Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.6-8

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1 Peter 2.6-8

[6] For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” [7] Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” [8] and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.

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COMMENTARY:

Calvin’s comments on this material have to do mostly with the following notions: “Salvation in Christ,” “Ecclesiology,” and “The Rock.” Of course, the first two of these things are tied together, and this is something that Calvin clearly sees. We have evidence of this when he writes, “there is no building up of the Church without Christ; for there is no other foundation but he.” But, language being linear, we will treat them sequentially. The latter is just an interesting tidbit.

Salvation in Christ

“[A]ll our salvation is found only in him,” declares Calvin. This is clearly Calvin the Protestant speaking. Justification by grace through faith alone is central to Calvin’s thought, even if it isn’t at the head of the Institutes and even if he puts his discussion of Regeneration ahead of it in book 3 of the Institutes. Historically speaking, it is this doctrine that demanded one’s breaking with Rome. Problems of systemic decay can be addressed from within, but if the proclamation of the way of salvation is incorrect, you best get off the sinking ship!

Of course, this is tied into Luther’s burning existential question of how one is to find a gracious God. Under the Roman system of the time as commonly perceived, and on bad days actively taught, one’s salvation depended upon whether one could confess and do penance for all of one’s sins. If you forgot something, you were in trouble. In this sense, one’s salvation depended on one’s own ability to make use of the sacerdotal system. This discussion has to do with some technicalities surrounding the notions of condign and congruent grace, but I don’t really feel like getting into all that. The point is that the reformers wanted to ground our salvation not on our action, but on Christ. Thus, Calvin can say this: “And it is a valuable truth, that relying on Christ, we are beyond the danger of falling.”

The logic behind how all of this works depends upon how one thinks of Christ’s value for salvation. Does it depend solely on himself, or does it depend on what we do with him? The former is the more Reformational, and the latter is the more Roman of the time (although, the case could be made that latter Protestants fell into this trap as well). Calvin is clearly in the first camp on this issue:
“Christ is a precious stone in the sight of God; then he is such to the faithful. It is faith alone which reveals to us the value and excellency of Christ. But…the Apostle…adds another clause respecting the unbelieving, that by rejecting Christ, they do not take away the honour granted him by the Father”
End result? Christ and the value of Christ, though only seen through faith, is independent of our faith. Our salvation is firmly established in him, whether we realize it or not.

Ecclesiology

I don’t have much that I want to highlight here, even though Calvin discusses more than I will mention. What strikes me is the issue of how to understand the relation between divine and human agency with reference to the church. Calvin argues that “God…alone forms and plans his own Church…He, indeed, employs the labour and ministry of men in building it; but this is not inconsistent with the truth that it is his own work.” How can human persons participate in God’s work? Is it by making use of a system of grace made available, in parallel to what we saw in our discussion of salvation? Unlikely, since Calvin falls so squarely against such notions in his understanding of salvation. So, how should we parse this? If I were feeling more energetic I would likely come up with some way to bring Barth in here, but I’m not going to. I will say, however, that though Calvin ultimately ends up determinist (my own personal conviction), on some of his better days he could sound like he might go in Barth’s direction on the relation between divine and human agency (not the Barth of the second section in CD IV/4). This is a passage where it isn’t clear which way Calvin can / will go. But, the solution is nicely charted even though the details aren’t filled in.

The Rock
“For as the firmness and stability of Christ is such that it can sustain all who by faith recumb on him; so his hardness is so great that it will break and tear in pieces all who resist him. For there is no medium between these two things – we must either build on him, or be dashed against him.”

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