Disagreeing with Calvin

…is not wise to do very often, but it is important. It is not wise, because so often Calvin proves to be right. I can remember Bob Godrey, president of Westminster Seminary CA, talking about how the older he got, the more often he found Calvin to be proven to be correct on various exegetical, theological, or ecclesiastical issues. David Steinmetz has talked about the superiority of pre-critical exegesis, and Calvin’s reflections are remarkably biblical and pastoral. It is rarely wise to disagree with the Reformer.

But it is also important to be able to disagree with Calvin. Even in the Reformed wing of the Christian Church, he is not the pope, we don’t subscribe to his Institutes, and his conclusions are not canon. We should be quick to esteem his opinion, but we must be able to disagree with him if Scripture demands it. As the Westminster Divines would note 100 years later, “All synods or councils… may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to he made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.” (XXXI.4). This is true for the Reformer as well.

So when we come to the mandatum novum, the “new commandment” in John 13.34, I am leery about disagreeing with Calvin’s explanation. But it helps seeing that Calvin himself disagrees with those before him. In his commentary on the passage, Calvin notes the disagreement as to why Jesus calls this commandment “new.” Surely, to love one another is not “new” in content: Jesus is in essence quoting Leviticus 19:18. Perhaps the commandment is “new,” because:

  1. Christ wrote the commandment to love anew by His Spirit in the hearts of believers, therefore the command is “new” because it is known in a new way.
  2. The teaching of love was bound up in the ceremonies and rituals of the Old Covenant, but now the perfection of love is set forth clearly without distraction or shadows in the Gospels.
  3. Calvin, without rejecting these suggestions out of hand, lays the emphasis on the fact because people are slow of wit and quick to forget, this commandment is newly come to them that they might renew themselves in keeping the commandment.

With all respect to the Reformer, I would like to in turn disagree with his suggestion as well. I propose that the newness of the command lies not in its material focus – to love our neighbors – but in its grounding reason. We are to love others “even as [Christ] has loved [us].”

Up to this point in redemptive history, the highest end of love was equal with the self. The Law commanded us to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Closely related to this is the “golden commandment”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But in the New Covenant, we are given a new rationale for our ethic: we love not based on our own resources, but now we love based on the model of Christ’s own love for us. Jesus replaces our finite, human love with an infinite, divine love. Before, my neighbor was limited in my ability to love him or her to the extent that I loved myself. (Presupposing Augustine’s incurvatus in se, however, is saying quite a bit about our capability for self-love.) But now that the powers of the age to come have dawned in the advent of Jesus, we are given a whole new template with which to consider how we fulfill the Second Table of the Law. Now our love for others should be in the pattern of Jesus’ own love for us, a love that could not even be quenched by death. Calvin notes that this does not mean that we will ever love with the same capacity with which Christ has loved us, but now we have the proper target to aim for as we are compelled by His love and His regenerating Spirit.

I would venture to suggest that this is what the Apostle of Love meant when he later wrote in his epistle, that the commandment is old – one that we have had from the beginning – and yet also new (I John 2:7 – 8). The command to love is something that has always been true in the Covenant of Grace, but now that the New Covenant has come in Christ, the old is passing away and we see more clearly.

So while I may gently disagree with Calvin’s suggestion, surely he is correct when he concludes, “Whoever then desires truly to belong to Christ and to be acknowledged by God must mold and direct his whole life to loving his brothers and must stir himself up to this diligently.”

2 thoughts on “Disagreeing with Calvin

  1. Hi David! Long time no see! Its great to hear from you. Samantha and I were just talking about the old TBI and small group days. We hope you and Jenecia and the kids are doing terrific. Great to hear from you, and blessings on your ministries out east!

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