Calvin: Righteousness

If you read enough theology, you get familiar with this little moment where writers have to do some fancy footwork to step around the fact that the Bible doesn’t perfectly fit their argument. It’s especially noticeable with the systematic theologians: because they’re making this all-encompassing system, they always end up having to explain away the parts of the Bible that don’t fit properly. It’s like leftover bits of Lego. Basically the Bible was written by a bunch of different people who all kinda had different ideas about what was going on, and so you get all these different systems and traditions jostling against each other. In that context, systematic theologians are probably most like interior designers. They’re arrangers. And, inevitably, with each theologian, you come across the awkwardly bulging closet stuffed with everything that wasn’t aesthetic enough to go on display. That’s what we’re dealing with today: Calvin’s closeted bulge. No wait-

So I’ve said pretty repeatedly now that Calvin’s whole thing is about how people are shit. We’re all deeply corrupt and awful and totally irredeemable, and so salvation entirely comes through God’s good will and has nothing to do with our shitty actions. The problem is that there’s a bunch of people in the Bible who are explicitly referred to as righteous before God. Noah’s called just in Genesis 6. In Genesis 18, Abraham haggles with God, asking if He will really destroy the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah along with the sinners. Job opens with God bragging about how Job is “a perfect and upright man.” It’s in the Psalms, too: Psalm 37:17 reads “For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the Lord upholdeth the righteous.” Arguably the whole of the Psalms revolve around the distinction between the righteous and the evil: Psalm 1, ‘The Two Ways’, outlines the difference between the way of evil people and the way of the righteous. The rest of the Psalms are basically just riffing on that binary.

And you know, you can have your little pedantry about how we’re not really righteous in ourselves and we’re only really righteous through God’s grace, but that sort of feels like dodging the point. Christians, particularly conservatives, are pretty sure they know what good and bad behaviour looks like. They go on and on about unrighteous perverse behaviour, with the very obvious corollary that righteousness means following the Bible and obeying God. If you want to run that line, you can, but you can’t then pick up Calvin’s thing too. Anyway let’s watch him try and avoid acknowledging the very obvious and straightforward meaning of a bunch of Bible verses.

Calvin’s first defence (in 3.17.7) is to quibble about translations. Yeah, that’s always a strong start. He quickly abandons that defence though, saying “I readily give up any dispute as to the word.” He just wants you to know that he could pick that fight if he felt like it. He will of course carry on bringing it up throughout 17.7, but only when he can immediately drop it again, so that he never has to actually come out and defend his argument. His second defence is classic Calvin: “We readily admit, therefore, that the perfect obedience of the law is righteousness, and the observance of any precept a part of righteousness, the whole substance of righteousness being contained in the remaining parts. But we deny that any such righteousness ever exists.” It’s more semantic quibbling: righteousness gets defined as the full observance of the law, and so Calvin can argue that no-one is ever properly righteous because no-one is ever fully observing the law their whole life. “That righteousness we attain not unless by observing the whole law: every transgression whatever destroys it.” All righteousness is only partial, and the partiality of it makes it invalid.

Okay, it’s a theory, I guess, but what about all the verses where people are described as righteous? Claiming that righteousness doesn’t ever truly exist in the world seems to contradict all the Bible verses that talk explicitly about righteous people. Well, Calvin says, they’re all in the same boat too. “When the saints implore the divine justice in vindication of their innocence, they do not present themselves as free from fault, and in every respect blameless … they pretend not to an innocence corresponding to the divine purity were inquiry strictly made, but knowing that in comparison of the malice, dishonesty, craft, and iniquity of their enemies, their sincerity, justice, simplicity, and purity are ascertained and approved by God” (3.17.14). You can see how Calvin’s stuck between a rock and a hard place here. He’s trying to talk about relative levels of goodness while maintaining that whatever your relative levels are you’re still not good enough to get into heaven on merit. That in itself is a pretty straightforward argument, and if he was just making that argument directly, I’d probably be a lot nicer to him. But he’s getting caught by his earlier arguments about absolute depravity. We’re all totally depraved and awful, but some of us are actually righteous, but only partly righteous, because in an absolute objective sense we’re all utterly depraved, but also some of us have sincerity and justice and simplicity and purity, but maybe only parts of those things, and so not really those things at all, because – it’s just very flip-floppy. Abandon absolute depravity and you’ve got a much more straightforward case.

Let’s actually just take a step back from it all, take a broader view of Calvin’s theology. The purpose of his absolute depravity argument is to fight against justification by works, the idea that you get into heaven based on how good you behave. Calvin rejects justification by works, citing our absolute depravity, and then gets caught up in this righteousness nonsense, where he has to spend a bunch of time prevaricating about something that’s actually relatively simple. Thing is, you don’t need absolute depravity to reject justification by works. The terms used to make the argument get in the way of the point being made.

There’s one other example of this in Chapter 17 that I want to talk about. Because Calvin’s arguing against justification by works, he takes the time to stop by the Book of James in section 12. The Book of James famously has the justified-by-works line in 2:21, which reads “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” This is the big baddie for Calvin. And again, I think the terms of his argument get in the way of something that should be relatively straightforward. Against this verse, Calvin invokes the principle of Biblical unity. “If they [justification-by-works fuckers] hold James to be a servant of Christ, his sentiments must be understood as not dissenting from Christ speaking by the mouth of Paul. By the mouth of Paul the Spirit declares that Abraham obtained justification by faith, not by works.” The Bible can’t disagree with itself, and so if there’s a seeming conflict, the correct meaning is the one that Calvin likes. The James verse can’t mean that Abraham was justified by works, even though that’s what it explicitly says, because Calvin likes some other verse more. Honestly, this is why arguments about the clarity and self-explicating nature of the Bible are just utterly unconvincing. Calvin and his mates say that the Bible is clear and obvious, and then reject the plainest meaning of individual verses. It’s not a good look.

And to be clear, my problem here is specifically with the rhetorical move that Calvin is making. His actual argument about James is fine – in fact as far as I’m concerned, it’s basically correct. The whole thing with James is that it’s written to a bunch of shitheads who think they can become Christian and then just do whatever, on the grounds that they’re set for heaven anyway. James’s thing is to tell them that they’re being a pack of fuckheads and they need to start fucking behaving. That’s more or less what Calvin says too – and if he’d just come out and said that, I’d be more inclined to be nice to him. But his rhetorical move was to argue the unity of the Bible – more specifically, to argue that the Bible has to be unified, and that therefore the verse he doesn’t like must secretly agree with the verse he does like. That’s not a plain and self-evident text, firstly, but it’s also a really suspicious argument. It doesn’t bode well for the integrity of the Biblical text, and it doesn’t inspire confidence in Calvin’s interpretive abilities. Most of the positions that he holds are in and of themselves not that awful. They’re pretty standard, reasonable positions. Yeah, if you’re being a shithead, you’re probably a bad Christian. Fair enough. But the systematic thing leads him into trouble. He’s got awkward claims from earlier coming back to bite him in the ass. Solution? I dunno. I’m not immediately sold on systematic theology as the appropriate way to go about doing theology, though. I feel like something messier might do a better job of capturing the weirdness of the Bible. The theological value of inconsistency. Hm.

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