Friday, May 7, 2010

Calvin on the Holy Spirit, conversion

For the last couple of weeks I have been starting into Book 3 of the Institutes, which is called "The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow."

I realized immediately upon starting this segment what should have been obvious from the start. The first three books of the Institutes are arranged in a precisely Trinitarian order. The first book, "On the Knowledge of God the Creator," then the second book, "On the Knowledge of God the Redeemer," and now the third book correspond precisely to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creation, redemption, application.

For Calvin, Christians can't be Christians without the Holy Spirit. No part of conversion happens without him. Faith, repentance, and sanctification are all the work of the Spirit. I guess I'm not surprised to read this; modern day Calvinists don't really say it any differently than Calvin did.

Having established the Holy Spirit as primary in the application of grace, Calvin sets out to list the most important parts of that application. Faith for him is first: "faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit." (Ch. I, Sec. 4) Calvin's definition of faith is rigorous. First off, it can't be merely "implicit" faith, as apparently the Roman Catholics taught. That is, one could not simply submit to the Church without attempting to genuinely understand the gospel and then expect to be saved.

He admits, on the other hand, that faith is never perfect in this life. Calvin's concern for the common Christian seems to be showing itself here again. As I mentioned when talking about Calvin on the Ten Commandments, Calvin's concern for making common piety rigorous seems to be this: he didn't think holiness was something that should be limited to a select few very holy people. For him it was a mockery of the gospel to pretend that the common person couldn't pursue holiness in the same way that monks and clergy could. In some ways that means he's asking more of the common person than the Church had done previously. But his motivation seems to be egalitarian, not authoritarian.

Calvin defines a strong connection between Word and faith. Faith is not abstract; it is a deeply held belief in what God's Word actually says. That's not to say it requires total understanding of what God's Word says. Calvin elaborates thus:
When we call faith "knowledge" we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man's mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. (Ch. II, Sec. 14)
Calvin describes faith as "assurance." Thus he says that faith implies certainty. He admits that in this life there will be many obstacles to faith, but ultimately asserts that the regenerate cannot in the end be defeated by doubt. "Unbelief does not hold sway within believers' hearts, but assails them from without. It does not mortally wound them with its weapons, but merely harasses them, or at most so injures them that the wound is curable." (Ch. II Sec. 21) Calvin makes it clear that faith is a matter of the heart. "For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation." (Ch. II Sec. 36)

Finally, Calvin refutes the idea that faith cannot reach the level of assurance that he has described. The main thrust of his argument is that to lack assurance in faith is to question God's goodness. He rejects objections on the basis of humility. That is, some will make the claim that it is too presumptuous to say that God has assured you salvation. For Calvin, this is to question God's goodness. He says that faith ought to find its assurance on the basis of union with Christ, so that even though we don't merit God's grace on our own, yet because we are united with Christ, we can rejoice that God has promised to be gracious.

Following faith, Calvin discusses repentance. Repentance plays a central role in how we receive the grace of Christ, but it derives from faith, and so faith must still be first. After he has dealt with this point, which distinguishes him from his theological opponents, he goes into painstaking detail about what repentance means. It is easy to get bogged down in this segment of Calvin's writing. In fact, I can only hope I got the main gist of it.

Repentance, it seems, consists of three points. Here I'll just quote lines from Ch. III Sec. 6, 7, 8, and 9:
First, when we call it a "turning of life to God," we require a transformation, not noly in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal.


The second point was our statement that repentance proceeds from an earnest fear of God. For, before the mind of the sinner inclines to repentance, it must be aroused by thinking about divine judgment.


In the third place it remains for us to explain our statement that repentance consists of two part: namely, mortification of the flesh and vivification of the spirit.


Both things happen to us by participation in Christ. For if we truly partake in his death, "our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin perishes" [Rom. 6:6 p.], that the corruption of original nature may no longer thrive. If we share in his resurrection, through it we are raised up into newness of life to correspond with the righteousness of God. Therefore, in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam's transgression.
According to Calvin, "Believers experience sanctification, but not sinless perfection in this life" (this is the heading for Ch. III Sections 10-15). He refutes those who say otherwise (such as "Certain Anabaptists" who "conjure up some sort of frenzied excess instead of spiritual regeneration" in Sec. 14). He also makes clear that repentance is primarily a matter of the heart, and that outward ceremony is not good enough (Sec. 16-20).

In Sections 21-25 of Ch. III, Calvin gets into that sticky of issue of the "unpardonable sin" that causes so much fretting among Christians. He says, in no uncertain terms,
I say, therefore, that they sin against the Holy Spirit who, with evil intention, resist God's truth, although by its brightness they are so touched that they cannot claim ignorance. Such resistance alone constitutes this sin (Sec. 22)
i.e. the sin that cannot be pardoned. He reasons that although a person who has committed this sin could in theory return to God, in which case God would graciously forgive, yet he never will, because his heart has been totally hardened (by God himself, apparently).

One of the things that makes Calvin so Calvinist is that he considers repentance itself, like faith (and everything else, really), to be a gift of God, provided entirely by the Holy Spirit. We do not conjure it up out of our own free will. That frustrates just about everyone who isn't already a convinced Calvinist, and it probably should frustrate Calvinists more. But for Calvin, it's a basic principle that he simply applies over and over again. We have nothing in ourselves to bring us closer to God. So we must totally rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to provide everything needed for salvation.

Personally, this is what I love and hate about Calvin. I love it, because it is a totally theocentric way of viewing life. Everything good comes from God. It's a beautiful and powerful way to think about life. Imagine if you acted every day as if everything good you were going to do was literally coming from the power of God in you. Don't you think you would start to look like someone totally other-worldly? From what I know about Calvin's life, this is kind of what Calvin himself looked like.

But then, of course, it's just weird to think of God choosing to bestow these amazing gifts on some but not others. For me it's not an issue of who deserves what. It's a question of what is God thinking. If no one deserves salvation, and he gives it to some, well, what is he thinking? There's a certain degree of embarrassment or shame that comes with being offered a gift that none of your peers receives, when in fact you are no better than your peers. More to the point, it makes a person question the integrity of God, who is dispensing these gifts.

I guess I don't really like Calvinism, but I hate any alternative to it, e.g. Arminianism. You can't solve the problem by factoring in human free will. That just destroys God's grace, in my opinion. If, at the end of the day, you can honestly say that you think the reason God will save you is because you decided to believe in him, I'm not sure whether to call you insanely arrogant or just insane. When I consider how limited my own will is--how susceptible it is to being influenced by everything from complex cultural forces to things as simple as physical discomfort--and then I consider what an enormously monumental choice must be made in order to genuinely seek God, I am simply awestruck that anyone could think of faith and repentance as anything other than gifts.

No, indeed, the only way the change Calvinism for the better would be to simply say that in the end, God will find to a way to transform everyone, so that no matter what evil we have done, we will all be changed by his grace into what we were originally meant to be. Which doesn't sound bad to me, except I know neither Calvin nor most Christian theologians would agree with that. But hey, it's my blog, and I'm allowed to think whatever I want.

More honestly, though, I don't know how else to live my Christian life, other than to at least hope that something like this is true, or in fact pray that it might become true. As far as I know, God's judgment on humankind hasn't come yet, and if I believe God hears prayers, then why shouldn't he hear my prayers to extend that same grace to all which he has extended to sinners like me? No one has ever really explained that to me.

Really I'm just taking a page right out of Calvin and running with it: relying on the limitless character of God's grace. As frustrating as Calvin can be to read at times, I never tire of his passion for this point: that literally everything can be found in God's limitless grace. I find that once you start actually believing in this, it's hard to imagine living under any other basic assumptions.

Next time: Calvin battles the Scholastics.

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