Monday, March 30, 2015

John Calvin: Kindness and mercy in the parable of the Unjust Steward

John Calvin

Calvin takes whatever opportunity he can to urge his readers to treat other human beings with kindness, mercy, generosity, and love. Such is the case with his exposition of the Unjust Steward. Jesus is not telling his followers to advance themselves by fraud and extortion, Calvin argues; instead, this parable demonstrates that we ought to treat others with kindness and generosity so that at the Last Judgment, we will reap the benefits of our mercy. Jesus is not telling his disciples a way to “escape” at the Last Judgment, but he warms them that, after having accepted the many gifts God gave them during their lifetimes, it is imperative to be both beneficent and merciful to others, in response: “We must always attend to this maxim, that with what measure a man measures, it shall be recompensed to him again” (Matt. 7:2).
The parable itself is both harsh and far-fetched, Calvin admits, but for interpreters “to inquire with great exactness into every minute part of a parable is an absurd mode of philosophizing.” The parable does not commend the unjust steward for his villainous actions, but it makes the point that ungodly human beings “are more industrious and skillful in conducting the affairs of this fading life, than the children of God are anxious to obtain the heavenly and eternal life, or careful to make it the subject of their study and meditation.” Christians should be even more earnest about their eternal fates than the unrighteous are in attending to their fates in this world. Jesus thus seeks to arouse believers to be much more attentive to their eternal salvation than to things of this world.

It is important for Christians to attend to acts of charity toward others, because “by acts of charity we obtain favor with God, who has promised, that to the merciful he will show himself merciful” (Psalm 18:25).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

John Calvin: Parables, possessions, Treasure in the Field, the Pearl, and the Barren Fig Tree

John Calvin

Dr. Rowland's lecture at Oxford College of Emory University went very well last night, and tomorrow (Thursday, March 26) is his lecture at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Atlanta (see the previous post). More on both of those lectures soon.

In the meantime, here is another post in the series on John Calvin and the parables:

According to Calvin, the question arises from the parables and other teachings of Jesus whether Christians have to abandon every possession in order to gain eternal life. Calvin replies that the “natural meaning” of these parables is that we must prefer the kingdom of God to all the world offers us—whether pleasures, honors, or wealth—and to be satisfied with the spiritual blessings the kingdom promises us. Christians have to “throw aside every thing” that would prevent them from seeking the kingdom above all else and to be disengaged from every thing that would retard their progress.” So the answer, Calvin says, is for Christians “to deny those things only which are injurious to godliness; and, at the same time, permits them to use and enjoy God’s temporal favors, as if they did not use them.”
Here Calvin’s view of atonement causes him to caution his readers: Christians should not think, however, that the buying of the field and the buying of the pearl in Jesus' parables means that human beings can purchase (or earn) their salvation: Life in heaven and every thing that accompanies it are a free gift from God. Despite this fact, the parables use the idea of buying a field or pearl because it symbolizes “when we cheerfully relinquish the desires of the flesh, that nothing may prevent us from obtaining it; as Paul says, that he reckoned all things to be loss and dung, that he might gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).
In many places Calvin reprimands Christians who are too rigorous and severe in the judgments of others and encourages them to be kind, merciful, and forgiving of others. Calvin thus finds the parable of the Barren Fig Tree highly useful to reinforce how “we not only censure with excessive severity the offenses of our brethren; but whenever they meet with any calamity, we condemn them as wicked and reprobate persons. On the other hand, every man that is not sorely pressed by the hand of God slumbers at ease in the midst of his sins, as if God were favorable and reconciled to him.” All Christians should examine themselves, and Calvin urges them to take advantage of God’s kindness and forbearance toward them and to “regard it as an invitation to repentance”.
The immediate context of this parable in Luke is the story about Pilate mingling the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices and eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:1-5). None of those people were worse sinners than others, but are used by Jesus to urge the repentance of his listeners. The simple meaning of the parable of the Barren Fig Tree is that there are many people who deserve to be “cut off,” and if they do not repent in the extra time God gives them, all will still be lost. Ironically, such hypocrites interpret this delay of God’s chastisement as God “winking” at their sins and actually being satisfied with the lives they are living. Thus these sinners become even more obstinate, indulge themselves in sin more freely, and thus make “a covenant with death,” in the words of Isaiah (28:15). Calvin concludes:

It is well known that trees are sometimes preserved, not because their owners find them to be useful and productive, but because the careful and industrious husbandman makes every possible trial and experiment before he determines to remove them out of the field or vineyard. This teaches us that, when the Lord does not immediately take vengeance on the reprobate, but delays to punish them, there are the best reasons for his forbearance. Such considerations serve to restrain human rashness, that no man may dare to murmur against the supreme Judge of all, if He does not always execute his judgments in one uniform manner. A comparison is here drawn between the owner and the vine-dresser: not that God’s ministers go beyond him in gentleness and forbearance, but because the Lord not only prolongs the life of sinners, but likewise cultivates them in a variety of ways, that they may yield better fruit.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Dr. Christopher Rowland lectures

Information about Dr. Rowland's Second Lecture;
the first is at Oxford College of Emory University

For those of you in the Atlanta area, Dr. Christopher Rowland, recently retired from the Dean Ireland's Professorship at the University of Oxford, will be presenting two Reception History lectures.

The first is entitled, "From Impulse Not From Rules: Jesus and His Radical Followers," and it will be at Oxford College of Emory University, Tuesday, March 24, 7:30 p.m. in Williams Hall.

Dr. Rowland's second lecture, “How William Blake Can Help Us Read the Bible,” will be at All Saints’ Episcopal Church (Atlanta) on Thursday, March 26, at 7:00 p.m. in the Chapel.

You can email me privately for more information.

Dr. Rowland is this year's Pierce Visiting Scholar, a faculty exchange program between the Pierce Institute of Oxford College of Emory University and the University of Oxford.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Calvin and the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and Pearl

Later this week I will talk about two forthcoming lectures by Professor Christopher Rowland. Both lectures will be Reception History oriented, and we are very excited to host Dr. Rowland.

But first, a quick post to continue the series on Calvin and the parables:

According to Calvin, Jesus tells the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl to instruct Christians to prefer the kingdom of heaven to the whole world. As a result, Christians will deny themselves all the desires of the flesh so that nothing will prevent them from obtaining the most valuable possession of all: the kingdom of Heaven. This warning is necessary for all humans, because we become so captivated by “the allurements of the world, that eternal life fades from our view.” Through these parables, then, Jesus shows us the “excellence of eternal life,” first by comparing it to a hidden treasure:
First, he says, that the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure. We commonly set a high value on what is visible, and therefore the new and spiritual life, which is held out to us in the Gospel, is little esteemed by us, because it is hidden, and lies in hope. There is the highest appropriateness in comparing it to a treasure, the value of which is in no degree diminished, though it may be buried in the earth, and withdrawn from the eyes of men. These words teach us, that we ought not to estimate the riches of the grace of God according to the views of our flesh, or according to their outward display, but in the same manner as a treasure, though it be hidden, is preferred to a vain appearance of wealth.            
The parable of the Pearl, according to Calvin,  conveys the same message in that a small pearl can be so highly valued that a skillful merchant will sell all that he has so that he may purchase it. Once again, human beings tend not to see the real worth of life in heaven, since it cannot be seen “in the flesh”; we have to deny “all that glitters in our eyes” and value above all, God and God’s kingdom: “We now perceive the leading object of both parables. It is to inform us, that none are qualified for receiving the grace of the Gospel but those who disregard all other desires, and devote all their exertions, and all their faculties, to obtain it.”

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Another section of the book completed: Charles Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Last night I finished another section of the book on the Reception History of the parables. This section is on Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist minister in Victorian England who was renowned for his sermons. 

Since over 3500 of Spurgeon's sermons have been published, it was difficult to narrow it down, but after finding many of his sermons on the parables--the 1958 collection edited by Cook was helpful, as was CCEL (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)--I initially selected three of his sermons on which to focus.

I began with a sermon (#1739 in the CCEL collection) on the parable of the Two Debtors. Spurgeon preached this sermon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on September 16, 1883. I selected this sermon--and started with it--because it focuses on what is the central element of Spurgeon’s preaching: the doctrine of atonement: the redemption of sinful human beings by the grace of God.

I had two other sermons tentatively selected, but as I worked on the sermon on the Two Debtors, I realized that it would be better if I did this one sermon in depth rather than three sermons in a more cursory manner. Nevertheless, the draft section is over 4000 words, and it needs to be around (under) 2000 words. Many of the lengthy quotes will need to be summarized or trimmed, and I will need to edit the biographical section as well.

The next few weeks are even more hectic at the college, so the writing on the book will slow even more. I have three more people about whom to write in Chapter 4: Emily Dickinson, Kierkegaard, and Amos Bronson Alcott. I already have the materials/resources to research and write the section on Emily Dickinson, too many, in fact. I just counted that I have 31 books on Dickinson on my desk that I checked out from Emory libraries. That overkill is primarily because I know very little about Dickinson and her poetry, and it also means the completion of the section about her poetry in connection to the parables of Jesus will take longer to complete.

On the blog, I will continue the series on John Calvin and the parables, but I also will blog about a couple of important Reception History lectures by Chris Rowland (recently retired Dean Ireland's Professor at the University of Oxford) that will be at Oxford College of Emory University (March 24) and at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta (March 26). Dr. Rowland will also meet with my Honors Seminar on the Reception History of the Parables. Dr. Rowland will be in Atlanta for ten days, and I am greatly looking forward to his visit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

John Calvin and the Parable of the Net

John Calvin (see below)

Similar to the parable of the Wheat and Tares, Calvin argues, the parable of the Net confirms that the Church of God will have a mixture of the righteous and the unrighteous within it until the Last Judgment. The design of this parable is different, however, possibly because Jesus wants to explain further to those Christians still troubled by the existence of impurity within the Church “that a mixture of the good and the bad must be patiently endured till the end of the word; because, till that time, a true and perfect restoration of the Church will not take place”:

The preaching of the Gospel is justly compared to a net sunk beneath the water, to inform us that the present state of the Church is confused . . . and, therefore, recommends to us discipline; but he permits hypocrites to remain for a time among believers, till the last day, when he will bring his kingdom to a state of perfection. So far as lies in our power, let us endeavor to correct vices, and let us exercise severity in removing pollutions; but the Church will not be free from every spot and blemish, until Christ shall have separated the sheep from the goats, (Matthew 25:32.)
The above photo of Calvin comes from the Reformation Wall (Mur de la Réformation or Monument International de la Réformation) in Geneva, which I first saw in 1987. The people included are, from left to right: William Farel (1489–1565); John Calvin (1509–1564); Theodore Beza (1519–1605) and John Knox (c.1513–1572). As I recall Roger Williams (champion of religious liberty; 1603-1683) is among those on the right. I just finished a section of the book on Williams--also on the Wheat and Tares parable.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

John Calvin and the Wheat and Tares Parable (2 of 2)

John Calvin

Then Calvin gets to the heart of the meaning of the parable, in his view:

The parable tells us that the removal of the wicked from among the righteous will not occur until the end of the world, the “harvest” of which the parable speaks, a depressing fact: “This is, no doubt, a very distressing consideration, that the Church is burdened with the reprobate to the very end of the world; but Christ enjoins on us to exercise patience till that time, that we may not deceive ourselves with a vain hope.” Pastors should continue to try to “purify” the church as best they can, but they should know that they will not be able to purify the church from every defilement. Jesus, though the parable, exhorts his followers not to lose heart in face of the fact that the wicked are among them.
The reapers in the parable are the angels, and the harvest designates “the commencement of that cleansing, which, this passage declares, will not take place before the last day, because not till then will it be fully completed.” If human beings seek to “root out” whomever displeases them, then they rashly and improperly take upon themselves the role of the angels. It is upon to the angels at the Last Judgment to cast the wicked “into a furnace a fire,” which is a metaphor for the incomprehensible punishment that awaits the reprobate. 
In contrast, “Then will the righteous shine,” which is “a remarkable consolation” for Christians. The Greek word then is emphatic, which highlights the contrast between the present state of Christians and their ultimate restoration through Christ. Calvin sums it up:
The meaning therefore is, Though many wicked men now hold a high rank in the Church, yet that blessed day is assuredly to be expected, when the Son of God shall raise his followers on high, and remove every thing that now tends to dim or conceal their brightness. . . . But as the life of the godly is now hidden, and as their salvation is invisible, because it consists in hope, Christ properly directs the attention of believers to heaven, where they will find the glory that is promised to them.
Tomorrow I will post a brief entry on Calvin's interpretation of the parable of the Net.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...