A Reply to John Van Sloten

OCTOBER 2012: RESPONSE

by Scott Hoezee

In his attempt to bolster the contention that all of creation is a “text” on which pastors should preach in a way similar to traditional preaching from scripture (“Engaging the Whole Counsel of God,”August/September 2012), John Van Sloten marshals John Calvin to his cause. There is much more I could say in reply to Van Sloten’s rejoinder to me, but I will limit my comments here to his suggestion that John Calvin’s theology authorizes Van Sloten’s approach to preaching “creational texts.” Van Sloten quotes a line from Calvin’s Institutes that all truth is God’s truth. And indeed, Calvin claimed that although the Holy Spirit dwells only inside believers called and saved by grace, the same Spirit infuses the world in such a way as to help produce various truths in art, science, and culture.

But that’s hardly all Calvin had to say on this subject. Calvin made it clear that the gifts of God that make it possible for philosophers or scientists to occasionally get things right are God’s “natural gifts.” The “supernatural gifts” of God were obliterated in the fall into sin, but even the natural gifts were significantly corrupted. Unbelievers have a dim bulb of illumination, but even that light is “choked with dense ignorance” (II.2.12). What’s more, though all truth is God’s truth and can be traced to the Spirit (as Calvin claimed in the quote used by Van Sloten), nevertheless in God’s sight even this is “an unstable and transitory thing” because “to defiled man these gifts were no longer pure, and from them he could derive no praise at all” (II.2.16). What’s more, even at their best these unpraiseworthy insights traffic not in any “heavenly things” or any spiritual truths having to do with the gospel but only in “earthly things” (II.2.13). Calvin’s careful distinctions here are key to understanding him on these matters.

Van Sloten claims that when he “engage[s] truth in a creational text” such as a film, he feels “as though [he is] having a real-time, personal interaction with Jesus Christ, illumined by the Spirit.” Although the gospel, as Van Sloten also writes, “is both closer and clearer [in the Bible] than in creational texts,” it is nonetheless something of the gospel that comes through via cultural artifacts. The gospel is revealed to some degree in “creational texts” according to Van Sloten, which is why in worship we bring that “text” next to the gospel so the two can “coillumine” one another.

On this point John Calvin disagrees with vehemence. Furthermore, Van Sloten writes that people like me are sadly limiting the work of God’s Spirit by restricting the content of general revelation to God’s power and eternality. Again, however, Calvin says that this is the limit of what can be discerned by those who are not believers. God’s eternal power, divinity, and wisdom are (or ought to be) plain to see in the ordering of the universe, in the marvelous structuring of the human body, and in the beauty of the stars and other facets of creation. Even so, what one can learn about God from all of this is pretty well limited to acknowledging that there is a good and powerful God in existence somewhere.

Of course, Calvin knows that even this connection is rarely made by the unbelieving population. Thus Calvin regards the works of those who fail to worship the one true God as being finally “preposterous” and “detestable” (I.5.6) even as it all flows away from such people unprofitably (I.5.11). “Yet it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god [cf. Acts 17:23]” (I.5.12). Indeed, Calvin asserts that the only true source of “actual knowledge” of even just God’s power and divine nature is scripture (I.6.1).

Finally, it is instructive to look at two key texts for Calvin when it comes to assessing general revelation: namely, Acts 17 and Romans 1. Calvin comments that if, like Paul on Mars Hill, we find some inkling of truth lodged in, say, a secular poem, this does not become an occasion to rush that glimmering of dim light back into the church community so we can wonder at its existence and seek to teach the church through it. Quite the other way around: for Calvin it would be absurd for those who already possess the shining effulgence of truth as it comes through God’s written Word to find much worth in the dim, dim light that one might eke out of some cultural artifact. Even when countering the Roman Catholic practice of elevating to nearly the same level as scripture the writings of godly people like Jerome or Ambrose, Calvin asserted in his comments on Acts 17 that the work of these theologians pales in the light of scripture because only scripture can be our source of joy and teaching within the church.

For John Calvin, then, the arrow of mission points in one direction only. If we find glimmerings of truth in culture, that is an occasion to bring the gospel to bear to see if unbelievers will come to a saving knowledge of God in Christ. But to say that the arrow should run the other way—that those who already possess the shining light of the gospel should be energized and instructed by the dim light that filmmakers or artists may manage to produce as though such flickers were even vaguely comparable to the written Word of God—is a thought that Calvin would find merely baffling.

In fact, Calvin would likely find even sharper language by which to describe his reaction to such a claim.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Preaching Excellence at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His essay “Where Life Is Found” and John Van Sloten’s “Engaging the Whole Counsel of God” were in last month’s issue of Perspectives.