Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.12-17

1 Peter 4.12-17

[12] Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. [13] But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. [14] If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. [15] If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or their or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. [16] However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. [17] For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household…

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COMMENTARY: I want to make two brief points about this section, one directly related to Calvin’s commentary and one tangentially related.

First, the tangentially related point. Look at verse 14. Does it remind you of anything? When Calvin treats this verse, he identifies it as in keeping with “what Christ says” about those “who are reproached for the sake of the Gospel” (135). Now, the editors (I believe) have inserted a biblical reference here to help readers catch the allusion. They point us to Mark 8.35: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” In all fairness, this reference makes sense. The gospel is mentioned both here in 1 Peter and in the Mark passage as the reason for adversity, for instance. But, for my money, this is not the correct allusion. The Vulgate version of this passage, which is set parallel with an English translation (perhaps from Calvin’s own translation into French?) at the beginning of each commentary section, uses the term beati for what is given to us about as “blessed” and what is given in the parallel English version as “happy.” Both the Latin term and the translation “blessed” give us a tip off with reference to what I think is the correct biblical allusion. For my money, Calvin is clearly pointing us to Mathew 5.11-2: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” The clincher here is linguistic: the Greek term for blessed in each case is makarioi.

Aside from the academic interest in figuring out precisely which passage Calvin is trying to allude to here, verse 14 is significant. How often do we see reference to the Gospels in the Epistles?

Second, the directly related point. Throughout this section Calvin is working toward a distinction between suffering that occurs because of our Christian commitment, and suffering that comes as a part of life and that God uses to test us and consequently strengthen our faith. Furthermore, these are the only sorts of suffering that Calvin with entertain. For instance, we do not suffer because of our sins, since they have been forgiven – instead we are granted admission into “so honourable a warfare as to undergo for the testimony of his Gospel” various sufferings (137). Now, I don’t think Calvin means that when Christians sin they do not reap real-world consequences. Rather, when these consequences occur they are not God’s wrath but God’s fatherly discipline. Back to the main point, however: this distinction between suffering for Christ’s sake and suffering to test and strengthen our faith is not one that Calvin makes cleanly but it is one that (I think) lies close at hand in the background here. Overlaps occur, of course: suffering for Christ’s sake can certainly be a test and strengthening of our faith. But the fundamental distinction is, I think, both clear and helpful.

2 comments:

Luke said...

Very fine exegetical comments, which I support and I am also of your mind.

The passage remains me also of the discourse on the mountain: blessed are the one that now cry, for then they will laugh; blessed are they now suffer, but then you will be happy.

But I see an interesting move in this Calvin passage. Whereas Jesus message was referred to the future (now you suffer, then you will be happy); Calvin transpose the future into present (if you are insulted you are blessed, now).

WTM said...

That's an interesting point, Luke, on the temporal question: blessed now or later? I actually plan to talk about this in the next installment, as Calvin touches on it, and hopefully I will have something interesting to say.