Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.21-23

1 Peter 2.21-23

[21] To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. [22] “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” {Isaiah 53.9} [23] When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

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COMMENTARY:

In the few pages of commentary connected to this passage we find something of the non-violent Calvin. That Calvin could express sentiments like those we find here is an incredible thought for many people, especially if they have stumbled upon the defamatory literature on the web concerning Calvin and Servetus (most of which is riddled with historical inaccuracies, btw). But, we must remember to make an important distinction between what Christians are to willingly bear in patience for the sake of the gospel, what the civil government has responsibilities for, and what citizens of a Christian polis have recourse to. That is, should someone have been mistreated within Calvin’s own Geneva, this person would have had numerous avenues of lawful redress. But, when persecution comes at the hands of a non-believer or outside the scope of lawful redress, we see that Calvin is not unable to speak of non-violence.

The preceding is how I would situate the material in this section of Calvin’s commentary, and may just as easily be erroneous as correct. But, on to the text!

We are called by God for the purpose of patiently bearing wrongs, Calvin notes. Furthermore, Christ is our example in this. Here Calvin provides a really interesting paragraph concerning the imitation of Christ. What in Christ are we to imitate? His walking on water? His fasting in the wilderness for forty days? No. As Calvin puts it, “when he gave these evidences of his power, it was not his object that we should thus imitate him.” Because of this, we have to exercise “a right judgment” in order to discern what in Christ we are to imitate. Of course, here Calvin thinks Peter to be clear that it is Christ’s patience that we are to imitate. He ties it all up thusly: “Hence, that we may live with him, we must previously die with him.”

But, even as we imitate Christ in these proper ways we must recognize an important distinction between Christ and ourselves, namely, that Christ was perfectly innocent and we are not. From this Calvin argues: “There is…no reason why any one of us should refuse to suffer after his example, since no one is so conscious of having acted rightly, as not to know that he is imperfect.” In other words, we are not perfect and therefore deserve to suffer. Now, as much as we don’t like the sound of this in our day and age, it does make a certain amount of sense. We tend to connect particular consequences to particular failings. Let us take the case of someone getting a speeding ticket (this will be a very imperfect analogy!). Imagine that you are cruising down the road at 55 mph in a 50 mph zone, and a police officer pulls you over and tickets you. This is certainly an unusual occurrence: police rarely pull people over for doing less than 8 mph over the speed limit! It seems egregious for you to be pulled over when you were driving carefully and in keeping with social convention (let’s set aside the fact that convention does not equal legality). But, who among us has never in their lives driven at greater than 10 mph over the limit? If we have done that in the past, why should we rebel against the thought of being given a ticket, even for going only 1 mph over the limit? We deserve the ticket on the basis of our past behavior, but we think that once we have gotten away with something that it is no longer of consequence.

In a sense, this is and must be the case in terms of human law (statutes of limitation, etc). But, we are dealing with God. Remember Calvin’s doctrine of providence. Though our suffering comes from the hands of other human beings, ultimately it comes from God’s hands, against whom we know that we have sinned and by whom we deserve to be punished. Thus, Calvin (with Peter!) can admonish us to submit to suffering by human hands knowing that it is to God that we thereby submit.

There is one more factor that we must consider, namely, that we “have God as [our] defender.” In the same way that our suffering comes ultimately from God, God will ultimately vindicate us where we have suffered unjustly. (Punishment from God is always right; suffering delivered by the hands of human beings is not necessarily right even when we recognize it as part of God’s discipline of us – a very important point!). Thus, we must leave vengeance and retribution to God. But, not only this! For we again have Christ’s example. “Christ did…refer his judgment to God, and yet did not demand vengeance to be taken on his enemies,” and we are to do the same. Calvin hopes that we will be able to say: “how I wish them to be saved who seek to destroy me.” For this “meekness was manifested by Christ; it is then the rule to be observed by us.”

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