Today’s reading comes from a chapter bearing the ostensibly positive title, ‘Knowledge of God Implanted in the Human Mind’ (Institutes 1.3). I say ‘ostensibly’ because, even though the chapter is bracketed with positive affirmations, the substance of the chapter is rather grim. I may be speaking out of turn, but it appears as though Calvin introduces this grimness now in order to preface a later (and fuller) critique of the human condition. We’ll have to wait and see if that is indeed the case. For now, I offer two quotes from today’s reading–both are admittedly quite grim, but I will try to draw out some positives. First:
For the world (as will be shortly seen)* labours as much as it can to shake off all knowledge of God, and corrupts his worship in innumerable ways. I only say, that, when the stupid hardness of heart, which the wicked eagerly court as a means of despising God, becomes enfeebled, the sense of Deity, which of all things they wished most to be extinguished, is still in vigour, and now and then breaks forth.
–Calvin, Institutes 1.3.3.
One positive that comes out of this is that in spite of human efforts to jettison God, God still remains; he is unmoved and undaunted by man’s kicking and screaming against him. (The whole, ‘kicking against the goads’ [cf. Acts 26.14] thing comes to mind). And second:
It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals, as a means of keeping the body of people in due subjection, while there was nothing which those very individuals, while teaching others to worship God, less believed than the existence of God.
–Calvin, Institutes 1.3.2.
Two positives can be recognised here. One, criticisms are nothing new. Modern critics of religions (specifically Christianity) are neither pioneering new ground nor championing a novel or even profound assessment; they are merely repeating tired and insubstantial conclusions proffered by earlier generations. And second, these sorts of criticisms only work if the caricature against which they are levelled is in fact a true representation of religion (especially Christianity). However, I think Calvin wants to show that such caricatures are indeed false portraits of true Christianity, and that if the criticisms thrown at the caricature were aimed at what Christian truly is, their feebleness (nay, impotence) would be exposed.
* It is this parenthetical statement that makes me see this chapter as a preface to a later discussion.