The Sacred Script in the Theater of God
Calvin, the Bible, and the Western World
Desiring God 2009 National Conference
These are notes from the session, not a manuscript.
I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you all.
We should begin with a sentiment that I know the other speakers and you share as well: our business here is to glorify God not Calvin. To glorify Calvin instead of God would be the biggest way to insult Calvin.
When I first came to the understanding of the doctrines of grace in the late 80s, I spent the first several years denying I was a Calvinist and insisting that I was just being biblical. The term "Calvinism" is a form of theological shorthand.
God does not share his glory with another, as Isaiah says. Nonetheless, we can't ignore a towering figure like Calvin. Scripture says to honor those who have instructed us in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5). We can't honor Scripture by refusing to do what it says. You can't honor the Scriptures by putting a human teacher ahead of the Scriptures or by ignoring them altogether. Scripture says we do need human teachers.
There is no "I am of Paul," "I am of Apollos" here. It is gratitude to God for his servant John Calvin.
My topic is, given Calvin's life calling, an enormous task. Because he was both industrious and brilliant, I have a mountain of material with which to work.
Calvin's view of preaching, grounded in his view of Scripture, is what has placed the Western world so deeply in debt to John Calvin.
Calvin had a very high view of the Scripture (Institutes 4, 8). "The only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his word." In the church we have an assigned agenda. We are told what to do and what to talk about.
Calvin described the apostles as being sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit. Notice how Calvin is not separating Scripture from the one who gave us Scripture.
Who can dare say that Calvin had low views of God's greatness and sovereignty? For Calvin it was never naked philosophical sovereignty. It was revealed in the Scriptures and in the Incarnation.
Calvin understood and articulatd the greatness and sovereignty of God, but he did it in biblical categories. He wasn't a raw determinist.
We don't start with an a priori God. We start with a God who stoops to reveal himself. A God who lisps, Calvin said, to reveal himself to us.
God reveals himself in the Scriptures, in the natural world around us, and in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
We don't set these forms of revelation in contrast to one another. They work in harmony. He reveals and we believe, and all of this is part of his gift, part of his revelation. When we believe rightly we do not receive what God has done in pieces. Calvin did not divide God's revelation of himself in creation from his revelation of himself in the Word. We tend to want to categorize and compartmentalize things, probably because of our sin. We live in a fragmented age. Calvin refused to go this route.
The university is a Christian concept and depends upon Christian categories to function. Where does the "uni-" come from? It comes from Colossians 1 where Christ is said to tie all things together in himself. You can't have unity without the Son.
Calvin was an integrated thinker, yet we don't like to function in integration. We have multiversities. We like to shatter the world. We've created "traverver-sities."
Calvin did not treat the words and the person of God separately. He refused to fall into the error that Jesus rebuked in his day—John 5:39, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, when it is they that bear witness to me."
When you are converted, both in mind and heart, you start to see God in his word.
Calvin articulated these high views in such a way that he won great respect. Barth said that Calvin forged the doctrine of inspiration. Though we know this is not quite the case, we can say that he shaped the way that his heirs should be talking about inspiration.
Calvin's fundamentals aren't so much just the foundation of his theology but of all reality.
Calvin's view of preaching is extraordinarily high. He says that it is the place in which we meet with God. He did not hold that sermons were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, he saw it is the way in which Christ spoke to his church by his own mouth.
In his preachers Christ is discharging his office. What should we expect when we come to hear the word of God proclaimed? That we would hear his own words and, in a sense, see God himself speaking to us. That is the purpose and intention of preaching, not to compete with Scripture, but to be the platform from which God's word in Scripture is proclaimed.
This is why pulpit ministry has to be grounded in the Scriptures, in exposition. The minister should not deviate from what is assigned him. One of the things my father taught me about preaching was, "When you run out of things to say, go on to the next verse."
Notice that when you have a high view of Scripture and a high view of preaching, you have a potential competition between the two. That would be an egocentric view of preaching, however. And Calvin did not set the two at odds. The preacher is to preach what was written before he ever existed, as a herald and as an ambassador, and not to point to himself in any way.
A minister is not up there to develop a relationship with everybody individually. He is there to declare something that is outside of his control. He's not there to preach himself but Christ.
But if the church is in possession of the Word of God, what should that do to the preaching? Piper has written, "Brothers, we are not professionals." And I would add that we aren't improv artists either.
We have fallen for the trap of thinking that the Bible should have to stand up against the standards of Enlightenment ideals, when it's the Bible who should be setting the standards. The Scriptures are God's scales in which he weighs the whole world. We aren't writing on the walls of the banquet halls of heaven. He is the one speaking to us.
"Yet they who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards.... But even if anyone clears God's sacred word from evil speaking, they will still not create that certainty in the word that piety requires.... The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason." - Calvin.
Calvin is not rejecting reason altogether. He is only arguing for it in the right place. There are prerequisites for it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. If we are converted to God, then reason makes sense.
"Scripture is self-authenticating. Hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning." - Calvin
Calvin is not embracing a blind leap fideism. He says that to refute the cavils from the Enlightenment is possible. But he's not after proving Scripture to reason. He's interested in dethroning reason from making itself the standard.
John Calvin wrote and taught and preached as though the Bible were the sun around which all the solar system runs its course. Those who understand him do the same. As a preacher he could preach as though he knew the center because he held in his hands that which was the center.
Our debates over the inerrancy of the Bible tend to be limited to how pure the sun is. And there is no question that as far as that issue goes, Calvin would be with us in affirming the purity of the sun. But what good is a sun that orbits the earth, and which continues to drift further and further away?
Calvin's world was logo-centric. Everything was seen and warmed by the light and rays of the sun of the word.
The Bible and only the Bible is the ultimate and infallible spiritual authority in the lives of believers. We have fought a series of skirmishes over the infallibility of Scripture. But who today treats the Bible like Calvin did? Who treats it like a lit stick of dynamite in the pulpit? Who preaches sermons that make them check their life insurance policy first?
Our view of the Scripture needs to take practical account of both of these issues: the purity and place of the sun. These are the reformation basics of Calvin that we need to recover in our day.
What have we learned? Calvin understood what the Scriptures were like and what they are to do. Scripture is the script in the created theater of God's world. We are not to be extemporaneous actors who try to learn our own lines. God has given us our lines in his word, and we ought to heed them.
Others step up and claim that the theater belongs to them and that their play is what truly belongs. They have completed their rebellion.
What are we to do? We are to recognize where we are and we are to speak our lines in faith. We are not to murmur or mutter but speak out.
If we are to speak in faith, what is that faith? What does it do? What is it that overcomes the world? Why did Calvin make such a big dent in the world? He had God's word in his hand and he believed God. 1 John says that it's our faith that overcomes.
Why does the world not believe? When was the last time we commanded it to? When was the last time we spoke with authority and not like the scribes?
How will they believe without a preacher? And how will they preach unless they are sent? Sent to do what? We are not sent to preach a distant star or moon. We are sent to preach a blazing sun that lights and heats every creature, that dominates all things, and around which everything else must necessarily revolve.
We are not sent to make a few mild suggestions. We are not sent to have a relational dialogue. We are sent to preach and to declare. We are commissioned—ordained—to compel every manifestation of worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey God's word.
We come to declare that all men need to repent and believe. The kingdom of God is here. We declare what has been accomplished, not what we would like to be accomplished. We are ordained to feed the sheep and drive away the wolves. And if needs be, we have been ordained to preach the word as if we were thunder and lightening. How can we not? The Scriptures themselves are thunder and lightning.
Is this arrogant? No, it's the exact opposite. It is not self-flattery. God can raise up messengers after us.
May God have mercy on us and give us only what he can give. He did this for Calvin, and 500 years later we are still talking about it. He was a real man made out of real clay. But he had a real heart and held a real Bible in his hand. He had what we should call a real ministry.