Friday 10 April 2015

Calvin's genius for wretchedness

“It has been said – and I admit that it’s a perfectly legitimate assessment – that the best thing is not to be born, while the second best is to die early” (Institutes 3.9.4).

Calvin did not live in happy times, and he was not a happy theologian. He was, like many of the greatest thinkers of our tradition, a troubled soul. Over all the pages of his works there is something of the hospital waiting room, a lingering air of grief and wretchedness. Some people don’t like that about Calvin. They want to see their theologians smile. But for me Calvin’s unhappiness is one of the things that makes him worth reading. Not that mere wretchedness is good for anyone. But wretchedness translated into art is a balm for the spirit. That is why we love Greek tragedy and Homer and the Book of Job – and why we ought to love reading Calvin.

I do not mean to say that Calvin’s theology is joyless. How could it be? It’s a theology of predestinating grace, of Christ and all his benefits, of the Holy Spirit poured out in human community. Theologically speaking, there’s joy around every corner. Calvin believes in joy and blessedness: he believes it by the skin of his teeth. He is a pastor of refugees. He lives and works and prays among the wretched of the earth.

As a general rule, when Calvin wants to describe the life of blessedness he resorts to theological clichés. It is when he takes up the theme of misery that he speaks in his own voice – and what a voice! He is not like Shakespeare who can write comedy with the right hand and tragedy with the left. Calvin’s genius is all for tragedy. His greatest preaching was the mighty series on the Book of Job. I know a fellow who converted to Christianity after reading Calvin’s sermons on Job: a reminder that happy thoughts are not always the best medicine.

Few writers in western tradition can depict human misery with such original power and freshness. I will give you one example. The 1541 edition of the Institutes has a chapter on the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Calvin produces an array of arguments to prove that grace, faith, and blessedness are essentially the same in the Old Testament and the New. The most characteristically Calvinian of these arguments is that believers in the Old Testament were just as miserable and dissatisfied with life as we are today: proof that they could not have been looking to God for rewards in this life, but were passing through this world as strangers and pilgrims on the way to a heavenly home. Calvin surveys the great heroes of the Old Testament and shows that each of them was an utterly miserable wretch. He calls Jacob “a patron and model of the greatest wretchedness one could say” (1541 Institutes, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, p. 393). And here is his depiction of Noah (pp. 391-92):

“Noah spent a great part of his life constructing the ark with great inconvenience and suffering, while all the world rejoiced in delights and pleasures. The fact that he escaped from death turned into a greater misery than if he had died a hundred times. For besides the fact that the ark was like his tomb for ten months, is there anything more difficult or unpalatable than to be kept so long plunged into the dung and filth of the animals in a place without air? After having escaped so many difficulties, he fell into cause for new sadness…” – and so on!
Noah always seems pretty cheerful in the rainbow-coloured illustrations of children’s Bibles. He is pictured as a congenial zoo-keeper. We take for granted that he liked the animals. It takes the genius of Calvin to make us smell the dung and breathe the stifling air and see a poor man cringing in the darkness of a floating tomb, his sad heart filled with loathing for all beasts and fowls and everything that creeps upon the earth.


John Hartley said...

Ben, I think you might enjoy the character of Marvin in Douglas Adams' "Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. (Probably you already have.) And even Calvin did not write of the emotions involved in being left in a car park for 576 thousand million years. Mind you, I always think the writer of the book of Proverbs missed a trick when he failed to record: "Isn't it funny that whenever you think life cannot get any worse ... it does!".

Unknown said...

Who was it that pointed out that when experiencing bliss, one can't remember misery, and when in the midst of misery, we can't remember bliss? Seems like Calvin had a different life...he ONLY could experience misery not matter what? Anybody talk about him being psychologically depressed? Or, is it that buying into predestination is asking for a dark world-view? It would be for me...

Ben Myers said...

Ann, thanks for your comment. But I have to reply quite emphatically: No, no, no! It won't do to start talking about psychology and depression and prozac: that's not it at all. We're not talking here about someone who merely felt wretched, but someone whose world was objectively wretched. When Calvin dedicated the Institutes to the King of France in 1535, he begged for mercy and protection, describing the plight of protestant Christians as follows: "O most Magnificent King, ... although your heart is presently turned away and estranged from us - even inflamed against us - still I hope that we may recover its grace.... But if on the contrary the evil speaking of those who wish us ill so much hinders your hearing that the accused have no place to defend themselves; or if on the other hand these impetuous madmen forever practice cruelty by prison, beatings, Gehennas, amputations, and burnings, without your putting things in order; we will certainly be near to death, like sheep devoted to the slaughter. Nevertheless if this is so, still we will possess our souls in patience and await the strong hand of the Lord..." It's in this context that Calvin takes so much comfort from the idea of predestination. For him, it's not a gloomy doctrine but a much-needed consolation for a gloomy world. One more quote from the Institutes (p. 245 in Elsie McKee's translation): "Now it is no small matter to know that we are called into the unity of the church which has been elected and set apart by the Lord God to be the body and fullness of Christ.... For when we have that, our salvation is upheld with such a firm support that if all the frame of the world were undermined, our salvation would remain firm and unshaken."

Anonymous said...


Your response to Ann was right on the money. In a very recent Viola article on "Shocking Facts" we didn't know about Calvin ( he tries to impugn Calvin's authenticity because of x, y, and z, but in doing so, falls into the historical fallacy just Ann would have Calvin be, quite anachronistically, diagnosed with clinical depression according to modern psychological standards. But as you said, all this is absurd. I cannot imagine the hardship and sufferings of life for a typical 16th century European, hence, we must read Calvin charitably, in light of the proper circumstances. It is in this mode that Calvin's theology comes to life, that his predestination serves as a golden nugget of hope and unshakable security for those Genevans, praying in faith like the OT prophets, awaiting that 'better day.' Great stuff.

Unknown said...

OK, point taken. So Calvin found comfort in predestination because of the misery in his own world. I'm sure I was reacting to a more general and theological interpretation of predestination, which has never made much sense to me. Specifically, the part about predestination that I can't stomach is (obviously) that some are predestined to hell. Maybe Calvin didn't really believe that and it has been attributed to him unfairly?

Jade Yee said...

Hi Ann,
I'm not a student of Calvin's institutes so can't comment on him or his position but a helpful lecturer once answered a similar question about predestination. He reminded us that because of the Fall, all of us are destined for hell. This is why predestination or being chosen by God is such an amazing grace! I take from Ben that is why Calvin finds such comfort from it.
Thank you Ben.

Anonymous said...

Calvin may have lived in pretty gloomy times, but the fact that he believed his doctrine of predestination would provide consolation proves he was pretty terrible when it comes to understanding human psychology. I think it's fair to say that the majority of people find his presentation of the predestination not comforting but extremely upsetting. But whatever rings your cherries.

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