Ah man, this is fucking great. I think we’re on to something special with Calvin. If you’ve just tuned in, welcome: this is our first week with Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s a systematic theology, so structurally it’s got more in common with Aquinas’s Summa Theologica than with the assorted works of Luther. Luther’s stuff was much more polemical letters and pamphlets and so on, whereas Calvin and Aquinas actually sat down and wrote like an A to Z of Christian faith. We’re probably going to be making a lot of reference back to Aquinas in this series – he’s a great point of comparison. It’s interesting to see where Calvin differs from Aquinas, but also where he agrees.
So here’s an example. Aquinas says that God created the universe, and that His creation is fundamentally good. We’ve fucked things up a bunch, and caused a whole heap of problems, but at base, creation is good, existence is good, and ‘evil’ is just degraded goodness rather than a thing in itself. Calvin sort of takes the same idea, but he’s got a different perspective on it. In the first chapter of the Institutes, he focuses on the distance between us and God. In terms of brightness, he says, there’s obviously a huge difference between day and night. At night, it’s all dark, and during the day it’s pretty light. But that’s all very relative. Daytime only seems bright until you stare directly at the sun. When that happens, “the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence.” Where Aquinas thinks of creation as intimately connected to and predicated on God’s goodness, Calvin emphasises the staggering gulf between the two. When we truly recognise the immensity of God’s goodness, even our greatest and most noble impulses will seem “polluted with the greatest iniquity.” Compared to God, the greatest wisdom “will disgust by its extreme folly,” and the most virtuous energy “will be condemned as the most miserable impotence.” Woof.
So if you pulled Aquinas in here, he might say well, you know, Calvin isn’t fundamentally wrong, but he’s making some messy arguments. Calvin uses the gulf between humans and God to illustrate how evil and base we all are. Humans, in his view, are “but rottenness and a worm.” Uhh, okay – let’s just take a little step back here, and think about Adam and Eve, before the Fall. They’ve just been created, they’re perfect and sinless, and everything’s great. Isn’t there still a gulf between them and God? Aren’t they still utterly tiny and insignificant compared to the infinite perfection of the divine? Wouldn’t their greatest wisdom still seem folly? Wouldn’t their greatest energies still seem impotent? Aquinas would say that Calvin is confusing two separate ideas: the hierarchy between Creator and Creation, and sin. When God first created Adam and Eve, they were made perfect for their station. They were made less powerful than God, and that was fine and good. The gulf between Creator and Creation was good, holy, and perfect. It was part of the hierarchy of Creation. By contrast, the way Calvin talks about the gulf implies that it’s a product of sin, meaning it’s going to vanish once we become perfect. We’ll all get to heaven, and the gulf will be removed, and we won’t be at any distance from God. We’ll be all-powerful, just like Him, and – no, wait, hang on, that can’t be right.
And to be clear, I don’t even necessarily agree with Aquinas’s ideas about hierarchy. But I think he’d be able to make Calvin’s point here with more clarity and precision. At the moment it just seems like Calvin hates humans. I mean, it is only the first chapter, so we’ll have to wait and see. Tell you what though – let’s keep an eye out for how Calvin talks about Jesus. That’ll give us some insight into what he really thinks about humanity. The thing about Jesus is that he upsets the boundary between God and humans: he’s both of those things, fully and entirely, at the same time. People don’t always immediately click on to what that means, but it’s actually pretty radical. There’s no half and half here: it’s not that Jesus had like God’s spirit and a normal human body. His body was the body of God. His hands were holy. His knees and toes and hairy balls were divine. When God was on Earth, he farted, and farting did not impinge on his holy sanctity in any way. God went through puberty. God brushed his teeth. Sometimes after lunch, God would take a massive shit. I’m not sure what kind of toilet he used, but if it was in the Roman style, he’d clean his ass with this sponge on the end of a stick. It was a communal sponge, which would be rinsed in vinegar or salt water between uses. Again: God probably wiped his ass with a communal sponge. If that seems disrespectful, it’s because we have these weird mental categories. We separate God, who is good and holy and spiritual and light, from the profane gross stuff like taking a massive dump. The thing about Jesus is that he causes those categories to collapse. As Christians, we have to come to terms with the fact that God came to Earth and took massive shits. Those shits were the holy and sacred shits of the Creator of the universe.
And the question for us, really, is what it means to be human after Christ. Our identity as human beings is rooted in the humanity of Christ. We might say, for instance, oh, we have these weak human eyes – but God had the same eyes, and they did not diminish his godhood in any way. Calvin bangs around talking about how we’re all fundamentally shit and bad: “within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure.” There’s no fucking joy in here at all. Nothing seems to be retained of the original glory of God’s creation – and the problem is amplified by Calvin’s confusion between those two types of gulf. Aquinas is better for your soul, on this point: creation is good, existence is good, and our sinful being is degraded, but still fundamentally good. Just keep an eye out when we get to the Christology; we’ll be seeing this problem again.
[…] he’s saying about self-denial. For Calvin, you are nothing but rottenness and a worm (over here!). Our greatest and noblest impulses are polluted with the greatest iniquity, and our most virtuous […]
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