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Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’

9781844744954-reeves-on-giants-shouldersREVIEW: Michael Reeves, On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing great theologians from Luther to Barth, IVP: 2011.

He’s done it again. Following on from The Breeze of the Centuries, Mike Reeves goes on to look at Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Schleiermacher and Barth, and once again incredibly manages to condense their life and writings into 20 or 30 pages each. It’s worth clarifying that he doesn’t affirm everything they affirm – Schleiermacher in particular is the father of modern liberal theology – but he is presenting us with ‘giants’ of theology who we need to reckon with and engage with.

This is a brilliant introduction – an absolute must read – my copy is covered in underlinings and scribbles. A few things that particularly struck me:

  1. Luther’s great insight that justification (and the sacraments) are about a Word and a righteousness coming to us from outside – they are external, alien to us.
  2. The discussion of Calvin’s life and particularly his family, sorrows, terrible health, role in mission and in the execution of the heretic Servetus, and his emphasis on knowledge of God touching the feelings is very helpful in clearing away some of the caricatures of the man.
  3. The concern of all the theologians discussed (with the exception of Schleiermacher) to understand not just an abstract, philosophical ‘God’ but the LORD of Scripture, the distinctively Trinitarian God revealed only through Christ. “And those who in their worship or [prayer] attempt an approach to the divine nature as absolutely considered, without respect to… the distinct persons of the holy Trinity, do reject the mystery of the Gospel, and all benefit of it. So it is with many” (Owen, quoted on p. 77).
  4. All of these theologians (again with the exception of Schleiermacher) see Christ present throughout the OT, speaking, appearing, saving as well as in all sort of types and patterns. Luther goes so far as to call OT believers, “Christians” and Edwards says, “When we read in the [OT] what God did from time to time towards his church and people, and what he said to them, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read after this of God’s appearing time after time in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily if not universally to understand it of the second person of the Trinity.” (quoted on p. 114)
  5. Feelings and affections are key to all of these theologians. But with Schleiermacher experience and feelings become everything. With Owen and Edwards revelation/Scripture gives rise to affections. With Schleiermacher the order is reversed and experience/feelings give rise to scripture/doctrine. History becomes irrelevant and faith becomes a personal, internal, subjective thing rather than (as Luther saw it) focussed on an external Word. The Cross is just inspirational and forgiveness is about not feeling guilty.
  6. While the first 1000 years of the church saw a gradual slide away from the Word as foundational and an increasing confidence in human reason and philosophy, with the Reformation (and with Barth) you see a return to the Word of God as the fountain of all our knowledge of God and ourselves and creation. In particular Barth’s brilliant move was to recover the 1 Cor. 1-2 doctrine of the unknowability of God through human reason and wisdom. “He wanted to reject all Pelagianism in our knowledge of God (i.e. actually contributing to it ourselves) to show that our knowledge of God is a divine gift… Thus Barth rejected all ‘natural theology'” (p. 154).

I’m worried that these theologians are not at all well known in our context here. Luther and Calvin everyone has heard of but few have read. In fact many of the sermons and statements of Luther, for example, if you were to preach them in a pulpit in Kenya would be thought of as a heretical new teaching. The others – John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth – have rarely even been heard of. Our ignorance of these guys (and I include myself in that ignorance) is dangerous – because we fail to learn both from their greatest insights and greatest mistakes.

Once again, Mike Reeves wants us more than anything to get back into the sources themselves – “That at least has been the aim of this utterly unoriginal book” – and fortunately a lot of this stuff is online:

And a final word from Owen:

Do any of us find decays of grace prevailing in us; deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? And would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases?

Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea no other way but this alone, namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory putting forth its transforming power unto revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

(Owen quoted on p. 85)

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In this short but rich book, Mike Reeves raises the question ‘What is it that makes the Christian God distinct from any other god- say Allah?’ Our understanding of the Trinity is the key to unlocking this. This doctrine of Trinity has been neglected yet it is core to our Christian belief.

He says “What makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. I can believe in every other aspect of the gospel but if I don’t believe in the triune God, then simply put, I am not a Christian.”

I couldn’t agree more! In our own context, most of us would say we are Christians and we believe in God yet we actually don’t know the God we believe in. If we are to think Christian then we are to start by thinking Trinity! The temptation for us is to sculpt God in our own assumptions; we think He is a single-person God yet the God of the Bible is clearly a triune God- Father, Son and Spirit.

It’s only a clear understanding of the Trinity that will help us not to fall into doctrinal errors such as Arianism: thinking of the Son as being less of the Father and that there was a time when He never existed… or the error of Modalism: we think of God as a single person who takes on different modes or moods- sometimes as Father, other times as Son and still other times as Spirit. The H2O analogy we use is particularly not helpful; “the Father all icy until you warm Him up then He turns into the watery Son, who then vaporizes and becomes the steamy Spirit when you really crank up the heat!!”

What then would be the best way to describe God? Can’t we just say that He is Almighty? Or the Creator? Well, all these are the right attributes of God but in and of themselves are not sufficient. Mike points out that the very first feature is that our God is the Father. This is the God that Jesus, the Son reveals to us. As a Father, He has loved His Son before the creation of the world (John 17:24). This God is love (1 John 4:8). “Before anything else, for all eternity, this God was loving, giving life and delighting in the Son.”

Now, this is some profound truth; that the Father is never without the Son- the Son is the eternal Son, there was never a time when He didn’t exist. The Father loves the Son, the Son is the beloved of the Father and then the Son goes out to be the lover and the head of the Church. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” the Son says (John 15:9).

 

baptismThe Father’s love for the Son is clearly seen at Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit descends on Him like a dove and then we hear the Father’s voice “This is My Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). The Spirit stirs up the delight of the Father in the Son and the delight of the Son in the Father. In the very beginning, God creates by His Word (the Word that would later become flesh), and He does so by sending out His Word in the power of His Spirit or Breath.

John Calvin once wrote that if we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son and Spirit, then ‘only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.’

Functionally, this is how the Trinity operates:

  • In creation, we see the Father’s love overflowing. Richard Sibbes says, “It is not that God needed to create the world in order to satisfy Himself or become Himself… The Father, Son and Spirit ‘were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was’. But the Father so enjoyed fellowship with His Son that He wanted to have the goodness of it spread out and communicated or shared with others. The creation was a free choice borne out of nothing but love.”
  • In Salvation, we see the Son sharing what is His. “No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made Him known.” (John 1:18) The triune God gives us His very self, for the Son is the Word of God; God doesn’t just tell us about Himself, He gives us Himself.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life; He gives us new birth into new life. Not only that but He gives us Himself so that we might know and enjoy Him and so enjoy His fellowship with the Father and Son. The Spirit enlightens us to know the love of God by opening our eyes to see the glory of Christ. Thus, in the Christian life, we see the Spirit beautifying it. Though we are sinful creatures, the Spirit cultivates in us a deepening taste for Christ, the epitome of beauty, the Spirit polishes a new humanity who begin to shine with His likeness.

Our personal and relational God is such that the Son is distinct from the Father and yet is of the very being of the Father and is eternally one with Him in the Spirit.

The theologian Karl Barth wrote: “The tri-unity of God is the secret of His beauty. If we deny this, we at once have a God without radiance and without joy (and without humour!); a God without beauty. Losing the dignity and power of real divinity, He also loses His beauty. But if we keep to this… that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we cannot escape the fact either in general or in detail that apart from anything else God is also beautiful.”

The question now remains: which God will we have? Which God will we proclaim?

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