Pride Goes Before the Fall, But Unbelief Goes Before Pride

apple sinOne of the classic debates medievals and later theological types liked to kick around was, “What as the first sin of Adam?” Not what the particulars of it were, mind you–they all read Genesis 3 closely–but the essence, so to speak. What drew Adam and Eve toward violating God’s command? Was it primarily lust and desire? Or sloth?

In his question devoted to the subject (Institutes, Vol 1. Top. 9, Q. 6),  Turretin notes that among the various options forwarded, two stand out as the most popular. The first is pride, an opinion favored mostly by Roman Catholics; second is unbelief, which is the typically Protestant option. Being archetypically Protestant, Turretin opts for the latter. For Turretin, the general apostasy and turning away from God that led to Adam violating God’s covenant command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an “incredulity” and contempt towards God’s word.

Of course, Turretin knows that the act of sin, and particularly the first sin, is quite complicated. Parsing out the various moments, acts, components, and so forth reveals various dimensions which definitely joined pride to unbelief. Nonetheless, Turretin thinks that when we sink down to the roots of the act, it’s caught up tightly in the faculties that judge falsity and truth, error and unbelief.

He then gives a number of, well, numbered reasons for thinking we ought to give priority of the root of unbelief.

  1. First, looking at the first attack point of temptation shows us where the origin of sin lies. What did the serpent first challenge? The integrity, reliability, and goodness of God’s word (“Did God really say?”, “You will not surely die”). This precedes his temptation to pride (“you shall be as gods.”)
  2. Second, “pride could not have place in man except on the positing of unbelief.” In other words, you can’t think too highly of yourself unless you’ve already stopped believing in God’s word of threat against disobedience.
  3. Third, the Bible points to sin as seduction and its roots in Satan’s cunning and deceptions (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14; Gen. 3:1).
  4. Fourth, only unbelief would have made him think that it is virtuous or a good thing to not be dependent on God for your good in all things. The desire for independence and autonomy from our good Creator is folly.
  5. Fifth, Turretin points out, if Satan first tempted Adam to sin, well, either he believed him or he didn’t. If he did, then unbelief follows. If he didn’t, well,  explain how he ended choosing sin in the first place?

Okay, but where does that unbelief come from?

But unbelief could not have place in man, unless first by thoughtlessness he had ceased from a consideration of God’s prohibition and of his truth and goodness. If he had always seriously directed his mind to it…he could never have been moved from his faith and listened to the tempter. Hence, therefore, unbelief or distrust flowed first. By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have, but shook it off at first by doubting and presently by denying; not seriously believing that the fruit was forbidden him or that he should die. Again, note the credulity by which he began to listen to the words of the Devil…believing that God envied him the fruit and that he would be like God and omniscient. Thus he made an erroneous judgment by which he determined that the object presented by the Devil was good for him. Hence presently his appetite and his inclination of concupiscence and its motions influenced the will to the eating of the fruit. At length, the external action followed. This inconsideration may well be called the beginning or first stage of sin.

There’s a few brief points worth making here.

First, I think the logical priority of unbelief makes sense according to Turretin’s schema. That said, we need to be careful here and remember that he’s speaking of Adam according a prefall state. The relation between the will and the intellect is a bit more complicated now that things have been disordered through sin.

This bit of theology is worth reflecting on for its practical value. Turretin says that Adam could have only fallen into sin through thoughtlessness. By not constantly meditating on the reality of God’s word, his command and his promises, he was tempted to doubt, then unbelief. No wonder the Scriptures constantly remind us to keep God’s word on our minds at all times, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).  Distance creates distrust.

And that’s at the heart of most temptation to sin, right? Distrust in the goodness of God? Distrust that his commands and prohibitions flow from his good character? Disbelief that whatever sin we’re actually drawn towards is actually bad for us and that God wants to keep us from those things that would hurt us?

Finally, unsurprising, then, that salvation is caught up with the restoration of faith by the Holy Spirit. Faith is the opposite of unbelief. By faith we trust God’s promises, are restored to proper relationship to God through union with Christ, and receive the Holy Spirit who even reconciles us to trust, not only God’s promises, but God’s law as well (Rom. 8:7).

So, to sum up: pride goes before the fall, but unbelief goes before pride. Be constantly meditating on his word day and night, praying that God would increase your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Did God Give the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? 5 Reasons

forbidden-treeAs the fountainhead of the story of the Bible, some of the most complicated questions in theology are densely clustered in the first few chapters of Genesis. After hearing the story as a kid in Sunday School, one of the first ones you end up asking is, “Why would God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden? I mean, given that it could derail the whole project so quickly, why put it there at all? What’s the point? What reasons could God possibly have?”

Leave it to Turretin to tackle the issue with his usual, rigorous clarity, to come up with, not one, but five reasons for planting the tree in the middle of the Garden. Before laying out his answer, though, it’s important to set a bit of background.

Locating Adam

First, you need to know that Turretin treats the question in his section dealing with human nature in its originally constituted state. That makes a big difference when it comes to a couple of his reasons. See, earlier on in this topic he points out that when you’re dealing with questions of anthropology in theology, you need to recognize there are four states you need to think about (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 1.I-II). There’s:

(a) human nature as God originally made it

(b) human nature after we made a mess of it through sin

(c) human nature after God has regenerated it as it goes through the process of sanctification

(d) human nature once God has ultimately perfected and glorified it in the future

Much confusion results when theologians don’t distinguish these states in their discussions of human nature and they end up heatedly talking past each other.

Second, you have to know that, along with all the other Reformed dogmaticians of his time, Turretin considered Adam to be entered into a covenant of nature or works, with God. Strictly speaking, it’s a covenant only by God’s condescension. God isn’t an equal party, being an infinite creator, and is only under obligation according to his own Word. All the same, Adam was given a law with curses attached for disobedience and blessings by way of reward for obedience. For more on this, see here.

From there, we can move on to discuss the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In his section on the topic (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 4), he quickly dispenses with the idea that we can know what kind of fruit tree it was. Instead, we must discover why it got its name. Turretin’s suggestion is that the tree’s name revealed its nature as both a sacramental tree as well as pointing ahead to its experiential reality. In other words, by eating of it, Adam and Eve would know by experience what it means to know the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience.

This command to not eat of the Tree was what we might call a “positive” law in that eating the fruit wasn’t inherently good or evil, but only became so by the command of God. It’s wrong “because God said so.” Still, it symbolically represented the whole of the natural law and became a test, a trial, where the obedience of Adam would be “explored.” Would he cling to God’s own word in love and obedience, or prefer his own will by heeding the voice of the tempter? (Incidentally, for those puzzled by the reference, yes, classic Reformed theology had a robust, creational doctrine of natural law).

Making Things Explicit

So then, now we are prepared to hear Turretin’s five reasons that God placed the Tree in the Garden as an explicitly, “exploratory” command, on top of Adam’s natural obligations:

  1. In order that God, who had granted the dominion of all things to man, might declare himself to be the Lord of man and man might understand himself to be a servant bound to obey and adhere to him. Although the natural law had already clearly declared that, yet because someone might think the natural law to be a property of nature and not a law, he wished therefore (by a peculiar law about a think absolutely indifferent) to declare this more clearly. Thus on the one hand, the dominion of God might appear…on the other, the duty of man.
  2. That sin might be made the more conspicuous by that external symbol and the evil of the concealed ulcer be dragged to the light (or the virtue of the obedience be far more clearly exhibited). For the virtue of obedience would have been the more illustrious as the evil was because forbidden of God…
  3. To declare that man was created by him with free will; for if he had been without it, he would not have imposed such a law upon him.
  4. That by interdicting the fruit of a beautiful tree, he might teach that his happiness does not consist in the enjoyment of earthly things; otherwise God would not have wished to prevent his using it.
  5. To teach that God alone and his service must be sought before all things as the highest good and that we should acquiesce in it alone.

Now, many might seek to add further reasons to Turretin’s here. Indeed, one of the most interesting and compelling suggestions is that the Tree was ultimately to be a gift to Adam after passing his test (his probationary period, if you will) and entering into the blessings of obedience. All the same, at this stage in the narrative, Turretin’s answers are instructive for us.

First, it’s helpful to realize Turretin doesn’t limit himself to one reason. Oftentimes we consider and discard answers in theology because we presume there must be only one correct answer to any situation and neglect the fact that multiple answers or multiple dimensions to a single answer might be true. We shouldn’t be hasty or reductionistic, especially when dealing with the purposes of God.

Also, it’s worth mentioning how well this account comports with Paul’s illustrative retelling his/Adam’s/Israel’s situation in Romans 7 when it comes to the entrance of the Law:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13)

I would be surprised if Turretin wasn’t explicitly engaged in some intertextual interpretation here.

Finally, if we could sum up all these reasons into one basic thought, it’s that God wanted to make things explicit. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil clarified humanity’s relationship with God, set expectations, held out promises and threats, and instructed Adam in what his truest and deepest good was. God is not arbitrary, cruel, or unclear. He declares his law explicitly for the good of his creatures. Unfortunately, we very explicitly botched it.

Thankfully, he declares his gospel by an even clearer word: Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

Job, Providence, and Multiple Intentionality

JobIf anybody knows anything about Calvin, it is that he believes God to be the ultimate author of history, good or bad, with all of its twists and turns. Though not obsessed with the doctrine of providence as some might think, he does devote a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to it, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage on Job grabbed my attention when I first read through the Institutes, though, when I was yet early on in developing my Reformedish tendencies.

Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction (cf. Commentary on Genesis 3:1), he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God’s providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.

Calvin backs this up with a battery of scriptural examples and texts, but he opens with the story of Job:

From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments.

-Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1

The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.

This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly, we would try to figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.

Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23,  4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”

I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension cleanly for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, and power or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an “answer”, of course. I have for years gone back and forth between a more deterministic compatibilism, Molinism, and something else I’ve never really had a name for.

What Calvin does in this passage is ensure that whatever your answer, it must be one that reckons with the fact that there are no runaway wills in God’s world; his “permission” is an active one, and he does not stand idly by, wringing his hands in distress, or waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. Again, this is the God of the Gospel who didn’t just stand by and let his Son be crucified by wicked men, but purposed according to his own plan and foreknowledge to save the world through these things.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Does God Need to Be Woken Up?” Calvin’s 6 Reasons We Should Pray

prayerPrayer is oxygen to the Christian life–without it, we’ll eventually choke and die. Knowing this Calvin devoted a significant section of the Institutes to the topic of prayer. In it he gives attention to the theology of prayer, the proper form, and has a wonderful section commenting on the Lord’s Prayer. Practical-minded theologian and pastor that he was, he knew that some have objections or questions about prayer.

A very common one, now and then, runs along the lines of “If God is God, shouldn’t he already know what we need without us having to ask for it? Does he need to be woken up or something?” Calvin says the people who ask that haven’t yet noted in scripture that”he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours.”  Just as in worship, God is rightly owed the praise he is offered, but the profit of this sacrifice also, by which he is worshiped, returns to us.” The same is true in prayer. So, “while we grow dull and stupid toward our miseries, he watches and keeps guard on our behalf, and sometimes even helps us unasked, still it is very important for us to call upon him.”

Calvin then lists six reasons God wants us to pray to him:

First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.

Secondly, that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.

Thirdly, that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand [cf. Psalm 145:15-16].

Fourthly, moreover, that, having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.

And fifthly, that at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.

Finally, that use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them with present help.

-Institutes, III.20.4

Without prayer, our sinful hearts are blind and deaf to the myriad ways God is constantly providing for us all that we need, confirming his promises. It is for these reasons, and more, that God invites us to pray, and indeed at times, “gives the impression of one sleeping or idling in order that he may thus train us, otherwise idle and lazy, to seek, ask, and entreat him to our great good.”

This is why Calvin thinks it “excessive foolishness” to point to God’s providence as an excuse for prayerlessness. If scripture teaches us both that God is providentially guiding all things and yet teaches us to call upon his name in prayer, then it is godlessness parading itself as wisdom to teach otherwise. Calvin reminds us of the text “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears toward their prayers” [1 Peter 3:12; Psalm 34:15; cf. 33:16, Vg.], which “commends the providence of God” and does “not to omit the exercise of faith.” Scripure teaches both and so we should believe and practice both.

Let no one claim Calvin as a support for their prayerlessness. A strong grasp of God’s providence might stop our prayers from being panicked, wheedling, bargaining sessions, but it should never turn us away from persistently seeking out God for all of our good.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love Them Anyways

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Every once in a while you have one of those encounters when you’re reminded of the fact that people are corrupt. I mean, it could be anything from turning on the news and watching widespread violence, to 5 minutes of watching the way people treat the baristas at Starbucks and you remember that there is something deeply perverse in the human heart. In those moments it’s tempting to look at people think, “You’re not worth it. You don’t deserve my respect, my kindness, my courtesy, and certainly not my love. God, I just can’t do it. Not that guy.”

John Calvin knew a little something about that. Not known for having the sunniest anthropology in the world, he offers those who stumble in the face of human corruption a scriptural exhortation to love:

Furthermore, not to grow weary in well-doing {Galatians 6:9], which otherwise must happen immediately, we ought to add that other idea which the apostle mentions: “Love is patient… and is not irritable” [1 Corinthians 13:4-5]. The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good” [Hebrews 13:16]. Yet the great part of them are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. However, it is among members of the household of faith that this same image is more carefully to be noted [Galatians 6:10], in so far as it has been renewed and restored through the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.

–Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.7.6

While Calvin was not an optimist but a biblical realist about the human person, he strongly championed the worth of the individual, not according to their own merit, but because of the distorted, but still-present, Image of God in every person. There is no one who is beyond our responsibility to aid because they are made in the image of our Maker; to despise the former is to reject the latter.

Anticipating objections on the order of, “But you don’t know this guy…” Calvin lists various situations in which we, like the lawyer who asked “who is my neighbor”, might try to escape God’s command to love him and answers them in turn:

Say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh [Isaiah 58:7, Vg.].
Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.
Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself.
Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.
-ibid. III.7.6

He finally turns to the last situation, that of an enemy–one who has done us active wrong and probably deserves some sort of vengeance:

Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf [Matthew 6:14; 18:35; Luke 17:3]. You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches [Matthew 5:44]. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

-ibid. III.7.6

Calvin points us here, as he always does, to the Gospel. In it we see a God who tells us, “Forgive what is to his account, but charge it to me, for I have already paid it. Look to the deep ransom I have bled in order to regain that beautiful Image and reconsider.” Calvin wants us to take the time to look at people, not according to their merit, but according the lovely Image, as damaged and broken as it is, of the Beautiful One who deserves all of our love and devotion.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Calvin’s Motherly God (Or, Maybe He’s Worth Actually Reading)

mother“John Calvin’s God is nothing but an autocratic tyrant, an arbitrary despot, who may be concerned with legal justice, but who was the worst sort of example of ‘forensic theism.’ Yes, he might be ‘gracious’, but it is an almost unfeeling graciousness, concerned only to preserve his own rights, rather than bestow good on his creatures.”

At least, that’s the picture I had before I’d read any Calvin.

I know I’m not alone in this. For most people who’ve read a little theology, or maybe a lot, but not done too much hands-on work with the man himself, it’s quite easy to see a cold systematician, with his precise, logic-chopping predestinarianism, and his absolute God who is the apotheosis of power, but not love; the king, but not the father.

It came somewhat as a surprise when I found out that “scholars who have devoted a lifetime to Calvin research have arrived at exactly the opposite reading of his doctrine of God”, (B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, pg. 23). Upon actually reading Calvin–a substantial amount, not just cherry-picked ‘gotcha’ texts–I came to understand why: Calvin is all about God’s good fatherhood. Indeed, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Divine Fatherhood is one of the main roots and wellsprings of Calvin’s understanding of God.

For instance, in creation:

…we ought in the very order of things diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love toward mankind in that he did not create Adam until he had lavished upon the universe all manner of good things…thus assuming the responsibility of a foreseeing and diligent father of the family he shows his wonderful goodness toward us.

-Institutes, 1.5.3

Quotes such as this could be multiplied ad nauseum with respect to just about every doctrine; from providence to prayer, atonement and adoption, election and ecclesiology, the fatherhood of God is everywhere seen. For those of us who’ve spent any amount of time in the Institutes, not to mention the commentaries, it’s obvious that Calvin has a deeply paternal picture of God.

What comes as a surprise even to Calvin readers though, is God’s motherly instincts in Calvin’s theology. Gerrish calls attention to a number of fascinating passages in which Calvin compares God’s care to that of a mother (Grace and Gratitude, pg. 40). Commenting on Isaiah 42:14:

Like a woman in labor. By this metaphor he expresses astonishing warmth of love and tenderness of affection; for he compares himself to a mother who singularly loves her child, though she brought him forth with extreme pain. It may be thought that these things are not applicable to God; but in no other way than by such figures of speech can his ardent love towards us be expressed. He must therefore borrow comparisons from known objects, in order to enable us to understand those which are unknown to us; for God loves very differently from men, that is, more fully and perfectly, and, although he surpasses all human affections, yet nothing that is disorderly belongs to him.

Besides, he intended also to intimate that the redemption of his people would be a kind of birth, that the Jews might know that the grave would serve them for a womb, and that thus, in the midst of corruption, they might entertain the hope of salvation. Although he produced a new Church for himself without pain or effort, yet, in order to exhibit more fully the excellence of his grace in this new birth, he not inappropriately attributes to himself the cry of “a woman in labor.” –Comm. Is. 42:14

And again, in a sermon on Job he speaks of the humanizing effects God’s motherly love effects in us:

True, our Lord for his part becomes more familiar with us than anything else. He is like a nurse, like a mother. He does not just compare himself with fathers, who are kind and good-natured to their children. He says he is more than a mother, or a nurse. He uses such familiarity so that we shall not be like savage beasts anymore. –Serm. Job 22:1-22

And further he writes about Is 49:15:

By an apt comparison he shows how strong is the concern he bears for his own. He compares himself to a mother, whose love for her baby is so engrossed and anxious as to leave a father’s love a long way behind. Thus he was not content with using the example of a father, which he employs frequently elsewhere. To express his burning affection, he preferred to compare himself to a mother, and he does not call them just “children” but his”baby”, since affection for a baby is normally stronger. The affection a mother feels for her baby is amazing. She fondles it in her lap, feeds it at her breast, and watches so anxiously over it that she passes sleepless nights, continually wearing herself out and forgetting herself. –Comm Is. 49:15

Of course, for Calvin, as for the text, even a mother’s love may fail because it is human–God’s passionate, motherly love never will. God is motherly towards us so as to be a type for all mothers, even as he is revealed as the Father from whom all fathers gain their name. (Eph. 3:15)

If you’re looking for a loving God, one who is, yes, a strong sovereign, but also a tender Father–even more, gentle as a mother–I would direct you to Calvin’s God. I will be the first to admit that Calvin was not a perfect man, nor a perfect theologian. And yet, I can think of few surer guides into a rich, biblical, and pastoral portrait of the God of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Good Luck! I’m Praying For You!”–Wait, What?

Fortuna“Good luck! I’m praying for you!” You ever heard that one? I noticed the peculiarity of that phrase a few years ago for the first time, and the incongruity has struck me every since.  To wish someone “good luck” is to invoke the notion of chance or fortune, the blind determination of fate. The view is an old one that’s been with us at least as far back as the Romans’ worship of the capricious goddess Fortuna. On luck, there is no dependable rhyme, rhythm, or order to the universe. It just works out for you, or it doesn’t. You have “good” luck or “bad” luck.

Prayer, on the other hand, presupposes the providence of God. For the Christian, to pray is to believe in a fatherly God like the one Jesus talks about, who hears and orders the world according to his own good plan, for the blessing and benefit of his children. Prayer and luck are incompatible ideas. Again, Calvin shines a light on things:

That this difference may better appear, we must know that God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings. Now it has been commonly accepted in all ages, and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance. What we ought to believe concerning providence is by this depraved opinion most certainly not only beclouded, but almost buried. Suppose a man falls among thieves, or wild beasts; is shipwrecked at sea by a sudden gale; is killed by a falling house or tree. Suppose another man wandering through the desert finds help in his straits; having been tossed by the waves, reaches harbor; miraculously escapes death by a finger’s breadth. Carnal reason ascribes all such happenings, whether prosperous or adverse, to fortune. But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered [Matthew 10:30] will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan. And concerning inanimate objects we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.16.2

Or, to put it another way, the practice of Christian prayer assumes with answer 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism that:

The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

The point is you have to choose: either unpredictable Fortuna or the good hand of your Heavenly Father; either “good” luck, or a prayer to the God of Jesus Christ who upholds all things.

Soli Deo Gloria