You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Punking John Calvin

This latest installment considers the second chapter of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: 'Of the Knowledge of Man and Free Will.' Calvin has a pretty low view of man's ability to understand the gospel apart from God's direct action. I'm not so sure, so I examined two of the references he uses to prove his point. I think he misses the Apostle John's use of light and darkness as demonstrated below.

The second chapter of Calvin’s Institutes concerns the abilities, or rather disabilities of man. Here’s a paraphrase of one part: You suck at thinking, especially about God. In this section, Calvin considered the philosophers attempts to understand God, and recognized their inability and recommends considering Scripture as more valuable than reason.

As Calvin considers passages in the gospel of John to establish his point, he cites John 1:4-5 and 1:10. The conclusion he draws from these portions reads thus:

"For by these words he (John) well teaches that the human soul is somewhat illuminated by the light of God so that it is never devoid of some flame, or at least of some spark. But likewise he notes that it cannot understand God by this illumination [Jn. 1:10]. Why not? Because with regard to the knowledge of God all its spirit is pure obscurity, for when the Holy Spirit calls people ‘darkness’ He strips them of every faculty of spiritual understanding."

If I understand his point correctly, Calvin stated that (1) the light of God attempts to illuminate man’s darkened mind and (2) the darkness equals a complete absence of spiritual understanding. Checking all of Calvin’s Scripture references daunts the hardiest of souls, but this one struck me as important. How did Calvin understand the Apostle John? Does John use the idea of ‘darkness’ in as absolute a sense as Calvin seems to? How does John use the idea of ‘light’? Fortunately, John uses the idea of darkness in only a few places, often in contrast to the idea of light.

The specific word for darkness used in Calvin’s citations occurs as a figurative usage for ‘darkening of the mind or spirit’ . John seems particularly fond of this usage and it occurs in Jn. 1:5ab, 8:12, 12:35a and perhaps b, and 12:46. Similar usage is rare outside John, one usage in Matthew 4:16 and several further usages in 1 John. John uses the term literally twice, to refer to actual darkness (Jn. 6:17, 20:1 and perhaps 12:35). John consistently uses this word for opposition to ‘the light’ which he explicitly reveals in several contexts.

John 8:12: “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 12:46: “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me will not remain in darkness.”

The concept of darkness as spiritual understanding presented in John does resonate with Calvin’s usage to a point. Those who are outside the light remain in spiritual ignorance. There may be an inconsistency in Calvin’s usage of ‘the light.’ Calvin presents the light as a general illumination from God with no mention of the person of Christ, a usage foreign to John. In John, the light specifically refers to the person of Christ. Calvin presents darkness as man’s stubborn ignorance that resists illumination. John presents darkness as a condition of men who reject the person of Christ. When John writes in his first chapter that: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (Jn 1:5), he specifically refers to the rejection of Christ by the spiritually darkened men of the time. This cursory examination of a small portion of the available data suggests further study of Calvin’s use of darkness in John's Gospel.

In order to properly consider how Calvin understands John, I would need to refer to Calvin's commentaries, research journals and scholarly commentaries. The tentative conclusion at the end reflects the need for further study.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Glenn Beck of the Sixteenth Century?

I'm taking a class on John Calvin and our weekly reading summaries take the form of a blog post highlighting something that 'struck' us from the reading. Here's the latest installment:

John Calvin’s world was filled with turmoil. Religious tensions in France forced him into exile in Geneva, where he wrote a pastoral and theological guide called: Institutes of the Christian Religion. He wrote it originally in Latin, the scholarly language of the day and translated it into French to be an aid to his countrymen. In the Dedication to the French king, Calvin describes these tensions, which had political, economic and religious facets like this:

"Thus from the individual vices of a number of people have come public error, or rather a common consent to vice which these valiant men want now to consider as law. Those who are not completely blind will see that practically oceans of evil have inundated the earth and the whole world is infected by a number of deadly plagues – in short, that everything is fallen into ruin so that one must either despair of the human condition, or put such evils in order even by extreme remedies."

Wait a minute?! Is that John Calvin or Glenn Beck? The modern and pre-modern political commentators note the importance of individual virtue for public good, an idea that echoes throughout human history. Individuals harbor their little vices, which then bleed into public errors and the culture shifts to an expectation of vice. The expectation of vice grows and infects everything that it touches, until the culture eats itself and like the proverbial Phoenix, and a new culture (political, religious, or social) rises from the ashes. It’s nothing really new, just history.

I’m no saint, nor am I a politician, but I have seen the face of evil by dealing daily with my adopted daughter’s mental illness, caused, at least at some level, by the abuse she suffered as a little girl. The financial, personal and societal costs continue to mount in the application of hoped-for remedies to close this one little part of the destruction wrought ultimately by a culture which turns a blind eye to ‘little’ problems. Little gaps in virtue… downloading music because ‘everybody does it’ means that it’s okay to steal. Stealing a little bit of data might lead into stealing love from our spouse: an ‘acceptable’ level of lust. The lust that gnaws at the fabric of marriage until the basic unit of society shifts from a lifelong commitment to a social contract open to all, dropped as quickly as the deposit on your apartment and for about the same cost. The destruction of family…

John Calvin’s alienation from his homeland resulted from the long, slow corruption of the Roman Catholic Church that led to war, exile, death and homelessness. At long last, the ‘extreme remedies’ were applied: intellectually by scholars and practically by pastors and the laity. He died in exile from his homeland, paying that price and more for his contributions to the Christian faith. He quoted Habbakuk 1:2, “How long, O Lord?” on the title page of the Institutes. As I view the political, religious and social problems in our society, Habakkuk resonates with me, too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Intensity vs Apathy?

Reading Bruce Gordon’s Calvin, I’m struck in the first few chapters by the intensity of the 1500’s. Political and religious forces work together attempting to forge a unified society wherein every religious choice has political implications, and vice versa. Ideas rock the foundations of society as new forms of Christianity fight for intellectual and political credibility. These ideas spring forth from a renewed interest in the original languages of Scripture and more reliable understanding of its meaning.

The awakening of interest in the original sources and languages of the Christian faith leading up to the Reformation reveals contradictions between the source of the faith (the Bible) and the practices of Catholic Christianity. These contradictions led to an unsuccessful attempt at reform within the Roman Catholic Church. Convinced of the need for a Bible-based Christianity, reformers begin rending themselves from the Catholic Church. While this sounds to modern ears as a simple transition from the one church to another church across town (or across the street), in the 1500’s you were either in the church or outside it. There were no options within Christianity; only hell itself awaits those who step away from the church.
As the ideas of the Reformers percolate through society, the Roman Catholic Church is losing her grip on the enforcement of doctrinal unity over the common people, the intellectual classes and the political leadership. Wealthy and influential political leaders risk power and position to protect leading Reformation thinkers and sway public opinion toward the burgeoning Reformed faith(s). Political power and influence combine with religious ideology in an environment where your religious beliefs could cost your position, your economic security, or your life. In this intense political and religious environment, several leading thinkers achieve both notoriety and fame engaging these ideas -and occasionally each other- in the pulpit and in print.

The intensity of the time is matched by the intensity of personality and intellect among the Reformers. John Calvin is one of these men, whose plans for the career of a scholar and author transmogrify into the leadership of one faction within the larger Reformation movement. This man, who desired literary study became a powerful force in the rupture of Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church.

Does contemporary Christianity lack this intensity? Perhaps we don’t have the same critical need for theological reform, but it seems that our focal points lack the intense intellectual study of the Bible that made the Reformation such a resonating force in the history of the church. It seems the best we can muster is passion for the loving Christ at the expense of the doctrinal Christ. You remember, don’t you? The Christ who overturned tables and made a whip to drive out the money-changers in the temple? What about His mild-mannered followers? No confrontation there, right? What about the screaming mob in Ephesus, shouting out blasphemous adoration of their false goddess, Aphrodite? Paul had to be stopped from going into the amphitheater to defend (argue intellectually for) Christianity.

While I’m sure that John Calvin and I would disagree theologically on many points. I sure do admire the man’s passionate commitment to his ideas and to his Lord. In our emasculated Christian love-fest, perhaps it’s time we grew a pair, hit the books, and engaged in vigorous debate about things that really matter.