Calvin: David Prays Wrong

Alright, we’re on the final stretch with Calvin now. We’ll jump into Book Four in a week or two, and then we’re finished with the Institutes and we’re onto Philipp Schonthaler’s Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author. It’s about narrative and business and it’ll be great. After that we’ve got some John Owen on the way – he’s an English Puritan from the 17th century, meaning he was involved in a few different entertaining bits and pieces. For instance, he was responsible for giving the sermon to Parliament the day after Charles I was executed. Woof. Anyway – let’s talk about why David prays bad sometimes.

In Book 3, Chapter 20 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin is talking about prayer. He lays down four rules for prayer (have an appropriate mindset (section 4), be invested in what you’re praying about (s6), be humble (s8), and be sure of God granting your prayer (s11)), and then notes that even if we don’t hit all four of them, God sometimes still listens to us. This one’s an interesting article specifically because it teeters on the edge between assholery and actual relatively reasonable ideas. I’m still not decided on how I feel about it. In section 16, Calvin says that God doesn’t immediately reject your prayers if you fail on one of the four counts. For instance, he says, when we pray, “our minds must be elevated to pure and chaste veneration” – but “this no man ever performed with due perfection.” As an example, he cites the Psalms, which are traditionally understood as being written by David. According to Calvin, the Psalms often fail to meet those four rules: “How often do David’s complaints savor of intemperance? … Through infirmity, he finds no better solace than to pour his griefs into the bosom of his heavenly Father.” Throughout the rest of section 16, Calvin lists all the ways we can break the rules and pray badly. Our minds can wander, we can be sluggish and not really care about what we’re praying about, we can doubt, whatever whatever. And he pulls out examples of David and the saints all feeling these things themselves and making a mess and still ultimately having God listen to them and answer their prayers.

Now, on the one hand, that’s quite a positive point of view, for a couple of reasons. There’s the basic kinda obvious idea of God looking out for us even in our weakness – it’s not particularly radical, not particularly interesting, just sort of the basic surface level nice idea. Second thing, though, and this is slightly more subtle, Calvin is suggesting (implicitly or otherwise) that the people in the Bible sometimes get things wrong. Now – okay, yes, sounds obvious, obviously sometimes different people are depicted as doing bad things. Nobody has ever held that every person depicted in the Bible behaves in a perfect manner. More specifically, though, Calvin is saying that sometimes the narrator of the Biblical text is wrong. Sometimes the Biblical text is not telling us about the objective and divine nature of God. Sometimes it’s just recording how people are feeling, recording their responses to God rather than objective facts about God’s identity. For instance, when Psalm 22 opens “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”, strictly speaking that’s incorrect. The speaker hasn’t been abandoned, he’s just having a shit time and expressing how he feels. And it would be a mistake to walk away from that Psalm believing that sometimes God abandons people. In that instance, the Biblical text is not meant to be treated as a straightforward claim about God’s nature. That argument in turn opens up a whole new line of discussion – for instance, do any other parts of the Bible function like that? To take one example, do the Epistles really hold a divine blueprint for how the church is meant to operate, or are they merely recording the debates of early believers? To what extent does the Bible record God’s will for us in a straightforward and simple way, and to what extent is it merely a collection of recorded responses? This whole discussion heavily inflates the role of interpretation in understanding the Biblical text.

So that’s all quite interesting. I like how the argument opens up the Bible as deeply subjective. That feels true. What I’m less fond of is the weird kinda underlying hatred for human nature which, you know, kinda typifies Calvin’s thought. So Calvin has his four laws for prayer, and he says that if you fail to uphold any of those laws, your prayers are “contaminated” and “deserve to be rejected” (s16). Near the end of the section, he concludes “there is no prayer which God would not deservedly disdain, did he not overlook the blemishes with which all of them are polluted.” As a position, it gels with Calvin’s broader ideas about how our existence should revolve around God’s glory. There’s nothing particularly glorious about a half-baked prayer. At the same time, I think – I guess my personal theology is more kinda relational. Calvin sees God as a monarch, an elevated supreme being. God’s up on a mighty throne, and we exist to glorify Him. I wouldn’t dispute any of those descriptors of God in and of themselves, but I would foreground the question of relationship. My vision of God is of something or someone more personal, more familiar. Prayer is more interpersonal, and less like an appearance before a court magistrate. In that sense, I think for me all of this stuff about contamination and pollution and so on goes against the grain of that basic concept of relationality. Calvin’s out there trying to figure out how to do prayer correctly, how to get the best prayers so that he’s glorifying God as much as possible, but like he could also just chill a bit, you know?

Ultimately, for someone who argues so strongly for justification by faith, Calvin is really concerned with perfecting his works. When he writes about our prayers being contaminated, he concludes that “provided the saints lament, administer self-correction, and return to themselves, God pardons.” Or, towards the end of section 16, he notes one of the ironies of human nature: “the faith of the saints was often mingled with doubts and fears, so that while believing and hoping, they betrayed some degree of unbelief.” Calvin then reveals something of his basic attitude: “But because they do not come so far as were to be wished, that is only an additional reason for their exerting themselves to correct their faults.” It’s not that Calvin believes he has to earn his place in heaven on merit – he’s pretty extensively been against that the whole way through. And it’s not that self-improvement is a bad thing, either. It’s just this whole neurotic attitude towards never being good enough – it just earns him a bit of side-eye. Calvin doesn’t come across as someone who’s particularly at ease with himself. He’s never going to write about the theological value of stopping to smell flowers. What I’m saying is that even though the David stuff is cool, Calvin’s a bit of a joyless shitpail. That’s all.

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