The Thing and Effect Are Joined to the Figure

And so here we are. Oberman quoted this part, and it is the reason I had to get the book for myself. Speaking of God dwelling between the cherubim (2 Sam. 6:2), Calvin writes:

Nevertheless, in order that we might know that God does not want to frustrate us, and that the signs which he gives us are not frivolous and empty baggage, like toys for little children, it says that God truly dwells between the cherubim. This does not mean that his essence is enclosed in the ark, but that he wishes to display his virtue there for the salvation of his people. Similarly, today in the waters of baptism, it is the same as if the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ poured down from heaven to water our souls and cleanse them from their uncleanness. When we have the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, it is the same as if Jesus Christ were coming down from heaven and making himself our food, so that we could be filled with him. We must not, therefore, take these signs as visible things and figures which are to feed our spiritual senses, but are to realise that God joins his virtue and truth to them, so that the thing and the effect are joined to the figure. There, in sum, is what we must keep in mind from the statement that the ark of God has the name: the name of God of hosts, dwelling between the cherubim.

~ Sermons on 2 Samuel (Banner of Truth) pg. 236.

So is this the “Lutheran” Calvin? I mean, jeepers.

God wishes to display his virtue in the visible means for the salvation of the people.

Baptism is as if Jesus’ blood is being poured down from heaven to nourish our souls.

The Lord’s Supper is as if Jesus were coming down to earth to feed us his flesh.

And then we get a rather technical phrase, “God joins his virtue and truth to them, so that the thing and the effect are joined to the figure.” That is the sacramental union. The res is joined to the sign.

That last part really cannot be overstated. It is systematic language. The place of the “joining” is the sign. However the joining works, and it is most certainly the mystical union, it cannot be construed to mean “not joined.”

For Calvin, it is true that the blood of Christ is joined to the waters of baptism. For Calvin, it is true that the Body of Christ is joined to the Bread.

The means of reception, that is, our part of the deal, is faith.

Going Down and Coming Up

Calvin continues:

Now let us apply this to ourselves, for we are no more competent than the Jews. Yet we need God to make himself small, so that we can have access to him, otherwise we would be completely shut out. However, he does not make himself so small because he wants his glory to be lessened, but rather he does this out of goodness to lift us up to admire his glory and to adore him with the reverence that he deserves.

When we have access to the preached Word, God speaks in a common and ordinary fashion to us. It is an illustration of his condescension. Hence, the preaching of the Gospel is like God descending to earth in order to seek us. We must not abuse this simplicity of the Word of God by disdaining it. Rather, we must receive it all the more, recognising that he indeed deigns to transfigure himself, so to speak, that we might approach him. He is not content with giving us his Word, but he adds baptism to confirm it. When we are baptised- though only a little water is used- it stands for crucifying our old man, for renewing our souls, and for being united with the angels- but can a little water do that? The point, of course, is that since God has come down to us (in this symbol), we must go up to him (in faith).

Sermons on 2 Samuel (Banner of Truth), pg. 235

So the Christian church is affected by God’s infinity just as the Jews were. We need God to appear as we are in order for us to have access to Him. And so He does so. He comes in our language, and through created elements in the sacraments. This does not lessen His glory, but rather allows us to admire it appropriately.

Now, we should be immediately struck by the references to the angels regarding baptism. Baptism makes us heavenly people. That’s the most basic fact of it. We have entered through the glassy sea into God’s dwelling place.

The sacraments are the incarnation, and our faith is the ascension. Calvin sounds like Luther when he asks “Can a little water do that?” His answer is, of course (!), that we are to believe that it can.

Calvin on Infinity and Condescension

In discussion the name of the Lord as “a definite sign and seal of the presence of God,” Calvin says:

In order to understand better what this means, let us note in the first place that the majesty and glory of God are incomprehensible. Not only do we not see God with our eyes, since he is of a spiritual essence, but when we apply all our sense to know him, we will certainly be dazzled a hundred times over, before we can even approach him. For we are too crude and weak. We can only crawl upon the earth, while the ‘heavens of heavens cannot contain him’ (1 Kings 8:27), as the other passage says. So when we want to approach God, it is certain that we will not be able to and that he is totally inaccessible to us. Therefore, he must come down to us when we cannot reach up to him. And how does he come down? It is not that he changes his place as far as his essence is concerned, but he must make himself known in a familiar manner. So when he conforms himself to our smallness, he does it only insofar as he abases himself. Not that there is change in him, but his coming down refers to our capacity.

Therefore, consider how God, who from all times has had pity on the crude capacities of men, has for that very reason come down to them, since they could not reach up to him. How has he come down? He has done so in the fashion of men, as if to say: ‘Here am I, and when you come through these means, it is the same as if I were manifest to you and you were seeing me with the naked eye’- that is what the ark meant. It was a means by which God made himself known to the people so they would be without excuse and could not say: ‘We do not know which way to begin when we ought to pray to God and honour him. We do not know how he will be our Protector, and how we will feel his help.’ On the contrary, the ark was a standing witness that God wanted to dwell in the midst of the people.

Sermons on 2 Samuel (Banner of Truth), pg. 233

A few comments should be made.

First, this relationship is not due to sin. Rather, this is the divide between Creator and the creature. God’s essence is of another sort than our own. It is infinitely removed from us. However, it can also be immediately near without any need of change, for transcendence is not simply space, which is but a creature itself, but rather a different way of being entirely. Don’t get hung up on Calvin’s negative-sounding terms concerning the human condition. We are “less” than God, and the fact that God wills to dwell with us after our manner is a sign that we are not ontologically repulsive to Him.

Second, God gives visible earthly signs to promise that His presence is with us. When we see the signs, we can know that He is here.

Third, because of these signs, we cannot plead ignorance. We know that God is here.