Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Calvin on Universal Preaching

Here are some representative quotations from Calvin about preaching:

Some object that God would be inconsistent with himself, in inviting all without distinction while he elects only a few. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promise destroys the distinction of special grace. ……The mode in which Scripture reconciles the two things, viz., that by external preaching all are called to faith and repentance, and that yet the Spirit of faith and repentance is not given to all, I have already explained, and will again shortly repeat. ……But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises of salvation specially to the elect, (Isaiah 8:16;) for he declares that his disciples would consist of them only, and not indiscriminately of the whole human race. Whence it is evident that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the Church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available to all. For the present let it suffice to observe, that though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. Isaiah assigns the cause when he says that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all. (Isaiah 53:1.)

Calvin’s concern is to establish that the external call to believe and repent, and the provision of the true faith and repentance only to the elect are not contradictory. A universal call does not imply a call that is ‘effectually available to all’.

The expression of our Savior, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22:14,) is also very improperly interpreted. There will be no ambiguity in it, if we attend to what our former remarks ought to have made clear, viz., that there are two species of calling: for there is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts.

There are two gospel calls, each with a distinct purpose and effect

But if it is so, (you will say,) little faith can be put in the Gospel promises, which, in testifying concerning the will of God, declare that he wills what is contrary to his inviolable decree. Not at all; for however universal the promises of salvation may be, there is no discrepancy between them and the predestination of the reprobate, provided we attend to their effect. We know that the promises are effectual only when we receive them in faith, but, on the contrary, when faith is made void, the promise is of no effect. If this is the nature of the promises, let us now see whether there be any inconsistency between the two things, viz., that God, by an eternal decree, fixed the number of those whom he is pleased to embrace in love, and on whom he is pleased to display his wrath, and that he offers salvation indiscriminately to all. I hold that they are perfectly consistent, for all that is meant by the promise is, just that his mercy is offered to all who desire and implore it, and this none do, save those whom he has enlightened. Moreover, he enlightens those whom he has predestinated to salvation. Thus the truth of the promises remains firm and unshaken, so that it cannot be said there is any disagreement between the eternal election of God and the testimony of his grace which he offers to believers. But why does he mention all men? Namely that the consciences of the righteous may rest the more secure when they understand that there is no difference between sinners, provided they have faith, and that the ungodly may not be able to allege that they have not an asylum to which they may retake themselves from the bondage of sin, while they ungratefully reject the offer which is made to them. Therefore, since by the Gospel the mercy of God is offered to both, it is faith, in other words, the illumination of God, which distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked, the former feeling the efficacy of the Gospel, the latter obtaining no benefit from it. Illumination itself has eternal election for its rule.

The scope of the call, to ‘all men’ or ‘the world’, does not determine the extent of God’s salvific intentions. When he has the chance to say that the scope of God’s tose intentions are similarly expansive, or are indiscriminate or universal, Calvin does not take it, but instead denies it. As we are seeing, he takes some trouble to argue that the universality of the invitation is consistent with the particularity or exclusivity of the salvific intentions.

Our epistemic condition requires such invitations in order to highlight the graciousness of the gospel. This comes out vividly in the lengthy sermon on I Tim 2.4. Why may preachers of the gospel make indefinite or universal statements regarding the death of Christ? That the epistemic situation of hearers and preachers figure here become all too clear. For among the reasons that Calvin offers for such universalistic language is that Paul’s wording here is a sign or token of God’s love to the Gentiles, and draws attention to our ignorance otherwise

For we cannot guess and surmise what God his will is, unless he shew it to us, and give us some sign or token, whereby we may have some perseverance in it. It is too high a matter for us, to know what God his counsel is, but so far forth as he sheweth it by effect, so far do we comprehend it.

When it is said that God will receive sinners to mercy, such as come to him to ask forgiveness, and that in Christ’s name. Is this doctrine for two or three? No, no, it is a general doctrine. So then it is said that God will have all men to be saved, not having respect to what we devise or imagine, that is to say so far forth as our wits are able to comprehend it, for this is that measure that we must always come to.

Calvin is here adopting the point of view of the hearers of gospel preaching, but this is easily transposed to preachers and teacher.

Consider this illustration: one way in which a bank shows its sincerity in stating that it will meet all of its obligations to depositors is by honouring them in fact. According to Calvin God shows his sincerity in offering grace to sinners by receiving any and all who respond.

Let us suppose for a moment a preaching economy which was conducted in all its stages under uniform epistemic conditions, either in terms uniformly directed to the elect, or in terms uniformly directed to the reprobate. If this happened (as it has tended in fact to happen in some hyper-Calvinist settings), the hearers could not be invited to come to Christ, but first (by the terms of the preaching) they would each be forced to ask ‘Which am I? Am I among the elect, or among the reprobate? Do I fulfil the requirements or conditions or states of being among the former or among the latter?’ In these circumstances there could be no full, free invitation. The gospel could not be received ‘by invitation only’, but only through the fulfilment of some prior state or condition together with the assurance that such a condition had been fulfilled.

In other words, under such terms ‘gospel preaching’ would have the effect not of turning men and women to face a Christ who invites freely and graciously, but of turning hearers in upon themselves in a search for sure signs of election. And such a turning in on oneself is but a very short step from a person being concerned about whether or not he is qualified to come to Christ, in which case there is the prospect of despair over what would be taken to be the marks of retribution, or presumption as to election. Either way, instead of facing Christ who has outstretched arms, a person would introspect. At such a point the ‘grace’ of Calvin’s gospel of free justification would be become legalistic by the need for the fulfilment of certain preconditions.

So I suggest that what Calvin is identifying in his use of indiscriminate, universalistic language is a necessary feature of the preaching of God’s free grace in Christ as Calvin understood it. This is a pastoral necessity, and perhaps even a logical necessity. So while God’s procedure is ‘ineffable’ in the sense that it is difficult, as Calvin clearly recognizes, to see how the one will of God is fulfilled in a series of temporal phases, there is a strong pastoral rationale for maintaining that this is so, as well, of course, important dogmatic grounds for holding to it.

While Calvin, as the medievals before him, is willing to speak of the will of God’s sign and the will of God’s good pleasure, his announced will and his secret will, and while he is convinced of the harmony of these two wills, he sometimes experiences difficulty in demonstrating that harmony. The attempts to effect such a harmonisation are one type of situation in which, when faced with a theological conundrum, Calvin occasionally resorts to one of his favourite strategies, an appeal to divine accommodation. Though God’s will is one and simple, nevertheless he reveals himself to us as if he has two wills. Even though we may readily see that there is equivocation over the use of ‘will’, nevertheless it is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate how the will of command, both when it is obeyed and when it is flouted, is an integral part of the one divine decree.

In the universalistic language that Calvin employs, God commands men and women to come to Christ, he commands with the same divine authority as when he commands ‘Thou shalt not steal’. To use Petrine language, ‘he commands all men everywhere to repent’. This language, the language of command, draws attention to the scope of human obligation or responsibility. But this command or invitation, being indeterminate or universal in scope, actually serves God’s will of decree. For in responding to it men and women will come to Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, or they will not. Thus God’s decree of election will be fulfilled. By contrast, his commands may be flouted and his invitations spurned. Men and women may not in fact repent and believe the gospel, though invited to do so. This is an application of Calvin’s teaching about providence more generally, that it is means-ends order; in the case of election, the means of being assured of it are universalistic or indiscriminate in their logic, an indiscriminate invitation to come to Christ. In the case of some the invitation will be accepted in penitence and faith, and in the assurance of faith, and so the assurance of being one of the Lord’s chosen.

We may take this a step further. For it is possible to see that such universal or indiscriminate preaching is a working out of Calvin’s well-known teaching that Christ is the mirror of election. He raises this question: If God’s grace is decreed only for the elect, and hearers of the gospel may know that, how will a person who is told this come to know whether or not he is among those to whom God’s grace comes effectively? His answer is: Christ is the mirror of election. We cannot know of our election in Christ by some direct appeal to God himself to intimate the fact that we are eternally elect, but only as this is reflected to us (by inference) through our communion with Christ.

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.

Calvin goes on

The practical influence of this doctrine ought also to be exhibited in our prayers. For though a belief of our election animates us to involve God, yet when we frame our prayers, it were preposterous to obtrude it upon God, or to stipulate in this way, ‘O Lord, if I am elected, hear me’. He would have us rest satisfied with the promises, and to not inquire elsewhere whether or not he is disposed to hear us. We shall thus be disentangled from many snares, if we know how to make a right use of what is rightly written, but let us not inconsiderately wrest it to purposes different from that to which it ought to be confined.

Note here that, one again, Calvin clearly links this entire matter with our ignorance of certain things. But here our ignorance is not of the future, but of God’s secret will. We cannot know directly that we are elect, or that we are not. But we can know God’s promise, and trusting that, and thus being in communion with Christ, we may make a right use of what is rightly written.