Calvin: Chastisement

Oh shit, something actually controversial this week. Here’s the question: is there such a thing as pain that’s not caused by sin? Your basic response to that question is gonna inform your reaction to the rest of this article, and I’m legitimately super excited. Okay here goes. In 3.4.31 of the Institutes, Calvin is busy bashing the Catholics for their ideas around confession and penitence. Most of his ideas throughout the chapter are things that we hold pretty commonly today – obviously penitence is stupid, and obviously you don’t need to confess to be cleansed of your sins. The Catholics can fuck off. It’s not in the Bible, and they can fuck off. I normally try to be a bit more open-minded about these sorts of things, different people’s beliefs and stuff – and Aquinas is hands-down my favourite theologian so far, but – nope, there’s the limit, sorry team. So Calvin is hacking away at confession and penitence, which are, again, stupid ideas, and then we come to Section 31.

In this section, Calvin draws a distinction between two kinds of divine judgement: “we may call the one kind of judgement punishment, the other chastisement.” In the first type, God beats the shit out of non-believers to make an example of them: “God is to be understood as taking vengeance on His enemies, by displaying His anger against them, confounding, scattering, and annihilating them.” In the second type, God kinda less fatally beats up Christians who’re being naughty as a way of chastising them for their misbehaviour: “Hence it is not properly punishment or vengeance, but correction and admonition. The one [the first] is the act of a judge, the other of a father.” Let’s return to that initial question again, then: is there such a thing as pain that’s not caused by sin? Does God punish His children – not even shitheads, but faithful, honest, loving Christians – in order to educate them?

Alright – let’s start with the ‘no’ campaign. Obviously the whole idea seems a little outdated. It’s very ‘Dad got the belt out’ kinda thing – it’s very sixties, very old-fashioned, very kinda past tense. It’s not something that we consider to be a valid teaching tool. It also seems to point to a really brutal bloody Old Testament God, and I think we all like to imagine that we’ve somehow superseded that. The other thing is that this sort of reasoning gets employed to justify violence and abuse in the real world – never mind the God stuff, Calvin would punch his wife whenever she got sassy. No doubt he would’ve thought of it as chastisement, as the wiser authority figure disciplining his subject so that she might learn better manners and respect for her husband. No – the whole thing is totally gross. Can’t be true.

And alright, I definitely accept the argument about the real-life implications of that kinda theology. Domestic violence covered up by religion is obscene. And yet – I feel bad for saying this, but I have to note that technically, the fact that this piece of theology is used to excuse domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong in itself. It’s deployed for evil reasons, but that doesn’t mean that it’s evil theology – it might just need better safeguards. This is why I phrased my initial question like I did: is there such a thing as pain that’s not caused by sin? Let’s take all of the domestic abuse stuff, right, and all the other punchy stuff, and classify it all as sin. It’s all sin. It’s bad. All of it. After that, the question remains: is there any kind of pain that’s left over, that isn’t caused by sin? Or is a sinless world one without pain? Can God chastise us – by literally just causing us pain or anguish – in the way that Calvin is suggesting?

Let’s maybe take a step back and approach this from another angle. From a growth and learning perspective, struggle seems like something that’s really important. You want to be challenged, right, just as part of your education. You want to have things that push you, things that are just a little too hard and that make you really sweat it out. It feels like we’re kinda verging towards the, like, old people shouting about snowflake millennials not being tough enough – but again, surely the fact that shitheads misuse this idea shouldn’t mean that we throw it out altogether. At the risk of sounding like Calvin’s dad (as in Calvin and Hobbes, not-), isn’t it kinda true when we say that hard work builds character? Isn’t difficulty, on some level – and within certain sensible limits – kind of a good thing?

And the ‘no’ campaign might chime in here and say well look, difficulty can be a good thing in some circumstances, assuming that nobody’s going to die or suffer major trauma if the thing goes poorly, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. We were talking about God punishing you for getting something wrong. Difficulty is different. And yeah, okay, that’s true – but aren’t we still kinda circling around that idea of pain? If something is difficult, we might sometimes describe it as painful – but it’s not because of sin or anything, it’s just hard and giving us grief. That seems like a type of pain that isn’t caused by sin. And if we can accept that, then – you know, like, can God put difficult things before us? Can God get us to do hard things, so that we grow and develop and become better people? Surely the answer is yes. And if He can, then isn’t He kinda causing us to go through the pain of overcoming those difficult things? It seems like a very short step from there to saying that yes, actually, God can cause us pain when it’s good for us. And we can lay out all our caveats about how obviously domestic abuse is still bad and this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to punch your wife – but at that point you’re not significantly changing the terms of debate. You’ve given up basically all the intellectual ground, to the point where your answer to the initial question (Is there such a thing as pain that isn’t caused by sin?) kinda has to be ‘Yes’. You can add all the caveats you like, but ‘Yes, conditionally’ is still a ‘Yes’.

It’s controversial, huh. I’m not entirely comfortable with the ‘yes’ position, and I don’t think anyone should really be comfortable with it, but it seems more honest to say ‘Yes with a zillion caveats’ rather than ‘No’. I can’t see a ‘No’ that’s justified. And to be clear, we still haven’t addressed the idea of God chastising people – that is, the idea of God punishing people for getting stuff wrong, rather than putting them through fundamentally safe and appropriately difficult challenges for what is ultimately their own benefit. Chastisement is another issue entirely, and we’re out of time for the day. I think we’ve got a good place to start from, though. Even this basic foray starts us off with some interesting questions. If God can cause us pain by putting us through difficult-in-a-good-way challenges, and that’s all moral and okay and God is still perfect, then what even is pain? What does it mean? How is our current understanding of pain set up to deal with concepts like ‘good pain’? We haven’t even mentioned BDSM (4:40ish on), or the runner’s high (“through pain, we find serenity”). And I’m not really coming out in support of the issue one way or the other. It’s a difficult question. It’s controversial, in part because we’ve got such a long history of people resolving the question in bad ways and then going out and punching their wives. This one’s got stakes. We’re not just making jokes about confession – which, again, for the record, still fucking stupid. I’ll back Calvin on that part. Not sure about the rest of it.

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