Calvin: Christ, Human and Divine

I think we’re starting to get past outrageous Calvin now. This week we’re going to talk about some of the Christology in the Institutes, but before we do that, I want to flag some of the wider good shit that he’s starting to get into. There’s a bunch of stuff that just seems like very mainstream, very calm and unremarkable theology. For instance, Book 2 Chapter 8 is a study of the Ten Commandments. It’s really good – not in a particularly interesting way, but it’s a good introduction to all the main beats of Christian thinking on the Ten Commandments. I’d recommend that section (here) to anyone who’s never really thought about them before. Not going to change your life, but it’s good solid theology. It’s much the same with his Christology – I wouldn’t put the same spin on it as him, but all the basic components seem pretty firmly in place. Here’s Calvin on Christ’s humanity and divinity:

“Thus the Son of God behooved to become our Immanuel, God with us; and in such a way that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise, neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to give us hope that God would dwell with us; so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.”

That’s… yeah, that’s pretty much right. That’s Book 2, Chapter 12, section 1. Over in Chapter 13, Calvin goes hard on Christ’s humanity too. He bashes the Marcionites and the Manichees, both of whom argued that Christ was in some sense not fully human – either he was a spirit wearing a shadow-mask of humanity, like a phantom body, or – and Calvin says no, fully human, fuck off. No drama, no fuss, just fully human. Again, there’s a few little things where I’d probably offer a slightly different spin. For instance, Calvin notes the complaint that if Christ is fully human, he must have some form of kinship with wicked people, which seems to degrade his majesty. Calvin replies “we know that the children of God are not born of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit through faith. Therefore, flesh alone does not constitute the union of brotherhood” (2.13.2). I’d probably run that a bit differently – I’d more suggest that, yes, Christ’s humanity does mean that he has some sort of kinship with wicked people, and that’s okay. To me, that kinship affirms the underlying base goodness of being, rather than having anything to do with the ways in which we degrade that goodness. That’s me running a bit more of an Aquinas perspective, though, and resisting Calvin’s total depravity argument. It’s a wider position about what it means to be human. To be honest, though, at some point it’s also just quibbling. As far as I can tell, Calvin’s got all the basics of Christology pretty much right. My only problems are with his theology from earlier in the Institutes, and with how it comes into play over here.

Actually, if you gave me free reign, I’d start to use Calvin’s arguments here to poke holes in some of his earlier stuff. At the end of Chapter 13 (section 4), Calvin cites another problem that people have with the humanity of Christ: “they reckon it base and dishonoring to Christ to have derived his descent from men; because, in that case, he could not be exempted from the common law which includes the whole offspring of Adam, without exception, under sin.” This is Calvin’s original sin doctrine coming back to bite him in the ass: if we inherit the sins of our parents, then Christ should have inherited the sins of his forefathers, and therefore should not have been born into a state of perfection. I reckon Calvin’s reply here is a bit of a wet fish. Apparently there was an argument people made that if Jesus was born perfect, sin must only carried by the seed of the father – because Jesus was carried by the Virgin Mary without any input from Joseph, he was therefore born without sin, because the man, the sin-carrier, wasn’t involved in the process. Bit convoluted, but alright – feels like a bit of an Aquinas theory. Either way, Calvin repudiates this idea, and says some words that don’t really mean anything: “We do not hold Christ to be free from all taint merely because he was born of a woman unconnected with a man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit, so that the generation was pure and spotless, such as it would have been before Adam’s fall.” What the fuck does that mean? Can the Spirit just go around handing out sanctification to people at will? It all seems a bit suspicious. Calvin quotes a couple verses to support his argument, but they don’t really explain this sanctification of the Spirit nonsense – they more just emphasise that Jesus was perfect, which, you know, doesn’t explain how he dodged the original sin bullet. For example, he quotes 1 Corinthians 15:47, “The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven.” Great, sure, Jesus is from heaven – but he’s still fully human, so how was he not born under the sins of his parents? This verse doesn’t resolve that tension.

Again, though, I have to emphasise that we’re really just bickering in the margins at this point. All the core stuff is pretty solid Christology. Not a lot more to say about it. Good job Calvin – you’ve had a normal one here.

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