Thursday, January 28, 2010

Calvin on Idolatry

Today is another day for reflection in my reading schedule on Calvin's Institutes. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, the reading has been both enjoyable and frustrating. This is due to Calvin's bluntness, which could either be a product of the era in which he lived or his own personality. Since I'm an expert on neither of these, I'll say the jury's out on that question.

Calvin's method is pretty clear: 1) establish Scripture as the source of Christian doctrine, and 2) argue from Scripture in a systematic way all the doctrines that are essential to the Church. At times he cites the Church Fathers to support his views, but at other times he cites them merely to contradict them on the basis of Scripture.

What's clear is that he views tradition not as an unbroken chain of pure doctrines and practices, but rather as a mixture of good and bad, which can be corrected only on the basis of a careful and complete reexamination of the Bible. Certainly this view remains a point of contention between Reformed circles and both Catholic and Orthodox to this day.

Calvin is pretty thorough (that's why it's going to take me all year to read the Institutes) but I don't think defending his views is his number one priority. For example, in his defense of Scripture, he does give a number of reasons for his high view of the Bible, but I can't imagine he gets to say everything he could on the subject. An apologist would have to turn to more than just the Institutes for resources.

I suppose what Calvin is good for is training clergy. These days I find myself questioning the whole notion of "systematic theology," since it seems to me nothing can ever truly describe the mysterious, transcendent God of the Bible. But as I read Calvin, I'm trying to have respect for the fact that Calvin was a pastor and teacher, and many people looked to him for guidance in leading the Reformed Church. This context appears to be of central importance in the Institutes.

It was interesting in the last two weeks of reading to find out which doctrine Calvin decides to discuss first, after defending Scripture. That doctrine is the law against idolatry. Even before discussing the Trinity (which does come next) or any other essential doctrine of Christianity, Calvin chooses to focus on idol worship.

I don't think it was for purely polemical reasons that he starts this way. Although he does argue against the Roman Catholic view of icons, there's a lot more that comes out of this section.

Scripture, of course, makes idolatry of profound consequence for Calvin. Not only does it come up right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments (it's the second by Protestant counting), but the Prophets are absolutely full of rhetoric against idolatry. Indeed, as I read the Prophets of the Old Testament, I typically find that the best summary of them all would go something like this: Defend the cause of the widow and the orphan, give justice to the poor, and tear down all your idols!

Calvin sees this not as merely a command that happens to be repeated over and over in Scripture, but as a fundamental principle: no matter what ideas about God humans come up with, even the best ones miss the mark. In his words:

Therefore, that exclusive definition, encountered everywhere [in Scripture], annihilates all the divinity that men fashion for themselves out of their own opinion: for God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself.

This principle is far more robust than as a mere iconoclast argument. In a profound way, it preserves the mystery of God. Really, this is fundamentally what it means to be a Protestant to me: I believe that no matter what conception of God you have formulated, no matter how well thought out, and no matter how pure of heart you are, you still haven't got it.

And that's okay, because, as Calvin says, "God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself." In Christian tradition, God doesn't reveal himself in the abstract, but rather in events that actually took place in history. This is what we can know about God: we can know what He does. But we can never fully grasp what He is. There is impenetrable epistemological wall between us and God, not built as punishment, but present simply because of what God is.

This is the part of Calvin's teaching I find particularly beautiful.

As for iconoclasm in particular, I have read a lot of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thought on the subject, and I sympathize with a lot of it. The debate on this subject between Protestants on the one hand and Catholics and Orthodox on the other seems to be more or less at a standstill, and I don't think my thoughts will bring anything new to the table (although if you're unfamiliar with one side or the other, I think it's worthwhile to do some research).

However, there is one passage from Calvin that is near to my own heart. In arguing for icons, Catholics have used the argument that icons are like "Scripture for the illiterate." In response to this, Calvin argues that the Church should have rather taught people to read than forge icons!

I confess, as the matter stands, that today there are not a few who are unable to do without such "books" [i.e. icons]. But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them?

Thus the Protestant tradition of universal education, which was present in Geneva under Calvin. I believe strongly that the Church has a responsibility to care for people's intellectual growth. We would do well to treat education as a spiritual good, and not merely a tool for gaining a more comfortable lifestyle, as it is so often thought of in today's culture.

My reading has started on Calvin's treatment of the Trinity, but I'm not all the way through that section, so I'll leave that until next time.

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