In Peter we have a striking mirror of our ordinary condition. Many have an easy and agreeable life before Christ calls them; but as soon as they have made profession of his name, and have been received as his disciples, or, at least, some time afterwards, they are led to distressing struggles, to a troublesome life, to great dangers, and sometimes to death itself. This condition, though hard, must be patiently endured. Yet the Lord moderates the cross by which he is pleased to try his servants, so that he spares them a little while, until their strength has come to maturity; for he knows well their weakness, and beyond the measure of it he does not press them. Thus he forbore with Peter, so long as he saw him to be as yet tender and weak. Let us therefore learn to devote ourselves to him to the latest breath, provided that he supply us with strength.
In this respect, we behold in many persons base ingratitude; for the more gently the Lord deals with us, the more thoroughly do we habituate ourselves to softness and effeminacy. Thus we scarcely find one person in a hundred who does not murmur if, after having experienced long forbearance, he be treated with some measure of severity. But we ought rather to consider the goodness of God in sparing us for a time. Thus Christ says that, so long as he dwelt on earth, he conversed cheerfully with his disciples, as if he had been present at a marriage, but that fasting and tears afterwards awaited them, (Matthew 9:15.).
~John Calvin, comment. on John 21:18
I don’t have time for much today, as I’m about to head to New Orleans, but I couldn’t help but put this little bit from Calvin out there. A smidge of context is needed first.
Many of the proponents of the “two kingdoms” theology in the Reformed world read Calvin as teaching that the “spiritual kingdom” is the church, and the “temporal kingdom” is the rest of the outside world. This is incorrect and actually approximates the old Roman Catholic position. For Calvin, the spiritual kingdom is the invisible church, and the temporal kingdom is the entire external realm- visible church, state, and family. Here’s a short quote that gets right to the point. From Calvin’s commentary on 1 Cor. 11:1-16:
There is somewhat more of difficulty in what follows. Here the man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman, so that Christ is not the head of the woman. Yet the same Apostle teaches us elsewhere, (Galatians 3:28,) that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Why then does he make a distinction here, which in that passage he does away with? I answer, that the solution of this depends on the connection in which the passages occur. When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions [“External qualities” -ed.] are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity. Hence, as regards spiritual connection in the sight of God, and inwardly in the conscience, Christ is the head of the man and of the woman without any distinction, because, as to that, there is no regard paid to male or female; but as regards external arrangement and political decorum, the man follows Christ and the woman the man, so that they are not upon the same footing, but, on the contrary, this inequality exists.
Notice here that Calvin says Christ’s kingdom does not concern the body or any external relations. It is wholly inward and has to do with conscience. Thus there is total equality and immediate relationship between Christ and all believers in the spiritual kingdom.
The temporal kingdom is different. It has to do with the body and all external conditions. It still has mediation and hierarchy. This is how Calvin defends against forms of egalitarianism which would stem from certain Pauline texts. All of the “spiritual kingdom” truths have to do with the life of the soul. Notice also that Calvin says “ecclesiastical polity” is a part of the external realm, civil order, and ordinary life.
Much follows from this, but I’ll have to leave that for another time.
One of the more curious political turns over the years has been the association of Calvinism with Libertarianism or “small Government.” I was first introduced to both of these positions at about the same time, and so I took them as partners as well. But reading Calvin gives you a different picture.
I won’t quote him all over the place, but you can check the final chapter of his Institutes for proof. Basically Calvin says:
1) Politics cannot save your soul, but the magistrate is god on Earth.
2) It is a Christian duty to obey and respect the magistrate (and not only for pragmatic reasons).
3) There is no universal polity for all times and places.
4) Aristocracy is the best form of government.
5) You should not try to change your form of government.
6) Tyrannical rulers are judgments from God against the people’s sins.
7) People should repent, change their lifestyles, and return to right worship, seeking out God in prayer in order to affect major political change.
8 ) Disobeying the magistrate is disobeying God. Disrespecting the magistrate is disrespecting God.
9) The Christian who comes into political office should protect the true religion.
10) Anabaptists are completely out of their minds.
John Calvin writes of Adam’s condition prior to the Fall. Rather than only contrasting Adam’s task and duty with our own after the fall, Calvin draws a fairly close parallel:
We must, therefore, look deeper than sensual intemperance. The prohibition to touch the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a trial of obedience, that Adam, by observing it, might prove his willing submission to the command of God. For the very term shows the end of the precept to have been to keep him contented with his lot, and not allow him arrogantly to aspire beyond it. The promise, which gave him hope of eternal life as long as he should eat of the tree of life, and, on the other hand, the fearful denunciation of death the moment he should taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were meant to prove and exercise his faith.
~ Institutes 2.1.4
Calvin certainly mentions obedience, but we must notice that this obedience is directly tied to the exercising of Adam’s faith. Adam was not to attempt to work his way beyond the initial state, but rather to trust in God’s provision. Again Calvin writes:
At the same time, it is to be observed, that the first man revolted against the authority of God, not only in allowing himself to be ensnared by the wiles of the devil, but also by despising the truth, and turning aside to lies. Assuredly, when the word of God is despised, all reverence for Him is gone. His majesty cannot be duly honoured among us, nor his worship maintained in its integrity, unless we hang as it were upon his lips. Hence infidelity was at the root of the revolt. From infidelity, again, sprang ambition and pride, together with ingratitude; because Adam, by longing for more than was allotted him, manifested contempt for the great liberality with which God had enriched him.
So, the root of the revolt was infidelity. Only after faith departed could Adam live contrary to his original righteous nature.
One last reference will suffice to make Calvin’s view plain:
In fine, infidelity opened the door to ambition, and ambition was the parent of rebellion, man casting off the fear of God, and giving free vent to his lust. Hence, Bernard truly says, that, in the present day, a door of salvation is opened to us when we receive the gospel with our ears, just as by the same entrance, when thrown open to Satan, death was admitted. Never would Adam have dared to show any repugnance to the command of God if he had not been incredulous as to his word.
What we hear and believe controls what we do, and so in order for us to be most like the original human state, we must listen to the gospel.
In his preface to the Institutes, addressed to the king of France, John Calvin gives his own view of the patristic tradition and how it relates to the situation prior to the Reformation. Both admiration and critique can be seen in Calvin’s outlook. He writes:
4. It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours. While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin. Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves.
It is not without cause (remark our opponents) we are thus warned by Solomon, “Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). But the same rule applies not to the measuring of fields and the obedience of faith. The rule applicable to the latter is, “Forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house” (Ps. 45:10). But if they are so fond of allegory, why do they not understand the apostles, rather than any other class of Fathers, to be meant by those whose landmarks it is unlawful to remove? This is the interpretation of Jerome, whose words they have quoted in their canons. But as regards those to whom they apply the passage, if they wish the landmarks to be fixed, why do they, whenever it suits their purpose, so freely overleap them? Continue reading
In his commentary on Exodus 34:1-10, 27-35 (in the 3rd vol. of the Harmony of the Law), John Calvin states that Moses became an angelic being while atop Mount Sinai. Moses was able to fast for forty days because he was freed from “the infirmity of the flesh” and was separated from “communion with men.” He was “invested with angelic glory.” This is also why his face shone with light.
28. And he was there with the Lord forty days The number of forty days is repeated, in order that the second Tables might have no less credit than the first; for we have stated that Moses was withdrawn from the common life of men, that he might bring the Law, as it were, from heaven. If he had only been kept a few days in the mount, his authority would not have been ratified by so conspicuous a miracle; but the forty days obtained full credit for his mission, so that the people might know that he was sent by God; inasmuch as the endurance of a fast for so long a period exceeded the capacity of human nature. Wherefore, in order that the majesty of the Law might be indubitable, its minister was invested with angelic glory; and hence he expressly records that “he did neither eat bread, nor drink watch” since it was requisite that he should be distinguished from other mortals, in order that his official character might be unquestionable. Now, it must be borne in mind, that this was not a mere fast of temperance or sobriety, but of special privilege, whereby exemption from the infirmity of the flesh was vouchsafed to Moses for a time, in order that his condition might be different from the rest of the human race. For neither did he feel any hunger, nor did he struggle with any longing for food, nor desire meat and drink any more than one of the angels. Therefore this instance of abstinence was never alleged as an example by the Prophets, nor did any one attempt to imitate what they all knew to be by no means accorded to them. I except Elijah, who, being sent to revive the Law, when it was almost lost, like a second Moses, abstained also from eating and drinking for forty days. The reason for the fast of Christ was similar, (Matthew 4:2 ) for, in order to acquire full credit for his Gospel, He desired to make it manifest that He was by no means inferior to Moses in this particular. Wherefore, the less excusable is that error, which sprang from gross ignorance, when all, without exception, endeavored to rival the Son of God in their annual fast, as if a new promulgation of the Gospel was entrusted to them. For neither did Christ fast forty day’s more than once in His life; nor during the whole of that time, as it is clearly specified, did he experience hunger; and His heavenly Father separated Him from communion with men, when He was preparing Himself to undertake the office of teacher.
Calvin gives us one hermeneutical key to understanding his view of the sacraments when he says:
The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present.
~ Institutes 4.17.10
About the righteousness procured for us in Christ’s atonement Calvin writes:
[F]or as sin was done away through the death of Christ, so righteousness is procured through his resurrection. This distinction must be carefully observed, that we may know what we must look for from the death of Christ, and what from his resurrection. When, however, the Scripture in other places makes mention only of his death, let us understand that in those cases his resurrection is included in his death, but when they are mentioned separately, the commencement of our salvation is (as we see) in the one, and the consummation of it in the other.
So righteousness is procured through the resurrection. Christ’s death does away with sin, and the act that moves us beyond sinlessness into righteousness is Christ’s resurrection.
I believe that this is important for understanding Calvin’s soteriology because he connects righteousness and “new life” with Christ’s divine nature. Our being justified includes our being given an eternal life that comes from God’s own life.
This starts to come into clearer focus as we remind ourselves what Calvin thought of Adam’s own state and goal.
Here’s a good one:
For were it not that the reprobate, through their own fault, turn life into death, the Gospel would be to all the power of God to salvation, (Romans 1:16) but as many persons no sooner hear it than their impiety openly breaks out, and provokes against them more and more the wrath of God, to such persons its savor must be deadly, (2 Corinthians 2:16.)
~ Commentary on Matthew 16:19
So, if it weren’t for the reprobate, universalism would be true. Just a sentence earlier, Calvin states that condemnation is “accidental” to the gospel message, since its essence is salvation. Condemnation comes from a rejection of this message once heard.
All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors.
~ John Calvin