Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.23-25
(23) For you have been born again, nor of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (24) For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass wither and the flowers fall, (25) but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.
Calvin’s comments on these verses were much more brief than usual, but then again, these verses are brief. They also mark the end of chapter 1, so we can now rejoice in having made a good beginning of this project of reading Scripture with Calvin. Further reason for self-congratulation is that we have made it through 60 pages of Calvin’s commentaries! This excites me and I hope that it excites you as well. This has been a very rewarding undertaking thus far.
We will discuss two themes in light of today’s material: (1) Calvin’s Ethical Imperative (2) Calvin’s understanding of the ‘word’ of the Lord.
Calvin’s Ethical Imperative
One of the reasons that Barth found Calvin to be more helpful than Luther is that Barth found in Calvin someone who shared his (Barth’s) concern with Christian ethics. In Barth’s judgment, Luther was preoccupied with the relation between humanity and God (and Barth recognized that this requires quite a bit of attention), but what he found in Calvin was someone who moved past this to consider relations between human persons in light of the relation between a person and God. (For a convenient place to get in on this discussion, see Barth’s Theology of John Calvin, in the neighborhoods of page 49 and page 73.) Calvin’s comments on our verses for today display his concern in this area, and shows that though he at many points focuses on ethical imperatives, he also has an ordering principle in his understanding of the relation of Christian ethics to salvation.
“[S]ince they were new men and born again of God, it behoved them to for a life worthy of God and of their spiritual regeneration…The object, then, of Peter was to teach us that we cannot be Christians without regeneration; for the Gospel is not preached, that it may be only heard by us, but that it may, as a seed of immortal life, altogether reform our hearts.”In this passage Calvin reveals the nature of his ordering of these two concepts. The life of Christian ethical responsibility flows out of regeneration. It is regeneration that gives rise to the impetus for a form of life befitting those loved of God and reborn by God. But, note also the close association that Calvin maintains between regeneration and ethical imperative. Regeneration is about reforming our hearts. It might seem like we should take “heart” here to represent that facet of human existence that governs religious life, but the notion of “reform” pushes us to a fuller understanding. This notion of “reform” is set apart from the immediately preceding notion of “immortal life,” which is a reference to the promise of resurrection and eternal existence with God. “Reform” of the “heart” is an outgrowth of this seed of immortal life. The Christian life of ethics is lived as a natural outgrowth of our regeneration. We cannot lead this life without regeneration, and we cannot be truly regenerated if in some sense this life does not arise within us.
Calvin’s discussion of the ‘word’
Calvin reflects on the ‘word’ a great deal in these few short pages, but I must confess that I find it hard to make heads or tails out of the cumulative effect. Part of the problem is that it is sometimes hard to discern precisely what ‘word’ is referring to at any given moment. However, there is one strain that I would like to elucidate a bit here.
The first mention shows up with reference to the phrase “enduring God” in the first verse, which Calvin has translated as “living.” He then ties this to Hebrews 4:12, where the ‘word of God’ is called ‘living and active.’ Thus, Calvin construes God’s perpetual activity in terms of ‘the word,’ and writes that “he refers to the word, in which the perpetuity of God shines forth as in a mirror.” It is this metaphor of the ‘word’ as ‘mirror’ that interests me. To figure out more of what this means, we must turn to Calvin’s last sentence in this section (Calvin has other interesting things to say about the Word in the intervening sections, mentioning how it can communicate to us “what is real, solid, and eternal,” and noting that he is not concerned with any kind of hidden word that might reside in the inner subjectivity of God and that he is instead interested only in the visible word, etc.) where Calvin touches upon something that I like to call “mediating instrumentality” (as far as I know, that’s my own phrase). Calvin is here discussing preaching. Having already noted that “the word is not to be sought elsewhere than in the Gospel preached to us” (and thereby hinting at tying our knowledge of God to Christ in a way that would make TF Torrance proud), Calvin thinks briefly about the mechanics of preaching in relation to God’s redemptive action.
This is clearly a question of the relationship between divine and human activity. In what sense is the work of the Spirit involved in human preaching? There are many ways to construe the relation to divine and human agency: in terms of a causal chain, in terms of God starting and us finishing, in terms of us starting and God finishing, etc. Calvin has a different idea. Instead of construing this relation in causal or temporal categories (one agency preceding or causing the other), Calvin adopts a more simultaneous understanding where both agencies are present at the same moment. He writes: “the voice which is in itself mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.” Here, the human voice in the act of preaching is accomplishing an action that requires divine activity. And yet, the voice is not accomplishing divine activity; rather, divine activity is coming alongside the voice and communicating itself through the instrument of the human voice. Thus, my term – “mediating instrumentalities” – creaturely media are taken up by God and are made into instruments to mediate divine activity. It is here that Calvin’s use of the ‘mirror’ as a metaphor is apt. A mirror is never anything other than a mirror, and yet it communicates that which gives itself to be reflected in it. The mirror does not posses the reflection, but when the object to be reflected presents itself to the mirror, the mirror functions as a mediating instrument in communicating the reflection.
I feel as though I have expressed myself poorly in this regard, but I trust that you can see the broad strokes. God uses creaturely ‘things’ as ‘mediating instrumentalities’ to communicate some ‘thing’ to us. Precisely what is communicated is a question for another day and, I must admit, a much more difficult question.