Saturday, August 14, 2010

Calvin on Assurance, Resurrection

I have finished three out of the four books in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, a satisfying accomplishment, which I was able to do only by reading a few pages every day since January 1 of this year. By the end of the year, I should be finished with Book IV.

Having dealt with the doctrine of election, Calvin moves on in Chapter XXIV (of Book III) to talk about how we confirm our own election. This is an interesting chapter. As it builds on the previous chapters on election, it is in some ways just as frustrating. On the other hand, here as always we see some of Calvin's classic statements of humility and total dependence on God. The thing that always sticks out in Calvin is how humility is always coupled with confidence--both are rooted in a belief in God's absolute supremacy.

According to Calvin, God has elected from all eternity those destined for adoption as his children, but there is still a process of actually making them his own. The preaching and hearing of the gospel is essential to bringing the elect to faith (Sec. 1). But that isn't sufficient without the work of grace by the Holy Spirit (Sec. 2). Faith can only be stirred up in the elect, but election doesn't depend on faith (Sec. 3). This is basically a reiteration of earlier arguments, which make it clear that God doesn't simply predict the future--he actually determines it. In Calvin's mind, there really isn't any difference between God allowing and God causing; one way or the other, God is in total control of whatever happens.

There is a right and a wrong way to attain certainty about one's own election (Sec. 4). Calvin's own words are best to describe the difference:
I call it "seeking outside the way" when mere man attempts to break into the inner recesses of divine wisdom, and tries to penetrate even to highest eternity, in order to find out what decision has been made concerning himself at God's judgment seat. For then he casts himself into the depths of a bottomless whirlpool to be swallowed up; then he tangles himself in innumerable and inextricable snares; then he buries himself in an abyss of sightless darkness. For it is right for the stupidity of human understanding to be thus punished with dreadful ruin when man tries by his own strength to rise to the height of divine wisdom.


Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God's call, and to end with it.
In other words, certainty about one's own election can never come from some special knowledge. It can never come from yourself, no matter how spiritual you are. It always comes simply from believing God's promises.

In some sense, Calvin would have to agree that the doctrine of election need not be understood before assurance of calling is attained. For he insists it is wrong to seek certainty of election by directly inquiring about God's foreknowledge. Instead, he asks believers simply to believe the promise of the gospel, which is freely offered to all. It is as if the door leading to eternal life were marked on the front with the words "Come, all who will, and inherit eternal life," and then on the back with the words, "Welcome, you who have been chosen from all eternity." Those who enter the door might never even see the words on the back, but they would no less be those chosen from all eternity. They would inherit eternal life simply by believing the words on the front and obeying them.

And Calvin seems to be confirming this in Section 5 when he says, "First, if we seek God's fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God's Spirit rests [cf. Matt. 3:17]. If we seek salvation, life, and the immortality of the Heavenly Kingdom, then there is no other to whom we may flee, seeing that he alone is the fountain of life, the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the Kingdom of Heaven." If we enter into life through this door (that is, Christ) then we may be assured that we have eternal life, without penetrating the eternal decrees of God. It would seem to me, then, that contemplating our eternal election ought to serve only to produce humility, i.e. to prevent us from thinking that our decision to follow Christ was from ourselves, rather than from grace.

In Section 6-11, Calvin does a bit of scriptural exegesis to try to defend the view that those who truly believe cannot fall away. In my opinion, it all depends on what you mean by "truly believe." If you define true belief retroactively, so that only in the end can you know who truly believed, then you've won the argument by default. This to me is not very helpful. But I think the point Calvin is getting at is this: believers don't need to be troubled by their own sin, or by the nagging idea that God might let them go in the end, even after a life of struggling to believe. For Calvin, all believers ought to be reassured that God is good; he is not mean or arbitrary, and his promises are sure. As for those who fall away and stop believing and trusting in God, the promises no longer apply, and according to Calvin, they never did apply.

Personally, I don't think Calvin's view of perseverance matches real-life experience, and I also don't think it fits all that well with scripture. It seems to me that if you're going to talk about eternal things, you need to stop talking about temporal things, and vice versa. The choices people make here and now are real, but they are not eternal. People can and do choose to believe at one time, and then years later decide to stop believing--and vice versa. I think these choices are real, and meaningful. And I think it makes sense to say, so long as a person believes, he is a true Christian, and so long as he does not, he is no longer a Christian. Perseverance, then, is useful only in talking about eternal outcomes, rather than all these temporal decisions that people do, in fact, make. So far as I am concerned, the doctrine of perseverance, like the doctrine of election, is useful only in reminding believers that their salvation, both in the future as well as in the present, is only by grace, and not by something gained from themselves; and as it is by grace, we can trust that God will ensure the best outcome, because he is good.

Sections 12-17 explain what God does with the reprobate (those not elect to salvation). This is an intense section, but Calvin's motivation is, as always, quite clear. He insists that it is God who determines the fate of the reprobate--which sounds awful, because it is as if God throws them into hell against their will. But there is an awful lot of tension here. Calvin doesn't want to say anyone is thrown into hell against their will. The question he is answering, though, is why some people don't will to believe. In the end, he says, the answer to that question has to come down to God's decision; otherwise, it would come down to man's decision, and grace would no longer be grace.
If the same sermon is preached, say, to a hundred people, twenty receive it with the ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it. If anyone should reply that this diversity arises out of their malice and perverseness, I still will not be satisfied, because the nature of the former would be occupied with the same malice if God did not correct it by his goodness. Therefore, we shall always be confused unless Paul's question comes to mind: Who distinguishes you? [I Cor. 4:7] By this he means that some excel others not by their own virtue but by God's grace alone.
And if that doesn't satisfy you, well, here's what Calvin has to say:
When the impious hear these things, they complain that God with unbridled power abuses his miserable creatures for his cruel amusement. But we, who know all men to be on so many counts liable before God's judgment seat that challenged on a thousand points they cannot give satisfaction even on one, confess that the wicked suffer nothing out of accord with God's most righteous judgment. Despite the fact that we do not clearly grasp the reason for this, let us not be unwilling to admit some ignorance where God's wisdom rises to its height.
There is a great deal of humility in these words, yet also a sad lack of struggle in them. As I have mentioned time after time, the great saints of the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to David and even Jesus himself, all struggled with God over his sovereign purposes. Calvin doesn't give his readers much in the way of resources for truly "wrestling with God" (a feature of Jacob's character which earned him the very name Israel).

I'll just deal briefly with Chapter XXV, on the final resurrection of the dead. Mostly this is stuff commonly accepted by all Christians, but there are a couple of interesting ideas that Calvin takes the trouble to refute, which makes me curious which people have actually promoted these ideas.

The first idea is that there will be no resurrection. What's interesting about Calvin's refutation of this is that he uses burial rites to defend the idea that all cultures have been led to value the body and hope for resurrection.
Why the sacred and inviolable custom of burial but as an earnest of new life? And no one can claim that this arose out of error, for burial rites were always kept up among the holy patriarchs; and God willed that the same custom remain among the Gentiles so that an image of the resurrection set before them might shake off their drowsiness. Now, although that ceremony was unprofitable, it is useful to us if we wisely look to its purpose. For it is a weighty refutation of unbelief that all together professed what no one believed!
This is an interesting defense of Christian belief. In general the strategy is fairly common: take something that all people implicitly believe based on their actions, and show that it is logical only in a Christian worldview. But here the application of this strategy is quite unique, at least in my experience. Maybe that's because in our modern world burial customs aren't considered as important.

The second idea that Calvin refutes is the idea that when we are raised from the dead, we will have a new body, not the body we have now. Calvin affirms that the body we have now will be glorified, so that it will not be the same as it is now; but nevertheless it will be the same body. The reason he gives for this is quite wonderful, actually:
For it would be utterly absurd that the bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples [I Cor. 3:16] should fall away into filth without hope of resurrection! What of the fact that they are also members of Christ? [I Cor. 6:15]. Or that God commands all their parts to be sanctified by him? Or that it is his will that his name be praised with men's tongues, that pure hands be lifted to himself [I Tim. 2:8], that sacrifices be offered [Rom. 12:1]? What madness is it for that part of man, deemed by the Heavenly Judge worthy of such shining honor, to be by mortal man reduced to dust beyond hope of restoration?
Thus Calvin refutes the dualism of the Manichaeans, who said that flesh was evil, and therefore could not share in the resurrection life. It's good to see a strong, classical Reformed affirmation of the physical body.

I think that's it for today. Next time I start in on Book IV, which has the pithy titled, "The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein."

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