Friday, August 29, 2008

My Most Recent Publication

W. Travis McMaken, "Review of Leonard J. Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (InterVarsity Press, 2004)," Evangelical Review of Theology 32.3 (2008): 283-4.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.12-17

1 Peter 4.12-17

[12] Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. [13] But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. [14] If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. [15] If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or their or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. [16] However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. [17] For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household…


COMMENTARY: I want to make two brief points about this section, one directly related to Calvin’s commentary and one tangentially related.

First, the tangentially related point. Look at verse 14. Does it remind you of anything? When Calvin treats this verse, he identifies it as in keeping with “what Christ says” about those “who are reproached for the sake of the Gospel” (135). Now, the editors (I believe) have inserted a biblical reference here to help readers catch the allusion. They point us to Mark 8.35: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” In all fairness, this reference makes sense. The gospel is mentioned both here in 1 Peter and in the Mark passage as the reason for adversity, for instance. But, for my money, this is not the correct allusion. The Vulgate version of this passage, which is set parallel with an English translation (perhaps from Calvin’s own translation into French?) at the beginning of each commentary section, uses the term beati for what is given to us about as “blessed” and what is given in the parallel English version as “happy.” Both the Latin term and the translation “blessed” give us a tip off with reference to what I think is the correct biblical allusion. For my money, Calvin is clearly pointing us to Mathew 5.11-2: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” The clincher here is linguistic: the Greek term for blessed in each case is makarioi.

Aside from the academic interest in figuring out precisely which passage Calvin is trying to allude to here, verse 14 is significant. How often do we see reference to the Gospels in the Epistles?

Second, the directly related point. Throughout this section Calvin is working toward a distinction between suffering that occurs because of our Christian commitment, and suffering that comes as a part of life and that God uses to test us and consequently strengthen our faith. Furthermore, these are the only sorts of suffering that Calvin with entertain. For instance, we do not suffer because of our sins, since they have been forgiven – instead we are granted admission into “so honourable a warfare as to undergo for the testimony of his Gospel” various sufferings (137). Now, I don’t think Calvin means that when Christians sin they do not reap real-world consequences. Rather, when these consequences occur they are not God’s wrath but God’s fatherly discipline. Back to the main point, however: this distinction between suffering for Christ’s sake and suffering to test and strengthen our faith is not one that Calvin makes cleanly but it is one that (I think) lies close at hand in the background here. Overlaps occur, of course: suffering for Christ’s sake can certainly be a test and strengthening of our faith. But the fundamental distinction is, I think, both clear and helpful.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.6-11

1 Peter 4.6-11

[6] For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. [7] The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. [8] Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. [9] Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. [10] Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. [11] If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.


COMMENTARY: In keeping with his previous interpretation of 3.19, Calvin takes ‘the dead’ in verse six to be those who had received the gospel prior to death. The judgment according to human standards he takes to be death itself, even though from God’s perspective they now live with God in the Spirit. Calvin puts it thusly himself: “So that the meaning is, that though according to the estimation of the world the dead suffer destruction in their flesh, and are deemed condemned as to the outward man, yet they cease not to live with God, and that in their spirit, because Christ quickens them by his Spirit” (126). Believers thus have consolation that our salvation is not negated by death, and that death “does not hinder Christ from being always our defender” (ibid).

Verse 7 is intended to rouse Peter’s readers from apathy, reminding us that “we ought not to sit still in the world, from which we must soon remove” (127). One certainly could not charge Calvin with having a ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ mentality that forgets to labor for the betterment of the hear and now. His is a strenuous ethic of engagement with the world and its problems. For instance, it was largely through his efforts that Geneva installed regulations requiring that porches and balconies on high levels of houses have railings to prevent children from falling off. Also, Calvin was instrumental in establishing schooling and heath-care systems in Geneva to care for the citizens.

Geneva in Calvin’s time was also quite liberal in its welcome of foreign refugees from all across Europe, and this makes even more pointed what Calvin has to say in this passage about hospitality. He calls such behavior “one of the duties of love” (130), and a mutual undertaking so that no one is taken advantage of and so that everyone is cared for. Stewardship is also important here, for Calvin reminds us that “we do not give our own, but only dispense what God has committed to us” (ibid).

The office of teaching and ministry in general represent, for Calvin, case studies in the mutual sharing of gifts that should characterize the church. He sums thing up with on of his paraphrases:
“[It is] as though [Peter] had said, ‘Whatever part of the burden thou bearest in the Church, know that thou canst do nothing but what has been given thee by the Lord, and that thou art nothing else but an instrument of God: take heed, then, not to abuse the grace of God by exalting thyself; take heed, then, not to abuse the grace of God by exalting thyself; take heed not to suppress the power of God, which puts forth and manifests itself in the ministry for the salvation of the brethren [and sistren].”
It is unfortunate that Calvin does not do more with Peter’s language about those who teach speaking the very words of God. Calvin is more interested in reading this as an admonition to teach nothing but what is found in Scripture, which is certainly an important point. He does, however, bring the notion of human ministry as an ‘instrument of God’ into play in the above quote, which moves in this direction.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.1-5

1 Peter 4.1-5

[1] Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. [2] As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. [3] For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. [4] They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. [5] But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.


COMMENTARY: We now commence with the fourth chapter of Peter’s first epistle. There are a few interesting and instructive points in these few verses.

First, Calvin addresses the role of Christ in the Christian’s life. Calvin is careful to ensure that his readers do not conclude that Christ’s only role is to serve as an example to them of how to life. Christ is certainly an example, but he is also more than an example. He is the source of the Spirit, who carries out sanctification in our own lives in an ‘effectual’ manner. Here is Calvin:
The Scripture recommends to us a twofold likeness to the death of Christ, that we are to be conformed to him in reproaches and troubles, and also that the old man being dead and extinct in us, we are to be renewed to a spiritual life…Yet Christ is not simply to be viewed as our example, when we speak of the mortification of the flesh; but it is by his Spirit that we are really made conformable to his death, so that it becomes effectual to the crucifying of our flesh. (120)
Furthermore, Calvin explains that our mortification need not correspond exactly to Christ’s mortification – thank goodness! In fact, as Calvin points out, a comparison does not correspond in every part. As Gregory of Nyssa once argued (and I am interposing this; Calvin doesn’t cite it), if there was no distinction then there would not be similarity but identity!

Next, Calvin notes that the term ‘flesh’ shows up in both verse 1 and verse 2, and is used in two different ways. When it is first used, it is used with reference to Christ and refers to his physical body. When it is next used, it is used with reference to human sinfulness in general. The second definition doesn’t apply to Christ, for Christ lived without sin, and the first definition doesn’t apply to us, because this passage is about sinning and not persecution.

Finally, on first read, it might look like we Gentiles are getting the raw deal in this passage, charged with all manner of immorality. But, Calvin is quick to note, that Peter doesn’t think every Gentile is guilty of each of the listed peccadilloes, but that the listed things are intended to represent all manner of sinfulness. The conclusion being that Gentiles as a group are guilty of all manner of sinfulness, and that “There is indeed no one who has not within him the seed of all vices, but all do not germinate and grow up in every individual. Yet the contagion is so spread and diffused through the whole human race, that the show community appears infected with innumerable evils, and that no member is free or pure from the common corruption” (124). Now, I find this account of total depravity interesting because it sounds much more patristic than do many later proponents of total depravity. Here, sin is a disease of the soul, not the absolute absence of life. It is like a parasite that requires a living host, even while destroying that host from the inside out. This depravity is total in that it touches every person, but not total in that the imagery employed does not imply that nothing but sin exists in the human condition.

Finally, it is fun to note that this is the passage where the creedal “the living and dead” (“the quick and the dead,” for those – like me – who enjoy the older English) line comes from.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.19-22

1 Peter 3.19-22

[19] In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – [20] to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, [21] and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, [22] who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.


COMMENTARY: This is quite an interesting biblical passage, and Calvin’s discussion is correspondingly interesting. I always enjoy watching Calvin wrestle with a text, and he does so with this one – especially verse 19.

He begins by setting aside what he takes to be misinterpretations of this verse: some have taken it to refer to Christ’s descent into hell, but that can’t be true because it does not refer to Christ’s soul preaching to other souls; some have taken it to mean that Christ preaches to those imprisoned by sin through the apostles, but that doesn’t make sense because the preaching is directed to spirits and it doesn’t make sense to switch from talking about the apostles to talking about Noah; some think that those who died before Christ were freed from their sins after their death, but this is wrong because Scripture says that salvation is by faith so that “there is no hope left for those who continue to death unbelieving” (113).

So then, Calvin, what does this verse mean? Well, replies Calvin, the word translated prison - fulakh - can actually be translated as ‘watchtower,’ such that “godly souls were watching in hope of the salvation promised them, as though they saw it afar off” (114). But, even if one insists on sticking with the ‘prison’ translation, that make sense too because those who lived before Christ were prisoners to the Law. So, to conclude, in verse 19 “Peter speaks generally, that the manifestation of Christ’s grace was made to the godly spirits, and that they were thus endued with the vital power of the Spirit” (ibid).

But, there is a wrinkle here in that verse 20 goes on to speak of those who disobedient when we would expect a discussion of the faithful. But this does not have to mean that in verse 19 Christ appeared to those who were formerly unbelievers if one recognizes “that then the true servants of God were mixed together with the unbelieving, and were almost hidden on account of their number” (115). But Calvin, the exegetically skilled interpreter might say, if that was the intended reading then Peter should have used a genitive absolute. (NB: I am too lazy to look this up and see what the new critical editions do with this passage in terms of case, so I’ll still with representing Calvin.) How do you account for that? Well, replies Calvin, “I allow that the Greek construction is at variance with this meaning…But as it was not unusual with the Apostles to put one case instead of another…and no other suitable meaning can be elicited, I have no hesitation in giving this explanation” (ibid).

Now, does anyone else find Calvin’s ‘interpretative method’ here somewhat amusing? He basically reads against the most prima facie meaning of this text, including a few points at which he sets aside the precise case or the more common meaning of a term, because he isn’t interested in the theological implications that seem to arise from this passage. This isn’t to say that Calvin throws out this passage willy-nilly. Instead, he has to wrestle with it to extract an interpretation that both makes some sense of what is textually here and that fits with his larger theological picture – or, we might choose to spin it, that makes sense in light of the whole canonical context. I personally find this modus operandi attractive.

There is much more in this section worth checking out, but to do so here would make this post obscenely long. Instead, I leave you with a couple summary quotations:

As Noah, then, obtained life through death, when in the ark, he was enclosed not otherwise than as it were in the grave, and when the whole world perished, he was preserved together with his small family; so at this day, the death which is set forth in baptism, is to us an entrance into life, nor can salvation be hoped for, except we be separated from the world. (117)

[Peter] recommends to us the ascention of Christ until heaven, lest our eyes should seek him in the world; and this belongs especially to faith…And what his sitting at the right hand of the Father means, we have elsewhere explained, that is, that Christ exercises supreme power everywhere as God’s representative. (119)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Conversations with Augustine: Per Caritatem Blog Conference Underway

Cynthia Nielsen over at Per Caritatem has begun posting what she is calling the first of an annual Augustine blog conference. The posts have been excellent so far, and I highly recommend that you check it out. Of particular interest to readers of DET will be the contribution by Shane Wilkins, frequent conversation partner, sometime contributor, and a good friend of DET.