Calvin: Conscientious Objections

In Book 4, Chapter 10 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin bashes the Catholics for making up religious laws and acting as if they “enjoined things necessary to salvation” (4.10.2). As far as he’s concerned, one of the core actions of Christ is to liberate our conscience, not so that we can go around being shitheads, but such that we’re not bound by a bunch of unnecessary religious laws. That’s the reason we can eat certain types of meat, and why we don’t have to get circumcised. Calvin sees the Catholics as reinstating a bunch of those unnecessary religious laws, and in 4.10, he breaks down why he thinks it’s stupid. His solution goes into the idea of conscience, which is really interesting through a historical lens.

So here’s the initial problem that Calvin raises. Over in Romans 13:5, Paul says that we have to obey magistrates “not only for wrath, but also for conscience’s sake.” That sounds like saying that our consciences should be bound by civil law, which sounds like saying that you should never lobby for any law change ever. Calvin’s not having that. He begins by quickly outlining what conscience is: for him, it’s “a sense of the divine judgement,” “a witness not permitting them to hide their sins, but bringing them as criminals before the tribunal of the judge” (10.4.3). There are two key examples that Calvin draws on: first, even if you were the only person in the world, it would be bad to go about swearing. If you do a swear, you stand convicted by your conscience before God. Second, even if something doesn’t strictly matter, it’s good to defer to your weaker brethren, as we explored the other week. Or – actually, I spent fifteen minutes looking for that article before realising that I’d binned it at draft stage for being shit – anyway it’s Book 3 Chapter 19, it’s about deferring to your weaker brethren. That is, if you eat meat, but your friend is really worried that eating meat could negatively affect your salvation, you shouldn’t upset them. It’s a long-form discussion of 1 Corinthians 8:9, where Paul basically says exactly that. If your friend is dumb and sticking to unnecessary religious rules, just don’t upset them. Play along, be polite.

Now, these two examples are interesting, for a couple of reasons. In the first one, Calvin illustrates what we might call the internality of sin. Even if there’s nobody else around you – nobody else in the entire world, even – swearing is bad because it shows that something inside you is wrong. From that perspective, your conscience condemns you even for the sin in your heart. Even if nobody else knows about it, you stand convicted before God. The second example shows the gap between your conscience and your actions. It’s again about internality, but in a different way. Using the meat example, Calvin says that even though you give way to the scruples of your weak friend, your conscience isn’t being bound. Or rather, it’s bound to the concept of being nice to your friend, rather than to the specific thing that they’re hung up on. Ultimately there’s a difference between the physical action and the mental state – physically you’re not eating, but mentally that doesn’t indicate any obligation on your conscience. “However necessary abstinence may be in respect of a brother, as prescribed by the Lord, conscience ceases not to retain its liberty” (4.10.4).

Calvin goes on in this chapter to talk about how the Catholics invented a bunch of fake religious rules that “burden the conscience” (s6), and how the basic message of Christ is anti-fake-religious-rules and therefore is fundamentally anti-Catholic – and that’s all fine, but we’re actually going to sit with this basic idea for a bit longer. Obviously as I’ve suggested there’s a big shift towards the internal with Calvin. It’s less about abiding to external rules set down by religious authorities, and more about listening to an internal voice. It isolates us in our own heads, makes things more subjective, more interior, more individualistic. I’d actually connect it to that weird neurotic self-flagellation that goes on in Christian circles. You get those young Christian men who go round fretting over the fact that they’re fifteen and horny – they’re embarrassed about how they feel, and Calvin’s conscience sits over their shoulder going ‘YOU ARE CONDEMNED BY GOD FOR HAVING AN ERECTION.’ There’s this really self-destructive interiority that’s a crucial element of it all. We’ll probably come back to this idea when we reach John Owen’s Mortification of Sin.

On the other hand, I also wonder whether Calvin’s idea of conscience doesn’t tie into our modern focus on the individual. You can start to imagine a bit of a trajectory: Calvin said that our consciences deliver the judgement of God, and over time maybe that interior voice becomes more central to our understanding of ourselves. You have to follow the path you feel is right, you have to be true to your heart. And then, as God slips out of the public domain, maybe it becomes less about that internal voice as referring to something outside of yourself, something still objective and eternal. Maybe it becomes: your interior sensibility is valid because you are a person, and it’s how you feel, and that’s good enough. I’m not blaming Calvin for anything, mind. I don’t think he’s solely or primarily responsible for this trajectory – if it even is a real trajectory – and even if it is, I’m not necessarily complaining about the way things are. It’s just interesting to think about the importance of selfhood in our modern world, and how it might not have always been that important in other places and times. You know, again, I always look to the stories we tell about ourselves. I think about Hollywood. How many fuckin films are premised on the idea of a person who doesn’t fit in pursuing their truth and achieving success because they were true to their hearts?

I should end by zooming back out a bit, bringing some of those complexities back in. Note, for instance, that those two descriptions above (of neurotic Christian teens and non-religious mainstream society) actually move in quite opposite directions. In one, the inner voice is about guilt, while in the other it’s a source of validation. And even if there was some connection to Calvin, they aren’t the only relevant factors in how we live our lives. I don’t think we only operate in one mode or another – I tend more to believe that we flit back and forth between different systems depending on the circumstances. You have to listen to what you think God is saying, but if you come to a dumb conclusion (or a conclusion that your church elders don’t like), you’re told you’ve heard incorrectly. You’re set under the norms of your denomination, under the norms of the wider culture – all those competing forces operating at the same time. Plus, for Calvin, we may have today emphasised that internal conscience, but also consider his insistence on the pre-eminent guiding authority of the Bible, or on the exclusive activity of God that lifts you into salvation (not to mention our complete inability to act in any meaningful way in and of our own power). I’m not trying to say that it’s a simple jump from A to B. More to the point, it’s interesting to contrast his stuff on conscience with our current cultural context today. That’s all.

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