Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Calvin on Abraham's resurrection faith

I'm preaching through Genesis on Sunday mornings. Last Lord's Day I preached on Genesis 23, where Abraham buys a burial place for Sarah. It's always worth consulting Calvin's commentary on Genesis and his treatment of chapter 23 was especially insightful. He comments on the practice of the burial of the dead even among non-believers,
And certainly (as I have said) it has been divinely engraven on the minds of all people, from the beginning, that they should bury the dead; whence also they have ever regarded sepulchres as sacred. It has not, I confess, always entered into the minds of heathens that souls survived death, and that the hope of a resurrection remained even for their bodies ; nor have they been accustomed to exercise themselves in a pious meditation of this kind, whenever they had laid their dead in the grave; but this inconsideration of theirs does not disprove the fact; that they had such a representation of a future life placed before their eyes, as left them inexcusable.
Calvin deals with this point at greater length in the Institutes (see here). True to his promise in the Epistle to the Reader, treatment of theological points was kept as brief as possible in the Commentaries, as they were designed to be read alongside the Institutes
Having thus, as it were, paved the way [in the Institutes], I shall not feel it necessary, in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish, to enter into long discussions of doctrines or dilate on common places, and will, therefore, always compress them. In this way the pious reader will be saved much trouble and weariness, provided he comes furnished with a knowledge of the present work as an essential prerequisite. 
Getting back to Genesis 23, Calvin explains that  unlike the pagans, Abraham believed not simply in life after death, but that God will raise the dead. This was presumably on the basis of special revelation given to Abraham by the Lord. 
Abraham however, seeing he has the hope of a resurrection deeply fixed in his heart, sedulously cherished, as was meet, its visible symbol. The importance he attached to it appears hence, that he thought he should be guilty of pollution, if he mingled the body of his wife with strangers after death. For he bought a cave, in order that he might possess for himself and his family, a holy and pure sepulchre.
Calvin continues to reflect on the fact that Abraham was concerned to purchase a family tomb in the promised land, 
He did not desire to have a foot of earth whereon to fix his tent; he only took care about his grave: and he especially wished to have his own domestic tomb in that land, which had been promised him for an inheritance, for the purpose of bearing testimony to posterity, that the promise of God was not extinguished either by his own death, or by that of his family; but that it then rather began to flourish; and that they who were deprived of the light of the sun, and of the vital air, yet always remained joint-partakers of the promised inheritance. For while they themselves were silent and speechless, the sepulcher cried aloud, that death formed no obstacle to their entering on the possession of it. A thought like this could have had no place, unless Abraham by faith had looked up to heaven.
Identifying himself with the promise made to Abraham, Jacob also insisted that he be buried in the field purchased by his grandfather, Genesis 49:29-32. His coming out of Egypt to be buried in the promised land prefigured the exodus, Genesis 50:13. Joseph left similar instructions concerning his remains, Genesis 50:22-26. Moses honoured Joseph's request, Exodus 13:19. And so he was buried in Canaan, Joshua 24:32. The patriarchs died believing in God’s promises of redemption and inheritance, Gen 15:13-14 cf. Hebrews 11:13-16. That is the only way to die, 1 Peter 1:18-19, 3-5. We are "heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:17). Death will not deprive us of our promised inheritance. We look beyond the grave to the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's destruction
Land me safe on Canaan's side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.

See here for a series of posts on John Calvin and the resurrection of the body. The Commentaries are available for free online, here


Martin Downes said...

I love this. Very helpful to read when I preached on that chapter. 'For while they themselves were silent and speechless the sepulchre cried aloud'. That is just brilliant.

Exiled Preacher said...

I love the line,

"that they who were deprived of the light of the sun, and of the vital air, yet always remained joint-partakers of the promised inheritance."

David Reimer said...

Thanks for this, Guy. It puzzles me slightly that Calvin has no comment (that I can see - can you point me to one?) on Genesis 22:5 -

"And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."

The bold verb there is nashuva: WE will come again.

So ... who is the "we" that will return? Abraham knows at this point that he's going to be sacrificing Isaac. But he tells the two servants that "WE will come back to you".

I've never looked into this, to know how widely it might be thought that one answer to this riddle is that Abraham already had resurrection in mind. Adam Clarke hints at it. Do others?

(Rashi notices, but offers only the briefest hint of an interpretation. For "nashuvah", he notes: נתנבא שישובו שניהם "He prophesied that the two of them would return.")

Exiled Preacher said...

Confusingly Calvin gives his explanation of the relevant words in Gen. 22:5, "we will come back to you" in his commentary on 22:4. Considering what he says in his treatment of Gen. 23 concerning Abraham having "the hope of a resurrection deeply fixed in his heart", his exposition of 22:5 is somewhat ambivalent.

"When, however, he says, that he will return with the boy, he seems not to be free from dissimulation and falsehood. Some think that he uttered this declaration prophetically; but since it is certain that he never lost sight of what had been promised concerning the raising up of seed in Isaac, it may be, that he, trusting in the providence of God, figured to himself his son as surviving even in death itself. And seeing that he went, as with closed eyes, to the slaughter of his son, there is nothing improbable in the supposition, that he spoke confusedly, in a matter so obscure." (See link to Commentaries in the main post).

However, both Philip Eveson (Weylwyn Commentary, EP) and John Currid (EP Study Commentary) take it that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead after he sacrificed him on Mt. Moriah. Hebrews 11:17-19 gives credence to that view, especially vs. 19. See Philip Hughes' commentary on Hebrews.

David Reimer said...

Thanks for the further notes. I was a bit myopic missing Calvin's comments on v.5 that appear with v.4 (still, "doh!", as they say!).

This is intriguing. There is, of course, Heb 11:19 but one wonders whether Calvin knew of the Jewish tradition (given his "some think that he uttered this declaration prophetically", and Rashi's "he prophesied..."), but this could well be more common than I realize.

One of those things for me to make a note to check into on a rainy day!