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Calvin: On The Importance of The Community of Believers

Cog 2003 03 WikiIn his stirring commentary on Psalm 16 (Psalm 16:3) Calvin remarks:

This passage, therefore, teaches us that there is no sacrifice more acceptable to God than when we sincerely and heartily connect ourselves with the society of the righteous, and being knit together by the sacred bond of godliness, cultivate and maintain with them brotherly good-will. In this consists the communion of saints which separates them from the degrading pollutions of the world, that they may be the holy and peculiar people of God.

The community serves, it seems, the dual purpose of knitting believers together in godliness and sanctity and in separating believers from the ‘degrading pollutions’ of the world.  Calvin may well be on to something here that modern Christianity might need very much: i.e., the community as refuge.  Christianity has never been, and never can be, an individual concern.  It is a community of saints, believers gathered together not simply for worship but for fellowship, mutual encouragement, and mutual edification.

In our over-individualized culture what we need, perhaps more than anything, is the security which the communio sanctorum alone offers.  Calvin, it is my opinion, understood this and in putting thought to paper has allowed us all to see the value of it as well.

 

What Is Calvin’s God Like?

Many wrongly assume that they know Calvin’s God as the stern God of predestination.  Or they wrongly assume that Calvin’s God is the Kingly Sovereign, untouched by human pleadings and unmoved by human suffering as he relentlessly pursues his single-minded inexplicable purpose.  But that isn’t Calvin’s God and in fact that isn’t the God known to and worshiped by Christians.

The God Calvin loved, the one true God, is aptly described as follows:

A God who is not holy is no God. A God who is not just or good or true is no God. A God who does not satisfy and surpass our highest conception of ethical ideal is no God. A God who is not supreme over all, who shares the throne of His rule and glory with angel or man or devil, who does not know all things, who does not control all things, whose eyes are closed to any scene of tragedy or distress, whose ears are stopped to any cry of suffering or of need, whose love is quenched by any offense against His holy will, whose arm is bound by any force or fate or law—this is no God. When we hear any one declare that he believes in God, it is necessary to wait until he tells us what kind of a God he believes in that we may be sure that he believes in God at all. Many a qualified theism is, at bottom, an unqualified atheism.  — Henry Collin Minton, in Calvin, the Theologian.

Minton has perfectly captured Calvin’s view of God and summarized it in a single paragraph.  Never has a better, more specific, and more useful summary been written.

Calvin’s Prayers: A Model of Scholarly Humility

Calvin prayed at the conclusion of his lectures.  Those prayers are both intriguing reading and profound spiritual instruction.  For example, at the conclusion of the 38th lecture on the Minor Prophets, he prays

Oil painting of a young John Calvin.

Grant, Almighty God, that as almost the whole world give such loose reins to their licentiousness, that they hesitate not either to despise or to regard as of no value thy sacred word,—Grant, O Lord, that we may always retain such reverence as is justly due to it and to thy holy oracles, and be so moved, whenever thou deignest to address us, that being truly humbled, we may be raised up by faith to heaven, and by hope gradually attain that glory which is as yet hid from us. And may we at the same time so submissively restrain ourselves, as to make it our whole wisdom to obey thee and to do thee service, until thou gatherest us into thy kingdom, where we shall be partakers of thy glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.  [Calvin, J., Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Joe 1:1–4)].

Noteworthy here is the focus of Calvin’s prayer:

1- that his hearers value Scripture; 2- that they reverence God’s speech; 3- that they be humbled by the fact that God stoops to speak to them; 4- and finally, that they heed it to the point of real active obedience.

The background to this prayer is the remarkable claim of Calvin that

The Prophet reproves the Jews for being so stupid as not to consider that they were chastised by the hand of God, though this was quite evident. Hence they pervert, in my judgment, the meaning of the Prophet, who think that punishments are here denounced which were as yet suspended; for they transfer all these things to a future time. But I distinguish between this reproof and the denunciations which afterwards follow. Here then the Prophet reproaches the Jews, that having been so severely smitten, they did not gain wisdom; and yet even fools, when the rod is applied to their backs, know that they are punished. Since then the Jews were so stupid, that when even chastised they did not understand that they had to do with God, the Prophet justly reproves this madness. Hear, he says, ye old men; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land, and declare this to your children. But the consideration of this passage I shall put off till tomorrow.

Calvin’s rather gruff remarks – set in balance with the prayer he uttered moments afterward- indicate that for Calvin there was a terrible danger in refusing to respect God’s address.  Such refusal was, in his terminology, ‘stupid’.  As those who refused to hear Amos were ‘stupid’ so too, Calvin would argue, are those who refuse to hear God today (in Calvin’s day).

Calvin was absolutely convinced that God must be heard.  Surely Christians today would assert the same (albeit without such free use of the word ‘stupid’).

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Calvin’s Exegesis of Isaiah 54:7

It scarcely needs to be said to readers here, given as they are to an interest in Calvin’s work, that he offered amazing insights into biblical texts every time he turned his attention to exegesis.

Take, for example, his explanation of Isaiah 54:7-

7. For a little moment I forsook thee. The Prophet explains more fully the former statement, and shews what will be the nature of this divorce, namely, that she shall be speedily restored to her former condition. He magnifies the mercy of God, and extenuates the sorrow by which the hearts of believers might be oppressed. It was not enough for believers to expect some revival, if they were not convinced that God’s wrath would be of short duration. We quickly lose courage and faint, if the Lord be not nigh, and if he do not quickly stretch out his hand to us. For this reason Isaiah, after having spoken of restoring the Church, adds that this divorce shall last but “for a moment,” but that his mercy shall be everlasting.

When he says that he forsook his people, it is a sort of admission of the fact. We are adopted by God in such a manner that we cannot be rejected by him on account of the treachery of men; for he is faithful, so that he will not cast off or abandon his people. What the Prophet says in this passage must therefore refer to our feelings and to outward appearance, because we seem to be rejected by God when we do not perceive his presence and protection. And it is necessary that we should thus feel God’s wrath, even as a wife divorced by her husband deplores her condition, that we may know that we are justly chastised. But we must also perceive his mercy; and because it is infinite and eternal, we shall find that all afflictions in comparison of it are light and momentary. Whenever, therefore, we are pressed by adversity, we ought to betake ourselves to this consolation. At the same time it ought to be observed, that what was said was actually true as to the whole body of the people, who had been divorced on account of their wickedness; and although God did not receive all of them indiscriminately into favour with him, but only the elect remnant, yet there is nothing absurd or improper in addressing his discourse as if it had been to the same persons.  —  Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Is 54:7). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

I have set off in bold face both the phrase with which Calvin is concerned and the stunning insights he gleans from the text.  And, it has to be said, his insights are in no respect ‘eisegesis’.  Calvin reads Isaiah theologically.  And therefore, Calvin reads Isaiah correctly and interprets him effectively.

This slight example of Calvin’s exegetical work will, I hope, convince readers to dive deeply into Calvin’s commentaries.  They are a treasure trove.

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Jim West

A Baptist Defense of Calvinism

One of the most influential of all British Baptists wrote these lines-

The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.

Who was he? None less than C.H. Spurgeon- one of the most widely cited and influential Baptists in all of Baptist history. But that wasn’t his only assertion about Calvin and Calvinism. In his ‘Defense of Calvinism’ he also suggests

I suppose there are some persons whose minds naturally incline towards the doctrine of free-will. I can only say that mine inclines as naturally towards the doctrine of sovereign grace. Sometimes, when I see some of the worst characters in the street, I feel as if my heart must burst forth in tears of gratitude that God has never let me act as they have done! I have thought, if God had left me alone, and had not touched me by His grace, what a great sinner I should have been! I should have run to the utmost lengths of sin, dived into the very depths of evil, nor should I have stopped at any vice or folly, if God had not restrained me. I feel that I should have been a very king of sinners, if God had let me alone. I cannot understand the reason why I am saved, except upon the ground that God would have it so. I cannot, if I look ever so earnestly, discover any kind of reason in myself why I should be a partaker of Divine grace.

This is so very Calvinistic that Calvin himself would have amen-ed. What follows a little further on in the treatise may well be affirmed by Calvin too- had he a say in the matter:

There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer- I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.

Baptists have affirmed the teachings of Calvin, in the main, for a very long time. The rejection of those teachings, in the main, by many among Baptists today (and particularly in the SBC) isn’t so much a return to Baptist roots as it is an aberration.

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Jim West

Baptists and Calvin: Does Calvinism Lead to ‘Antimission’ Sentiments?

The accusation that Calvinism leads to antimission sentiments has sometimes been leveled, but as Michael Horton shows in his recent book For Calvin, nothing could be further from the truth. Horton observes, in the section titled “Calvinism and Christian Missions” (p. 151), that, in fact, Calvinism has been and remains one of the most important sources of Christian missionaries, with no less than Thomas Mayhew, David Brainerd, David Livingstone, Robert Morrison, and Jonathan Goforth stemming from Reformed churches and practicing Reformed theology. Quoting Horton—

With growing interest in Calvinism in Southern Baptist circles, some leaders have expressed alarm that it will dampen the denomination’s enthusiasm for evangelism and missions . . . . [But] the Southern Baptist Convention sponsors “about 5000 home missionaries” and “more than 5000 foreign missionaries.” For a denomination of sixteen million, this comes to approximately “0.000625 missionaries per capita.”

By contrast, the 310,000 member Presbyterian Church in America has “about 600 foreign missionaries.” That is 0.001935 foreign missionaries per capita, commissioned and supported by the PCA. Thus, the PCA supports three times as many foreign missionaries per capita as the SBC supports foreign and domestic missions combined (p. 162).

And the PCA gives twice as much per dollar to international missions as the SBC does (p. 162).

So much, then, for the absurd assertion that Calvinism leads to antimissionary sentiments.

But, some may protest, Calvin himself laid the foundation for less interest in missions with his understanding of the doctrine of predestination. So what does Calvin say himself about missionary activity? In his commentary on the Gospels, at Matthew 28:19, he writes

Here Christ, by removing the distinction, makes the Gentiles equal to the Jews, and admits both indiscriminately to a participation in the covenant. Such is also the import of the term go out; for the prophets under the law had limits assigned to them, but now, the wall of partition having been broken down, (Eph. 2:14,) the Lord commands the ministers of the gospel to go to a distance, in order to spread the doctrine of salvation in every part of the world. For though, as we have lately suggested, the right of the first-born, at the very commencement of the gospel, remained among the Jews, still the inheritance of life was common to the Gentiles. Thus was fulfilled that prediction of Isaiah, (49:6,) and others of a similar nature, that Christ was given for a light of the Gentiles, that he might be the salvation of God to the end of the earth. Mark means the same thing by every creature; for when peace has been proclaimed to those that are within the Church, the same message reaches those who are at a distance, and were strangers, (Eph. 2:17, 19.) How necessary it was that the apostles should be distinctly informed of the calling of the Gentiles, is evident from this consideration, that even after having received the command, they felt the greatest horror at approaching them, as if by doing so they polluted themselves and their doctrine.

I’ve emphasized the most relevant materials. Calvin was himself convinced of the necessity of the preaching of the Gospel to the ‘ends of the earth.’ Calvinism, then, does not in any respect lead to ‘antimissionary’ sentiments. Quite the contrary.

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Jim West

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A Preliminary Word: Not All Baptists are Anti-Calvin or Anti-Reformed

Before launching further into our series proper, one additional word needs to be said, I think. It’s a preliminary word, a disclaimer of sorts, before the genuinely important questions like “Where is the intersection of Calvinism and Baptist history?” And “What are the major differences between Arminianism and Calvinism?” And “Within Baptist thought, where does Calvinism live today?” And, finally, “What was the role of Calvinism in the Reformation?”

This preliminary clarification is hinted at in the title of this entry: Not all Baptists are anti-Reformed. It’s a necessary preliminary clarification because very recently Ed Young, pastor of a Baptist church in Texas, opined of Reformed pastors in general and one Reformed pastor in particular:

Are they all bad? No they just don’t reach anybody. Last year at Fellowship Church we baptized 2,632 people. One of the fair-haired boys of this movement, I will not call his name, they baptized 26 people last year. (he then drops his hand-held mic on the floor and looks stunned). Oh, he’s deep. What are you smoking? Are you kidding me? I cannot put my head on the pillow at night knowing we baptized 26 people.

I’ll leave aside for the moment the many problems of such a statement in terms of arrogance and pride and focus on Young’s self-evident loathing of Reformed theology, pointing out simply that though there may well be others who feel something similar, there are many, many Baptists who would be shocked and dismayed by the sentiment exhibited by Young and those of his negligible camp.

For example, none less than A. T. Robertson, perhaps the finest Greek scholar of the Baptist tradition, while listing those whom he considered the best examples of preaching scholars, wrote:

This then is true; not all scholars can preach, and not all preachers can become scholars. There are varying degrees of both, but the best preachers have generally been men of the best training in the schools. This is all that can be said and it is enough. For each man wants to do the most that is in him for the glory of God. The leading examples of preaching will confirm this statement. Paul was an educated man, and so was John Chrysostom, the Golden Mouthed preacher of later days. Luther was a theological professor. Calvin preached every day for a long time while professor of theology at Geneva. John Knox learned Greek and Hebrew between the ages of forty and fifty. Whitefield and Wesley, the great popular preachers, were Oxford men. The famous French preachers, Bossuet, Bourdaloue and Massillon, were likewise scholarly men. And the exceptions usually prove the rule, for even Spurgeon has made a respectable scholar of himself in spite of the lack of early training.

Robertson’s inclusion of Knox and Calvin is certainly not accidental, and had he believed as Young believes, he certainly couldn’t have included them.

Other famous Baptists have also found much merit in Calvin, including but not limited to—and in no particular order—Charles Spurgeon, Roger Williams, Basil Manly, J. P. Boyce, and, of course, Al Mohler. Young may be a vocal critic of Calvin and the Reformed tradition, but he is not a central voice, and he is not even an important voice.

Calvin, the Reformed Tradition, and Calvinism have all been extraordinarily important in the history of the Baptists. Some marginal people may wish to attempt to rewrite history, but they won’t succeed. There are too many who know the facts.

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Jim West

 


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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Calvin?

The Southern Baptist Convention—full disclosure: I am a member of an SBC church, and proudly so—has debated “Calvinism” off and on for nearly the entire span of its existence. SBC leaders sometimes rail against “Calvinism” and sometimes embrace it.

When Calvinism is taken to task, however, the discomfort usually stems from people who either don’t understand Calvin and his authentic work or confuse Calvin with his more zealous and less theologically astute heirs (the so-called “hyper-Calvinists”).

Back in October of 2010, when yet another of the “pro- v. anti-Calvinist” debates was going on, John Revell wrote a very nice summary of the issues for SBC Life. In particular, his observation that

Article V [of the Baptist Faith and Message], “God’s Purpose of Grace,” . . . states:

Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

This statement, reaching back to the original 1925 BF&M and to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith upon which it was based, accomplishes a significant feat: it accommodates the soteriological convictions of both Calvinists and non-Calvinists within the SBC family.

Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that Calvinism has long found a home in the SBC, it continues to be misunderstood and, in some quarters, demonized. Revell, in an examination of several books that discussed the topic, noted that the same misunderstandings keep arising:

• Calvinism is a threat to evangelism
• Calvinists are against invitations
• five-point Calvinism is hyper-Calvinism
• Calvinists deny free will
• Authentic Baptists are not Calvinists

I’ll be addressing these points—each of these misunderstandings—in posts, all as part of a miniseries on Baptists and Calvinism. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Logos offers loads of resources for those researching Baptist history and its intersections with Calvinism:

Calvin 500 Collection (108 vols.)
Charles Spurgeon Collection (86 vols.)
A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage
The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness
A.T. Robertson Collection (15 vols.)
Expositions of Holy Scripture (33 vols.)
The Sacred Trust: Sketches of the Southern Baptist Convention Presidents
Systematic Theology (3 vols.)

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Jim West

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