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Calvin: Commentaries
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II The Knowledge of God

THE TEXT

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Isa. 6:1–5.

We may ask how Isaiah could see God who is spirit and is therefore not visible to bodily eyes. Since the minds of men are incapable of mounting to the infinite height of God, how can man apprehend God under any visible form? But we must realize that whenever God revealed himself to be seen by the fathers, he never appeared as he is in himself but as he could be understood by human minds. Since men crawl on the ground, or at least dwell far below the heavens, there is no absurdity in the statement that God descends to them in order to turn upon them, as though he used a mirror, some reflected rays of his glory. Therefore Isaiah was shown a form of a kind which enabled him with his own understanding to taste the inconceivable majesty of God. This is the reason that he attributes a throne, a robe, and a bodily appearance to God.

From this passage we may derive the valuable assurance that whenever God gives any sign whatever of his presence he is in truth present with us. He does not play a game with such meaningless shapes as men use when they impiously distort him with their inventions. Since the vision was in no way a false symbol of the presence of God, Isaiah is right in asserting that he saw God. Similarly when John is said to have seen the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, the name Spirit is transferred to the symbol and there is nothing false in the statement. John did not indeed see the essence of the Spirit, but he did have certain, clear, and unambiguous evidence that the Spirit of God dwelt in Christ.

In the second place we may ask, Who was that Lord? John (ch. 12:41) teaches that he was Christ; and this is true because God never revealed himself to the fathers except in his eternal Word, his only-begotten Son. Yet, in my judgment, it is wrong to restrict this vision to the person of Christ, since the prophecy refers rather to God without any differentiation. Nor does the use of the name ’adonai (Lord), which may seem more appropriate to Christ, support the restriction, for it is often used simply for God. Here then God is meant. Yet it is correct to say that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ, because Christ was the image of the invisible God.

Sitting upon a throne the prophet could have found no better image than that of a judge to impress the Jews with the majesty of God. And later we shall hear the severe sentence which the Lord pronounces from his judgment seat. But we should not suppose that the prophet deliberated about the way in which he should depict God. He described faithfully the form which was disclosed and exhibited to him.

We may wonder whether the prophet was led into the Temple, or whether the whole vision appeared to him in his sleep. Many arguments are offered on both sides, but they leave us uncertain. If he was not in the Temple, the revelation could have been given him at home or in a field, where other prophets received their visions.

His extreme parts (extrema) filled the temple. Almost all interpret as “the fringes of his garments,” although the word may equally well refer to the edges of the throne, to emphasize its great size, which was as large as the whole Temple. The purpose of the statement in any case is to attribute to God a grandeur beyond any human form.

The vision had the more authority because it appeared in the Temple. God had promised that he would meet his people there, and the people expected his voice to come from there, as Solomon had said at the dedication. Therefore, in order that the people might know that this vision came from the God whom they daily invoked, in whom they were boasting without warrant, it was granted to the prophet in the Temple. For thus no little assurance was given them that this was not the speech of any mortal man but a heavenly oracle pronounced by the God whose name they used so presumptuously whenever they wished to obtain something more for themselves. . . . The prophetic word was harsh and hateful, and it greatly needed confirmation. So it is not unusual for the prophets to say that God speaks from his Temple, his sanctuary.

Seraphim. After the statement that God had appeared to him, full of majesty and glory, he adds that angels were standing near God; and he calls them seraphim because of their fiery zeal. Although the derivation of this word [from saraph, burn] is known, various explanations of it are offered. Some say they are called seraphim because they burn with the love of God; others, because they are swift like fire; others, because they shine. Whatever may be the reason, the description shows us the radiant splendor and the boundless majesty of God, so that we learn to understand and hold in reverence his matchless and immeasurable glory.

Many think there were two seraphim, corresponding to the two cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant. I like this idea, but I do not dare to affirm what is not stated in the text. However, in general, descriptions like this one use symbols which were familiar and well known to religious people; and this may well be the case with this prophecy. So I accept the guess of two as probable, leaving open the possibility of more; for Daniel saw not two angels but myriads.

Six wings. This figure has a meaning: the wings so placed represent a mystery which God did not wish left wholly hidden.

The two wings with which the angels fly represent simply the swiftness and readiness with which they carry out God’s commands. Since this analogy is very obvious, only contentious men will raise objections.

The two wings with which they covered their faces show clearly enough that not even angels can endure the full glory of God, and so they shade their eyes as we do when we wish to look at the sun. But if angels cannot endure God’s majesty, how great is the rashness of men who try to penetrate it! Let us learn then that we ought to limit our inquiries to what is within our capacity and fitting for us, so that our understanding may soberly and modestly taste what is beyond our powers. The angels do not cover their faces so completely that they have no joy in the sight of God (and they can still see to fly without deviating from their course). So we also should behold God, but only so far as our nature can bear.

It is more difficult to interpret the two lower wings. Some think the feet of the angels were covered so as not to touch the earth and become unclean as human feet do. For whenever we walk we pick up dirt and filth, and so long as we wander on earth we are always contracting some contagion or other. The believing are then warned that they will have no dealings with angels until they have risen and are no longer tied to earth. Some give this explanation, but I agree more with others who think that the purpose of these wings is the opposite of the upper ones. As with the upper wings the angels cover their faces lest they be annihilated by the splendor of God, so also they have the lower wings by which they themselves are hidden from our sight. But if it is true that the faint beams of divine glory shining out from the angels cannot be seen by us without destroying us, how can we behold God’s most glorious and splendid majesty which overwhelms all sense? Let men learn that since they cannot even look at the angels, they are very far from the perfect knowledge of God. This seems to me the better interpretation, but I do not exclude the others.

They were crying. When we read that the angels are busy proclaiming the glory of God, we know that their example is presented for our imitation. For the holiest service of all that we can offer God is to occupy ourselves in praising his name. Such adoration links us with the angels, so that even while we sojourn on the earth we are yet joined to the citizens of heaven and somewhat resemble them. But if there is to be true harmony between all the chords of the angels and our own, we must strive earnestly that there may be a correspondence between the praise of God with our tongues and all the actions of our lives. This aim will be achieved at the last if we keep our eyes fixed as steadily as possible on the glory of God.

Holy, holy, holy. The ancients used this passage when they wished to prove against the Arians that there are three persons in the one divine essence. I do not reject this interpretation, although if I were dealing with heretics I should prefer to use clearer evidence. . . . And although I do not doubt that the one God in three Persons is here meant by the angels (for certainly God cannot be praised without honoring Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together), yet I think clearer passages should be used in defending our faith, lest we incur the ridicule of heretics. Surely the repetition proves rather the unwearied zeal of the seraphim; the prophet meant that the angelic song has no end, for God’s holiness furnishes to them and to us an inexhaustible theme.

The whole earth is full. The fullness could refer to the fruits and the living creatures with which God so abundantly fills the earth, and the meaning would then be that the glory of God shines out in the enticing variety of the beauty of the earth, which is evidence of his Fatherly love. But a simpler and truer interpretation is that the glory of God fills the whole world or extends to all the quarters of the earth. Here, in my judgment, is an implied contradiction to the foolish self-conceit of the Jews who thought that the glory of God did not exist apart from them, and wished to confine it to the Temple. This latter meaning is consistent with the prophecy of the destruction of the Jews which follows. For access to the church of God was open to the Gentiles who were to take the place left empty by the Jews.

And the posts shook. This tremor is a sign that it was not a human voice which the prophet heard. For no human voice can shake foundations and pillars. God did not intend that the authority of his words should have been recognized by the prophet alone; he meant it to be sanctified to all posterity, for all generations, and without ceasing. By this trembling we are led to realize that this voice of God is valid for us today; when he speaks we tremble. For if inanimate objects and dumb creatures are shaken by it, what must we do, who have feeling, smell, taste, and understanding, in order to obey his word devoutly and reverently?

Woe is me: for mine eyes have seen. The prophet’s reaction is not surprising. The whole carnal man must be reduced to nothingness that he may be renewed by God. For how does it happen that men live, or rather think they live, and are puffed up with vain confidence in their shrewdness and power? Only because they do not know God. Before he reveals himself to us we think ourselves to be not men, but rather gods. But when the Lord appears to us, then we begin to sense and realize what sort of beings we are. Humility arises from and consists in this: that man claim nothing more for himself and depend wholly on God.

This passage and others like it must be carefully considered. It was customary for the ancients, whenever they saw God, to speak in this way: “I am undone. It’s all up with me.” Before our minds seriously approach God, our life is an empty sham. We walk in shadows in which it is hard to distinguish true from false. But when we come into light, the difference is clear and easy to know. When God comes to us, he brings light with him, and we see our emptiness. . . . But does the sight of God really bring death to men? It seems absurd that the sight or nearness of God should destroy life of which he is origin and giver. I answer that it does this contingently, since death results from our fault and not from the nature of God. For death is already in us, but we do not perceive it except when it is contrasted with the life of God. This truth the prophet clearly and certainly knows.

Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord. Jer. 9:23–24.

From the second part of this passage we learn that men are stripped of all their glory, not to leave them groveling in their own shame, but to clothe them with another that is better. For God does not take pleasure in men’s shame. But since men claim for themselves more than is good for them, and even intoxicate themselves with self-flattery, God takes away from them their false glory. After they have learned that whatever they think they possess, either by nature, or their own efforts, or through other creatures, is a mere phantom, then they may seek true glory.

In understanding and knowing me. Although the prophet means the same thing by both verbs, he does not use the two without a reason. When men belittle the knowledge of God, they must be warned that to know God is the sum of perfect wisdom. Jeremiah wishes to correct a perverse error under which the whole world suffers. Today all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected. We see with what zeal everyone follows his own interests, while scarcely one man in a hundred deigns to devote half an hour a day to the knowledge of God. And from pride arises men’s second mistake: they think the knowledge of God to be a common possession. So we see why the prophet used two verbs to name the same thing: he wanted to arouse greater zeal in men, since he saw that all were so lazy in the pursuit of this knowledge. Yet to know God is man’s chief end, and justifies his existence. Even if a hundred lives were ours, this one aim would be sufficient for them all. But, as I said, men despise the thing which should be preferred above all else.

Afterwards he adds that I am the Lord doing mercy and judgment and justice. God wishes to be so known. He alone is exalted; yet he comes down, so to speak, within our sight. The words which follow must be carefully considered. If God had said only, that I am the Lord, this would have been a complete doctrine; but it would not have been sufficiently clear. . . for men would think it enough to confess that there is one God. Therefore we must carefully note these words: God does mercy, judgment, and justice. We see today among the papists the name of God rashly flaunted aloft. There is no one of them who will not reiterate again and again that he worships God. But meanwhile they all profane the name of God. They rob God of his honor and distribute the spoil to the dead. This passage shows that the name of God by itself is of no importance when it is emptied of its true content.

The true knowledge of God is not only to know him as the maker of the world, but also to be persuaded that the world is directed by him, and further to know the nature of that direction. He does mercy and judgment and justice.

Moreover, the first thing to know about God is that he is kind and forbearing. For without God’s forbearance, what would become of us? It is true and right that the knowledge of God should begin with the assurance that he is merciful towards us. For what use would it be to us to know that God is just unless we already know his mercy and his free kindness? But we know God by also knowing ourselves, for these two things are bound together; and if anyone scrutinizes himself, what will he find but reason for despair? As often as the thought of God’s justice comes into our minds, we should shudder and despair. Truly all would flee from God unless he attract them by the sweetness of his grace. Therefore it is with good reason that Jeremiah, when he ordered men to glory in the knowledge of God, gave the highest place to God’s compassion, and then added judgment and justice.

The Lord God is truth (Those who translate God of truth do not attend to the syntax of the Hebrew, for that would need to read ’elohe ’emeth); God himself is life and the king of the ages. Jer. 10:10 (Calvin’s wording).

Here the prophet exalts and triumphs in God’s name, and speaks of him as having overthrown and destroyed the falsehoods of the nations. He exposes their gross errors and shows up the wisdom of the world as absolutely worthless, because they stupefy themselves with [the worship of] wood and stone.

He exalts the glory of God magnificently, by saying: For the Lord is God; that is, the nations worship their gods by telling fables about their powers and falsely inventing many miracles. For, when we examine everything honestly, it becomes certain that there is only one God; and all the gods of the nations vanish of themselves. This is what the prophet means: God is sufficient to destroy all the falsehoods of the nations. When his majesty comes forth, its splendor is such that all others which receive the admiration of the world are reduced to nothingness. After this, he speaks of truth; then he opposes truth with vanity. Before he had said that wood is vanity; now he says, Eternal God is truth; which means that He has no need to take on colors. The idols of the nations are painted, dressed up, decorated; but all such images are empty show. Jehovah, on the other hand, is Lord; that is, he does not in any way change; he desires nothing which he does not possess, and his own perfection carries all authority.

God, then, is truth; and God is life. After the prophet has declared that in the essence of the one God there is true and substantial glory, he adds another certitude which he derives from the experience of men: God is life. For although God is in himself incomprehensible to us, he not only sets his glory before our eyes, but even offers himself to our touch, as Paul says (Acts 14:17). For Paul knew that God can be found by touch, even by men who are blind. Although the blind are deprived of sight, yet when they walk around a hall, they find the way out by touch, or they locate by touch the door out of a room, and when they wish to go in again they find the door. And Paul says that we have no need to go outside of ourselves, for whoever searches himself will find God within. For, in him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:28). Hence if we raise the objection that God is beyond our comprehension, and that we cannot rise to the height of his glory, yet certainly life is in us. If life is in us, then so is evidence for God. Who is foolish enough to say that he lives of himself? Since men do not create their own life but obtain life precariously from another, it follows that God dwells in them.

Now the prophet, after he has spoken of the essence of God, comes down to his activity. And surely this is the true knowledge of God — not to speculate in the air as the philosophers do when they argue, but to know by experience that there is one God. How do we know? Because we exist; not, strictly, exist, but subsist (live in). And if we live in, truly that in which we live must be taken into account. And, to speak accurately, our subsisting will be found to be within the one God. Whence it follows that the life of man is an excellent index to the only God.

God therefore is life and the king of the ages. First the earth was founded, and since then the years follow one another; in this cycle, there is great variation from one year to another yet there is regular and right order in their procession. Who will not recognize the glory of God in this ordering of the world? Therefore the prophet called God king of the ages.

And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for my name’s sake, not according to your wicked ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O ye house of Israel, saith the Lord God. Ezek. 20:44.

Here God declares that his glory will be especially manifest when, solely for his name’s sake, he has compassion freely upon the desperate and lost. And Paul, in the first chapter of Ephesians, especially praises God’s gracious kindness when he calls the compassion with which God honors his elect, the glory of God κατ᾽ ἐξοχην.7676The phrase κατ᾽ ἐξοχην; occurs in the New Testament only once, Acts 25:23, but the sense agrees with the emphasis in Eph., ch. 1. This is one example among many to prove that Calvin relied largely on his prodigious memory to provide him with the material needed for his Commentaries. The mistake here illustrates both the extraordinary range of his memory and its occasional fallibility.

Now the glory of God includes more than his compassion. As thy name, so is thy praise through all the countries of the earth (Ps. 48:10). God deserves no less to be glorified when he destroys the wicked than when he takes pity on his people. But Paul calls God’s especial glory the undeserved kindness with which he embraces his chosen whom he has adopted. So God says here, You will know that I am the Lord when I deal with you for my name’s sake, and not according to your crimes.

Moreover, since God wishes his glory to shine pre-eminently in his free mercy, we must conclude that those who obscure his compassion or minimize it, or attempt to reduce its greatness to nothing, are the most hardened and open enemies of his glory.

And we know that the teaching of the papacy aims in that direction. For in it, God’s free kindness lies buried, or is hidden in a fog, or has wholly vanished. For they set forth merits of various sorts which they oppose to God’s grace. And they divide merits into preparations, good works by which they gain God’s favor; and satisfactions, by which they escape the penalties they would otherwise pay; and finally they add the interposition of the saints (as they call them). They invent for themselves a host of patrons and then devise countless other things for no other purpose than to keep the glory of God from being seen by men, or at most to allow only a few sparks to glow dimly. When we see the whole papal organization moving in this direction, we know that they are openly opposing God’s glory, and that all who defend those abominations are worse than sworn enemies of God’s glory.

As for ourselves, let us learn that God cannot be known as Savior unless we accept from him what is essential to our salvation. For if we wish to keep accounts of what we give and what we receive, or to make any claim whatever, we reduce his glory. And so far as in us lies, we throw away the inestimable privilege which the prophet here extols.

Therefore let us strive to know God through this Word. He deals with us according to his great mercy and compassion, that is, for his name’s sake, and not according to our wrongdoing. But if these words were spoken to the ancient people because they had returned to the Land of Canaan, how much more today, when the Kingdom of Heaven lies open, God’s free kindness deserves to be praised! Today, when he openly calls us to himself, to heaven, to the hope of the blessed immortality which is given us through Christ!

[This was Calvin’s last lecture. His closing prayer was:]

Grant, Almighty God, since we have already entered in hope upon the threshold of our eternal inheritance, and know that there is a mansion for us in heaven since Christ, our head and the first fruits of our salvation, has been received there, grant that we may proceed more and more in the way of thy holy calling until at length we reach the goal, and so enjoy that eternal glory of which thou givest us a taste in this world by the same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

And he built there an altar, and he called the place El Beth-el. . . . And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. Gen. 35:7, 13.

Now we know why the holy fathers had to have their own altar, distinct from those of other nations. It was to bear witness that they worshiped not the various gods who were recognized everywhere in the world, but a God of their own.

For although God is worshiped in the heart, yet external confession is the inseparable accompaniment of faith. And there is no one who does not know how helpful it is to us to be roused to the worship of God by external aids.

If anyone objects that this altar looked no different from the others, I answer that the actual difference was very great. Others built altars, rashly and with thoughtless zeal, to unknown gods. Jacob bound himself always to the Word of God. No altar is legitimate unless it is consecrated by God’s Word. Jacob’s worship excelled that of others simply because he did nothing without the command of God.

In calling the place God of Bethel, he may seem to be too bold; and yet the faith of the holy man is praiseworthy at this point also, and that rightly, since he keeps himself within the limits set by God. The papists are stupid when they claim to honor humility by exhibiting dull moderation. Humility deserves praise truly when it does not seek to know more than the Lord permits. But when he descends to us, adapting himself to us and prattling to us, he wishes us also to prattle back to him. And true wisdom is to embrace God exactly as he adapts himself to our little measure. Thus Jacob does not dispute with learned arguments about God’s essence, but according to the oracle he has received he brings God near and makes him accessible to himself. Because he opens his mind to the revelation his prattling and his simplicity are, as I said, pleasing to God.

Today, when the knowledge of God shines clearer, and when God in the gospel has undertaken the role of nurse, let us learn to yield our minds to him. Let us remember that he came down to us to raise us up to him. He does not adopt an earthly fashion of speech to keep us at a distance from heaven, but rather as a means of raising us up to heaven.

Meanwhile we must keep to this rule of interpreting [Jacob’s action]: since the altar was commanded by a heavenly oracle, the building of it was truly and duly a work of faith. Where the living voice of God does not sound, pomp and ceremony, however elaborately observed, are like empty phantoms. So, we should see that papacy is so much wind.

God’s ascent is like his descent. For God who fills heaven and earth does not change location. He is said to come down to us when he shows us a sign of his presence suited to our littleness. He ascended from Jacob when he disappeared from his sight or when the vision ended.

By this way of speaking, God shows us the value of his Word which is always near us, as witness to his grace. Because of the great distance between us and his heavenly glory, he himself came down to us through the Word. This he did wholly and finally in the person of Christ; and Christ by his ascent into heaven has so elevated our faith that by the power of his Spirit he dwells always with us.

And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness comprehended it not. John 1:5.

It may be objected that Scripture in many places calls men blind, and that the blindness to which they are condemned is a matter of common knowledge — that all men’s reasoning is a miserable business and comes to nothing. Where do all the labyrinths of error in the world come from [the objector will continue], if not from the fact that when men follow their own minds they land in vanity and lies? So long as men are without the light, the knowledge of Christ’s divinity, mentioned above by the Evangelist, is extinct among them.

The Evangelist anticipates this objection, and cautions us first that we must not judge the light given to man in the beginning by his present condition, because in man’s present corrupted and degenerate nature, light has been turned into darkness. Nevertheless, he denies emphatically that the light of intelligence is entirely extinct, because some sparkling bits of light keep darting out of the deep and heavy darkness of the human mind.

And the darkness comprehended it not. Even though, through the feeble bit of light left in men, the Son of God has always invited them to himself, the Evangelist tells us that this has not done any good, because “they saw but did not see.” After man was alienated from God, his mind was oppressed by such ignorance that any light left in him was quenched and useless. This is proven daily by our experience. Still, even those who are not regenerated by the Spirit of God enjoy some rationality; which shows that man was made not only to breathe but also to understand. But it is none the less true that men do not come to God by way of their own reason; neither do they in this way get near to him, because all their intelligence is but vanity. Whence it follows that the salvation of men is hopeless unless God come to their aid with a new help. For even while the Son of God pours out his light upon them, they are so dull that they do not know the source of it; on the contrary, carried away by their own sickly and depraved imaginations, they only become insane.

The chief parts of the light which remain in our corrupt natures are two: first, everyone has a certain seed of religion implanted in him; and secondly, every man’s conscience is capable of distinguishing good from evil. But then, what happens except that religion degenerates into a thousand chimeras of superstition; and consciences pervert every act of judgment, so that one cannot tell vice from virtue? In short, natural reason can never guide men to Christ. Even though prudence teaches men to regulate their lives, and though they are born capable of the arts and sciences, the whole thing vanishes and leaves nothing behind.

Further, it ought to be clear that the Evangelist is speaking only of man’s natural endowments, and does not touch upon regenerating grace. The Son of God possesses two distinct powers: the first is known from the structure of the world and the order of nature; the second is the power by which he renews and restores our fallen nature. Since he is the eternal Word of God, the world was created by him and it is by his power that all retain the life they have received. By him also, man was adorned with the gift of the singular imprint of intelligence; and although by his defection he lost the light of intelligence, he still sees and understands, so that what he has naturally by the grace of the Son of God is not completely abolished. But since he has darkened the light which he retains by his stupidity and wickedness, it is necessary that the Son of God take on a new office, that of mediator, and restore the ruined man by the Spirit of regeneration. Therefore, those who confuse the light of which the Evangelist speaks with the gospel and the doctrine which deals with our salvation, philosophize absurdly and in an irrelevant manner.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. John 1:9–10.

The true light here is not opposed to the false. The Evangelist meant to distinguish Christ from all others, so that no one would think He has the light in common with men and angels. The distinction is made to point out that whatever is bright in heaven and on earth derives its splendor from another; Christ on the other hand is himself light, and his brightness is his own, filling the whole world with his radiance; and there is no other source or cause of light. He is called the true light because it is his nature to illumine.

Which lighteth every man. The Evangelist insists on this chiefly because he wants to base his teaching that Christ is the light upon the effects which he produces in us and in our experience. He might have argued more subtly by saying that since Christ is the eternal light, his radiance is inborn and not derived from another. But he turns our attention to our common experience. The argument is that since Christ makes all of us to share in his light, we should honor him alone as the Light.

Now this passage is usually explained in two ways. Some restrict every man to those who, having been regenerated by the Spirit, partake of the life-giving light. Augustine gives the example of a schoolmaster who, if he has the only school in a town, is said to be everybody’s teacher, even though many may not go to his school. Some people understand the statement that Christ enlightens everyone in the sense that no one can boast of having received the grace of the light of life otherwise than from him. But since the Evangelist speaks in general of all those who have come into the world, the next explanation pleases me better: namely, that rays from this light are diffused in all of mankind, as I have already said. We know that men, above all other living beings, have the singular superiority of having been endowed with reason and intelligence, and that they have engraved in their consciences the ability to discriminate between right and wrong. There is therefore no one who is without some intuition of the eternal light. But there are fanatics who are somehow insane enough to twist and torture this passage, and to infer from it that the grace of illumination is offered equally to all. But let us remember that this statement has to do with the common light of nature which is far inferior to faith. For no man will ever, with all the sharpness and perspicacity of his mind, penetrate to the Kingdom of God. It is the Spirit of God alone who opens the gate of heaven to the elect. Further, let us remember that the light of reason which God gave men is obscured by sin; so that in the deep darkness of dreadful ignorance and the abyss of errors there are hardly any sparks which are not utterly put out.

He was in the world. He accuses men of ingratitude because they had so blinded themselves as not to know the cause of the light they enjoyed. This is true of every age. For even before Christ appeared in the flesh, he displayed his power everywhere. Therefore those daily effects he produces ought to shake people out of their torpor. What is more absurd than to draw water from a running river, and not to think of the fountain from which the river flows? Wherefore, there is no just excuse for the world’s ignorance of Christ before he appeared in the flesh; it was due to their apathy and wickedness, because he has always been present among them with his power. In short, Christ was at no time so absent from the world that men might not have been aroused by his light and have raised their eyes to him. It follows that the blame is theirs.

Let not your heart be troubled: Ye believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1.

This might be taken as imperative: “Believe in God, and also believe in me.” But the other reading is more exact, and has been more generally accepted, as I have pointed out. Here we find that the way to stand fast is to let our faith rest in Christ and to recognize that he is all ready to come to our help with outstretched arms. One might wonder, however, why he puts faith in God first. Maybe he should have told his disciples that having believed in him, they should believe in God: for Christ is the very image of the Father, and we should fix our eyes first on him. Besides, he descended to us so that our faith, starting with him, might ascend to the Father. But Christ has something else in mind. All confess that we ought to believe in God. This is a fixed axiom to which all subscribe without controversy. Yet there is hardly one in a hundred who really believes it; not so much because the sheer majesty of God is too distant from us, but because Satan puts every kind of cloud between us and God, so as to keep us from the vision of God. So it is that our faith vanishes even while it seeks our God in his heavenly glory and inaccessible light. Our own flesh comes up spontaneously with a thousand fancies which turn us away from a right apprehension of God.

Christ therefore presents himself to us as the proper object of our faith. If we direct our faith to him, it will immediately find certainty and rest. He is Immanuel, who responds within us to our inquiring faith. It is a basic article of our faith that if we do not wish to go around and around endlessly, we must direct our faith to Christ alone. If our faith is not to waver in the midst of temptations, it must be fixed on him. And this is the evidence of faith that we never allow ourselves to be torn away from Christ and the promises we have in him. The papal theologians dispute, or rather chatter a great deal, about the object of faith; but they leave Christ out, and mention only God. Those whose knowledge comes from their writings must needs waver with the least breath of a breeze. Proud men are ashamed of the lowliness of Christ; therefore they fly to the incomprehensible deity of God. But faith seeks to attain heaven only by submission to Christ, whose countenance seems to reveal a lowly God; and it finds no stability unless it find support in the weakness of Christ.

If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also; and hence forth ye know him, and have seen him. John 14:7.

This confirms what we have already said; namely, that the curiosity by which people, not content with Christ, seek God in devious byways is at once stupid and harmful. They admit that there is nothing better than the knowledge of God. But when he is near them and speaks to them as a friend, they wander around looking high and low, and search for him beyond the clouds because they are too proud to see him nearby. Christ therefore reproaches his disciples because they do not know that God has been revealed to them fully in him. “I see,” he says, “that so far you have not known me rightly because you have not seen the living image of God in me.”

And henceforth. He adds this not only to tone down his reproach, but also to accuse them of ingratitude and apathy because they have not done justice to the Father’s gift through him. He says it in praise of his teaching rather than of their faith. What he means, therefore, is that they would even now see God, if they would only open their eyes. But by ” see,” he means the certainty of faith.

Then they said unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also. John 8:19.

Instead of doing them the honor of a direct reply, he reproaches them briefly for their ignorance and their complacency. They asked about the Father; and yet, here was the Son before their eyes, and they, seeing, did not see. It was, therefore, the just punishment of their pride and impious in gratitude that when they despised the Son of God who was there for everyone to see, they had no access to the Father. How can any mortal being rise to the height of God except he be raised there by the Son’s own hand? Moreover, God has lowered himself in Christ to the mean condition of man, so as to stretch out his hand to him; and do not those who reject God’s approach to them deserve to be excluded of heaven?

Let us then know that it was said to us all: anyone who does not begin his way to God with Christ, must wander, as it were, in a labyrinth. It is not for nothing that, as we read elsewhere, he is called the image of the Father. Besides, all those who storm heaven like giants, without Christ’s help, are deprived of any right knowledge of God. Anyone, on the other hand, who turns his mind and all his senses to Christ is led directly to the Father. The Apostle therefore is not deceiving us when he says that in the mirror of the gospel we see God clearly in the person of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). And certainly the priceless reward of the obedience of faith is that a man who humbles himself before Christ rises above all heavens and penetrates the mysteries which the angels witness and adore.

Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them, and have known surely that I come out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. John 17:7–8.

Here we are told the chief thing about faith: which is, so to believe in Christ that our belief rests not in an apprehension of the flesh, but rather in the contemplation of his divine power. When he says, “ They knew whatever thou gavest me as from thee,” he means that believers recognize all they have as divine and from heaven. And certainly, unless we apprehend God in Christ, we are bound to be always wavering.

He now declares that men have this knowledge when they receive what he teaches them. But anyone who thinks that his doctrine is from man, or that it is from this earth, will not acknowledge that its author is God. Hence he says, The words which thou gavest me, I gave them. And when he says that he taught as he received from God, he speaks as the mediator or the servant of God. He refers to God as his Father because he is in the lowly state of the flesh, and has concealed his divine majesty under the form of a servant. At the same time, we must hold on to John’s initial testimony that, in so far as Christ was the eternal Word of God, he had always been one God with the Father. The point here, therefore, is that Christ was to his disciples a faithful witness to the Father; that, since the Father himself had spoken in the Son, their faith had its foundation in the sole truth of God. Moreover, he points out that if they accepted his words, it is because he has given them an effective revelation of the name of the Father by the power of the Spirit.

And have known surely. He repeats with other words what he has already touched upon. The statement that Christ came from the Father and was sent by him means the same thing as that whatever he has is from the Father. In short, faith ought to look at Christ rightly, not to know him in his flesh and humiliation, but to rise to a knowledge of his divine power; for thus it becomes established that he has in himself God and whatever is God’s. It is important to notice that in the former clause the Evangelist uses the word to know. In the latter, to believe takes its place. We are thus warned that we can know nothing of God rightly except by faith. But there is such certainty in faith as to justify our calling it knowledge.

But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works; that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him. John 10:38.

He puts faith after knowledge, as though it were of a lower order, because he has to do with unbelieving and wrong headed men, who will not yield unless they are overcome and forced by experience. Such rebels insist that they must know before they believe. And our God indulges us to the extent of preparing us for faith through a knowledge of his works. However, true knowledge of God and of the secret of his wisdom comes from faith, because the obedience of faith opens to us the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. John 17:3.

He now enlightens the elect in the true knowledge of God; and in so doing, he declares the way in which we receive life. He does not here deal with the ultimate enjoyment of life which is our hope, but rather with the way men attain life. If we are to understand this statement rightly, we must first realize that unless God, who alone is life, illumine us, we are all dead. Where, therefore, he has shone, we possess him by faith; and at the same time enter into the possession of life. This is why the knowledge of him is truly and properly said to be saving. Almost every word of Christ in this place is weighty. We are not concerned here with just any kind of knowledge of God, but with the knowledge which transforms us into the image of God, and the beginning and the end of it is faith; rather it is the same as that faith by which, ingrafted into the body of Christ, we are made to partake of the divine adoption and are made heirs of heaven.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. John 3:3.

By this statement, he means, “So long as you lack what is first in God’s Kingdom, it does not impress me that you call me Master. For the first step into the Kingdom of God is that you become a new man.” This sentence is so weighty that we must look into each part of it separately. To see the Kingdom of God is to enter it, as we shall soon see from the context. But those who identify the Kingdom of God with heaven are mistaken; the Kingdom means rather the spiritual life, which begins in this life by faith, and in which we grow daily as we progress in a constant faith. This statement means that no one truly belongs to the church and is counted among God’s children, unless he first becomes a new man. This verse shows briefly how one begins the Christian life. It also teaches us that we are born exiles and complete strangers to the Kingdom of God and that we are perpetually at war with it, until he makes us other than we are by a new birth. This verse therefore applies universally to the whole human race. If Christ had said to one man or to a few that they could not enter heaven except by being born again, we might imagine that he referred only to certain people. But this is not the case. He was speaking of all men, without excepting any. The wording conveys no impression of limitation. It is a universal statement which means that all those who are not born again, cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, being born again means not the improvement of a part but the renewal of the whole of one’s nature. It follows that there is nothing in us that is not corrupted. If we must be renewed part and whole, it follows that this corruption is spread throughout our being. Of this we shall soon speak more fully. Erasmus, following Cyril’s7777Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315–386) tried vainly to keep to a middle way in the Arian controversy. After a career of conflicts, of exile and return, he enjoyed four years of peace until his death. He is most famous for his Catechetical Lectures to the Illumined (The Library of Christian Classics, The Westminster Press, Vol. IV). See Lecture II, 4 f. opinion, has translated the adverb ἄνωθεν incorrectly as “from above.” I confess that the meaning of this word in Greek is unclear. But we must remember that Christ spoke with Nicodemus in Hebrew; and in Hebrew, this word is not ambiguous. There was no reason why Nicodemus should have been deceived and shrunk from the prospect of a physical second birth. Therefore, he understood Christ’s words well enough as meaning that, unless a man be born again he is not reckoned as belonging to God’s Kingdom.

For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. Hos. 6:6.

This passage is especially important because it was cited twice by the Son of God (Matt. 9:13 and 12:17). . . . For a better understanding of the prophet’s meaning, we must first notice that under the terms sacrifice and burnt offerings the outward worship of God and all formal ceremonies are included. The part is put for the whole (synecdoche). The same is true of the word chesed, mercy or kindness. There is no doubt that the prophet is setting faith or devotion to God and love of neighbor in opposition to all external ceremonies.

I desire mercy (or “compassion pleases me”) more than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. Here the knowledge of God is certainly to be understood as faith or devotion to God. Since hypocrites think that they worship God properly when they use many rites, both clauses must be read together. It is faith with kindness that pleases God. Faith by itself cannot please him, since without love of neighbor there is no faith. And kindness alone would not be enough. If a man refrains from doing injury to others and does not harm his brothers, but is blasphemous and despises God, certainly his humanitarianism would be of no account.

So we see that these two clauses cannot be divided, for to give the right sense to the prophet’s words love of God must be joined with love of neighbor. . . .

Further, it is important to notice that faith is called knowledge of God. This makes it clear that faith is not some cold and empty formula. When God’s will is revealed to us and we so far accept it that we can honor and serve him as Father — that is faith. The knowledge of God is a necessity of faith.

Then spoke Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. John 8:12.

It is a most beautiful praise of Christ that he is called the light of the world. With this statement, we who are by nature blind are offered a remedy, by which we are snatched and freed from darkness and made to share in the true light. This blessing is not offered to this or that individual only; Christ declares himself the light of the whole world. By this universal statement, he takes away the distinction not only between the Jew and the Greek, but also between the learned and the ignorant, the distinguished and the common people.

But first we must inquire as to why it is needful to seek after this light. Men will not turn to Christ for light until they know this world as darkness and themselves so profoundly blind. Let us know, therefore, that when our minds see the way we obtain this light in Christ, we are all condemned as blind, and whatever light we have from elsewhere is judged as darkness and a deep night. Christ here refers not to what he has in common with others, but to that which is his own and his alone. Whence it follows that apart from him there is not a spark of true light. Every other brilliance is like lightning which merely dazzles the eye.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Gen. 1:1.

In the beginning. To interpret the beginning as meaning Christ is too frivolous. Moses meant simply to say that the world at its beginning was not the finished product we see today, but was created an empty chaos of sky and earth. . . .

By the word create, he shows that something was made which did not before exist. For he does not use the verb yatsar which means shape or form, but bara’. What he means is that the world was created from nothing.

This refutes the futility of those who imagine that formless matter was always in existence and who get nothing more from Moses’ statement than that the world was fitted with a new look, clothed with form which it had previously lacked. This is the general opinion of unbelievers to whom only an obscure report of God’s truth has come. Men usually mix God’s truth with alien inventions. But it is absurd and most intolerable that Christians should labor to adopt this stinking error (as Steuchus7878Augustinus Steuchus or Agostino Steucho (1496–1549) was an influential Roman churchman and director of the Vatican Library. He was a philosopher and a scholar. He wrote De perennia philosophia and many works on Biblical antiquities and literary exegesis. does). Therefore, the first article of the creed is: The world is not eternal, but was created by God. . . .

God. The word Elohim, which Moses uses, is plural, and it is customary to conclude that here the three Persons in the Godhead are specified. But this does not seem a solid proof for so great a truth, and I do not agree with it. Rather readers should be warned to be on their guard against false glosses of this kind.

They think that here they have evidence to prove against the Arians7979Arius of Alexandria in the fourth century denied that the Son was of the same essence as the Father. He made of Christ a divine being of secondary rank. The term “Arian” was later used loosely to include Unitarians who asserted that Jesus was man only. the divinity of the Son and Spirit. But meanwhile they involve themselves in Sabellianism.8080The Sabellians declared that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit represent aspects or functions of God. They thus denied the three Persons of the Trinity and consequently the reality of the humanity of Jesus. Both Arianism and Sabellianism are recurrent under various labels in Western Christianity. For immediately afterwards Moses adds that God (Elohim) spoke, and that the Spirit of God brooded upon the waters. If you would see three Persons [in this verse, you will not succeed, because] you will find here no distinction between them. . . .

It seems to me sufficient to understand the plural as expressing the powers of God which he exercised in creating the world. I recognize that although the Scripture often recounts many divine powers, it always calls us back to the Father, his Word, and the Spirit. But those who twist what Moses is saying of God himself into a reference to the three Persons are presenting us with absurdities. I set it down as indisputable from the context that this passage names God and includes by implication the power of his eternal essence.


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