Thursday 16 June 2022

When War seems unjust

 In March 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine. This involved loss of life and home for many as huge numbers of people were displaced.

In the Institutes Book 4, 20,11 Calvin poses the following question about one nation making war with another:

For if power has been given to them to preserve the tranquillity of their dominion, to restrain the seditious stirrings of restless men, to help those forcibly oppressed, to punish evil deeds can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one who disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquillity of all who raises seditious tumults and by whom violent oppressions and vile misdeeds are perpetrated?

The problem for the international community would seem to be that the invader in the case of the Ukrainian War: Russia is the nation that is intent on oppression and actions that are evil.

It is necessary to realise the context in which Calvin is composing this text. It occurs at the end of the Institutes. Earlier Calvin has indicated that we should follow the scriptural injunction to submit the earthly authority (Romans 13:1) unless the ruler is ungodly where we should follow our consciences Acts 5:29. He develops his arguments largely with the premise that the rulers or princes are aware of the ultimate sovereignty of God. In the case of the regime in Russia this would appear not to be the case.

For Calvin the state authority, if it recognises and acknowledges God must therefore be able to punish individuals who commit misdeeds and defend “by war the dominions entrusted to their safekeeping”. He says that “the holy Spirit declares such wars to be lawful by many testimonies of scripture”. This is a direct reaction to the pacifism of the Anabaptists who did not allow for rulers to defend their people.

The Russian Orthodox church would appear to support the invasion of Ukraine. By no means can the invasion be seen as a legitimate defence of the Russian nation. A viable route to a clear conscience for Russian Orthodox Christians would seem to be by taking the actions described in Acts 5:29, but that will be costly for their jobs families and well being. The choices for us may not be as physically stark, but come around day by day, especially as the UK government seems to have abandoned any moral or ethical stance in many areas.

Wednesday 23 March 2022

How long does healing take?

 John Calvin preached in St Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva at the time of the continental Reformation. His works were often hostile towards the practices used in the Roman Church, often described as “Popery”. The Cathedral in Geneva was founded in the twelfth century and probably had its last Catholic Mass in the year 1535. Geneva forced out its last resident Catholic Bishop in 1533. The city became the Rome of strict reformed protestantism and welcomed people like John Knox, the later founder of the Church of Scotland.

What ideas can twenty first century Christians glean about John Calvin’s approach to church unity? What did he see as the obstacles as he reformed the Church in Geneva? Calvin defined a sacrament as “a testimony of divine grace towards us, confirmed by an outer sign” (Institutes 4, 15, 1). He opposed the “papists for they do not make a distinction as they ought to do between the thing and the sign” (Commentary on First Peter, p118). He was strongly opposed to any type of adoration of the sacraments saying “What is their pretext for the boast that they worship Christ in the bread when they have no promise of any such thing? They consecrate the host as they call it to carry it about in procession to display it in solemn spectacle that it may be seen worshipped and called upon” (Institutes 4,17, 36-37)

Calvin ruled out any practice that supported transubstantiation, a doctrine still supported by the Roman Catholic Church today. His teaching on the sacrament supported the idea that it was the consumption of the bread and wine in faith that transformed them into the body and blood of Christ.

He taught that “the Lord’s kindness wherewith he has bestowed this sacred food upon us also teach and form us to receive it with faith and thankfulness of heart” (Institutes4, 17, 43).

For Calvin the celebration of the Mass in his own city of Geneva would have been shocking. Yet in 2022 it has taken place. Even so the unity of protestant denominations with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ seems far away. Just how long will it take for healing of Christ’s Church to honour Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 that all believers may be “one, even as Thou Father art in me and I in Thee that they may be in us”. How was far is church unity? How long does healing take?

Saturday 8 January 2022

What is the purpose of the Church?

 As the Covid-19 pandemic effects have begun to assuage, at least in England, questions have been raised about its effect on the Church and in particular the Church of England (which is established in England). What is the Church of England for? This question may be relevant to all churches seeking to draw people to know and love Jesus Christ. What did John Calvin believe was the ultimate goal of the Church in his generation?

Calvin’s Church was an ideal as well as an institution. The ideal was a hidden body of saints, chosen by God, known only to Him. This could not be achieved here on earth but through the careful preaching of the Word of God and correct administration of the sacraments then the visible church here on earth would resemble something of the invisible church. The latter is known solely to God Himself.

Calvin devoted an entire book of the Institutes to the visible Church, here on earth. This was motivated by the impact of Anabaptist anarchists on the church and society of the time. His view was in many ways similar to the one Luther had established in the Augsburg confession of 1530. A great deal of the book focusses on the manner of self examination the visible church should undertake in order to keep itself as close to the invisible church as possible.

The institution of the church was necessary because “in our ignorance and laziness we need outward assistance to establish and advance our faith and advance towards its goal and God has added assistance for our weakness. In order that the preaching of the Gospel might flourish he deposited this treasure in the Church. He instituted pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) through whose lips He might teach His own.” (Institutes 4:10:1). The people in the church are “not only the saints living presently here on earth but all the elect from the beginning of the world”. Calvin recognises that the church here on earth does not comprise necessarily the same people who may be in God’s Church. In the visible church on earth “are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and the outward appearance” (Institutes 4:1:8-9).

Whilst recognising that there will be people who are members of the elect who are not in the Church fellowship here on earth, Calvin indicates that the presence at public worship is “required so we may mutually stimulate one another”. This premise is true today: issues of faith still have the power to unite and to divide the Church on earth. Which issues are the most pressing for God’s visible Church in the twenty first century? And within the Church of England? Are they different?

Sunday 17 October 2021

What restrictions should be placed on the movement and meetings of citizens?

A recent stabbing of a Member of Parliament whilst conducting a surgery for constituents has highlighted the need for security for those who service in public office. Yet if security is tightened then freedom of access to those who hold public office by others has to be curtailed.

How highly do we we regard those who hold public office such as Members of Parliament, Judges, Magistrates and the Clergy? Can John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformer give us any hints as to how we should regard those in public office?

He believes that a “system compounded of aristocracy and democracy far excels all others” and “man’s weakness” causes “it to be safer for a number of men to exercise government so that each one can help, teach and admonish the other” (Institutes 4, 20,8). We might question how our Parliamentary Democracy achieves this end but the idea of it is that it should. Hence Members of Parliament should be able to be approached by the citizens they serve. If we consider the state authorities then Calvin believes that it is God who puts them in place, even those who do not honour Him. Thus a “Magistrate cannot be resisted without God being resisted at the same time” (Institutes 4, 20, 23-25).

If citizens deliberately go against the state authorities that are established by God then God will act against them. “Those who rule for public benefit are true patterns and evidence of His beneficience and those who rule unjustly and incompetently have been raised up by Him to punish the wickedness of the people” (Institutes 4, 20, 23-25). This would seem to be harsh teaching, but it does come with a warning to those do not govern according to God’s will and “dishonestly betray the freedom of the people” will meet with rebuke for the correction of “unbridled despotism is the Lord’s to avenge” (Institutes 4, 20,31).

How do you balance your views of the exercise of public office with a desire to expose those who are violating their God given right to rule? Does recognition of the power of God to forgive those who seek Him mean you can rest these earthly concerns with God alone?

Saturday 10 July 2021

Should we commemorate the European Reformation?

 In 2017 the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge commissioned some sculptures to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the display of Luther’s ninety five Theses. They also invited individuals to compose theses that were germane to the times in which we live and chose ninety five of these for publication. The Romanian sculptor Liviu Mocan created the sculptures on five themes:

The Book that reads you (inspired by sola scriptura), The Lamb of God (sola gratia), The Anchor cast up to heaven (sola fide), The Ladder of the World (solus Christus) and The Trumpet of the Universe (soli Deo gloria). These are based on the convictions that helped to define and shape the European Reformation.

Having displayed these sculptures in Cambridge for a lengthy time period the Jubilee Centre began to seek places that would be interested in taking one (or more ) of the sculptures for their own use.

An Evangelical Church in Cambridge, Christ Church is going to install The Anchor cast up to heaven in the hope that it will stimulate conversations about whom we rely on in times of crisis whilst St Botolph’s is aiming to procure The Lamb of God as a focus for reflection and prayer. An American Christian University, Wheaton College has bought The Trumpet in the Universe to place in the foyer of their centre for music and the arts. Two sculptures have yet to find a permanent location: The Book that reads you and The Ladder of the World.

In recent times following the “Black lives matter” campaign and the removal of a statue of Edward Coulson from a site in Bristol, (because of his perceived involvement in the slave trade), the use of statues and sculptures to commemorate people or events has attracted controversy. During the European Reformation, some of the protestant reformers were critical of installations of this kind. John Calvin wrote about the “papists” saying “The pictures or statues that they dedicate to the saints- what are they but examples of the most depraved lust and obscenity?” (Institutes I, 11,7). The European Reformation caused much bloodshed and there were both Protestant Martyrs (such as Latimer and Ridley) and Roman Catholic Martyrs (such as Thomas More) as examples from the English Reformation only. Given this bloodshed, the question of whether it is appropriate to commemorate people or events or the principles that led to the loss of human life and devaluation of human dignity has become pertinent to our time.

Would you be willing to buy or display one of the two remaining LiviuMocan sculptures from the Jubilee Centre?

Friday 23 April 2021

How does interpretation of holy texts affect Theology and the Church?

 Calvin regarded the Bible as the text that was central to his thought- it contained the Word of God dictated to mortals by the Holy Spirit. But in Calvin’s eyes there was nothing magical about the texts he was aware that copyists were fallible and he regarded a knowledge of the original languages as essential to its exposition and explanation. He put the techniques he had learned with Seneca’s work, into practice with the holy scriptures. He was unsurprised therefore when there were inconsistencies in the Bible. The interpretation of the Bible was via the Holy Spirit acting through the conscience of human beings and it did not come automatically to every person. Do we read critically any piece of text we receive? How much damage is caused in our society by uncritical acceptance of news stories and rumours propagated by social media? For you is there such a thing as an inspired text? And if it is inspired then who is the mind behind it?

Calvin believed that God’s word was made law in the Old Testament, regarding the Ten Commandments as a basic text binding on all Christian believers. He also integrated the idea that the covenant was made by God with Abraham, then to the Patriarchs and David and so through Christ to all Christians because the covenant was a set of promises between God and His people.

In the New Testament God provided His Son as the great mediator of the covenant who would help God’s sinful people fulfil their calling as God’s chosen ones. The death and resurrection of Christ followed by His return at the day of judgment would enable humans to be reconciled to God. Until that day Christ was present in the Church and in the Lord’s supper (often known as the Holy Communion).

Calvin’s system of understanding the scriptures allowed him to be critical of those who did not rate God’s word highly. He wrote “For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask: Who can convince us that these writings come from God?” (Institutes I, vii,1). Are there many people around today who would speak in a similar way? Would you be one of them?

Thursday 21 January 2021

What is the value of a human being? Calvin’s picture

 As thoughts turn to the vaccination program nations are offering to help assist with the management of the Covid-19 pandemic many people have wondered who should get priority vaccination? Governments have generated lists of the first few categories of people who may be invited to receive the vaccine. Often it has been the old and most vulnerable who have been the first in the queue. But some have asked why this should be the case. The lives of the old and vulnerable may have been fully lived and so is there a reason to prolong them? The question pivots around what is the value we place on the life of any one individual? This question is also at the heart of whether countries should admit any foreign nationals fleeing their own repressive governments or whether only such people who have a profession that will be benefit the nation who is receiving them. What is the value we place on one human life?

Calvin’s view of human worth focussed solely on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ to any one individual as he says “salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s mercy” (Institutes 3:21:7) and this is “freely given mercy without regard to human worth” (Institutes 3:21:7). So does it matter whether a person is an eighty year old former casual labourer who has rarely worked sufficiently to pay any taxes or a high powered business executive, surely that should not matter in the queue for a vaccine or entry to a foreign country for sanctuary? Does age and whether the potential of a person has been already realised or if the life is almost complete? Calvin would say not, it just depends on their acceptance of God’s mercy in Christ.

Calvin cites other distractions that distort human worth over God’s grace as “monstrosities” set up “in place of God” (Institutes 1:11:7). The initial comment of Calvin at the start of the Institutes sums up human aspiration “All our wisdom in so far as it is held to be true and perfect consists of two things, namely a right knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes 1:1:1). Without this knowledge human value of age or financial status or health is worth nothing. Should this be something we apply to the vaccine priority debate?