Thursday, February 11, 2010

Calvin's Epistemology...

Two more weeks of reading Calvin; it's time for another blog post. Topics covered in the past two weeks: the Trinity, creation, angels, devils, the creation of man and the nature of the human soul.

Overall reflections: Calvin is fun to read for the same reason he is difficult to read. His writing leaves no ambiguity; he is blunt and generally uncharitable towards his theological opponents. His knowledge of the Scriptures is encyclopedic. His arguments for any given point most often (but not always!) essentially consist of a mountain of Bible passages that are all very relevant. The Institutes make up a two-volume set in my edition, totaling around 1500 pages (without the appendices), yet Calvin's writing is actually extremely terse; the length of this work seems to come only from the fact that he deals with literally every doctrinal issue in the Christian religion while making an effort to confront all the significant competing viewpoints on each topic that he is aware of.

I have noticed a particular trend in Calvin's thinking these past couple of weeks. He loathes speculation. His chapter on the Trinity (Book I, Ch. XIII) was frankly quite boring, because he limited himself entirely to proving the doctrine by quoting Scripture verses. This was intentional, as he makes clear at the end of Section 19, where he says, "Indeed, it is far safer to stop with that relation which Augustine sets forth than by too subtly penetrating into the sublime mystery to wander through many evanescent speculations." Likewise in his discussion of angels (Ch. XIV) he makes sure to note, "Yet it is not worth-while anxiously to investigate what it does not much concern us to know." (Section 7, specifically speaking of guardian angels.) This seems to be a general principle with Calvin: if it can't be proved, leave it alone.

If, on the other hand, Calvin feels that something can be proved from Scripture, he then draws an immovable line between orthodoxy and heresy on that particular issue. For example, to believe that angels are "either the impulses that God inspires in men or those examples of his power which he puts forth" (as the Sadducees apparently did) is sheer "nonsense" and "crass ignorance." For Calvin, the Bible is supremely authoritative and not made for loose interpretation.

A lot of Christian interpretation of the Bible is subtle and nuanced, creating room for speculation and curiosity about divine mysteries. "Subtle" and "nuanced" can in no way describe Calvin's interpretation laid out in the Institutes. And that's why I both love and hate this reading. I love it because it's clear, it's bold, and it changed the world (I don't think that's an understatement). I hate it because I simply have to take it or leave it at each point, and at many points I'm choosing to leave it.

I suppose there's something to this anti-speculative theology, though. Humans tend to use intellect and reason often as a means of control. The word comprehend, for instance, has as its root the word meaning "to grasp," similar to apprehend. How fascinating that so much of our learning takes place in the posture of taking. I wonder if this is what has created the modern scientific era. In this posture of grasping, intellectual and technological progress become virtually synonymous. Control of our surroundings is the very meaning of knowledge.

Probably this has not only been true of the modern scientific era but of all human history, as long as we've been lusting for power. But I would think it's all the more true in our case, where science has informed so much of our epistemology. To the average modern person, the most reliable knowledge comes from tests done in a setting controlled by humans, as evidenced by how many news headlines feature the words "studies show." Now that's faith in human control.

Calvin's epistemology is essentially the opposite of this. For him, knowledge is not about taking, but about receiving. It is not about learning about how we can manipulate the world around us, but rather how we can find our true place in it. It is not about extending the limits of our minds, but about seeing those limits more clearly.

This seems to inform his entire approach to Scripture. The Church receives Scripture; she does not take it for herself. Thus the job of theologians is not to improve upon Scripture, but rather to clarify it. It is no wonder, then, that arguments and evidence are far more important for Calvin than poetry. Logic is a truth-preserving activity; it is an act of receiving whatever premise is being given. Poetry, on the other hand, for all its importance in human life, is not a truth-preserving activity. It is not an act of strictly receiving, but it adds something of the author's own essence. For Calvin, theology should not do that. True knowledge of God is not about exploring all the avenues of thought our hearts yearn to travel; it is about hearing and doing what is written.

Thus Calvin's posture is essentially one of humility, although you might not feel that way after having read a passage of him blasting your ideas. But that humility alone is not enough to make me believe this is the right posture. I think I have some problems with his epistemology, and I think they still affect religious conversations today.

For one thing, implicit in Calvin's method of receiving Scripture is almost this idea that the Bible doesn't actually need to be interpreted; one simply figures out what it says and accepts it. This can create humongous problems between different people who share Calvin's basic approach, but disagree on the details. For instance, one group says infants should be baptized, and another says infants should not be baptized. Each side looks at the other, saying, "Why don't you accept what is written?" and they never get anywhere. That's because they're both convinced they're simply receiving what God has said in the Scriptures, and anyone not willing to receive that is disobedient to the gospel.

And then suddenly this posture of receiving turns into a rather different posture, one of defending. Defending can be a remarkably violent activity on occasion, but even when it isn't it still has the feeling of violence. It draws up barriers between people, even when the goals of those people are essentially the same.

But what can I say? Does anyone really have a posture that is totally defensible? Surely any approach to life and learning could be criticized if only we thought about it long enough, or if only we watched and waited for someone to screw it up.

Okay, I guess that's probably all I have to say on Calvin for another couple of weeks.

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