Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.13-16

1 Peter 1.13-16

(13) Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (14) As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. (15) But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; (16) for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

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COMMENTARY:

In keeping with our habit of selecting a few themes from within Calvin’s broader discussion with which to occupy ourselves, in this installment our thinking will be centered around the notions of “loins,” “ignorance,” “asymmetry.”

Loins

Calvin, like Augustine, is often charged with harboring such a dislike for earthly human existence so as to overlook the positive aspects of that existence. (Side note – in a class about Augustine, one of my professors commented that she thought that Augustine wanted to be an angel. For what its worth…) Leaving aside the discussion of Augustine (although, I do think that the discussion of this aspect of his work is overblown and lacking in nuance), Calvin surprised me in this section. In his discussion of the phrase - “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind” (glossed in the TNIV translation above) – Calvin rejects those who understand this comment to have something to do with a need to repress sexual desires. Now, to be sure, Calvin does think that this means that we should “not turn aside to vain affections” and that we should “not…be inebriated with the allurements of this world.” But, notice that he does not tell us to turn aside from all affections, just the vain ones. And, he does not tell us to forget the world, but only to forget the allurements of the world. Of course, Calvin would probably be hard pressed to find an “affection” or an aspect of the world that he didn’t think was at least in some sense contaminated by sin. Still, what this does suggest is that Calvin does not want to do away with material existence; rather, he wants us to be on guard against the perversion of this existence. For a man who got something like 250 gallons of wine a year as part of his salary, and was widely recognized to have fine and discerning taste in wine, I think Calvin is often unjustly characterized as being against material existence.

Ignorance

Calvin notes that Peter describes the state of existence prior to Christian faith as “ignorance.” This gets Calvin a little bit tangled up. He is careful to reject “that Platonic dogma” that ignorance is the cause of all sin, but, he does go on to tie ignorance to sin and unbelief. This is how he puts it together:
“Where the knowledge of God is not, there darkness, error, vanity, destitution of light and life, prevail. These things, however, do not render it impossible that the ungodly should be conscious of doing wrong when they sin, and know that their judge is in heaven, and feel an executioner within them. In short, as the kingdom of God is a kingdom of light, all who are alienated from him must necessarily be blind and go astray in a labyrinth.”
It seems to me that the move Calvin is making in all this is that of putting “alienation” ahead of “ignorance” such that “ignorance” stems from sin, instead of the reverse. This would, I am guessing, be borne out in Calvin’s discussion of the Fall in his Genesis commentary (I know that the overall structure holds for him on the basis of my research into his doctrine of predestination).

This is only the negative affirmation, the positive side of which Calvin is careful to note as well. That is, he ties knowledge to living properly / morally. “We are in the meantime reminded, that we are…illuminated as to the knowledge of God, that we may no longer be carried away by roving lusts.” Knowledge is given to us for the purpose of curtailing our sinful behavior. This makes sense insofar as it fits with an “already but not yet” eschatological pattern. The “already” is our knowledge of God, and the “not yet” is the removal of all sin. But, in the meantime, our knowledge of God makes it possible to bring our lives out of sin. Indeed, Calvin states this very directly and evocatively: “as much progress any one has made in newness of life, so much progress has he made in the knowledge of God.” True knowledge of God necessarily comes with the transformation of one’s life. It is easy to see why Barth instinctively liked Calvin, because Calvin has the goal of the transformed Christian life constantly before his eyes.

Asymmetry

This has less to do with material content than with formal pattern. Commenting on verse 13 and the “grace which will be brought to you,” Calvin notes with deceptive simplicity that God “comes of his own will to meet us.” It is not we that go to meet God, but God who comes to meet us. Calvin elucidates further through his paraphrase of this section: “You have no need to make a long journey that you may attain the grace of God; for God anticipates you; inasmuch as he brings it to you.” We do not find grace, but God brings his grace to us. This theme is again addressed when Calvin comments on the end of this passage where we are adjured to be holy as God is holy. Calvin notes that the our holiness ultimately depends not upon our own work, for, as Calvin says in the voice of God, “I am he who sanctify[sic – sanctifies] you.” It is God who sanctifies us. How does this fit with Calvin’s constant exhortation for us to work actively to change our lives in view of the grace of God as when, a sentence before, he writes that “we ought to advance in this direction [holiness] as far as our condition will bear”? The key is the pattern of asymmetry, in which is contained two fundamental moves. First, there are two sides of the given issue (symmetry, of course, means the equality of two disparate yet somehow connected entities). Second, one of the two sides of the given issue has precedence or priority (a-symmetry implies an imbalance or inequality of two disparate yet somehow connected entities). This pattern has great descriptive power when applied to the conjunction of divine and human activity. God’s activity is given precedence and priority such that the human activity in question is not conceivable without its being utterly grounded in God’s activity. But, at the same time, God’s activity does not cancel out human activity, for in an asymmetrical relation both sides must be present. Human activity still has a role that it can and must play. However, human activity is established and delimited by God’s activity such that it follows and affirms God’s activity. Thus, in the question of sanctification, it is indeed God that sanctifies us and it is indeed the case that we must actively pursue holiness. For, God’s action of sanctifying us establishes our human activity in the pursuit of holiness.

Now, I know that I have not done justice to this notion of asymmetry. Furthermore, without certain other key notions in place around it, one is unable to access the whole of the complexity at hand. But, this is neither the time nor the place, and I am not (yet) the one, to construct a robust account of these matters. But, I have a feeling that, if we read enough Calvin, we will get there.

Until next time!

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