World And Life View: License to Baptize?

James Bond, Agent 007, had a “license to kill.” There are Reformed folk who also seem to have “license” of some sort or other based on what they call “the Christian world and life view.”

This expression, CWLV, is interesting because it does not occur in any of the Reformed confessions. It’s not an expression that one finds in the literature of the Classic Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. This doesn’t mean that the substance of the ideas might not be present but answering that question would take us well beyond the capacity of a column. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, for many Reformed Christians since the late 19th century, the idea of a distinctly Christian world and life view is perhaps the single defining element of their self-identity and yet it is a notion that is harder to define that it seems.
The language and notion of a “Reformed world and life view” have their roots in the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) who, along with Groen van Prinsterer led a political, cultural, and religious reaction to the French Enlightenment.

It is beyond controversy that the various European and British phases of the Enlightenment were essentially anti-theistic and anti-Christian in spirit and effect. One may divide all of Western history in two: BE and AE (Before the Enlightenment and After the Enlightenment). Such a radical revolution called for a response. It is certainly true that the message of the Enlightenment to Christians was that Christian theism is no longer a tenable explanation of the world or persons or God and that, if Christians insisted on continuing to believe, they could no longer speak as if Christian truth claims had any objective validity or correspondence with reality. They must now describe only a subjective experience (“if it’s true for you). Thus pietism, which majored on the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) flourished under the Enlightenment. Pietism was all too happy to privatize Christianity. This is why Friedrich Schleiermacher was able to make a seamless transition from the Moravian Brethren to his later views, which he described as “mature” (i.e. Enlightenment-based, critical) pietism.

There is no question that Van Til was right to say that God’s Word speaks “to” everything but CVT, like Kuyper, taught both “common grace” and “antithesis.” In our time, as the culture seems to become increasingly hostile to Christian theism and Christian truth claims it’s easy to emphasize “the antithesis” between belief and unbelief but both Kuyper and Van Til also taught that there is a common (not neutral) realm shared by believers and unbelievers.

It also seems true that, in some cases at least, in responding to the Enlightenment some Reformed folk have sometimes neglected some important distinctions. Just because the Enlightenment was totalitarian does not mean that our response to it must be undifferentiated. Yes, Christ is Lord over all things, but he administers that dominion in distinct spheres (Kuyper’s term) or kingdoms (the older Reformed language). His revelation speaks to everything but not in the same way. The cultural or civil sphere is normed by God’s general or natural revelation. Special revelation wasn’t given to norm cultural or civil life. E.g. if we wish to apply special revelation to civil life, then we should all become theonomists, since they are those who wish to apply the only civil code in Scripture (the Mosaic civil laws) to post-canonical civil life. Most Reformed folk aren’t theonomists and reject theonomy so I take it that most Reformed folk agree, in principle (if not in rhetoric) with me that special revelation is redemptive not cultural or civil in focus. Thus, most Reformed folk don’t insist that the magistrate implement the Mosaic civil law. We do, however, rightly insist that the magistrate be restrained by natural law. In the nature of the magistrate’s office there are things that properly concern him and things that do not,

The church, however, is a distinct sphere from cultural or civil activities. The church has a specific, divinely revealed charter in Holy Scripture. This doesn’t mean that the Christian faith is thereby “privatized.” Rather we ought to respect the intent of Scripture itself. When Paul wrote the pastoral epistles he was not laying out a charter for civil society. He was, however, laying out a charter, with divine authority, for the church, the principal and chief manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking or painting or softball but about sin, guilt, salvation, and grace in Christ. Because they are citizens of the heavenly kingdom and members of the civil kingdom simultaneously, Christians ought to conduct themselves differently. Our heavenly citizenship should be manifested in our civil life, not that we have a “Christian” solution to the financial crisis but that we don’t steal. A Christian who runs an investment business may not turn it into a Ponzi scheme! It ought to be manifest that we’ve been bought with a price.

There are other differences (antitheses) between Christians and non-Christians. Believers and unbelievers have different theologies and therefore different explanations of why things are as they are. The unbeliever alternates between rationalism (a single truth explains all) and irrationalism (subjectivism; there is no explanation of anything). Earlier modernity tended to rationalism (if my intellect can’t comprehend it, then it isn’t true) and empiricism (what my senses can’t experience doesn’t exist). Late modernity (where we are now) is dominated by subjectivism and irrationalism. Subjectivism says that one’s experience of anything is the determinate fact. Thus in post-structuralist hermeneutics, one’s “reading” of a text norms the text itself. Both rationalism and irrationalism serve as ostensible ways of escape allowing the unbeliever to elude God’s authority and the claims of truth.

As it refers to the competing theologies of belief and unbelief, we may certainly speak of a “CWLV.” There is a Christian understanding for what the world is, why it works as it does, for who and what God is to us, for who and what we are, for the nature of sin, grace, Christ, the church, sacraments and last things. Scripture speaks to all these things and about all these things authoritatively and comprehensively.

Nevertheless, even the fundamentally different explanations of why things are (theology, or ultimate concerns) does not obliterate the existence of the penultimate. The truth is that Christians and non-Christians live together in the same world at the same time and in much the same way much of the time. It is much less clear what is distinctively Christian about the allegedly “Christian” view of any number of penultimate matters. When it comes to the relation of the CWLV to the particulars of penultimate questions, the CWLV tends to devolve into platitudes more than it tends to press to particulars.

Consider plowing (sue me, I’m from Nebraska). In the spring and fall farmers plow. They break up the soil to plant and then, after harvest, they turn over the soil to let it rest or perhaps to plant another sort of crop. Is there a distinctly “Christian” way to plow? I doubt it. What farmers do is determined by the nature of the work. I don’t think one can look at a field and tell whether it was a Christian or a pagan who plowed it. Christians plow, but does that make it Christian plowing? Are there “Christian” plows sold in “Christian” implement stores? No, Christian farmers and non-Christian farmers sit on the same tractors and use the same implements. A Christian farmer should be a good steward of the earth and practice soil conservation but the non-Christian farmer does the same if only out of economic self-interest and further, sinful Christian farmers may not be as stewardly as some pagan farmers acting solely out of economic self-interest (if the soil blows away, the pagan cannot plant or harvest).

Again, there is no question whether the Christian and the non-Christian explain why farming works the way it works. The Christian says that seeds grow and rain falls and fertilizers work because of the sovereign providence of God. The pagan farmer appeals to magic or random chance. Their theologies of farming are radically different but the actual art and science of farming is the same for Christian and pagan (which, ironically is Latin for “farmer” or “rustic”) alike.

This example illustrates my concern about careless invocation of the CWLV. It tends to become a license to baptize one’s pet views as “Christian” and thus to make them incontrovertible. This more about, as one writer likes to put it, “control, authority, and power” than about truth. It’s a form of the very sort of “Reformed” Narcissism about which I commented in RRC. “I am Reformed, I think x, ergo x is Reformed.” Really? Is it that simple? Obviously the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. This is the problem about claims concerning “Christian” music or “Christian” farming or “Christian” politics or whatever. It it hard to see how such claims are not really rooted in the Reformed faith but in a fearful reaction to frightening cultural changes. The question is how we should respond to these changes and what claims we should make about what Christians know as distinct from what our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers know.

What precisely is “Christian” about “Christian” art? It has Christian themes, but if we obey the second commandment and do not attempt to represent the deity (including God the Son incarnate) then what is Christian about “Christian” art? —By the way, while I’m on this topic it puzzles me to no end to hear about the CWLV from those who think nothing about blatant visible violations of the 2nd commandment in church buildings. If we’re going to have a CWLV let us start with the law of God as confessed by the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession. If the CWLV includes anything it certainly includes the 2nd commandment! We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming—It has Christian themes. Fine but the mechanics of painting (to pick one medium) are the same for Christian and non-Christian alike. The Christian has no unique insight into putting paint on canvas because of his Christian faith. The Christian musician has no distinct insight into playing his instrument because of his faith. He explains the meaning of music differently than the pagan but now we’re back to theology again. How is a “Christian” symphony different from a “pagan” symphony? Might not a “Christian” symphony (conceding the category for the sake of argument) be just as cacophonous as the late modernist piece as a way of suggesting brokeness resulting from the fall? In which case, who can tell just by listening whether the piece is by John Cage or a Christian composer?

The concept of a “worldview” is essential. Derived from the German “Weltanschauung” the English noun denotes “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.” Worldviews are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one. They are standard equipment. Everyone has some interpretation of the world, its meaning, of oneself, and of ones relation to the world and everything in it. The question for the Christian is whether his worldview conforms to Scripture. One of the things that has increasingly made me skeptical, however, about the way we often talk about “worldview” is the eager adoption by American evangelicals of the heretofore Reformed language about worldviews and a CWLV.
Sometime in 1995 or 96, in front of a crowded room of Freshmen in a section of the course on “Christ and Culture” at Wheaton College, I gave an impromptu talk about Kuyper’s distinction between the spheres. I was shocked by the response. The students acted as if we were in the desert and that I was the only water salesman. I also noticed a considerable degree of emphasis in the Christian Colleges (including Wheaton) on statements on “integration of faith and learning.” Increasingly faculty members and candidates for faculty positions were expected to develop a coherent statement explaining a distinctively Christian approach to a particular intellectual discipline. 
One could see immediately the need to address this issue in some way. It would not do to have a student sit in a theology class at 10AM, in which the Christian faith was propounded, and then to sit in an English class at 11AM in which the Christian faith was implicitly or explicitly denied. Addressing the issue, however, wasn’t as easy as it might seem. Since, to that point, all my experience in the Reformed world had been Kuyperian (or perhaps neo-Kuyperian) I did not question the need for such statements but I did struggle to write one. What exactly was distinctively Christian about my approach to history? Were some teachers were denying the faith because of a non-Christian view of their discipline or because of bad theology?
Over time I realized that the problem wasn’t English, History, or Physics but theology and the assumption that there is a distinctively “Christian” approach to every discipline. The problem faced by school administrators was not that faculty were poor English teachers or poor practitioners of Biology but that faculty outside the theology department often had poor training in theology or effectively a non-Christian theology. Many Christian schools are effectively theologically pluralist so they could not come out and demand that all faculty adhere to one theological system or another (or to any!) so they began to press for a CWLV in place of a coherent theological system. 
Here’s the rub. A CWLV is really just code for “a sound theology.” Failure to recognize this by evangelicals seeking to reinforce boundaries created a good deal of confusion. Many academics, who are highly trained in specialized academic disciplines, have only the most rudimentary, Sunday-School grasp of the Christian faith. It is no wonder that administrators too often found faculty members effectively denying the faith in their disciplines: they might not have known what the faith is or even that they were denying it. Being highly trained in biology doesn’t make one highly trained in Christology or the doctrine of God or even theological anthropology (the doctrine of humanity).
There is no question here whether there is a CWLV. There is certainly a Christian view of truth, reality, God, humans, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, sacraments, and last things. There is no question that the Christian faith provides a hermeneutical framework within which to interpret the world and ones place in it. There is no question that, on this fundamental level, as Van Til said, there is either “theonomy” (meaning nothing more than “God’s authoritative self-disclosure; it doesn’t properly mean, “the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil code”) or “autonomy.”

The problem comes when we try to transfer the authority of the Christian revelation and faith to mundane things. The faith tells us what farming means. The significance of farming is that it testifies to God’s providence and the mystery of his sovereign power in the world. The Christian faith also tells the farmer to what ends he farms: to the glory of God and the welfare of his neighbor. Nevertheless, as we saw last time, it is more difficult to say exactly what constitutes “Christian” farming. 
In my “integration statement” I ended up not talking about what constitutes good historical method. Rather the imperative to “integrate faith and life” seemed to assume a disintegration. So my “integration” statement was a failure because it began by questioning the very premise. It was really a statement of Christian eschatology more than a statement about historical method. Instead of talking about the past I ended up talking about the future and divine sovereignty.

The problem became even more intense and practical when, a few years later, now at WSC, I began teaching the orientation seminar for the historical theology program. The first question we always face is the matter of a “Christian” approach to history. If the question is posed theologically, it’s easy to answer. God is sovereign and nothing comes by chance but everything comes from his fatherly hand, as it were. What else do you want to know? Is there is distinctively Christian approach to history? Is there a “Christian” historiography?

Well, if you mean “May Christians appeal to their doctrine of providence to vindicate their interpretation of a given event?” the answer is no. A good doctrine of providence says not only that God sovereignly decrees all that happens but that he executes his decree, in time, space, and history, through second causes or agents and agencies. The concern of the historian is to tell the truth as best he can about how those agents and agencies operated and why. Yes, God’s sovereign good pleasure lay behind the Reformation but it’s not good theology to attempt vindicate the theology of the Reformation by appeal to providence because anyone who knows Reformed theology will point out that the Counter (or Roman) Reformation was also a the result of divine providence.

The Christian historian and the Christian farmer face the same dilemma: is there, beyond soli Deo gloria and to the welfare of one’s fellows, a distinctively Christian way to farm or write history? Does the Christian historian know more (beyond his doctrine of providence) about the second causes or agents and agencies leading up to the Thirty-Years War than the Marxist or Freudian historians? One of my great problems with the Marxist and Freudian historians is that their theological overlay is so heavy that it often keeps them from doing good history. The Freudian knows a priori that Luther must have had a problem with childhood development and thus it’s merely a question of figuring out which stage was incomplete and presto we have the explanation for the Reformation! The Marxist knows a priori that the Reformation was only a manifestation of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Reformation is merely the story of elites oppressing the working class under the guise of religion. Ho hum. Is the “Christian” approach to history just another highly-charged competing ideology? Is the “Christian” view of history the “true” interpretation of providence? Wait a minute! I thought that good Reformed theology warns us against trying to interpret providence? Do we really know why God decreed that a man should be born blind or why he decreed that a tower should fall at Siloam?

In an essay dated 28 May 2008 Fred Pugh sketches what has become a fairly standard view among many neo-Kuyperians. His account probably obviously leans to the cultural-political right and the antithesis is established with “secular humanism.” The views Pugh categorizes under the heading “secular humanism,” Kuyper would have attributed under the anti-Christian of the French Revolution.

The label “secular humanism” is unfortunate, however, because, in themselves “secular” and “humanism” are unobjectionable terms. Thrown together thus they’ve been made by culture warriors into an epithet. As J I Packer and Tom Howard pointed out years ago and as thoughtful Christians have known for centuries, there has been a Christian humanism since the earliest years of the medieval period. Several of the major Protestant Reformers were trained “humanists.” The adjective “secular” is derived from the Latin word “saeculum” which means “age” or “world.” The phrase “in saeculum” is used in theological Latin for “forever.” The expression “secular humanism,” has come to mean, however, “an anti-Christian and anti-theistic assertion of autonomy.” Christians would do better, however, to refrain from using “secular” as a pejorative. The secular realm is better considered the common realm preserved by the providence of God as outlined in Genesis 9 (as distinct from the covenant of grace in Gen 6).

In Pugh’s essay, however, it becomes clear that, to have a truly “Christian” CWLV one must oppose the enemies of the cultural right, e.g. Planned Parenthood. This comment is not meant as an apology for Planned Parenthood. Anyone who knows the roots of PP in the quasi-Nazi eugenics movement would be wary of defending it for that reason alone. The essay moves on to tick off (list) the enemies of the cultural right, “feminism,” and the sexual revolution.
This strikes me as the sort of metaphorical baptism of the culture the effect of which is to make a certain approach to cultural issues incontrovertible. What is the biblical basis for this baptism? The writer appeals to 2 Corinthians 10:1-6. The author’s deconstruction of the parade of culturally leftist institutions is “casting down“casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” The most serious problem with the author’s use of this passage is that it has little to do with Paul’s intention. This use of Paul has more to do with subjectivist late-modern reader-response hermeneutics than it does with historic Reformed hermeneutics. The Apostle Paul was addressing a threat to his apostolic authority and office from opponents to his ministry. He has spent chapter 9 defending his office and ministry against these critics because Paul, the suffering apostle, didn’t much resemble what the Corinthians thought of as “an apostle.” He wasn’t nearly as glorious as the “Super Apostles.” Those are the non-Christian ideas he intends to tear down. The sphere in which he was speaking was distinctly spiritual and ecclesiastical not secular or cultural. This doesn’t mean that Christians ought not to subvert fundamentally non-Christian theology and philosophy, but now, in this tranformationalist application of the passage, we’ve entered into a different realm of discourse. Moving to a list of approved social views is yet another step removed from Paul’s original intent.

Central to this approach to the “Christ and Culture” problem is the “Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all of life.” Now, all Reformed confessions and theologians and theologies confess and teach the absolute sovereignty of God. Of this there is no question now. This deduction from the doctrine of divine sovereignty, however, does not seem to appreciate the difficulty of moving from the theological doctrine of divine sovereignty to an allegedly “Christian” set of social values or cultural views.

The author quotes Van Til: “The Scripture is authoritative in every area of life to which it speaks and it speaks to every area of life.” Again, this principle is not in question, at least not here, but it’s one thing to affirm that Scripture speaks “to every area of life” and quite another to say what “the” Christian view of any number of penultimate questions might be. Math works because God is sovereign and has ordered all things. Christian theism is the necessary assumption to human life. Those who deny God and who continue act as if he exists are hypocrites. The author continues to qualify this claim by noting that one “should not misunderstand that idea to say that the Bible tells you how to fix your washing machine when it breaks. It does, however, give either direct orders or indirect principles that one is to follow in every area of life.”

I quite agree that Holy Scripture doesn’t teach me how to fix my washing machine but one does need to parse and apply very carefully the claim that it gives “direct orders or direct principles that one is to follow in every area of life.” God’s Word does describe reality and God’s moral law does norm all our actions. Once more, there is no neutral sphere of life.

Nevertheless, it does not follow, as Pugh claims, there is not distinction ” between sacred and secular” and that all “[a]of life is sacred.” He assumes that if Christ is Lord of all, (and he is!) that therefore he exercises his dominion in only one kingdom or in only one way, without distinction. Why is it necessary to baptize the Maytag repairman? We baptize sinners because they are born in sin. By baptize we testify that those who are united to Christ sola gratia et sola fide are holy. That which was unclean is not recognized as sacramentally, outwardly clean. Is repairing washing machines unclean in the same way that it needs to be baptized?

What about Romans 8? After all, it does say that creation is groaning.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

There is a cosmic element to the Christian faith, just as there was a cosmic aspect to the covenant of works. What was, as it were, frustrated in the fall, will be consummated. Had the first Adam obeyed, the creation would have been glorified. Now that the Second Adam has obeyed, he has initiated, in the church, a new creation.

At the same time, we cannot say that Jesus died for “creation” per se. He died for sinners. Our longing for the consummate state is analogous to the longing of the cosmos for the consummation but there are discontinuities. We redeemed sinners long for adoption (or the consummation of the adoption that was inaugurated in the ordo salutis), but nature, per se, is not said to have been “redeemed.”

The transformationalist confusion of the creational and the redemptive is the very sort of metaphorical baptizing about which this series has been concerned. Affirming God’s sovereignty over all of life does not eliminate the need to distinguish between two kingdoms. Pugh’s appeal to 2 Corinthians 10 illustrates the problem. What the Apostle addressed to the visible, institutional church is taken out of context and applied in support of cultural agenda that the Apostle himself did not imply or teach, at least not in that passage and it gets to a larger problem: the Apostles did not lay out a cultural agenda. God the Spirit did not reveal the “Christian” approach to the federal budget. They were busy preaching the gospel of Christ’s obedience, death, and resurrection. Yes, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, and he administers his spiritual kingdom through the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) namely Gospel, sacrament, and church discipline. Approaches such as this one fail just where they need to make the connection between divine sovereignty and cultural engagement they assume what needs to be proved: the direct nexus between divine sovereignty in salvation and the writer’s opinion about this or that cultural problem.

The second fundamental weakness is the failure to recognize that cultural issues are not well addressed from the kingdom of God (Word, sacraments, and discipline). Rather they are best addressed from creational or natural revelation. The response to Planned Parenthood is that it denies the creational or natural order. It’s against nature to selectively eliminate certain races (the original intent of PP) or to destroy human beings in utero. As Darryl Hart has argued, the Christian faith is not intended to serve as platform for political parties. It should certainly inform Christians in civil affairs but the integrity and original intent of Scripture must be honored if we’re to deal with Scripture honestly. Christians may disagree over civil policy.

Another distinction the author fails to make is that which exists between law and gospel. In his zeal to transform the existing social order he argues that “[a]ny gospel…which does not affect the political and social structures in which it is proclaimed is a truncated gospel.” The Apostle Paul characterized his gospel relative to life, death, and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15). He seems to have left the social consequences of the gospel up to the Holy Spirit. Luke does not record that Paul gave divinely inspired advice to the rulers to whom he preached. Was Paul’s a “truncated” gospel?

More importantly, the civil or common (not neutral) realm is not a “gospel” realm. it is a legal realm. It belongs not to the covenant of grace but to the covenant of works. The second table of the law directs the civil magistrate. “Do not steal” is God’s holy law, which the magistrate is morally and duty bound to enforce. It is not the gospel. The gospel is an announcement of good news accomplished for sinners by Christ.

Do the Apostles Paul, Peter, and John pass the author’s test? Did their gospel affect the “social structures” in which is was proclaimed? Not in their lifetimes. The church was persecuted into the middle of the fourth century. Who gets to say what constitutes the correct “affect”? One of the earliest Christian writers, the author of the epistle to Digonetus, simply asked his non-Christian inquirer to allow the Christians to live quietly and in peace. He explicitly denied that Christians had a distinctive language or culture. This, of course, is exactly what Paul commanded we should pray for (1 Tim 2:2).

We should agree with the author that the way to develop a CWLV is to “immerse” oneself in Scripture, but as we do so doing we should recognize that Scripture itself teaches us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3) and that, in this world, in “this age,” we live in two kingdoms simultaneously. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Our doctrine of divine sovereignty is a precious and absolutely necessary biblical truth confessed by the Reformed churches but it’s much more difficult that some think to deduce from it a social policy or a distinctively Christian approach to any given cultural problem or social policy.

This essay first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2009.

To the Evangelical Nicodemites

Over the last few years there have been a few laments about “Reformed rocks stars.” Carl Trueman has rightly warned against the cult of personality. Now I would like to turn the tables. If we should be concerned about rock stars and personalities in evangelicalism and Reformed-dom then we should also be concerned about about another party to all this: those who attend those conferences and those who do not.

First, there are lots of Christians who attend congregations which, shall we say, are part of the problem more than they are part of the solution, where the gospel is not preached purely, where the sacraments are not administered purely, and where discipline is not practiced. These folk also attend Reformed conferences. They attend because they are “fed” there, because they can fellowship with like-minded folk there, because, in some cases, it’s a relief from their congregation. Still they stay in their congregations.

I know this happens because I have heard the stories and I’ve met such. They bring to mind Nicodemus (John 9), who came to Jesus late at night when it was safe to visit, so that he would not have to pay the price for being publicly associated with Jesus. In the 16th century, there was an analogous group whom the Reformed called “Nicodemites.” These were Roman Catholics who professed to hold the evangelical faith but who, nevertheless, were unwilling to leave their Roman congregations. They told their Reformed friends and sometimes even wrote to the reformers themselves to ask for counsel about this very problem. They felt the tension themselves. They were fearful of offending family. They feared leaving the familiar and the comfortable. They feared social consequences, even economic consequences, losing a job or an inheritance. In some cases it might have meant leaving town for purely religious reasons. There were strong external incentives to remain in the Roman Church while practicing the evangelical faith privately.

There are discontinuities, of course, between 16th-century Roman Catholics and 21st-century evangelicals, but there are continuities too. There are strong external reasons not to leave the local mega-church. There is a comfortable anonymity and safety in the theater seating, at the coffee bar, or on the couch with the candles. The services might not be great but the small groups are fantastic. It is the place to be. The band is hot. One can dress casually. All one’s friends attend. There’s a peer pressure or family pressure to conform.

There are things to be lost in walking away from one’s comfortable evangelical congregation. Indeed, I have known more than a few Reformed folk who, upon leaving their evangelical congregation have been shunned, have lost business or business opportunities and have hurt family connections. Calvin addressed these very problems in a number of letters and in A Short Treatise Setting Forth What the Faithful Man Must Do When He is Among the Papists and Knows the Truth of the Gospel (1543). It is worth considering this treatise and it is useful to apply it to our evangelical Nicodemite friends in hopes of encouraging them to identify with those churches who were, in the 16th century and who, in the late modern period, are once again “under the cross.”

In his brilliant work, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Carlos M. N. Eire adds some context to the Nicodemite problem as Calvin faced it. As Eire, notes, the problem was not in Geneva, but in France (235) where “French Protestants lives in an environment that was hostile to their beliefs and practices, making the threat of idolatry even greater.” Before “such pressure, some Protestants assumed the attitude of compromise and deceit that came to be known as Nicodemism” (236). Beza explained.

There were also at that time in France certain persons, who, having renounced the protestant religion at the commencement, through fear of persecution, had begun afterwards so far to flatter themselves as to deny there was any sin in being present with their bodies only at the celebration of the mass, provided they embraced the true religion in their hearts. Calvin, whom they blamed for the excess of his severity, plainly refuted, by his clear and elegant writings, this very pernicious error, which the fathers had long ago condemned. He annexed also the opinions of the most learned reformers, Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr, Bucer, and the church of Zurich, and so far restrained the progress of this error, that the Nicodemites, which name they had acquired by adducing the example of this most holy person as a pretext for their false sentiments, he fell into bad repute in the church.

As Beza noted (and as Eire follows him) Calvin wasn’t the only one to face this problem. It was universal to the confessional Protestants. The confessional Lutheran theologian, Johannes Brenz used the adjective “Nicodemish” in 1529. Calvin wrote Luther to and translated two books into Latin just for him to ask him to speak out against it (but Melanchthon pocketed the letter because, as he told Calvin, “Pericles” was in no mood just then to hear from the Reformed about worship). There is a debate in the scholarship over whether Nicodemism was a coherent movement. Carlo Ginzburg argues it was and Eire disagrees (239). If we compare the 16th-century “Nicodemites” to today’s churchless evangelicals wandering from congregation to congregation to to no congregation at all, we can see how there can be a sort of intellectual community with no organization. There seem to be a lot of folk who share certain ideas but just as they seem to be allergic to the visible church so they lack any formal organization. It is hard to imagine any sort of formal organization of people afraid to identify publicly as Protestants or as Reformed or as evangelicals.

Calvin was conscious that there were some difficulties in calling these “dissemblers” Nicodemites. He didn’t regard Nicodemus as a dissembler (Eire, 243). The cowardly Nicodemus became a faithful man. He even describes his contemporaries as “pseudo-Nicodemites” because at least Nicodemus came forward to identify openly with Jesus. By 1562 he stopped using it as an epithet altogether. Nevertheless, we persevere if only for the ease of the label. He identified 4 different classes of Nicodemites:

  1. Those who do it for money
  2. Those who try to convert high-born ladies, but who do not take the gospel seriously.
  3. Those who try to reduce Christianity to a philosophy
  4. Those merchants and common people who fear danger.

Not everyone in Paris was pleased with Calvin’s critiques. Some, of a certain social status, felt he was rocking the boat too much. They thought he was too harsh. The more they complained, the more Calvin pushed. “When I heard that many people complained about my strictness, especially those kinds of people who think that their wisdom increases proportionately to the care they take in protecting their lives, I wrote an apology which made their ears twitch even harder than the first book….” (Letter to Luther; Eire, 246). Calvin was less worried about what French elites thought than what Christ thinks.

The problem of the refusal of crypto-evangelicals to come out of the Roman church and into the confessing Protestant churches (and especially into the Reformed Churches) troubled Calvin enough to cause him to write on the topic repeatedly and to publish several letters and other short writings through his career until the early ‘60s.

In the 1562 treatise he concluded, “That if no service is agreeable to God, except that which comes from an honest conviction: the opposite holds true, that no simulation can displease him, when one only pretends to adore the idols without having devotion in order to please the unbelievers.”

For Calvin, one cannot separate body and soul. They can be distinguished, but Calvin was an anti-Gnostic. We are embodied persons. We cannot worship Christ with our “souls” if our bodies are in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing (violating his moral will). It’s a 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 problem. It’s one thing to eat meat offered to idols. It’s another thing to sit at table with one who involves one in his offering. Once it’s not just a meal anymore, then we have communion with idols and, for Calvin, as for Paul, one cannot be joined to Christ and to idols.

In France and in modern Belgium there were a considerable number of people who privately, personally identified with Reformed or evangelical theology (in the 16th century “evangelical” meant confessional Lutheran or Reformed theology. Calvin frequently spoke of “the evangelical” view when describing his view of this or that) but they did so without leaving their local Roman congregation. These churches were the status quo. They had family ties or political connections or perhaps there was no local Reformed congregation with which to identify. In some cases to leave the Roman Church meant leaving a Roman city and moving to an “evangelical” city where there was a Reformed congregation. In some cases the local Roman Cathedral was the local mega-church. It was the biggest or best show in town. After all, a high mass was quite a sight. It was high, visual drama. It produced intense religious feelings, people “experienced” God.  It was the “place to be” and the “place to be seen.” But what about those poor souls who weren’t allowed to “by the papists to worship God purely”?

Calvin said the answer is easy, “if their hearts were fully resolved to follow everything that God declares to them completely and unquestioningly.”  The problem is “most men , having learned a thing to be displeasing to God, nevertheless give themselves leave to go seeking its defence.” [sic] Calvin said that “a hundred people” had asked him about this in the same way Balaam asked God for leave to go before King Balak (Num 22). He knew it was contrary to God’s will but he asked anyway. In the same way, crypto-evangelicals (my term; perhaps better than “Nicodemites” and in our case we might speak of “crypto-Calvinists”) attend the mega-church because of the youth group or or the praise and worship or what have you.  Calvin says these folk are “fairly convinced in their consciences that it is wrong to bow down before idols , inquire and query about what they should do, and not to subdue their affections to God by submitting to his word, but so that they may have free rein, and having an answer to their liking, may flatter themselves enough to remain in their evil doing.” He says that this lot is looking for “cushions to put their consciences to sleep, and for someone to make them believe they are alive when really they are dead.”

Remember, he was speaking to people who were “not allowed” to worship God according to the Scriptures. In some cases obeying God would have meant tremendous hardship and possibly the most extreme hardship: arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. In the 16th century probably no fewer than 62,000 Calvinists were martyred for the faith by Roman authorities. Tens of thousands of those died in one week, in 1572, during the “St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” The rest were systematically hunted and murdered by Spanish troops in the Netherlands. In many places, knowing the Calvinist and Reformed conviction that only God’s Word may be sung in worship (and that often meant the psalms), authorities banned the singing of psalms and then, when Christians were found to be singing the psalms, they arrested them. When people were converted through watching the Calvinists go to the stake singing God’s praise in his own Word, in their own language, the Roman authorities began cutting out the tongues of the martyrs to prevent them from praising God.

Calvin was well aware of what he was about to ask of the crypto-Calvinists or secret Calvinists. He wrote letters of comfort to some of them as they languished in dark, rat-infested prisons, awaiting a sham trial and a bloody, fiery death. He also understood that what he was saying was controversial. Some influential Parisian Protestants thought or alleged that he was saying that the only way to go to heaven was to be a member of the Genevan church. Of course he was not saying that at all. Some of Calvin’s critics were misrepresenting his argument in order to discredit it. They were attempting to justify themselves. At the same time, despite their scorn, he was loving them. He was concerned that those Roman Catholics who did not “come out” of the Roman communion and identify publicly with the evangelical (in the 16th-century sense, which today would mean “confessional Protestant” or as the Synod of Dort put, “who profess the Reformed Religion”) church would find themselves in genuine spiritual danger.

This attempt to discredit Calvin was, of course, self-serving since some of these folk were well placed and would have suffered significant personal setbacks and loss by leaving Rome and uniting with the suffering French Reformed Church.  Despite the scorn, Calvin persevered.

However, since our office is to give pure testimony to the truth, I cannot dissemble or draw back from saying what I think of things which are useful to know, even when it is required of me to do so. However, since the whole difficulty stems from our being more interested in remaining the good graces of the world than in pleasing God, I exhort every believer in the name of the Lord Jesus to compel his affections to, in order to make them obedient to the Master’s will.

He understood

it is a hard thing to put oneself in danger of losing body and goods, of arousing everyone’s ire against oneself, of being held in contempt and scorned, of leaving the land where one can live comfortably in order to depart for a strange land, like someone lost. Yes, what is the first lesson we must learn in the school of Jesus Christ, but to renounce ourselves?

In contemporary evangelicalism, words such as “mortification”  and “self-denial” are not fashionable. One is much more likely to hear about “self-affirmation’ and improving one’s “self-image.” To be sure, as a pastor and as one who grew up in the lower Midwest, where everyone is or used to be, as Garrison Keillor says, “a dark Lutheran,” (even those who aren’t Lutherans) people do suffer real damage to their self-image and there is psychological harm done by sin and by sinners. Nevertheless, the fundamental Christian message is not, “You’re okay, I’m okay,” but “God made us good, we fell, Christ obeyed and died for sinners and was raised on the third day for their justification.” Our self-image rests in the image of God and in his grace in Christ.

For Calvin, denying to self, dying to sin (mortification) was of the essence of the Christian life. We do by God’s grace alone. It’s a catch-22. The crypto-evangelicals (or today’s crypto-Reformed) aren’t going to grow as they ought in their present circumstances but they won’t really grow until they leave. They need to leave to grow but in order to leave they need to trust Christ enough (which implies growth) to leave!

Indeed, no one but Calvin is calling them to identify  with Christ, to suffer, to change. The current congregations and their friends are all telling them to stay, that religion is a private matter, an interior matter. But real mortification is interior with exterior consequences. Comfort is borne of security and familiarity, even when that comfort and familiarity are wrongly, even wickedly placed.

Calvin understood:

Now, if there are some who are so weak, that they cannot determine from the word ‘go’ to do what they should, I beseech them at least not to flatter themselves, looking for subterfuges and frivolous excuses to conceal themselves. This is nothing but reckoning without one’s host. Such ways of escape shall not deliver them fro God’s judgment.

He knew whereof he spoke. There was a period of murkiness as he became an evangelical. There must have been a period of transition in Paris, an inward wrestling with whether or when to stop attending Mass. Whether and when to identify with the evangelicals. How? Where? At what cost? His public identification with the evangelical church in Geneva, his virtual imprisonment by Farel, being pressed into service in Geneva against his will, having been unceremoniously dismissed by the City Council and then recalled from a much more pleasant place–Calvin only wanted to study and write–these were all crosses he bore. He considered that living in Geneva was like being crucified 1000 times a day. He did it at the expense of his own health, his own happiness, his own peace of mind, against his better judgment and personal inclinations, because his Savior did it for him.

He writes, “Indeed, we shall see that this has been, as it were, the part of the ruin of those who have become alienated from the grace of God: seeing that it was not safe for them to reveal themselves openly before men as true servants of god, in order to duly honor him, and they wanted to be considered just and above reproach because they polluted themselves in many idolatries. ” This passage from Calvin’s 1543 short treatise against the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals who refused to leave the Roman communion and identify openly with the Reformation cause illustrates two very important Reformed doctrines.

First, because we do not know the divine decree ahead of time, we must deal with life in the covenant of grace as it unfolds before us. Call this the “Hebrews 6/10” view of the church, i.e. this is the view taken in Hebrews chapters 6 and 10. People are in the external covenant community, they “taste of the powers of the age to come” and the “trample underfoot” the covenant when they apostatize. When they are with us, professing faith, we regard them as believers, as members of Christ according to the judgment of charity. After they have apostatized, however, we realize that, in fact, they were only members externally, that they lacked true faith and genuine union with Christ.

So, for Calvin, it was with the crypto-evangelicals who remained in false churches. He was willing to accept the genuineness of their profession provisionally and to be understanding about the difficulties they faced in leaving their current congregation in order to join a true church. At a certain point, however, the understanding changes. If the profession is never matched by action a discontinuity arises. They say that they are Protestants (evangelicals) but they continue to worship outwardly like Romanists, they continue to attend mass, they continue to participate in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Session 22, Council of Trent, Canon 3)—which Calvin and all the Protestants regarded as an abomination to God and “an accursed idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 80).

In view of the existential reality of the outward reality of their evangelical profession Calvin warned of the very real possibility of their “ruin” and becoming “alienated” from grace. This is a genuine spiritual danger to the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals. This is also a genuine danger to the crypto-Calvinists in the evangelical mega-churches and other congregations that lack the marks of a true church, in which the crypto-Calvinists find themselves. How long can they sit through therapeutic, moralistic, Deistic sermons and worship without doing real harm to themselves? I’ve had correspondence from people in such circumstances and they testify that the are “dead inside” and that they “dread” going to church. Sometimes they just stop going. After all, if what happens on Sunday morning is a poor imitation of Oprah or George Will, what’s the point?

The second truth here, however, is reflected in Calvin’s phrase, “as it were.” This is the difference between Calvin’s handling of this problem and the way the so-called, self-described Federal Vision movement handles this same situation. The FV says that every baptized person is, by virtue of his baptism, united to Christ. They reject any distinction between those who are merely outward members of the visible church or of the administration of the covenant of grace, and those who are outward and inward members [Rom 2:28] of the church and the covenant of grace. Because they reject this distinction they have it that one can be actually united to Christ, elect, regenerate, justified, adopted etc and yet still fall away. In this view their view is formally like the Remonstrants who were rejected at the Synod of Dort.

Calvin and the Reformed Churches understood, however, that only those who are actually united to Christ, sola gratia et sola fide  (by grace alone and through faith alone) in Christ alone, are actually united to Christ and receive his benefits. This is because Calvin and the Reformed Churches made a distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Not everyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace is necessarily elect, regenerate, or united to Christ. This is the force Calvin’s little phrase, “as it were.” All forms of rationalism, whether Open Theism or the FV, ignore this “as it were” qualification. The Heidelberg Catechism says “by his hand, as it were…” signaling that we understand that God, considered apart from the incarnation, does not have a body. We are not Mormons.

When Calvin wrote “as it were,” he recognized the tentative nature of human judgment in this world. He recognized that we are not God and that we do not know things as God knows them. We make the best judgments we can and we urge folk to live according to God’s self-disclosure (Deut 29:29) in God’s Word. We do not play “guess the elect.”  Christ has a church, and it exists where ever the gospel is preached purely, where ever the sacraments are administered purely, and where ever discipline is administered. From all one can tell these are not the three marks of most so-called evangelical congregations today. They are marked by programs, power points, and puppets.

Lest my evangelical friends think I’m being too hard on then, I well recognize that too many nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregations are indistinguishable from the great mass of therapeutic, moralistic Deism that passes for Christianity in our age. It may well be possible to be a crytpo-Calvinist in a nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregation where the substance of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice has been replaced with weak alternatives.

Calvin continued:

Then later, seeing that they still could not avoid all suspicion in this way, they considered it to be doing their duty when they concealed their Christianity altogether, not speaking a single word about God, except when they were with their close friends and family members, well enclosed in some room. Meanwhile, they permitted the truth of God to be blasphemed and whatever dishonor anyone did Jesus Christ, not only did they not say anything against it, but they put on a good show of consenting to it, being concerned only to take care that no one perceive that they were Christians.

Remember, when he said “Christianity,” he’s not speaking about people living in a predominantly pagan world or in a post-Christian culture (or in a pre-Christian culture). He’s speaking about crypto-evangelicals who are, for reasons of safety or comfort, hiding in Roman congregations. The blasphemies to which he refers are either Roman criticisms of the evangelical (i.e. confessional Protestant) faith or/and the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice and the like.

In response, the cryptos clam up. If they do not say anything then no one will know that they dissent inwardly. When folk around them slander the evangelicals or invoke saints or pray to the BVM, they keep their mouths shut.  Calvin reminded the cryptos that, in redemptive history, God dealt harshly with those who practiced “wicked subtlety,” that God “let them stumble into a n abyss of darkness, depriving them of the knowledge he had formerly given them.”

The proper response is not that one should seek to “justify himself in his iniquity” but rather that we should “give glory to God” by “confessing our wretchedness, rather than doubly confounding and condemning ourselves by squirming about  and seeking vain excuses.”

Over the years I have had posts from crypto-Calvinists who hide themselves in the local megachurch. Sometimes they seek to justify themselves by arguing that they are seeking reformation of the congregation. If so, then they are not really “crypto” (secret) Calvinists or Reformers at all, are they? If they are seeking reformation then the ministers and congregational leadership will be aware of them and of their efforts. If this megachurch is worth its salt as a megachurch, they have a plan and they have read the church growth literature. Rule #1 of the church growth program is to get rid of dissenters. Any “reformer” worth his salt is a dissenter from the tawdry songs, puppets, Playdoh, and powerpoint that passes for public piety in the megachurch. Immovable object meet irresistible force. Something has to give. Maybe the megachurch leadership will be struck in the heart but maybe not. What then? Most of the time, however, the cryptos remain just that: hidden, quiet, secret.

For Calvin, the core issue of the Nicodemite (crypto-evangelical) problem is the Lordship of Christ, not necessarily in the sense in which that word was used in the recent American evangelical controversy but in the sense that the cryptos are acting as if they were God’s “counterparts.”  The issue is whether the Christian will submit to the revealed will of God. He appealed to the example of Cyprian to illustrate what he meant obedience. He reminds his readers that “St. Cyprian, after being condemned to death, because he was unwilling to sacrifice to idols, was asked to consent to it in order to save his life.” The judge did not want to put Cyprian to death and urged him to simply say the magic words. Cyprian, however, was so determined to follow God’s will that he would do it even if death was the necessary result. For Calvin, Cyprian is a perfect example of one who “did not take counsel from” his “own” head, “turning aside from his Word….”  Calvin offered several proofs that, in fact, it is the Lord’s revealed, moral will for the cryptos to identify publicly with the Reformation. First he appealed to Jesus saying in Luke 9:26 that “if we are ashamed of him before me, he will likewise be ashamed of us when he appears in his majesty with the angels of God.” He appealed to Romans 10:10, that if we “believeth with the heart unto righteousness” then one will confess “with the mouth unto salvation.” True faith produces confession.  “Whoever draws back from doing so must seek another master.”

Calvin anticipated the objection that he was attempting to make all believers into preachers. Not at all. “For, since it is a particular office to preach publicly, it is not necessary, nor even expedient or suitable for everyone to intrude himself in it….I do not therefore mean for everyone to climb up into a pulpit to prove their Christianity…. However, let everyone take thought to give God glory in the vocation in which he finds himself.”

He would have it that every professing Christian should confess his faith in the place and station in which he finds himself. He appeals to 1 Peter 3:15. We should each be ready to give an account of his faith. It is “the office of every believer” to “take his neighbor by the hand and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Zion, to the house of Jacob, and he shall teach us to talk in his ways (Isa 23:3; Mic 4:2).

What does this have to do with crypto-Calvinists in the local evangelical congregation? Well, the fundamental point, about submitting to the revealed will of God applies to all Christians everywhere but particularly where a crypto-Calvinist finds himself in a congregation dominated by therapeutic, moralistic deism, where the gospel is absent, the means of grace are deformed or ignored, and discipline was banished by the church growth gurus as impractical.

Calvin did not call the cryptos in his day to superhuman feats. He only wanted them to speak to the truth in love and to trust the providence of God. It’s true he was, in effect, calling many to great suffering and possible even death. In our case, however, there is much less at stake and even less reason why our cryptos cannot confess their faith openly before men, since, in many cases, it merely involves stopping at that local NAPARC congregation by which they drive on the way to the mega-church.

Once more an admonition to my NAPARC brothers and sisters. If our evangelical crypto-Calvinists do step out in faith to lay hold of the blessings of the heritage of the Reformation, what will they find this Sabbath in your congregation? Will they find what they just left behind, cliques, clans, and clowns or will they find the law distinguished from the gospel and the latter preached sweetly? Will they find joy in the Lord or some nasty congregational contention over who is in charge? Will they find a socio-political rant or the ministry of Christ? When they visit, our evangelical friends are looking for three things: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Indeed, that is what the Lord asks of us. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should be doing these things, even if no crypto-Calvinists visit.

Calvin recognized that there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding “how far and how much we must proceed….” Therefore each one must “pray our Lord to direct him in true prudence, in order to judge what will be suitable.” For Calvin, the driving principle, is the same in any case: “there must be in us such a seal, both exalt the reign of God and to edify our neighbors, that we extend all our powers and apply all our efforts to it.” In other words, because Calvin wouldn’t go beyond Scripture and good and necessary deductions and because he recognized that circumstances would vary he was unwilling to legislate exactly how each one must act in every case. Nevertheless, it was clear to Calvin that each one must act.Our goal is the appropriate imitation of Christ, who was consumed by zeal for the house of God (Ps 69:9; John 2:17). This zeal caused Christ to be restless in his desire to glorify and serve his Father. Calvin reminds us that some of his followers “did not dare to confess Jesus Christ after having believed on him: ‘They loved the glory of men better than that of God’ (John 12:43). How sad and perverse a choice is it to prefer men to God!”

The question, for Calvin and for us, is “whether the Christian man, being rightly instructed in the truth of the gospel, offends God or not, by doing as the others do when he is among Papists, by going to Mass and other such ceremonies.” The first part of the question is that of “dissumulation” or “hiding the truth one has within the heart. The second part concerns “simulation” or “pretending and faking something that is not so. In short, what lying is in words, simulation is in deeds.”

This a question because we are not disembodied. We are not Gnostics seeking to overcome the body (contrary to the repeated Romanist criticism of historic, confessional Protestantism). Rather, Calvin recognized that because we are body and soul we must love God with our bodies and our souls. We owe to God a “two-fold honor—namely the spiritual service of the heart, and outward worship — likewise there is a, on the contrary, a twofold sort of idolatry. First, when man corrupts and perverts the spiritual service of the only God by a lying fantasy. The other sort is when he transfers to some creature, such as an image, the honor which belongs to God alone.”

To those crypto-Calvinists in broad, mega, “evangelical,” congregations which offer neither the “evangel,” or are hardly “congregations,” (but rather a collection of “venues” — someone recently asked one of our members which “venue” he attended? Puzzled, this member said, “Well, the worship venue.” “Which one is that? Do they serve coffee? Is there a praise band?” “No,” the member replied, “It’s the whole congregation together, worshiping God, singing psalms, listening to the sermon.” Talk about a clash of paradigms. Our member was mystified by the “venue question and the broad evangelical fellow was completely mystified by historic Reformed worship) the question remains. There may not be the memorial, ritual, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass but there there are “dramas” and there is clowning, and Narcissism and the trivialization of God and of his Christ so that the service is hardly recognizably “Christian”  any longer. Few strangers are in jeopardy of walking into such services and of being confronted by the awful reality of the living God so that they might want to throw themselves to the ground (1 Cor 14:25).

In their own ways the broad “evangelical” seeker service (with all its venues) and the Roman Mass seek to tame God. Since Rome made Jesus so utterly transcendent (because of their Christology and their piety) his place as a truly human Mediator was taken by saints and the BVM. By transubstantiation God the Son becomes manageable. The Mass, confession, and penance are all things that we do. We process in, we adore, we remember, we offer. So too in the evangelical megachurch, we worship, we praise, we experience, we entertain, we choose the venue by which we shall approach God. Different dramas, same story.

The God is scripture is not manageable. He has a nasty tendency to “break out” against sin or trivialization. The golden calf trivialized God. The golden calf made them comfortable. It allowed them to approach God on terms that were familiar. The God of history, the God of Scripture, the God who is, however, will not be approached, not that way. He comes to us on his terms and calls us to respond, to come to him, on his terms. There are no venues for approaching God except humble and holy worship in response to his Law and his Gospel. Calvin understood this and knew that God, the God of Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To illustrate and prove the connection between inward and outward piety, between body and soul, Calvin turned to 1 Corinthians 8. When eating food offered to idols leads others to worship the idols it’s obvious that eating the food isn’t innocent. At stake is the spiritual well being of “one for whom Christ died.” The case is even clearer in 1 Corinthians 10. Participating in ritual sacrifices to God makes one a “partaker of the true consecration” and participating in sacrifices to idols also makes one a participant in idolatry. The true worship of the true God is exclusive. It is impossible to worship the true God false or to truly worship a false god. “Whoever takes the one, utterly renounces the other.” That principle of exclusivity alone explains Daniel and his companions. Were it otherwise they would have been able “to escape by this subtlety.” Indeed, were it otherwise it would have been foolish for them to “expose themselves to death.”They could have said, “others will worship the statue, nut  our spirit shall be lifted up to heaven to worship the living God….” Either they were guilty of “ill considered zeal” or the Nicodemites are wrong.

What about the ordinary, mere Christian? After all, “not everyone can be so steadfast?” Calvin accused those who make such pleas  of “seeking cover-ups for our sins….” They argue that 1 Corinthians 10 was about rank paganism, not about the Roman mass and, however corrupt, the intention of the mass is to worship the God. It seems to them that “there is not so great a danger in partaking in idolatry which is cloaked in the name of God….” To which he responded by pointing to the example of the brass serpent (Num 21:8). Here is an example of a “holy sacrament of Jesus Christ” instituted by God that had been corrupted into idolatry. They too “pleaded the fair colors of the name of God.” Then there is the case of the golden calf (Ex 32) which was “designed to represent” God.” Nevertheless it was “false and perverse” and idolatry.  The same was true of the calves erected by Jereboam at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28). They were dedicated to the worship of God and yet they were idolatrous. The same was true of the temple in Samaria. It was not dedicated to Jupiter, but to God.  “I therefore conclude that it is no more permitted to partake in idolatry wich has the name of God imposed upon it than if it was purely something of the Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or pagans.”

What Calvin saw, which we in our late modern subjectivist time have difficulty seeing, is that intention is not everything, it doesn’t change the truth, the reality. Christ died for our bodies and our souls and demands that we return to him true, grateful worship without bodies and souls, inwardly and outwardly. There is more to worship than intention. Actions matter. Location matters. There is an objective reality that cannot be denied. Participating in false worship, however sincerely, is still participating in false worship. It offends God and hurts other Christians. For Calvin it was indefensible on both grounds.

He  recognized that difference between some of the biblical narratives and his own time and yet he also recognized that some of the narratives described situations quite like his. Mutatis mutandis (with the changes having been changed), he moved from the biblical narratives to his own time. If there were difficulties for Calvin so there are for us. This series is not aimed at Roman Christians who profess the Reformed faith but to those in nominally evangelical congregations where the preaching of the gospel has been replaced with therapy and the sacraments are absent or corrupt and where the 2nd commandment isn’t even a distant memory. Yes, these congregations may be nominally Protestant, but how different are they really from those of which Calvin was thinking? The most fundamental issue remains the same: the ostensible good intention of private worship in a corrupt congregation that has rejected reformation is corrupt whatever the private intention of the crypto-Calvinist.

Sometimes it seems as if Calvin were living in our day. Sometimes his criticism of our hypocrisy is so penetrating that it’s hard to believe that it was written more than 400 years ago. The next section in his Short Treatise (1543) is a good example. He addressed first those who “wish to be perceived as more devout than others” who attend the “daily” mass. “Anyone who has made modest progress in the gospel knows that what the priest does there is sacrilege and abomination.” For Calvin it was obvious that it was the moral equivalent of prostrating oneself “before an idol.” It was sin. It was partaking of the “useless works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). How can one participate in it, pretend “to acknowledge it” then later wash ones hands of it? Does God see nothing? Here Calvin penetrated the heart: “But they say, ‘We are not the ones who commit the evil. What more can we do, since it is not up to us to correct it?’ I answer that the evil that I reprove in them is that they do not abstain from what they know to be bad….”

The “parochial Mass” (weekly) is a similar case. The Nicodemite defends himself by arguing that at least there, despite the great corruption, they may participate in the Supper “‘because it is a memorial to us of the Supper of the Lord, we take it thus.’” Calvin replied to the crypto-evangelical, “Indeed? Can we thus transform things to our taste, and say that darkness is light?” Once more his arrow hit dead center. Ours is an age of extreme subjectivism, i.e. the thought and attitude that says that how one experiences something (or someone) is the most important thing. Indeed, in our time, it is widely held that experience determines reality. Of course this is complete rubbish and is easily shown to be so. Try “experiencing” a red light as a green light. Try explaining to the nice police officer that you experienced the light as green and that it was green for you. In response, he will explain that he is writing you a citation for $271 and that the law expects your experience to conform to objective reality henceforth.

What is fascinating here is that, in the crypto-evangelicals, Calvin faced the very same subjectivism that dominates American religion and particularly the religion of American “evangelicals,” including that of our “crypto-Calvinists” who make the very same argument in defense of their remaining in the mega-church, multi-venue worship services. Since they receive the service in a certain way, it is that way to them.

Calvin was not having any of it:

I ask you, what similarity is there between the holy sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus, and this mixture made up of all sorts of garbage? First do they thing it’s nothing that the Mass is accounted a sacrifice, whereby God is appease not only concerning the living, but also concerning the dead? Is it nothing that the canon, which is the main substance of the Mass, is full of abominable blasphemies? Again, is it nothing that the prayer is made for the souls in purgatory, which we know to be utterly superstitious? However, were there only the diabolical delusion of sacrificing Jesus Christ to God, so that such a work could a satisfaction and payment for the living and the dead, this is not altogether a patent renunciation of his death and passion, which is nullified if one does not recognize it as a unique and perpetual sacrifice? Is it not a direct corruption of his sacred Supper? Certainly these to such execrable pollutions cannot be separated from the Mass anymore than heat can be separated from fire.

The objective facts of the Roman Mass are too plain to be denied. Our experience does not create or norm reality. God spoke creation into existence. Certainly we do experience reality, but our experience of it isn’t normative. We cannot transform, as if by fiat, sins into righteousness, whether those sins be part of the parochial mass or the “evangelical” skit. Are puppets, playdoh, and powerpoint really any better than the sorts of things about which Calvin complained concerning the Roman Mass?

Finally, we should not miss the obvious tension that now exists between Calvin’s (and that of Reformed orthodoxy) understanding of the Roman Mass and the understanding that which is being promoted in certain borderline (see Recovering the Reformed Confession, 1-2, 169) Reformed communions. They cannot both be right. Either the Roman Mass includes an ostensible memorial, propitiatory, sacrifice or it does not. The Council of Trent, Session 22, in 1562 declared that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice. It condemned anyone who denied that doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) perpetuates that dogma. That is what Calvin, who was raised in the Roman Communion, was taught and that is the view he rejected as completely inimical to biblical doctrine of the Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism rejected the same doctrine in Q. 80. The Reformed did not misrepresent the the Roman doctrine and practice. As with the doctrine of justification, it seems that their desire to be ecumenical has caused our friends to attempt to transform (to use Calvin’s word) certain unpleasant realities in the Roman doctrine and practice in order to justify their ecumenism.

[This essay was first published serially in 2009 and appears here slightly revised]

Calvin As Theologian Of Comfort

Wikipedia, that ubiquitous source of unimpeachable scholarship, defines “consolation” as “something of value, when one fails to get something of higher value….” That is precisely the opposite of what John Calvin (1509–64) meant by “consolation.”For Calvin, the consolation that Christ gives to his people, by the gospel, through the Spirit, is not second prize but to be valued above that which we lost. When we consider Calvin, “consolation” might not be the thing we first associate with him. The dominant perception of Calvin in our culture is that of a tyrannical, dyspeptic fellow, who delighted in nothing more than to dispatch a few heretics to the flames before breakfast. That caricature, however, was one drawn by his enemies during his lifetime and sadly, despite the facts, it has stuck for a variety of reasons.

First, the modern picture of Calvin has been skewed badly by the uncritical acceptance by earlier modern historians of partisan caricatures of Calvin and thus, he has been a useful foil for advocates of the modernist religion. Just as the Renaissance scholars juxtaposed themselves as enlightened, in contrast to the allegedly benighted middle ages, so in the various European and British Enlightenments of the 18th and 19th centuries scholars capitalized on sixteenth-century caricatures of Calvin to create a useful whipping boy with which to contrast their own view of the world.

Second, enlightened Modernity went to war against Christian theism, against its doctrines of the Trinity, of God as Creator, of Adam as federal head of humanity, of sin, of grace, of salvation through faith in Christ, and of a divinely instituted church. In short, enlightened Modernity rejected the historic catholic faith and Calvin became a symbol of repressive Christian theism. In place of Christianity, Modernity advocated a religion of a unitarian, unknowable God, of human perfectibility, of the universal fatherhood of God, of the universal fraternity of man, and of human autonomy with respect to all external authorities (e.g., Scripture or the church). For Modernity, nothing was more antithetical to the religion of the Enlightenment than the doctrine of unconditional predestination and thus, in the modern period, Calvin became the theologian of the decree from which writers began to draw inferences about what he must have done in Geneva. The one thing every modern, enlightened person thinks he knows about Calvin is that he killed Servetus. Of course the story was much more complicated and most of what people think they know is false.

The result of the modernist, Enlightenment polemic against Calvin has been what P. E. Hughes called a “popular fantasy” of Calvin as the tyrant of Geneva. Consider a January 2009 article in the New York Times Magazine, which discusses the resurgence of aspects of Reformed theology among evangelicals. To buttress the author’s contention that Calvinism is inherently oppressive she appeals to an unhappy episode in Calvin’s life, suggesting, in effect, that Calvin was a tyrant and thus it is not surprising that his modern followers have similar impulses. To be sure Calvin could be severe with enemies and even friends but he was also a theologian of consolation.

Yes, Calvin was a sinner, but he was more a suffering pilgrim in Geneva than he was a conquering, jack-booted tyrant. He endured regular insults that today would drive most ministers from their pulpits. His opponents discharged firearms outside his house. Some named their dogs after him and threatened him. People made rude comments during sermons and when that was forbidden, they made rude noises in their attempt to thwart his preaching. He was summarily and unjustly fired from his position as minister in the church in Geneva because he dared oppose some of the leading families in Geneva. When, three years later, he was called to return, ostensibly for a short period that turned into 23 years, he obeyed more out of duty than joy.

He married Idelette de Bure in 1540. They were married for nine years. In that time she bore him a son, Jacques, who died in infancy, in August of 1542. Idellete herself died in 1549 leaving Calvin a widower. We do not often think of Calvin as a widower and father who lost an infant child, and Calvin did not encourage others to pity him. He recorded very little about his interior, emotional life and there was no sixteenth-century equivalent of Oprah in Geneva. Nevertheless, Idellette’s suffering and death and the loss of his son “left a mark,” as we say. These aspects of Calvin’s life, however, did not make it into the New York Times Magazine.

It is those who know their sins, who know their need for a Savior, who look to Christ for consolation. John Calvin was just such a one. He found comfort in the good news of Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, in justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He found consolation in his union with Christ, in the sacraments, in corporate and private prayer, in friendship, and in the support of fellow ministers in and around Geneva. Calvin was, as Herman Selderhuis has reminded us, a theologian of the cross.

The Calvin of history, however, was, as Bob Godfrey reminds us, a pilgrim and a pastor, who needed and found consolation in the midst of suffering, in Christ and his work for us, through the work of his Spirit in us, and who ministered that comfort to others. In the following parts of this series we will see how he was an exegete, theologian, and pastor of consolation.

I. Calvin’s Exegesis of Consolation (in Paul)
In the first part we saw that Calvin was a pilgrim who himself needed the consolation of the gospel, given by the Spirit, through the ministry of Word, sacrament, and prayer. He was also a careful, thoughtful, and sophisticated reader of texts and principally Scripture. It is well known that Calvin was deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism. We all know about the Renaissance concern to get back to original sources (ad fontes) and to read them in their original context, according to the original intent of the author. A less well-known aspect of the humanism in which Calvin was trained was concern for the well-being of humans as God’s image bearers.

In his 1539 commentary on Romans we get a picture of how he understood Paul’s doctrine of paraklesis (consolation or comfort). Commenting on Romans 15:4, on the phrase, “through the patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope,” he recognized that the noun paraklesis might be translated a couple of different ways. He wrote:

The word consolation some render exhortation; and of this I do not disapprove, only that consolation is more suitable to patience, for this arises from it; because then only we are prepared to bear adversities with patience, when God blends them with consolation.

There were two reasons for not translating “paraklesis” as “exhortation,” the first is because “consolation” or “comfort” fit the context better, but the second reason is pastoral, because it is better pastoral theology. One of the chief purposes of Scripture is to “to raise up those who are prepared by patience, and strengthened by consolations, to the hope of eternal life, and to keep them in the contemplation of it.” He made the same choice in his interpretation of paraklesis in his 1548 commentary on Philippians 2:1.

No Pauline epistle focuses more on consolation than 2 Corinthians. In his 1546 commentary on 2 Corinthians Calvin had opportunity to consider the biblical doctrine of consolation at length. On 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “The God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our tribulation.” Calvin argued that Paul was able to endure “his tribulations with fortitude and alacrity” because of the “support derived from his consolation….” The source of our consolation is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who is the source of blessings, “for where Christ is not, there the beneficence of God is not.”

On verse 4, he noted that the consolation that Paul had received was not for his own benefit but for that of the Corinthians, because “whatever favors God conferred upon him, were not given for his own sake merely, but in order that he might have more in his power for helping others. And, unquestionably, when the Lord confers upon us any favor, he in a manner invites us by his example to be generous to our neighbors.” This he said is particularly true for pastors.

In his comment on 2 Corinthians 2:15 he argued that the comfort spoken of there should not be taken “actively” but “passively,” to mean “that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations.” The troubles of this life are “common to good and bad alike,” but when they happen to “the wicked” there is nothing redemptive in them. When they happen to believers, those Christians “are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them.” Because our sufferings are in union with Christ, part of our identity with his sufferings, we are “sustained by the consolations of Christ, so as to prevent him from being overwhelmed with calamities.”

The ground of comfort is extrinsic, it is the promise of God in Christ. It has subjective consequences, however, just as the afflictions of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 1:6 refers to our personal experience of misery. Comfort or consolation is the antidote, as it were, for our experience of being “pressed down with anxiety from a feeling of misery.” Consolation refers to the lightening of the mind of grief.

For Calvin, Paul’s sufferings and experience of consolation “flowed out to the whole Church” and served as an encouragement to them that, “inasmuch as they concluded, that God who had sustained and refreshed him in his emergency, would, in like manner, not be wanting to them.” Paul’s sufferings were for the salvation of the Corinthians, not that they were “expiations or sacrifices for sins, but as edifying them by confirming them.” Salvation and comfort were joined “with the view of pointing out the way in which their salvation was to be accomplished.”

Why does God permit us to suffer? On 2 Corinthians 1:9 Calvin argued that we don’t appreciate how “how displeasing to God confidence in ourselves must be” so that, as a corrective, “it is necessary that we should be condemned to death.” The good news is that “God raises the dead. As we must first die, in order that, renouncing confidence in ourselves….” We must begin with despair, but “with the view of placing our hope in God.” He returned to that theme on 2 Corinthians 7:6. The Lord “comforts the lowly.” “Hence a most profitable doctrine may be inferred—that the more we have been afflicted, so much the greater consolation has been prepared for us by God.”

Though he is often pictured as a systematic theologian and though most people give most of their attention to Calvin’s Institutes, in fact Calvin was a preacher and a student of Scripture. His Institutes were harvested out of his biblical commentaries and preaching. So, his conception of the necessity, nature, and source of consolation, for the Christian, was shaped by the way he encountered the biblical teaching about consolation and particularly from his work in the Pauline epistles.

II. His Theology of Consolation (1559 Institutes)
In the previous installment we looked at the way Calvin read Paul’s epistles and how he drew from them a doctrine of consolation, of God’s presence with his people in Christ, by the Spirit, in the gospel, in the sacraments, and in prayer. In this (third) part of this series we consider Calvin as a theologian of consolation.

We think of Calvin’s Institutes as a summary of doctrine and it is that, but it is more than that. It is a harvest of his biblical exegesis and a rich collection of pastoral and spiritual reflection that brings help and relief to Christ’s people. In Institutes 2.15.12 on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell” Calvin insisted on the true humanity of Jesus. In order to be our Mediator and our helper Jesus must be like us in every way, sin excepted. Of course, this is the teaching of Scripture (Hebrews 4:15) and it permeated Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s person and work for us and in us. He wrote, “Mediator has experienced our weaknesses the better to help us in our miseries.” According to Calvin, Christ submitted to “weakness” “purely by his love for us.” Calvin’s opponents, he said, don’t appreciate what Christ has done for us because “they have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.”

Because Christ suffered the pangs of death, we know that he experienced “the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith.” He himself felt that he was “forsaken by God.” Even so, Jesus did not waver in the least from trust in the goodness of God. This is a frequent theme with Calvin. Even in the cry from the cross, Calvin noted that Jesus “did not cease to call him his God….”

The focus on consolation was most intense in book 3. He observed that “there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it.” They are full of anxiety because they are full of doubt. They lack assurance because they doubt that the promises of God apply to them in particular. They are guilty of poor reasoning and they misunderstand the true nature of faith. “But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves” (Institutes, 3.2.15).

True faith produces confidence (fiducia). The very boldness or confidence which the Council of Trent damned as “presumption,” Calvin said is “right faith” which dares “with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence” (fiducia).

He called this “confidence” the “axis” (cardo) “on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.” (Institutes, 3.2.16).

He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘…repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).

The source of consolation is faith and the object of faith is the promises of God in Christ. The first thing that faith apprehends is Christ and the first benefit of Christ is justification sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, through faith alone). He called this benefit the “axis of religion” (religionis cardinem) or the thing on which the Christian faith pivots.

For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself (Institutes, 3.11.1).

On the connection between justification through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone and consolation he wrote: “This is our whole confidence, this is our only consolation, this is the whole ground of our hope (Institutes 3.13.4). Here he invoked a series of crucial biblical, evangelical, and Reformed ideas. He equated consolation with confidence. They are two sides of the same coin. We have consolation because we have confidence in the gospel and we have confidence because we have consolation.

III. Consolation and Pastoral Ministry
For Calvin, christian consolation is not only a theological reality but it is also the result of good pastoral practice. Christians often fail to appropriate the consolation they might because they don’t humble themselves to confess their sins to one another.

Let us take the apostle’s view, which is simple and open: namely, that we should lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then, as we are aware of our brothers’ infirmities, let us pray to God for these (Institutes, 3.4.6).

He recognized that all Christians have a duty to admonish and rebuke one another, but ministers have a special responsibility here. They “have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls.” The Christian should “use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately, to console the people of God by the gospel teaching” (Institutes, 3.4.12).

Another great source of consolation for believers is heaven. Despite the frequent portrayal of Calvin as a theologian of glory and triumph, it is simply untrue. He was a theologian of the cross. He understood that the lot of “the entire company of believers, so long as they dwell on earth, must be “as sheep destined for the slaughter” [Romans 8:36] to be conformed to Christ their Head.” When this happens, it causes us to lift our “heads above everything earthly….” To appropriate consolation in this vale of tears, we have to learn to seek the heavenly existence, where the Lord “will clothe them with “a robe of glory… and rejoicing” [Ecclus. 6:31, EV], will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship—in fine, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”

We also experience Christian consolation when we pray the Lord’s Prayer because, in it, Christ has “prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask. From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly—in short, nothing unacceptable to him—since we are asking almost in his own words” (2.20.34).

As we pray and make use of Word and sacrament ministry, we learn to think about our election properly and that strengthens our consolation. We are all tempted to doubt, to wonder if the promises are really true. We learn not to try to make our election “more certain” by attempting to “investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word.” To do that is to “engulf” oneself “in a deadly abyss.” When we approach the question of election “as it is contained in his Word” we “reap the inestimable fruit of consolation. Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God’s call, and to end with it” (Institutes, 3.24.4).

He explained,

First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests…But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election (Institutes, 3.13.5).

Calvin, we should not ask the question, “Am I elect?” but rather, “Do I believe?” Only the elect come to faith and thereby enjoy union with Christ. Contrary to what some would have us expect, for Calvin, the choices we make in this life are both real, free from compulsion, and encompassed in God’s secret providence. Our business is not to guess God’s providence ahead of time but to respond appropriately to God’s Word (Deut 29:29).

For Calvin, the first thing we must know is our need of a Savior, and this we learn from God’s holy, unyeilding law. This is because, for sinners, the requirements of the law are “far above human capacity” such that, relative to acceptance with God, apart from Christ, sinners can only see in them “the most immediate death.” (Institutes 2.7.3). Apart from God’s law we are tempted to think that we are well but, in its light, the sinner begins to feel that he is “panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away.” The law strips us of our blinding arrogance (Institutes, 2.7.6).

The good news for sinners is that, for those who trust that Christ died and rose again for them, in their place (Institutes, 3.11.14), who with “confidence…embrace the mercy of God as forgiving sin for Christ’s sake” (Antidote to Trent), who come to God “independent of, nay, in the absence of the merit of [ones own] works, because faith receives that righteousness which the Gospel bestows” (Institutes, 3.11.18), have what the gospel offers: a right standing with God, in Christ, grounded not on what is happening in them (Rome) but upon what Christ has done for them and promised to them in the good news.

Calvin did not set the objective (“for us”) against the subjective (“in us”). Both are essential. The same Triune God who created us, who redeemed us, is also sanctifying us. God the Spirit is at work in us, making us alive, giving us faith and union with Christ. Through those benefits the Spirit is working an abiding assurance and confidence that whatever hard providences we may endure, we do so under the Father’s gentle hand, with Christ our Savior, the Spirit helping, assuring, and renewing us in Christ’s image.

IV. Consolation Preached
In part one of this series we considered Calvin’s interpretation of several biblical passages on consolation. In part two we looked at how he harvested a theology of consolation from his exegetical work. In part three we examined what he wrote in his Institutes on consolation, and in part four we focused on consolation in pastoral ministry. In this section we will analyze how Calvin preached the biblical doctrine of consolation to his congregation.

Calvin was a preacher. All his work in his biblical commentaries and theological treatises came to expression in his preaching on the Lord’s Days in in the mid-week sermons on the Old Testament. We can see briefly a little bit of Calvin’s pastoral wisdom in his approach to the matter of Job’s friends in his 1554 sermons on Job 2:11. He preached:

It is a good likelihood at the first blush that God meant to relieve his servant Job, when he sent men unto him that pretended to have pity upon his miseries, and were skillful and wise to console him, as we shall see by their discourses anon after, how they were exquisite persons. And so a man might suppose, that God would henceforth stretch out his hand unto Job to deliver him from miseries that that he had sent him. But we see that this visitation of his friends was to increase his misery and to plunge him even into the bottom of endless waves.

The first thing that strikes one is his bold language about God’s intention, and second, how deeply Calvin had entered into the narrative, how much he identified with Job and how he expected his congregation to identify with Job.

We should remember that such identification might have been a little easier in the 16th century. We recall how much Calvin suffered physically and emotionally through his adult life, and especially in Geneva where he faced constant and often vicious opposition for decades.

He continued:

Whereby we be admonished, that if at any time we be in hope to be drawn out of our afflictions: we must not think it strange though the matter fall not out as we have conceived. For we see how Job was disappointed of his hope which he had when he saw his friends, and how they became as devils to torment him more than he had been tormented before.

n was quite conscious of the fallenness and frailty of humanity. There is a profoundly realistic quality to his comments throughout this section on Job. Thus he did not attack Job’s counselors as some have done. He said,

Yet notwithstanding, their mind was not to do so, neither came they to mock Job: they brought no malicious purpose nor wicked intent with them: but they had a right and hearty good will and love toward him. For it is said that their meaning was to have compassion on him, i.e. to say, to make themselves part of his misery, so far as was possible for them to bear such a grief, as if they had been joined and knit together in this person.

These are the words of a man who had not only suffered physically and emotionally but also faced the inappropriate comments of well-intended but bungling friends and acquaintances.

…Let us take warning by such example, that although we be well minded toward our neighbors and be desirous to console them in their miseries, yet God must guide us or else our said good intent will avail us nothing. Therefore when we see our neighbors in any danger or necessity truly we ought beseech God to give us the grace to have compassion on them and to help them, but yet that is not all.

The medieval theologians and Rome had made a great deal about “good intentions.” There were indulgences for those who had good intentions. For Calvin, however, real love is more than good intentions. Would-be comforters need the grace of a genuine feeling for others and wisdom.

We see how there be many zealous persons which are very earnest and desirous to show themselves charitable toward those whom they are able to help, but what for that there is not handsomeness nor good fashion. When they come to a poor creature that is already afflicted they bring him a new torment.

According to Calvin, before (and as) we offer consolation to the hurting we should pray that God would give us the “intended and right use” of consolation at the moment. That we would be of genuine use and that we would have “skill to handle folk as shall be convenient and agreeable to their nature.”

He was a skilled and patient student of Scripture and preacher but he was also a pastor who had suffered significant losses. He knew the difference between genuine and false consolation, that which directs us to Christ and his mercies and that which calls attention to the would-be comforter.

Though it does not fit the old modernist view of Calvin, he had genuine compassion for those whom today we call “the hurting.” He was not, however, a subjectivist, i.e., his first reflex was not to turn inward. He consistently grounded the Christian’s consolation in the objective facts of redemption in Christ, in the person of Christ, and in the promises of Christ. Nevertheless, he valued highly the Christians’ subjective experience of and appropriation of grace. When wrote and preached about consolation he evidenced a strong concern that ministers particularly understand, offer, and preach to their congregations the consolation of Christ.

At the center of Calvin’s doctrine of consolation is the gospel of the obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the doctrine justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The old medieval and Roman doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification was, for Calvin, no basis for consolation or assurance or confidence but only a basis for doubt and fear.

For Calvin, Christian consolation is an essential aspect of faith. Its opposite is despair, a refusal to trust in the goodness, kindness, and mercy of God. The consolation of the Christian faith is an essential part of sanctity and all these are grounded in the gospel.

In contrast to some contemporary approaches to pastoral care, Calvin was what we might call a “supernaturalist.“ He was also a Trinitarian in his theology of pastoral care. As B. B. Warfield noted, Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Arguably half of his Institutes were devoted to the person and work of the Spirit and according to Calvin, it is the Spirit who consoles grieving Christians. Nevertheless, in contrast to those whom we might call ”hyper-supernaturalists,” Calvin did not set the work of the Spirit in the believer over against the means ordained by God: the churchly ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Spirit brings consolation but he does so through the means he gave to his church. Thus, when we confess the “due use of ordinary means” we are following in Calvin’s footsteps.

John Calvin was a scholar and recipient of the consolation that God gives to his suffering people. For him, consolation was not, as we might think, a second prize, a replacement for what we really want but rather, he thought it as bringing us the most important thing: Christ, his grace, and his mercy.