Along with Jim West (and presumably a load of others), I’m reading through Calvin’s, Institutes of the Christian Religion in a year.* Part of this decision is rooted in the fact that I’ve never read this work from cover to cover; I’ve ashamedly only read it piecemeal. The other part is because I’ve recently developed an interest in the early history of the Protestant Reformation, a subject about which I sadly know only a little.
Yesterday’s reading was the Preface to the Institutes, which involved a somewhat heated (yet controlled) critique of how a particular gathering of Christians are enduring the persecutions of a much larger gathering. (Yeah, glad we’ve moved on since Calvin’s time). His aim, which admittedly gets away from him, is to show how those being persecuted (and Calvin is a part of this group) are enduring such things unjustly, and that the doctrines they uphold are not contrary to Scripture–as their adversaries claim. In fact, Calvin describes the ones enduring persecution as faithful to Scriptural teaching while those inflicting persecution are operating outside of Scripture–even though they firmly believe they have its support.
Today’s reading addresses the first point of the first topic, the topic being ‘God’ and the point being the distinction yet necessary connection between ‘knowledge of God’ and ‘knowledge of ourselves.’ His case here is fairly straightforward, yet it must be weighed carefully (at least, in my opinion). I say that because there are points in the argument where confusion could arise and we draw wrong conclusions about what Calvin in fact says. To be rather candid, I now see how my earlier (impatient) readings of Calvin led me to false assumptions about the case he is trying to make. I am curious to see what other changes will occur as I continue reading. (This could be scary).
Until then, let me leave you with two quotations from today’s reading, one simply because its contents grabbed my attention and the other because of something completely different (sort of). First:
So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being his is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme follow; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence.
–Calvin, Institutes 1.1.2.
This, for me, distills the substance of Paul’s argument in both Rom 1.20-25 (cf. 1.28-32) and 1 Cor 1.18-25. And the second quotation:
we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.
–Calvin, Institutes 1.1.1.
When I read this, it immediately sounded familiar. On the side, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection and it was this book that I realised was the source of the familiarity. At a crucial stage in the narrative, the lead character, Nehklyudov undergoes a dramatic change within himself–something he cannot explain. In Calvin’s language, Nehklyudov moves from only looking at the earth (i.e. seeing himself as centre of all things, and deserving of all of life’s pleasures because of his status) to seeing the infinity that lies beyond and how infinitesimal he truly is in relation to that beyond. This transition also brought into sharp relief the cancer of his own condition: he valued his status as supreme and deemed all others as dregs of the world because they were not his equal. However the transition changed everything, especially his perceptions:
It was a strange thing–ever since Nehklyudov had began to realize his own faults and to be disgusted with himself he ceased to be disgusted with other people.
–Tolstoy, Resurrection 161.**
Our perceptions of other people are determined in part by our perceptions of ourselves, and how we define ourselves is determined by how we choose to understand and define God.
* The link to Jim’s blog offers you a helpful plan to follow, if you’re interesting in taking part. If you are, then you might want to download the plan and get cracking; Calvin’s Institutes is not A.A. Milne.
** This from the 1966 Penguin Classics edition.