A Fragile Glory: John Calvin on the Grandeur of Human Inability

John Calvin has the unfortunate reputation of having been a rather dour and depressive individual. Among the countless caricatures that have proliferated in various publications about Calvin, perhaps Pope Francis said it best when he called Calvin “that cold Frenchman” who gave birth to a “squalor…whose foundation is faith in the total corruption of human nature”. Ranking close to Luther and his view of the bondage of the will, Calvin and his doctrine of total depravity are often considered to have disparaged humanity and degraded human nature to vile and loathsome depths, far removed from the goodness and grace which Scripture ostensibly attributes to them.

I would like to suggest, following Calvin scholar Julie Canlis, that such a conception of Calvin is just as disfigured and distorted, if not more so, than the dismal picture that he supposedly painted of fallen human beings. Rather, Calvin stressed the fragility, the depravity, and the resultant inability of humanity to raise itself to God precisely for the purpose of liberating and exalting humanity to its rightful place as image-bearers of God and participants in the divine nature. Canlis writes:

Calvin’s notion of mediation is governed by communion. The greater reason is that Calvin establishes the Mediator, rather than righteousness, as our primary bond with God. The structure of our existence, the “proper condition of creatures, is to keep close to God.” Not even righteousness can circumvent this primary anthropology, which relates all humanity to God in the second person of the Trinity. Calvin reacts against medieval theologies of grace because they prohibit this specific anthropology. Instead of taking creaturely (dependent) anthropology as opportunity for participation, medieval theologians took it as weakness and thus invented capacities that we do not have. Calvin views our anthropology as occasion for constant communion, using even f593a-calvinsladderour unfallen state as proof. Thus we see that, for Calvin, our telos is not moral perfection (outside the Mediator) but communion. This is why redemption has surpassed creation: we now have the “life-giving Spirit,” who enables us to participate in Christ more fully and to enjoy the Father’s fatherhood.

This dependent anthropology is compounded by Calvin’s second reason for a mediator: creaturely frailty. Unfallen creatures (and even angels) not only lack sufficient righteousness, but their lives lack “a constancy and stability.”Again, Calvin makes his point by using a best-case scenario: angels…As early as the 1536 Institutes, Calvin held that even angels (“so far as they are creatures”) are “liable to change and to sin, and consequently their happiness would not have been eternal…. Men had been lost, and angels were not beyond the reach of danger.” Calvin’s anthropology can be easily obscured here if readers do not ask what creaturely frailty is for. Hidden in this passage is Calvin’s definition of the creature: one whose finitude (and potential for defection) is certain but who has already been provided for, in that “Christ is already and eternally the Mediator between creatures and their Creator.” For all too long the negative cast of such a definition has been overplayed. When we interpret this as Calvin’s pessimism about creaturely capacity, we have lost Calvin’s startling vision of participation. For Calvin, even the perfect (nonfallen) creature must constantly be united to the Mediator. This is its condition. This is its glory. “The proper condition of creatures is to keep close to God.”

It would be a common but basic error to hold this extrinsic, relational orientation responsible for demeaning creaturely reality itself. For Calvin, being creaturely (and, as we shall see, being imago Dei) is to accept gratefully our status as created – with its accompanying conditions of finitude. Adam’s life in the garden was entirely dependent on this acceptance; “he could not otherwise retain it than by acknowledging that it was received from Him.” Although at times Calvin’s rhetoric degenerates into an obsession with creaturely limitation, what needs to be remembered is this: human “lack” is part of its fundamental need for a divine partner. At times this may come across as rubbing our noses in our own finitude, but it is more true to Calvin to understand that this interpretive pressure is to glory in our unique status as dependent, loved, even participating in God. Calvin’s emphasis on creaturely frailty and sin is not to stress the distance from God but to stress that it is God who takes the initiative with us – not we with him…Calvin can appear to be against humanness, but he is predominantly against a humanness that is defined without reference to Christ…[W]hat Calvin is attempting is to free humanity to be itself.[1]

What Canlis articulates here may seem counterintuitive to some, but such is the paradox that obtains when full weight is given to the scandal and folly of the God who saves by humiliating himself to the point of death on a cross (1 Cor. 1:18-31). Canlis rightly notes that while Calvin could at times overstate his case, his aim in emphasizing human frailty and inability was not to debase humanity but to revel in its true glory! The reason for this is because, as creatures, human beings are not equal to the Creator but have been created for the purpose of personal communion with and participation in the Triune life.

To think, on the other hand, that humanity has some measure of intrinsic power to reach God or some innate capability that, as Thomas Aquinas would say, needs only to be elevated and perfected by grace to be able to attain the beatific vision would ultimately mean that humanity is possessed of some kind of independent possibility in relation to God. Not only would this blur the absolutely indispensable line of demarcation between Creator and creature (for only the former can be said to be self-sufficient and autonomous), but it would effectively deprive humanity of its true glory as God’s image-bearer. By definition, an image-bearer, like a mirror, does not achieve its end through reflecting its own glory but only by reflecting the glory of the One who created it!

To be human – truly, fully, beautifully, gloriously human – is to be brought into reconciling communion with and by the God who is the author of all life and the fountain of all love and joy. As creatures – and fallen creatures at that! – it is our peculiar glory to be wholly dependent on our Creator. It is when we are empty of ourselves that we are able to be filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit. It is when we come to the end of ourselves that we find in Christ our true beginning. It is precisely our innate powerlessness that permits us to experience God’s power. It is when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves. It is by exulting in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect. It is in our humiliation that we are elevated by sheer grace to an exalted status.

This is Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fragile glory, and it is for this reason that he never ceased to accentuate the depths of human need and weakness: “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Indeed, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor. 1:27-29, 31).

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[1] Julie Canlis, 2010. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (Kindle Locations 680-708). See this as well for the exact citations of Calvin’s writings.

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