Calvin in a year

calvin, times three

My apologies for the lack of ‘Calvin in a year’ posting; the laptop has been acting up, and I hesitate to use it for long periods of time. That being the case, while covering three specific readings, I’ll need to keep this post somewhat brief–albeit brevity times three, seeing that I’m a bit behind with the daily quotes.

1) As noted in the last post, Calvin makes a case for ‘knowledge of God [being] implanted in the human mind’ (Inst 1.3) and how some attempt to excise that knowledge from who they are–so that they can (attempt to) become who/what they desire. Next, Calvin explores more of this compulsion to separate oneself from the knowledge of God (see Inst 1.4). The result of the separation is a callousness or hardness of heart, which in turn leads to repulsion and even hatred toward God. However, Calvin notes the (unacceptable) paradox within such people when he says:

[A] sense of Deity is naturally engraven on the human heart, in the fact, that the very reprobate are forced to acknowledge it. When at their ease, they can jest about God, and talk pertly and loquaciously in disparagement of his power; but should despair, from any cause, overtake them, it will stimulate them to seek him, and dictate ejaculatory prayers, proving that they were not entirely ignorant of God, but had perversely suppressed feelings which ought to have been earlier manifested.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.4.4

2) The next reading (see Inst 1.5.1-4) continues the ‘knowledge of God’ theme, only this time Calvin’s focus is on external support for such knowledge–i.e. what we might loosely call cosmology (or, ‘natural theology’).* As he argues (and I paraphrase), a key point of this chapter is to show that while God displays his wisdom and power throughout creation, it is only by ‘extreme stupidity’ that  people continue to ask, Where is God?

Moreover, below the surface of the argument, I almost hear Calvin saying: God is not some vicious tyrant demanding loyalty without just cause (as tyrants do); instead God has lovingly and patiently gone out of his way not only to reveal his existence by also show himself worthy of respect.** Two examples of this are: the innate knowledge of God, given by God himself; and the external reality of creation, which he made. Specifically thinking of the wonders and depths of the cosmos, Calvin says:

none who have the use of their eyes can be ignorant of the divine skill manifested so conspicuously in the endless variety, yet distinct and well-ordered array, of the heavenly host; and, therefore, it is plain that the Lord has furnished every man with abundant proofs of his wisdom. The same is true in regard to the structure of the human frame. To determine the connection of its parts, its symmetry and beauty, with the skill of a Galen . . . requires singular acuteness; and yet all men acknowledge that the human body bears on its face such proofs of ingenious contrivance as are sufficient to proclaim the admirable wisdom of its Maker.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.5.2

3) The final reading related to this post (see Inst 1.5.5-8) seems to respond to the explanations given by those who not only suppress (or even excise) innate knowledge of God but also deny God as Creator. In other words, Calvin appears to confronting those who wish to say, ‘By my own skill and knowledge, I can define life and existence apart from God.’ To which Calvin rightly says:

Nothing, indeed, can be more preposterous than to enjoy those nobel endowments which bespeak the divine presence within us, and to neglect him who, of his own good pleasure, bestows them upon us.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.5.6

* While Calvin divides this chapter into two parts (i.e. 1.5.1-10 and 1.5.11-15), the reading plan I’m following divides it into four parts.
** Cue the criticism of Bertrand Russell.

calvin for today

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.

planned thought of the day

Yesterday I mentioned the plan to read through Calvin’s Institutes in a year.  Day three is now finished. Prior to that I gave a summary of my (meagre) blogging efforts in 2011.  In the latter post, I proposed the idea of trying to blog more often (and hopefully with better content); and in the light of former post (still with me?), I came up with an idea: to meet the goal of ‘more often’ (in terms of quantity), why not give a ‘thought of the day’ from Calvin?  So that’s what I’ll do.  Sound good?  Here’s today’s:

[I]t is not the mere fear of punishment that restrains [the pious man]* from sin. Loving and revering God as his father, honouring and obeying him as his master, although there were no hell, he would revolt at the very idea of offending him. Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear–fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law. And it ouught to be more carefully considered, that all men promiscuously do homage to God, but very few truly reverence him. On all hands there is abundance of ostentatious ceremonies, but sincerity of heart is rare.

–Calvin, Institutes 1.2.2.

This brought to mind Hos 6.6: ‘For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, an in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’ (cf. Isa 1.11-17).

* I am using the term ‘man’ in the sense that Calvin most likely used it–i.e. an ancient classification term denoting a particular species, in this case: a human being. And because the ancient term, α͗νθρωπος is grammatically ‘masculine’ all related pronouns will agree in ‘gender’ with this antecedent.

calvin, here and there

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.