Monday, April 02, 2007

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.11-12

1 Peter 2.11-12

[11] Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. [12] Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

==========================

COMMENTARY:

I should begin by admitting that this is, in my opinion, one of the more powerful passages in the New Testament. At some existential level, this simply rings true. It also rings true throughout history. It was the morality of Christians that gained the church admirers in the years before Constantine, and it was much the same for Judaism before that (well, morality and antiquity in this case). The various Reformers were appalled by the general lack of morality among the Roman church, and the strict exercise of church discipline by the Reformed produced a morality that withstood hostile regimes before it was undermined by modernity. Even in the present day, people respect the simple morality of the Amish and various other Christian sects.

Should this surprise us? Not in light of the passage before us. For in this passage we find the suggestion that the life of Christian morality may in fact be sacramental in the sense that it bear physical witness to the Gospel. On the basis of our lives live in ethical witness and response to the Gospel, people may be drawn to and glorify God. Maybe we should worry less about clever worship styles and more about the shape of our lives before God and the world. Just a thought…

But, enough of my pontificating and on to Calvin. Like last time, his comments on these verses are very short. Nevertheless, we’ll hit two points: Guests and Lusts, and God is Coming for a Visit.

Guests and Lusts

Calvin, following Peter, notes that we are strangers, aliens or guests in this world. But, what does this mean? Calvin does not offer us an explanation for “what” but does answer the question of “why.” Peter says this – because when we recognize that we are just guests here, we aren’t tempted by the lusts of the flesh. This is kind of the difference between moving to a different country and visiting a different country. In the first instance, one feels somewhat obliged to become a part of the local culture, eating their food, wearing their clothing, learning their language, etc. When visiting, one really just wants to take care of what you have come to take care of, even if that means sampling the food, buying a few articles of clothing, learning a few phrases in the local language, etc. Even if the motivation for our trip is the other culture, we are not interested in becoming a part of the other culture.

Thus, that we are guests in this world means that we should not be interested in becoming part of this world, even if we are passing through and some of the lingo is helpful, etc.

We need to add another dimension to this. We are not told that we are guests in this world to discourage us from participating in the salutary aspects of this world, only the detrimental. Think again of our analogy of visiting another country. Knowing that we are guests or visitors does not mean that we cannot enjoy the local food, etc. We should just beware of the local vices. Furthermore, we know that – to stretch out analogy even further – if we eat the local food, we are going to need to drink the local drink that best compliments the food. However, we soon discover that both the food and the drink in excess leads to addiction or some other malady. In fact, this is a malady that afflicts the local population. If we were part of the local population, we would surely also be afflicted. But, we are not. We have the choice to moderate our consumption. And, low and behold, moderate consumption of the food and drink in question turns out to be salutary not only to our health but also to our state of mind.

What I’ve been trying to get at with all this is that Calvin is not against physical existence. He rather likes it as witness by both his love of fine wine and his adamant defense of the freedom of a Christian in the moderate use of God’s creation – not only utility use but use tied to enjoyment. This is acceptable for Calvin, as long as the use of the particular thing in question is not ruled out by Scripture and as long as that use is “indifferent.” That is, even though we enjoy our fine wine, we could stop drinking it should the love of God and our neighbor necessitate it for a time. I offer the following from Calvin’s comment:
“By the lusts or desires of the flesh he means not only those gross concupiscences which we have in common with animals…but also all those sinful passions and affections of the soul, to which we are by nature guided and led. For it is certain that ever thought of the flesh, that is, of unrenewed nature, is enmity against God.”
The key here is that we aren’t talking about nature as creation, but nature as fallen. Sure, our sexual desire was good in its created form. Now, not so much. It is still good, but it is also polluted. And we are to guard ourselves against that pollution because that pollution is part of the fallen world, a world in which we are only guests.

God is Coming for a Visit

I’ve run off at the mouth (keyboard) for long enough now, but I wanted to through this in because it pricks my interest. Calvin interprets God’s visit to us not eschatologically, but in terms of conversion. He writes,
“I know that some refer this to the last coming of Christ; but I take it otherwise, even that God employs the holy and honest life of his people, as a preparation, to bring back the wandering to the right way. For it is the beginning of our conversion, when God is pleased to look on us with a paternal eye; but when his face is turned away from us, we perish. Hence the day of visitation may justly be said to be the time when he invites us to himself.”

1 comment:

Chris TerryNelson said...

Great stuff. I sometimes wander between feeling like I'm the only foreigner among the world (often in a Matrix-like way, as someone with privileged knowledge), and this includes being at seminary. The introspective life can lead to pride, and yet it's so easy to pretend to be among everyone else, and to make God's revelation one's own private gnosis, hidden under a bowl.