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The Name of Jesus is Food

By Luke Stamps—

One of the caricatures of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura is that it entails a devaluing of tradition in favor of individualistic biblicism.  But even a cursory reading of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals the fact that the Genevan Reformer was heavily indebted to the great tradition of Christian reflection that came before him.  In addition to his frequent citations of Patristic luminaries, especially Augustine, one of Calvin’s most cited authorities was the twelfth century French theologian Bernard of Clairvaux.  While Calvin would not agree with all of Bernard’s theology (his Mariology, for example), he frequently cited Bernard’s reflections on justification and redemption through Christ. 

In one arresting passage, Calvin paraphrases Bernard’s observations on the name of Jesus:

Bernard’s admonition is worth remembering: The name of Jesus is not only light but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever I set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine. Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor (From The Institutes of the Christian Religion II.16.1, cited in Calvin’s Christology by Stephen Edmondson).

So, Christian hedonism isn’t new!  The emphasis on “seeing and savoring Jesus Christ” didn’t start with John Piper or C. S. Lewis or Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin.  It goes back much further in the Christian imagination.  It didn’t even start with Bernard, but stretches back further to Augustine and ultimately to Jesus Christ himself and his prophets and apostles.

It is also important to note that Calvin cites this passage from Bernard in the context of perseverance.  Calvin argues from Acts 4:12 that salvation can be found only in the name of Jesus Christ.  Only in Christ the Mediator can we who are “condemned, dead and lost in ourselves” be reconciled to God.  But it is not enough to claim faith in Christ and then turn away from him as the sole source of salvation.

Redemption would be defective if it did not conduct us by an uninterrupted progression to the final goal of safety. Therefore, the moment we turn aside from him in the minutest degree, salvation, which resides entirely in him, gradually disappears; so that all who do not rest in him voluntarily deprive themselves of all grace.

This is not an argument for passivity in the Christian life or some kind of proto-Keswick letting-go and letting-God.  No, elsewhere Calvin argues for the diligent use of the means of grace (Book IV) and for the importance of law’s “third use”—instructing and exhorting Christians in obedience (II.7).  But these efforts must never be severed from the “resting” described here.  Only as we find our nourishment and satisfaction in Christ are we enabled and empowered to reach “the final goal of safety” in the presence of God.

Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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