Friday, July 06, 2007

John Calvin on the resurrection of the body (1)

Reformed dogmatics has often failed to give due attention to the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Jesus. (See this earlier post for more details). While the Institutes is not a formal work of systematic theology, it is fair to say that Calvin's seminal work has had a huge effect on the development of Reformed theology. B. B. Warfield opined,

'As the fundamental treatise in the development in a truly evangelical theology, the Institutes' mission has stretched far beyond its own day. All subsequent attempts to state and defend that theology necessarily go back to it as their starting point, and its impress upon the history of evangelical thinking is ineffaceable'. (From back cover of the Henry Beveridge translation, 1993, Eerdmans).
It will be interesting then, to consider Calvin's discussion of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. What weight does he give to this subject? How does the Reformer understand the relationship between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of believers? What does contemporary Reformed theology have to learn from Calvin on this matter? I hope to address such questions over the course of this series.
While Calvin makes reference to the resurrection of Christ at various points in the Institutes, he gives his most detailed attention to the subject in Book III:XXV, On the Last Resurrection. This really is a remarkable chapter. The Reformer covers a huge amount of ground in 17 pages. Many of the main arguments that are detailed in N.T. Wright's massive, 817 page The Resurrection of the Son of God, SPCK, 2003 are anticipated here in summary form. Now, 17 pages may not seem like a lot of space devoted to the resurrection in a work of over 1200 pages. But the relative importance of a doctrine to Calvin should not be measured only by the number of pages he devotes to that truth in the Institutes. We have to pay attention to what he says about the value of a doctrine not simply how long he takes to say it. The Institutes are not, as I say a systematic theology, where doctrines are (hopefully) given biblically proportionate attention. Calvin's magnum opus was an occasional work, written in the heat of the Reformation controversies. The Reformer concentrated his fire power where it was needed most. If a doctrine was at the centre of contemporary controversy such as justification by faith, he would spend more time explaining and defending it in detail. While Calvin deals with some of the controversial issues that surrounded the resurrection of the body, the doctrine was not the focus of theological argumentation in his day. This rather than anything else is the reason why the Reformer did not give a more space to discussing the resurrection hope.
It should be remembered that the Institutes is Calvin's attempt to set forth the theology of the Reformation using the framework of the Apostle's Creed. The creed, of course contains this affirmation: "I believe in.... the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting". Calvin wants to show that the Reformed movement is thoroughly biblical and orthodox on this fundamental article of faith.
The location of the Reformer's treatment of the resurrection within the structure of the Institutes is important. The chapter on the resurrection is found at the end of Book III, which constitutes a massive exposition of, "The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ. The benefits it confers and the effects resulting from it." According to Calvin, the resurrection hope is the grand fulfilment of salvation in Christ. The goal of God's redemptive work is that the elect are conformed to the image of the risen, glorified Jesus. In placing his treatment of the resurrection at this point in the Institutes, Calvin emphasises that the resurrection of the body is the crowning benefit and effect that believers receive from grace of Christ. This is "the prize of our high calling" (III:XXV:1.)
For Calvin, the resurrection of the body is a deeply practical doctrine. The Lord Jesus has conquered death. Even now, believers sit with him in the heavenly places. In the midst of life's trials and difficulties, we are to attend to the great Christian hope that, "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory."(Colossians 3:4). This hope will steel us to stand firm in the faith, steadfast to the end. We are raise our eyes from the passing things of this life and to fix them on the risen Christ. Reflection on the resurrection hope is absolutely vital for growth in godliness,
"Wherefore, he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection." (III:XXV:1).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A lovely post that leaves me hungry for more. Looking forward to this series ... and resurrection itself.