Fear or Faith? John Calvin on Psalm 27:3


After Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, John Calvin’s Commentaries were probably my most thumbed through books while I prepared for preaching over the years.  I gave mine away to a younger pastor friend when I retired, but was pleased to be able to find them on-line, albeit in an old English translation that is perhaps not the best.

Though Calvin is much maligned as a general grump and meanie in modern popular culture, his sermons and commentaries on scripture, quite to the contrary, are more often than not, full of faith, hope, and love.  Here is an excerpt (verse 3) from his commentary on Psalm 27, which is the appointed psalm in the New Revised Common Lectionary for this upcoming Second Sunday in Lent:

Though armies should encamp. He infers from his former experience, as I have already mentioned, that whatever adversity may befall him, he ought to hope well, and to have no misgivings about the divine protection, which had been so effectually vouchsafed to him in his former need. He had asserted this, indeed, in the first verse, but now, upon farther proof of it, he repeats it.  But when he declares, “My heart shall not fear,” this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue; but lest his heart should faint under the terrors which he had to encounter, he opposed to them the shield of faith. Some transfer the word translated in this to the following verse, meaning that he was confident that he would dwell in God’s house; but I am of opinion that it belongs rather to the preceding doctrine. For then does faith bring forth its fruit in due season, when we remain firm and fearless in the midst of dangers. David, therefore, intimates, that when the trial comes, his faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 8, Part 1, translated by John King)

Good stuff, don’t you think? It still speaks today to our fears.  I especially like: “Under the terms, camps and armies, he includes whatever is most formidable in the world.” So though the names and faces of the powerful people who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth remains: “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”

The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of the Psalm amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about him”) to give the Psalmist (let us call him David, as Calvin does) and mutatis mudandis, us, plenty about which to be afraid in the short run.

This faith in the power of God, as he writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment.  No the fears are quite real.  So I particularly love this: “But when he (David) declares, “My heart shall not fear,‘ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”  Am I wrong to detect some dry humor there?  Calvin humor, who knew?

So faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”

Karl Barth on Calvin

I’ve been sitting on my back porch on this lovely June day reading Karl Barth’s 1922 lectures on John Calvin’s 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 9, on “Christian Liberty.” I am preparing for The 25th Karl Barth Summer Session for Pastors sponsored by the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers, an organization founded in 1692. Calvin was chosen this year to commemorate his 500th anniversary.

I haven’t been to all 25 of them, but I’ve been to a great many, and have some wonderful memories of rich theological conversations with pastor theologians and visiting Barth scholars. Some of those scholars I have heard and talked with over the years have included Hans Frei, George Hunsinger, and Alexander (Sandy) McElway, just to name a few. This year’s leader is Dr. Clifford Anderson, curator of Reformed Research Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary. Cliff, my friend and fellow Confessing Christ blogger, was also the leader in 2006.

The format of the two-day sessions is a morning dedicated to the Barth readings, and an afternoon dedicated to a practical issue, contemporary or historical. In the case of this year we will ponder Nathaniel Ward’s Body of Civil Liberties. Ward was a Puritan minister, writer, and attorney, who compiled this code of statutes for the Commonwealth in 1641.

There are gems galore in Barth’s rich appreciation of Calvin. Here’s a small sample: “We must not view Calvin’s church of holiness as a catholicizing confusion of divine and human commands, at least not as far as Calvin himself was concerned, no matter what misunderstandings might have arisen among his successors. Calvin himself clearly saw the possibility of such a confusion. Under the pressure of the order and holiness that he found in God, he realized that order and holiness are incommensurable. They cannot be imitated on this side of the human sphere that is not to be confused with the other world, in the little city of Geneva that even at the pinnacle of his success he never truly regarded as a Jerusalem. With a certain resigned wisdom and grim humor, if we might put it thus, he spoke only of honoring God by bonds of humanity so far as this is possible seeing that we live on earth. Calvin did not fall victim to the illusion that gripped the Middle Ages and that has gained force again in the modern age, the illusion that there is a continuous path that leads step by step from an earthly city of God to the kingdom of heaven. For him the divine was always divine and the human always human.” (The Theology of John Calvin, by Karl Barth. Translated by Geoffrey Bromily. Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1995. P 201)