Tolle Lege: John Calvin- For a New Reformation

John Calvin

Just in time for Christmas!  I’ve been waiting to say that ever since I read how much Calvin hated this holiday :). Maybe hate is a strong word but he certainly wasn’t the fan Luther was.  Consider the following excerpt from Calvin’s 1551 Christmas Day sermon:

Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.

Let us consider what our Lord has to say on the matter. Was it not Saul’s intention to worship God when he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, along with the best spoils and cattle? He says as much: ‘I want to worship God.’ Saul’s tongue was full of devotion and good intention. but what was the response he received? ‘You soothsayer! You heretic! You apostate! You claim to be honoring God, but God rejects you and disavows all that you have done.’ Consequently, the same is true of our actions. For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity. Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these folk, I say, will at best grit their teeth. They came here in anticipation of celebrating a wrong intention, but will leave with it wholly unfulfilled.

—From Calvin’s sermon preached on Christmas day 1551 in John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 302–04

Even though the above quote isn’t from the new book from Crossway, “John Calvin: For a New Reformation,” it’s timely topic gives us a glimpse of this polarizing figure whose life and works have become so recognizably relevant to the church today.  Now, to be honest, as relevant as Calvin may be, it was the other names on this volume that first drew my attention.  I mean to see the late R.C. Sproul’s name right on top as author of the afterward almost made me cry.  Editors Derek Thomas and John Tweeddale explain in the preface,

In this book, leading Reformed pastors and scholars reflect on the significance of the ministry and teaching of John Calvin for the church today (9).” 

The pastors and teachers–Stephen Nichols, Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, Burk Parsons, Joel Beeke, and Keith Mathison, just to name a few–who author this book weren’t just what drew me to it, they prove to be its greatest strength.  You know what it’s like listening in to a bunch of friends and family members all sharing about the same loved one and starting to feel like you know that person so much better just from hearing others’ anecdotes?  This book is like that.  Only all the friends and family members are actually scholars on the subject.   But their genuine love and respect for the man shine through on every page.

What sets this biography apart from others is the format. Each chapter is written by a different author bringing a fresh perspective, a new voice and angle on Calvin’s life, works, and teachings.  That said, it also might be it’s greatest weakness, which honestly doesn’t detract much from the quality of this work.  Because you have so many authors contributing, sometimes they repeat facets of Calvins life and influence.  There is often a sense of being reintroduced to the subject matter each time you start a new chapter.  But this is a small price to say for the diversity and depth of perspective.

The last time I dove deep into a biography of this magnitude was with Ian Murray’s “Jonathan Edwards” and I have to say, the multi-author format made this tome far more digestible than would seem possible at first glance of its 600 pages.  My rating for this gem is definitely “Share It.”  And if you’re feeling particularly mischievous, wrap it up as Christmas present when you do so.  Calvin would just love that.

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Even though I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher I am not obligated in any way to submit a favorable review.

Look What Women Can Do When They #gohome

The most comprehensive silencing of women in the church 

occurred the day we threw out the hymnals,

not the day a respected pastor was finally bold enough to confront

an out-of-line-female-false-teacher with the now-famous-words, “go home.”

Here are 40 of my favorite hymns by 30 female authors 

whose treasured words were sounded by 4 centuries of saints,

until our generation of egalitarians silenced their voices.

I’ve linked as many as possible to youtube for your listening enjoyment.

Be Still, My Soul  Katharine A. Von Schlegel Tr. Jane L. Borthwick (1697-1768) 

Be Thou My Vision  Tr. Mary Byrne; Ed. Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) 

Beneath the Cross of Jesus  Elizabeth C. Clephane (1830-1869) 

Blessed Assurance  Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) 

Break Thou the Bread of Life  Mary A. Lathbury (1841-1913)

Channels Only  Mary E. Maxwell (late 19th century

Children of the Heavenly Father  Carolina Sandell Berg (1832-1903) 

Day by Day  Carolina Sandell Berg (1832-1903) 

Draw Me Nearer  Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)

Grace Greater Than Our Sin  Julia H. Johnston (1849-1919)

Have Thine Own Way, Lord  Adelaide A. Pollard (1862-1934) 

He Giveth More Grace  Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932)

He Hideth My Soul  Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915)

I Love to Tell the Story  A. Catherine Hankey (1834-1911)

I Need Thee Every Hour  Annie S. Hawks (1836-1918)

I Will Praise Him  Margaret J. Harris (1865-1919)

Jesus Loves Me  Anna B. Warner (1827-1915)

Jesus Paid It All  Elvina M. Hall (1818-1889)

Just As I Am, Without One Plea  Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)

Like a River Glorious  Frances R. Havergal (1836-1879) 

May the Mind of Christ My Savior  Kate B. Wilkinson (1859-1928) 

More Love to Thee  Elizabeth P. Prentiss (1818-1878). 

Near the Cross  Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) 

Nearer, My God, to Thee  Sarah F. Adams (1805-1848)                                                                   

No Other Plea  Lidie H. Edmunds (1851-1920)                                                                                     

Now Thank We all Our God  Tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)                                               

Open My Eyes, That I May See  Clara H. Scott (1841-1897)                                                             

Praise Him! Praise Him!   Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)                                                                      

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty   Tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)                                           

Praise Ye the Triune God  Elizabeth R. Charles  (1828-1896)                                                             

Saved By Grace  Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915)                                                                                 

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us  Attr. Dorothy A Thrupp (1779-1847)                                               

Take My Life and Let It Be  Frances R. Havergal (1836-1879)                                                           

Teach Me Thy Will, O Lord  Katherine A. Grimes (1877-1967)                                                            

The Lord’s My Shepherd  Jessie S. Irvine (1836-1887).                                                              

The Love of God  Arr. Claudia Lehman Mays (1892-1973)                                                         

To God Be the Glory  Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)                                                                      

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus  Helen H. Lemmel (1863-1961)                                                        

We Praise Thee, O God, Our Redeemer   Julia C. Cory (1882-1963)

When We All Get to Heaven  Eliza E Hewitt, Emily D. Wilson (1851-1920)

Tolle Lege: Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

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This is a story about a book.  It’s not just a review because that wouldn’t be quite winsome enough.  So a story it is.  Once upon a time I was a philosophy major and really caught up in the Christian apologetics scene.  It’s still a pool I like to dip my toe in now and again, so I was pretty excited to hear what Alister McGrath had to say about the subject.

The book (published by Baker, 2019) arrived after a summer spent contemplating two contrary viewpoints.  The first was espoused by a speaker who made the following assertion, “The entire Bible can be summed up in the statement, “What ever you are doing that’s right, keep doing it.  What ever you are doing that’s wrong, cut it out.”  The second viewpoint was from an Instagram video of a pastor catechizing his own grandkids with the question “What is the Bible about?”  To which they responded in unison, “Kill the Dragon. Get the Girl.”  Wow. What a stark contrast!  The first synopsis is purely moralistic and works oriented.  Most other religions out there could offer a similar summary of their own teachings.  The second is what McGrath would define as a narrative approach and focuses on the eternal gospel story.   I’m definitely on the same page as McGrath in that regard.  In adopting the religion of moralistic therapeutic deism, Christians have lost sight of the great drama of redemption which God ordained from eternity past, Christ accomplished on the cross and the Holy Spirit will complete in the church, Christ’s Bride.

Nothing gets me more excited than Christians– be they apologists, evangelists, pastors, conference speakers, authors, tweeters, teachers, parents, neighbors, or buyers and sellers in the market place– proclaiming the gospel to a hell-bound world.  In my lifetime there has been so much emphasis on means and methodology that the actual urgency of getting the message out there seems to have been lost.  I even heard a speaker say that 1 Peter 3:15 meant that we were ONLY to share OUR story with people who asked us about the hope we have.  Further, he claimed that Jesus Himself modeled this methodology by only teaching or healing those who came to Him first.  Not only is that patently false, it’s the poorest excuse for ignoring the Great Commission I’ve ever heard.  Will we really be able to say in our own defense of all our acquaintances sentenced to eternal damnation, “Well, they never asked. Sooo…”?

My concern with McGrath’s book is that his focus falls too heavily on the means and takes too lightly the urgency of the message. He really does offer a winsome approach to sharing the Gospel story, not failing to live up in any way to the promises of his sub-title, “Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith.”  He states his purpose in the very first sentence as aiming “to introduce and commend… an approach to affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith by telling stories (7).”  Bravo for “affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith!”  That puts him right in line with some of my other favorite apologists out there today (i.e. James White, Jeff Durbin, Ray Comfort, Mark Spence, Eric Hovind, Neil Shenvi, Sye Ten Bruggenicate, Alisa Childers and the rest of the Mama Bears).  I think several from the above list would also appreciate McGrath’s self-described “winsome and welcome” approach while several others would be encouraged by mainstream evangelicals to give said approach a try, rather than the “clinically rational approaches … [which] lack imaginative depth and emotional intelligence (8).”  In other words, there are winsome, story-telling apologists and there are apologists.

McGrath argues that “A narrative approach to Christian apologetics does not displace other approaches” but rather “is best seen as supplementing other approaches (8).”  I might be able to buy that except for that he argues later that “Narrative acts as both the medium and the message in Christian apologetics (15).”  That makes for a rather exclusionary statement.  One that he follows with the claim that “demonstrating the reasonableness or truth of Christianity does not always lead people to embrace it (15).”  This is true and is clearly supported by numerous Scriptural texts (such as these found just thumbing through the first half of the Gospel of John– 3:11,12, 5:36-39, 8:45-47, 10:24-26, 12:39) none of which are cited by McGrath. His next statement however,  lacks the same force.  “Truth is no guarantor of relevance. Veracity is one thing–indeed, a good thing.  Existential traction, however, is something very different (16).”  Where McGrath errs is in citing as an example 3 true statements involving measured rainfall, the weight of gold, and a certain Nobel Prize nomination.  These, he argues, “may be true yet possess little, if any, relevance for human existence… while they might be interesting, none of them probably makes the slightest difference to anyone (15).”

McGrath is correct in his appraisal but wrong in his application.  The examples he uses are indeed true, but they are not what one would call Gospel Truths, or doctrine, which is exactly why they lack any “existential traction,” not because they are set outside the context of a winsome narrative, as McGrath suggests.  If McGrath is correct in his definition of apologetics as “depicting its world of beauty, goodness, and truth faithfully and vividly, so that people will be drawn by the richness and depth of its vision of things,” rather than the traditional definition of “persuading people that a certain set of ideas is right (18),” then I can see why his winsome narrative approach is so crucial.

The problem is, though I agree on one hand that the Bible itself is made up of said narrative, and that we actually are but players in this great drama of redemption, I disagree that the manner in which the story is relayed has the power in and of itself to produce transformation in one’s life.  Romans 1:16 tells us that the Gospel itself IS the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.  But effectual saving faith is a gift of God, not a natural response to a well told story (see Romans 10:20).  McGrath solves this difficulty by arguing that we need to “move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm (99).”  The book of Romans again proves problematic here for in the 11th verse of the third chapter we read, “no one understands; no one seeks for God.”  Which is why we have to be super careful in distinguishing an intellectual acquiescence to the truth, and true saving faith.

McGrath is honest enough to acknowledge this danger, pointing first to his own conversion, which he describes as “an intellectual conversion, lacking any emotional or affective dimension (28) and later Dorothy Sayers’ self-criticism.  “She at times wondered if she had fallen in love with the intellectual pattern that Christianity disclosed, rather than with the central character of that narrative (115).”  These two testimonials are almost reminiscent of that of the demons in James 2:19.  One has to applaud McGrath for pointing out this pitfall in any approach to Christian apologetics.

Since we’re already applauding, I might as well wrap things up.  The end of the story is this:  I was excited about reading this narrative approach to apologetics because I thought it would be an effective counter to the pragmatic, therapeutic, moralistic nonsense which has so weakened the church in my lifetime.  But in the end I was disappointed by the emphasis on seeker-sensitive methodology and lack of urgency for the bold proclamation of the Gospel to a hell-bound world.  That’s my narrative and here’s my rating:

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Shelf it. At least till I run out of space in the M’s.

Even though I was sent a free copy of this book from the publisher, I obviously wasn’t obligated to write a favorable review.