Of the various aspects of John Calvin’s writings that I appreciate, I always love to hear him talk about modesty and humility when it comes to the study and interpretation of God’s Word. More than a few times he mentions how we should never go further than God’s Word because that’s dangerous territory. Here’s a similar exhortation from his commentary on 1 Peter 1:10-12:
…He [Peter] does not say that the prophets searched according to their own understanding as to the time when Christ’s kingdom would come, but that they applied their minds to the revelation of the Spirit. Thus they have taught us by their example a sobriety in learning, for they did not go beyond what the Spirit taught them. And doubtless there will be no limits to man’s curiosity, except the Spirit of God presides over their minds, so that they may not desire anything else than to speak from him. And further, the spiritual kingdom is a higher subject than what the human mind can succeed in investigating, except the Spirit be the guide. May we also therefore submit to his guidance.
One chief characteristic of Christian doctrines or “dogmas” is that they originate in Scripture. I appreciate how Louis Berkhof explained this near the opening of his introduction to systematic theology (prolegomena):
Their Subject-Matter is derived from Scripture. The Bible is God’s Word, the book which is His continuous revelation of redemption for all successive generations. It acquaints us with the mighty redemptive acts of God, and also furnishes mankind with a reliable interpretation of these acts. It may therefore be said to be both a word—and a fact—revelation; and both these words and facts have doctrinal significance. Naturally, the meaning of the facts can only be expressed in words. Both the facts and the words have doctrinal significance, and therefore furnish the subject-matter of dogmas.
When it comes to the fact that God has revealed himself in his Word, we do well to remember that what he revealed to us there is what he wants us to know about him and faith in him. The Word is sufficient for our theology, our faith, and our practice. We may not add to it, nor may we go beyond it. We humbly accept what God has revealed and we stick with that revelation. We won’t – and can’t! – have all the answers to all the questions we ask about God, his Word, and other doctrinal or theological things we might wonder about. John Calvin discussed this point very well in one section of his Institutes. These are the words of a humble expositor and interpreter of Scripture:
…Let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this — in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered.
A second rule is, that in reading the Scriptures we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use. And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge.
Wherefore, if we would be duly wise, we must renounce those vain babblings of idle men, concerning the nature, ranks, and number of angels, without any authority from the Word of God. I know that many fasten on these topics more eagerly, and take greater pleasure in them than in those relating to daily practice. But if we decline not to be the disciples of Christ, let us not decline to follow the method which he has prescribed. In this way, being contented with him for our master, we will not only refrain from, but even feel averse to, superfluous speculations which he discourages….
…The duty of a Theologian…is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful.
Serious Christians are students of the Word. We seek the truth in God’s Word, we find it there, and we learn more about it as we grow, study, and read. We memorize verses, try to understand biblical concepts, and we desire to live as Scripture calls us to live. We are students of the Word of truth.
However, as W. G. T. Shedd wrote about studying the Word,
It is not sufficient to commune with the truth; for truth is impersonal. We must commune with the God of truth. It is not enough to study, and ponder, the contents of religious books, of even the Bible itself. We must actually address the author of the Bible, in entreaties and petitions.
There can, consequently, be no genuine religion without prayer. And the degree of religion, will depend upon the depth and heartiness of prayer. It does not depend so much upon the length, as the intensity of the mental activity. A few moments of real and absorbing address to God, will accomplish more for the Christian, in the way of arming him with spiritual power, than days or years of reflection, without it.
Shedd then applies study and prayer to the pastor’s life:
Well, therefore, may we lay down, as the first rule for the promotion of piety in the clergyman, the great and standing rule for all Christians. Let him not be satisfied with studying, and pondering, the best treatises in theology, or with studying, and pondering, even the Bible itself. Besides all this, and as the crowning and completing act, in the religious life, let him actually, and really pray. Let him not be content with a theological mood, with a homiletic spirit, with a serious and elevated mental habitude. Besides all this, and as a yet higher and more enlivening mental process, let him truly, and personally address his Maker and Redeemer, in supplication. Let him not attempt to promote piety in the soul, by a merely negative effort,—by neglecting the cultivation of the mind, and undervaluing learning and study. If the clergyman is not spiritually-minded, and devotedly religious, with learning and studiousness, he certainly will not be so without it. Neglect of his intellectual and theological character, will not help his religious character. Let him constantly endeavor to advance the divine life in his soul, by a positive, and comprehensive method. Let him consecrate, and sanctify all his study, and all his meditativeness, and all his profound and serious knowledge, with prayer.
In the years following the Protestant Reformation there were groups who believed that God was still speaking directly and immediately to them. thought that this inner word from God was equal to or sometimes even above Scripture, so they would follow and submit to the inner word. Luther and Calvin, along with other Reformers, were very critical of these enthusiasts. In fact, historical Reformed theology has always been critical of such claims and movements. One example is Petrus Van Mastricht (d. 1706) who gave a helpful summary of the enthusiast position and a biblical refutation of it:
…We [the Reformed] dispute whether believers now, after the canon has been sealed, possess enthusiasms, or inspirations, of the Holy Spirit. These inspirations are to them [the enthusiasts] the most certain word of God, to which one must submit just as much, if not in fact more, than to the Scriptures. …Indeed, they acknowledge that Scripture is the Word of God, but it is not to be understood except according to the breathings or the inspirations of their Spirit, a certain sort of internal word, as it were.
The Reformed acknowledge that in the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, there were true enthusiasms, and that in all ordinary believers there are indeed operations of the Holy Spirit that illuminate, convert, and sanctify, but there are no enthusiasms, no inspirations, in the sense of the infallible direction of the Holy Spirit, [infallible direction] which has now been removed from all men. This heresy is refuted by a destruction of this twofold false hypothesis:
First, they claim that Scripture is not a complete and sufficient rule of faith and morals in itself. For if Scripture’s sufficiency stands enthusiasm falls on its own. Now, its sufficiency stands by those things that we have said in favor of the perfection of Scripture in section 19 above….
Second, they claim that even now enthusiasms are infallible revelations of the Spirit are given, which are different from the scriptural enthusiasms, and with the help of which the Scriptures must be interpreted. However, the sacred page does not know of such revelations; indeed, it even rejects them, since it is perfect, and sufficient of itself in every respect; and it pronounces that they are joined with the most pressing danger of seduction (2 Cor. 11:14; 2 Thes. 2:2; 1 John 4:1-2).
…[Indeed,] there are passages that speak of revelation and of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I respond that those passages are not speaking about the kind of enthusiasms that direct [us] infallibly and that reveal other objects to us, different from those things (indeed, even contrary to those things) that Scripture holds, but rather, those that bring light to the intellect, so that we might be able to discern and distinguish the things revealed in the Scriptures (Eph. 1:17-18).
John Murray’s article, “The Finality and Sufficiency of Scripture” is a wonderful explanation of those twin biblical truths about Scripture. One section of this article that I read today had some comments in it that are still applicable for us in our setting:
Here, I believe, we have too often made the mistake of not taking seriously the doctrine [of Scripture] we profess.” If Scripture is the inscripturated revelation of the gospel and of God’s mind and will, if it is the only revelation of this character that we possess, then it is this revelation in all its fulness, richness, wisdom, and power that must be applied to man in whatever religious, moral, mental situation he is to be found. It is because we have not esteemed and prized the perfection of Scripture and its finality, that we have resorted to other techniques, expedients, and methods of dealing with the dilemma that confronts us all if we are alive to the needs of this hour.
Later Murray wrote,
..Let us learn from our tradition, let us prize our heritage, let us enter into other men’s labours; but let us also know that it is not the tradition of the past, not a precious heritage, and not the labours of the fathers, that are to serve this generation and this hour, but the Word of the living and abiding God deposited for us in Holy Scripture, and this Word as ministered by the church. And we must bring forth from its inexhaustible treasures, in exposition, proclamation, and application what is the wisdom and power of God for man in this age in all the particularity of his need, as for man in every age. There will then be commanding relevance, for it will be the message from God in the unction and power of the Spirit, not derived from the modern mentality, but declared to the modern mentality in all the desperateness of its anxiety and misery.
…Let us reassess the significance of Scripture as the Word of God and let us come to a deeper appreciation of the deposit of revelation God in his grace and wisdom has given unto us as the living Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, and let us know and experience its power in its sufficiency for every exigency of our individual and collective need, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in our hearts.
I really appreciated Henri Blocher’s book Evil and the Cross. It’s a helpful discussion about the problem of evil from a Christian perspective. I’ve blogged about it before so I won’t go into details. However, reading through parts of this book again today I found one section I highlighted – it’s worth sharing. Right before this quote, Blocher was talking about how in many ways we can’t understand evil. There’s mystery involved. Here’s Blocher:
If we bowed to the incomprehensible as a way out every time that we found ourselves in difficulties, there would be grounds for suspicion about such a procedure – it would be sheer irresponsibility, the abdication of reason. People are too ready to fall back on the action of ‘mystery’, and also to confuse mystery with the absurd – which Scripture never does.
But we would argue that the mystery of evil is the one unique inscrutable mystery, as unique as evil itself, sui generis. Far from being absurd, it corresponds precisely with the experience of evil, with its two facets: unjustifiable reality. Engraved in the decree of God, evil has a certain reality; but being contrary to his precept and his will, it is unjustifiable. As we have said, it does not imply contradiction. All the other mysteries that transcend our understanding, those of the Trinity, the union of the two natures of Christ, created freedom, are all luminous mysteries: if the mind tackles them biblically, it simply revels in them. Only the ‘opaque’ enigma of evil causes it pain.
If the solutions put forward in place of the scriptural response were capable of satisfying the human mind and spirit, they would be unquestionably superior. But surely it is the opposite that we have shown from a broad enough selection. Analysis reveals that what are called solutions turn out to be so many attempts to gloss over one or other of the aspects of the problem, to deny evil, or to ‘forget’ the initial, more reliable apprehension of the reality of evil that everyone experiences with indignation and shame.
Scripture alone is free of that. Surely such purity is nothing short of miraculous. No discourse strips the guilty of excuses like this Book. Water down one of the three affirmations (the evil of evil, the sovereignty of God, and the goodness of God) and evil to some extent becomes excusable, as we have demonstrated. Would Scripture be so true to reality if its origin were solely human?