The Signs of Jesus in Calvin’s Christology
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.
From the paucity of scholarly studies, one might suppose John Calvin had little interest in miracles. There is perhaps an exception. To his chagrin, Calvin learned in 1551 that his hometown, Noyon, France, had held a celebration at the rumor of his death. The next year Habsburg troops sacked the town. The one house left standing belonged to Calvin’s father. Calvin said that was a “miracle”!
Calvin did however, have considerable interest in biblical miracles. This essay locates John Calvin’s view of Jesus Christ’s miracles as signs of his saving power, within a covenantal and catholic Christology. We will seek to allow Calvin to speak for himself. We will deal not with abnormal phenomena in general, but only with Jesus’ miracles. A few preliminary points should be made.
First, Calvin does not give a technical (philosophical or metaphysical) description of biblical miracles. Although for Calvin, the natural order of the creation shows God’s glory, he describes miracles as, “testimonies to [Christ’s] divine power,” as “not human acts, but events in which the … power of God reigns and stands out clearly,” “shining demonstrations of Divine power,” extraordinary, “wonders.” Commenting on John 11:14, regarding Jesus’ delay in coming to raise Lazarus from the tomb, Calvin writes, “The more nearly God’s works approximate to the ordinary course of nature, the more are they despised and the less obvious is their glory.” In other words, Jesus delayed in order “to heighten the miracle.” Miracles then, broadly speaking, are God’s works that provoke wonder.
Second, for Calvin, miracles are events interwoven with, not working against, God’s providential government of all things. In other words, Calvin did not conceive of the miraculous as the “interruption of the natural by the supernatural.” Calvin certainly does not see the universe as a closed causal system. He writes, “All events are governed by God’s secret plan.” Creatures have “natures,” their own properties, but they exercise those properties only by God’s “ever present hand.” Calvin is less interested in how natures function, the stress of Thomas Aquinas, than in God’s use of the creatures. For example, the sun warms, and draws forth seeds from the earth, but God caused the sun to stand still at Joshua’s request to make it clear that the creatures are not first (or necessary) causes, only instruments of God’s will. God caused the sun to stand still, writes Calvin, to reveal that he governs the daily sunrise and all things, by his fatherly providence. Calvin, like Augustine before him, makes no rigid distinction between natural and supernatural, as though one might be opposed to the other. Miracle for him is not suspension of natural law, as it would later be defined, because the Creator is also the God of providence. Nothing but God’s hand controls all events. Miracle and providence are closely related in Calvin’s thought.
Against the radical Lutheran Joachim Westphal, Calvin avers that he opposes the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s flesh in the Sacrament, not because it goes against the measure of human reason, but because it was God’s will, as Scripture reveals, to make Christ’s human nature like all human nature, that is, with the property of dimension. “Such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one place.” What does happen in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin describes as “miracles,” “… that things severed and removed from one another by the whole space between heaven and earth should not only be connected across such a great distance but also be united, so that souls should receive nourishment from Christ’s flesh.”
Third, Calvin is not interested in the apologetic force of miracles as in any respect separate from God’s Word and Spirit. Christ’s miracles prepared for faith, and strengthened faith, but only as testimonies to the doctrine of the Word of God, and then only for those in whom the Holy Spirit first purified the heart by faith. This is illustrated by the unbelief of many witnesses of Christ’s miracles. Referring to the people who sought Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand, Calvin writes, “… they were unaware of the true…reason for his action, since they were seeking in Christ something other than Christ himself…. It is very important … what we look at in Christ’s miracles.”
Fourth, all biblical miracles for Calvin are covenantal—that is, God gives them, like the sacraments, as confirming signs and seals of his promises, what Calvin calls God’s “doctrine.” Randall Zachman notes that Calvin showed his interest in miracles as signs confirming the truth of the Word of God as early as the first edition of the Institutio in 1536.
The term sacrament as we have previously discussed its nature so far, embraces generally all those signs which God has ever signaled to men to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises. He sometimes willed to present these in natural things, at other times, set them forth in miracles.
Zachman writes, “The purpose of the extraordinary sign is the same as the ordinary sign, namely, to confirm faith in the promise of God. The difference isthat the work of the Holy Spirit is not seen in ordinary sacraments, whereas it is in miracles.” Calvin writes, “… whenever God sees that his promises do not satisfy us, he adds helps to them suitable to our weakness; so that we may not only hear him speak, but likewise behold his hand displayed, and thus are confirmed by an evident proof of the fact.”
As signs and seals, miracles are revelatory, essentially one with God’s words. This relationship with the words is important for Calvin, because false prophets seem to have the ability to work signs of their own. “In order … that we may duly profit by signs, an inseparable connection must be established between them and doctrine.” Thus, miracles cannot stand alone, apart from the promises of God.
…those who simply know the bare history have not the Gospel, unless there is added a knowledge of his teaching, which reveals the fruit of the acts of Christ. For this is a holy knot, which may not be dissolved.
Further showing their covenant orientation, miracles function within redemptive history, especially because the exodus from Egypt is the great archetype of the grace of God. As the most vivid miracle, it confirmed the covenant of adoption established with Abraham and his descendants. Likewise, prospectively, the exodus typified the redemption Christ would accomplish. Though he does not, so far as I have seen, attribute the exodus miracle directly to Christ, for Calvin it is axiomatic that all God’s acts of salvation come through Christ the Mediator.
Fifth, Christ’s miracles had the temporary function of establishing the gospel, by which God’s grace is permanently administered. In Calvin’s view, unlike the final view of Augustine, miracles themselves were passing signs of grace, though that grace continues in Christ. Zachman writes, “Calvin thought that God exhibited unusually vivid signs of God’s grace at the time of the emergence of the Gospel that were meant to reveal to the church the perpetual gifts God would bestow upon it, without the signs themselves being perpetual.” From the 1536 Institutio to its final edition, Calvin argues in this way. He responds to the Roman Catholic criticism that the Reformed church had no miracles—Calvin says the gospel of Reformed Christianity is the gospel of Christ, and for Christ’s gospel, Christ’s miracles suffice. The implication is if one asserts that new miracles are necessary, it is because one believes he has a new gospel to authenticate.
We come now to Jesus’ miracles specifically. For Calvin they function as signs of his saving work.
First, as incarnate, Christ is the final mediator of the covenant. Calvin understands the works of Christ according to a catholic Christology. Following the Definition of Chalcedon, Calvin argues that Christ, in order to accomplish redemption, must be both God and human. He writes in Institutes 2/12.2,
It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the power of the world and the air. Who but a power higher than the world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness or lordship of the world and heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son [cf. Rom. 5.8].
Christ’s works of salvation are performed in the unity of his divine Person in both divine and human natures. This comes out clearly in Calvin’s first reply to Francesco Stancaro (1560). Stancaro, focusing narrowly upon the work of atonement, taught that Christ mediated between man and God only in his human nature. He acknowledged that a divine and a human nature were united in Christ’s person, but said the divine nature, because shared fully by the three persons of the Trinity, cannot mediate between God and humanity. To say that the Son mediates between the Father and humanity in his divinity would imply that he is subordinate to the Father in his divinity, and thus fall into the Arian heresy.
Calvin replied that all the incarnate Christ does, he does as the one Christ in both natures:
It is…true to say that all the actions which Christ performed to reconcile God and man refer to the whole person, and are not to be separately restricted to only one nature. Lest this opinion be subject to quibbles, a distinction will be helpful: certain actions, considered in themselves, refer to one nature, but because of a consequent effect they are common to both. For example, dying is proper to human nature, but if we take into account the apostle’s meaning when he says that by the blood of Christ our consciences are purified because he offered himself though the Spirit (Heb. 9:14), we will not separate the natures in the act of dying, since atonement could not have been effected by man alone, unless the divine power were conjoined. If the apostle suitably and correctly concludes that Christ is the mediator of the New Testament because he offered himself through the Spirit, it follows that his death, on that account, was expiatory, since he was the only begotten Son of God and the Redeemer given to mankind. In this manner, nothing hinders the properties from remaining integral to each nature, nor does their communication argue against their distinction.
In the Institutes, Calvin says miracles rendered the fullest testimony of Christ’s divinity. Though prophets and apostles performed miracles like his, there is this great difference—“they distributed the gifts of God by their ministry, but he showed forth his own power.”
Second, nevertheless, as incarnate mediator, Christ’s miracles were performed in a state of humiliation, and for the purposes of redemption. Zachman notes that in the biblical commentaries, Calvin stressed that although the miracles were works of divine power, Christ’s divinity was concealed by his lowly and suffering humanity, or his role as suffering servant. Commenting, in 1548 on Phil. 2:7, “he emptied himself,” Calvin writes,
…how can He be said to have emptied himself, who, nevertheless, proved Himself throughout by miracles and powers to be the Son of God, and in whom, as John testifies, there was always to be seen a glory worthy of the Son of God? (John 1.14). I answer, that the abasement of the flesh was, nevertheless, like a veil, by which His divine majesty was covered.
Indeed the concealment of his divinity increased in intensity as his humiliation increased, to the point of his death on the cross. Because that cross is the greatest scandal, his miracles were worked by one who appeared to have no power. Nevertheless, “… the divine majesty of Christ was not so concealed under the contemptible and lowly appearance the flesh that it did not send forth beams of his manifold brightness.” The signs indicated both who he is as divine savior, and because his divinity was concealed by his humanity, that God was at work in his ministry. That is, to those with eyes to see. “By accommodating himself to men’s capacity, he will at one time assert his divinity and claim for himself what is of God, and at another time, will be satisfied with bearing a human character, and give the whole glory of divinity to the Father.” The miracles were to lead past his humiliation and suffering to faith in Christ as divine Son.
Further, Calvin attributes the power of Christ’s miracles to his anointing with the Holy Spirit. Hence, in the state of humiliation, the miracles are works of the three persons of the Trinity, for the accomplishment of redemption. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, his miracles functioned as they once did for the prophets, now for the apostles, to attest the gospel.
Third, Christ’s miracles indicate his Messianic or mediatorial, identity. We may look at Calvin’s treatment of three categories of Jesus’ miracles: nature miracles, healing miracles, and exorcism.
Commenting on the leftover baskets of food after Jesus’ multiplying loaves and fishes, Calvin writes, “… this not a little heightened the wonder of the miracle. For by his power they understood that Christ not only created out of nothing the food for their present use, but… he could also provide their needs in the future…. Christ wished to declare that, just as all things had been given into his hands, so the food which we eat comes to us from His grace.” “…though he does not now satiate five thousand men with five loaves, he nevertheless does not cease to feed the whole world wonderfully.” Jesus is the Creator; as eternal Son, he entered history to redeem; as exalted King, he is Lord of creation now. He still mercifully feeds the world by his providence.
Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of fever. He took her by the hand and “rebuked the fever.” Why are human bodies afflicted with illness? Commenting on Matthew 8, Calvin says, it was on account of God’s judgment on human sin. “… fever and other diseases, famine, pestilence and every kind of hardship are the forward troops of God, through which He works His judgments. By His decree and will we understand that He sends these messengers ahead, and then He restrains and calls them in, when He thinks right.” Jesus’ removal of illness indicated reconciliation with God, because it indicated removal of the curse. By laying hands on those he healed, Christ signified absolution from God’s curse. Calvin ponders why Matthew writes in v. 17, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” Some think this shows the evangelist used the Old Testament arbitrarily. Calvin thinks not. Rather he links the healing of the body with the renewal of sinful humans. He writes,
He gave light to the blind in order to show Himself to them as the light of the world. He gave life back to the dead that he might prove himself to be the resurrection and the life; similarly with the lame and the paralyzed. This is the analogy we must follow: whatever benefits Christ bestows on men in their flesh, we must relate to the aim which Matthew sets before us, that He was sent by the Father to relieve us from all our ills and woes.
Isaiah 53:4, the text Matthew quotes, prophesied of Christ’s cross. Only this suffering is true medicine for sin.
… we must come to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was willing to be disfigured from the top of his head even to the sole of his feet, and was a mass of wounds, flogged with many stripes and crowned with thorns, nailed and fastened to the cross and pierced through the side. This is how we are healed… knowing that otherwise we can never have inward peace… unless Jesus Christ comforts us and appeases God wrath against us.
The healing miracles were symbolic actions, to denote Christ’s renewal of body and soul from vice and wretchedness. Contrast, however, Calvin’s restrained interpretation of them with Augustine’s. The latter reads these miracles as allegories of the possible states of people’s souls.
However, Calvin also notes that Jesus’ healing miracles did not effect final healing. We might describe them as “sub-eschatological.” “… it would be preposterous to tie ourselves to a fading benefit, as though the Son of God were a physician of the body.” Though Christ showed his mercy in healings, we find here another clue to Calvin’s notion that miracles are passing signs of perpetual grace, limited to the time of Christ and the apostles. In union with Christ, the church lives by faith; because believers are united to Christ, they share Christ’s sufferings until his return. God never intended that the church partake of visible glory. Calvin says the whole earth is already subject to Christ’s kingship, that the new creation has begun, but that his kingship is still invisible. So there is triumph in the midst of suffering, but that triumph can only be grasped by faith. In 1550 Calvin wrote,
…let us remember that the outward aspect of the church is so contemptible that its beauty may shine within; that it is so tossed about on earth that it may have a permanent dwelling-place in heaven; that it lies so wounded and broken in the eyes of the world that it may stand, vigorous and whole, in the presence of God and his angels; that it is so wretched in the flesh that its happiness may nevertheless be restored for it in the Spirit. In the same way, when Christ lay despised in a stable, multitudes of angels were singing his excellence; the star in the heavens was giving proof of his glory; the magi from a far-off land realized his significance. When he was hungry in the wilderness and when he was contending with the taunts of Satan to the point of shedding blood, the angels were once again ministering to him. When he was just about to be fettered, he drove back his enemies with his words alone. When the sun failed, it was proclaiming him – hanging on the cross – the king of the world; and the open tombs were acknowledging him Lord of death and life. Now if we see Christ in his own body tormented by the insults of the wicked in their arrogance, crushed by cruel tyranny, exposed to derisive behavior, violently dragged this way and that, do not let us be frightened by any of these things, as if they were unusual. On the contrary, let us be convinced that the church has been ordained for this purpose, that as long as it is a sojourner in the world, it is to wage war under the perpetual cross.
On the cross, Christ took the curse of sin on his own shoulders, and there is “a similarity between head and members in bearing the cross.”
Christ’s exorcisms too, show the work of the Messianic king. Victims of Satan’s tyranny are emancipated in him. Jesus is King over the powers of evil. When Jesus cast demons from the Gadarene, Calvin says ‘… they are brought to a halt in mid-career by Christ’s secret force, that by their expulsion, he may reveal himself as men’s deliverer.”
Finally, Christ is now the resurrected and ascended Mediator. He continues to exercise his wondrous lordship over the creation and the church, though this rule is only known by faith. At his coming “…he will appear to all with the ineffable majesty of his kingdom, with the glow of immortality, with the boundless power of divinity, with a guard of angels.” The veil over his majesty will be lifted.
Calvin’s presentation of Jesus’ miracles highlights the transcendence of the God who is not far from us. He relates the wondrous events of salvation, as Scripture does, to the divine Person who entered human history to redeem. Because God is both Creator and Redeemer in Christ, Calvin relates Jesus’ miracles to God’s providence not as intrusions, but as signs of restoration. In his doctrine of Jesus’ miracles, we find a convergence of Calvin’s Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Jesus’ miracles are signs of the benefits of salvation, received in union with Christ. That union includes sharing Christ’s sufferings until he returns in glory. At the same time, they show us that today, Jesus is Lord in the whole creation. Further research may show an element of Jesus’ own redemptive suffering in his miracles. In a time when God is sometimes seen as very far, or so near as almost to be lost, Calvin’s views holds out a Christ to be trusted and adored.
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Berkouwer, G. C., The Providence of God (trans. Lewis B. Smedes; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952).
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- Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin, A Pilgrim’s Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Academic, 2009), p. 9. ↑
- miraculis. ↑
- Cf. John M. Frame’s discussion of the definition of miracles in The Doctrine of God , A Theology of Lordship (Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002), pp. 245-57. ↑
- Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, 12 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959-1972) 4: pp. 50, 62, 113; 5: p. 7. Ibid., 5: p.5. ↑
- G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God, Studies in Dogmatics, trans. Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 156-58, and pp. 198-9. ↑
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, trans. F.L. Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 1: p. 199, 1/16.2; cf. “the shadow of the sundial went back ten degrees to promise safety to Hezekiah;” cf. “God’s name ought to be hallowed always and everywhere, whether by miracles or by the natural order of things” “Prefatory Address to King Francis,” 1: p. 16. ↑
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Concept of Miracle,” Zygon 37/3 (2002): 759-762. ↑
- As far as I have observed, n the discussion of miracle Calvin does not introduce the medieval distinction between God’s absolute power and his ordained power. ↑
- Institutes, 4/17.24. ↑
- Ibid., 5: pp. 17-18; 4: pp. 152-3. ↑
- As cited in his Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 154-5. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Zachman writes, “The Law confirmed by miracles becomes the criterion by which to reject all alleged miracles done by false prophets.” Image and Word, p. 156. ↑
- Calvin, commenting on Acts 1.1, Image and Word, p. 293. ↑
- Image and Word, 157-8. Cf. Howard Griffith, “’The First Title of the Spirit,’ Adoption in Calvin’s Soteriology,” Evangelical Quarterly 73/2 (2001): 135-153. ↑
- Cf. Institutes 2/6.2. Moreover, Christ is Mediator both of creation and redemption. ↑
- The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), XXII, 8. ↑
- Image and Word, p. 301. ↑
- “Prefatory Address to King Francis,” section 3 (in both 1536 and 1559 editions). ↑
- Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 15-35. ↑
- Trans. by Joseph Tylenda in “Christ the Mediator: Calvin Versus Stancaro,” Calvin Theological Journal 7 (1972): 15. The incarnation seems to be absolutely necessary (not hypothetically necessary) when Calvin writes, “The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is God with us,” and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm for us to hope that God might dwell with us.” Institutes, 2/12.1. ↑
- Institutes, 1/13.13. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 11: p. 248. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 4: p. 163. ↑
- Zachman writes, “… Christ does this so that we might gradually be led from his humanity to his divinity, as we are incapable of ascending to God without the mediation of his humanity.” Image and Word, p. 267. ↑
- Image and Word, p. 263. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 2: p.149. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 4: p. 147. Cf. John Calvin, “Sermon on Isaiah 53, 4,” in Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, tr. and ed. Thomas F. Torrance (London: James Clarke, 1956), pp. 68-70. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 1: p. 163. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- “Sermon on Isaiah 53, 4,” in Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy, p. 75. ↑
- Cf. “Sermon XLVIII” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First series, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1956) vi: pp. 414-15. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 1: p. 163. ↑
- On Hebrews 2:5 “It was not to angels he subjected the world to come,” New Testament Commentaries, 12: p. 22. ↑
- Concerning Scandals, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 29-30. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- New Testament Commentaries, 1: p. 285. ↑
- Institutes, 2/16.17. ↑