Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.11–14

Malachi 1.11–14

[11] “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. [12] “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ [13] And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty. “When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. [14] “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.”

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COMMENTARY: This has been a hard passage to work through with Calvin, and I feel somewhat at a loss for words. Yes, yes, gentle readers, it can happen even to us theo-bloggers. The precipitating factor here is the big “S” – supercessionism. It has always been a peculiar strength of the Reformed tradition that they read, preach, and theologize in, with, and from the Old Testament. But it has also always been a particular danger of the Reformed tradition to adopt crude ways of speaking about the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile forms of God’s covenant community. In particular, they can too easily and reflexively adopt the admittedly widespread view that the Gentile form simply replaces the Jewish form given the latter’s alleged unfaithfulness. This logic has been part of the Christian story for a long time, and is at least partially responsible for the history of Christian persecution of Jews which (hopefully) reached its high water mark in the Holocaust / Shoah.

So all that really puts me off my feed here. You’ll see it come out a bit in the prayer below. So, acknowledging that it is there and that it is a problem, I now intend to ignore it and discuss a couple of other points that Calvin brings out.

Rhetoric

I am increasingly convinced that much of Calvin’s genius lies in his sensitivity to rhetoric. This is a fruit of his humanistic training, of course. We see this at work in the present passage dealing with verse 11. What does it mean that incense and offerings will be made to God in every place? Rather than reading this flatfootedly as indicating that a form of worship of God involving incense and sacrifices will spread over the whole world, which Calvin is predisposed to view unfavorably due to his historical context, he takes a more sophisticated line and recognizes that Malachi here “adopts a mode of speaking common in Scripture” that involves “metaphorical” speech (502). In other words, the important thing being communicated is not what form this true worship will or will not take, but that it will in fact be true worship: “This passage contains nothing else than that the time would come when the pure and spiritual worship of God would prevail in all places.” In paying attention to the rhetorical force of the passage, focusing on the point being communicated rather than getting hung up on precisely how it is communicated, Calvin stands within the broadest stream of the Christian tradition’s practice of scriptural interpretation.

Sign & Reality

One of the recurring concerns in this first chapter of Malachi is how the stipulated worship of God has deteriorated, but in performance and intention. One question that Calvin addresses is why proper performance is so important if true worship of God is a matter of spirit. “Hypocrisy” was a major charge that the Reformation hurled at the Roman church of the time, charging them with being more concerned with performance than intention. The danger Calvin faced was going too far in the other direction, such that regulated performance fell by the wayside in favor of a spontaneous expression of intention. In other words, why should folk still care about keeping their worship orderly and following the lead of the pastors in this regard when externals don’t matter? Calvin’s answer:

The first piece is that one ought to worship the right way – i.e., the way God tells you to – or not at all. So “the basis of true religion is to know how he is to be worshiped by us” (500). Now, Calvin admits that the external forms are not the essence of worship. As he says, “religion, I allow, does not consist in these things” (506). But it does not exclude them either. The second piece of his argument is that the externals are necessary insofar as they are commanded by God. You have to worship God in the way God wants to be worshiped, and not doing so betrays such a one’s deep impiety. “The contempt then of the signs openly showed not only the negligence of the people, but also their contempt of all religion.”

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou dost not keep us at this day under the shadows of the law, by which thou didst train up the race of Abraham, but invitest us to a service far more excellent, even to consecrate ourselves, body and soul, as victims to thee, and to offer not only ourselves, but also sacrifices of praise and of prayer, as thou hast consecrated all the duties of religion which thou requires from us, through Christ thy sion,—O grant, that we may seek true purity, and labour to render, by a real sincerity of heart, our services approved by thee, and so reverently profess and call upon thy name, that really fulfilled in us may that be which thou has declared by thy Prophet—that thy name shall be magnified and celebrated through the whole world, as it was truly made known to us in the person of thine only-begotten Son.—Amen.

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