Regardless of what it ends up being called, this past few years have been quite a ride for us as a family. Ten years ago today we were preparing to move to Florida. We lived with some friends in Grove City while Jim house-hunted and began his new job in South Florida. There was snow on the ground when we actually left in February, I can't remember if we had a White Christmas or New Year.
Back then I had little idea exactly who John Calvin was, and if I did know I certainly didn't care. Now I have spent a year reading his Institutes of Christian Religion after learning in the church we attended in Florida just who he was and the impact he had on our beliefs by his scholarship and writing. Our time in Florida served, among many other things, to open my eyes to a wider and deeper heritage in the Christian faith than I had previously known. As it happens, those Old White Dead Guys knew a thing or two, and it is indeed beneficial to get to know them. (I'm including Augustine here, but I'm not sure what ethnicity he was, wasn't he from Africa?)
I say that I have spent a year reading the Institutes; I have not finished them in that year. A funny thing happened as I was reading through Book three- Jim came home from Dubai. As he was away for five months, I was delighted that my husband was home. There was so much catching up to do, so much normal life to share, so many daily conversations over coffee and lunch. Not having a job meant that he was here day in and day out to keep me company, every morning, every meal, every time I sat down to read...
It was uncanny. Jim could be at his desk in the basement, on phone calls, doing classwork, emailing potential employers; but if I sat down with my book, suddenly he was upstairs to talk. If I'm not "actively working", then I must want to visit. I love my husband, I do. Really. But the solitude in which to sit and read is a rare treasure, and that solitude is what I need to finish my reading!
Well. Yesterday being New Year's Eve, I traded with someone else at work and went in for an extended shift at Curves, opening at 8, closing at 3. As it happens, we also had a bit of weather yesterday. Snow started falling before dawn and we had an accumulation of maybe two to three inches at the club before it was over. Fortunately I took John Calvin along with me. For the first two hours and 15 minutes I was alone with my reading- what bliss! Just me and Calvin, and the snow trucks out in the parking lot. Over that seven hour shift only five women came in to workout, with large gaps in between.
I sailed through two weeks worth of the reading schedule to make it into September and Book four! Yee-haw! I finished Calvin's apologetically firm, yet God honoring, discussion of the just condemnation of the reprobate, and am now reading his doctrine of The Church, using the Nicene Creed as his guide.
Since any discussion of the former topic is necessarily long and tangled, I will not begin to open it here. I will merely share one quote that is worth meditating upon.
"God's grace is tasteless to men until the Holy Spirit brings its savor."
Now I am reading the fourth and final book of the Institutes, which Calvin titles "The External Means or Aims by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein". Chapter 1 is "The True Church with Which as Mother of All the Godly We Must Keep Unity". In a note at the beginning of the chapter, the editor writes that "The space accorded by Calvin to the doctrine of the church in the Institutes is evidence of the high importance it assumed for him." Indeed, Calvin's purpose for writing the Institutes was, in part, to define the distinctions between the Roman Catholic church and the teachings of the Reformation.
Having attended many different "flavors" of churches over the years this topic is turning out to be far more interesting than I expected. Certainly Predestination and Election are the doctrines for which Calvin is best known, but his teachings encompass every aspect of practice and belief into a cohesive whole. As a Pastor and teacher he desired to lead his congregation into all truth as found in Scripture, and his zeal for Christ and His Word allowed for no compromise or soft-pedaling of that truth.
After identifying the marks of a true church as the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, (of baptism and holy communion) he declares that, "...believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises His own folk upward step by step."
Calvin's high view of God's sovereignty surely informs his opinion of God's care for and guardianship over His church. It's common knowledge that there is no "perfect church", since each church is made up of sinners and will be flawed. He therefore contends that a church with the marks of authority described above, however defective, is not to be forsaken. We live in a society that seeks out churches that will be a "perfect fit", that will minister to "felt needs", and that will be "sensitive to seekers". If no such church is found, then we'll just wing it on our own, be "lone wolf Christians". After all, all we need is a Bible and God will speak to us, right? I was riveted as I read the following...
"It is of no small importance that (the church) is called "the pillar and ground of the truth" and "the house of God" [1 Tim. 3:15]. By these words Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God's truth in order that it may not perish in the world. For by its ministry and labor God willed to have the preaching of his Word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family, while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation. It is also no common praise to say that Christ has chosen and set apart the church as his bride, "without spot or wrinkle", [Eph. 5:27], "his body and... fullness" [Eph. 1:23]. From this it follows that separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ. Hence we must even more avoid so wicked a separation. For when with all our might we are attempting the overthrow of God's truth, we deserve to have him hurl the whole thunderbolt of his wrath to crush us. Nor can any more atrocious crime be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only begotten Son of God deigned to contract with us. [Eph. 5:23-32] (italics mine)
Calvin's zeal for and his uncompromising stand on the Word are just the ticket for stiffening the spine in our churches today.
Happy New Year!