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Calvin on “Burning Love towards God” and the “Sacred Institutions of His Worship”

John Calvin is masterful at navigating and explicating the relationship between the internal and external aspects of the Christian faith. I recently discussed this aspect of his reflection as it pertains the already inaugurated and still future dynamics of the new heaven and the new earth. He is equally adept when dealing with the dynamics of the interior religious affections and external, public worship. No one can justly accuse Calvin of having ignored the importance of man’s affective nature in questions of his dealings with the divine.

For instance, as he writes in Institutes 3.2, where he notes that a man cannot have justification without sanctification:

There is one consideration which ought at once to put an end to the debate—viz. that assent itself (as I have already observed, and will afterwards more fully illustrate) is more a matter of the heart than the head, of the affection than the intellect. For this reason, it is termed “the obedience of faith,” (Rom. 1:5), which the Lord prefers to all other service, and justly, since nothing is more precious to him than his truth, which, as John Baptist declares, is in a manner signed and sealed by believers (John 3:33). As there can be no doubt on the matter, we in one word conclude, that they talk absurdly when they maintain that faith is formed by the addition of pious affection as an accessory to assent, since assent itself, such at least as the Scriptures describe, consists in pious affection. But we are furnished with a still clearer argument. Since faith embraces Christ as he is offered by the Father, and he is offered not only for justification, for forgiveness of sins and peace, but also for sanctification, as the fountain of living waters, it is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit; or, to express the matter more plainly, faith consists in the knowledge of Christ; Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of his Spirit: therefore faith cannot possibly be disjoined from pious affection. (3.2.8)

Similarly, in Institutes 3.3, on regeneration and repentance, Calvin says the following sorts of things:

Hence Moses, on several occasions, when he would show how the Israelites were to repent and turn to the Lord, tells them that it must be done with the whole heart, and the whole soul (a mode of expression of frequent recurrence in the prophets), and by terming it the circumcision of the heart, points to the internal affections. (3.3.6)

Renovation is afterwards manifested by the fruits produced by it—viz. justice, judgment, and mercy. Since it were not sufficient duly to perform such acts, were not the mind and heart previously endued with sentiments of justice, judgment, and mercy this is done when the Holy Spirit, instilling his holiness into our souls, so inspired them with new thoughts and affections, that they may justly be regarded as new.  (3.3.8)

Any one moderately versant in Scripture will understand by himself, without being reminded by others, that when he has to do with God, nothing is gained without beginning with the internal affections of the heart. (3.3.16)

None of this is surprising; Calvin’s insistence on the importance of the affections places him in the broad stream of the tradition of, e.g., Augustine, who was a model for him in so many respects.

And yet Calvin is not an advocate of unbridled enthusiasm, but rather ties the affective, heart-centered aspect of piety to God’s ordained means and guidelines for worship. He holds to the necessity of “pious affections,” and also teaches that they are to be ordered by the pious worship of God as revealed in his Word. This balancing of the two strands–zealous affection and proper regulation, the inner man and the outer man–emerges with marked clarity in his exposition of Psalm 42:1-2.

In that passage, which I cite in full below, we see Calvin’s connection of inward desire with the means that give outward expression to it. At the same time, the external ceremonies of themselves profit nothing, for they are not ends in themselves. If one uses them not as a means and a help, the rungs of a ladder by which a person ascends to God as he descends to us in them, but thinks that God is pleased with him simply because he does them and treats such ceremonies as securing God’s favor in themselves, he misuses them. But God nevertheless does promise to be present in them, and discoverable to those who seek him, and so they are an aid on the path to the beatific vision. If we are to seek God in the “symbols” of worship, we must be sure that we are looking in the right place, and, conversely, we must be sure that we do not “imagine God to be present otherwise than he has revealed himself in his word”; otherwise we “invent for ourselves visionary representations.”

1. As the hart crieth for the fountains of water, etc The meaning of these two verses simply is, that David preferred to all the enjoyments, riches, pleasures, and honors of this world, the opportunity of access to the sanctuary, that in this way he might cherish and strengthen his faith and piety by the exercises prescribed in the Law. When he says that he cried for the living God, we are not to understand it merely in the sense of a burning love and desire towards God: but we ought to remember in what manner it is that, God allures us to himself, and by what means he raises our minds upwards. He does not enjoin us to ascend forthwith into heaven, but, consulting our weakness, he descends to us. David, then, considering that the way of access was shut against him, cried to God, because he was excluded from the outward service of the sanctuary, which is the sacred bond of intercourse with God. I do not mean to say that the observance of external ceremonies can of itself bring us into favor with God, but they are religious exercises which we cannot bear to want by reason of our infirmity. David, therefore, being excluded from the sanctuary, is no less grieved than if he had been separated from God himself. He did not, it is true, cease in the meantime to direct his prayers towards heaven, and even to the sanctuary itself; but conscious of his own infirmity, he was specially grieved that the way by which the faithful obtained access to God was shut against him. This is an example which may well suffice to put to shame the arrogance of those who without concern can bear to be deprived of those means113 or rather, who proudly despise them, as if it were in their power to ascend to heaven in a moment’s flight; nay, as if they surpassed David in zeal and alacrity of mind. We must not, however, imagine that the prophet suffered himself to rest in earthly elements, 114 but only that he made use of them as a ladder, by which he might ascend to God, finding that he had not wings with which to fly thither. The similitude which he takes from a hart is designed to express the extreme ardor of his desire. The sense in which some explain this is, that the waters are eagerly sought by the harts, that they may recover from fatigue; but this, perhaps, is too limited. I admit that if the hunter pursue the stag, and the dogs also follow hard after it, when it comes to a river it gathers new strength by plunging into it. But we know also that at certain seasons of the year, harts, with an almost incredible desire, and more intensely than could proceed from mere thirst, seek after water; and although I would not contend for it, yet I think this is referred to by the prophet here.

The second verse illustrates more clearly what I have already said, that David does not simply speak of the presence of God, but of the presence of God in connection with certain symbols; for he sets before himself the tabernacle, the altar, the sacrifices, and other ceremonies by which God had testified that he would be near his people; and that it behoved the faithful, in seeking to approach God, to begin by those things. Not that they should continue attached to them, but that they should, by the help of these signs and outward means, seek to behold the glory of God, which of itself is hidden from the sight. Accordingly, when we see the marks of the divine presence engraven on the word, or on external symbols, we can say with David that there is the face of God, provided we come with pure hearts to seek him in a spiritual manner. But when we imagine God to be present otherwise than he has revealed himself in his word, and the sacred institutions of his worship, or when we form any gross or earthly conception of his heavenly majesty, we are only inventing for ourselves visionary representations, which disfigure the glory of God, and turn his truth into a lie.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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