John Calvin is renowned for his inflexible stance against the errors of Rome, the “Spirituals”, and others whose teachings compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately many do not realize that while he so staunchly stood against errors from those who oppose the gospel, he also worked tremendously hard to establish and maintain peace and unity among the Reformed. He was a brilliant example of the peacemaker of Matt. 5:9.
For instance, a Synod was held at Berne in 1537 in order to establish unity among the German and Swiss Reformed churches concerning the Lord’s Supper. Zurich, Basel, Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne each sent representatives. Bucer, the Strasburg Reformer, had always been sympathetic to Luther’s view. He had been in attendance at one of Luther’s first public disputations and had held him in the highest esteem ever since. Megander, originally from Zurich, now representing Berne, was determined not to compromise Zwingle’s position in any way. Dissension prevailed until Calvin came forward. By recognizing the Biblical truth that each side was determined to uphold, he was able to set forth the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in a manner which upheld the true sentiments of each side without compromising with error.
Bucer had “pointed out that Zwingli and Luther had set out from two different points of view; Zwingli striving to keep as far away as possible from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, and Luther endeavoring to maintain that there is nevertheless some kind of real presence in the bread.”[i]
Calvin was able, with this in mind, to formulate a doctrinal statement that did justice to the Biblical concerns of both parties without compromising Biblical truth. In summary he said, “The Spirit is the means by which we are partakers of Christ. That Spirit nourishes us with the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and thus quickens us for immortality. Christ offers this communion under the symbols of bread and wine to all those who celebrate the supper aright and in accordance with his institution.”[ii]
To this Bucer replied “I embrace as orthodox, this view of our excellent brothers Calvin, Farel, and Viret. I never held that Christ was locally present in the holy supper. He has a real finite body, and that body remains in the celestial glory. But in raising us by faith to heaven, the bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us the communication of his body and his blood.”[iii]
Thus, these eminent reformers established peace with one another in regard to this vital doctrine. They were not content to simply have each side adhere to a confessional statement that propounded the particular truths they esteemed most important. They strove to establish peace, unity and agreement. The Lord greatly blessed such efforts for the betterment of His church universal and the glory of His name.
Of course, the doctrine under dispute in ARBCA today is not the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but rather, the understanding of the phrase “without passions” in Chapter 2, Paragraph 1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. This is, of course an oversimplification, but we could fairly accurately describe the dispute like this. On the one side are those whose primary concern is to uphold the unchangeable character of God. They hold to what we could call the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions”, which was undoubtedly the understanding of that phrase by those who authored our confession. (I happen to agree with this side, in my understanding of the issue.) On the other side of the controversy are those who fear that this classical understanding of these words is prone to give the impression that God is cold, distant, or mechanical. They do not reject the phrase “without passions” but define it somewhat differently than the authors of the confession did.[iv] They rightly point to men like Warfield and Hodge as examples of how they understand the phrase.
The Heart of the Issue?
It seems to me that what lies at the heart of this issue is our understanding of the fact that man, as he is an image bearer of God, is endowed with the faculties of mind, will and emotions. Those who are defending the traditional understanding of “without passions” are almost exclusively focusing on what man’s emotions do not reveal about God. Affections in man arise from the affects of things outside of himself. God, existing outside of time, cannot be affected by anything outside of Himself, therefore He has no affections. (And other similar, sound arguments) Those who are advocating a modified view of the phrase in question do not do so in an effort to make God more like man, but rather, in an effort to do justice to the role of the emotions of man in his image-bearing capacity.
I am a great distance from the inner workings of ARBCA and have no direct knowledge of the exact means by which they plan to deal with this issue. But it seems possible, if not likely, that something like this will happen: A position paper will be published that simply states the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions” and demonstrates that the authors of the confession had this in mind when they penned the words. This paper will be voted on and approved. Any church that has an issue with this understanding will no longer be welcome in ARBCA. Thus unity of doctrine will be firmly established among the remaining churches. I think it would be a great shame if this is what actually takes place.
ARBCA Needs a Calvin
I am not saying that a position paper defending the traditional understanding of the phrase in question should not be drawn up, it should. But it should do more. As Calvin recognized and dealt with the concerns of both sides of the issue at Berne, so those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side. A careful doctrinal statement should be drawn up that not only demonstrates what the Bible teaches about God that prevents us from rightly ascribing affections to Him, but also palpably demonstrates the manner in which the emotions of man actually do reflect something of the character of God. It must be demonstrated that justice can be done to the anthropopathisms of Scripture without resorting to any sort of modified theism. If we really want unity in the sense that the great Reformers sought it, we must go out of our way to rightly address the issues on both sides.
We must recognize the real issue that brings about concern regarding the manner in which Divine impassibility is often taught. For example, after listening to a sermon or lecture that clearly demonstrates that affections cannot be rightly attributed to God, a child of God may walk away saying to himself, “OK, so God is love, but He has no affection for me.” This is hardly a comforting thought. But if we understand that even though the love of God toward us is not an affection, in that this love is not brought about by any affect we have had on God, as a Divine perfection, it is something far greater than any affection of love we have ever experienced. We also must be clear that the emotion of love that God endowed men with is actually in some sense revelatory of what God’s love is like. It is a reflection of what the Divine perfection of love is, a dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection none the less.
When one demonstrates that the emotion of anger cannot rightly be attributed to God, but merely expresses His determination to rightly meet out justice against all sin, the impression that may easily be given is that this is something quite cold and mechanical. The problem with this is that when God speaks of His anger, He means to convey a truth that is easily lost in this definition. God’s “hot displeasure” that will manifest itself in the eternal flames of hell is anything but cold! The human emotion of anger is truly meant to give us some insight into the nature of God’s eternal, unchangeable disposition toward sin.
Surely we are correct to insist that it is beyond the bounds of propriety to speak of God experiencing the sensation of delight. But we ought also to admit that the emotion of delight that men experience is in some real sense revelatory of what the eternal disposition of the Father toward the Son is like. In this way we not only guard against the idea that God can be affected by something outside of Himself, but we also guard against the idea that this makes Him cold and mechanical.
We ought also to go beyond the Scriptural anthropopathisms that are easier to explain, such as God repenting or relenting. We need to deal with passages such as the command “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” in such a way that God is not left just telling us not to do something that we are entirely unable to do. Perhaps one could demonstrate that the feeling of grief a parent has when he is sinned against by a child he loves gives us some insight into God’s eternal and unchangeable disposition toward the remaining sin in His redeemed people.
We need to be as earnest to establish unity among Reformed Baptists as the Reformers were to establish unity among their churches. I am not certain that this can ever be achieved in this area, but I am certain that we can strive for it more earnestly than we have thus far. May the spirit of love and peace that was so manifest in Calvin and his fellow Reformers be manifest in us today.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!
[i] Merle d’Aubigne, J. H. History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin The AGES Digital Library, Vol. 6, Book 11, p. 271
[ii] Ibid. p. 273
[iii] Ibid p. 273
[iv] For example, as one proponent of the modified view in this debate has explained: “We take no exception to the 1689 LBCF in 2:1. We confess that God is without body, parts, or passions. We believe in divine impassibility. God has no internal (ad intra) fluctuation, passions, or changes in his nature of any sort. We believe that his divine affections are perfectly infinite and immutable (thus, they are also impassible). Our understanding of ‘divine emotivity’ resides in his external (ad extra) interactions with his world via the very covenant condescension described in the 1689 LBCF 7:1.”