are answerable to Him, and thus in need of salvation. For this, His elect were given the Scriptures. The Bible is God’s letter to His children!

Question: Is the Bible only written to the Elect? It is clearly only efficacious for the Elect!

Chapter 7 … The interpretation of scripture is primarily from the Spirit of God. To subject the scripture to interpretation of the church produces error, and
The truth of God would thus be subjected to the will of man.
For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.


Question: What role is the visible church given in biblical interpretation? Elders are admonished to speak as the oracle of God. The church is said to be the pillar and ground of the truth.

Chapter 8 … The Credibility of Scripture proven internally, from Moses, the Prophets, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. Calvin points out the harmony of both the Old Testament and New Testament both in doctrine and fulfilled prophecy. He uses external proofs by citing the church’s role in preserving the truth. He mentions the unflinching loyalty of the martyrs.

Take Home Pearl: Scripture does a fine job defending itself. It is glorious; it is majestic.

Question: Is not the transforming power in the heart of the redeemed the most compelling external proof?

Chapter 9 … Calvin expends considerable ink in refuting the claims of those in his day who reject scripture in favor of personal revelation. How appropriate for today, where we daily encounter those who claim revelation from God for some new doctrine or sect.


Chapter 10 … The scripture is in perfect harmony with God’s created revelation. Man is forced to confront the LORD. Man responds with gods of his own making. In a word, man responds with rebellion.

Take Home Pearl: God saves sinners, not rebels!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Questions for Further Reflection (Chapters 1-5)

Here are some issues that I think deserve further reflection. It is profitable to explore the implications of as well as to clarify the meaning of Calvin's words. Many more could be asked, but here are a few:
  1. What is the significance of Calvin beginning his work of systematizing the Christian faith with the doctrine of the "knowledge of God?" This is not a common starting point for systematic theologies, at least from a brief survey of ones on my shelves: Berkhof starts with the "Doctrine of God", so does Hodge; Reymond with Revelation, so does Erickson. Is there significance to the "starting point" of a theological work?
  2. Calvin demonstrates from Scripture the fact that all men are "naturally endued" with the knowledge of God. This would include, of course, atheists (who claim there is no God) and agnostics (who claim that we don't or can't know that there is a God). How do Calvin's statements concerning the unbeliever having a knowledge of God affect our approach to an unbeliever. In other words, how does this truth affect apologetics?
  3. In discussing man's knowledge of God, Calvin uses phrases like "idea of a God" (3, II), "idea of a Deity" (3, III), or "persuasion of the Divine existence" (3, III). Does Romans 1:20 teach simply that every man has a notion of a Deity? Or does Calvin use phrases like these as synonymous with knowledge of the true God? Or is there another explanation?
  4. What does Calvin mean when he uses the word "religion?"
  5. Would you ever have seen a connection between Psalm 104:2 ("He covereth himself with light as with a garment;") and creation? Calvin applies the psalmist's statement by saying "that his first appearance in visible apparel was at the creation of the world..." (5, I). Is this an appropriate use of Scripture?
  6. Given the time period in which Calvin wrote, that is, before our "scientific" understanding of astronomy, what do you think he meant by:
  7. In disquisitions concerning the motions of the stars, in fixing their situations, measuring their distances, and distinguishing their peculiar properties, there is need of skill, exactness, and industry; and the providence of God being more clearly revealed by these discoveries, the mind aught to rise to a sublimer elevation for the contemplation of his glory (5, II).

    How is the "providence of God" revealed in a study of the stars? Or, again:
    But the powers of the soul are far from being limited to functions subservient to the body. For what concern has the body in measuring the heavens, counting the number of the stars, computing their several magnitudes, and acquiring a knowledge of their respective distances, of the celerity or tardiness of their courses, and of the degrees of their various declinations (5, V)?

    What kind of knowledge do we acquire by understanding the stars' distances, speeds, or "degree of their various declinations?"

  8. Finally, by the end of Chapter 5, Calvin begins questioning how an unbeliever really "knows" God. Calvin had been demonstrating that he indeed does know God, or what he calls and idea of Divinity. But yet he moves on to point out that Paul says that the Ephesians were "without God" (2:12) and that unbelievers "became vain in their imaginations" (Rom. 1:21) (5, XIII). In what sense(s) does an unbeliever know, and in what sense(s) does he not know God?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

The psalmist goes on to give even more evidence that God's creation speaks to us. This is where Calvin starts: Our knowledge of Him, and of ourselves.

Chapter 1 brings us to basics... man's wisdom, his knowledge consists of two broad categories ... knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. Whether our knowledge of God comes from knowledge of ourselves, or the other way around, matters little, for in the end, we must conclude that any of our knowledge comes from Him, and the more we contemplate ourselves, the more we are driven to God, and the more we are in the presence of God, the more terrible He is to us.
Take Home Pearl: Him with Whom we have to do ... the Source of all knowledge, indeed the Source of our very ability to think at all!

Chapter 2 teaches us that mankind can know God as Creator, and thus worship Him. When we come to this knowledge, the pious mind thus concludes that He also upholds His creation. Calvin reminds us that had man no need of redemption, he would come to know and worship and adore God simply because of His creating and upholding all things. This would produce a desire for obedience and fear of straying from the authority which God thus exerts over His creation.
Take Home Pearl: Mankind has an innate knowledge of God and His Creation and His Goodness, and an inborn fear of transgressing His authority over His creation, however supressed and stifled it may be.

Chapter 3 Calvin refutes the claim that religion and the fear of a god is an invention of politicians to keep people in fear and subjection. He answers that there has yet to be found a group of people in the most primitive reaches of the world who do not subject themselves willingly to base objects in God's creation, to fulfill the innate need to worship diety. Though men
make themselves merry with whatever has been believed in all ages concerning religion, ... it is but a Sardonian grin; for the worm of conscience, keener than burning steel, is gnawing them within.
Take Home Pearl: Those who claim no knowledge of God are whistling in the dark!

Chapter 4 ... Most men stifle and suppress the inborn seed of religion. Calvin uses Romans 1 to show that this is more than passive ignorance, but a willful rejection of the knowledge given them. He uses the Psalmist to show that rather than denying the existence of God, men willfully create gods of their own imaginations. He claims that every man at some time is
dragged before the divine tribunal, ... and are hurried on by the blind impulse, and their prevailing state of mind in regard to him is brutish oblivion.
Calvin further then claims whenever man thinks of God it is only when dragged kicking and screaming. Motivated by fear, man hurries back to the gods of his own invention.
Take Home Pearl: Lactantius says: No religion is genuine that is not in accordance with truth.

Chapter 5... Calvin here goes in some depth to show that God's nature and essence are revealed in His creation. He uses examples from astronomy and the functioning of the human body. We shamefully fail to recognize, even when confronted with the miracle of the workings of our body, to give God the glory. Amen. (How much the more men, who today have orders of magnitude more information, rush to give naturalistic explanations of the impossibly intricate workings of human physiology!) He then uses the normal course of human events as another revelation of the knowledge of God, how that good is rewarded and evil is punished. The fact that evil is often reward and good goes unreward should point to a future time when these discrepancies will be made right. This revelation, too, is lost on mankind, attributing even the most blatant of God's interventions in man's affairs to chance and fortune. Calvin's conclusion:
For no sooner do we, from a survey of the world, obtain some slight knowledge of Deity, than we pass by the true God, and set up in His stead the dream and phontom of our own brain, drawing away the praise of justice, wisdom, and goodness from the fountain-head, and transferring it to some other quarter.

Take Home Pearl: Even though I am stamped with the image of my Creator, wild horses can't get me to admit it!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Structure of the Institutes

One final word of introduction. I always find the structure of literary works significant, especially when the author deliberately makes it that way. Calvin crafted this piece of literary art after the fashion of the Apostles' Creed, and hence, after the Trinity.

He begins with God the Father ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth..."), specifically as Creator, as Preserver, and finally as Governor of the universe. Book 2 continues with God the Son ("... and in Jesus Christ His only Son ..."), as Redeemer and as Mediator. Book 3 discusses God the Holy Spirit ("... I believe in the Holy Ghost ..."), as the bond of union between the believer and Christ. Finally, in Book 4, Calvin explores the "Holy Catholic Church," as the earthly means of applying the Gospel.

I find this beautiful. God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is perfectly complete and self-sufficient in Himself. I might say that in a sense, Books 1-3 would form a complete, glorious, awe-inspiring unit, and the story could end there. God enjoyed unceasing, intimate, self-sacrificing fellowship in Himself. He has no need of anything or anyone outside Himself. Yet, in his perfect providence God wrote Book 4. He chose His Church to welcome into the very fellowship of the Trinity, which has existed from all eternity. We must thank God for Books 1-3, for revealing Himself to us. But, praise to His wonderful name for Book 4, for including us in His story!

But wait a minute! Calvin's "General Syllabus" talks plenty about man and redemption and salvation in Books 1-3. What's the big deal about the Church? I don't want to belabor the point right now. This is only the introduction. But I think we are going to see that without Book 4 we would be left with a very individualistic salvation. We would get the impression that the "church" was just a disparate collection of a bunch of individuals. We would get the impression that we could talk about soteriology without talking about ecclesiology. Calvin calls the activities of the Church ("the preaching of the Gospel and the use of the sacraments, with the administration of all discipline") means of bestowing faith. Thus, there is a gloriousness in the institution of the Church, and the story that it tells to the world. This, I think, is why Book 4 exists and what it is about.

Monday, July 14, 2008

John Allen's translation of the Institutes

Several years ago, before I owned a copy of Calvin's Institutes, I heard a Reformed preacher highly commend John Allen's translation of the work. Shortly thereafter I ran across a beautiful two-volume copy of that same work. So I bought it for $25. To my shame, I haven't cracked it open until now.

Beginning this 1936 edition is a 56-page literary history of Calvin's Institutes written by B. B. Warfield. Sound boring? Actually, it is kind of, but I'm glad I read it. It recounts all the editions and publications of the work in all the languages in which it was translated until 1909, when Warfield wrote the introduction. (The 1909 edition was a Memorial Edition in commemoration of Calvin's 400th birthday.) My edition also includes a brief account of the American editions of the work as an introduction of this 1936 edition, written by one Thomas C. Pears, Jr. Incidentally, my edition (the seventh American edition) "is a complete new revised edition of the Institutes, of which one thousand copies have been printed in this year, which marks the four hundredth anniversary of the first edition published at Basle in the year 1536." It almost makes me tremble to use it!

About the translation itself. Before 1909, when Warfield wrote his introduction, the Institutes had been translated in English three times, by Thomas Norton in 1561, by John Allen in 1813, and by Henry Beveridge in 1845. John Allen was a layman, the headmaster of a private school in Hackney, near London. Concerning his translation technique, Allen states in the Translator's Preface:
Among the different methods of translation which have been recommended, he [the translator] has adopted that which appeared to him best fitted to the present undertaking. A servile adherence to the letter of the original, the style of which is so very remote from the English idiom, he thought would convey a very inadequate representation of the work, such extreme fidelity... being seldom successful, even in a faithful transmission of the precise sentiments of the author to the mind of the reader. A mere attention to the ideas and sentiments of the original, to the neglect of its style and manner, would expose the Translator of a treatise of this nature to no small danger of misrepresenting the meaning of the Author, by too frequent and unnecessary deviations from his language. He has, therefore, aimed at a medium between servility and looseness, and endeavoured to follow the style of the original as far as the respective idioms of the Latin and English would admit.

Warfield apparently deems him successful in his endeavor for he says, "The translation is certainly so far successful that it conveys with plain directness the meaning of the original author, and so far, at least as we have observed, never either misses it or obscures it."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Thoughts on the King of France in 1536

John Calvin urges then King of France, Francis, to read his Institutes, which had evidently already gained some noteriety, and more to the point of his letter, a storm of opposition from the hierarchy of the Church of Rome. He summarizes their opposition in 7 points and gives answer to each:
1. Calvin's Institutes teach new, untested doctrine. He simply responds that indeed it is new to his adversaries, but is as old as the Gospel itself.
2. The doctrine is doubtful and uncertain. Calvin responds that his adversaries would likely not seal their doctrine with their own blood, but he would be willing to die and face the judgement seat of Christ for what he is expounding.
3. The teachings have not been confirmed by miracles. Calvin responds that the doctrine has been confirmed by Christ's own miracles and those of the apostles. He then exposes the claim of his adversaries that the teachings of the church have through the ages been constantly confirmed by miracles. He makes a plea to first examine the doctrine in the light of scripture, a recurring theme in his defence to King Francis.
4. Calvin's doctrines are opposed to the early church Fathers. He responds by quoting father after father condemning many of the practices which were common in the church of Rome at the time of his writing, such as the love of the priesthood for golden chalises and other showy luxury in the church, the practice of monks living off the charity of others, the extensive use of painted images and sculputre to represent Christ and the saints, and the doctrine of transubstantiation, and others including the celebacy of the priesthood. He strikes an overriding chord when he quotes another Father: the Church ought not to prefer herself to Christ, who always judges truly, whereas ecclesiastical judges, who are but men, are generally deceived.
5. He is accused of going against custom. Calvin responds with a touchstone of the Reformation, that this is the root of the problem. The truth of the simple Gospel in the scriptures has been obscured by centuries of church custom. But be it so that public error must have a place in human society, still, in the kingdom of God, we must look and listen only to his eternal truth, against which no series of years, no custom, no conspiracy, can plead prescription.
6. His adversaries complain that these doctrines mean that the Church has been in error for centuries. Calvin responds by making a clear defence of what is commonly referred to today as the Church Invisible as opposed to the Church Visible. The visible church in his day bore little resemblance to the simple Body of Christ, and he spends several paragraphs in scathing denouncement of the vain pomp of the visible church of his time.
7. His doctrines are accused of causing civil disturbance. Calvin simply claims: "It is one of the characteristics of the divine word, that whenever it appears, Satan ceases to slumber and sleep."
Calvin ends his defence by beseaching the king to read the Institutes for himself, and test the doctrines. I don't know my history well, but it appears that this plea fell on deaf ears.

My edition contains Calvin's preface to the second edition where after expressing almost surpise at the widespread success of the work, made the bold statement that the Institutes could be used as a tool by which to study the scriptures, for the new student of the word, a guide by the learned for the unlearned. At first this sounds a bit pompous, but after reflection, was indeed most needed in Calvin's day.
There follows a preface to the French edition, translated by the author himself. He here gives God glory for the work: acknowledging it to be God's work rather than mine.
Finally, there is a preface to the final edition of 1559, where he commends the work for students preparing for the ministry. He is increasingly humbled at the increasingly favorable reception this work received. This reception pales indeed to the influence this monument to God's Holy Word has had in the ensuing 400 years!

Take Home Pearl: Let God be true and every man a liar. Search the scriptures to see if those things were so. God's word, not man's word is the yardstick by which we measure all claims to truth.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reading Schedule for Calvin's Institutes

We have decided to read about 30 pages per week. The admitted brevity has several reasons. First, both Dad and I admit to having rather short attention spans when it comes to non-fiction, especially that which requires a lot of concentration. Second, recognizing the importance of Calvin's Institutes, we want to make sure we don't breeze through any portion of it; but, rather, we want to understand and absorb as much as possible. Finally, we want to enjoy this exercise and keep it from being burdensome and taxing on our time schedules.

So here is a tentative schedule for reading:
  • Week 1 (by 7/14): Dedication to Francis, "King of the French" and General Syllabus
  • Week 2 (by 7/21, and so on): Book 1, Chapters 1-5
  • Week 3: Book 1, Chapters 6-10
  • Week 4: Book 1, Chapters 11-12
  • Week 5: Book 1, Chapter 13
  • Week 6: Book 1, Chapter 14
  • Week 7: Book 1, Chapters 15-16
  • Week 8: Book 1, Chapters 17-18
  • Week 9: Book 2, Chapters 1-2
  • Week 10: Book 2, Chapters 3-4
  • Week 11: Book 2, Chapters 5-6
  • Week 12: Book 2, Chapter 7
  • Week 13: Book 2, Chapter 8
  • Week 14: Book 2, Chapters 9-10
  • Week 15: Book 2, Chapters 11-12
  • Week 16: Book 2, Chapters 13-15
  • Week 17: Book 2, Chapters 16-17
  • Week 18: Book 3, Chapters 1-2
  • Week 19: Book 3, Chapter 3
  • Week 20: Book 3, Chapter 4
  • Week 21: Book 3, Chapters 5-7
  • Week 22: Book 3, Chapters 8-10
  • Week 23: Book 3, Chapter 11
  • Week 24: Book 3, Chapters 12-14
  • Week 25: Book 3, Chapters 15-17
  • Week 26: Book 3, Chapters 18-19
  • Week 27: Book 3, Chapter 20
  • Week 28: Book 3, Chapters 21-22
  • Week 29: Book 3, Chapters 23-25
  • Week 30: Book 4, Chapter 1
  • Week 31: Book 4, Chapters 2-3
  • Week 32: Book 4, Chapters 4-5
  • Week 33: Book 4, Chapters 6-7
  • Week 34: Book 4, Chapters 8-9
  • Week 35: Book 4, Chapter 10
  • Week 36: Book 4, Chapters 11-12
  • Week 37: Book 4, Chapters 13-14
  • Week 38: Book 4, Chapters 15-16
  • Week 39: Book 4, Chapter 17
  • Week 40: Book 4, Chapters 18-19
  • Week 41: Book 4, Chapter 20

Welcome to Blue Dog Reader

Welcome to Blue Dog Reader!

A few weeks ago, my dad and I decided to read Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion together; and we need a venue for interaction with the work and with each other. When talking on the phone, thoughts can be expressed so poorly. Not infrequently do I hang up from a phone conversation with thoughts like: "I wish I had expressed that differently." or "Shoot! I forgot to bring up such-and-such." or "I hope he didn't take that the wrong way." In writing, one has time to chew on and to ruminate thoughts. Rather than spewing forth thoughts as we get the urge, this blog is intended to force both of us to be precise, careful, charitable, and direct.

Not that the medium of blog guarantees immunity from misunderstanding or imprecision. And that's why we have the wonderful comments section. The beautiful thing about a blog is that intelligent conversations can be had in a restrained and reasoned fashion, especially for those of us who don't think well on our feet or who need time to think about wording thoughts properly.

My desire is that through reading provoking literature, everyone involved will grow in grace and in knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Getting truth into our heads is the first step. Allowing the truth to shape our lives is an essential step that must take place for this exercise to be worthwhile. I trust that this blog will be a means of moving us from grace to grace. Perhaps after finishing Calvin's Institutes we will move on to more.

So here it is. A few more introductory posts will be forthcoming. Enjoy, and by all means, join the conversation!