Studies in 2 Peter: 2 Peter 1:5-11 John Calvin models bad interpretation of Scripture

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-11

 

After outlining the riches of God’s gracious gifts to his children in 1:1-4, Peter transitions naturally to our response to those gifts. God has given us faith, everything we need for life and godliness, and precious and very great promises. What are believers to do in return?

John Calvin comments,

…[Scripture] plainly testifies, that right feelings are formed in us by God, and are rendered by him effectual. It testifies also that all our progress and perseverance are from God. Besides it expressly declares that wisdom, love, patience, are the gifts of God and the Spirit. When, therefore, the Apostle requires these things, he by no means asserts that they are in our power, but only shows what we ought to have, and what ought to be done.

In so commenting, Calvin demonstrates the ever-present danger of letting one’s theology control interpretation of Scripture rather than allowing Scripture inform one’s theology. There are several problems with Calvin’s interpretation.

If Calvin is to be believed here, we should wait for God to make us feel like obeying before we obey. This, in fact, is how many Christians live and it is backwards from the Scriptural teaching. In Genesis 3, God asked Cain why he was so angry and then told him that if he did right then right emotions would follow. God did not tell Cain to feel like obeying, and then obey. He told Cain to obey and then he would feel right. God does form right feeling in us, but he does it after we obey not before.

Secondly, Calvin seems to ignore the repeated and clear emphasis of Peter that this is something God’s people are to do. They are to “make every effort;” to be “all the more diligent;” and to “practice these things.” Peter gives no indication that God’s people are to pray that God would simply grant these things as he had the gifts listed in verses 1-4. This is, in fact, the precise opposite of Peter’s instruction. Christians are not to respond to gifts of God’s grace like a Pippen asking for more. Peter is fighting against La-Z-Boy Christians. Calvin is fluffing the cushion.

Thirdly, Calvin ends on an utterly hopeless note: “he by no means asserts that they are in our power, but only shows what we ought to have, and what ought to be done.” What a soul-devastating word! God knows you can’t do it, but this is what he expects from you. God has become something like Michelangelo telling a five year old to paint the Sistine Chapel. God has become a peddler of impossibilities.

Thankfully, for as wrong as Calvin is here, he is too good of an interpreter to completely blow it. In his comments on verse 8, Calvin writes, “But he would not have the faithful to be only taught patience, godliness, temperance, love; but he requires a continual progress to be made as to these endowments, and that justly, for we are as yet far off from the goal. We ought, therefore, always to make advances, so that God’s gifts may continually increase in us.”

There is a tension in reading Scripture. Scripture is one, it is unified, and it does not disagree with itself. But sometimes it might disagree with us. We must not allow what we think we know from some places in Scripture to neuter what other places in Scripture. Just because we know Jesus is God, we cannot discount those passages that teach his limitations as a man (hunger, thirst, weariness, death). In a similar fashion, though we joyfully acknowledge God’s complete control over all things, we cannot ignore the passages that teach man has something to do.

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