Archives For John Calvin

Christ-Myth Angels

Joey Dodson —  December 23, 2013 — 1 Comment

I watched the “Nativity” movie with my family the other night. Afterwards I concluded: “Aside from some minor inaccuracies, the film wasn’t bad.” To which my clever daughter quipped:  “Well, the Book’s a lot better.”

Similarly, I’d have to say that when I look around at most of the modern renditions of Christmas: the Book’s indeed a whole lot better. One conspicuous example is Christmas angels. During this holiday season, it seems there is an angel around every corner. We recognize them by their wings. But in the Bible, angels don’t really have wings. I guess they could have wings if we equated them with the likes of the cherubim in Ezekiel or the seraphim in Isaiah. Cherubim, however, have four faces and their bodies are covered with eyes. And seraphim have—not two wings—but six. I admit it would be fun to replace the Christmas angels in our manger scenes with creatures such as these. Can you imagine the fright it would cause if we redecorated the angel costumes in our pageants as these figures? (Add some Revelation 12 to the mix and we got the makings of a Peter Jackson movie.) But alas, I doubt that the angels who proclaim “In Excelsis Deo” to the Shepherds in Luke represent the same heavenly creatures in Isaiah who cry “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  (Unless they are shape-shifters! How cool would that be?)

Now that I have ruined nativity scenes for some of you, allow me to tackle one more possible angelic misconception: the guardian angel. John Calvin argues that to say whether or not each believer has a single guardian angel assigned to her goes beyond what Scripture says. Or better: it does not go far enough.

Sure when Jesus says that the angels of children always behold the face of the Father, the Lord insinuates that there are certain angels to whom the kids’ safety has been entrusted. But perhaps it is a stretch to infer from this that each believer has her very own angel. Rather than being protected merely by one single angel, the Bible suggests that all of the angels watch for our safety. Why do we want a single special guardian, when we have an entire heavenly host watching out for us? According to Calvin, when we limit God’s care to a single angel, we do “great injury to ourselves and to all the members of the Church.” We do so by denying the value in God’s promises of auxiliary troops, who encircle and defend us so that we are emboldened to fight with all our might. Calvin goes on to apply this point to believers. Since the Lord has provided us with protection (not of one angel, but of myriads of them), “let us not be terrified at the multitude of our enemies, as if they could prevail.” Rather, let us adopt the sentiment of Elisha: “There are more for us than against us!”

As I was typing in haste one day, I made an embarrassing typo. Instead of Angel of the Lord, I typed, ‘Angle’ of the Lord. In the delirium that comes at the end of a semester for professors, I began to mock myself. Was he a “right” angle or an “acute” one? Although some Christ-myth mistakes make us laugh, there are some that are very dangerous. One that stems back to the early church and remains a clear and present danger is for us to be more fascinated with the angels of the Lord than we are with His presence. With or without his angels, whom shall we fear when the Lord of Hosts is on our side? We are confident that nothing-nothing-nothing can separate us from the love of God through his Son. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are great and all, but at the end of the day and in the thick of the fray, it is through Christ that we are more than conquerors.

OverpassCan a Christian learn from non-Christians? Can you enjoy a painting by an atheist artist? Can you see life more clearly by listening to secular music?

Whatever your stated views on these questions, we all do this all the time. The reality we all experience is that non-Christians have solid insights and an eye for beauty from which we frequently benefit.

Look no further than your morning commute. Your car was designed, built, and sold to you by a team of people, many (most? all?) of whom profess no faith in Christ. The roads and bridges you drive to work every day follow the same pattern. If non-Christians had no ability to perceive truth about God’s world, you couldn’t get to work in the morning.

We take this for granted, yet we rarely consider it theologically. It would make the most sense if those whose hearts and minds have been transformed by the Spirit of God saw God’s truth most clearly in all aspects of life. That seems to be in the indication of verses like 1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 1:21, and 2 Tim. 3:7.

But John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, given his emphasis on human depravity. But the knowledge and abilities of unbelievers, Calvin confidently asserts, are gifts they received from the Spirit:

“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”[1]

Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that non-Christians have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we demean the Spirit. Those are strong words. He says again:

“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”[2]

John MayerIf the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for and apprehension of the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn from non-Christians. If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by non-Christians, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.

So when you listen to the music of John Mayer, ride in a BMW, fly in an elevator to the top floor of a skyscraper, or float through the air in a 747, are you led to worship? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.

 


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) section 2.2.15, 273-274.

[2] Ibid., 274.

I came across an interesting bit of church history today. John Calvin insisted that the churches in Geneva remain locked outside of regularly scheduled worship times. In part, this was meant to discourage “superstitious” activity. The reformers were understandably sensitive to religious objects being used idolatrously (think relics), and presumably, leaving the church open and unattended might encourage some to lapse into a superstitious use of a religious building.

But Calvin had a second reason for locking the church doors, and I find this reason compelling. He wanted to communicate that the life of the church should not be sequestered behind closed doors.

We call the main meeting areas of our churches “sanctuaries.” This means “holy places.” Where do we go to experience God? Where is the sacred space in our world? In the holy place, of course. In the sanctuary.

Some of us have tried to remedy this by renaming the sanctuary the “worship center,” but even then we run into a similar problem. Where do we go when we want to worship? The worship center, of course.

Calvin rightly understood that every inch of God’s world is sacred space. Obviously, there was something unique about the temple and especially the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament. But don’t forget that this whole world has been crafted by God. His presence dwells everywhere (read Psalm 139 for a powerful reminder of this truth). And don’t forget that when Jesus died, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the world was torn—from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51). God was announcing that His presence would not be hidden in a holy place.

The terms “secular” and “sacred” can be helpful at times, but they can also be misleading. The life of the church should not be hidden behind church walls. Our sacred activities do not belong in a specific location. This whole world is the stage on which God’s great drama of redemption is to be played out.

So use your church building when it’s helpful to do so. There are reasons that most of our churches own buildings, offices, and classrooms. These walls and doors can make our ministries to our churches and our world more effective. But don’t imagine that worship or fellowship or outreach or love belong in one “sacred” location.

Take the life of your church into your home, into your neighborhood. Enact God’s truth in the midst of your daily life, in front of your daily onlookers, coworkers, and clientele. Lock your church doors. Force yourselves to be the people of God in the midst of the people and the world that God made.

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein.” – Psalm 24:1

 

I ended my last post with the bold assertion that Calvin got Paul’s understanding of salvation right. The claim is somewhat ridiculous; no single interpreter has captured the full contours of Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) theology. So let me explain what I mean.

After studying Paul’s’ understanding of salvation and comparing his view with that of the Essenes (as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls), it seems rather clear to me that Paul emphasized the priority of God’s agency more consistently and thoroughly than any other ancient writings of his day. And inasmuch as John Calvin emphasized this too, I think he was correct.

Let me be more specific. In the first century, Jewish people knew the nation of Israel still stood under the curse of the covenant for (continually) breaking the law (Deut 28; Lev 26). The covenant that God made with the nation on Sinai, in other words, ended in failure (see Jer 11), and Jewish people living in the days of Jesus knew it. “So how do we fix it?” they wondered. “How do we get right with God?” For most Jews, they would say that we “repent and return to the law.” After all, isn’t this exactly what Deuteronomy says (Deut 4:29-31; 30:1-10)?

Well, yes it does, but Deuteronomy (and the Prophets) also says that people have hard hearts (Deut 29:4) and simply can’t return to God under their own power. No matter how loud the prophets preached, no matter how many curses God rained down, people simply cannot repent and turn to God. “If a leopard can change its spots,” says Jeremiah, “then you too can do who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). Or in the words of Paul, “there is no one who seeks after God, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). We are all dead as a doornail and cannot turn to God unless God first turns to us and declares us to be righteous even though we are wicked (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11). God must create faith in us and must cause us to obey if we are going to be in a right relationship with Him.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Cause us to obey? That’s taking things a little too far.”

But this is exactly what Ezekiel promised and what Paul believes took place through Calvary and Pentecost. God caused you to believe, repent, and then obey. Deep into the Old Testament, Ezekiel promised that God would “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments” (36:27). And for the few of you who care, the Hebrew word asah is in the hifil, which emphasizes causation. In fact, such radical emphasis on divine agency floods Ezekiel’s entire prophecy in chapters 36-37 and becomes a vital Old Testament text for our New Testament understanding of salvation. For instance, Jesus, Paul, and others often talk about the “Spirit that gives life,” or the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:3-6; John 6:63), and when they do, they are thinking of Ezekiel’s radical emphasis on divine agency being fulfilled in their midst. Not only did Ezekiel promise that the Spirit would cause God’s people to obey, but in Ezekiel 37 he promised that the same Spirit would breathe life into dead bones that were very dry. This “dry bones vision” becomes a paradigm, in the NT, for how God saves people. He unilaterally (i.e., by Himself) breathes life into them.

Leopards don’t change their spots, dead bones can’t manufacture life, and you didn’t turn to God. God turned to you.

All that to say, Paul emphasized the priority of divine agency in salvation. Since we are utterly depraved and incapable of turning to God, God must take the initiative to unilaterally infuse us with faith, obedience, and Spirit-generated life.

Now, you Calvinists may wonder what all the hub-bub is about. Nothing I’ve said is all that original, nor is it much different than what you can learn from any Systematic theology class (at some schools, anyway). But what I have discovered from studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that Paul’s decided emphasis on divine agency in salvation was unparalleled in first century Judaism. Interestingly, even the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not underscore God’s agency in salvation as comprehensively and intricately as Paul. And—this is important—of all the Jews in the first century, the Essenes were the so-called “hyper Calvinists” of the ancient world. According to Josephus, they believed that God controls everything, and yet according to their own writings, even they don’t emphasize God’s work in salvation to the same degree as Paul.

So, writing academic books can be water to the soul, believe it or not. Because when I woke up this morning, I wasn’t the best father, I was inadequate as a husband, and I fell far short of being a “good Christian.” But God still loves me just the same, because His love is dictated not by what I do but by what Christ has done. And this unconditioned, unilateral, one-way love that we call “grace” is not just a Christianeze buzz word, but the controlling and life-sustaining power that transforms us from offensive enemies to real ingredients of divine joy.