Saturday, June 5, 2010

Calvin on the Christian Life

As I blog through the Institutes of the Christian Religion, I often take note of the order in which subjects appear in John Calvin's seminal theological work. I have already noted the fact that the arrangement of the books is decidedly Trinitarian: Book I ("The Knowledge of God the Creator") corresponds to God the Father, Book II ("The Knowledge of God the Redeemer In Christ...") corresponds to God the Son, and Book III ("The Way In Which We Receive the Grace of Christ...") corresponds to God the Holy Spirit. In this scheme, Book IV ("The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein") which is the last book in the Institutes, could perhaps correspond to the Church. But I'll get there in about the middle of August; right now I'm still only halfway through Book III.

So what about the order of Book III? It begins significantly with explicit reference to the Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, Calvin says, the Christian life doesn't even begin. Without the Holy Spirit, nothing Calvin says after Chapter I means anything.

Then in Chapter II, faith is set forth as the means of regeneration through repentance. Interesting. Justification by faith doesn't come later, until Chapter XI. Not that justification by faith is secondary for Calvin. He spends eight chapters on it; one can hardly make the case that it is not central for him. But justification has a specific place in Calvin's theology--and it isn't the first place!

In fact, in between Calvin's refutation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of satisfaction and confession and those chapters on justification by faith, there are five chapters (VI through X) on how we ought to live as Christians. This perhaps even highlights the significance of Calvin's doctrine of justification by faith. It is clearly not a matter of finding away around strict moral guidelines. In fact, I would argue that the doctrine of justification by faith flows naturally for Calvin out of the principle of self-denial, which he outlines starting in Chapter VI.

Indeed, Calvin titled Chapter VII with the words, "The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves." He then proceeds into Chapter VIII: "Bearing the Cross, a Part of Self-Denial." It is here in this chapter that I find Calvin being his most intense. I can't help but nearly feel crushed under the weight of this man's passionate zeal. A few quotes to show what I mean:

For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil.


Why should we exempt ourselves... from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit, especially since he submitted to it for our sake to show us an example of patience in himself? (Sec. 1)

And it is of no slight importance for your to be cleansed of your blind love of self that you may be made more nearly aware of your incapacity; to feel your own incapacity that you may learn to distrust yourself; to distrust yoruself that you may transfer your trust to God; to rest with a trustful heart in God that, relying upon his help, you may persevere unconquered to the end; to take your stand in his grace that you may comprehend the truth of his promises; to have unquestioned certainty of his promises that your hope may thereby be strengthened. (Sec. 3)

Even poverty if it be judged in itself, is misery; likewise exile, contempt, prison, disgrace; finally, death itself is the ultimate of all calamities. But when the favor of our God breathes upon us, every one of these things turns into happiness for us. (Sec. 7)

If you haven't gotten a taste of this level of intensity, then you haven't experienced Calvin. Yet Calvin has a realistic and compassionate sensitivity to the genuine sufferings of this life, which is nevertheless made to reinforce his central point about self-denial:

Yet such a cheerfulness is not required of us as to remove all feeling of bitterness and pain. Otherwise, in the cross there would be no forbearance of the saints unless they were tormented by pain and anguished by trouble. If there were no harshness in poverty, no torment in diseases, no sting in disgrace, no dread in death--what fortitude or moderation would there be in bearing them with indifference? But since each of these, with an inborn bitterness, by its very nature bites the hearts of us all, the fortitude of the believing man is brought to life if--tried by the feeling of such bitterness--however grievously he is troubled with it, yet valiantly resisting, he surmounts it. (Sec. 8)

In Sections 9-11, Calvin elaborates on this last point by drawing a distinction between Christian and Stoic suffering. The Christian gives genuine expression to his sorrow, not trying to hide from it, yet overcoming it through faith in God.

Chapter IX goes beyond self-denial and demands denial of the world and its pleasures. He says, "Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life." (Sec. 1) I find this part of Calvin's thought a little troubling. In many parts of the Institutes I have been bothered by Calvin's implicit and explicit dualism, and here I have the same issues.

On the one hand, I can't help but agree with Calvin that longing for eternal life is good and right. I am quite willing to criticize the culture in which I live, including probably most of my peers, for its devotion to this idea that "This life is all we have; let's make the most of it!" Making the most of something is only relevant when it is clear you have something to begin with. If what you have is, in fact, nothing, then making the most of it is quite meaningless.

But on the other hand, I find myself cringing at statements like this: "Indeed, there is no middle ground between these two: either the world must become worthless to us or hold us bound by intemperate love of it." (Sec. 2) On the face of it, this statement is clearly absurd. A third option is quite possible, at least in theory, namely that one loves the world in a proper way, so as not to become an idolater, but rather a faithful steward of it.

Calvin does admit that we ought to be grateful for this life (Sec. 3), but he seems to do so only with some ethereal future glory in mind. It is as if this world is just practice, the real thing is yet to come, and the practice materials will then be nothing more than scraps to be thrown out. This is disappointing, but perhaps not if I put Calvin in his historical context. If I have any sense of the history and influence of philosophy upon Christian theology, Plato is to blame for this dualism.

And here's the painful irony for me. I know that Calvin was deeply concerned with earthly affairs. I know, for instance, that politics mattered to him. I know he believed strongly that all human institutions should submit to the will of Christ. So why did he submit himself to a philosophical dualism that undercuts his own vision for society? If there is no middle ground between sinfully loving this world and righteously despising this world, then where is there room for genuine redemptive action in this life? I guess I don't see how Calvin was truly consistent with himself on this point.

But enough of that. Chapter X is not nearly so difficult for me, nor is it terribly controversial. Calvin simply offers some practical advice on "How We Must Use the Present Life and Its Helps." His principled moderation is characteristically Protestant: he rejects false asceticism, but he also wants to curb lust. I like the way he says it in one part:
Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God's beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it robs a man of all his senses and degrades him to a block.

But no less diligently, on the other hand, we must resist the lust of the flesh, which, unless it is kept in order, overflows without measure.

The next chapter is the beginning of his discussion of that wonderful (and these days amazingly controversial) topic known as "justification by faith." I think I'll actually wait until I'm finished with this section to write about it. At the same time, I'll be reading N. T. Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. I'll give a little comparison between the two, hopefully to shed some light on this amazingly controversial little topic in modern day Reformed circles.

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