Sunday, April 11, 2010

Calvin on Old and New Testaments

Today is a day for a blog post on Calvin, but I have run out of time, so I have to be brief. Calvin says in this section of the Institutes (Book 2, VIII.39 - XII.7) some of the most impressive things I've read so far. First, as I've already blogged here, Calvin's view of love is rather extraordinary--not at all what you'd expect from the Calvin we know from stereotypes and myths. Moreover, his view of the commandments is such that every believer is meant to follow them, so that love for all people is not some special holy achievement to be made by only a few. Thus Calvin opposed the tradition of the medieval Church insisting on a profoundly egalitarian yet strict view of piety. He insists that when Christ said things like, "Love your enemies," he really meant it!

Secondly, Calvin's view of the continuity between Old and New Testaments is striking, even for someone coming from the Reformed tradition. One might almost get the sense that Calvin believes in "works righteousness," if one is so inclined to always be sniffing for that kind of thing. But the people who would really hate this section of Calvin's work are those holding dispensationalist theology. For Calvin, there is essentially one covenant of grace, to which he says the pious Jews of ancient times clung to as much as the Church does now under the gospel. Eternal life obtained through pure grace was always the goal. He refutes the idea that the Old Testament was full of physical promises that had no eternal benefit.

There are a couple of fascinating passages in which he describes the faith of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in such a way as to make them really shine as heroes of the faith. It's just funny how modern evangelicals will gladly trash these guys as pretty despicable human beings--you know, Abraham selling out his wife to avoid danger from the Egyptians, Jacob stealing his brother's birthright, and all that. But just as tradition (even in the New Testament) has always spoken of these men as great men of faith, so Calvin outlines their lives in great detail, but in a very positive light. It made me realize that hardly ever does anyone these days talk about how great Abraham was. Calvin, on the other hand, says that "We ought to esteem Abraham as one equal to a hundred thousand if we consider his faith, which is set before us as the best model of believing." Calvin didn't shy away from venerating saints!

One key emphasis throughout this section is that "the opposition between law and gospel ought not to be exaggerated" and that "even in the Old Covenant justification derives its validity from grace alone." I find this point to be attractive on a number of levels, for it indicates that first and foremost Calvin is reading the whole of Scripture through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, it is difficult at times to see how Calvin can really argue this point on the basis of Scripture alone. I can see how he does it based on first principles derived from the New Testament, but some of his arguments directly from the Old Testament are a little shaky. Unfortunately, I don't have time to go into details. Suffice it to say that I'm not really sure what the end result of our reading of the Old Testament should be. Should we let it say what it says? Or should we, just as the early Christians did quite explicitly, read the Old Testament solely in light of Christ? What should the balance be? I'm fairly confident we shouldn't choose one strategy and then pretend we're employing the other--e.g. we shouldn't act as we're reading the plain sense meaning of the Old Testament, when actually we're reading it in light of the New.

On the other hand, it's important to note that Calvin reveals a belief in progressive revelation--that is, God's revelation becomes clearer and clearer to the world through time. His promises were not always totally clear to Abraham or Moses, and even the prophets couldn't precisely predict what was coming. I think this is a strength of Calvin's theology, and it's a principle I would extend to all of history; although most of the Reformed tradition seems to cap it off at the revelation of the gospel as recorded in the New Testament (that is, we now have everything we need to know about God's self-revelation to humankind).

Calvin does discuss some key differences between Old and New Testaments, but they're things pretty much every Christian would agree on, so they're not very interesting to mention here. He also goes off into an argument about why Christ had to become man to be our mediator, and he argues against one named Osiander that Christ did not choose to become man for any other reason than to be our redeemer. Here I think Calvin's arguments are honestly pretty weak, and he very obviously resorts to proof-texting of a pretty crude sort. But in the end, his only point is that it's foolish to speculate about such things--so even if Christ was planning on becoming human anyway, for some reason other than to be our redeemer, it's not worth contemplating such things. That's a point I can handle without all the wrangling over words. Overall, I guess I could pretty much do without Ch. XII, especially since it has the tendency to push us Protestants away from the mystery of the Incarnation.

But as for the past couple of weeks' reading in general, I've really enjoyed it. Calvin has a lot of wonderful things to say, and I'm looking forward to what he says in the next chapter (which looks to be entirely about the Incarnation, perhaps making up for what disappointed me in Ch. XII).

Side note: I'll get to talk much more about this later, when I'm actually reading Calvin's view of the sacraments, but it really intrigued me to read this line in Calvin's discussion of the fourth commandment (emphasis added):
Although the Sabbath has been abrogated, there is still occasion for us: (1) to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and for public prayers...
Mystical bread, huh? Who would've expected stodgy old John Calvin to call anything mystical? Perhaps Calvinism has lost part of the mystery that it once had.

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