We’re at the hundred and twenty page mark with Calvin (Book 1 Chapter 16), and for the first time I think I’ve caught him sounding slightly positive about something. I’m certain we’re over the hump now – he’s probably stopped being miserable and we’re only going to get good things from here on in. Alright Calvin, let’s hear it. Bring the joy.
“It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed His work once for all, and then left it.”
Okay, good start – still negative, but there is a positive way of framing that, so-
“All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God. With regard to inanimate objects … they are merely instruments, into which God constantly infuses what energy He sees meet, and turns and converts to any purpose at His pleasure.”
Pleasure! Wow! Calm down Calvin bud, you’re getting excited. There’s this lovely bit about trees, and how they grow and flower and stuff, and they’re really great, and then:
“And the Lord, that He might claim the entire glory of these things as His own, was pleased that light should exist.”
Lovely. Stuff exists because it gives glory to God. What a friendly piece of theology. I was starting to think that Calvin was a miserable shithead, but this isn’t all bad. Let’s have our regular guest appearance from Aquinas as a point of comparison. Aquinas asks ‘Is God hot?‘, which is basically like a roundabout way of talking about agency and power and so on. Basically, if you start a fire, does the fire itself have the ability to warm you up, or is it essentially like a flag for God to come in and be hot at you Himself? Are things imbued with the ability to act upon each other, or is it all just God? Aquinas says that things have the ability to act. Calvin seems to be saying that it’s all God – although maybe in a slightly different way. Aquinas is talking about whether or not fire has heat as like a property, while Calvin isn’t really talking about properties per se – he’s more talking about power. For instance, he might say that fire has heat as a property, but that it can’t heat anything unless God is actively paying attention to it and going ‘Yeah, heat that stuff, you go for it.’ So it’s not that God is hot Himself, it’s more that God has to be really consciously paying attention to the fire in order for it to use the properties that it has. The same goes for everything else: the chair that you’re sitting on is only holding together, on a molecular level, because God is paying attention to it. Your clothes fit your body because God is paying attention to them. Your toenails remain attached to your feet only through the conscious attention of God. If God withdraws His consent on literally anything at any point in time, it’ll stop operating. That’s where the parallel with Aquinas comes into its own – even though the processes are slightly different, the outcomes are really similar. Calvin even seems like he might be replying to Aquinas with this bit:
“And truly God claims omnipotence to Himself, and would have us acknowledge it – not the vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence which sophists feign, but vigilant, efficacious, energetic, and ever active, not an omnipotence which may only act as a general principle of confused motion, as in ordering a stream to keep within the channel once prescribed to it, but one which is intent on individual and special movements.”
For Aquinas, reality is like a little machine, a world with all its internal laws and rules of mechanics and biology and all the rest of it. God underpins that world, but He has imbued things with the power to act – and act they do. For Calvin, reality is thin. Everything is governed by the direct and conscious intervention of God. We can still talk about the laws of physics, but they are not so much laws as the current decisions of God. And He might change His mind. Providence is intimate and personal. Everything that happens is consciously and deliberately empowered to take place by the omnipotent God – not merely permitted, in some passive, disinterested way, but actively, energetically, and vigilantly empowered.
Okay, well, that’s all pretty cool! Sounds like Calvin’s managed to have a theological opinion without being a massive shithead about something. Oh – hey, while we’re here, doesn’t that mean God is the cause of the bad stuff too? Well, yes, but it’s basically all for our good in the wider analysis anyway. Sorry, what? Calvin cites the example of the blind man in John 9 (this is Book 1 Ch 17 now). He was born blind, and, upon seeing him, the disciples asked Jesus who was to blame for his blindness – “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus gives the blind man his sight back, and off he goes. Calvin concludes thus:
“Here, where calamity takes precedence even of birth, our carnal sense murmurs as if God were unmerciful in thus afflicting those who have not offended. But Christ declares that, provided we had eyes clear enough, we should perceive that in this spectacle the glory of his Father is brightly displayed. We must use modesty, not as it were compelling God to render an account, but so revering His hidden judgements as to account His will the best of all reasons.”
It’s the old ‘shut the fuck up’ reasoning. If bad shit happens, you have to trust that God has a plan and shut the fuck up. God’s plan doesn’t always involve you being happy, or, uh, having eyes for most of your life, but that’s fine. You have to use modesty and shut the fuck up. There are some nice little subtleties – for instance, Calvin criticises the ‘just let stuff happen’ crowd: “You infer that danger is not to be guarded against, because, if it is not fatal, you shall escape without precaution; whereas the Lord enjoins you to guard against it just because He wills it not to be fatal.” But then, slightly later on in the chapter, he argues that when evil people are being evil, their evils are bound by the limits set in place by God: “so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless insofar as He permits, no, unless insofar as He commands; that they are not only bound by His fetters, but are even forced to do Him service.” We’ve come from trees and flowers to evil people getting active permission – no, commands – for their evil from God. It’s meant to be a good thing that they’re not just boundlessly evil, but… there’s something a little fishy about the whole exercise. Hrngh.
[…] Let’s get back on track with Calvin. After our brief moment of happiness the other week, we’re straight back to the grim shit. You’re all awful, and […]
[…] but Calvin has a really big focus throughout his Institutes on the glory of God (it came up over here, for instance, but only briefly). It’s sort of one of those things – different […]
[…] of the Bible, or on the exclusive activity of God that lifts you into salvation (not to mention our complete inability to act in any meaningful way in and of our own power). I’m not trying to say that it’s […]
[…] lottery, so God must have wanted them there. I also, now, appreciate Calvin’s ideas around free will a lot more. It probably doesn’t seem like free will exists when you can’t pick your […]