Wednesday, May 17, 2006 by niebuhrian
I remember the dour portraits of John Calvin that found their way onto the walls and covers of books at my seminary. The black and white drawings showed a man uncommitted to emotion with a long beard wearing the robes of a scholar. Many of the stories and legends of his life echoed the stark reality of the portrait. Furthermore, Calvin’s treatment of sin in the Institutes of Christian Religion (ICR) does nothing to counter these portraits of him. The ICR, according to the translator John T. McNeill, “is a living, challenging book that makes personal claims upon the reader. This is because it presents… that which laid hold upon the author himself” (1960, p. li). Therefore, I believe the ICR may be one of the first Protestant books that would fit in the contemporary book store category of “Christian living.” However, this purpose of Calvin’s text has been lost amongst the weighty language and depthful insights that challenge the reader to reflect theologically on their lives, as well as how God might be active in the world.
Furthermore, Calvin’s depth of thinking has relegated him to the halls and classrooms of seminaries, or the dark corners of local bars where students of theology speak in hushed tones about predestination, sin and total depravity. Through this essay, I hope to bring a little bit of Calvin out of this smoky obscure existence. Predestination, in my opinion, might better be left to the hushed slightly inebriated conversations of students and scholars, but sin and total depravity are too important to reside in the dark. If the ICR is truly a treatise on Christian living, then sin cannot be avoided. Calvin experienced the pervasiveness of sin as he watched persecuted Protestants die for their beliefs, and he obviously felt the weight of his own unworthiness before God. The effect sin on Calvin’s life necessitated a lengthy discussion of two concepts. The first, original sin, sought to describe the condition upon which humans inhabit the earth. The second, total depravity, was a natural result of Calvin’s understanding of original sin and functioned as a way of describing the actions of humanity in the world. These two terms come together to describe the pervasive nature of sin in the life of human beings.
Before diving too deeply into original sin, it is important to remember that Calvin considers two mutually reinforcing concepts to be necessary for true wisdom, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves (McNeill, 1960, p. 35). Therefore, as Calvin opens the second book of the ICR with original sin he begins with the notion that what is important for human beings is the total knowledge of what we have been given by God, and also what we lack due to our condition following the “Fall.” Calvin states, “God’s truth requires us to… examin[e] ourselves: it requires the kind of knowledge that will strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission” (1960, p. 242). Calvin is sure that more we delve into the depths of our being, “the more dejected [we] become” (p. 244). True knowledge is therefore the result of our contemplation on how God created and endowed us with gifts meant for the good of the world contrasted with the reality that our state of being renders us incapable of fulfilling these good ends and bringing about God’s will for the world. For Calvin, despair is the only plausible result of contemplating the discrepancy between the intended ideal and the actual result, leading him to examine the historical reasons for our despondency.
The “Fall” of Adam and Eve, for Calvin, is the point in history when the originally intended and endowed positive abilities became utterly perverted. Calvin characterizes these mythic (I believe I just felt Calvin roll over in his grave at my use of the term mythic) figures as unfaithful, ambitious, proud and ungrateful. These qualities led to an act of disobedience that estranged them from God, and thus they committed the first, “original” sin. Calvin’s logic is quite clear and linear. Humanity was created “good” with qualities that matched our goodness. Adam and Eve were unfaithful and disobedient leading to estrangement from God. This estrangement perverted the good qualities, abilities and nature of Adam and Eve. Therefore, any child of Adam and Eve would be a child who is bathed in these impure qualities due to the parents’ fallen nature. Calvin states, “All of us, who have descended from impure seed, are born infected with the contagion of sin. In fact, before we saw the light of this life we were soiled and spotted in God’s sight” (p. 248). Original sin is not to be thought of as our complicity in Adam’s first sin, but instead an inherited feature that is the result of us being the progeny of an impure and perverted seed. All of this leads Calvin to assert that “Original Sin” is “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’” (p. 251). Moreover, our birth into perpetually perverted generations, and the works we are a part of indicate the necessity of Calvin’s second theological term related to sin, total depravity.
Total depravity is of primary concern for Calvin, without it grace and God mean very little. Through the imparting of Original Sin humanity can be said to reside in a state of depravity. That is, we are deprived of the nature and gifts God intended for us to use in the world. Calvin believes that being born of a broken nature means that we are “so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God, to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity” (p. 251). Furthermore, Calvin believes “this perversity never ceases in us, but continually bears new fruits… [like] water ceaselessly bubbles up from a spring” (p. 251). We are thusly beginning to understand what Calvin means by way in which sin affects the totality of our being. In fact, it feels as though we have little choice in the matter! As we can see, through the eyes of Calvin our corruption extends to the core of our being, where it sits in relative safety reproducing itself through each action we take in the world. So consumed by sin are we, that even the good things we do in the world result in pride and arrogance enabling us to believe that we might be capable of goodness apart from God. We are perpetually and precariously poised preparing to pounce onto another misguided attempt at goodness, which can only result in the committing of another sin. For Calvin, the knowledge of the totality of our helplessness is necessary if we are to have any hope in the present or for the future. Total depravity, therefore, necessitates dependence on and humility towards God. As Calvin assures his readers, “whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace has thus advanced farthest in knowledge of himself” (p. 267). The lower you are able to descend into your own hopelessness, powerlessness and helplessness, the greater your chances of experiencing the grace and goodwill of God. Total depravity is the totality of human “beingness” leading to total awareness of our total dependence upon the one who reveals the totality of our possibilities.
Through Calvin, sin claims a place of importance for those who wish to live life as a Christian. By original sin, human beings are made aware of the ideal possibilities and the corruption of their own abilities. Furthermore, through the concept of total depravity, all of humanity and Christians in particular are convicted to a point of utter dependence upon their Creator for hope and grace for the present and the future. For Calvin, true knowledge of oneself is only possible when one is willing to delve into the depths of their own depravity realizing what has been lost through the perpetuation of a broken humanity. Finally, sin is a primary feature of his volumes on Christian living, but he spends far more time explaining the benefits of Christian life and the goodness that can be found through dependence on God to be relegated to a simply sour soul. In fact I wonder if some of those dour portraits should be changed to recognize Calvin’s high doctrine of grace. Calvin worked hard to systematically lay out a reasonable argument for a particular brand of Christian theology. Unfortunately much of his hard work has been lost in contemporary popular manifestations of theology.
grace and peace