Jackson Shepard

Calvin on the Authority of Scripture

The Holy Spirit does two things: inspires the writing of Scripture and indwells the people of God. As a corollary of both, he carries the divine writings into the hands of his people and guides them, as a people, in their interpretation. Scripture and Church, therefore, stand in harmony. 

Early on in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (in its completed 1559 edition), he discusses the authority of Scripture. After describing humanity’s natural sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis), Calvin turns to the necessity of the Word of God for saving revelation due to humanity’s clouded judgment. In order to establish Scripture’s authority, he first attempts to rebut the claim of the Roman Church that the authority of the Bible depends upon “the consent of the church.”[1] In seeking to secure the tyrannical claim that “the church has authority in all things,” his opponents trust more in the judgment of men than in the truth of God.[2]
Scripture, for Calvin, bears witness to its own authority. Since its source is divine, it exhibits the marks of divinity. Indeed, Scripture, he claims, is “self-authenticated” (autopiston).[3] “It is not right,” therefore, “to subject it to proof and reasoning,” or, more basically, to any judgment of men.[4] To ask for external verification for the truth and validity of the Bible is like asking, “Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?”[5] As Calvin puts it plainly, “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”[6] Insofar as Scripture is concerned—putting to the side for a moment the question of individual apprehension—its authority is unquestionable. It is an obvious fact. Just as one could not describe the color black—“…it just is!”—so he cannot attempt to “prove” Scripture’s veracity.
What are we to make of disagreements among men concerning the truth (or lack thereof) of Holy Scripture? The answer lies in the internal testimony of the Spirit. According to Calvin, “the same Spirit . . . who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”[7] In other words, the authority of Scripture, since it is self-validated, cannot depend upon human judgments for its vindication. “We ought to seek our conviction,” rather, “in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit.”[8] Thus, those who do not acknowledge what is plainly true about the authority of Scripture have simply not received the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture.”[9] The reception of the Spirit’s internal witness is the dividing line between those who recognize Scripture’s authority and those who do not.
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Work as Christian Service

Our secular culture purportedly values neighborliness, even as it kills it. Therefore, a vertical understanding of Christian vocation—one which sees it as a priestly task, the daily self-offering in and through Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to the Father—exists only among those who constantly fight upstream. Which is to say, it is incredibly difficult. It can be sustained only through a life of prayer.

Our current economic situation is one of ceaseless disorientation. Workers are separated not only from the means of production but also from the immediate fruits of production. Whereas past generations received tactile wages, such as a farmer and his crop, we are now at the point where even the once-tangible paycheck has been absorbed into the ether of digital technology via direct deposit. Such a situation contributes to the loss of a telos in our vocations, but it does not remove the search thereof. Naturally, the accumulation of possessions follows. We hunger for the meaning of our labor to be concretized, and since our physical labor has been translated into the realm of invisibility, one can be forgiven for wanting to see an object so as to prove that their efforts produced something. Materialism, then, is materialization, or at least the quest for it. It is the exportation of the otherwise-useless green paper, or worse yet, imperceptible paycheck into the realm of reality.
Christian efforts to redirect the objects of spending are surely laudable. Don’t pour your money into selfish pleasure-pursuits, we are told, and rightly so; rather, give the fruits of your labor to the poor, or to efforts of Christian mission. Much that is positive can be said about this. It acknowledges the longing for the materialization of labor and, recognizing the inherent selfishness in the human heart, redirects it toward Jesus Christ. If followed, it will surely provide the Christian with a deeper sense of purpose in his or her vocation, as the fruit of one’s labor now resides, via translation, in the kingdom of God. This much is good and must be carried on. But, as a means of providing orientation within vocation directly, it falls short. For it does not do anything to fix the telos of labor above the transitory payment, a digitized set of numbers in an online bank. It does not attend to the concrete dimensions of the very tasks and services we perform but locates the telos a few steps away from our action. The result: After we have completed our labor, which in and of itself remains basically meaningless, we can draw meaning from the tangible effects of the money we obtain. While surely better than unreflective materialism, this will not suffice in our quest for the guiding purpose of our labor, one that transcends the mere economic output and resides in the action of work itself.
A notion of work as Christian service accomplishes just this. Rather than positing the wages as the ultimate goal of all labor, whether spent on selfish pleasures or selfless donations, defining vocational meaning as Christian service fixes our eyes upon a higher, steadier telos. In short, one’s vocation is the domain in which he or she obeys the two greatest commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 23:37-39). Vocation itself is a calling (from the Latin vōcare, “to call, summon”). A job or career is not a mere economic appendage to a pre-existing Christian identity, as if Christians interacted with God somewhere other than the real world which they inhabit. On the contrary, one’s vocation is the stage upon which he or she enacts God’s direction. If these two great commandments from Christ are the compass for Christian pilgrims, our career vocations are the terrain we must travel in order to get there. The practical, daily demands of our vocational tasks are the thicket of woods we must traverse in order to move Northward.
Firstly, therefore, our work is service to our neighbors. If, as we have suggested, the purpose of our labor is not determined by our salary, then it follows that value-measurements must be derived from elsewhere. Contrary to the mindset we instinctually absorb, the dollar amount does not determine the worth of our work. Dollar amounts are transient, and in an economy as large as ours, surely do not represent the palpable concerns of the people who immediately surround us. This means that we must first examine the nature of our action itself, that is, what it is we do. The simple answer to this is that we are serving our neighbors.
Each job provides a service for someone who otherwise would not obtain it. A plumber performs a task that someone else is unable or unwilling to do. A lawyer provides a service that would be impossible if no lawyer existed. A computer programmer does something that non-computer programmers cannot do, for whatever reason. So what? What does this have to do with neighbors? Put simply, neighbors need help, and help comes from other neighbors. If someone is unable to cut down the trees in his backyard, someone who can comes over and does it. If someone is sick and cannot diagnose herself, she goes to someone who can. Neighbors need their neighbors to serve them. Each one’s vocational task offers something to the wider community that is valuable precisely because it is needed by neighbors.
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A Physical/Spiritual Dichotomy in Reading the Two Testaments

The Old Testament prioritizes lineage, family, children, liturgy, feast days, priests, rituals, buildings, and land. The New Testament does not abolish these things. On the one hand, it actually further emphasizes their importance; the realities are more plainly manifested and understood. On the other, they are shown to be penultimate realities, for the telos is Christ Jesus. All of these wonderful things find their end in Him. How else could they matter? And how else could they matter more?

The Church’s encounter with Marcion in the 2nd century taught her many things. When this innovative heretic-to-be suggested that Christianity existed in opposition to the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish God, the Church quickly showed him the door. In this process, above all, she learned that her identity and the identity of the Gospel which she was given is dependent upon the Jewish Scriptures, this Old Testament (or, “OT”). This, of course, goes back to the words of the Apostle Paul himself. When narrating to the Corinthian Christians the matters of “first importance,” he roots his statements in the testimony of the “Scriptures,” i.e., the OT (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV). That “Christ died for our sins” is “in accordance with the Scriptures”; so also the fact “that he was buried” and “that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). When Marcion suggested that the Church of Christ cut the umbilical cord to those Jewish texts which, in his view, chained her to their religious immaturity, the Church noted, aptly, that the scissors were not aimed at any cord, but at her legs.
The Old Testament, then, is here to stay. To the extent that it vanishes, so do the people of God whose name is written in its language. Removing the Old Testament from Christianity would be like removing color from a sunset; it makes up the base material by which such a glorious sight is constructed. Anyone who misses this has yet to put the Synoptic Gospels and 1-2 Kings side by side, or perhaps has ignored all the miniature footnotes in his Bible when reading the book of Revelation. Birdwatchers have tuned their ears to distinguish the calls of a vast array of species amidst what most people (including myself) hear only as a cacophony. Reading the books of the Old Testament tunes the Christian’s ears to hear the Lord Jesus, to recognize nuances of sound and harmonic allusions.
Approaching the Old Testament, therefore, is no mean task. Quite the opposite: the way one approaches this body of texts will determine his slant on many issues of Christian theology. So often, the hermeneutical lens with which the OT is read ends up, whether intentionally or not, sifting various texts into categories of “Use” or “Do Not Use” for the purposes of the Christian Church. This twofold systematization is built upon a certain dualistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.
This primary dualism—the one dualism to rule them all—is a physical/spiritual dichotomy. We must discuss this in detail, because matter matters, and so matters about matter matter. This dualistic principle, in general, states that the OT contained physical promises, physical worship, and physical rituals which have now been surpassed and superseded by a truer and more spiritual version of all these things. There is certainly some truth to this. When asked if worship should take place on the mountain of Jerusalem or of Gerizim, our Lord stated that true worship would exceed the worship in Jerusalem (which heretofore was the correct answer), and that God’s people would worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). In this way, Jesus relativizes the specificity of worship. In the Old Testament, God ordained that worship would occur in Jerusalem. In the New, He has restructured the liturgical system such that Jerusalem is no longer central. This example is crucial, but this principle could be extended to other themes (e.g., inheriting Canaan to inheriting the whole earth, sacrificial system to the sacrifice of Christ, etc.)
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