So I’ve been reading a bunch of theology for my degree, as well as a bit of peripheral stuff just to keep my hand in. I haven’t been writing about it here, because if I’m writing here, I should really be writing for my thesis. That said, as we’re moving into the final phase of the thesis, I’m starting to look to future projects. It’s got me thinking about the stuff I’ve read over this year. Do I go back over it all and write it up here? Or do I just move forwards with new reading? Let’s talk about Calvin.
Calvin’s a good example of someone I started reading on the periphery who’s sneaking into bits of my thesis. His theories around Biblical interpretation happen to parallel the function of miracles in Dark Souls – anyway, I don’t want to talk about that here. Some of this stuff taps into Calvin’s thoughts on predestination, which is what I wanted to talk about today. I’ve never really known anything about Calvin’s predestination, except that nobody seems to like it. But in reading a bit around it, you can see how he comes to the conclusion.
The basic question starts like this: how do we come to know God? Obviously there’s the whole Bible thing, but how do we decide that the Bible has authority? Again, obviously there’s a culture of Christian thought and belief and you might have been brought into Christianity by your parents, but again, how do we come to decide that what we’re taught by our parents is true? If you just believe in God because your parents told you to, you’re probably a bit dumb. By that logic, you probably also believe in Santa. The question’s not about the different societal routes into Christian faith – it’s more a spiritual question. How do we come to know God – how do we come to meet Him in a personal way?
For Calvin, we don’t encounter God through our own strength or intelligence. There’s nothing within us that allows us to discover God on our own terms. Rather, we are brought into the presence of God by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings us into communion with God through Jesus Christ. This is important for Calvin: it’s not a movement that we can make independently. It’s all tied up in the Incarnation and the nature of salvation. Basically, when Jesus turns into a human, he unites the human form with the divine – he elevates humanity. But we’re not elevated in ourselves, in our current human form – we’re only elevated in Christ. In ourselves, we’re still sinful and a bit shit, and we’ll often do bad things. It’s only in communion with Christ that we enter into that salvation – which for Calvin is why communion (and the church service and the preaching of the gospel) are all so important. They are elements of communion with Christ, moments in which we die to ourselves and live in Christ and through redemption in Christ may come to the Father. That idea of entering into Christ is super important – in communion, we are not ourselves. Our selves are supplanted by Christ.
So entering into communion is great, and it’s all part of our salvation, entering into Christ and so on. We can’t come to God the Father except through/in Christ. But for Calvin, we can’t even enter into communion with Christ by ourselves. That’s not a movement that we activate. For Calvin, we are lifted into Christ by the Holy Spirit. It’s a movement initiated and sustained by the Spirit. With all of that framework in mind, we can now turn to predestination.
So the Holy Spirit is responsible for uplifting people into Christ. For Calvin, that uplifting can happen through the preaching of the gospel – which basically makes the sermon into like a metaphysical event, rather than just an intellectual or moral exercise in learning some good life lessons or whatever. The actual event of preaching the gospel becomes a sacrament that joins the listeners with Christ. But here’s the thing – if the Spirit is doing all the work of lifting people up into Christ, why is it that some people (non-Christians) are not uplifted when they hear the gospel preached? Why doesn’t the Spirit bring them into God in those moments? Why, in other words, do non-Christian people even exist? Calvin’s answer is that the Spirit basically just ignores some people. And if the Spirit is ignoring them now, there’s probably been a plan to ignore them for a while (because God is unchanging and knew everything from the start of time), and that’s how predestination works. God had chosen not to uplift certain people before they were even born.
Obviously this seems like a shitty thing for God to do. It suggests that some people were created for the explicit purpose of getting fucked in Hell for eternity, and that’s why everyone hates predestination. And you can reject predestination if you like. That’s fine. But predestination is presented as the solution to a problem. If you reject it, you need another solution. If the Spirit lifts people into Christ, why isn’t everyone uplifted? Maybe we have to choose whether or not to respond to the call of the Spirit. Well, that’s a nice theory, but it suggests that we’re able to independently use our reason to judge whether or not something is actually the legitimate call of the real legitimate God. This is a problem for Calvin, who sees our human reason as corrupted beyond repair. For Calvin, we don’t have the capacity in ourselves to distinguish God’s call. We are blinded to God, and enslaved to sin – which is why we need Christ as liberator.
A related idea here is the distinction between faith and works. We know that we’re not saved by our good works, because they’re just not good enough. Being good enough is not something that’s in our power. That’s why we need faith – it allows us to enter communion with God, not on our own merit but through the sacrifice of Christ, which lifts us up into communion with God. Here’s the thing: the point of justification by faith is that we’re justified by the actions of Christ, not by our actions. That’s faith vs. works. But let’s say we’re responsible for responding to the call of the Spirit. The Spirit calls, and then we have to respond. Isn’t that a type of action on our part? Isn’t it saying that we earn salvation by performing this particular action, this one work that cements our place in heaven? And if we’re responsible for our own justification, even in part, isn’t that the essence of works over faith? Again: if faith is bestowed by the Spirit, as Calvin suggests, then the work of the faith-response is not ours. It is gifted to us by God. But if the work of the faith-response is ours, then are we not in part justified by the things we do?
I’ll finish with this: you might have noted that I didn’t really cite any specific Calvin texts or references. That’s because I’m not reading Calvin directly. I’m reading The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald McKim. Most of my comments are growing out of the discussion of Calvin there, rather than directly from the Institutes or something.