Thursday, April 22, 2010

Calvin on Christ Our Redeemer

I've finished a portion of the Institutes (Book 2, XIII.1 - XVII.6) dealing with the doctrines of Christ's incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. This is a portion of Calvin's work that addresses a number of historical heresies that we don't normally talk about in typical Christian circles. For instance, Ch. XIII starts out with "Proof of Christ's true manhood." I somewhat doubt that there are many Christians today struggling with that issue.

Perhaps because the issues aren't so controversial today, it gets a little boring throughout this segment. Calvin spends most of his time simply arguing from Scripture--although that is perhaps the beauty of Calvin's style for the traditional Reformed. There's not much embellishing with philosophical or mystical contemplations of Christ's mysterious existence as both fully God and fully man. Calvin reads the Bible like a lawyer, using the plain-sense meaning of the text to support one straightforward proposition after another.

One passage that is particularly bizarre/amusing to the modern reader is XIII.3 in which Calvin has to defend a woman's physical role in procreation:
But in order to disguise their error--to prove that Christ took his body out of nothing--the new Marcionites too haughtily contend that women are "without seed." Thus they overturn the principles of nature.
I didn't know this, but apparently Menno Simons (the theological ancestor of the Mennonites) believed something like what Calvin is here refuting. Interesting. But what I found somewhat fascinating was how Calvin's humanism shows up in a small way in this passage: he informs his reading of Scripture with human reason.

Moving on. Calvin's doctrine of the Incarnation is more or less what every good evangelical believes today: Christ was fully God yet fully man, truly human yet sinless, truly God and yet able to take on our sufferings. Because I'm not expert on the subject, I kind of wonder how much modern Protestants owe to Calvin for this synopsis of Christ's Incarnation. If nothing else, Calvin was brilliant at producing a good formula for teaching doctrine.

One place where I would fault Calvin is his explicitly dualistic view of human nature, which he uses to explain the duality of Christ's nature.
If anything like this very great mystery can be found in human affairs, the most apposite parallel seems to be that of man, whom we see to consist of two substances. Yet neither is so mingled with the other as not to retain its own distinctive nature. For the soul is not the body, and the body is not the soul. Therefore, some things are said exclusively of the soul that can in no wise apply to the body; and of the body, again, that in way fit the soul; of the whole man, that cannot refer--except inappropriately--to either soul or body separately. (XIV.1)
I won't go into all the reasons why I dislike a dualistic view of the human person. What's more pertinent right now is that Calvin uses this kind of dualistic language later to talk about Christ in ways that I find a little disturbing.
Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched with hands. But since Christ, who was true God and also true man, was crucified and shed his blood for us, the things that he carried out in his human nature are transferred improperly, although not without reason, to his divinity. (XIV.2)
This is at best a rather bland way of stating a remarkable idea. Nowhere in Calvin's thought is there any room for, say, a Florenskian approach based on antimony, rather than on rationalism. Christ's divinity and humanity cannot contradict one another; they must be fit into a logical system. Thus Calvin makes the Scriptural witness to Christ all too predictable, too tractable, too systematic. Whereas for me one of the beautiful things about Scripture is its unpredictability, its challenging contradictions, and its stubborn inability to be contained by human systematic thought.

But as I complain about Calvin, I also try to put things in their proper context and read sympathetically. There is an obvious reason why Calvin would busy himself here with refuting heresies--not only ancient ones, but contemporary anti-Trinitarian heresies such as those of Servetus--namely, that he was busy trying to establish a foundation for the Reformed Church.

It seems to me Calvin found himself surrounded on all sides by ideas that worried him. Catholics perhaps know Calvin primarily as an "anti-papist" who condemned the Roman Catholic Church. But in reality, in all 500 pages of the Institutes that I've read so far, Calvin has spent more time refuting heresies of other Protestant groups. Thus Calvin, while wanting to break away from the Roman Catholic tradition, also wanted to be sure to ground the Protestant Church in the classical traditions of the ancient Church. The Institutes certainly provide such a grounding, despite all of my amateur criticisms.

To reinforce my earlier point about Calvin being brilliant at making formula for teaching, Chapter XV explains the purpose of Christ's incarnation in terms of those three offices which Reformed Christians love to quote: Prophet, King, and Priest. You can look up any Reformed catechism to get a basic idea of what Calvin says about these. My only complaint here is that he gives the office of Prophet rather short shrift, in my opinion. Jesus really was a prophet, in more ways than one. Most evangelicals seem to entirely miss the prophetic meaning of Christ's crucifixion, as does Calvin (or so it appears in this brief summary). I'm thinking here of Luke 23:28-31:
But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
Such powerful language suggest that Jesus' crucifixion was not only a priestly act, but a prophetic one. It warned Israel of the destruction of the temple and by extension it warns us all of a coming judgment. That seems to be a powerful theme in the gospels, yet we often reduce the crucifixion to a story about how people get saved from their sins.

In Chapter XVI, Calvin goes through the Apostle's Creed to illustrate how Christ fulfills his role as Redeemer. I found this comment interesting:
I call it the Apostle's Creed without concerning myself in the least as to its authorship. With considerable agreement, the old writers certainly attribute it to the apostles, holding it to have been written and published by the apostles in common, or to be a summary of teaching transmitted by their hands and collected in good faith, and thus worthy of that title. ... We consider to be beyond controversy the only point that ought to concern us: that the whole history of our faith is summer up in it succinctly and in definite order, and that it contains nothing that is not vouched for by genuine testimonies of Scripture. (XVI.18)
Calvin's totally Christocentric view is nicely summed up in XVI.19. It's a little long for me to copy word for word, but believe me, it's well worth looking up. This sentence sums it up nicely:
In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.
Chapter XVII finishes off Book 2 of the Institutes. It defends the idea that Christ merited our salvation for us, which for Calvin simply means that it was his obedience that allows our salvation. The reason this is controversial at all is that some would suggest that it's God's grace that opens salvation for us, so why would that grace need to be earned by anyone? I find this question a rather compelling question, so I was happy that Calvin answered it in a sensible way:
Hence it is absurd to set Christ's merit against God's mercy. For it is a common rule that a thing subordinate to another is not in conflict with it. For this reason nothing hinders us from asserting that men are freely justified by God's mercy alone, and at the same time that Christ's merit, subordinate to God's mercy, also intervenes on our behalf.
I find this kind of reasoning so much better than this terrible Sunday-school answer that someone had to pay, or else God couldn't be merciful. What a dreadful way to speak about God! As if his mercy couldn't simply be mercy, and his grace couldn't simply be grace. As if God has to meet some bottom line at the end of the day. But Calvin's solution is simply to show that Christ's merit is simply a function of God's grace. In other words, this is how God chooses to show his love to his people.

Often you hear people say only that we were once God's enemies, but now through Christ we are reconciled to him. But for Calvin, we are both God's enemies and loved by God:
For, in some ineffable way, God loved us and yet was angry toward us at the same time, until he became reconciled to us in Christ. (XVII.2)
I think this is a wonderful way to say it, for it assures us that God is not simply some wrathful monster who can be appeased by the death of his Son.

Next time I'll be blogging about Book 3 of the Institutes, "The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow." This will surely get into a lot of those details we now associate most firmly with "Calvinism." It'll be interesting to read.

1 comment:

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