A Spirited Life: Calvin on the Holy Spirit (Part 2)

Rev. Dr. Richard ToppingThis edited article is the second 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.

Read Part 1

Let's turn now to what Calvin has to say about the operation of the Holy Spirit.

I. Calvin is not a Secularist.

What do I mean by that? There is a temptation where it comes to the doctrine of the Spirit to confine the Spirit's operations to church, scripture and the Christian life: to do so, however, is to leave a great swath of human life absent of the operations of the Spirit. Calvin resolutely does not do this. Although Calvin takes sin and the fall very seriously he sees the Spirit at work in the whole of creation.

At the most general level, the Holy Spirit is the very life force of the world, animating creation and infusing the whole of the world with life. "For it is by the Spirit who, everywhere diffused, sustains all things, causes them to grow, and quickens them in heaven and on earth . . . in transfusing into all things his energy, and breathing into them essence, life and movement, he is indeed plainly divine." (Institutes 1.13.14).

The Holy Spirit is divine and is the effective power by which the whole of creation is sustained. But this doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit of God is an impersonal force in the world. Calvin is very careful to speak of the Spirit as the agent of God's personal care for the world and for the creatures God has made. Providence over the course of history and human creatures together with the preservation of creation are works of the Spirit. God is involved by the Spirit in "a watchful, effective, active sort [of care] engaged in ceaseless activity . . . an omnipotence that is directed toward individual and particular motions" (1.16.3). The Spirit moves providentially in the world and in human history directing the course of human life — whether elect or reprobate.

The Spirit works in the world and also in the cultural and social life of the whole of humanity. Calvin refers to the "glorious gifts of the Spirit spread throughout the whole human race" (Genesis 4:20). The cultural, social and political life of all people has been blessed with "endowments far from negligible." Such gifts are evident even among those "deprived of the Spirit of regeneration." These gifts ought to be admired, not only as achievements of human ingenuity and skill, but as "the riches of his grace which God has poured out." (Ibid).

Calvin praises God for all the fruits of the liberal arts and sciences, philosophy and medicine, political science and music for they are the result of the Spirit's work in the world. God has left many gifts to human nature, even after it was despoiled by the fall. And so Calvin cautions, not unbelievers, but Christians against despising such gifts. Listen to Calvin:

    Whenever we (Christians) come upon these matters [natural gifts] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself (2.2.15).

For Calvin, human competence in arts and sciences is a gift of God. And Christians in particular ought to be grateful to God for those most excellent gifts of the Spirit distributed through the whole realm of humankind for the common good. For this is a means of the providence (the personal care) of the Holy Spirit for the world that God so loves.

Calvin writes, "If the Lord has willed that we be helped by physics, mathematics (rhetoric, medicine, philosophy) and other like disciplines by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God's gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer punishment for our sloth" (2.2.16).

God the Holy Spirit fills and moves and quickens the whole world — natural, human and cultural — and Christians not only ought to be grateful for the ministries of knowledge and care found in the world, they ought to make use of them for their own flourishing in thankfulness for them (the gifts and the people) and in gratitude for God. Calvin says we ought to be ashamed if we can't manage gratitude to God for the ministries of the ungodly since even pagan poets confessed that the gods have given philosophy, law and the useful arts.

Wow! Can you imagine that by means of a secondary agent, your dentist or doctor or even your lawyer, God the Holy Spirit is at work for your good? What if we took that sense of gratitude to the work of others for our sake in the world? What if instead of looking at the ministrations of our government (through health care and public works) not so much as entitlements due us, but as the grace of the providence of God the Holy Spirit? Imagine telling your radiologist that he or she is a minister of the grace of God to you. What if we thought of the work of the guy who digs up the street to fix gas mains as the agent by means of whom God the Holy Spirit cares for us? What if we said so to them? Not only would we create some interesting godly mental distress, we would, I think, live more integrated and grateful lives under God. Calvin helps us to pay attention to the so called "secular" world outside church as the sphere of God the Holy Spirit's gracious and humanizing work: something to imagine, to think about, something to practice.

II. The Problem of Sin: Ingratitude and Idolatry

The fact that God gives gifts to all of humanity by the Holy Spirit does not mean that humanity is grateful for them. In fact, the failure to give thanks for the gifts of God is universal. Apart from redemption in Christ, fallen humanity does one of two things with the gifts God gives. The source of the gifts is wrongly identified (the sin of idolatry); or we use the gifts as an occasion for self-congratulations (the sin of ingratitude). "We are," writes Calvin, "naturally bad interpreters of God's works" and "habituated to errors . . ." (Acts 14, 7:6-7). For Calvin, — as with Paul — the fundamental human problem is doxological. We ascribe praise incorrectly and we accept praise incorrectly. Our praise stops short of God, we praise ourselves, our lives come unglued. The disordering of our lives and of the world, the corruption of the image of God in us, all begins with bad doxology. Here I think G.K. Chesterton and Calvin are on the same page. Chesterton said, "When you stop worshipping God, you don't worship nothing, you worship anything."

A question: how does this important point of Calvin's figure into our thinking when we speak of the ways and means of worship? We tend to focus on how — by what electronic technology — our songs are accompanied. Calvin tended to bet it all on whom we worship and whether our songs speak truly of God. I think Calvin's reticence regarding musical accompaniment, whether we go with him or not, has to be seen in this light.

In Calvin's commentary on Romans he emphasizes the judgment and disorder that issue against those who will not praise God. We fall into sin as we fall from the praise, adoration and service of God. Three times humanity is "given up" because what was to lead us to God — the contemplation of the gifts of God in nature and in us, which do speak loudly of God's authorship (sensus divinitatus) — we distort. We praise gods that are the result of "giddy imagination" or we praise ourselves. Idolatry and ingratitude with their corresponding vices are our lot because we culpably distort the knowledge of God and God's gifts given to us.

III. A More Certain Saving Knowledge of God

Because of idolatry and ingratitude, we no longer know God. Sin in these forms has corrupted and distorted our sense of the divine revealed in nature and in us. Through the gift of Scripture (which Calvin describes as "spectacles") our vision and knowledge of God can be renewed. Three qualifications are necessary here: first, for Calvin scripture is something you look at and look through — hence the metaphor of glasses. Calvin's sermons reflect this movement: exposition and then application — looking at and looking through. We make sense of the text and then we make sense of the world by means of the Bible.

A second qualification is this: some read the Bible and don't benefit from its corrective vision because they don't read it toward and around Christ. The Bible for Calvin is a Christocentric book: dissect its members, isolate its testaments and it doesn't correct vision; it isn't reading the Bible scripturally. The Bible, for Calvin, moves from promise to fulfillment in Christ. There is for Calvin a scriptural way to read the Bible and that is as a Christ-centered story. It is perfectly acceptable and indeed incumbent upon the preacher to speak of Christ when expounding on the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament — there is hermeneutic current passing through the whole of Scripture and it is generated by the coming of the promised one: Jesus Christ.

Finally, and most importantly, the gift of the Spirit is absolutely crucial. The inner teacher in whose hands the Bible is an instrument of the saving work of God in Christ is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit must light up the room in which the spectacles of Scripture are worn or all is still darkness. The Spirit must illumine the mind and activate the will and move the heart (again and again), or Scripture reading lingers at the level of information gathering, a quaint past-time, the gathering of ammunition to beat up your opponents to the left or the right.

Notice that for Calvin, the Spirit doesn't just illumine and teach, liberate and move, for the sake of our gathering up knowledge about God. Calvin doesn't really talk very much about the mastery of the content of scripture as an end in itself. For Calvin, Bible reading that begins with a prayer for the Spirit is to lay oneself to know God revealed in Jesus Christ and to get swept up into Christ's saving work. Perhaps this is why for Calvin, reading the Bible under the illumination of the Spirit in a Christ-centered fashion is likened to eating — it is to take it into oneself in the deepest manner possible. It is never just information. The Holy Spirit credentials the Bible, but in a manner in which the reader is addressed, comforted and accosted. It is as if, writes Calvin, "God himself speaks" through Scripture. And so when it comes to our proper deportment, Calvin will tell us: we are pupils and learners and we who hear ought to be ready to relent and give way.

In the Genevan Catechism (1541) Calvin has the child ask:

    How are we to read scripture in order to profit by it?

    By receiving it with the full consent of our conscience, as truth come down from heaven, submitting ourselves to it in right obedience, loving it with true affection by having it imprinted on our hearts, that we may follow it entirely and conform ourselves to it.

And this manner of reception is the work of the Spirit in us; it is the answer to our prayers for illumination: "Give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church."

Just a brief word about friends: Calvin practiced the interpretation and application in community. He dedicated most of his commentaries on the Bible to other commentators from whom he learned. Simon Grynaeus, Melanchthon, Bucer and Bullinger are among the names mentioned in his commentary on Romans. He has had friendly discussion with them (as well as ancient commentators), and more locally the Company of Pastors in Geneva, about how best to interpret the Bible. The point being that he has learned from others. The point being that he is not the only one to whom the Spirit is given. Calvin maintained that the chief characteristic of a Christian is "a teachable frame." And a teachable frame is not natural. In order to become a person who can be taught by others nothing less than conversion is required; and that is a work of the Spirit who tames our egocentricity so that we can learn as pupils, together with other pupils, in the school of Christ.

Read Part 3