Monday, May 24, 2010

Calvin against the Scholastics

A couple days ago I had another day of reflection on my reading schedule through the Institutes. Unfortunately, that also happened to be the day I was scheduled to fly out to Dresden, Germany for a math conference. Hence, I did not have time to blog about the past couple weeks of reading. I was going to do it yesterday, but I was so jet-lagged and sleep-deprived that I just couldn't bring myself to it. I'm still a little jet-lagged, so bear with me.

The the title of Book 3, Ch. IV really sets the tone for the next segment of the Institutes: "How Far from the Purity of the Gospel Is All That the Sophists in Their Schools Prate About Repentance; Discussion of Confession and Satisfaction." I've come to love the word "prate" after reading a good chunk of Calvin.

This is the first segment in a while, probably since the segment on idolatry, that is specifically anti-Romanist. Here Calvin lays out all the arguments that Protestants to this day use against the Roman Catholic practice of private confession, the doctrine of penance, and indulgences.

Fundamentally Calvin is against the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance because it takes away from the centrality of the cross of Christ. For Calvin, the doctrine of penance meant that something other than the blood of Christ was needed to pay for sins; whereas the true doctrine of the Church was that only the blood of Christ could pay for sins, and only the blood of Christ was necessary.

However, I find it very interesting that what Calvin focuses on near the beginning of this segment is the way the "doctrine of penance torments the conscience" (Sec. 2). In Section 3, he lays it out like this:
But if they say that I accuse them falsely, let them actually bring forward and exhibit anyone who, by a doctrine of contrition of this sort, either is not driven to desperation or has not met God's judgment with pretended rather than true sorrow.

This is reveals a great deal of what drives the Protestant spirit. At first it might seem intuitively obvious that in order to encourage believers to live holy lives, one should require certain spiritual disciplines. But the Protestant points out that requiring these disciplines actually leads people away from true holiness, since it tempts us to believe God is actually satisfied with our works. The Protestant does away with works not because he says salvation is easier than works, but because he says it is much, much harder. The only way to salvation, then, is through union with Christ, who is the only one who can offer up satisfaction for sins.

For Calvin, the practices of confession and penance let the wicked get off too easy, while the truly devout person is crushed under the weight of these practices because he knows they are impossible to truly complete. Of confession he says this in Section 18:
I shall sum up what sort of law this is. First, it is simply impossible; therefore it can only destroy, condemn, and cast into ruin and despair. Then, depriving sinners of a true awareness of their sins, it makes them hypocrites, ignorant of God and of themselves. Indeed, while wholly occupied with the cataloguing of sins, they in the meantime forget that hidden slough of vices, their own secret transgressions and inner filth, the knowledge of which ought particularly to have brought home to them their own misery.

Calvin makes some other technical points, some from the history of the early Church, some from exegesis of biblical passages. One point served as a nice break from the usual seriousness of Calvin's writing. In Section 7 he writes,
But, to say nothing of the time, the barbarism of the words alone discredits the law! These good father enjoin everyone of both sexes once a year to confess all their sins before their own priest. Facetious men humorously take exception that this precept refers only to hermaphrodites, but applies to no one who is either male or female. Then, a grosser absurdity arises in their pupils when they are unable to explain what the expression "their own priests" means.

More seriously, Calvin argues that the early Church did not require confession before a priest, and that the practice was a later institution. He even says that in certain times and places the Church banned the practice. Thus Calvin refutes the idea that tradition can be used to defend the practice.

This seems to be the most common reason for historical evidence set forth by Calvin. He doesn't set out to use early Church practice as a guide for teaching us how we should do things. Instead, he uses historical evidence merely to show that the tradition of the Church contains contradictions, and therefore it is not a reliable source of doctrine. This bolsters his doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

I'm getting a little off track, but I want to make note of this, because it's something I think about a lot. I'm convinced by Calvin that tradition is no reliable source of doctrine, because it contains many contradictions. But then again, I'm not convinced that Sola Scriptura makes sense, because as many contradictions, if not more, arise from reading the Bible as a skeptic of Church tradition. Books like this one (although I've not yet read it) demonstrate how Protestants are questioning more and more our basic assumptions about the Bible and tradition.

Perhaps at some point I'll be able to come to a more settled opinion about this issue. For now, I just want to point out that if Calvin could see how the Church has changed since he lived, he might question the assumptions he made which enabled those kinds of changes within the Western Church.

So much for Chapter IV. Chapter V deals with indulgences and purgatory. Its arguments are very similar to those of Chapter IV, and indeed they are all standard Protestant arguments to this day. It has struck me as I read this book that if these arguments are in any sense original to Calvin, then Protestants of every denomination owe most of their religious thinking to Calvin. In these blog posts I have pointed out all the things that were interesting or unique or puzzling to me; I have probably failed to mention just how standard most of the book feels. We are still using Calvin's thought--often even the exact same words--to defend our Protestant beliefs today, especially as we compare them to Catholic beliefs.

In particular, he has this to say about indulgences (in Section 3):
Let them recognize whether or not these are their judgments: that martyrs by their death have given more to God and deserved more than they needed for themselves, and that they had a great surplus of merits to overflow to others. In order, therefore, that this great good should not be superfluous, they mingle their blood with the blood of Christ; and out of the blood of both, the treasury of the church is fabricated for the forgiveness and satisfaction of sins....

What is this but to leave Christ only a name, to make him another common saintlet who can scarcely be distinguished in the throng? He, he alone, deserved to be preached; he alone set forth; he alone named; he alone looked to when there was a question of obtaining forgiveness of sins, expiation, sanctification.

And this he says of purgatory (in Section 6):
For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Straightforwardness is Calvin's strong point, to be sure. That and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, which he uses to back up these statements and respond to objections thoroughly.

Having refuted these Roman Catholic doctrines, Calvin sets out to describe how Christians should live. Chapter VI is where I'll end this post; it deals primarily with the motivation to live a Christian life. The best way I can think to summarize it is by quoting from Section 3:
Now, let these persons who think that moral philosophy is duly and systematically set forth solely among philosophers find me among the philosophers a more excellent dispensation. They, while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption. Accordingly, unless we give and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only revolt from our Creator with wicked perfidy but we also abjure the Savior himself.

In other words it boils down quite simply to this:
  1. We have been created by God for a special purpose.

  2. We have been saved by God from our own sin.

  3. We have been adopted as God's own children.

  4. We have an example set before us in the Incarnate God.

We really need no more reason than that.

He expounds on these reasons by listing the benefits of righteousness from the Scriptures, and afterward he finishes his attack on the philosophers by saying, "One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man."

And I think I'll stop there. Next time: Calvin describes what the Christian life really consists of.

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