Monday, March 14, 2016

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 4.3–6

Malachi 4.3–6

[3] And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. [4] Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. [5] Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and horrible day of the LORD comes. [6] He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

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COMMENTARY: As Calvin finishes up the last few verse of Malachi, and I in turn finish up the last few pages of Calvin’s commentary, there are three things that I would call your attention to, gentle readers.

First, Calvin gets quite a bit of mileage out of verse 4. One of the points he makes pertains to the importance of the Torah / law, delivered by Moses, and of the relation of the prophetic tradition to the law. His presupposition is that there is a gap in the prophetic office, so to speak, such that God does not speak through prophets between Malachi and John the Baptist. Given this, verse 4 becomes an instruction for how Israel should persist in their faithfulness to God in the interim, i.e., they should attend to the law: “Malachi, in order to keep the Jews from wandering, and from departing from the pure doctrine of the law, reminds them that they were faithfully and constantly to remember it” (624). Calvin then raises the rhetorical question: why mention only the law? Why not also instruct them to attend to the prophetic teaching? Answer: “the prophetic office was not separated from the law, for all the prophecies which followed the law were as it were its appendages; so that they included nothing new, but were given that the people might be more fully retained in their obedience to the law. . . . [T]he Prophets were the interpreters of Moses” (ibid). So, by recommending attention to the law Malachi also recommends attention to the prophets since, insofar as the prophets provide interpretation of the law, it is impossible for one to attend to the law without hearing the prophets. And this raises implications for our own time, giving the overwhelming concern for justice that comes out in the prophetic tradition in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious in the “statutes and ordinances” (as verse 4 puts it)—those “statutes and ordinances” are properly understood vis-à-vis the prophetic concern with justice!

Second, we have an excellent example of Calvin’s rhetorical reading of scripture in this passage. Calvin’s rhetorical analysis has long been one of my favorite features of his thought, although at times I wish he had more consistently deployed it. But he brings it out here in connection with verse 5, and returns to it with reference to the last clause of verse 6. What are we to do with all this talk of a “great and horrible day of the LORD,” of with this threat of striking “the land with a curse”? How does this mesh with the idea, which Calvin everywhere maintains, that God’s providence should be thought of in fatherly terms? How does this mesh with the idea of peace and joy found in Christ? Calvin tackles this head on with rhetorical analysis, and a little of what we might today call “victim-blaming” thrown in:
Though then Christ calmly presents himself, as we have before observed, and as soon as he appears to us, he brings an abundant reason for joy; yet the perverseness of that people was such as to constrain the Prophet to use a severe language, according to the manner in which God deals daily with us; when he sees that we have a tasteless palate, he gives us some bitter medicine, so that we may have some relish for his favour. Whenever then we meet with any thing in Scripture tending to fill us with terror, let us remember that such a thing is announced, because we are either deaf or slothful, or even rebellious, when God kindly invites us to himself (628–29).

If the sloth of our flesh keeps us back, let even this threatening stimulate us (631).
In other words, these sometimes terrifying threats are there to get our attention when we are otherwise too distracted to pay proper heed to God's kind offer of forgiveness. And notice, too, that Calvin’s rhetorical analysis is really an analysis of God’s rhetoric—i.e., the way that God speaks and acts (by way of the authors of scripture but also in the Christian's experience) to produce a certain effect in people. And this effect is to bring people to God. Finally, notice that this bit of rhetorical analysis is undertaken in order to show the unity of God as testified to in Malachi with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Third, we have here evidence of what I increasingly think of as Calvin’s soteriological concentration. The rhetorical analysis above is entirely soteriological in focus; by which I mean, Calvin there analyzes how it is that God moves people toward faith. And this has been the case in each of the times that I’ve encountered memorable instances of Calvin’s rhetorical analysis. We see this also in Calvin’s discussion of the argument in his commentary on Romans—where he calls “justification by faith” “the main subject of the whole Epistle” (Calvin, Commentary on Romans, xxix). This is especially significant insofar as Calvin seems to have modelled many editions of his Institutes on the structure that he found in Romans. And here in verse 6, the conclusion of the book of Malachi, we have an astounding statement: “the turning of the heart is God’s peculiar work, and still more, it is more peculiarly his than his other works” (629). Woah! God’s work as savior is more properly God’s work than God’s work as creator, providential sustainer, etc. Or perhaps the better way to put it would be to say that in God’s saving work we meet with the core of God’s character (given things Calvin says in the Institutes, I highly suspect that he would want to distinguish here between what he calls God’s “character” and God’s being), and all the rest is organized around that. Do we see here the enduring influence of Luther?

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as nothing is omitted by thee to help us onward in the course of our faith, and as our sloth is such that we hardly advance one step though stimulated by thee,—O grant, that we may strive to profit more by the various helps which thou hast provided for us, so that the Law, the Prophets, the voice of John the Baptist, and especially the doctrine of thine only-begotten Son, may more fully awaken us, that we may not only hasten to him, but also proceed constantly in our course, and preserve in it until we shall at length obtain the victory and the crown of our calling, as thou hast promised an eternal inheritance in heaven to all who faint not but wait for the coming of the great Redeemer.—Amen.



So, that’s it. Another unit of the Reading Scripture with John Calvin series is in the books. Here’s what I can’t say and what I can say at this point. I can’t say what the next book to be tackled will be. And I can’t say that because I can’t say when or whether this series will continue. It takes a lot of time and energy, and it may be that time and energy is best spent in other ways for the foreseeable future. I can say, however, that this series is one of the things that I’m most proud of on DET. And it is the series that I have most enjoyed over the years. It is also the series through which I have learned the most, and which has borne the most fruit in my own thought. So I may return to it in the future. Who knows? All that I can say for sure at this point is this: Calvin has worn me out—I need a break!

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2 comments:

Matthew Frost said...

I have to say, while this long-running series of yours inspired my recent post-( or maybe para-)Barthian Genesis wanderings on my blog, I've definitely been taking the easier road of not reading both Genesis 1 and Barth on Genesis 1 in order to discuss them both in detail. Running commentary on two primary texts at once is grueling. Enjoy the indefinite break—you've earned it!

W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks, Matt!

I imagine that I'll be back to it one day, in classic Proverbs 26.11 style. But I definitely need a break...

I've got the revival of another old series cooking, though, so stay tuned!