Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was I predestined to post this?: Calvin's Decalogue


Despite Dr Susan Schreiner’s claim that there is “nothing more boring that John Calvin on the Ten Commandments,” she managed a lively presentation. While Luther called the Decalogue “God’s Hammer,” she said, John Calvin captured the feel of that hammering, “like a driving rain.”

From March 1555 to July 1556, Calvin preached every weekday, including Saturdays, through the whole Bible. (I think this is what it means to have a mind “steeped” in Scripture.) Much of June and July 1555 were devoted to expositing Deuteronomy, from which much of Calvin’s interpretation of the Decalogue was drawn.

For Calvin, the Decalogue was a form of the Natural Law, which is written on the hearts of men, even if it is obscured in a fallen conscience. Whereas Luther divided the Decalogue into 3 tables (or tablets), Calvin had 2. Whereas Luther had 2 uses of the Law, Calvin had 3: to reveal sin and drive sinners to Christ as sole mediator; to restrain unbelievers and so maintain civil order in society; and to make believers more holy by restraining their sinful impulses. This third use illustrates Calvin’s philosophy about dual nature of the believer’s heart: It is both righteous and sinful, justified and in need of sanctification.

Calvin departed from Luther in a number of other ways as well. Calvin emphasized purity and holiness more than Luther did, preceding the Puritans in this. He praised Moses, referred to the Decalogue as a law of grace, and believed that God rewarded those who obeyed the Law.

For Calvin the first table of the Decalogue consisted of the first 4 Commandments. In his thinking, this first table served to restrain men from idolatry and preserve pure and proper worship. True worship, he believed, means recognizing God’s right to have authority over us.

Calvin approached each command from 3 angles. First, he examined them as explicit prohibitions, but that prohibition encompassed actions that broke the same laws to a lesser degree. One example of this, I would think, would be that of anger as defying the prohibition to murder. The second angle was to endorse the opposite of the command as a virtue to be practiced. So “do not steal” became “give to others.” Finally, Calvin believed that a pure conscience was necessary for fulfilling the commands. This was achieved by examining minutely both the law and our consciences for failure to abide by these commands.

For Calvin, an ought could equal a can for a believer empowered by the Holy Spirit. Remember that Luther did not believe an ought does equal a can, although he did not delineate between believer and unbeliever. Calvin used Romans 2:6 to draw his distinction between “reward” and “merit” for obedience to the Law. In his view, good works were not a qualification for but a confirmation of salvation.

The Decalogue, for Calvin, is the true and eternal tool of the righteous. The substance of the ceremonial and moral law is unchanging, which he rooted in God’s own immutability (unchanging nature). God did not abandon the Old Testament. Calvin maintained a unity and sameness of substance between the Old and New Testaments. This unity explains Calvin’s affirmations of holiness and perfection.

Schreiner concluded her presentation be speculating about why the Decalogue has seen a resurgence of interest recently. She supposed that in a world where everything is relative and always changing, there is something attractive about an unchanging, natural, universal, moral ethic. She mentioned a movie titled Decalogue by a Polish director named Kieslowski, and quoted from another book titled I Am the Lord Your God.

“…neither we nor our distant progeny will live to see a new Christian culture in the Western world…. Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair. … In this time of waiting, in this age marked only by the absence of faith in Christ, it is well that the modern soul should lack repose, piety, peace, or nobility, and should find the world outside the church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery, and should discover no beautiful or terrible or merciful gods upon which to cast itself.”

Who’s the driving rain now?

1 comment:

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