Christ in the OT: Calvin’s Eight Principles

Here are eight principles on Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament gleaned from a survey of Calvin’s Institutes, sermons, and commentaries.

1. By preaching the Old Testament we are preaching Christ’s Words
When Calvin commented on the Old Testament he repeatedly used phrases such as, “Here Christ comforts his Church…By these words, Christ convicts His people…Christ therefore spoke to Israel.” Calvin, therefore, encourages us to hear the words of the Old Testament as the very words of Christ.

2. Christ is the only teacher of His Church
Whatever stage of biblical revelation we look at in the Old or New Testament, Christ was the one and only teacher of his Church. For example, when commenting on Matt.11:27, Calvin wrote: “I mean that God has never manifested himself to men in any other way than through the Son, that is his sole wisdom, light, and truth.”

3. By preaching God we preach Christ
For Calvin, a God-centered sermon was implicitly Christ-centered. For example, in the Institutes, he wrote: “Whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father.”

4. The Old and New Testaments are united by same covenant of grace
Although Calvin accepted that there were differences between the two Testaments, that did not in any way lesson the fundamental unity: “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same” (Inst. 2.10.2). In his commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-32, Calvin put it like this:

Now as to the new covenant, it is not so called, because it is contrary to the first covenant; for God is never inconsistent with himself, nor is he unlike himself…God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant….God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses . . . Let us now see why he promises to the people a new covenant. It being new, no doubt refers to what they call the form . . . But the substance remains the same. By substance I understand the doctrine; for God in the Gospel brings forward nothing but what the Law contains.

The relation between the Testaments was absolutely central to Calvin’s thought. So much so, that the title of Book II of the Institutes, which is all about redemption in Christ is summarized in the title: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, first disclosed to the fathers under the Law, and then to us in the Gospel.

5. There is One United People of God in both the OT and NT
Having surveyed Calvin’s teaching on this in John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, David Puckett concludes:

The people of God are one and God’s revelation to his people as recorded in scripture is one. The differences between the revelation under the old and new covenants pale when compared with that which remains the same.

6. Every Old Testament believer was saved through faith in Christ
In opposition to those who insisted that Old Testament salvation was fundamentally different to the New, Calvin argued:

Indeed the ancient fathers were saved by no other means than by that which we have…they had their salvation grounded in Christ Jesus, as we have: but that was after an obscure manner, so as they beheld the thing afar off which was presented unto them…Accordingly, apart from the Mediator, God never showed favor toward the ancient people, nor ever gave hope of grace to them…Here I am gathering a few passages of many because I merely want to remind my readers that the hope of all the godly has ever reposed in Christ alone (Inst. 2.6.2).

7. Old Testament believers had the indwelling Holy Spirit
Calvin compared the promise-fulfillment relationship of the Old and New Testaments using the figures of shadow to light, shadow to body, child to adult, sketch to painting. And these analogies applied not just to Christ in the Old Testament but also the Holy Spirit. Though not to the same degree or power as in the New Testament, the “power and grace of the Spirit was vigorous and reigned in the very truth of the shadows.”

8. The hope of Old Testament believers was spiritual and heavenly
Calvin acknowledged that Old Testament promises seemed to be focused on the earthly and the temporal. However, he insisted that they actually were promises of eternal life. He highlighted New Testament verses which equated the Old Testament hope with that of the New Testament (Rom.1:2; 3:21; Heb.11:9ff), and concluded that God used the earthly promises to direct the minds of his people upward to the heavenly reality, and the Old Testament saints knew this and followed this course.

The Pale Blue Dot

Just before the Voyager 1 space probe left our solar system in 1990, the late astronomer Carl Sagan requested that it take one last photo of Earth. The photograph has become known as “The Pale Blue Dot” and shows our planet as a tiny speck in a vast universe.

Sagan’s moving essay on this photograph has now been combined with some stunning footage and concludes with Sagan appealing to humanity to take better care of our planet and of one another.

For me, the high point of the video occurs around 2.55 where Sagan seems to experience and express Psalm 8 humility: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

However, I was especially stunned by his desperate words around the 2.20 mark: ”In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Don’t you want to scream: “Such help did come, and we crucified Him!”

But He rose again, victorious over our greatest enemies – sin, death, and Satan.

And right now He reigns over this pale blue dot and every other dot in the universe.

And He still offers to visit us, to take up residence in our hearts by faith, and to save us from ourselves.

Now that’s extra-terrestrial!

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Wise or Foolish? One Simple Test

“The single distinguishing characteristic between a foolish and a wise person is a willingness to receive and act upon feedback.” That’s the well-tested conclusion of best-selling author and business consultant Henry Cloud in his excellent book, Necessary Endings.

That was confirmed for me recently when I asked a friend who has done a lot of interviewing of job candidates, “What’s the one thing you look for above all others when you want to hire someone?” He said that most interviewers look for experience, or qualifications, or sharp answers in the interview, but he looks for one thing, “Teachability.”

As I think back over all the people I’ve known, I have to agree, those who are teachable, and remain so, usually succeed. The unteachable usually fail. This is true in business, in ministry, in marriage, in parenting, in education, in relationships, and in many other areas of life.

So how do I know if I’m wise or foolish? In Chapter 7 of Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud supplies a checklist to help us identify whether someone is willing to receive and act upon feedback. Here’s a slightly edited version of that list:

Traits of Wise Persons

  • When you give them feedback, they listen, take it in, and adjust their behavior accordingly.
  • When you give them feedback, they embrace it positively. They say things like, “Thank you for telling me that. It helps me to know I come across that way. Or “Thanks for caring enough to bring this to my attention. I needed to hear this.”
  • They own their performance, problems, and issues and take responsibility for them without excuses or blame.
  • Your relationship is strengthened as a result of giving them feedback. They thank you for it, and see you as someone who cares enough about them to have a hard conversation. They experience you as being for their betterment.
  • They empathize and express concern about the results of their behavior on others. If you tell them that something they are doing hurts you, you get a response that shows that it matters to them. “Wow, I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that. I never would want to do that. I am sorry.”
  • They show remorse. You get a feeling that they have genuine concern about whatever the issue is and truly want to do better.
  • In response to feedback, they go into future-oriented problem-solving mode. “I see this. How can I do better in the future?”
  • They do not allow problems that have been addressed to turn into patterns. They change. They adjust and fix them.

Traits of Foolish Persons

  • When given feedback, they are defensive and immediately come back at you with a reason why it is not their fault.
  • When a mistake is pointed out, they externalize the mistake and blame someone else.
  • Unlike the wise person, with whom talking through issues strengthens your relationship, with the foolish person, attempts to talk about problems create conflict, alienation, or a breach in the relationship.
  • Sometimes, they immediately shift the blame to you, as they “shoot the messenger” and make it somehow your fault. “Well, if you had given me more resources, I could have gotten it done. But you cut my budget.” The energy shifts, and suddenly you find yourself the object of correction.
  • They often use minimization, trying to in some way convince you that “It’s not that bad” or “This really isn’t the problem that you think it is. It’s not that big a deal.”
  • They rationalize, giving reasons why their performance was certainly understandable.
  • Excuses are rampant, and they never take ownership of the issue.
  • Their emotional response has nothing to do with remorse; instead they get angry at you for being on their case, attacking with such lines as “You never think I do anything right,” or “How could you bring this up after all I have done?” Or they go into the “all bad” position, saying something like “I guess I can’t do anything right,” which is a cue for you to rescue them and point out how good they really are.
  • They have little or no awareness or concern for the pain or frustration that they are causing others or the mission.
  • Their stance is one of anger, disdain, or some other fight-or-flight response. They either move against you or move away from you as a result.
  • They see themselves as the victim, and they see the people who confront them as persecutors for pointing out the problem. They feel like the morally superior victim and often find someone to rescue them and agree with how bad you are for being “against” them.
  • Their world is divided into the good guys and the bad guys. The good ones are the ones who agree with them and see them as good, and the bad ones are the ones who don’t think that they are perfect.