It goes without saying that these sermons bear little or no resemblance to the After Dinner Speeches that nowadays often pass for sermons. No opening jokes to settle the refugees and the Genevois, to put them at their ease. Somehow, putting people at ease was not Calvin’s style. Did Jesus do that? It is interesting to reflect on the Christian ethic that Calvin seeks to impart through these sermons, with their emphasis on trial, suffering, hardship, pilgrimage, patient endurance and contentment. He was preparing his troops for battle.
Calvin’s sermons were delivered extempore, taken down by the remarkable Denis Raguenier, published by the diaconate of Geneva, and the proceeds used to support refugees. Initially, Calvin was not keen on them being published, but when he saw the level of competence of Raguenier and the copyists, realised the clamour of the printers and his public for them, he relented. Hundreds of them survive, many of them still unpublished, though they are gradually appearing. As Robert White, the translator and editor of these five sermons says, ‘it was the Word preached and applied from the pulpit which above all fashioned Geneva’s evangelical culture and made it the nerve-centre of Reformed Protestantism’. Not only that, but certainly that.
The preacher usually never saw the written results before they appeared. An exception to this rule was those collected as 65 Sermons on the Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, published in Geneva in 1562, two years before Calvin’s death, to which he wrote an Introduction. Each sermon is thus an extended exposition and comment not on one text, but on parallel texts, where there are such. Calvin’s style is to comment on the meaning of the text and to apply it as he goes along. He seems to have held that the Beatitudes were not single sayings of Jesus, but summaries of his teaching, which accounts for the differences of wording in the Gospels. Seems reasonable. The text determines the form of the sermon. Calvin was still going through the Harmony in this way when he died.
These sermons on the Beatitudes, taken from the 65, were thus among the last that Calvin preached. They were the very last that Raguenier took down. As Robert White puts it, ‘Raguenier laid aside his pen and prepared himself for death, which came in the winter of 1560-1.’
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By James Wood — 2 months ago
Watkin has written a fascinating tome. He has honored Keller’s request for a “Christian High Theory,” and it is a gift that Keller saw its fruition before departing into glory. Though I do not believe this book will see a legacy similar to that of The City of God, no work should be burdened with this pressure. It speaks in profound ways to our moment. It would be great for the types of classrooms mentioned above, and will be helpful on the shelves of many pastors, providing signals for further research. I am grateful Watkin pushed me to read my Bible more closely and appreciate its comprehensive relevance for late-modern life in fresh ways. That is success.
What would Augustine write to the late-modern West? Christopher Watkin, in his widely lauded Biblical Critical Theory, seeks to answer that question by performing a similar type of social analysis for a very different context.
This is a unique work. I am not sure I have ever read a book that so thoroughly weaves biblical theology, systematic theology, and apologetics, all the while engaging prominent philosophers, whether Christian or non-Christian. But in some ways it is inspired by the author of the foreword. If you have listened to or read much of Tim Keller’s writings over the years, much of this will feel familiar in both style and content. Watkin invokes Keller’s own insights throughout the volume and engages many of the same figures who were commonly invoked in Keller’s writings and sermons, such as Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This is not a criticism of Watkin, who admits that he is not seeking to provide anything new. Rather, he wants to package many of these insights into a single compelling narrative. That he has accomplished.
Watkin’s is a quintessentially modern Reformed work, reflecting many of the emphases of second and third generation Neo-Calvinists. Other than Keller, Watkin refers to Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, and Alvin Plantinga as key inspirations. The perspective here also bridges Neo-Calvinist and Radical Orthodox thought, as John Milbank is a regular figure who pops up, along with his friend David Bentley Hart, who is not technically part of Radical Orthodoxy, but travels alongside those figures. And, as such, James K.A. Smith makes frequent appearances. If you have trafficked in Neo-Calvinist circles for the past couple of decades, much of this material will feel familiar.
Something unique, however, is the textbook nature of this work. At the end of each of the twenty-eight chapters, Watkin provides a set of “Study Questions” to help the reader probe further. This lends a certain practicality to the work, making it accessible for small group discussions or even Bible college and MDiv classrooms.
The book is written as a “so what?” work. Watkin explains that the title of the book could have easily been The Bible: So What? and says that his aim is “to paint a picture of humanity and of our world through the lens of the Bible and to compare aspects of this image to alternative visions. It is a book about how the whole Bible sheds light on the whole of life, how we can read and understand our society, our culture, and ourselves through the lens of the Bible’s storyline.” Therefore, it is not fitting, as some might be prone to do, to criticize the book for its lack of scholastic rigor or systematic depth.
As mentioned above, across the twenty eight chapters, Watkin weaves biblical theology, systematic reflection, and apologetic considerations. The book is largely structured around the biblical story, but also around systematic loci with constant asides on modern and postmodern philosophers. Watkin explains that, though inspired by The City of God, the structure of his work is markedly different. Whereas Augustine spends the first half in that great text critiquing Roman religion and philosophy, and then traces the story of Scripture, Watkin constantly weaves examination of contemporary culture within the larger scriptural story. Yet it is worth considering which parts of the biblical story he attends to. After spending almost half of his book getting through Genesis 1-22, Watkin discusses the liberation narrative of Exodus, and then quickly jumps to the prophets. He explains that the people of God are freed to worship, but then spends almost no time talking about worship.
Very little is said about Leviticus and Numbers, and the cultic life of God’s people is severely under-examined. Similarly, there is insufficient attention to the law in general and its role in the story of God’s people. Thus, Deuteronomy is barely engaged, as are the more historical books such as 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles, which display how the law is applied and often misapplied or ignored, and what the consequences of that can be. So, we have a fascinating discussion of liberation and the prophets (and also very insightful material on the Wisdom literature), but what about priests and the law? and how these relate to civil power?
There are two primary devices that frame the material in the work: figures and diagonalization. Figures are patterns and rhythms that shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us. He provides six broad categories of figures: 1) language, ideas, and stories; 2) time and space; 3) the structure of reality; 4) behavior; 5) relationships; 6) objects. The dominant ensemble of figures in a particular cultural moment form a “world” in which we live and move. The “world” of the late-modern West is deeply imprinted by the Christian heritage that it increasingly rejects. This means that the Christianity retained by our culture is profoundly fragmented and distorted, and the principles that are harmonized in the Bible are set in opposition.
To address this problem, Watkin turns to his second device of “diagonalization,” which refers to the way that the “figures” of the Bible cut across and rearrange the false dichotomies presented to us in our culture. Diagonalization shows how a cultural dichotomy splinters the rich biblical reality, resulting in fragmented options and unsatisfying compromises. It answers these with the biblical picture which reveals how the best aspirations of the options are fulfilled in a way none of the contemporary options could have envisioned. This is a type of “third-way” logic, something I have publicly critiqued, but Watkin’s use of this device is often satisfying for how it gives concrete content rather than just a default posture. It is tethered to the biblical figures, and through them, Watkin seeks to “out-narrate” the Bible’s cultural rivals, resolving late-modern tensions through diagonalized narration. At times, however, this diagonalization can appear forced, or a bit sloppy, and thus can fall into some of the standard pitfalls of third-wayism more generally.
The book has many profound strengths, starting first with the style and structure. This is a great sourcebook of quotations from some of the best Christian commentators on late-modern culture. One could simply pool these quotes for one’s own use, or follow these breadcrumbs to some of the most penetrating writings by Christian thinkers on Western culture over the past two centuries. Furthermore, the structure, in the ways it differs from The City of God, is, in some senses, rhetorically effective. For instance, today, very few actually read the first half of Augustine’s tome, which focuses on an immanent critique of his contemporary culture, but rather jump into the second half in which Augustine traces the history of the two cities through the biblical narrative. Watkin’s more integrated approach might serve to expose a greater amount of readers to the critiques of contemporary culture than a neat division would. And within this integrated approach, Watkin lets his “figures” wash over the reader. At times the reader can get overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of material, yet, the net effect at the end is that Watkin’s way of seeing the world becomes almost second-nature.
Besides the strengths of the style and structure, Watkin is actually quite impressive on particular issues. Some reviewers will draw attention to the confusing title of the book, which might make the reader assume that Watkin is either going to directly discuss “Critical Theory” and how Christians should view it through the Bible, or that Watkin will employ the tools of “Critical Theory” in some way. Watkin does neither, and this might frustrate some.
By Helen Louise Herndon — 6 months ago
Logically and rationally with so much history supporting female deacons or deaconesses, it is difficult to understand such conflict. The office of deacon does not biblically lead to the office of elder. Their gifts and callings are different. One governs and the other serves. Remember, originally, they served tables.
The current battle over women as deacons or deaconesses is disturbing—disturbing, as there are so many evidences for women participating in the works of mercy (responding to “Thoughts on the ARP Special Committee on Women Deacons Study”)
First, perhaps a thought is worth noting. We hear and believe as some claim that the feminization of the church has/is taking place. I would also offer that there is a history of the masculinization of the church. Let’s be reminded that in the Church, we are “. . . neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Throughout history, this has been forgotten.
I am not a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) but rather a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). But I am also a student of the Word with a degree in Biblical Education, which means I’ve academically studied Bible, theology, church history, Greek, and hermeneutics. This background plus more than 60 years of Bible study leads me to my conclusion. Now to some personal thoughts.
I agree with the ARP form of Government wherein is stated, “The office of deacon is not one of authority and does not require the obedience of church members.” The author responds, While an argument might be made that the New Testament church had female deacons, there is no evidence to suggest that some congregations had deaconesses and others explicitly denied them.” Actually, the New Testament doesn’t compare any congregations. So that point appears moot. The author continues as to teaching reaffirming women being ordained to the office of deacon stating, “. . . I don’t believe any of us believe is the one taught in Scripture.” Actually, Scripture, it appears, does give evidence in 1 Timothy 3: “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” (1 Timothy 3: 11) This follows the qualifications of the male deacons. The word διακονοι covers both men and women. Some versions translate women as “wives” of deacons. However, as qualifications for elders precede deacons, their wives—who would be more important than deacon’s wives—are not mentioned. Other translations of “women” allow for considering in context that these are the qualifications of female deacons. To me, this is the more hermeneutically logical and rational understanding. Then there’s Phoebe who is titled in the Greek “deacon.” But since the same word can be either translated deacon or servant, some versions translate “servant” for her as a woman. One has to wonder if it’s an effort to avoid affirming her role as deacon/deaconess.
Next worth considering is that neither the fruit of the Spirit nor the gifts of the Spirit are separately listed by gender. Therefore, the gift of mercy is not a gift given only to men—remember, “neither male nor female.” There is a practice in many Reformed faith churches that also is not taught in Scripture. It is customary in many churches for a man to be an usher, be promoted to deacon, and then promoted to elder. That’s not biblical. Where in Scripture is evidence that a deacon becomes an elder? Those gifts and offices are separate.
We must go to church history to see what transpired in churches closest to the times of the Apostles. For the first 400 years of the church, female deacons or deaconesses were prolific. “Their ministry is mentioned by early Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origin. . . In a letter, Pliny the Younger attests to the role of the women deaconesses. . . (He actually tortured two) 4th century Fathers of the Church, such as Epiphanius of Salamis, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa accept the ministry of deaconesses as a fact.” (Wikipedia) There is much more out there in Church history.
In Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he lauds deaconesses compared to nuns. Perhaps he later differentiated between ordained and nonordained, but he recognized the ministry.
Logically and rationally with so much history supporting female deacons or deaconesses, it is difficult to understand such conflict. The office of deacon does not biblically lead to the office of elder. Their gifts and callings are different. One governs and the other serves. Remember, originally, they served tables. When there are potluck or other meals in the church, who mostly serves tables? Aren’t they the women?
This is written, and hopefully lovingly, in response to the conflict and cancellation of women as deaconesses or deacons in the ARP, but it stretches to many Presbyterian and Reformed Faith churches including my own.
The opinion I offer here today isn’t based on gender; it’s based on Scripture, ancient history, and Church history. It’s so confusing—if not disappointing—to see such a strong push against the ministry (works of mercy) and service denied those gifted by the Holy Spirit for such a ministry. Imagine the wealth of service a church lacks due to denying gifted women authority, recognition, and a God-given role in Christ’s body to practice and use the gifts the Holy Spirit has sovereignly given to both men and women to honor and glorify Jesus Christ and benefit His body, as well as many others. I’m compelled to say, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy on us.”
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.
By Stephen Unthank — 2 years ago
In Christ we have absolute certainty that our salvation is secure, no matter what condemnation thunders forth from God’s law. And as we move verse by verse through this chapter we will climb higher and higher into the heavenly air of our union with Christ, seeing all the ways in which that union will blossom forth in our daily walk here and now.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1
Few lines of Holy Scripture have been used more by God to encourage assurance and comfort in my own heart. In my own Bible, the page on which Romans 8 appears is a page well worn, smudged from the constant wear of my hands turning to it and my finger running along verse 1 as I have read it over and over and over again. This verse stands out as one of the Apostle Paul’s great indicatives, those statements of fact on which a believer is supposed to rest. It isn’t calling us to do anything, there’s no command to follow, it just is. It’s a declaration of good news given to believers. But what is it saying?
It comes right at the end of Paul’s description, in Romans 7, of what is characteristic of the Christian life, namely, our constant struggle against sin. The Christian believer, born again by God and given a new heart with new desires, now delights in the law of God, even in his inner being, says Paul. And yet Paul can also say, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer? Jesus Christ!
And so, he declares with exultant, doxological joy that even though his own thoughts at times condemns him because of the still virulent sin which rages within, he can rest assured, that God does not condemn him. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, “a Christian is a person who has been taken entirely outside the realm of any possible or conceivable condemnation. The Christian has finished with the realm of condemnation; he has been taken right out of it; he has nothing more to do with it… Had you realized that?”
The word condemnation is itself a legal term. It’s what a judge declares when the court finds a defendant guilty of some crime. And so, the act of condemning is the final verdict, it is the law’s fiat giving official status to the guilty party: “Condemned!” Any criminal brought before a judge fears this verdict; infinitely so before the Infinite Judge of all creation! As Octavius Winslow writes, “To that court every individual is cited. Before that bar each one must be arraigned. Conceived in sin, and shapen in iniquity (Ps. 51:5 KJV), man enters the world under arrest – an indicted criminal, a rebel manacled, and doomed to die.”
What our world today does not realize, and many in the church have seem to have forgotten, is that all unbelievers right now stand condemned under God’s righteous wrath. Twice in John chapter 3 do we see this stirring truth where John tells us that “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (vs. 18) and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (vs. 36).