John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Doodle: “Isn’t Exclusivity Intolerant?”

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz - GranadFew Christian doctrines are more vehemently scorned than exclusivity. Not only does it presuppose that large swathes of people are, and have been, very wrong about who God is, but the intolerance dogmatic beliefs engender damages any hope of establishing peace on earth. I will risk losing your readership at this point by saying that I agree with these two statements: many people are wrong about whom God is and the existence of religion prevents peace on earth. As a Christian, however, I believe in exclusivity because I am convinced that there is one God, who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, see my post on cause versus revelation. In this post my aim is to prove that we cannot get away from exclusivity on matters of religion and God.

It is worth saying that your mounting distaste at this point is disagreement with Jesus, and not me, for he taught that he was the only true God and the exclusive means of attaining eternal life. I always marvel at history’s love for Jesus and the appreciation of this ideal itinerant preacher because it simply ignores what he taught; either, people are unaware of Jesus’ instruction or they prefer the repackaged and domesticated Jesus, happily remaining ignorant of what he really taught. So this post will also address the view of tolerance, which sees its role as rewriting history and redefining God in order to avoid arrogant exclusivity.

Most people today think that there are only two options when it comes to religion: the first is that all religions worship the same god and the second is that all religions worship different gods.

World ReligionsThe first view, a type of radical inclusivity, is extremely dismissive of the divine for it denies him/her/it the ability to clearly reveal itself to creation, unless of course it is part of creation. It asks us to imagine a god who either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making itself known. At the same time, this view says that all religions, with their widely divergent and distinctive theologies, are in fact wrong about who god is, owing to their specificity. The way this view would have us understand god is as some sort of ‘LCD god.’ More so, the problems that arise, over and above this view’s dummied down deity, is its arrogant claim to determine what God is like, and its illogical inclusion of contradicting theologies. For the sake of tolerance, this first view ignores the diverse richness of religion and replaces diverse beliefs with an inoffensive but vague god while making the offensive claim to define what that god is like, with the controlling attribute being transcendence. The second view – that there is in fact no god – has its own set of problematic assumptions. Essentially, and similarly to the first view, it concludes that every religion is wrong and therefore assumes itself to be the only right one. Since all belief about God is misled we are to conclude that disbelief has all the answers; proper knowledge, coming threateningly close to omniscience, is afforded to this select group of people, who we are meant to see as the possessors of exclusive truth. In my opinion, both of these views model proud exclusive claims, the type of claims that they set out to deny religion.

I hope you can see from my reasoning above that in many ways exclusivity is unavoidable. While the view of tolerance might be more palatable, it is not intellectually satisfying and is at many points quite offensive to or dismissive of more nuanced theology and religions.  The irony is that those who deny exclusivity in the name of tolerance do so from an intolerant and ultimately exclusive position.

Allegory in Our Reading of Exodus 3

Exodus 3 - burning bushRudolf Otto famously wrote, ‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, to explain the human experience of the divine, the Holy. Literally it means something like, ‘fearful and fascinating Mystery’. Otto’s idea of the Holy was that we are drawn toward its magnificence in wonder, yet repelled by its awesomeness. R.W.L. Moberly suggests that a fire that burns without consuming is perhaps the prime symbol for God because it attracts (by its vivid movement) and deters (by its heat). But is this the intention of Moses’ first theophany, in Exodus 3? How are we meant to understand this great sight, a bush that burns and is not consumed (3:2-3)?

I ask the question because I recently preached on Exodus 3 and engaged with the commentators and listened to a few sermons. Many interpretations – even if only in passing – sound like Rudolf Otto.  The fire that does not consume is interpreted as a picture of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people; despite his transcendent holiness he comes near to the Hebrews in the exodus event. Bruce Waltke says in his Old Testament theology: the image of fire inhabiting that fit for kindling is a foreshadowing of God amongst the Hebrews (p363). There is no doubt that fire is linked with God’s presence in Exodus; the Hebrews are lead by a pillar of fire and cloud (13:22), fire symbolises God’s presence at Sinai (19:18), and God’s glory descends as cloud and fire onto the completed tabernacle (40:34-38). But can we conclude from this that the unaffected burning bush depicts the holy Yahweh dwelling amongst a people his nature should consume?

God went before Israel

Alan Cole thinks the fire might signify the “purificatory, as well as destructive” properties of God’s presence. That would come closer to my understanding of God’s holiness; which is not mere otherness and transcendence but an outwardly flowing attribute that creates holiness, destroys evil. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, ‘It is fit, as there is an infinite fountain of holiness, moral excellence and beauty, so it should flow out in communicated holiness’ (quoted by John Webster in Holiness, p52). One might even go as far to suggest that we see this in the ground surrounding the burning bush becoming holy, with Yahweh’s condescension (3:5). However, the question remains unanswered: can we see the burning bush as a picture of God’s gracious nearness to sinful and unholy Hebrews?

Alec Motyer, in his BST commentary on Exodus, spills the most ink in making this link. He writes, “The juxtaposition of the transcendent God in all his holiness and vitality and the ordinary, earthly bush is a powerful metaphor for the indwelling, transforming presence of God with his people” (p56). I like that Motyer sees God’s holy presence as transformative. But I am unconvinced that is the purpose of this theophany. In p51-56 Motyer vividly unpacks the burning bush: fire affirms wrath, but outreaching mercy is supremely displayed; without abandoning his divine essence God is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners; the fire is his holy presence and the smoke serves as a veil for that holiness. We want that to be the meaning, because that theological interpretation comes standard with application for preaching. But I wonder if our theological categories at this point are not overshadowing the literary context.

TetragrammatonMotyer offers a second way of understanding the burning bush which – in my opinion – does justice to what is going in at the narrative and what Yahweh is about to reveal about himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14-15). Moses encounters a fire nourished by its own life, a truly living flame that needs nothing outside of itself to burn. Motyer writes, “The essence of this revelation is that Yahweh is the living God, a self-maintaining, self-sufficient reality that does not need to draw vitality from outside” (p56). This surely makes more sense given the context. So God is not as much revealing his holiness as he is demonstrating his glorious self-existence, independent eternality. When we begin to appropriate this truth we are not struck by God’s condescension; we are moved to awe and assurance by his underived and completely independent power over what he has made, his true divinity.