Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's Calvin Time

It’s that time of year again. The time when Oklahoma skies and Oklahoma grass dry up. The time when the Wendy’s on campus is almost empty on weekdays. But that’s OK, because I’m not sure I want everyone to see my most frequent lunch date these days. Yes, it’s Calvin time.

In 2007, I set myself the task of reading ten percent of Jean Calvin’s Institutes each year for ten years. And then a few years later, I set myself the task of reporting my reading experiences on this blog. Last year, those two determined freight trains met for the first time, but the collision was not nearly so horrific as I had imagined. In fact, an old Calvinist friend called me up last year to apologize for something that had happened between us years ago, and I think my Calvin post may have given him the urge to contact me after all that time. When something that good comes out of it, I guess I should think of this yearly combination as less of a collision of two trains and more a confluence of two rivers.

This year I got to the what most people think of when they think of Calvin’s theology: the predestination of the elect. Although he calls anyone who disagrees with him childish and pernicious and says that they have “forgotten to be men,” he lays out the biblical argument for the doctrine fairly neatly. But unfortunately he doesn’t fully clarify his supposedly peculiar view of it. If Calvin has a systematic thread that ties the huge tome together, its his polemical defensiveness. I wish (as always) that he had skipped the raillery and spent the time referring to other parts of the work regularly in order to clarify how different doctrines fit together. In the first or second year, I read that God holds sovereign sway over his creatures to the point that no evil plan enters a devil’s head without coming directly from God. So apparently rational creatures have no free will at all – except for Adam. A year or so after that, I read that Adam could have “lifted himself up” to meet God if he had so desired. I was hoping this year’s section would help reconcile the two passages, but if the reconciliation was there, I didn’t see it.

As I said in last year’s Calvin post, I decided to read Calvin partly because I wanted to confirm my suspicion that he didn’t really say what some Calvinists think he said. I was very happy this year to see Calvin say that God doesn’t hate the reprobate; I had had at least two Calvinists tell me that God loved only the elect. Calvin doesn’t use the word “love” in this context, but he does say that God doesn’t hate them and that He shows kindness to them. He also says, contrary to what a Calvinist troll (of the internet variety) once told me, that God does in fact offer salvation to all who wish to accept it, with the understanding that only the elect will wish to take it. Although I read in this year’s pages about four of the petals of Calvin’s TULIP, I didn’t see anything about the third, limited atonement, so I don’t know if he explained it differently from the way some of his twenty-first century disciples do, but I hope so.

Because I swallowed a double dose the first year, I’ve read seventy percent of the Institutes now; only thirty percent to go. Now I’m fairly certain I’m the first person ever to utter this sentence: I’m so glad I only have three more years of reading Calvin! Between his name-calling, the confusing organization, and the questions about the difference between what Calvin said and what Calvinists say, the experience is more confusing and frustrating than edifying or informative. The book has offered me some occasional insight and inspiration, and this year’s ten percent was certainly the most interesting so far. It’s just that if I want to read about the predestination of the elect, a doctrine I have no qualms about, I prefer Aquinas’s explanation.

By the way, if you’re thinking about responding to this post, please read last year’s post first.

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