Monday, June 27, 2011

Geneva Conventions

Today I come to a subject I've been dreading writing about since I started this blog last year. As part of my ten-year reading plan, I wanted to read all of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and each year I read one-tenth of it. Now I know a few Calvinists (it feels like a very small number) that I can have good conversations with, people who are interested in saying what they think, hearing what I think, discussing the angles, keeping a friendly tone, and departing as Christian friends. But I have encountered a large number of vocal Calvinists who have made me feel very uncomfortable through what seems like a belligerent determination to make it clear that their devotion to Calvin's teaching is greater than their devotion to me as a friend and to our mutual bond in the Body of Christ. On a number of occasions Calvinists with whom I was unacquainted have contacted me on the internet and taken the initiative to straighten out the errors in what they presumed to be my theology. I want to record some of my thoughts about this year's portion of the Institutes, but I don't relish receiving more online assaults. So for today I will try to restrict all my judgments to statements about my thoughts and reactions to Calvin, and not statements about either Calvin himself or his book. I may also have a few more statements about my reactions to Calvinists.

I decided to read Calvin first because I want to see what all the fuss is about. I want to read the original (OK, the translation of the original) presentation of the theology that seems to make some people mad with self-confidence, but I also read because I suspect that the people who have irritated me so much don't entirely agree with Calvin or even know exactly what he said. Mind, I don't pretend to say that they are truly mad with self-confidence, that the theology has made them this way, or that they are ignorant of Calvin's true ideas; I only say that affairs seem this way to me, and my view of everything in the world, including Calvinists, suffers the usual human distortions from self-interest, desire for stability and easy answers, limited mental faculties, and the whims and feelings of the moment.

I found some confirmation of a disconnect between Calvin and his present-day followers in this year's reading. My hazy impression of a faulty memory of one conversation tells me that some Calvinists sitting in my living room once told me that the unsaved could do no good works. That theological tenet may conceivably be true, but I can't see how. Common sense tells us that people all over the world of every religion and of no religion do good things every day: parents feed and teach their children, traders honor their contracts, employees perform their jobs with skill, and their employers pay them. Added to this (probably unduly rosy) view of the world are the words of Jesus. When He says, "What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children . . . ," I take it as an indication that the Son of God acknowledges that even evil people do good things for their children. As I read it, Calvin supports my view. In chapter 4 of book 3, he says (1) that unbelievers have various "excellent endowments" as gifts from God, (2) that common sense shows us a difference between, for instance, Trajan and Caligula, (3) that God "visits those [unbelievers] who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings," and (4) that God uses these virtuous actions to preserve human society. Calvin then makes what seems to me a responsible distinction when he goes on to say that unbelievers perform good works from motives other than that of serving and glorifying Jesus Christ and that they do not earn favor with God by these works since salvation comes by grace through faith. This all seems like reasonable, biblical teaching, but then I have no seminary training.

While I read Calvin for information, I also hope for spiritual teaching and encouragement; I want my experience with Calvin to make me better, not just more knowledgeable. And I've found several uplifting passages in my reading this year. Quickly reviewing the chapters from last year, I reread excellent passages on giving help to everyone who asks and on suffering all hardships with cheer amidst the pain and grief. Both points depend on remembering and identifying with Jesus and his suffering for us; why should we not gladly help the most annoying, loathsome person when he is marked with the image of God, and why should we not show patience under adversity when Jesus submitted to his Father's call to the cross? I also enjoyed passages praising God's continual mercy to the believer in showing favor on his imperfect attempts at living righteously. I found Calvin helpful in pointing out that after James says, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works?" the next uses of the word "faith" refer only to what the man says he has. And I think Calvin is correct in pointing out that commitments to legalism naturally deepen; the man who calls it a sin to drink a pleasant wine will go on to outlaw wine altogether and end by looking down on fresh water.

The good parts, though, are somewhat scarce for me. I find Calvin's polemical tone and name-calling tiresome, and they weaken the power of his message in my mind. Calvin can hardly outline a doctrine without railing against people of opposing views. "Our endeavour must rather be," he says in the chapter on Christian liberty, "while not suppressing this very necessary part of the doctrine, to obviate the absurd objections to which it usually gives rise." This statement makes it sound to me, in fact, as if his primary goal is destroying objections, not laying out the doctrine itself. Calvin does not seem to me to follow his own advice on cheerfully serving people who rub us the wrong way; he calls them "insane," "childish," "absurd," "hallucinatory," and "pestiferous." At one point he calls his opponents knowingly deceptive since his own doctrine is so "obvious." I wonder why such an "obvious" doctrine needs 1300 pages of explication and combative defense; my wonder only increases in chapter 19 where he says, "Their follies are scarcely worthy of refutation." And I can never read Calvin without remembering the deaths that many dissenters received in Calvin's Geneva.

I know that I'm as bad as Calvin; I can't talk about him without complaining about Calvinists that have annoyed me. My concern that the Unknown Calvinist will come trolling my site and launch a missile is probably exaggerated. These are only my impressions and reactions, and I would think it difficult for someone to argue that I don't indeed have the impression that I say I have. But if someone wants to argue, I'll try to show good cheer, following Calvin's advice rather than his example.

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