Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading Calvin Through the Prism of History and Faith

In my reading I am moving backward from the English Puritans to Calvin's Institutes. I read two abridged versions of the Institutes (about 250 pages each) and thought it was time to tackle the entire work whole for which I am planning several months. I'm working with the Henry Beveridge translated which is amiable in one volume from Eerdman's

Perhaps the following might be of some interest from Book One, Ch 14 where previously Calvin had been wearily taking on various heterodox positions challenging his understanding of the orthodox position on the mystery and revelation of the Trinity. Throughout the Institutes, Calvin seems quick to point out the gap between our knowledge and the unfathomable depth of God's awesome reality in which even the most professedly faithful catch only a glimpse or two. He says, "For though our eyes, in whatsoever direction they turn, are forced to behold the works of God, we see how fleeting our attention is, and how quickly pious thoughts, if any arise, vanish away." One might think that a holy God who made man and woman in his own image would have embedded human consciousness with the power to remain intimately connected to himself. If so that would make the gap twe all experience in our allegience to God through our flawed First Adamic fallen identity "as inconsistent with the power of God." Thus the conceit of human consciousness when it seeks to unravel the mystery of God's revelation on its own terms.

Such curiosity which seeks to move beyond what biblical revelatiion illuminates is not only vein,on Calvin's interpretation, but causes us needless suffering in the quest to seek fulfillment on our own terms rather than on God's. That is, as Calvin put it,"until human reason is subdued to the obedience of faith, and learns to welcome the alm quiescence to which the sanctification of the seventh day invites us" (p. 142).

One of the things Calvin is getting at throughout the Institutes is the sufficiency of Scripture for the knowledge we need to live in fidelity to the calling that God has gifted us with in which "his eternal Wisdom and Spirit are also set before us, in order that we may not dream or any other God than Him who desires to be recognized in that express image" (p. 143). To this I would add the significance of Deuteronomy 29:29 to the effect hat the secret things belong to God but the things that have been revealed are forever available to us.

Obviously one could critique Calvin from our 21st century vantage point in perhaps unnecessarily repressing the quest for knowledge particularly as manifest in the European Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, ad the ongoing quest of western secular intellectual thought, and this historical awareness is one factor that, in my view should be brought to the table in our own understanding of the faith once for all delivered to the saints and in our dialogue with those outside of the orthodox pathway. Yet, along with that historical conditioning in seeking to come to terms with Calvin's theology, I think it's equally, if not ultimately of more importance to seek to grasp something of what we perceive the Holy Spirit was conveying to Calvin throughout the various issues he was confronting in the Institutes and what that same Spirit,that same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and bestowed upon us (Romans 8:11) is seeking to convey to us some almost 500 years later.

Without at all seeking to support an anti-intellectual position, the message I do pick up from these passages is (a) the importance of placing one's intellectual curiosity under the authority and protection of God's guidance so as not to create a false idol of the mind; (b)the realization that in faith we have been, are, and will be given the insight we need to move forward in our own journeys through the Promised Land.

That does not necessarily close off any intellectual pursuits, including critical biblical scholarship, but I think it does put a perspective on the matter that a reading of Calvin through both the prism of historical and scientific awareness and faith as illuminated through our very fallible grasp of the Holy Spirit as mediated through the ages in which God, while the creator of human history is greater than human history, which in our age has become an idol of the mind and spirit.

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