Calvin: Glory to God

Alright, let’s climb down from some of that tension from last week. Last week (or the week before, rather) we were dealing with Calvin on chastisement, which is when God beats you up for getting stuff wrong. It’s a banger. This week, we’re shifting into a different mode again. I haven’t really mentioned this so far, 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 theologians have their different systems of organisation, and Calvin kept going back to his thing about God’s glory. He’s finally come out and integrated it explicitly into his theology – why it’s important and all that – and it’s interesting, and we’re going to talk about it.

In Book 3, Chapter 7, Section 1 of the Institutes, Calvin quotes Romans 12.1: “it is the duty of believers to present their ‘bodies [as] a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is their reasonable service’ … the great point, then, is that we are consecrated and dedicated to God, and therefore should not henceforth think, speak, design, or act, without a view to His glory.” Because Calvin thinks that People Are Shit, and because he thinks we’re saved by God essentially just dumping faith on us, rather than through our own free choice, he also thinks that we have to make a bunch of effort to shut down our own thoughts and feelings. When we present ourselves as a living sacrifice, we’re really sacrificing our thoughts and opinions and behaviours and will: “for as the surest source of destruction to men is to obey themselves, so the only haven of safety is to have no other will, no other wisdom, than to follow the Lord wherever He leads.”

This isn’t just your typical la-la-la be nice to people and you’re basically fine routine – remember, Calvin thinks that all people are totally fucking shit. Self-denial is a really crucial part of his theology, and it rests entirely on his doctrine on total depravity. If you don’t appreciate the breadth of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity, you won’t appreciate the scope of what 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 energies the most miserable impotence. Everything about you is shit and awful. You are saturated by filth. In that context, self-denial means dismantling your entire identity. It means death. Everything Must Go (happy black friday).

So Calvin’s doctrine of self-denial is really fucking hardcore. It’s predicated on his kinda general disgust for humanity. Again, Aquinas serves as the really obvious point of contrast here: for Aquinas, we can work through our reason and logic and so on in order to get to God. Those are valid, useful processes – they might need a bit of correcting, maybe they’re a bit warped, maybe sometimes we’re illogical – but fundamentally, he sees humans as good. Calvin goes completely out the other way. He doesn’t see any value in those processes. They’re not good things done badly, they’re Just Bad and they need to go. They need to be replaced by something else. It’s scary, frankly. And yet.

Okay so this is the part where I kinda roll back on some of this criticism. Well, I don’t – Calvin’s still a misanthropic shithead – but his ideas around charity and so on leading out of this whole self-denial ideology are really interesting. Because Calvin hates humans, he’s got this whole thing about focusing on God’s glory. We can’t focus on our own glory, because there’s nothing good about us, so we focus on the glory of God. We’re oriented outside of ourselves and towards something higher, something better. Calvin actually – this is quite funny – he criticises the philosophers or whoever, who apparently pursued virtue “for no other reason than as a ground for indulging in pride” (3.7.2). That’s a criticism I brought up myself, about Calvin, back when he started on the people are shit train. It’s nice to see the synergy: he’s absolutely aware of the weird kinda paradox around virtue and humility.

This is actually something we can all relate to, I think: we’ve all done that thing where we do something nice, and then we kinda feel smug about it, but then we try not to feel smug because we don’t want to be doing a good thing for the wrong reason, and then we feel good for dodging that smugness problem, and then we feel smug about that, and then ughghghghgh it goes forever. Calvin identifies that same problem, and places it within his framework. In his eyes, what’s happening there is that we’re pursuing virtue for our own glory, rather than for the glory of God. Because we’re oriented internally towards ourselves, rather than externally towards God, acts that would otherwise be virtuous end up being self-serving.

And I mean look, Calvin’s a shithead, but it feels like there’s something in that. We probably still want to scrub away the intellectual framework underpinning his ideas, but just as a description of self-interested virtue, it feels compelling. Giving glory to God feels like a useful mechanism for disrupting some of that secretly self-interested faux-virtue. What’s more, the whole thing feels like it very closely reflects the self-sacrifice of Christ. He doesn’t need humans to be redeemed in order for him to feel complete or fulfilled, but he comes on down anyway and gives his life for us. His sacrifice is designed to better other people. It’s oriented towards others. Therefore, when we pursue virtue for the glory of God, we orient ourselves towards something external, something outside of ourselves, imitating our Saviour and becoming more moral in the process. We are not for ourselves, but for the glory of God.

Can I just ask, actually, just before we finish up – what’s in all this for God the Father? I can understand the Jesus thing, he’s coming down and being self-sacrifice-y for the betterment of other people, but what’s God getting out of this? Calvin’s focus on glory might lead us to think of God’s motivation as a little bit transactional: He invents us, we’re shit (for some reason), He saves us from our shit-ness (which, again, why does that even exist), and then we’re really thankful and happy about it and we spend forever telling Him how great He is. It feels like a bit of a con. To be honest, I don’t think that Calvin is fully equipped to answer this issue in a satisfying way. Where’s Aquinas got to…

Okay so Aquinas’s whole premise for this kinda situation would be that is that existence is good. Existence in a general sense is good, and our specific existences are all good, and our collective existence is a reflection of the existence of God. The existence of God is good, because, again, existence generally is good, so therefore our existence, in reflecting the existence of God, reflects an aspect of God’s goodness. So in that sense, the fact that we exist is glorifying God, simply because our existence reflects His goodness. But that’s not really where Aquinas would focus. He sees our existence as relational, as depending on and drawing from the existence of God. That relationality is key. In short, God likes us. Not in an abstract, general sense, but individually and on a personal level. God likes you specifically. He doesn’t need you per se to feel complete or happy, but He likes you, and He wants you to carry on doing your thing. It’s much more about the relationship than it is about the glory; the glory is sort of an accidental byproduct of us existing. First and foremost, Aquinas would say, God saved us because He likes us. That’s not a position that Calvin is really capable of taking: for him, the total depravity thing is too strong. Calvin thinks you’re gross. Aquinas thinks you’re doing okay. Those two different positions create different dynamics for the stuff about the glory of God.

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