Thursday, May 12, 2011

Calvin the Uncertain Theologian

I'm only 150 pages into Calvin's Institutes. Yes, I'm a slow reader and I'm reading like six books at the same time. Anyway, one of the first impressions I have regarding the Institutes and its author is his humility. I'm impressed with how many times Calvin simply says 'I don't know', or words to that effect. This image of Calvin the uncertain theologian is quite contrary to what I would have expected if I only knew of Calvin through contemporary Calvinists who seem to have everything nailed down.

In the last few chapters Calvin has expressed a lack of certainty regarding some aspects of the Trinity (i.e. usefulness of analogies), of Creation (i.e. why God waited an eternity before creating), and of angels (when specifically they were created). He chastises those who are overly curious about such details and refuses to speculate where Scripture doesn't give us any insight.

His humility is genuine. He doesn't fail to speak where Scripture does. He doesn't call everything we know into question (not a Bell-like false humility that questions if we can know what God has made plain through revelation). He simply refuses to speak about things that are too lofty, too mysterious, or on things that God hasn't chosen to speak. Here is a great quote from Book 1, Chapter 14 (about angels):

Not to dwell on this, let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this, in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered. A second rule is, that in reading the Scriptures we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use. And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge...The duty of a Theologian, however, is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful...Bidding adieu, therefore, to that nugatory [of little of no consequence] wisdom, let us endeavour to ascertain from the simple doctrine of Scripture what it is the Lord's pleasure that we should know concerning angels.

2 comments:

Lisa Joy said...

"This image of Calvin the uncertain theologian is quite contrary to what I would have expected if I only knew of Calvin through contemporary Calvinists who seem to have everything nailed down."

Haha! I love it! I'm at a Christian Reformed Church, and while I absolutely LOVE the people I attend church with, my goodness they hate to think they might be wrong...or that someone else might be right!

Dan Waugh said...

I totally understand that. For years I bragged that I didn't learn my Calvinism from Calvin, but from the Bible. In reality, I learned it, yes from the Bible, but from a lot of Calvinist authors, preachers, teachers, etc. I'm finding the Calvin of the Institutes a lot different than the Calvin I assumed from reading Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Piper, Sproul, etc. There's a lot of room for ambiguity, a hesitancy to speculate, etc. He's closer to Edwards in this than I would have guessed. As Bob points out often, Edwards liked to stare at Spiders and was in awe of mystery. I like it a lot.