Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.17-22

I would like to say at the outset here that one of the most challenging parts of my task in providing these mediations of Calvin’s commentaries to you is in attempting to order the material. Calvin’s comments move with the shape of the biblical text, indeed, he keeps to it quite remarkably, resisting spending too much time on tangential matters (often resisting by referring his readers to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, as might be seen from this quotation from our section today: “If the reader wishes for more on this subject, he may find it in my Institutes.”). However, I have found that attempting to keep with the movement of the biblical text and Calvin’s comments would have the effect of protracting these reflections of mine to at least the length of Calvin’s comments themselves, and that would be counter-productive. Simply know that I am ordering the material and that all the shortcomings of my individual subjectivity are included in this ordering. Let this be an impetus to you for consulting Calvin’s commentaries directly for your edification. In fact, it would be quite gratifying to me if some of you began reading along and offering your own reflections on Calvin’s words in the comments sections associated with the posts on the various passages. But, enough clearing of the throat!

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1 Peter 1.17-22

(17) Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, love out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (18) For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, (19) but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (20) He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (21) Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (22) Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

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COMMENTARY:

The passage under consideration today will be approached in terms of the following categories: (1) True Faith and Ethics, (2) Type, Fulfillment and Remnant, (3) An Excursus into Reformed Scholasticism: The Infralapsarian Pattern, (4) Christ as Mediator.

True Faith and Ethics

In his comments Calvin immediately takes up the question of true faith and its relation to ethics and the relationship between these two things will be in the background of all else that he has to say in this section. But, of course, he does this in order to mirror the concerns of these verses, which begins and ends with this consideration.

The first thing that Calvin does is to insist that “we by no means discharge our duty towards God, when we obey him only in appearance…He not only prescribes laws for our feet and hands, but he also requires what is just and right as to the mind and spirit.” (Brief aside: I find it interesting that Calvin reaches for ‘spirit’ as opposed to ‘heart’ here, especially since it shows up very soon after.) This is to be remembered despite the fact that the biblical text mentions of God judging according to “works.” Lest we understand the term ‘works’ to refer only to external things, Calvin notes that “what will be regarded will be the real sincerity of the heart. In this place faith also is included in the work.” (Of course, ‘work’ here refers only to the word in question in the text, not to the theological concept of ‘works.’)

What this amounts to is the necessity of fear. We should be fearful because we recognize that the sincerity of our hearts is always in question. Calvin notes that fear stands opposed to “heedless security” in matters of salvation. Furthermore, we should fear because we know how valuable is the blood of Christ, which secured our salvation. Indeed, it is through Christ’s blood that we have been redeemed from that which entangled us before, including the tradition received from our forefathers, which Calvin identifies as Judaism.

(Aside: We will return to the notion of fear again in the ‘Christ as Mediator’ section. Indeed, it is at this point that we must break off linear discussion of Calvin’s comments and leap to the end of this section. We will return to this point in the discussion with the section on ‘Type, Fulfillment and Remnant.’)

God looks at the sincerity of the heart in his judging of us and we should be concerned about this because we know that we do not measure up and we do not want to devalue Christ’s blood shed for our salvation. Thus far Calvin’s discussion of true faith. But, how does this relate to ‘ethics’ understood as the way in which one lives out one’s life – that is, external as opposed to internal morality? Calvin picks up this question in his comments on verse 22, which he paraphrases as follows: “Your souls are to be purified, but as ye cannot do this, offer them to God, that he may take away your filth by his Spirit.” Here Calvin reintroduces the asymmetry required to prevent his account from depending solely upon human initiative. But, Calvin moves on from here and notes that “purity of soul consists in obedience to God.” This is significant because Calvin has just taken an interior category (‘soul’) and cast it in light of an external category (‘obedience’). And what is this obedience? Calvin’s answer, in keeping with the verse in question, is that it consists in love of the neighbor. Calvin places a high premium on love of the neighbor in this section. He writes: “[Peter] now reminds us what God would have us to cultivate through life, that is, mutual love towards one another; for by that we testify also that we love God; and by this evidence God proves who they are who really love him.”

To sum up: The effect of Calvin’s treatment of true faith and ethics here is that he inseparably links them both, and equally undermines them both. He links them by joining the internal category of soul to the external category of obedience. This likewise subverts the notion of true faith when understood solely as interiority. In addition, his establishment of the requirement of true faith and sincerity of the heart undermines reliance purely upon external behavior in one’s hope for salvation. The only sure place to stand, as Calvin hints at in his paraphrase of verse 22, is invocation.

Type, Fulfillment and Remnant

We departed from a linear progression just as Calvin had drawn our attention to the point that our salvation depends on Christ’s blood and not the traditions of our fathers, which he takes to refer properly to Judaism (and improperly to “the Papists”). We have discussed the Reformed pattern of type and fulfillment as a way of interpreting the Old Testament in relation to the New. That apparatus is well represented here as Calvin elucidates the sacrificial imagery found here in relation to Christ – that Christ is a lamb without blemish or defect. In Calvin’s hands (as in the hands of others) the Old Testament sacrificial system, though abolished, serves to teach us about the inner logic of Christ’s sacrifice.
“Moses ordered a whole or perfect lamb, without blemish, to be chosen for the Passover…Peter, by applying this to Christ, teaches us that he was a suitable victim, and approved by God, for he was perfect, without any blemish; had he had any defect in him, he could not have been rightly offered to God, nor could he pacify his wrath.”
But, Calvin – in rejecting the Old Testament order as type and abolished in light of fulfillment – does not want to give the impression that all the people of Israel misused the light given to them. Rather, citing the cases of Paul’s forebears (2 Tim. 1.3-5), he argues that “God ever had at least a small remnant among that people, in whom sincere piety continued, while the body of the people had become wholly corrupt, and had plunged themselves into all kinds of errors.” It is because of this falling away of the vast majority of Israel that Peter brushes aside the traditions of the fathers in this passage, for this refers to the errors and not to the truth hidden in the types and understood as such by the remnant.

An Excursus into Reformed Scholasticism: The Infralapsarian Pattern

Verse 20 declares that salvation in Christ was foreordained, that is, chosen before the creation of the world. As a way into this subject and what it entails, I will quote Calvin at some length.
“For it was not a common or a small favour that God deferred the manifestation of Christ to that time, when yet he had ordained him in his eternal council for the salvation of the world. At the same time, however, he reminds us, that it was not a new or a sudden thing as to God that Christ appeared as a Saviour; and this is what ought especially to be known. For, in addition to this, that novelty is always suspicious, what would be the stability of our faith, if we believed that a remedy for mankind had suddenly occurred at length to God after some thousands of years? In short, we cannot confidently recumb [to lean on in a comfortable resting position – I had to look it up] on Christ, except we are convinced that eternal salvation is in him, and has always been in him.”
The trick comes with the question that Calvin raises to himself, namely, this: How can the solution come before the problem in that Christ was ordained a savior before the world began even though Adam did not sin until after the world began? It is precisely this question that exercised Reformed theologians during the period of Reformed scholasticism in the 17th century, within which context the canons of Dort were established. This is the (in)famous TULIP – Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. This is not the place to explicate these canons, but I would like to give some of the background.

There were two camps on the ‘orthodox’ side of Reformed dogmatics (that is, not the ‘Arminians’). They were the Infralapsarians and the Supralapsarians, and they differed on precisely how to make sense of Christ’s being foreordained before creation and Adam sinning after creation. The Supralapsarians were definitely the more technically consistent of the two. They basically argued that God set the whole thing up so that Adam would sin and so that the elect could be saved through Christ. The Infralapsarians, on the other hand, didn’t like the sound of that. They didn’t want to say that God caused evil and the Fall in such a direct manner. So, they accounted Christ’s foreordination pre-Fall to God’s foreknowledge. That is, God knew what Adam would do with his free will, and established a means for restoration even before the fact. Now, where the Supralapsarians had to come up with a good explanation for why God would cause the Fall, the Infralapsarians had to come up with a good explanation for why God foreknowing the Fall isn’t the same as God causing it, since (presumably) once God foreknew it there could be no change. Incidentally, Francis Turretin is a good person to go to if you want further explication of the Infralapsarian position.

The foregoing discussion was undertaken in order to situate Calvin in light of those who would be his followers. In this passage, Calvin clearly falls on the side of the Infralapsarians. Again, I will quote Calvin at some length.
“My reply is, that this is to be referred to God’s foreknowledge; for doubtless God, before he created man, foresaw that he would not stand long in his integrity. Hence he ordained, according to his wonderful wisdom and goodness, that Christ should be the Redeemer, to deliver the lost race of man from ruin. For herein shines forth more fully the unspeakable goodness of God, that he anticipated our disease by the remedy of his grace, and provided a restoration to life before the first man had fallen into death.”
Christ as Mediator

We come at last, and (after 2000 words) at the end of our strength, to ‘Christ as Mediator.’ It should be said that last semester I wrote a term paper on the topic of Calvin’s Christology, and in particular, on how Calvin conceives of Christ’s mediation. If you are very considerably interested in this topic, I would consider sending this paper to you should you ask. In any case, Calvin has a twofold structure in this section. Why do we need a mediator? First, because God is incomprehensible to human powers, we are not able to ascend to him. Second, because we rightly fear God and this fear is an impediment to reconciliation with God, i.e., we would not approach God even if we could (which we can’t). Thus, Christ mediates in two ways. First, Christ makes God known to us in a manner in which we can receive knowledge of God. This is the foundation of Calvin’s understanding of divine accommodation or condescension. Second, the way in which Christ comes to us is intended to remove the dread of God which we properly posses because of our sinful state. To sum up: Christ mediates in such a way as to make God known in God’s graciousness and mercy towards humanity, such that human persons can (a) know God as a God of grace.

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