Calvin the Calvinist

December 9th, 2013

As might be expected from anyone who deals with the text being preached, in speaking of Ephesians 1:3,4 John Calvin devotes a good deal of time to the doctrine of election. In the second of 48 sermons on the book of Ephesians Calvin is concerned to magnify God and give assurance of our salvation (Calvin, John, Sermons on Ephesians, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, p.26), and explains at length that it is necessary for the doctrine to be known and proclaimed (pp.25,26).

Calvin begins by highlighting the exclusivity of saving grace, as a way to emphasize its greatness (pp.22-24,26-28). While it is clear from the second of his sermons on Galatians that he believes in a general love of God for man as such, it is also clear that he understands that there is a grace confined to those who hear the gospel (pp.26,27), and in addition to that, a grace (a “double grace,” p.27) confined to the elect (pp.23,27). Calvin does not want anyone to surmise “that God’s grace is common to all men and that he offers and presents it to all men without exception” (p.22). He has some remarkably forceful words in this connection on page 27:

If this was done commonly and to all men without distinction, we should still have reason to magnify God. But now, when we see that some are hardened and others fickle, and that some go their ways without receiving any profit from what they have heard, and that others are altogether stupid, it is certain that it makes God’s grace more apparent to us, even as it is said by St. Luke that, at St. Paul’s preaching, as many believed as were ordained to salvation.

According to Calvin, God’s grace is made more apparent to us precisely because it is not indiscriminate. The fact that elect find mercy and the rest are hardened does not disparage, but rather magnifies God’s grace.

Election is demonstrated to arise from God’s free love and sovereign will (pp.26,30), and the notion that it is based on foreseen merits is exploded because it is from before the foundation of the world (pp.31,32) and that is in Jesus Christ (pp. 32,33). If anything needed to be added to the demonstration, the simple remark “all goodness comes from his election” (p.34) would suffice. Throughout the sermon Calvin has repeatedly emphasized the reality of human sinfulness, nowhere more vividly than in the hypothetical scenario he raises when explaining that God could not foresee what could never be (pp.31,32):

But how could he foresee that which could not be? For we know that all Adam’s offspring is corrupted, and that we do not have the skill to think one good thought of doing well, and much less therefore are we able to commence to do good. Although God should wait a hundred thousand years for us, if we could remain so long in the world, yet it is certain that we should never come to him nor do anything else but increase the mischief continually to our own condemnation. In short, the longer men live in the world, the deeper they plunge themselves into their damnation. And therefore God could not foresee what was not in us before he himself put it into us.

It is abundantly clear from just the one sermon that Calvin believes in total depravity, unconditional election, and at least the presupposition of limited atonement – exclusive grace. He is undoubtedly a person of much greater genius than many who have been given the label formed from his name; but the Canons of the Synod of Dordt are manifestly not contrary to the overall tenor of Calvin’s reading of Scripture.

Respect of persons is wrong in the context of justice, with regard to judgement (Proverbs 24:23). When it comes to matters of justice, right and wrong, crime and punishment, the persons, the individual characteristics of the litigants are irrelevant. When a murderer is brought to trial it doesn’t (that is to say, in justice it doesn’t) make any difference whether that murderer is rich or poor, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, Korean or Icelandic, male or female, Christian or Muslim, likeable or aggravating, Deuteronomy 1:17. It’s not a situation where the rich, powerful, famous or popular can escape; nor is it proper that the poor, weak or unpopular should be favored, Exodus 23:1-3; Leviticus 19:15: Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s not a beauty pageant; it’s not a quiz show; it’s a courtroom, and all that matters is guilt or innocence. Wrong is wrong, no matter who commits it.
It’s interesting that the Bible makes such clear prohibitions against favouring the poor: outside of Israel, that doesn’t seem to have ever been a temptation. Roman law, for instance, did not allow poor people to sue the rich, although the rich could sue the poor. While sympathy cannot be allowed to override right, it is very intriguing that it was only within the context of those whose lives were in some way affected by God’s grace that it would seem to be something that needs to be warned against. We see in our day that this prohibition against favouritism towards the poor needs to be trumpeted again: one of the most successful ploys you can use to get special treatment for yourself is to play the victim card. If you are a victim, the feeling seems to go, it can’t be right to punish you for anything, no matter what you’ve done. The French anthropologist René Girard has pointed out that this is a radical change from the way society used to be. In ancient times, the community would vent its wrath upon a scapegoat of some kind: a victim would be sacrificed in one way or another, and peace would be restored. But since Christ has come and the story of His unjust condemnation and subsequent resurrection from the dead (a clear vindication of His righteousness as over against the officials who condemned Him), that’s all changed. Before the victim was assumed to be unrighteous, and that wasn’t a point of dispute; now, we assume that the victim is right, and the officials are wrong. The Bible gives us a more balanced position: it upholds the absolute righteousness of everything God, the ultimate authority, does; and it shows us that human “justice” is often simply cruelty according to parliamentary procedure. But it is remarkably helpful for our understanding of the ancient and modern worlds to realize that the events of Christ’s life have had such a powerful sociological impact.

The Ontological Gulf

November 15th, 2009

The Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism and Larger Catechism) are the home of a theology as profound as it is clear and precise. This may seem confusing to some, who think that if you can speak with plain forthrightness the matter must be simple, that if something is expressible it is consequently jejune. The ineffable does not lose its quality of mystery when we state with comprehensible precision everything that can be said about it. For though vagueness and mist are sometimes confused for depth, the real marvels can be set out plainly in the full light of day and still boggle the mind.

One area where this profundity is evident is in the doctrine of the covenants. WCF VII,1 says:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

The ontological gulf, the distance between God and man with regard to being, was bridged not by man ascending a ladder to God, not by a series of emanations, and not by the Incarnation of Christ. The ontological gulf between God and man was bridged by God’s voluntary condescension – by the covenant of works. When man fell into sin, and rendered himself uncapable of life by that covenant (VII,3), there was a new gulf. To the distance of being between God and man, there was added a moral distance. The covenant of grace, the appointment of Christ as Mediator with all that entailed, including the Incarnation, was the bridge of that moral gulf, so that God could again dwell in and among His people. The Incarnation was never meant to bridge the ontological gulf between God and man. Thus the Confession goes on to assert (VIII,2):
“…two whole, perfect and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion.”
The Incarnation does not render us ontologically capable of union with God, or of the knowledge of God. There is never any possibility of some hybrid of deity and humanity: the natures cannot be blended: the ontological distance never disappears, though God accommodate Himself to us. The One who dwells in inaccessible light must still approach us: if we are to know Him at all He must condescend to our low estate, to our near approach to non-being, to our paltry ontological status. But the Incarnation, as part of what was required for the Son to be Mediator between God and man, bridges the moral gulf – the distance between our wickedness and God’s holiness, so that our vileness is no longer an obstacle to God’s purpose of condescension.
That means, of course, that the covenant of grace is superior to the covenant of works: in the latter, God kindly overcame a natural distance to make Himself known to us; but in the former, God graciously overcomes not only a natural but a moral distance to make Himself known to us as not only our Sovereign Lord but as also our Loving Redeemer.
That means also that salvation should not be conceived of in ontological categories. This would be sufficiently evidenced by God’s pronouncement of His whole creation, including man, to be very good. We don’t need deliverance from a condition of exceeding goodness. It is also manifest in the Incarnation itself. If being human were intrinsically wrong or evil, the Son of God could never have taken into personal union with Himself a complete human nature. Christ came, not to deliver us from the condition of humanity, but from humanity’s accidental (in the sense of not proper to its essence) bondage to sin and consequently the devil and death.
And together all of that means that the attempt to find some natural ground in God that required the Incarnation, to insist with some absurd speculators that Christ would have become incarnate even had the Fall never happened, is ultimately profane.
To begin with, it means prying into what has not been revealed, and in so doing that speculation reveals a lack of proper humility before God (Psalm 131).
This notion fails, secondly, in that it does not recognise God’s providence over all, which requires us to believe that the Fall was included in God’s decree, and though contingent as to Adam, infallibly certain as to God.[1]
It fails too because it seeks for something higher than the will of God, for a cause of God’s will. It looks for a necessity planted in the divine nature, so that the Incarnation is not a free determination of God’s will to deal with the problem of sin, but an inevitable expression of some thing essential in God. This is a fundamental mistake, since there is nothing higher than the will of God, and for His will no cause may be assigned.[2]
In addition to the preceding points, which demonstrate that such speculations minimise God’s sovereignty and the perfection of His decree, it should be said, as sufficient for simple souls, that believing Christ would have become incarnate without sin also falsifies the Scriptural representations that Christ came into the world to save sinners (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:15, 1 John 4:9,10). This wasn’t a super-added purpose, an additional benefit to proceeding with something that was already going to take place. This was the reason that the Son was united to a human nature, and took upon Himself our curse and our subjection to the law.
And the ultimate effect is to minimise and dishonour the grace of God. It diminishes God’s grace to argue that the Incarnation was not done graciously, freely, but because of an intrinsic compulsion: obscuring that this act of condescension is voluntary robs God of the praise due to Him for it. It dishonours the grace of God by failing to recognise that it was on account of sin that this staggering act of condescension was undertaken; it was not man as man, in his condition of humanity, but man as sinful -vile, rebellious, hateful- upon whom God had mercy in sending His Son to be born of a woman.

[1] For more on this point, B.B. Warfield’s article “The Principle of the Incarnation” in Selected Shorter Writings, v.1 is a good beginning point.
[2] For more on this point consult Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 19, Articles 4 & 5 and Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Topic 3, Question 17.

Scripture sometimes describes God in terms appropriate to humans physically, which is anthropomorphism (Deuteronomy 5:15) or mentally, which is anthropopathism (Judges 10:16). Such passages are usually interpreted figuratively, as describing God in terms that belong to humanity: thus God’s power can be described as His outstretched arm, and renewed activity on behalf of His people can be described as Him remembering (Genesis 8:1). (I should also point out for the sake of clarity that this use of anthropomorphism takes it as a particular kind of metaphor: the word is sometimes used in different ways as well.)

Why not just take them literally? Is it just that it offends our sensibilities to think of God forgetting? The rationale for seeing this figure in the Bible is that Scripture itself forces us to adopt this procedure. Consider the following verses:

Psalm 78:65

Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.

Psalm 121:4

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Here we have awaking from sleep and not sleeping both predicated of God. They can’t both be true, at the same time, and in the same way: that would be contradictory. So we interpret God waking up as being a description of a change in His actions, similar to the change in actions of a man who wakes up, while understanding that God never sleeps.

Why not the other way around? Because only one way makes sense: if we take the descriptions of God as sleeping, forgetting, etc., as figurative, we can understand the statements which say that He does none of them; but if we turn it around, we can make sense of neither. Negating a figure doesn’t actually convey any information at all: however, when a positive comparison is made between some aspect of man and God it makes sense to qualify that comparison by denying the imperfection in the analogy. This causes us to raise our mind above unworthy conceptions of God, while retaining the positive data from the figure. And so we can see that God’s actions changed, while not thinking that He actually fell asleep.

This is also what we must do in the times when repentance is attributed to God, since it is also denied that God repents (Genesis 6:5-7; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:10,11,28,29,35). We can see that His treatment of men changes, while there is no change in His will.

The logical next step is to extend the principle. So when we see that things of a certain kind are attributed to God only in a figurative way (because those things are also said not to belong to God, which can’t be figurative), the result is that we understand that all the things in that category are attributed to God only figuratively. Scripture itself has led us to conclude that God isn’t grieved as we understand grief, but that His procedure changes in much the same way as ours does when we are grieved.

Where Did They Get It?

September 8th, 2007

It is not pure antiquarian interest that inspires the ongoing interest in the theology of the Reformers and the Puritans. If it were antiquarian interest, I suppose, The Boke of Margery Kempe, or Albertus Magnus’ (or Cotton Mather’s) writings on the properties of minerals would be read quite as much now as any other document from balmier times.

No, the ongoing interest in the Reformers and Puritans is too wide to be chalked up to antiquarian interest. Of course, between agenda-driven reading (“Oecolampadius anticipated my favorite theologian”), a desire to be in the inner circle, and a sense of obligation, we may have exhausted the sources of this interest. But I would like to think that people recognize the persistent value in the older theologians. When one turns from the often insipid or superficial modern treatments of a given question to a Reformer or a Puritan, it is to meet again the fact that theology is stimulating, profound, precise and an ocean which easily overcomes our feeble thrashings. We are on firm ground against even the most violent waves in the wading pool: but already the surf at the edge of the beach is too much for us, and we cannot remain unmoved in the face of that invincible pull.

So we wonder, how did they get that way? How do the perenially great theologians come to that grasp and enjoyment of their doctrines which stuns and overwhelms us?

While I most certainly cannot speak as an expert, I believe I can hazard a tentative guess, in the illustrative example of Calvin.

The easy answer, which is perfectly true, is that the Holy Spirit taught him. But he was taught by means.

As you read Calvin, something that stands out is his grasp on the church fathers. Time and again he can summon testimony after testimony from Augustine, can put perverted citations in their true context and restore their intended force, or can adduce an explicative parallel from another work. It is obvious that Calvin has not merely read, he has digested, the teaching of certain great predecessors in the theological realm. The Holy Spirit has taught him; but the Holy Spirit has taught him in part by having taught others first.

What is true of Calvin’s grasp of certain fathers, can be stated with more force with regard to his grasp of Scripture. It is a book with which he is intimately familiar, as demonstrated not solely by the Institutes, but also by his sermons and commentaries. To take just one example, in commenting on Psalm 48:2 he has no trouble comparing Isaiah 14:13 –on the basis of the word “north”. The Holy Spirit has taught Calvin by a minute acquaintance with the letter of sacred Scripture.

There is yet another element. Apart from the citations of Scripture or the church fathers, you find in the pages of Calvin a host of rather despective references: Osiander, Servetus, Abelard, the Schoolmen, to mention only some, come in for what is often amusingly scathing reproof. He knows their opinions, he knows their arguments, and he thoroughly takes them apart. The Holy Spirit taught Calvin –but he taught him through the instrument of analyzing and opposing error.

Scripture: sound theologians; errorists. These were the instruments the Holy Spirit employed. By embracing and assimilating and rejecting these, Calvin came to the stature of a perenially great theologian: a teacher of the church for all times since his own.

And this we can apply to ourselves: not in the almost certainly vain dream that we will become the Calvins of our own time; but in the hope of extending our grasp on God’s truth –or of more perfectly submitting to its grasp on us. There is no replacement for Scripture: for personal, detailed engagement with the Biblical text in the measure that we are capable of. This is, after all, the principium cognoscendi externum of our theology. Yet we are by no means the only people doing this: and it is to be fervently hoped that we are not so foolish as to conceive that we are the only ones with the Holy Spirit. And so the great teachers are to be respectfully and honestly listened to: not for absolute unanimity with them—Calvin can baldly disagree with Chrysostom or Augustine when necessary: and note that he prefers to express disagreement than to attempt to foist his views upon them—but for the benefit of consecrated intellect led by God along the same path we endeavour to pursue. So that it is not so much breadth of reading, the number of differing names we can add to our lists of conquered books, but depth of understanding, the degree to which we have justly appreciated the writer’s statements and assumptions, which is the great desideratum. Reading should not be narrow; but nor should it be so wide that it is necessarily shallow. And then there is controversy. Rev. Matthew Winzer has noted that the profoundest theology is often found in polemical works. In arraigning the subtleties of error, the nuances of truth must be drawn out. In defending the citadel from enemy hordes, we become more intimately familiar the intricacies of its walls than from many leisured walks to admire the sunset from its battlements: for we have studied how their footholds can be turned against them and have a detailed knowledge of each contour. And yet not all are called upon to be direct defenders throwing down the scaling ladders and repulsing the grappling hooks: the wall is also familiar to those who build, those who maintain, those who adorn; but it is never well known to those who merely take it for granted.

An Old Thing Reintroduced

July 4th, 2007

On objectivity and subjectivity in discourse:

Copi & Cohen, Introduction to Logic, 8th Edition, p.88

If our aim is to communicate information, and if we wish to avoid being misunderstood, we should use language with the least possible emotive impact. In science, for example, where an earlier tradition used such terms as ‘noble’ and ‘base’ to characterize metals like gold and iron, we have learned that progress is supported by the cultivation of a set of emotively neutral terms, and this has been done systematically in the physical sciences. (p.88)

This is naive as to language and as to science. Their naiveté is illustrated by the citation they have previous to the quoted section from William James, also on p.88:

William James, in his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism,” defended his “wish to get rid of the word ‘freedom’ on the grounds that “its eulogistic associations have…overshadowed all the rest of its meaning.” He rightly preferred to discuss the issue using the words “determinism” and “indeterminism” because, he said, “their cold and mathematical sound has no sentimental associations that can bribe our partiality either way in advance.” We should do well to follow James’ example.

This is naive simply in a textual way. They fail to notice that ‘cold’, ‘mathematical’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘bribe’ are all words with a specific emotional charge. At the very time that James is explaining why he did not do something, he is doing that thing. In my own context, “cold and mathematical” have the connotation of clinical; it is an appeal, then, to the image of the man of science, the man of logic and reason who has cross-checked his data and lined up his control group. This is a very effective appeal in a day where scientists are regarded with the sort of superstitious awe once reserved for priests and medicine men.

Then again, it is naive psychologically. No doubt coining a new word, or varying an old one may leave it temporarily with less intense emotional data; no doubt use in quotidian contexts will make a word very limited in the emotional response it may generate. But even the lack of emotional content is an emotional content; words will have their emotional impact, even if it be a deadening of emotional sensations.

It is also naive philosophically: freedom is a eulogistic word, no doubt; but then freedom is a glorious thing. It is not speaking or thinking more accurately to speak without glory, without light and color and thunder, without words that beat drums and blow trumpets and sing spells. Again, to be sure, words can be glozing; but the problem is not the words, the problem is the speaker.

On p.89 they quote a paragraph from Allan Bloom’s, “Liberty, Equality, Sexuality”, and then render his rhetorical style into a journalistic style.


We are presented with the amusing spectacle of pornography, clad in armor borrowed from the heroic struggles for freedom of speech, and using Miltonic rhetoric, doing battle with feminism, newly draped in the robes of community morality, using arguments associated with conservatives who defend traditional sex roles…. In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot.

Copi and Cohen’s translation, or to use an emotively non-neutral word, castration:

The right to publish sexually explicit books and films has been supported by those using the traditional arguments in defense of free speech, while it has been attacked by feminists who have, for this purpose, adopted a more conservative position associated with traditional morality. Many liberals are troubled by their inability to decide which side in this conflict they will join.

There is a problem here, in that less information is presented: the author’s standpoint is less clear. And certainly the whole scene is very much less vivid in the castrated version. Still, no doubt that is part of what they hoped for: but they fail to accomplish neutrality, and indeed all such attempts must fail: “traditional morality” is a loaded phrase, “free speech” is a loaded phrase, “liberal” and “conservative” are loaded words. Now of course some words are more loaded than others. Some words have an immediate emotional connotation, one that is on the surface of the word, as it were; other words require to be focused on in order for our minds to begin to echo the emotional timbre that they have. Therefore, if one is writing something that is to be read quickly, and is aiming for precision, using something along the lines of what they characterize as emotionally neutral language is not a bad idea; but it is more accurate to think of it in terms of emotional mildness than in terms of emotional neutrality. It is more honest of the author if he does not invoke the myth of objectivity in order to prejudice the discussion in his favor, if he does not use language that gives an appearance of neutrality and thus leads the gullible to accord him more authority. In this connection the remarks of Roland Barthes in The Rustle of Language seems appropriate:

Every speech-act supposes its own subject, whether this subject expresses himself in an apparently direct fashion, by saying I, or indirect, by designating himself as he, or in no fashion at all, by resorting to impersonal terms of speech; what is in question here are purely grammatical stratagems, simply varying how the subjects constitutes himself in discourse, i.e., gives himself, theatrically or fantasmatically, to others; hence they all designate forms of the image-repertoire. Of these forms, the most specious is the privative form, precisely the one usually employed in scientific discourse, from which the scholar excludes himself in a concern for objectivity; yet what is excluded is never anything but the “person” (psychological, emotional, biographical), not the subject: moreover, this subject is filled, so to speak, with the very exclusion it so particularly imposes upon its person, so that objectivity, on the level of discourse—an inevitable level, we must not forget—is an image-repertoire like any other. In truth, only an integral formalization of scientific discourse (that of the human sciences, of course, for in the case of the other sciences this has already been largely achieved) could spare science the risks of the image-repertoire—unless, of course, it consents to employ this image-repertoire with full knowledge, a knowledge which can be achieved only in writing: only writing has occasion to dispel the bad faith attached to every language unaware of its own existence.

Here once again Christianity has the solution to the problem. God’s revelation addresses these issues, and points us to the solution: two related and specifically Christian virtues.

It is not objectivity but humility that we desire in discourse. Fairness, or rather justice, is not to be had along the lines of a pretended and impossible neutrality; justice to any worthy subject is impossible as well to indifference, which may sound like neutrality. It is not by such futile shifts, such glozing pretenses, such naive self-trust or such unconcern for things discussed that we will refrain from misleading readers. Honesty in the form of the narrative; justice in discourse; are to be had only in the way of Christianity, that is, the way of charity and honesty.

Singing Requires Thought

June 28th, 2007

It would appear that at least large parts of the church have forgotten this important truth. In hymnals that contain a great wealth of doctrinal treasure, reverent settings of the Psalms, the feelings of a truly spiritual devotion one can also come across meaningless excrescences of perhaps a fervent, but certainly an unintelligent piety. Sometimes we are asked to sing to God things which if they were intended must be lies: or we asked to parrot as our own the testimony of some particular individual. These are not trifles: they are things we cannot away with. When the bride of Christ comes to adore Him, shall she bring lies, trivialities and nonsense into His presence? Nothing we do comes up to the full measure of what God deserves; but this is no excuse for outright blasphemy, disrespect or blithering. On this point I can call additional witnesses:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.20.33

The principle we must always hold is, that in all prayer, public and private, the tongue without the mind must be displeasing to God. [In context, this includes singing –RZ]

And again, this time with two inspired witnesses and one further uninspired witness incorporated:

Albert Barnes, Notes on Amos 5:23

Take thou away from Me. Literally, “from upon Me,” that is, from being a burden to Me, a weight on Me. So God says by Isaiah, “your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth; they are a burden upon Me; I am weary to bear them” (Isaiah 1:14). Their “songs” and hymns were but a confused, tumultuous, “noise,” since they had not the harmony of love.

For (And) the melody of thy viols I will not hear. Yet the “nebel,” probably a sort of harp, was almost exclusively consecrated to the service of God, and the Psalms were God’s own writing. Doubtless they sounded harmoniously in their own ears; but it reached no further. Their melody, like much Church-music, was for itself, and ended in itself. (Lap.):

Let Christian chanters learn hence, not to set the whole devotion of Psalmody in a good voice, subtlety of modulation and rapid intonation, etc., quavering like birds, to tickle the ears of the curious, take them off to themselves and away from prayer, lest they hear from God, ‘I will not hear the melody of thy viols.’ Let them learn that of the Apostle, ‘I will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also’ (1 Corinthians 14:15).

It seems an inevitable deduction to me, that if we are to love God with our minds, we are to worship Him with them as well: and that means we must worship Him with truth, with the great facts and connections and meanings that He has revealed: and with honesty, with things we really mean and can positively affirm. And that means that we can’t turn either our brains or our discernment off, just because we opened our denominationally approved hymnal.

At this point in my studies I have the uneasy sensation that I have read more generalizations about the Puritans, than Puritans themselves. I suppose I have one distinction, in that I have read Cotton Mather’s book on natural philosophy. I also have the disagreeable feeling that perhaps my condition is rather more common than it should be: that too many of us have read more secondary literature than we have bothered to read source material. And this is a problem, because even good secondary literature (which can easily be a very small proportion of the secondary literature available) is rarely as good as the source –perhaps the most frequent type of occurrence comes in situations where something like Dryden’s Absalom and Achithophel provides the occasion for Dr. Johnson’s criticism of it in his Life of Dryden; that is to say, in cases where the criticism is rather more felicitous than the work criticized.

In order to this inquiry, however, I am afraid that I must base myself upon a generalization, in this case from J.I Packer’s article “The Puritans as Interpreters of Scripture”, to be found in Puritan Papers, volume 1, 1956-1959, pp.191-201.

Packer summarizes the Puritan approach by listing two presuppositions, and six rules.

The first presupposition is that the Bible is the word of God, with the several implications of that position. The second is that Scripture teaches us what to believe about God, and what God demands that we do (at this point Packer quotes WSC Q&A3).

Now follow six rules, in a series of couplets:

1. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically (where he quotes the fine line from Durham “there is a great difference between an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and an interpretation of allegorical Scripture”).

2. Interpret Scripture consistently and harmonistically. Under this heading Packer gives a worthy quotation from Bridge:

You know how it was with Moses, when he saw two men fighting, one an Egyptian, and another an Israelite, he killed the Egyptian; but when he saw two Hebrews fighting, now, saith he, I will go and reconcile them, for they are brethren; why so, but because he was a good man, and gracious? So also it is with a gracious heart; when he sees the Scripture fighting with an Egyptian, an heathen author, or apocryphal, he comes and kills the heathen … the Egyptian, or the apocrypha; but when he sees two Scriptures at variance (in view, though in truth not), Oh, saith he, these are brethren, and they may be reconciled, I will labour all I can to reconcile them; but when a man shall take every advantage of seeming difference in Scripture, to say, Do ye see what contradictions there are in this book, and not labour to reconcile them; what doth this argue but that the corruption of a man’s nature is boiled up to an unknown malice against the word of the Lord; take heed therefore of that.

3. Interpret Scripture doctrinally and theocentrically. Scripture is didactic: and one of the fundamental thing it teaches is that God, and not we, are ultimate.

4. Interpret Scripture Christologically and evangelically. Here Packer gives Isaac Ambrose’s 8-point list of how Scripture is about Christ, which mentions types, covenant, promises, sacraments, genealogies, chronologies, law and gospel.

5. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically. Scripture speaks to our experience and to our doing. [While on this subject, it should be noted that although it is possible to elevate this particular couplet (or part of it) above all other elements of Scripture, that we must not over-react and despise it: when all is said and done, would you draw your ideas of experience and duty from any other source? -RZ]

6. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application. In preaching the relevance of Scripture must be demonstrated and used.

And to bring these elements into the realm of one’s own Bible study, Packer lists these six questions:

1. What do these words actually mean?

2. What light do other Scriptures throw in this text? Where and how does it fit into the total Biblical revelation?

3. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?

5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?

6. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

Now my own opinion is that those 6 couplets are pretty good, although 5 and 6 do seem to overlap to some extent. But it does seem necessary to add yet one more:

7. Interpret Scripture covenantally and eschatologically. I suppose there can be little doubt that with the first adverb in that couplet the Puritans would whole-heartedly agree: think of the massive quantities of treatises devoted precisely to the theme of the covenant of grace. As for the second, I am not so sure of the Puritan response. But I think that when you ask, “How is this part of Scripture contributory to the plan of God to manifest His sons and redeem creation?” — I say, when that question is raised, the answer necessarily involves the covenant, and at least begins to tell you what stage of the process that text is in. Which brings it back of course, to the point of interpreting Scripture consistently and harmonistically: of interpreting Scripture as a whole.

God has made a covenant, with a definite end in view: in order to understand His revelation, it is certainly at least desirable to keep this in mind. And so Packer’s summary of the Puritan hermeneutic may well function to aid us toward the better understanding of Scripture; but I think we are well served to add the final couplet, if not to our account of the Puritan hermeneutic itself, at least to our adaptation of it for our own use.

Protestantism and Elitism

June 17th, 2007

I have just started reading an interesting book called Protestantism in Guatemala by Virginia Garrard-Burnett. Protestantism has a long history in Guatemala, by this account, with the Inquisition actually having done some 21 Protestants to death (of course, two of these, at least, were suspected of piracy; but the fact that they were charged as Protestants gives rise to some intriguing reflections on the relative severity of these crimes). However, modern missionary involvement in Guatemala actually came about when the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, in 1882 asked the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to send him a missionary. The man who was sent was John Clark Hill, originally headed for China, and it seems to have been something of a disaster.

The invitation from President Barrios automatically put Hill into an elite class: indeed, one of the reasons given for his less-than-successful speculation in railroads was that his mission board did not adequately support him to live among his target group –the social elites in Guatemala City.

And that background brings me to the point I would like to comment on here. I hope that in general the churches of our time have not focused on the wealthy and glamorous in their missionary endeavors. Indeed, there are many missionaries who have cheerfully undergone privations to work among the poor of God’s universal flock. But there is one area in which we perhaps have not distanced ourselves adequately from a cultural elitism. It is in the area of training foreign nationals for the ministry. When they are invited to the US to study, it is often with the prerequisite that they should have a bachelor’s degree or some equivalent. Now the reasoning for this policy is understandable: but particularly when speaking of those training for the ministry from third-world countries, the practical result is that the only men given the highly-lauded advantage of a seminary education in their preparations for the ministry, are necessarily those who have something of an elite status when compared to the general population.

Now, let me be clear that I am not calling for uneducated ministers, or that I am an unqualified egalitarian –I am not. But it ought to be patently obvious by this stage in history that a college education does not in itself guarantee that the possessor thereof is in any way a member of an intellectual elite –that ounce for ounce his brain is better stocked or more functional than someone else’s. And so in requiring a college education for entrance to seminary, particularly in cases where such a thing is generally obtainable only by a privileged member of a given society, we do what lies in our power to limit pastoral ministry to members of a sort of aristocracy which though it might have held Moses and Paul, would not have included Peter or indeed, our Lord.

If we seriously believe that a seminary education is essential to a due discharge of pastoral ministry (itself a proposition that would be difficult to sustain with historical example), then surely we cannot confine it to those who may happen to have money or social position: not, that is, unless we have forgotten Paul’s striking words:

not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called.

Now if this is true of effectual calling, by what conceivable logic could we reverse the statement when we speak of the calling to the ministry?

So it seems that we have three courses open to us if our doctrine and our practice are to coincide:

1. We must revise our seminary entrance requirements at least in the case of foreign students.


2. We must not insist upon a seminary education as always necessary for the faithful discharge of pastoral ministry.


3. We must revise our theology.

Any takers?

The Horror of the “Uplifting”

September 21st, 2006

Sometimes people just want something, they tell me, uplifting. Oddly enough, a fine piece such as this:

Is this a life? Nay, death you may it call

That feels each pain and knows no joy at all.

does not qualify.


In my experience, when people say they want something uplifting they often mean that they want to experience something bright, something rosy, something about the good in mankind or a story with a happy ending.  Something, in fact, like this:


Yet these kinds of things are not uplifting, for the uplifting can never be divorced from reality. If we are truly to be edified, to be strengthened, to be encouraged, which I suppose are elements of being uplifted, this cannot be done through lies. But reality is often grim, often horrible, often dark. To deny that aspect, to ignore that element is not to be uplifted –it is to be blinkered. Now I am not one of those absurd ‘realists’ who think that horror is all there is. It seems to me that this is quite as unrealistic as the Hallmark channel. The truth does not lie in between these extremes; the truth transcends them both.


Let me also be clear that I do not think very highly of glorying in the sordid. One does not, one should not, relish the Marquis de Sade. This however, is not the problem I am griping about right now.


What I am objecting to is the identification of the uplifting with the sappy; the error of thinking that we are somehow built up or improved by gloop; the notion that sentimentality is an adequate foundation for joy or encouragement. You see, escapism is never ultimately enough. We can only escape for so long. Inexorably, through some means or another, the viciousness of evil will confront us. And then we will find that cheap solutions cannot help. Having stared evil in the face you cannot continue to glibly ignore it. Evil is so startlingly, graphically real that there comes a point where the sap of the “uplifting” is inadequate as a screen against it. But if sap is all that one has, then the foundations crumble and the supposed gain that we have acquired from our exposure to the “uplifting” is found to be a refuge of lies, a god that cannot save, a house built upon the sand whose fall is great. The truly uplifting is that which can stand against evil, and claim to be more fundamental, more powerful. It is, in short, the grace of God –and the grace of God never denies the existence or the heinousness of evil: it rather overcomes it.


Sap, the “uplifting” and all their sugar-coated crew are a species of unmortared wall which will collapse under the weight of the oppressor, for mere denial does not change the bitter facts. But something which can face those bitter facts and offer, not a denial, not an ignoring, but an answer, a victory, a transformation, this only can stand. It does not delight in evil, or rejoice in iniquity; but it does not deny its existence.