Part 11: Proofs of Scripture’s authenticity (1.8)
As we travel through the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (1559 edition) I am amazed by its contemporary significance. We have much to learn and apply to our own churches and evangelism today.
Through our study, Calvin has recently reminded us that until and unless the Holy Spirit confirms Scripture’s authenticity in our hearts, we will not give our lives and our hopes over to its message. God does this by breaking through and confirming Scripture in our hearts directly, not by indirect proofs (we saw this last time).
Today we see that there are sufficient proofs of Scripture’s authenticity, but we must first have faith to comprehend them. So God must first give us the conviction that Scripture is truly from God before these proofs make sense. This is why Calvin can close the chapter with an evangelistic plea by writing, “those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known” (92). We can share the gospel message with any unbeliever, but until Scripture is seen as the place where “divine majesty lives and breathes,” any proofs of Scripture’s authenticity are unfruitful (80). We rest upon the Spirit to work this confirmation into other hearts.
So here is the clarification from the last chapter: There are inherent proofs within Scripture to prove its uniqueness. Most of this chapter is given to this theme. “What wonderful confirmation ensues when, with keener study, we ponder the economy of the divine wisdom, so well ordered and disposed; the completely heavenly character of its doctrine, savoring of nothing earthly; the beautiful agreement of all the parts with one another” (82).
For Calvin, the evidences of divine origin center around the conciseness of its content, its heavenly nature, that it was written by the least expected authors, it carries a consistent theme, and because its message predates all other existing theological systems.
But the proof is also seen in the unflattering accounts Moses writes of his own family. You have the embarrassment of Levi (Gen. 49:5-6) and his brother Aaron and sister Miriam (Num. 12:1). Was Moses speaking “from the feeling of his flesh, or that he is obedient to the command of the Holy Spirit?” (85). Such embarrassment is not published from a desire to elevate Moses’ fame.
Also, the content of Scripture is heavenly. There is a vision of the unseen realities. The prophets are “crammed with thoughts that could not be humanly conceived” (83). And these prophecies are filled with events that would not be fulfilled until after the death of the prophet himself (1.8.7).
But there is an “almost rude simplicity” of Scripture (82). It was written by men like Matthew, Mark, Luke, Peter and John – “all of them rude, uneducated men” (91). It was not ordained with the jewels of ornate eloquence, but its divine truths are communicated in simplicity. For Calvin, a man familiar with literature and philosophy, can say that in comparison the words of God “surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor, breathe something divine” (82).
And there is Saul, a man filled with rage against the church who was converted as Paul and the writer of much of the New Testament. His change shows that “he was compelled by heavenly authority to affirm a doctrine that he had assailed” (91).
Calvin argues that Scripture’s age, the miracles of Scripture, the preservation of Scripture through eras in which books were commonly burned, and the blood of the martyrs all show Scripture to be more than another book. These arguments comprise the bulk of the chapter.
All of these “secondary aids” confirm scripture’s authenticity only after “the chief and highest testimony” of the Spirit (92). God must supernaturally convince us of Scripture’s authenticity before the secondary “aids” and “props” are convincing (92). So Calvin ends the chapter by warning us not to try and win converts by persuading them with philosophical evidences of Scripture’s authenticity. We must pray that the Spirit would break into the depravity and rebellion of sinners and give them a taste of Scripture’s sweetness. Then they can taste the evidences in Scripture for themselves.
There are proofs, no doubt. But Calvin reminds us to let these proofs follow the Spirit-wrought conviction!
Calvinistic meditations …
1. Faith precedes reason. Anselm (1033-1109) understood well that faith must come before true understanding. In the introduction to Proslogium, the editor summarizes Anselm’s view in this way: “The unbelievers … strive to understand because they do not believe; we, on the contrary, strive to understand because we believe. They and we have the same object in view; but inasmuch as they do not believe, they cannot arrive at their goal, which is to understand the dogma. The unbeliever will never understand. In religion, faith plays the part that experience usually plays in the understanding of the things of this world. The blind man cannot see the light, and therefore does not understand it; the deaf-mute, who has never perceived sound, cannot have a clear idea of sound. Similarly, not to believe means not to perceive, and not to perceive means not to understand.”
Faith is not unreasonable, but faith must come first before the evidence. It is surely hard to grasp in the realm of spiritual truth that confirmation comes before the proof, but that is how Calvin, Anselm and Scripture itself explains this reality. The Spirit must convince us first through His power and then the evidences begin to make sense. Until the Spirit works, there are not enough proofs to cause a faith that reveres and trusts God as the genuine author. Convincing others that Christianity is legitimate is not a process or a seminar, but a point in time when the Sovereign touches a dead heart and causes it to pulse. This is why Jesus can say, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt. 13:11). The evangelist, apologist and preacher all center their messages around the gospel, waiting patiently for the life-giving blood to begin pulsing in others at the sovereign timing of God. More about this in a moment.
2. Our understanding of God and the Gospel are the fruit of His “gracious will.” Our understanding of the divine mysteries has everything to do with a Sovereign God (Matt. 11:25-26 see also Matt. 16:17; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10; John 7:17; 1 Cor. 2:9-10, 14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:26-27; 1 John 2:27). That we understand anything is merely from His “gracious will” to reveal them to us! What amazing grace, that sinners are given eternal wisdom! If we truly understand the message of the gospel, this fact alone should be a powerful means of humility in us. To truly grasp Calvinism is to be a very Humble Calvinist. All divine light comes from God’s gracious sovereignty.
3. The message is the method. Not only is the gospel the message of salvation, but it is also the “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). The Old Testament prophets understood this, too. “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). God’s Word is a living and active force, piercing and discerning our hearts (Heb. 4:12). But specifically, Paul understands the life-changing power in the message of the Cross. That is why Paul can say the gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16), that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), and that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). So it’s no wonder Paul fights for the clarity of the gospel (2 Cor. 10:4-5; Gal. 1:6-2:21). The clear and accurate gospel message of the Cross is where both the message and the Spirit’s effectual power to save sinners from hell reside!
So don’t try to change lives through gimmicks. The power of God is not introduced to sinners through props and proofs and philosophy and arguments and seeker-sensitive devices. Place your trust in God. He alone displays His power to awaken sinners through the message of the gospel! Talk about depravity, talk about sin, talk about the wrath of God coming upon all unrepentant sinners, talk of Christ who satisfied the wrath of God and Whose work is our only hope to substitute for our sin and unrighteousness! Seek to center everything about your ministry here on the Cross.
This one gospel is the only self-sustained, self-powered and self-authenticated message to awaken and transform sinners. What glorious freedom is there for the preacher and evangelist who understand Calvinism. Preach with power by preaching Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2)!
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