Calvin and Augustine in the Arena?

March 22, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

When one reads a great deal, one can sometimes be surprised by way the same subject, idea, or even quotation, may appear in the writings of different authors. Perhaps I ought not be surprised given the fact that there is a finite deposit of source material available in any given field of study, though that deposit may be quite vast. My own reading has recently taken me from the Confessions of Augustine, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin. When one’s reading sets these two giants in proximity to one another there is even less reason to be surprised at the appearance of similarities since Calvin was so like Augustine in theological outlook, and in many ways, dependent upon Augustine in his theological thought. At the very least, Calvin considered Augustine to be a giant upon whose shoulders he stood. In working through Calvin’s discussion of the marks which distinguish the true God from false gods in Book I, chapter XIV of the Institutes, I came across this: “When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious.” I knew immediately where I had read that before. The Confessions. Going back to Augustine, I found the passage in Book XI, chapter xii, which reads as follows: “This is my reply to anyone who asks: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ My reply is not that which someone is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said: ‘He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer, ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question and to win approval for an answer which is a mistake.” It would seem that Augustine would not have approved of the manner in which Calvin utilized his little story. Augustine presents the question itself as serious, and the questioner as sincere, while the respondent is evasive, and perhaps even dishonest. Calvin presents the question as a skeptic’s form of ridicule, and the respondent as pious and clever. But before we set these two great minds against one another in the arena, (which would be fine. Men will not always agree), we ought to consider that these differences themselves point to the possibility that though both men utilize the same story, they do so for different purposes, and in different contexts. Augustine sets forth the story in the context of a deeply philosophical discussion of time and eternity, particularly as it impacts God’s immutability. In that context, Augustine sees no ridicule or skepticism at all. It is a serious question with serious implications for the person and nature of God. Calvin, on the other hand, is using the story in a very different way. Calvin presents the question as a form of ridicule because he himself is, in part, utilizing ridicule in his argument. But it is not the same argument. Calvin and Augustine are not...

Do Not Go Beyond What is Written!

March 20, 2019 | by Wisdom from John Calvin

“Let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends.” Institutes, 1.3.21. “Let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in His Sacred Word, or to think anything about Him that is not prompted by His Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.” Institutes, 1.3.21.

Letter to a Roman Catholic Lady

March 17, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

Letter to a Roman Catholic Lady I was reading through some old correspondence and came across this letter responding to a woman who had attended our Ladies Bible Study for a short time. She ceased to attend after sending a letter expressing offense which she had taken over something I had said in regard to the Roman Catholic Church. This was my response. Obviously, all identifying material has been removed for reasons of confidentiality. Dear _________, Thank you for your letter and for your kind words about the Bible Study. I hope you will continue to join us, but that is, of course, your own decision to make. The unwillingness to hear other points of view without taking personal offense is one of the unfortunate characteristics of our age. That being said, allow me to respond to some of the statements contained in your letter. You say that you were shocked at what you found on the internet regarding negative comments about the Catholic faith. This is no surprise to me at all. You ought not be shocked, and you ought not be shocked for at least two reasons. The first concerns the substance, and the second concerns the form. First, the Protestant Reformation happened 500 years ago for important and substantial reasons, and those issues still exist. They are important, profound, and worthy of ongoing discussion, and yes, debate. The second reason you should not be shocked at what you found concerns the form, or perhaps better, the tone. The internet, though a rich resource of all kinds of profitable material, is also a forum for the worst kinds of vitriol concerning every conceivable subject. Anyone can publish anything they wish. Writing a comment on someone’s blog, or creating one’s own website on which to publish one’s writings, says nothing about one’s credibility or intellectual ability. I assure you that the same kind of statements exist, written by Roman Catholics about Protestants. No one has a corner on incivility. But I would no sooner attribute the statements of random Roman Catholics to Catholicism than you should attribute the statements of random Protestants going the other way. The internet aside, you ask, “Why would they spend the time indulging in an attack on another religion?” Let me rephrase your question so that we can get to the heart of the matter while agreeing to deplore a tone which is no more than an “attack”. The more important issue is this: Why would someone spend their time pointing out the differences in another religion? The answer is very simple. It is because truth matters, and truth matters particularly when issues of the gospel are concerned. In Acts 17, when the apostle Paul was preaching to the Athenian philosophers, he did not say, “I’m ok. You’re ok. Let’s all just get along.” He said that they worship in ignorance, and he was there to proclaim the truth to them. Likewise, throughout the history of the church, not everyone who called themselves “Christian” was regarded as a Christian. There is such a thing as false teaching, and, yes, heresy. The fact is, ____________, there are significant differences between Roman Catholicism and what I consider to be Biblical Christianity. You might not like to hear that, but nevertheless, that is the case. The...

O Wretched Man that I Am!

March 15, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

O Wretched Man that I Am! “Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life, but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily the doctrine.” Martin Luther, Table Talk, Autumn 1553 I write as an Evangelical. More specifically, I write as a reformed Evangelical. I do not believe that the Reformation was a matter of semantics. I do believe that there were good and sound reasons for the great 16th century upheaval. Furthermore, I believe that the issues which brought about this division have not been reconciled, but remain today, as then, barriers to genuine unity. I believe that any Protestant who does not believe such, and yet remains separated from Rome, is a schismatic, and should make a beeline back to the Vatican. Now for something seemingly unrelated, but not really. I still read actual books. That is, although I make use of e-books, I continue to read books made of paper, as well. I realize there are those who do so for sensual purposes. They revel in the feel of the pages, and the aroma of ancient dust. I read paper books for two more practical reasons. First, there are some books that are not yet available in electronic form, and second, I’m a note taker, and there are some books which call out for the preservation of written notes. In any case, when reading an actual book made of paper, I require a bookmark. I could, of course, simply tear off a portion of a scrap paper, and place that between the pages of my book, but I require a bookmark that is more than utilitarian. I therefore created my own bookmarks, containing various quotes that made an impression upon me for some reason, and then passing them on to my assistant for proper design and lamination. “I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among the Scriptures, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” – Jerome “Pray and read, read and pray; for a little from God is better than a great deal from men.” – John Bunyan And then there is this, which I happened to be using as I read Heiko A. Oberman’s, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil: “Use this when you read a line that is so well-written, you just close the book and stare at the wall for a minute.” I find that I sometimes close my book and stare at the wall for a minute, not because a line is so well-written, but because an author has written something which, for one reason or another, confronts me with a thought which makes it impossible to simply read on. In this case, this quote from Luther’s Table Talk elicited such a reaction. It was not the profundity of the thought which stopped me, but rather the timing, for just days before, the Houston Chronicle had published an expose’ revealing an alleged 20-year long sex scandal within the leadership of several Southern Baptist churches. As this new information was being revealed, scandals from the past were raised once again. Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Charismatic-Reformed quasi denomination begun by Young, Restless, and Reformed superstar C.J. Mahaney, had been...

Infanticide and the Depravity of Man

March 11, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

The inevitable result of Roe vs. Wade is the move from abortion to infanticide. It was only a matter of time. This predictable end is now being realized, first in NY, and also in the recent statements of the governor of VA. But this is not a progression. It is a reversion. When the constraints of righteousness are cast off, when the restraining bonds of Christianity are severed, the result is not an advance of civilization, but rather a regression. Most certainly, our contemporary depravity will be exercised in a more sterile fashion. We’ll leave our unwanted babies to die in clinics, rather than on a hillside. But that is a difference merely superficial. However the killing may be carried out, it remains a cultural declaration. It is our declaration that man has no intrinsic value. Man is merely useful, or he is not. And in their pride, others, more privileged and powerful, find themselves worthy to make that...