John Calvin: The spiritual comfort of the doctrine of God’s Providence

28 02 2012

Below is an excerpt from Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion 1.17.10-11.  He explains the spiritual comforts associated with the doctrine of the providence of God, a doctrine which many times has calmed and quieted my own soul. Aside from the comfort so well exhibited, the first paragraph which details the dangers of life is quite unnerving and worth meditating on.

Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms. Not to go beyond ourselves, since the body is a receptacle, nay the nurse, of a thousand diseases, a man cannot move without carrying along with him many forms of destruction. His life is in a manner interwoven with death. For what else can be said where heat and cold bring equal danger? Then, in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger. If a sharp instrument is in your own hand, or that of a friend, the possible harm is manifest. All the savage beasts you see are so many beings armed for your destruction. Even within a high walled garden, where everything ministers to delight, a serpent will sometimes lurk. Your house, constantly exposed to fire, threatens you with poverty by day, with destruction by night. Your fields, subject to hail, mildew, drought, and other injuries, denounce barrenness, and thereby famine. I say nothing of poison, treachery, robbery, some of which beset us at home, others follow us abroad. Amid these perils, must not man be very miserable, as one who, more dead than alive, with difficulty draws an anxious and feeble breath, just as if a drawn sword were constantly suspended over his neck? It may be said that these things happen seldom, at least not always, or to all, certainly never all at once. I admit it; but since we are reminded by the example of others, that they may also happen to us, and that our life is not an exception any more than theirs, it is impossible not to fear and dread as if they were to befall us. What can you imagine more grievous than such trepidation? Add that there is something like an insult to God when it is said, that man, the noblest of the creatures, stands exposed to every blind and random stroke of fortune. Here, however, we were only referring to the misery which man should feel, were he placed under the dominion of chance.

But when once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power—so governs them at will by his nod—so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit. For thus sings the Psalm, “Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday” &c. (Ps. 91:2-6). Hence the exulting confidence of the saints, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me.” “Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Ps. 118:6; 27:3; 23:4).

How comes it, I ask, that their confidence never fails, but just that while the world apparently revolves at random, they know that God is every where at work, and feel assured that his work will be their safety? When assailed by the devil and wicked men, were they not confirmed by remembering and meditating on Providence, they should, of necessity, forthwith despond. But when they call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service,—when the godly think of all these things they have ample sources of consolation.

Calvin: Enter boldly into God’s presence by the blood of Christ

20 12 2011

Below is Calvin’s exposition of Hebrews 10.19.  I’ve italicized what I think is one of the most profound thoughts on the passage that I’ve come across

He says first, that we have “boldness to enter into the holiest”.
This privilege was never granted to the fathers under the Law, for the
people were forbidden to enter the visible sanctuary, though the high
priest bore the names of the tribes on his shoulders, and twelve stones
as a memorial of them on his breast. But now the case is very different,
for not only symbolically, but in reality an entrance into heaven is made
open to us through the favour of Christ, for he has made us a royal

He adds, “by the blood of Jesus”, because the door of the sanctuary
was not opened for the periodical entrance of the high priest, except
through the intervention of blood. But he afterwards marks the difference between this blood and that of beasts; for the blood of beasts, as it soon turns to corruption, could not long retain its efficacy; but the blood of Christ, which is subject to no corruption, but flows ever as a pure stream, is sufficient for us even to the end of the world. It is no wonder that beasts slain in sacrifice had no power to quicken, as they were dead; but Christ who arose from the dead to bestow life on us, communicates his own life to us. It is a perpetual consecration of the way, because the blood of Christ is always in a manner distilling before the presence of the Father, in order to irrigate heaven and earth.

Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews 10. 19

Calvin: God, Worship, and Idolatry

19 12 2011

Below is an excerpt from John Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion ch 12. I have linked through to the whole of his Institutes on CCEL (fantastic resource!). Calvin’s Institutes (two volume set) is one of the most cherished works in my library. It was given to me by a dear friend and old prayer partner Adam Chapman. I have read them and re-read them a number of times and am always impressed and the knew wealth of knowledge and insight that Calvin is still able to provide. For example, you may notice in Section 1.1 that knowledge of God is incomplete unless it is enjoined with worship of God. What a timely and stern warning to students of theology who love accumulating knowledge but do not accumulate a love for God! These and other jems you will find below. Some come out easy, some only with hard work. Either way I hope you enjoy it.



1. Scripture, in teaching that there is but one God, does not make a dispute about words, but attributes all honour and religious worship to him alone. This proved, 1st, By the etymology of the term. 2d, By the testimony of God himself, when he declares that he is a jealous God, and will not allow himself to be confounded with any fictitious Deity.

2. The Papists in opposing this pure doctrine, gain nothing by their distinction of δυλια and λατρια.

3. Passages of Scripture subversive of the Papistical distinction, and proving that religious worship is due to God alone. Perversions of Divine worship.

1. We said at the commencement of our work (chap. 2), that the knowledge of God consists not in frigid speculation, but carries worship along with it; and we touched by the way (chap. 5 s. 6, 9, 10) on what will be more copiously treated in other places (Book 2, chap. 8)—viz. how God is duly worshipped. Now I only briefly repeat, that whenever Scripture asserts the unity of God, it does not contend for a mere name, but also enjoins that nothing which belongs to Divinity be applied to any other; thus making it obvious in what respect pure religion differs from superstition. The Greek word εὐσέβεια means “right worship;” for the Greeks, though groping in darkness, were always aware that a certain rule was to be observed, in order that God might not be worshipped absurdly. Cicero truly and shrewdly derives the name religion from relego, and yet the reason which he assigns is forced and farfetched—viz. that honest worshipers read and read again, and ponder what is true.9191 Cic. De Nat. Deor. lib. 2 c. 28. See also Lactant. Inst. Div. lib. 4 c. 28. I rather think the name is used in opposition to vagrant license—the greater part of mankind rashly taking up whatever first comes in their way, whereas piety, that it may stand with a firm step, confines itself within due bounds. In the same way superstition seems to take its name from its not being contented with the measure which reason prescribes, but accumulating a superfluous mass of vanities. But to say nothing more of words, it has been universally admitted in all ages, that religion is vitiated and perverted whenever false opinions are introduced into it, and hence it is inferred, that whatever is allowed to be done from inconsiderate zeal, cannot be defended by any pretext with which 105the superstitious may choose to cloak it. But although this confession is in every man’s mouth, a shameful stupidity is forthwith manifested, inasmuch as men neither cleave to the one God, nor use any selection in their worship, as we have already observed.

But God, in vindicating his own right, first proclaims that he is a jealous God, and will be a stern avenger if he is confounded with any false god; and thereafter defines what due worship is, in order that the human race may be kept in obedience. Both of these he embraces in his Law when he first binds the faithful in allegiance to him as their only Lawgiver, and then prescribes a rule for worshipping him in accordance with his will. The Law, with its manifold uses and objects, I will consider in its own place; at present I only advert to this one, that it is designed as a bridle to curb men, and prevent them from turning aside to spurious worship. But it is necessary to attend to the observation with which I set out—viz. that unless everything peculiar to divinity is confined to God alone, he is robbed of his honour, and his worship is violated.

It may be proper here more particularly to attend to the subtleties which superstition employs. In revolting to strange gods, it avoids the appearance of abandoning the Supreme God, or reducing him to the same rank with others. It gives him the highest place, but at the same time surrounds him with a tribe of minor deities, among whom it portions out his peculiar offices. In this way, though in a dissembling and crafty manner, the glory of the Godhead is dissected, and not allowed to remain entire. In the same way the people of old, both Jews and Gentiles, placed an immense crowd in subordination to the father and ruler of the gods, and gave them, according to their rank, to share with the supreme God in the government of heaven and earth. In the same way, too, for some ages past, departed saints have been exalted to partnership with God, to be worshipped, invoked, and lauded in his stead. And yet we do not even think that the majesty of God is obscured by this abomination, whereas it is in a great measure suppressed and extinguished—all that we retain being a frigid opinion of his supreme power. At the same time, being deluded by these entanglements, we go astray after divers gods.

2. The distinction of what is called δυλια and λατρια was invented for the very purpose of permitting divine honours to be paid to angels and dead men with apparent impunity. For it is plain that the worship which Papists pay to saints differs in no respect from the worship of God: for this worship is paid without distinction; only when they are pressed they have recourse to the evasion, that what belongs to God is kept unimpaired, because they leave him λατρια. But since the question relates not to the word, but the thing, how can they be allowed to sport at will with a matter of the highest moment? But not to insist on this, the utmost they will obtain by their distinction is, that they give worship to God, and service to the others. For λατρεὶα in Greek has the same meaning as worship in Latin; whereas 106δουλεὶα properly means service, though the words are sometimes used in Scripture indiscriminately. But granting that the distinction is invariably preserved, the thing to be inquired into is the meaning of each. Δουλεὶα unquestionably means service, and λατρεὶα worship. But no man doubts that to serve is something higher than to worship. For it were often a hard thing to serve him whom you would not refuse to reverence. It is, therefore, an unjust division to assign the greater to the saints and leave the less to God. But several of the ancient fathers observed this distinction. What if they did, when all men see that it is not only improper, but utterly frivolous?

3. Laying aside subtleties, let us examine the thing. When Paul reminds the Galatians of what they were before they came to the knowledge of Gods he says that they “did service unto them which by nature are no gods,” (Gal. 4:8). Because he does not say λατρια, was their superstition excusable? This superstition, to which he gives the name of δυλια, he condemns as much as if he had given it the name of λατρια. When Christ repels Satan’s insulting proposal with the words, “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve,” (Mt. 4:10), there was no question of λατρια. For all that Satan asked was προσκὺνεσις (obeisance). In like manners when John is rebuked by the angel for falling on his knees before him (Rev. 19:10; 22:8, 9), we ought not to suppose that John had so far forgotten himself as to have intended to transfer the honour due to God alone to an angel. But because it was impossible that a worship connected with religion should not savour somewhat of divine worship, he could not προσκὺνει̑ν (do obeisance to) the angel without derogating from the glory of God. True, we often read that men were worshipped; but that was, if I may so speak, civil honour. The case is different with religious honour, which, the moment it is conjoined with worship, carries profanation of the divine honour along with it. The same thing may be seen in the case of Cornelius (Acts 10:25). He had not made so little progress in piety as not to confine supreme worship to God alone. Therefore, when he prostrates himself before Peter, he certainly does it not with the intention of adoring him instead of God. Yet Peter sternly forbids him. And why, but just because men never distinguish so accurately between the worship of God and the creatures as not to transfer promiscuously to the creature that which belongs only to God. Therefore, if we would have one God, let us remember that we can never appropriate the minutest portion of his glory without retaining what is his due. Accordingly, when Zechariah discourses concerning the repairing of the Church, he distinctly says not only that there would be one God, but also that he would have only one name—the reason being, that he might have nothing in common with idols. The nature of the worship which God requires will be seen in its own place (Book 2, c. 7 and 8). He has been pleased to prescribe in his Law what is lawful and right, and thus restrict men to a certain rule, 107lest any should allow themselves to devise a worship of their own. But as it is inexpedient to burden the reader by mixing up a variety of topics, I do not now dwell on this one. Let it suffice to remember, that whatever offices of piety are bestowed anywhere else than on God alone, are of the nature of sacrilege. First, superstition attached divine honours to the sun and stars, or to idols: afterwards ambition followed—ambition which, decking man in the spoils of God, dared to profane all that was sacred. And though the principle of worshipping a supreme Deity continued to be held, still the practice was to sacrifice promiscuously to genii and minor gods, or departed heroes: so prone is the descent to this vice of communicating to a crowd that which God strictly claims as his own peculiar right!

read Calvin’s Institutes online by clicking here

Rob Sturdy: Calvin’s Christology and the Doctrine of Accommodation

19 12 2011

This essay principally deals wiht the Christological implications of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation, which is essentially the “shrinking” of God so that the human intellect can grasp him.  

Dowey writes “Calvin’s theology exalts the category of knowledge.”[1] Dowey’s assertion is easily defensible considering Calvin’s opening statement of his famous Institutes on the Christian Religion concerns the nature of true wisdom as resting upon the double knowledge of God and ourselves (Inst 1.1.1).  And though Calvin’s theology placed enormous emphasis on the category of knowledge, this category nevertheless faced profound difficulties.  Calvin was an inheritor of a medieval epistemology that having departed from the more present epistemology of the early medieval period[2] refused a natural, unmediated knowledge of God.[3]  It was crucial therefore, for the knowledge of God to be mediated to humans through the material creation as well as through the special revelation of God’s spoken word.  The later Reformed maxim finitum no capax infiniti (“the finite is not capable of the infinite) came to articulate this important principle of late medieval and Reformed epistemology.[4] Because the finite is not capable of the infinite, it was necessary for God to reduce himself in order that he might in some small way be grasped by his creation.  For Calvin, as for many of the church’s theologians before him this process of reduction was known as accommodation.[5]

Though accommodation was used before Calvin, many Calvin scholars note that for Calvin accommodation is less peripheral and more central to the theological development of the reformer.  For example, Battles writes “Calvin makes this principle (accommodation) a consistent basis for his handling not only of Scripture but of every avenue of relationship between God and man.”[6]  Similarly, Paul Helm regards accommodation as the “central idea” of Calvin’s religious epistemology.[7]  If accommodation is at the center of Calvin’s epistemological program, what then might be at the center of accommodation?  Battles writes that the incarnation of the eternal Word in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is for Calvin the “accommodating act par excellence of our divine father, teacher, physician, judge and king.”[8]  So too does Dowey write that the “final accommodation to human sinfulness” was in the person of Christ.[9]  Though Balserak comes to the conclusion cautiously, he nevertheless also writes “the incarnation still seems to be…the unquestioned highpoint of his (Calvin’s) sphere of accommodating activity.”[10]

Whether accommodation is the epistemological principle of Calvin’s theology or that Christology ought to find itself at the center of Calvin’s theology of accommodation is debatable and beyond the scope of this paper.  What is clearly evident within Calvin’s corpus is that both accommodation and Christology hold privileged positions within the theological agenda of the reformer.  The question is thus prompted, how do Calvin’s thoughts on accommodation and his Christology interact with one another?  The organizing argument of this paper is that the doctrine of accommodation as employed by Calvin has significant influence on his Christology.  Calvin’s employment of the doctrine of accommodation determines his precise and innovative articulation of the incarnation, the atonement, redemption and the offices and actions of the mediator.  It will further be shown that in the incarnation, Calvin has articulated an accommodation that threatens neither God’s essence nor man’s nature in the condescension of the Word.  A serious treatment of one of these theological categories and their relationship to accommodation could fill twenty pages (and more!) of research.  Therefore these will be treated after an introductory fashion only, hoping to relate the parts to the whole to give a bird’s eye view of the effect Calvin’s epistemological concerns in accommodation have on his Christology. Read the rest of this entry »