A Spirited Life: Calvin on the Holy Spirit (Part 1)

This edited article is the first of a three-part series originally presented in a ninety-minute keynote session by the Rev. Dr. Richard Topping, St. Andrew's Hall Professor of Reformed Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver BC, at the Renewal Day in November 2009 at St. Andrew's Newton Presbyterian Church in Surrey BC.

Rev. Dr. Richard ToppingB.B. Warfield, renowned theologian, wrote that John Calvin is "pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit." On predestination and God's sovereignty, Calvin simply picks up the theological tradition (Augustine, Aquinas and others) and repeats it. Where it comes to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, however, Warfield says we arrive at "Calvin's greatest contribution to theological science. In his hands for the first time in the history of the church, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit comes to its rights."

It is interesting to puzzle over why the Reformed tradition — one that takes its cue and has its roots in the theological work of John Calvin — has not always drawn unto itself Calvin's doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Let me suggest three possible reasons for why this might be the case.

Could it be fear of losing control? The Reformed tradition — and Calvin — are big on order and structure, and the Spirit can be perceived as a threat to institutional and personal continuity. On his deathbed, among Calvin's final words, were these: "Change nothing." And to be fair to Calvin, he had struggled long and hard to reform the city of Geneva and didn't want these gains lost.

On the other hand, an understanding of church and the Christian life that features the work of the Spirit tends to play up disruption, rupture, amazement, bewilderment– and that's hard on us ordered types. Settled structures, patterns of order and liturgy do serve to promote the life of the church, and some institutional shape is a requirement for the life of the people of God.

However such structure can be both instrument of and barrier to life in the Spirit. The Gospel, I believe, is a great deal less serene than we may be tempted to believe. Before ever church is institution with a natural history and organization, the church is a creature of the Word — a gathering that is animated by the Spirit of Christ. And the Spirit is wind and fire; the Spirit blows where he will, which is to say the Spirit is not under our control. Maybe that's why the movements of the Spirit sometimes suffer death through protocol. We hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, and it could change our direction — as a minister it creates more work for me; as a parishioner I could be displaced in the new arrangement; and so on and so on. When the fire of the Spirit ignites, we are at least tempted to extinguish it by presenting the 74 steps that will be necessary according to wont and usage to make the idea a reality. Control (and sloth and envy) sometimes means we quench the Spirit.

But maybe there's another related reason for this reticence where it comes drawing more deeply upon Calvin's understanding of the Holy Spirit. We Presbyterians tend to lead with the mind — understanding is the lead human faculty for Calvin (and Plato), the one by which others (will and affection) are ordered. That might not in itself be all that bad; it keeps us from what Peter Matheson calls, "glandular excess in worship," which is the root of superstition. We don't let our enthusiasms run away with us, we Presbyterians. Piety is theologically controlled by Scripture and the cool Reformed mind.

However, reasonableness — on this side of the Enlightenment — tends toward expunging divine agency out of everything. What do I mean? Well, it usually means that like most secular people, we make sense of our lives, our denomination, and the church in terms that almost always leave God out of account. We don't, like Calvin, see reason as a servant of the Gospel but as a capacity independent of faith for making sense. Church meetings take place in which (after we pray to open them) the predominant language is psychotherapeutic, sociological-demographic, or marketing. And to my surprise, this happens right across the theological spectrum. Whether it's budget time or we're trying to envision what the future of our precarious institutional life might look like, we've been lulled into naturalist (one-dimensional) ways of figuring out the world and even for figuring out the probable future of the church. What's "really important" is a rational business plan that takes account of church as a human and historical artefact, as if that's all there is and no more. Talk of the Spirit, prayer for the Holy Spirit, can be regarded as so much "avoiding the real world; pious talk; escapism" when and where people live in the shrunken-down world of rational secularity.

I'd suggest one final reason (and I sure you can think of others), why Calvin's really delightful doctrine of the Holy Spirit doesn't always filter into the life of the Reformed tradition. If you love Calvin, I'm sorry, but here comes a criticism: he never once mentions imagination in a positive light. It's not that Calvin didn't have an imagination, clearly he had a wonderful architectural imagination, and it's not that his work didn't give rise to a distinctly reformed imagination. His work at Geneva, it might be argued, was the work of sanctified or faithful imagination. However, he never once says a good word about it as a human capacity, and there were from the classical writers he knew positive senses of imagination in circulation.

He does speak of reason, will, and affection as fallen human faculties which, through the sacrifice of Christ and the communication of His benefits by the Spirit, begin to be regenerated. God initiates setting right what is wrong with our minds, hearts, and wills by the grace of the Word and the Spirit. Imagination, however, is at the center of the human predicament where it comes to God. Imagination is the faculty where sin has its way with us. Where our sense of God from creation and from within ought to move us toward piety, imagination interposes and starts churning out idols. For Calvin, Voltaire was right: "God created us in his imagine, and we've returned the favour." Here's a typical passage from Calvin on imagination:

    Man's mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity (deum pro captu suo imaginari audet); as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. (1.XI.8)

Imagination always takes us in the direction of idolatry — the imagination generates blueprints for images which the hands make. Imagination however, unlike reason, will, and affection, never gets reordered for use in the fellowship of the redeemed.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but my theological sensibilities tell me that imagination and the work of the Holy Spirit are related. Faith, which for Calvin is the principal work of the Spirit in the believer, is the ability to live by and see what is not yet. Faith, according to the book of Hebrews, is trusting God's promises for what doesn't yet obtain on the ground; trusting God for what is around the corner… receiving promises at a distance. And it seems to me that imagination enlarged and formed by the promises of Scripture and the grace of the Spirit is crucial here.

Calvin will speak of the Holy Spirit's comfort to us in the present when what will be — eternal life, happy resurrection, our full actual justification, God's coming fully to us in our need, abundance of blessing — is not yet.

Commenting on Hebrews 11, he writes, "The Spirit shows us hidden things, the knowledge of which cannot reach our senses." And he asks, "What would become of us were we not supported by hope and did our minds not emerge out of the midst of darkness above the world through the light of God's word and of his Spirit." (Commentary on Hebrews, 11:1, 157-158)

I think that Calvin is writing here about sanctified imagination, imagination stoked by Gospel and Spirit — it's just that he doesn't use the word. I think that's too bad for the history of the Reformed tradition not only at the level of the Spirit's creative conjuring of hope in imagination by the Word, but also in the form of an austere, white-wash aesthetic. Alas we are Reformed and always reforming…

Read Part 2