A Premature Response to Calvin

16 March 2015

I have a distaste for Calvin. I read him with stomach clenched, and pen in hand, scrawling arguments against the long dead (but for election) writer. Usually by the next paragraph, however, he has acknowledged my critique and, more often than not, made it look foolish. When I critique him of relying too much on his beloved Augustine, he turns to scripture; when I say he’s too subtle, he becomes explicit, and vice versa; when I propose a middle road, he reads my marginalia and refutes it. The problem with Calvin is that he is smarter than me.

Because he so skillfully presents his argument, with thorough support and foresight, he is convincing. It is difficult to claim he is wrong — and the centuries allying with him only rush to his aid. (I do look forward to reading Kuyper and Barth’s nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations.) More than a real intellectual critique, I can mostly just announce my visceral reaction, that is, one of disliking.

Bryan Stoudt, when I expressed this, well asked me whether I had a personal reason for my aversion. Did Calvin’s thought challenge my, or a friend’s, story? How did it destabilize me? Did it invalidate my experience? Bryan did not further his question, and these follow-ups are my own, but I think it is an important question, whatever it could mean. It is important to contextualize our own reactions, as much as the text we are reading.

First, though, I am curious of the context Calvin is writing in. Obviously he is writing early on in the Reformation. He precedes considerably the Thirty Years War but already he is dealing with a climate of conflict. In his dedication to King Francis I, Calvin describes the rife ideological conflict, and presents his book as the correct teachings. This general milieu is obvious and well known. I am more curious to the specific voices and ideas that Calvin in confronting. So far I am only through the first two chapters of the 1541 edition, On the Knowledge of God and On the Knowledge of Man and Free Will. Calvin presents a lot in these two sections but it all seems to be the product of a single, central claim. God is all-powerful. This is Calvin’s thesis. Everything else, it appears, is either a result of or means to this claim. Calvin certainly means his harsh words against humanity as he announces his depravity, but it is not his purpose. It is the consequence of making God the author of all that is good. Similarly, the elect is a result of reserving all praise for God.

Were people at the time denying God’s omnipotence? So far Calvin has made none of Luther’s incendiary anti-papal, antichrist-announcing claims, but is Calvin’s more measured rhetoric still primarily a critique of hierarchical, pope-obeying, saint-adoring, Catholic doctrine? Is he undermining the Roman system by denying authority to all men? Perhaps, but it appears too indirect. Instead he is primarily responding to a theology of works-considering (-based, I believe, is not sufficiently inclusive) salvation. Is he responding to any group or event especially? Is he mainly reacting out of a simple and admirable desire for correct teaching or is there something darker looming which he reacts against?

Now let us return to my own context — or, simply, my own text. What is it that produces friction between Calvin’s Institutes and me? To assess this I should first identify the ideas that I find discomfiting. The consequence of Calvin’s emphasis on God’s total power is to make God arbitrary. Calvin thoroughly refuses any system of salvation dependent on any human merit. He here includes even the act of faith: justification is dependent only on faith, and faith is dependent only on God’s grace. Thus we have the elect. Only those God chooses have faith, and thus only they are justified. If justification is entirely dependent on grace, then God must be arbitrary. Why then does he choose whom he chooses? Arbitrariness in itself is palatable, but I find more unsettling it’s consequences. It makes God either weak or unloving.

God’s arbitrariness does not deny God’s graciousness (for it is founded upon it) but it does seem to deny that he is loving, characteristically. He is more concerned with his agenda than with our salvation. He does not seek what is good for us, except for a select few. A person could respond that God does want what is good for us, but that he does not enact it. One can only maintain this view, however, alongside a separate belief that while God is omnipotent, he voluntarily cedes power so that people, in their free will, can turn toward him. (Return to this. Calvin refutes this view, but that does not deny the dependency of loving God on it.) If everything is as God wills (for Calvin affirms that even wickedness God intends, binaristically operating as either active or inactive) then it follows that God can achieve whatever he desires. God’s will can only not match his yearning if he is under constraint, internally or externally applied. Unless we choose to claim God’s weakness, which is opposite of Calvin’s claim, the constraint must come from within. If God voluntarily cedes power he still, always possessing that power, could achieve what he wants, but chooses not to. His will and desire are separated by the choice to give people free will. He waits — actively, mind you — for people to choose to follow him. (Calvin, too, allows people free will but this free will only ever chooses evil; it is therefore only ever a will in one direction, unless God gives his grace.) If, however, people cannot choose God, but instead only be directed towards him or fall into corruption, then God does not wait for anything, for there is nothing to wait for: God knows that without his grace no one will come to him. What, then, separates God’s will and his desire? If his restraint is not his allowing us to choose him, what can it be? The response, I imagine, is that God and his agenda are unfathomable. We, as humans, cannot hope to conceive why God does as he does. While this answer may be so, unsatisfying as it is, that constraining agenda takes precedence over a commitment to his people. He has a higher desire than that people come to him or that they flourish in his glory. This stronger desire comes in the way of his being loving. His grace-bestowing is no longer an act of love, but an act in service of that stronger desire, of which the elect are beneficiaries.

This debate raises similar questions of God’s motive for creation of humanity. It can no longer be that God desires relationship with his creation, as is often said today. If it were so, he would act towards this end. I would say that he has and does, through Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. If, however, the consequent justification is only available to a few elect, what is the purpose of humanity as a whole?

That God is not characterized by his love, but instead by his adherence to an unfathomable agenda, or that he is weak to some external constraint, are both unpalatable. They deny the very fundamentals of my belief in God. Calvin’s ideas, however, are not all that are unsettling about Calvin’s work. Indeed, his ideas would be very easily not unsettling if I could surmount them. Instead I find his arguments convincing, even if unattractive. I find myself resisting less Calvin, than the system he describes. “It’s not God I don’t accept, understand this, I do not accept the world, that He created, this world of God’s, and cannot agree with it” — except here it is that Calvin and God’s creation as he portrays it. No, I cannot easily refute Calvin except to say I do not like what he has to say. More and more, I find him unpalatable, rather than wrong.

Perhaps more unsettling than the system he presents, then, are my inability to refute it and, at the root of that, the recognition that indeed I’ve never disagreed with Calvin as much as I would like. Calvin has not so much convinced me, as identified the incoherence or incompleteness of my own thinking, and, following that identification, enforced coherence. He takes ideas that I willingly believe, and ensures that I, the reader, understand the consequences of that belief. I have always believed that God could use evil, but I would not have said that he intends it. I would say that justification is not dependent on merit, but would not consider faith a good work. I sympathize with Donne’s “Batter my heart” and feel that I can never “be chaste, except you ravish me,” but am unwilling to systematize that experience as an exclusive truth. If I were to work with my notes I could identify more ways in which Calvin has identified the inconsistency and incompatibility of my thought.

One concept that Calvin has problematized for me is that of original sin. I have always considered it true. With Calvin, however, it takes on dangerous repercussions. I gladly (or sorrowfully but willingly) accept that we bear Adam and Eve’s sin — whatever the physical or historical nature of the story. I, though, have believed that through God’s transformative work we can revolt from that original sin and turn to God. Calvin would agree with this statement except for “can”. Because we do not cooperate with God, but instead God’s grace is the only agent, it is not that “we can revolt and turn to God.” Instead, “we do revolt and turn to God,” for God has done the work. We do not have choice in the matter, and are either recipients or not of God’s grace. This removal of choice by Calvin, means that we are responsible not for our choice but for our nature. The wicked deserve perdition not because they (we) do not choose God, but because their (our) nature is corrupt. They have no opportunity to not be corrupt, because God never deigns his grace upon them. Calvin has no qualms with this scheme: our corruption is so reprehensible that it deserves death (and, I suppose, it always gets it — whether in an elected person’s transformation, or a non-elected person’s death). I, though, find this definition of responsibility dangerous — not necessarily in its immediate application but in its extension. That people are responsible for their corruption means that they are responsible for that which they received by birth, for something in which they had no choice. They are responsible for their origins. This has frightening ramifications for our consideration of systemic injustice. If we believe that people are responsible for their origins, then they deserve their fate. The hungry-born deserve their hunger, the poor-born deserve their poverty, the slave-born deserve their enslavement. What need is there then for justice? Indeed, justice already exists for them. They can receive grace, and be brought out of poverty or slavery, but they do not deserve it, and no one owes it them. We have no obligation to work for justice, because the system is just by default.

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