Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.6-9

As I have moved further into this epistle with Calvin, I have become aware of the exciting and yet daunting fact that Calvin has more to say than I have time to properly expound upon. Thus, do not be deceived into thinking that my accounts here are in any way exhaustive. My goal is to hit those points that seem to stand out to Calvin and that stand out to myself. I encourage you to use what I write as a guide to help you find your own way into the richness of Calvin’s comments on these Scripture passages.

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1 Peter 1.6-9

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (7) These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (8) Though you have not seen him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, (9) for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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COMMENTARY:

In his commentary on this passage, Calvin’s discussion deals primarily with a constellation of related themes: the Christian life of joy and suffering, Christ as the ground of hope, and adoption / inheritance. But before I get to those themes, I want to quickly note that Calvin has occasion in this passage to make use of one of the oldest exegetical tools, namely, the notion that Scripture interprets Scripture. One of Calvin’s goals in his commentaries was brevity, and he uses this exegetical tool to attain it with reference to the “manifold temptations” noted in this passage. Calvin sagely sends his readers to his commentary on the first chapter of James for an account of these temptations.

Joy and Suffering

Calvin begins by noting an apparent contradiction in the text. ”But it seems somewhat inconsistent, when he says that the faithful, who exulted with joy, were at the same time sorrowful, for these are contrary feelings.” In explaining this apparent contradiction, Calvin first affirms that Christians have emotions, even the negative emotions. Human life and being is not set aside in the life of a Christian. But, the life of a Christian is grounded in something beyond the emotions aroused by any particular life circumstance, namely, faith. It is faith that allows Christians to rejoice even in the midst of suffering and grief.

This is not the end of the discussion for Calvin. He goes on to order the relationship between grief and joy in the Christian life. In this case, one might expect Calvin to make joy the ground of grief, such that all grief is swallowed up in a greater joy. But, Calvin does just the opposite, and I am still trying to figure out what to make of it. It seems as though his motivation is to maintain the humanity of Christian experience rather than to give the impression that Christian experience is otherworldly in some way. This is how he spells it out:
"Thus sorrow does not prevent their joy, but, on the contrary, give place to it. Again, though joy overcomes sorrow, yet it does not put an end to it, for it does not divest it of humanity."
Calvin next moves on to discussing the mechanics of why it is that joy can overcome sorrow without dehumanizing sorrow. The first point he brings up is that, because believers do not rebel against the suffering that God sends their way, as opposed to the “reprobate” who rebel against this suffering, believers suffer willingly and therefore with the possibility of joy. The second and predominant point that Calvin deals with here is that notion that ”God does not, without reason…try his people”. What, then, is this purpose? Purification of the Christian’s faith. Developing the illustration that he sees latent in the mention of gold in vs. 7, Calvin draws an analogy between the process of purifying gold and that of purifying faith. Fire is involved in each case, either literally or symbolically, and in each case the product is something far better –or more pure - than the beginning materials. But, purification is only one byproduct of this process. The other is verification, that is, through this testing process false faith is identified.

Christ as the ground of hope

This is the section of Calvin’s commentary on this passage that I find most interesting. As he moves to the end of vs. 7, Calvin makes an allusion to the opening verses of Colossians three (although Rev. John Owen, the editor of my version of the commentaries, misses this reference). I think this material worth the trouble of extended quotation:
"At the appearing of Jesus Christ, or, when Jesus Christ shall be revealed. This is added, that the faithful might learn to hold on courageously to the last day. For our life is now hidden in Christ, and will remain hidden, and as it were buried, until Christ shall appear from heaven; and the whole course of our life leads to the destruction of the external man, and all the things we suffer are, as it were, the preludes of death. It is hence necessary, that we should cast our own eyes on Christ, if we wish in our afflictions to behold glory and praise. For trials as to us are full of reproach and shame, and they become glorious in Christ; but that glory in Christ is not yet plainly seen, for the day of consolation is not yet come."
This, for Calvin, is the ground of the Christian hope – the ”invisible kingdom of God” which, for now, we can only see ”with the mirror of the Word”. I can’t help but wish that Calvin could have unpacked some of the pregnant phrases that he penned here. What does it mean for our life to be hidden in Christ and that our life will be revealed in the last day when Christ returns? Calvin leaves this vague and undeveloped. He doesn’t go any further than the notion that the benefit of Christian suffering will not be seen until Christ is revealed. But, what if we push Calvin a bit here along the lines that he (should?) have followed? What if the fact that our lives are hidden in Christ means not simply that the meaning of our lives are hidden, but that our lives actually reside in Christ and in Christ’s life? For more of a discussion along these lines, see T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ.

But, as I said, Calvin moves in the direction of the revelation of benefits. In other places, this is an insight that I greatly appreciate in Calvin. Calvin does not think that faith is ”a cold notion”, but that it has an object, namely, Christ. At this point I need to mention the Finnish School of Luther research, which likes to speak about the unity of the gift and the giver. When faith receives the gift, they argue, it also receives Christ. From this they think that they have found grounds for rapprochement with the Eastern doctrine of theosis. (For perhaps the paradigmatic of this kind of reading of Luther, see Manermaa, Christ Present in Faith.) These moves are dubious when performed with Luther, and downright silly when attempted with Calvin, although some have tried. Calvin here makes it clear in what sense Christ is grasped by faith. “[Faith] does not lay hold on the bare name of Christ, or his naked essence, but regards what he is to us, and what blessings he brings.” Thus, it is Christ’s ‘blessings’ or ‘benefits’ that are grasped by faith, that is, his saving significance.
It is in these benefits that we have hope of salvation, and in fulfilling his function as Mediator by which he secured our salvation, Christ is the ground of our hope.

Adoption / Inheritance

Toward the end of this section of his commentary, Calvin returns if only implicitly to the questions of how suffering relates to joy. This is in keeping with the flow of material found in the passage in question. Here is the formulation that I find helpful:
"For our adoption ought now to satisfy us; nor ought we to ask to be introduced before the time into the possession of our inheritance."
Here is how this shakes out. We are adopted now, but we will receive our inheritance later (allusion to the parable of the prodigal son should not be missed). Adoption is tied to faith, such that in faith we have the promise of our future inheritance now in the midst of real human life, which for the time being involves suffering. The realness of human life is not temporally overcome through adoption, but is eschatologically overcome through inheritance. And Calvin admonishes us to be content with the eschatological hope, grounded in Christ, of our inheritance.

2 comments:

D.W. Congdon said...

There's some really good stuff here. I like the realism with which Calvin attempts to hold on to sorrow and joy without resolving the tension prematurely or unnaturely. This could be especially helpful for those who grieve.

I especially like what you wrote about being "hidden in Christ." I will have to remember this in explicating the nature of our election in Christ and the mediation of Jesus Christ in life and in death.

WTM said...

With reference to the "hiddin in Christ" bit, I had specifically in mind TFT's notion of Christ's "vicarious humanity." You will get this materially in his Mediation of Christ, although I can't remember if that is where he deploys this terminology.