Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Believing Is Seeing: Proclamation and Manifestation in the Reformed Tradition
Lecturer: RANDALL ZACHMAN
Zachman's areas of interest are in the history of Christian thought from the Reformation period to the present, with particular attention to the theological trajectory traced by the theology of John Calvin, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth. Zachman has published a book entitled The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Fortress Press, 1993). He has subsequently published articles on aspects of Calvin's work as theologian and teacher in The Journal of Religion, The Scottish Journal of Theology, Calvin Theological Journal, Concordia Theological Journal, and in other volumes. Zachman is also interested in the practice of biblical interpretation in the Reformation, especially in terms of its continuities with modern critical exegesis. Zachman is increasingly interested in the Christian understanding of the Jews in the Reformation period. He is currently working on two books pertaining to the theology of John Calvin, one examining Calvin's work as a teacher and pastor, the other examining the role of visual manifestation in Calvin's theology.
|Believing Is Seeing:
Proclamation and Manifestation in the Reformed Tradition
Randall C. Zachman
So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (Romans 10:17). These words of Paul became the rallying cry of the evangelical reformers of the sixteenth century, and have shaped the understanding of the nature of faith in Protestant traditions to this day, including the Reformed tradition. The focus on the preaching of Christ received its decisive impetus in the sixteenth century from the theology of Martin Luther, and was revived in earnest in the twentieth century by the theology of Karl Barth. According to this vision of faith, the most important aspect of our knowledge of God is the words we use to speak about God. The words of the preacher must be based in and related to the words of Scripture about Christ. Faith is only possible if the language we use to proclaim Christ truly represents the language of Scripture about Christ. This leads to a vision of the Church in which teaching and doctrine become primary. The office of the pastor is to teach doctrine drawn from the genuine meaning of Scripture. The congregation is both to hear this preaching teachably, while at the same time they are to read Scripture for themselves, in order to verify that what they are hearing truly reflects the teaching of Scripture. The goal of both the pastor and the congregation, by means of such preaching, hearing, and reading, is to apply the doctrine drawn from Scripture to their lives, both collectively and individually.
There can be no doubt that John Calvin contributed to this vision of the Church as a preaching and teaching community. One of Calvins favorite metaphors for the Church was the school of Christ, whose primary textbook was Scripture. He thought that the ruin of the Church by the Roman hierarchy was rooted in the way they took Scripture away from preachers and ordinary Christians. In order to restore the Church, Calvin wanted all Christians to read Scripture and hear it expounded. Pastors were to hear the expositions of Scripture by teachers of the Church, to guide their interpretation of Scripture, and ordinary Christians were to hear the expositions of Scripture by their pastors, to guide their own reading of Scripture. The emphasis on teaching, hearing, and reading was reinforced by the liturgical changes made by Calvin and his fellow pastors and teachers. All images, paintings, statues, and stained glass were removed from Church, so that nothing would distract the congregation from hearing the exposition and application of Scripture in the sermons. Even the sacraments could be seen as secondary in this construction of the Church, as Calvin could describe them as secondary appendages to the word of promise. In this understanding of faith, the true knowledge of God comes from hearing, reading, and applying the doctrine of Scripture. Such application frequently culminates in exhortation and even in rebuke, as Calvin tries to bring the recalcitrant congregation to obey the teaching and preaching of Christ.
However, it must be said that Calvin and the Reformed tradition have had a distinctive interest not only in proclamation, but also in manifestation, guided in large part by another saying of Paul in Romans. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown [or manifested] it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Romans 1:19-20). According to Calvins reading of this passage, we were originally created to come to know the one true God not by hearing, reading, and applying the Word of God in Scripture, but rather by beholding and contemplating the self-manifestation of God in the universe. By saying God manifested it he means that man was formed to be a spectator of the fabric of the world, and that he was endowed with eyes for the purpose of being led to God himself, the Author of the world, by contemplating so magnificent an image (Comm. Romans 1:20). The original way we were to be led to God was by means of our visual contemplation of the image of God in the universe, an image in which the invisible God becomes somewhat visible, in order to lead us to Godself. God is invisible in himself, but since his majesty shines forth in all his works and in all his creatures, men ought to have acknowledged him in these, for they clearly demonstrate their Creator. For this reason the apostle, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, calls the world a mirror or representation of invisible things (Heb. 11:3) (Comm. Romans 1:20).
In particular, the works of God we are to contemplate in the universe set forth what Calvin calls the powers of God, such as wisdom, mercy, righteousness, and goodness. Since these powers are all good things, expressing in a visible way the invisible nature of God, our contemplation of them should lead to our feeling them within ourselves, and ultimately to our enjoyment of them. For the Lord manifests himself by his powers, the force of which we feel within ourselves and the benefits of which we enjoy (Inst. I.v.9). In light of the self-manifestation of God in Gods works, Calvin can say that the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is . . . for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself (Inst. I.v.9). If the understanding of faith related to proclamation emphasizes hearing, reading, and applying the true doctrine drawn from Scripture, the understanding of the knowledge of God related to manifestation emphasizes seeing, contemplating, feeling, and enjoying the powers of God portrayed before our eyes, in the realization that by such means God gently invites and sweetly attracts us to Godself.
It is of course true that Calvin does not think that beholding the self-manifestation of God in the works of God is of itself sufficient to lead us to the true knowledge of God. Human blindness and ingratitude keep the image of God in the universe from directing us to the one true God manifested in that image. On the one hand, Calvin will say that we must turn to the Word of God in Scripture in order to be led to the Creator. Despite this, it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe. It was not in vain, then, that he added the light of his Word by which to become known (Inst. I.vi.1). This turn to the Word appears to replace seeing and contemplation with teaching and hearing. Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture (Inst. I.vi.2). On the other hand, Calvin will turn to 1 Corinthians 1:21 to show that the self-manifestation of God in the universe profits no one who has not first heard the proclamation of Christ crucified. It is vain for any to reason as philosophers on the workmanship of the world, except those who, having been first humbled by the preaching of the gospel, have learned to submit the whole of their intellectual wisdom (as Paul expresses it) to the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21). Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his own school (Comm. Genesis, Argument).
It would seem, then, that the language of manifestation, contemplation, feeling, and enjoyment describes a way of seeking God that only Adam and Eve could have enjoyed before the fall into sin. After the fall into sin, and the ensuing ingratitude and blindness that resulted from sin, we can only seek God in the doctrine we are taught by Scripture in the school of Christ, and by hearing by faith the proclamation of the cross of Christ. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Commenting on this verse, Calvin suggests that the teaching and preaching of Christ have replaced the contemplation of the self-manifestation of God. If men were led to true knowledge of God by observation of his works, they would come to know God in a way that is wise, or by way of acquiring wisdom that is natural and appropriate to them. But because the whole world learnt nothing at all from what God revealed of His wisdom in created things, he then set about teaching men in another way (Comm. 1 Cor. 1:21). The new way of teaching by preaching and doctrine seems to have replaced the original way of teaching by manifestation and contemplation. This is precisely the claim made by many interpreters of Calvin, especially those who follow the lead of Karl Barth. For such theologians, all right knowledge of God comes only from the proclamation of Christ, drawn from the teaching of Scripture. Seeing and contemplating the self-manifestation of God is entirely replaced by hearing the proclamation of Christ.
This reading of Calvin has been further reinforced by the recovery of Luthers theology of the cross in our own day. Language of self-manifestation and contemplation emphasizes the themes of beauty and glory, by which God draws and attracts us to Godself and ravishes us with admiration. That we may enjoy the sight of God, he must come forth to view with his clothing; that is to say, we must first cast our eyes upon the very beautiful fabric of the world in which he wishes to be seen by us (Comm. Psalm 104:1). The proclamation of Christ crucified, on the other hand, presents us with the contradiction between what we see and what we hear, following the words of Isaiah: he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). Calvin takes this to mean that there is nothing at all about Christ crucified which could attract us to him, in contrast to the beautiful fabric of the universe. If men see him, they will not condescend to look upon him; everyone turns his face away from him and thinks him abhorrent. How few men will believe in the Gospel! For we always like to have some fine show before our eyes; we want everything to be bright. But God went to work another way when he wished to redeem us; for, as St. Paul says, since the world profited little from the wisdom of God in declaring himself the Creator in such a way that men could come to him by beholding the sky and the earth, he has changed his method and used, as it were, a kind of foolishness to teach us (Sermon on Isaiah 53:2). The critique of the theology of glory and beauty by the theology of the cross would therefore reinforce Calvins turn to the Word of God in Scripture, and the proclamation of Christ crucified, giving one the clear sense that doctrine, preaching, reading, and teaching have replaced manifestation, contemplation, feeling, and enjoying in the theology of John Calvin, and in the subsequent Reformed tradition.
I would like to suggest, however, that the theme of manifestation, contemplation, feeling, and enjoyment never departs from the theology of John Calvin, or from the subsequent Reformed tradition, as seen especially in the theology of Jonathan Edwards. With regard to the manifestation of God in creation, Calvin does, it is true, insist that such manifestation profits us nothing without the Word of God in Scripture, but he turns to Scripture not to replace contemplation with teaching, but rather to lead us towards the true and fruitful contemplation of the works of God in the universe. With regard to the proclamation of Christ crucified being necessary to lead us to the true God, Calvin insists that we must move from the scandal of the cross of Christ to the glory of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, especially as manifested in the gospel, so that the glory and beauty of Christ begin to appear in the image of the gospel for our contemplation. The manifestation of God in the universe needs the proclamation of the Word to be fruitful, and the proclamation of Christ crucified needs the manifestation of the glory of Christ to be fruitful. Both manifestation and proclamation lead us to the true knowledge of God, both in creation and in Christ. The loss of manifestation and contemplation in our understanding of the Reformed tradition today has deprived us of an essential element of the knowledge of God according to Calvin and those who followed him, and has led to an unfortunate impoverishment of the life of piety, the experience of worship, and our relationship with the natural world. In what follows, I will show how the self-manifestation of God in the universe is made fruitful by the teaching of God in the Word, and how the proclamation of Christ crucified is made fruitful by the manifestation of God in Christ, who is God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16).
The Spectacles of Scripture
We have noted above that Calvin thought that the right way to seek God was to contemplate God in the beautiful image of God in the universe. Consequently, the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence, which we ought to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself (Inst. I.v.9). We have also noted that Calvin claims that human blindness and ingratitude have blinded us to the self-manifestation of God in the universe, making the self-testimony of God the Creator necessary if we would be led to the knowledge of the Creator. However, Calvin calls Scripture spectacles, indicating that they are needed precisely to help us to see better. For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes those things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but almost compels us to behold them; as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles (Comm. Genesis Argument). If this is true, then the doctrine of Scripture does not replace contemplation, but rather makes it possible for us. We can only rightly behold the beauty of the self-manifestation of God in the universe when we not only see with our eyes, but also hear with our ears. Therefore, however fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate Gods works, since he has been placed in this most beautiful theater to be a spectator of them, it is fitting that he prick up his ears to the Word, the better to profit (Inst. I.vi.2). In particular, hearing the Word makes it possible for us to contemplate the powers of God manifested in the works of God. Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God. We must, I say, come to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth (Inst. I.vi.3).
Calvin wanted the godly to spend their whole lives contemplating the works of God in creation. He thought that God described the work of creation in six days to facilitate this kind of contemplation. For by this circumstance we are drawn away from all fictions to the one God who distributed his work into six days that we might not find it irksome to occupy our whole life in contemplating it (Inst. I.xiv.2). However, Calvin wanted to extend our contemplation from the creation accounts of Scripture to the image of God in the universe itself. There is no doubt that the Lord would have us uninterruptedly occupied in this holy meditation; that, while we contemplate in all his creatures, as in mirrors, those immense riches of his wisdom, justice, goodness, and power, we should not run over them cursorily, and, so to speak, with a fleeting glance; but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our minds seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly (Inst. I.xiv.21). Calvin claimed that this was one of the chief purposes of Sabbath rest, one that had not been abrogated by the coming of Christ. This is, indeed, the proper business of the whole life, in which men should daily exercise themselves, to consider the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, in this magnificent theater of heaven and earth. But, lest men should prove less sedulously attentive to it than they ought, every seventh day has been especially selected for this purpose of supplying what was wanting in daily meditation . . . that they, being released from all other business, might the more readily apply their minds to the Creator of the world (Comm. Genesis 2:3).
Calvin offers his readers a great deal of advice about the most fruitful way to pursue such contemplation of Gods works in the beautiful fabric of the universe. He advised beginning with the contemplation of the order of the stars in the heavens, and then descending from there to the earth, and finally to the smallest of creatures on the earth. When a person, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will learn also to reflect upon and admire his wisdom and power displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants (Comm. Psalm 19:1). We should then descend into ourselves, so that we might feel the force of the powers we behold in Gods works, and might enjoy their benefits within us, so that we might be drawn to God thereby. There comes now the second part of the rule, more closely related to faith. It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise, and love him (Inst. I.xiv.22).
Under the tutelage of the Word, with Scripture as our spectacles, we are able to contemplate God in the beauty of the universe, in order that we might be sweetly allured to God by our enjoyment of his benefits. So, invited by the sweetness of his beneficence and goodness, let us study to love and serve him with our whole heart (Inst. I.xiv.22). Indeed, beyond our enjoyment of the benefits of God, our contemplation of the universe should lead us to be ravished in astonishment by its beauty and glory. As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power (Comm. Psalm 19:1). In sum, the teaching and instruction of the Word of God does not replace our contemplation of the self-manifestation of God in the universe, but rather makes such contemplation both possible and fruitful. For if the mute instruction of the heaven and the earth were sufficient, the teaching of Moses would have been superfluous. This herald therefore approaches, who excites our attention, in order that we may perceive ourselves to be placed in this scene, for the purpose of beholding the glory of God; not indeed to observe as mere witnesses, but to enjoy all the riches which are here exhibited, as the Lord has ordained and subjected them to our use (Comm. Genesis Argument). What would Reformed life and worship be like if we were to take Calvin seriously, and spend every day, or at least every Sunday, contemplating the beauty and glory of God in heaven and on earth, in stars and in plants, so that we might be ravished in astonishment, and sweetly allured to God by the overwhelming display of Gods goodness that we contemplate?
II. The Portrayal of Christ in the Gospel.
Calvins discussion of the knowledge of God the Creator begins with manifestation and contemplation, and then adds teaching and hearing in order that such contemplation might be fruitful. When Calvin turns to his discussion of Christ, he begins with the language of proclamation, following the statement of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:21, For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Calvin has two distinct ways of relating the preaching of the cross of Christ to the self-manifestation of God in the universe. In the Genesis commentary, Calvin insists that we must first believe the preaching of the cross of Christ before we can profit from the contemplation of the works of God in the universe. Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his school. Yet this does not prevent us from applying our senses to the consideration of heaven and earth, that we may thence seek confirmation of the true knowledge of God (Comm. Genesis Argument). On the other hand, in the Institutes, Calvin begins with the proper contemplation of God in the works of God in the universe, clarified by the spectacles of Scripture, and then passes on to the preaching of Christ crucified, without which there can be no saving knowledge of God. We must, for this reason, come to Pauls statement: Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe [1 Cor. 1:21]. This magnificent theater of heaven and earth, crammed with innumerable miracles, Paul calls the wisdom of God. Contemplating it, we ought in wisdom to have known God. But because we have profited so little by it, he calls us to the faith of Christ, which, because it appears foolish, the unbelievers despise (Inst. II.vi.1).
As this quote makes clear, the preaching of the cross of Christ lacks all the appearance of glory and beauty that Calvin finds in the self-manifestation of God in the universe. Precisely because Calvin is so attuned to the theme of manifestation and contemplation, he is sensitive to the repulsive and offensive appearance of Christ, both in his life, and in his death. And so God has made use, as it were, of something foolish, sending his only Son, subjecting him to all our weaknesses, so that he was rejected by the world, being born in a stable, all his life he was like a poor working man; and at the end we see that every one was against him, and with such fury that he was detested and was every mans enemy; and finally, he was crucified. Now that death was accursed by God; for he was not only disfigured by the buffeting, the spitting and the crown of thorns, but he became a curse when he hung between two thieves, as if he were the most detestable man who had ever lived or could be known. And that sort of death was appalling because it was accursed in the Law. Look how disfigured he was; for this mode of execution has become a scandal to men (Sermon on Isaiah 53:2). The appearance of Christ in the preaching of the cross, far from sweetly alluring people to God by the glory and beauty of what they behold, rather has the effect of repelling them from Christ. So we must always come back to what the Prophet says, that every man has turned his back on him and shut his eyes as if he were something hateful. What! Shall I seek for life in death? Shall I hope in him who cannot help himself? Shall I go for strength to him who was so weak? Why should I do that? (Sermon on Isaiah 53:3). The gospel proclaims to us truths about Christ that contradict what we see in the life and death of Christ. To seek for righteousness in a condemned sinner, life in a dead man, and the blessing of God in a cursed man, seems to all appearances to be the height of folly.
Calvin offers us several steps whereby we might surmount the scandal created by the dreadful appearance of Christ. The first step is to awaken our consciences with the awareness of the sin, death, and curse of God that justly lie upon all of us. When we do so, our proud rejection of Christ will cease, and we will begin to see that there was no other way for God to save us other than to place on Christ all that weighs so heavily upon us, so that he might thereby reconcile us with God. The way to begin to glorify the infinite goodness of God is to hate our sins and be utterly confounded. This is how the scandal that we imagine and that each of us weaves around the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ will soon be taken awaynamely, when we enter into ourselves and make a thorough examination of our sins, and recognize that we are so detestable to God that he had to come in the person of his Son to make satisfaction and reparation for our sins so that by this means we might be reconciled to him (Sermon on Isaiah 53:3). Once we come to acknowledge that Christ was thus horribly afflicted for our sins, the preaching of the cross will no longer be offensive to us, but will rather be seen as the way God reconciled us to Godself. One believes in spite of what one sees, for what one sees is due to our sins, which have thus disfigured him.
However, Calvin is not content to leave matters thus, as Luther might have done. If faith believes that it was God who was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, then faith must await the manifestation of God in the flesh of Christ, so that it has a more solid ground on which to stand. We must, it is true, begin with the cross of Christ, so that we might be humbled by the awareness of our sins, and by the realization that he was stricken for our transgressions; but we must pass on to the resurrection of Christ, for that alone begins to remove the scandal of the cross, by manifesting God in Christ. That dreadful appearance of ignominy and malediction which is seen in the death of Christ, not only obscures his glory, but removes it altogether from our sight. We must not, then, hold to his death alone, but must also consider the fruit that his resurrection bears. In this way nothing will prevent his glory from shining everywhere (Comm. John 12:24). The glory that is completely hidden from view in the cross begins to appear to those who patiently move from the cross to the resurrection. It is true that at first sight God in Christ seems to be low and abject, but his glory appears to those who have the patience to pass on from the cross to the resurrection (Comm. 2 Cor. 4:6). The preaching of the cross alone is not enough to support our faith, according to Calvin; we must pass on to the resurrection, in which we begin to see the truth that the gospel proclaims to us. Therefore, Paul states that Christ was declared the Son of God . . . in the resurrection itself [Romans 1:4 p.], because then at last he displayed his heavenly power, which is both the clear mirror of his divinity and the firm support of our faith (Inst. I.xvi.13).
When we pass from the cross to the resurrection, Christ appears before our eyes as God manifested in the flesh. The language of manifestation, which is utterly lacking in Calvins discussions of the preaching of the cross, begins to emerge again when he speaks of the resurrection, leading Calvin to state that due to the glory that appears in Christ, Christ is the image of the invisible God, who manifests God to us. When Christ is called the image of the invisible God the reference is not merely to his essence, because he is, as they say, co-essential with the Father, but rather to his relationship to us because he represents the Father to us. The Father is called invisible because he himself is not apprehended by the human mind but he shows himself to us by his Son and thus makes himself in a manner visible (Comm. 2 Cor. 4:4). In particular, we behold in Christ every good thing that we have lost due to our sins. Christ is the image of God because in him we behold every good thing that the Father wishes to bestow upon us. For God would have remained hidden afar off if Christs splendor had not beamed upon us. For this purpose the Father laid up with his only-begotten Son all that he had to reveal himself in Christ so that Christ, by communicating his Fathers benefits, might express the true image of his glory [cf. Heb. 1:3] (Inst. III.ii.1). The proclamation of the cross of Christ needs the addition of the manifestation of God in Christ, if faith is to be guided to seek the knowledge of God in the face of Christ, and if faith is to behold, feel, and enjoy every good thing that God reveals to us in the flesh of Christ.
Once believers begin to see the glory of God manifested in Christ, they also begin to see in the cross of Christ itself the glory of Gods goodness and love that was initially hidden from them by the appearance of shame and malediction. Therefore he promises that when the ignominy which he shall endure for a time has been wiped out, a sublime glory will shine in his death. And this was accomplished: for the death of the cross which Christ suffered, so far from obscuring his honor, there shines brightest, since there his incredible love to mankind, his infinite righteousness in atoning for sin and appeasing the wrath of God, his wonderful power in overcoming death, subduing Satan, and, indeed, opening up heaven, put forth its full brightness (Comm. John 13:32). Once we begin to see the glory of God manifested not only in the resurrection, but also in the death of Christ, we will see a manifestation of the goodness of God far more glorious and beautiful than that which is manifested in the works of God in the universe. For in the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater, the incomparable goodness of God is set forth before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures on high and below, but never more brightly than in the cross, in which there was a wonderful change of thingsthe condemnation of all men was manifested, sin blotted out, salvation restored to men; in short, the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order (Comm. John 13:31). The godly will not cease to contemplate the image of God manifested in the universe; but they will add to their contemplation the more glorious image of God in the cross of Christ, so that God might be rightly glorified for all of Gods works. When we consider the works of God throughout the world, they tell us that he ought to be praised for his majesty and greatness; but when we come to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must learn to glorify God in his abasement. So there is a twofold way of praising God. On the one hand, we must exalt him because he shows us his goodness, righteousness, and infinite power in all that he has created and done, and by ordaining and disposing everything. . . . And on the other hand, since our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom dwells the fullness of Godhead, was not only degraded for our salvation but was willing to be brought to the lowest depthsmore, he did not refuse to suffer the pangs of death, as if he had entered into hellGod deserves to be glorified more than for his greatness apparent throughout the world (Sermon on Isaiah 53:4).
It must be noted, however, that we do not behold Christ directly before us as the image of God we contemplate, as is the case with the works of God in the universe. Christ can only be beheld when he appears before us as clothed in the gospel. This then is the true knowledge of Christ, if we perceive him as he is offered to us by the Father: namely, clothed with his gospel. . . . [For] we say that the Word itself, however it be imparted to us, is like a mirror in which faith may contemplate God (Inst. III.ii.6). The gospel is therefore the mirror in which we behold Christ, who is himself the image of God. For the Apostle truly declares that by the mirror of the gospel we clearly behold God in the person of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18) (Comm. John 8:19). For this reason, Calvin likes the description of preaching set forth in Galatians 3:1: it is the public portrayal of Christ crucified, which vividly sets before our eyes his death on our behalf. Therefore we will keep to this meaning, that Pauls doctrine had taught them about Christ in such a manner that it was as if he had been shown to them in a picture, even crucified among them (Comm. Gal. 3:1).
However, the gospel declares to us spiritual truths that we cannot in fact see with our earthly eyes, so that were we left with the gospel alone, our contemplation of Christ in the gospel would engage only our ears, and not our eyes. For this reason, Christ has accommodated himself to our condition, and offers himself for our contemplation not only in the gospel, but also in the sacraments, which together form the mirror in which we may contemplate Christ. Commenting on Pauls claim that we now see in a mirror, Calvin says, I say that the ministry of the word is like a mirror. For the angels do not need preaching, or other inferior aids, or sacraments. They have the advantage of another way of seeing God, for God does not show them his face merely in a mirror, but he presents himself openly before them. But we, who have not yet scaled such heights, look upon the image of God in the Word, in the sacraments, and, in short, in the whole ministry of the Church (Comm. 1 Cor. 13:12). Not only preaching, but also the sacraments and ceremonies of the Church, form the mirror in which faith contemplates Christ, who himself is the image of the invisible God.
Calvin thought that the medieval church was led to install more and more visible images of God and of Christsuch as crucifixes, pictures, stained glass, and statuesbecause the people could no longer see and contemplate Christ crucified in the preaching, sacraments, and ceremonies of the Roman Church. And certainly images and pictures were first admitted to Christian temples when, partly, the pastors had become dumb and were mere shadows, partly, when they uttered a few words from the pulpit so coldly and superficially that the power and efficacy of the ministry were utterly extinguished (Comm. Gal. 3:1). Calvin wanted such man-made images removed from all places of worship, not to remove all visual contemplation from the faithful, but to focus their contemplation on those images which truly and vividly portray Christ to us, namely, preaching, the sacraments, and the other rites of the Church. [W]hen I ponder the intended use of churches, somehow or other it seems to me unworthy of their holiness for them to take on images other than those living and symbolical ones which the Lord has consecrated by his Word. I mean Baptism and the Lords Supper, together with other ceremonies by which our eyes must be too intensely gripped and too sharply affected to seek other images forged by human ingenuity (Inst. I.xi.13). One can ask how well Calvin designed and implemented a form of worship that would so intensely grip and sharply affect the eyes of the congregation. It seems to me that Calvins practice of worship may have reinforced the understanding of the Church as a school, as the center of worship became the line-by-line exposition and application of Scripture in the sermon. However, his theology points us in another direction, one in which sermon, sacrament, and ceremony set forth Christ himself for our contemplation, so that we might behold him as in a mirror, and be led by him to the invisible God who sent him.
Our contemplation of Christ in the mirror of the gospel and the sacraments has one other objective, one that distinguishes it from our contemplation of God in the universe. When we contemplate Christ in the mirror of the gospel, we not only contemplate an image of the goodness of God that is greater than that which we contemplate in the universe, but we also behold an image that has the power to transform us into itself. Calvin develops this theme on the basis of the statement of Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18, which I give in Calvins rendering of the passage: But we all, with unveiled face reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit. Commenting on this verse, Calvin says, At the same time he points out both the force of revelation and our daily progress in it. He uses this similitude of the image in the mirror to make three points: first, that we need not fear obscurity when we approach the Gospel, for in it God shows us his unveiled face; second, that this should not be dead and fruitless contemplation, for through it we should be transformed into Gods image; third, that neither of these things happen all at once, but by continual progress we increase both in the knowledge of God and in conformity to his image (2 Cor. 3:18). Our contemplation of Christ in the mirror of the gospel and the sacraments transforms us into the image of Christ, and thereby renews the image of God within us. Were such contemplation to bear fruit in the congregation, we would not only be able to behold Christ in the mirror of the gospel, sacraments, and ceremonies of the Church, but would also see the image of Christ in the worshipping community itself. For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our lives express Christ, the bond of our adoption (Inst. III.vi.3). We are transformed into the image of God not only by applying godly doctrine concretely to our lives, but also by contemplating the image of Christ in the gospel; for such contemplation transforms us into the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another. When the Church does not attend to the vivid representation of Christ in its preaching, sacraments, and ceremonies, it is hindering genuine Christian transformation, no matter how much it may be preaching and teaching sound doctrine.
III. Conclusion: From Calvin to Edwards.
As we have seen, Calvin never replaces the language of manifestation and contemplation with the language of proclamation and hearing, but rather combines the two together in an inseparable relationship. On the one hand, speaking about God the Creator, Calvin begins with manifestation, and then adds proclamation to it, so that the manifestation of God might be fruitful for us. We cannot rightly contemplate God in the image of the universe without the Word of God; but once we have the spectacles of Scripture, and are guided in our seeing by what we hear, we can and must truly contemplate God in all that God does, from the loftiest stars to the tiniest plants. Calvin insists that the godly should practice such contemplation every day of their lives, or at least every Sunday, when God gives us rest so that we might engage in such contemplation. On the other hand, when speaking about God the Redeemer, Calvin begins with the proclamation of Christ crucified, in which the manifestation of God in Christ is hidden under an appearance that directly contradicts it. However, once we come to faith in the preaching of the cross, we pass on from the cross to the resurrection, and begin to see the manifestation of God in the flesh of Christ, making Christ the image of the invisible God. In acknowledgement of our infirmity, Christ gives us a mirror of himself in the ministry of the Church, so that we might contemplate him in the preaching, sacraments, and ceremonies of the Church, in order to be transformed more and more into the image we are contemplating. Manifestation leads on to proclamation in the knowledge of God the Creator, without eliminating manifestation; and proclamation leads on to manifestation in the knowledge of God the Redeemer, without eliminating proclamation.
I would like to end this paper with a brief reference forward, to the theology of Jonathan Edwards, in order to present a promising trajectory to follow out of Calvin, one that antedates the trajectory set by either Schleiermacher or Barth. Like Calvin, Edwards preached sermons that were expositions and applications of Scripture, leading one to think that he, like Calvin, saw the Church more as a school than as the mirror in which to behold Christ. However, in those sermons, and in other writings, Edwards leads his congregations to an understanding of faith in which faith is the new perception or contemplation of the glory and beauty of God in all of Gods works, and not only the knowledge of doctrine drawn from Scripture. For Edwards knows that one may know and memorize the whole of Scripture, and even use it in discussion to convince others of the correctness of ones faith, without ever beholding or contemplating the beauty and glory of the truths spoken of in Scripture. The true and spiritual knowledge of Scripture is therefore to be given eyes to see the beauty and glory in all the works of God attested in Scripture. Spiritually to understand the Scripture is to have the eyes of the mind opened, to behold the wonderful spiritual excellency of the glorious things contained in the true meaning of it, and that always were contained in it, ever since it was written; to behold the amiable and bright manifestations of the divine perfections, and of the excellency and sufficiency of Christ, and the excellency and suitableness of the way of salvation by Christ, and the spiritual glory of the precepts and promises of the Scripture, etc., which things are, and always were, in the Bible, and would have been seen before if it had not been for blindness, without having any new sense added, by the words sent by God to a particular person, and spoken anew to him, with a new meaning (Affections, p. 206). The saints who are given the ability to behold the beauty of Gods holiness in all of Gods works will for Edwards, as for Calvin, be gently invited and sweetly allured to God by the object of their contemplation. But the saints and angels behold that glory of God which consists in the beauty of his holiness; and it is this sight only that will melt and humble human hearts, wean them from the world, draw them to God, and effectually change them (Affections, p. 190). As in Calvin, Edwards describes the godly as ravished by the beauty of the one they behold and contemplate, so that they forget all about themselves for the sake of the one they behold by faith. A true saint, when in the enjoyment of true discoveries of the sweet glory of God and Christ, has his mind too much captivated and engaged by what he views outside himself, to stand at that time to view himself, and his own attainments. It would be a diversion and loss which he could not bear, to take his eye off from the ravishing object of his contemplation, to survey his own experience (Affections, p. 178). The new perception of Gods glory which is given to the saints at last frees them from the self-love and self-interest that poison all of our dealings with God, for the saints delight in contemplating the beauty of Gods goodness and holiness as it is in itself, and not as it benefits them. And as it is with the love of the saints, so it is with their joy and spiritual delight and pleasure: the first foundation of it is not any consideration or conception of their interest in divine things; but it primarily consists in the sweet entertainment their minds have in the view or contemplation of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves (Affections, p. 175).
It seems to me that those of us who identify with the Reformed tradition would do well to recover this theme of manifestation and contemplation, to the enrichment both of our own faith and piety, and of our lives together. As necessary as preaching the Word in accord with right doctrine might be, it needs to be combined with an equal attention to the contemplation of the manifestation of Gods beauty and glory in all of Gods works, both in creation and in Christ. Such contemplation focuses us on the beauty and splendor of God and Christ, and frees us from being captivated by our own self-interested concerns, with which a doctrinal Christianity can all too easily be combined. A proposition concerning the will of God is as properly a doctrine of religion as a proposition concerning the nature of God or a work of God, and a having either of these kinds of propositions, or any other proposition, declared to a person, either by speech or inward suggestion, differs vastly from a having the holy beauty of divine things manifested to the soul, wherein spiritual knowledge does most essentially consist (Affections, p. 204).
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