The Sacred Script in the Theater of God

Desiring God 2009 National Conference

With Calvin in the Theater of God

I begin with a sentiment that I know the other contributors to this volume share, and which I hope the readers share as well. Our business here is to glorify God, not John Calvin. To glorify Calvin at the expense of God’s glory would be about the best way I could think of to insult John Calvin, as anyone who knows the central passion of his writings can attest. And why would you want to insult someone in celebration of his five hundredth birthday? In order to honor Calvin rightly, we can hardly neglect one of his foundational emphases.

And to flip this question around the other way, we cannot act as though our concern were to honor Scripture alone and go on to ignore a towering figure like Calvin. What does the Bible say? It says that we are “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). We can’t honor Scripture by refusing to do what it says. So there is no “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” spirit here — none of that. But there is great thankfulness to God, who gives capable teachers to his church.

The topic before me — John Calvin’s relationship to Scripture, and what that relationship did for the Western world — is, given his life calling, an enormous topic. He gave his life to the exposition of Scripture, and because he was both industrious and brilliant, there is a mountain of material to consider.

So what I want to do is begin with John Calvin’s understanding of Scripture, move on to his related view of preaching, and then show how his view of the supremacy of Scripture affects the task of preaching in a way that we have lost. It was that view of preaching, grounded on that view of Scripture, that has placed Western culture so deeply in debt to the great teacher of Geneva.


Let’s begin with some things that we might have guessed. Calvin had a very high view of Scripture. As he said in the Institutes,

Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word. (Institutes, 4.8.8)

We have, therefore, an assigned agenda. Comparing the apostles to their purported successors in the Roman communion, Calvin described the apostles as being “sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 4.8.9), In the course of his discussion of predestination, Calvin said that “Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 3.21.3).

What is obvious to us has been obvious to many other observers as well. David Steinmetz says, “While Calvin is only too eager to recommend the boundless power of God as a comfort for believers, he does not want the godly to contemplate that power except through the spectacles of Scripture. To investigate the will of God apart from the revealed will of God in the Bible is to lose oneself in a labyrinth of vain speculation” (David Steinmetz, Calvin in Context [Oxford University Press, 1995], 48). Who could dare say that Calvin had low views of God’s greatness and sovereignty?

At the same time, for Calvin it was never naked philosophical sovereignty. Our only comfort in life and in death is not a syllogism. God reveals himself in creation, in the Scriptures, and ultimately in the incarnation.

We come to understand his power and majesty by starting with what he gives, by starting where he invites us to start. We do not start with an a priori God, an infinite Definition in the Sky. We start with a God who stoops to reveal himself or, as Calvin himself once put it, a God who lisps. When we spurn this revelation through our sinfulness, it does not alter the fact that God has in fact revealed himself. Blind men do not negate the sun, and deaf men are not usually considered a refutation of the existence of Mozart.

This applies to special revelation, to natural revelation, and to incarnational revelation. Not everyone who looks at the stars believes, not everyone who reads Romans believes, and not everyone in Israel who saw Jesus in the course of his earthly ministry believed. Those forms of revelation, rightly received, are all consistent with one another. They are all given to us by the one triune God with the intent that we receive in faith what he reveals to us. He reveals, and we believe. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

And because we are bound in sin, we cannot believe unless that also is part of his gift, part of what he reveals. And when we believe rightly, we do not receive what God has done in fragmented pieces. All gifts are tied to the Giver.

“Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit.” –John Calvin

Calvin did not divide God’s revelation of himself in creation from his revelation of himself in his Word. A man of the revealed word, given to the exposition of it, he also affirmed the reality of natural revelation. J. Daryl Charles put it this way: “While it is sharply debated among Reformed scholars precisely how important in Calvin’s writings the natural law is, that he affirmed it wholeheartedly is not in question” (Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law [Eerdmans, 2008], 118).

In the 1930s, Barth and Brunner collided over whether Calvin left any room whatsoever for natural theology. Barth maintained the negative, going only so far as to say that for Calvin it was a possibility in principle but not in fact (Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 23–24). But this Barthian take is a category mistake — our failure to read the revelation says nothing whatever about whether the revelation was written. Failure to check the book out of the library does not mean it was never published.

We tend to compartmentalize things in fragmented ways, and this was something Calvin refused to do. He was an integrated thinker, and in this he represented the history of the church well. The university is a Christian idea — where does the uni come from? Christ is the arche, the integration point of all things (Colossians 1:17–18).

But we, in our disobedience, have become fragmented thinkers. The *uni*verse is a Christian concept, as is the university. But knowledge is now fragmented, like Humpty Dumpty, and our students now attend multiversities, with nothing to tie the knowledge all together. And because of this, our multiversities have become travaversities.

Another example of this healthy mentality is how Calvin refused to divide God from his Word, and how he did not set them at odds with each other. “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (Steven Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin [Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007], 27).

Calvin did not set the words of God over here, and the person of God himself over there. The speaker and the spoken were treated together, considered as one. Calvin refused to fall into the error that Jesus rebuked in the unbelieving Jews of his day — those who searched the Scriptures daily in order to find eternal life, and who searched the Scriptures in such a way as to miss the Person who was that life (John 5:39).

Calvin articulated these high views of Scripture in such a way as to command the respect of those who normally would not give any respect to your average hot gospeler. Barth maintained that “Calvin forged the doctrine of inspiration” (Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin [Eerdmans, 1995], 167). On the substance of this claim, we would, of course, have to reject this idea.

But just as Anselm formulated a particular view of the atonement without inventing it, so we might say that Calvin shaped the way his heirs talk about inspiration — but it was still the apostle Paul who said that all Scripture is the exhaled breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Anticipating a point that is coming shortly, we should perhaps adjust this to say that Calvin shaped the way his heirs should be talking about inspiration.

John T. McNeill recognized Calvin’s mastery of the Bible’s contents and the effect that it had on his exegesis. McNeill said,

The saving knowledge of God is conveyed to us by the Holy Scripture. Calvin’s great resource was his familiarity with the Bible and mastery of its contents. It was impossible for him to know the origins of the books of the Bible as these are known to scholars today [sic]. But his talents, training, and religious feeling for the meaning of Scripture were such that much of his interpretation defies the acids of modern critical research. (John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism [Oxford University Press, 1954], 213)

Whatever it was that defied those acids, we should want to get ourselves some of it. Calvin’s devotion to Scripture on the practical level, and his dogged commitment to it on the theological level, led Ronald Wallace to contemplate the unthinkable. “All this might seem to justify our ranking Calvin’s view on this subject alongside that which is today called ‘fundamentalism’” (Ronald Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament [Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1982], 111).

But Wallace pulls out just in time, and what a close call that was. “There are, however, other most important considerations which indicate that Calvin did not hold such a view and must qualify our opinion on this matter” (Ibid.). But these other examples, when Wallace produces them, are fully consistent with the most robust view of biblical authority possible.

There is a truncated kind of fundamentalism that lives in a world mysteriously shaped and governed by modernity, but is in possession of a perfect book, a book in which they find secret coded messages about another world somewhere else, governed on other principles entirely. But robust fundamentalism, of the sort that Wallace tried to rescue Calvin from, avoids this problem entirely. We are coming to this, but in brief it involves the realization that the fundamentals are not the foundation of “our denomination” so much as they are the foundation of all intergalactic realities. In the meantime, those who want to investigate Calvin’s understanding of the fundamentals should read through the Institutes, 4.2.1–12.


Moving to the next consideration, it would be safe to say that Calvin’s view of preaching was extraordinarily high. My summary of it would be that what the neo-orthodox say about Scripture — that it is a place where you should be prepared to “encounter” the Word of God — Calvin would say about the preaching of the Word. He did not hold that sermons were inspired by the Spirit in the same way the Bible is — obviously. Anyone who wanted to defend the view that all Christian ministers enjoy verbal inspiration in their sermons would be just asking for trouble — the amount of trouble depending on the preacher. But Calvin did maintain that it was still the Word that was preached by ministers of the gospel.

For example, Calvin said, “This ought to add no small reverence to the Gospel, since we ought not so much to consider men as speaking to us, as Christ by His own mouth; for at the time when He promised to publish God’s name to men, He had ceased to be in the world; it was not, however, to no purpose that He claimed this office as His own; for He really performs it by His disciples” (Commentary on Hebrews 2:11, cited in ibid., 83, emphasis mine).

What does Calvin think we should expect when we come to hear the Word? “God calls us to Him as if He had His mouth open and we saw Him there in person” (Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, cited by Lawson, Expository Genius, 28). Speaking of human teachers, Calvin said, “For among the many excellent gifts with which God has adorned the human race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them” (Institutes, 4.1.5).

Yeah, buts crowd into our minds instantly, but Calvin is very careful. He places every essential qualification on this. In the first place, he notes that God as “the author of preaching, joining his Spirit with it, promises benefit from it” (Institutes, 4.1.6). At the same time, “in mentioning all these things, Paul did not intend to credit to himself even a particle apart from God” (Institutes, 4.1.6). We are not talking about plenary, verbal inspiration, but we are talking about the Holy Spirit ministering his Word and his gospel to the people of God through the preaching of the Scriptures.

This means we have to turn to the relationship between Calvin’s high view of Scripture and his high view of preaching. He did not set preaching in opposition to Scripture, as though the word of the church through her ministers had any business competing with the Word of God. A minister should ascend into the pulpit in order to declare what would have been true had he never been born. He is there to preach what was written in the Word before all ages. He is an ambassador, a herald. He is not up there to preach himself, but rather to be a servant who preaches Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5).

But if the church is in possession of the Word of God, and genuinely believes it to be such, what should this do to the preaching? John Piper has written us an admonition, admirably saying that brothers, we are not professionals. I would only want to add that neither are we improv artists. This is where the script found in the title of this chapter comes in. Our script is Scripture, and to the extent that we are faithfully representing the lines that God gave to recite and declare, to that extent our authority is that of Scripture.

Now the rub. In the battles over the Bible in the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first century, conservatives moved away from the word infallible in favor of inerrant. This happened in part because theological liberals had begun using the word infallible to mean something more like . . . oh, I don’t know, something more like fallible. And that reminds me of something else. How is it that liberals preen themselves for the virtues of frankness and honesty when they do things like this to words like infallible, or to words like frank and honest for that matter? Or even words like liberal.

And now, in the latest go-rounds, the same kind of thing is happening to the word inerrant. Men with solemn faces and a shaky donor base affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, and they also affirm that this is not inconsistent with the subtle truth that the Bible has mistakes in it. The serpent was craftier than all the beasts of the field, having completed some post-doctoral work in Europe.

But being wary of liberalism is not enough, and this is where Calvin provides an example to shame and goad us. Those who consider themselves inerrantists, as I most certainly do, need to guard against another mistake that frequently is made in this area. I am convinced that Calvin avoided this particular mistake, but imitating him will involve more than simply avoiding the mistake on paper. The way he dealt with this is, I believe, directly related to the secret of his spiritual authority. It is one of the central reasons why we are in this volume honoring his contributions half a millennium after he made them.

“A minister should ascend into the pulpit in order to declare what would have been true had he never been born.”

But let us not honor him by building a tomb for the prophet, thereby showing whose sons we really are. Let us not be good little “Calvinists,” running the floor buffer of pat catechetical answers over the marble of theological genius. This error that we must avoid is a little more subtle than the first one I mentioned — the one that says “not making mistakes” means “making mistakes.” That does have a measure of subtlety after a fashion, it is true, and it requires at least three years of graduate studies before someone is able to fall for it. The error I have in mind really is subtle.

One day the schoolmarm in the one-room schoolhouse of modernity gave a test to all the kids in her class. The schoolmarm’s name was Mrs. Enlightenment, and one kid was named the Bhagavad Gita, another was the Koran, another was the Book of Mormon, and of course, a test was also given to the best student in the class, the Holy Bible. When the tests were graded and returned, it turned out that the Bhagavad Gita scored a 38, the Koran a 52, the Book of Mormon a 17, and our Scriptures scored an impressive 97.

What does this make all of us want to do? It makes us want to get up to the teacher’s desk pronto and argue for three more points, that’s what. We have fallen for the trap of thinking that inerrancy requires us to be grade nerds — always the best student in the class, but one who cannot abide making a mistake and who will argue with the teacher over every last point. But something is more fundamentally wrong with this picture than that unfair grading process.

The problem is that the Bible never enrolled in that class and never agreed to be tested by any Mrs. Enlightenment. The Scriptures do not take these tests; the Scriptures administer tests. The Bible is not that which meets the standard; the Bible is that which sets the standard. So would Calvin have agreed that the Bible is like silver, refined sevenfold (Psalm 12:6)? Yes, certainly. Would he have agreed with a score of 97? Of course not.

The Scriptures are not a possession of ours, which we may put into the world’s balances to be weighed. Rather, the Scriptures are God’s scales, in which he places the entire world. They are the scales in which he places heaven and earth, and all the nations. He says to us, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.” We do not get to say that to him. The ghostly hand of higher criticism does not get to write anything on the walls of heaven’s banqueting halls. And even if it managed that feat, nobody in those halls would be frightened — not even a little bit. There are no heavenly Belshazzars, no celestial knees to knock together.

So what would Calvin have thought of the grade nerds, those who wanted the Scriptures to be perfect in the eyes of the world? Fortunately, we do not have to speculate. He tells us.

Yet they who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards. . . . And if it were a useful labor to refute their cavils, I would with no great trouble shatter the boasts they mutter in their lurking places. But even if anyone clears God’s Sacred Word from man’s evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires. Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, they, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand rational proof that Moses and prophets spoke divinely. But I reply: the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. (Institutes, 1.7.4)

A man argued into the kingdom can be argued out of it. If, however, he is converted to God, nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Calvin’s view of reason here is no more against reason than not letting kindergartners take calculus is against calculus. There are prerequisites. Calvin also says,

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self- authenticated: hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. (Institutes, 1.7.4)

And a bit later:

Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps. (Institutes, 1.8.1)

But please mark this well. Calvin is not embracing a blind-leap fideism. He is not telling us to take this view of Scripture simply because we want to, or need to. He says above that if refuting these cavils would be useful, he would have no trouble doing so. He would have no trouble showing that the three points were rightfully ours. But he would also have no trouble showing Mrs. Enlightenment that unbelief ought not to be teaching that class or grading the papers. He is not after those three points. He is after Mrs. Enlightenment’s job.

So Calvin has no problem with reasonable arguments. He has no problem respecting them in their proper place. This is how he put it:

Conversely, once we have embraced [Scripture] devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments — not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds — become very useful aids. (Institutes, 1.8.1)

This is no mere detail. It is the difference between having a geocentric view of the solar system and a heliocentric view. John Calvin wrote, taught, and preached as though the Bible were the sun around which everything else revolved. The law of the Lord is perfect, and it runs its course in the same way that the sun does (Psalm 19:4–7).

With an open Bible in his hands, he was therefore able to assume the center. Those who understand him do the same. As a preacher, he could assume the center because he held in his hands that which was the center. We have drifted far away from this, and we have done all that drifting with what we know to be a perfect book in our hands. How could this happen?

Our debates over the inerrancy of the Bible tend to be limited to the question of how pure the sun is. We take on those who say the sunspots are blemishes, and we argue the point with them, sometimes very effectively. We have books with titles like The Sunspot Fallacies. We have worldview seminars in the summer to teach our young people that sunspots are not faults or failings at all. And there is no question that, as far as that issue goes, John Calvin would be with us on the perfection of the sun.

But there is another issue — one that we have almost entirely neglected in our day. What good is a perfect sun if it revolves around a very imperfect earth and all its tawdry corruptions? What good to us is a perfect sun orbiting us at greater and greater distances out, so that now in the twenty-first century it almost appears as a star? John Calvin believed the sun was perfect, certainly, but his solar system was logocentric — everything else revolved around the word (logos), everything was seen in the light that it gave, everything was warmed by the heat that came from it.

The doctrine of sola Scriptura has two components, and of late we evangelicals have been contending for only one of them. The Bible, and only the Bible, as Keith Mathison has demonstrated, is the ultimate and infallible spiritual authority in the lives of believers (Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura [Canon Press, 2001]). We have fought a series of skirmishes over the latter.

Conservative evangelicals believe the Bible has no mistakes in it, whether you call that freedom from error infallibility or inerrancy. And rightly so. But who today believes and speaks as Calvin did? Who treats the Bible as Calvin did? Who today thinks that the Bible open in the pulpit is a lit stick of divine dynamite, one that mere mortals are ordained and authorized to throw out into the world? How many preachers have sermons on file that they would not dare to preach without purchasing some extra life insurance first?

Our view of Scripture needs to take practical account of both of these issues — what is the purity of the sun, certainly, but also what is the place of the sun? If we want to learn Reformation basics from John Calvin, this is what we need to recover. An important issue concerns the nature of God’s Word, but in our day the thing we are really clueless about is the authoritative centrality of God’s Word.

“The Bible is not that which meets the standard; the Bible is that which sets the standard.”

To complicate matters, some modern Christians want to divide it up and be heliocentric on matters of personal piety and confessionalism, while being geocentric with regard to any matters involving the public square. I confess that I am not up to this challenge because my math is not that good. Talk about your epicycles.

Our battles over infallibility and/or inerrancy are recent, fresh, and ongoing. Keep fighting that fight, and well done. As we used to say back in the day, keep on keeping on. But we wandered away from heliocentrism centuries ago, and may God have mercy on his languishing church. If we come to recover this by grace through faith, the impact on preachers of the Word would be enormous. Let Calvin describe what that should be like. This is from Book 4 of the Institutes:

Here, then, is the sovereign power with which the pastors of the church, by whatever name they be called, ought to be endowed. That is that they may dare boldly to do all things by God’s Word; may compel all worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey his majesty; supported by his power, may command all from the highest even to the last; may build up Christ’s household and cast down Satan’s; may feed the sheep and drive away the wolves; may instruct and exhort the teachable; may accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and stubborn; may bind and loose; finally, if need be, may launch thunderbolts and lightnings, but do all things in God’s Word. (Institutes, 4.8.9)

This is the endowment of pastors. All things in God’s Word. If that sounds grand and inspiring, that is good because that is exactly what it is. But if it also sounds terrifying and is coming across like a surefire career wrecker, then you are probably closer to grasping what it actually means. Cornelius Van Til showed himself Calvin’s true heir when he said that this book is authoritative in everything it addresses . . . and it addresses everything.


So to conclude, what do we have? What have we learned? John Calvin understood what the Scriptures were like, and he knew what the Scriptures were given to us to do. The entire world is a theater in which the majesty of God is displayed. General revelation is that theater, and a glorious theater it is. Special revelation is God’s holy script. We are not supposed to be extemporaneous actors trying to figure out our lines by looking at the embellishments and scrollwork near the ceiling of the theater. We have a script in our hands, and in this script we are given our lines.

In addition, Christ in his grace has given gifts to men, and among those gifts is the fact that he has made some men directors. This theater was built for this play, and this play was written to be performed in this theater. The job of the director is to keep people from wandering off the point. We need to stay on task. Other actors and directors from other stage companies loudly maintain that the theater is really theirs, that their scripts are better, their plotlines starker and grittier, their shows make more money, and in all this their rebellion is complete.

John Calvin was devoutly logocentric.

In sum, our view of Scripture drives our view of preaching, and our preaching drives the world. If the world is not in fact driven, then we need to work our way back up the drivetrain and ask ourselves some hard questions.

What are we to do? We are to recognize where we are, where God has placed us, and we are to speak our lines in faith. We are not to murmur; we must speak them out. If we are to speak in faith, what is that faith? What does this faith do? What is it that overcomes the world? Is it not our faith (1 John 5:4)? We lament, Why does the world not believe? Well, when was the last time we commanded it to? When was the last time we spoke with authority, and not like the scribes?

Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). How will they believe without a preacher, and how will they preach unless they are sent? Sent to do what? We were not sent to preach about the perfections of a perfect but distant star, cool and twinkling against a black, velvet sky. We were not even sent to preach a moon, reflecting derivative light — we are not servants of the ruler of the evening. We were sent to preach a blazing sun, one that lights and heats every creature, one that dominates all things, and one around which everything must of necessity revolve.


We were not sent to clear our throats nervously, trying to get somebody’s attention. We were not sent in order to make a few mild suggestions. We were not sent to indulge in a few postmodern dabblings of a theological nature.

We were commissioned — I believe the word is ordained — to compel every manifestation of worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey the majesty of God, in full accordance with God’s Word. We were ordained to feed the sheep and drive away wolves, and all by God’s Word. We were sent to bind and loose, and all by God’s Word. And if need be, we have been ordained to open the Word completely, press it flat against the pulpit, hold on to both sides of that pulpit, pray for divine protection, and preach as though we were thunder and lightning. How could we not? The Scriptures are a great thunderhead.

Is this bombast? Is this self-flattery? For some it is like fighting some historical battle over again, along with other costumed reenactors. For some it is just playing Reformation dressup. But may God have mercy on us and give us what only he can give. He did exactly this for John Calvin and, five hundred years later, we are still talking about it.

And so I give you John Calvin, servant of God in Geneva, a real man made out of real clay. But he had a real heart, and he held a real Bible in his hands. And because of that, being a servant of a real God, he had what we should call a real ministry.