At the beginning of 2021, I resolved to read not only through the Bible but also through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. A month and a half in and I came across my favorite section thus far. Book I, chapter xiv, section 4 has the subject heading “we should not indulge in speculations concerning the angels, but search out the witness of Scripture.” Though this section falls within the angelology heading of systematic theology, there is much that can be gleaned from it and is indeed a precious gem in the doctrine of sola scriptura.
He holds back no punches by immediately asserting it is an “evidence of stubbornness rather than of diligence to raise strife” over the creation of angels. The Bible does not detail the creation event of angels, and this doesn’t bother Calvin—nor should it bother the Christian, he argues. The golden nugget of this section springboards off the doctrine of angels into the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modest and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word... Let us not indulge in curiosity or in the investigation of unprofitable things.
Indeed, when we approach Scripture, intimates Calvin, “we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification.” Too much speculation and curiosity has lead to many errors seeping into the church today. Most recently, it is the error of gender dysphoria. Transgenderism and pangednerism not only undermines the LGBTQ agenda but also runs coutner to “what has been imparted to us by God’s Word”. By adding the transgenderism to the sexual revolution and the homosexual agenda, that whole movement becomes compromised because gays, lesbians, and bisexuals all require and presuppose male and female genders. Indeed, a bisexual person presupposes bisexes, two genders. By openly denying that two genders exist, LGBTQ activitsts isolate and denegrate four-fifths of their so-called community. By openly denying that two genders exist, the LGBTQ “community” positions itself outside of the biblical teaching and therefore in open opposition to the Author of that teaching.
Calvin’s pastoral call in this section resonates as loudly today as when it was first sounded nearly 500 years ago. “If we are not ashamed of being Christ’s disciples, let us not be ashamed to follow that method which has been prescribed.” That “method” Calvin speaks of was listed a few sentences before: “the Lord willed to instruct us... in sound godliness, in the fear of his name, in true trust, and in the duties of holiness.” Calvin’s teaching echoes that of Paul’s in his First Letter to Timothy. In order to combat rampant idolatry and wanton licentiousness, the Christian must “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.” (1Tm 6:11)
“Sound godliness” is biblical piety. Piety is a great thing. It’s living in a manner that is pleasing to God. Piety by itself has the possibility of falling into error, especially if you have a misinterpretation of God. This is why “sound godliness” is biblical piety. We must strive to live in a biblical manner that is pleasing to the God of the Bible. Biblical piety presupposes a belief and submission to the God of the Bible and a lifestyle and worldview that is firmly grounded in Scripture.
“Fear of his name” is humble reverence. This is a necessary condition in order to rightly understand the God of the Bible. When Isaiah was called into prophetic ministry, he saw himself in the presence of God Most High, seated on his throne. Upon seeing this awesome and awful sight, Isaiah wailed, “Woe is me!” (Is. 6:5). He was declaring a curse over himself because he realized that he was a “man of unclean lips” and was standing before “the King, the Lord of hosts!” He was not only reverent before God, he was humiliated in his reverence. People forget that “humble” and “humiliated” are related words. People like to preach about humility or boast about their humility, but nearly everyone runs from or denounces being humiliated. When we think of God, we not only need to be humble before him but also recognize we are nothing before him.
“True trust” is thorough faithfulness. The classical theology attributes three characteristics to biblical faith. Dr. Sproul summarizes them for us. First, faith has notitia or information. Faith has to have an object, which means we must believe in something we know. Specifically, the Christian must know something about someone—the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, faith has assensus or agreement. Faith not only knows about its object but agrees with that object. The Christian believes as true, assents, to the biblical information about Jesus Christ. Lastly, faith has fiducia or trust. Faith not only believes the information of its object but also fully relies on and personally trusts in that object. Therefore, Christian faith knows the biblical claims of Jesus, assents to them, and places his “true trust” in the biblical Jesus.
“Duties of holiness” are unity and purity. Today, many churches are enamored by “tolerance” and “inclusiveness” that they are willing to divorce purity at the expense of unity. A quick Google search and you can likely find in your area clergy or a ministerial association that wants to “focus on the basics.” They look for “common ground” between denominations and world religions. They seek to “distill” from the different voices the shared virtues. In reality they are watering down faith and supporting what Calvin and Augustine call the “innate sense of deity,” the civic virtues that are common to all of mankind because they are products of God’s common grace. “Duties of holiness” seek both the unity and the purity of the church by seeking to unite with those that share in purity. Now, purity is a strange word because many today likely think of virginity or naïve innocence. While these are true to purity, biblical purity harkens more to “unmixed.” God’s concern over both Testaments is the error of syncretism: mixing together false teaching with the true. Syncretism says, “I like this teaching about Jesus, but I don’t agree with this other thing about God, so I’ll replace that with this teaching about Buddha.” And so on. If we are going to take Jesus’ command seriously, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), then the measure of our perfection is God’s righteousness and not our own. The “duties of holiness” are measured by God’s scale, and his alone.
Like any good preacher, Calvin closes by answering the question “so what?” What application is there to this teaching? “The theologian’s task is... to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.” While Calvin’s words are aimed at preachers and teachers, every believer is a theologian and must strengthen his/her conscience by learning things that are vera, certa, et utilis. Those things that are “true, sure, and profitable” are found uniquely in Scripture, which Paul says “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2Tm. 3:16). That doesn’t mean all authors and artists across the ages bring nothing to the table, but it does mean the Scriptures should be lens through which we take in human works. Scripture is to be the rule by which we measure ourselves. If we find we are falling short, then we turn to the Holy Spirit, we seek out Bible-preaching pastors and churches, and we come before our Father humble repentance. Because everything he teaches us is “true, sure, and profitable” not only for our daily living but also, and ultimately, for our eternal salvation.