Calvin on God’s Powers
John Calvin’s treatment of Psalm 145 offers some great ruminations about the attributes of God. The psalm can be broken down into three parts:
Verses 1-3 are David on his own speaking of the greatness of God celebrating God’s praise.
Verses 4-9 speak of David bringing in the people of whom he is king and bringing them to praise and prompting them to consider God’s greatness and goodness.
Verses 10-21 he brings in the whole of creation; he is not satisfied with just himself praising God or with Israel praising God, but he wants the whole of God’s creation to do what it ought to do, which is to look at the revelation of God that He has given and to respond in worship and praise to Him.
Calvin deals with Psalm 145 he speaks of his comments on verse one: “since God is constant in extending mercies, it would be highly improper in us to faint in his praises.” He continues by saying that even when David was in his ascendancy he did not permit his royal trappings to “interfere with the glory due to God” (John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 145:1).
It doesn’t matter what we are in this world, God is far above us, God is transcendent, God is King over us, and our proper position is of worshipers. Calvin then refers to being overwhelmed by “the immensity of His power.” Calvin means that we are brought out of ourselves and our condition by our ruminations upon God and His wonders.
There is an implied contrast between the eternal name of God, and that immortality of renown which great men seem to acquire by their exploits. Human excellencies are eulogized in histories; with God it stands differently, for there is not a day in which he does not renew remembrance of his works, and cherish it by some present effect, so as indelibly to preserve it alive upon our minds. (John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 145:4)
God does great things everyday that deserve our recognition! So God’s glories are displayed for us:
We may infer from this, that the greatness of God is not that which lies concealed in his mysterious essence, and in subtle disputation upon which, to the neglect of his works, many have been chargeable with mere trifling, for true religion demands practical not speculative knowledge.”(John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 145:4)
We don’t just leave in our heads what we have learned, we do something with it, we nurture a practical knowledge of God.
Calvin next turns to the use of the memory:
To celebrate the memory of the Lord’s goodness, is the same with recalling to memory what we have personally experienced of his goodness. We cannot deny God’s claim to praise in all his excellencies, but we are most sensibly affected by such proofs of his fatherly mercy as we have ourselves experienced. (Commentary on Psalm 145:7)
Calvin is saying that whether we have experienced all of the attributes of God in the same measure, all of us can recall the goodness of God in our lives.
In his observations on verse 8 Calvin notes that David borrows from the great passage in Exodus 34:6:
which as clear and satisfactory a description of the nature of God is given us as can anywhere be found. Were he to bring his power prominently into view before us, we would be cast down by the terror of it rather than encouraged, as the Papists represent him a dreadful God, from whose presence all must fly, whereas the proper view of him is that which invites us to seek after him. Accordingly, the more nearly that a person feels himself drawn to God, the more has he advanced in the knowledge of him. If it be true that God is not only willing to befriend us, but is spoken of as touched with sympathy for our miseries, so as to be all the kinder to us the more that we are miserable, what folly were it not to fly to him without delay?” (Commentary on Psalm 145:8)
Some readers may think that Calvin might have benefited from Rudolf Otto’s analysis (in The Idea of the Holy) of the two poles of the dread and the allure of God, but his main point here is crucial to grasp. The attributes of God as enunciated by God Himself inform us that God wishes us to come to Him. And the clearer this realization becomes in our minds the more advanced we are in our spiritual maturity.
With this understanding comes also the privilege of witnessing to others of this truth:
He then assigns the special work of declaring them to believers, who have eyes to perceive God’s works, and know that they cannot be employed better than in celebrating his mercies. (Commentary on Psalm 145:10)
Even in our suffering, this knowledge comes to our aid. As he says, “Another lesson taught us is, that none will be disappointed who seeks comfort from God in his affliction.” (Commentary on Psalm 145:14
As to our daily sustenance, we miss the hand of God when we simply imagine that it is just a product of the planet:
We sinfully confine our attention to the earth which yields us our food, or to natural causes. To correct this error David describes God as opening his hands to put the food into our mouths. (Commentary on Psalm 145:16)
God’ s perfections are active and they are working. They are to be seen in the everyday habits of life.
The ground upon which praise is here ascribed to God may seem a common one, being in every one’s mouth; but in nothing is wisdom shown more than in holding fast the truth, that God is just in all his ways, so as to retain in our hearts an unabated sense of it amidst all troubles and confusions. (Commentary on Psalm 145:17)
Calvin has some memorable things to say about times when we don’t pray:
“Jehovah is near to all that call upon him.” This truth is principally applicable to believers, whom God in the way of singular privilege invites to draw near him, promising that he will be favorable to their prayers. Faith, there is no doubt, lies idle and even dead without prayer, in which the spirit of adoption shows and exercises itself, and by which we evidence that all his promises are considered by us as stable and sure. (Commentary on Psalm 145:18
Hence, it is in Psalm 145 that Calvin thought that all the “virtutes,” as he called them (“powers” is probably the best way to translate the Latin), are summed up. Calvin scholar Ford Lewis Battles said that Calvin puts a lot of emphasis on the name of God, particularly “Lord of Hosts.” He notes that Calvin wants to emphasize God’s universal power, but also that this power is used for the care of His people, and so he sees here that God’s power is molded in His works of providence to help humanity.
What the Reformer wants to get across is the fact that God’s attributes are not static. Our theology needs to have a vibrancy to it which reflects this truth. When we discussing concepts put in the abstract we need to convert them back into an active sense, something that is personal, because God is personal; He is a working Personality. Thus Battles writes:
Working primarily from the royal imagery, sovereign majesty, and power of God that is set forth in the Psalms, and also from a similar mood in Paul’s letters ,Calvin sees under the various divine qualities, the energy/the effective working of Deity in the universe and human existence . This is particularly seen in the work of the Holy Spirit. These qualities of God, these powers of God, are the divinely-accommodated/humanly-perceived avenues of God’s self-disclosure to us. (Ford Lewis Battles, Interpreting John Calvin, 224)
We ought to see these “powers” of God as we look around us. Not just acknowledging them because we know what the Bible says, but recognizing them in our lives and in our experiences.
(Read Part 2.)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.