Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 4.17-9

1 Peter 4.17-19

[17] …and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? [18] And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”* [19] So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

*Proverbs 11.31 (see Septuagint)

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

COMMENTARY: In the comments to the last installment of this series, the question was raised as to whether Calvin supports temporal happiness for Christians as opposed to exclusively eternal happiness. Calvin is dancing around this issue throughout the two and a half pages that make up his comments on these few verses.

At first it looks like he will land on the eternal side. The faithful see that the wicked prosper and are distraught by this because “present happiness is what all desire” (140). But this ought not ultimately vex the faithful because God is the judge of the world and the wicked will get their comeuppance: “The design of what [Peter] says…is to shew that the children of God should not faint under the bitterness of present evils, but that they ought, on the contrary, clmly to bear their afflictions for a short time, as the issue will be salvation, while the ungodly will have to exchange a fading and fleeting prosperity for eternal perdition” (ibid).

Now, that long quote sounds like a textbook statement of the eternal happiness position – the point is salvation in the hereafter to don’t worry about the crap you go through now. But, it also contains the seed of a more nuanced position that takes temporal happiness seriously. Notice that the language has shifted: Calvin says first that everyone wants to be happy, but in the end here he describes the temporal experience of the wicked as ‘fading and fleeting prosperity.’ Perhaps happiness properly conceived is different than what the wicked experience. This notion is brought home toward the end of the section’s comments: “[Peter] draws this conclusion, that persecutions ought to be submissively endured, for the condition of the godly in them is much happier than that of the unbelieving, who enjoy prosperity to their utmost wish” (141).

What we have here in Calvin is the resting of the term ‘happiness’ away from the mere enjoyment of temporal pleasures in favor of a judgment upon the condition of one’s life when considered sub specie aeternitas. We might still wish that Calvin had included some analysis whereby temporal goods are seen to further true happiness, or at least to establish conditions conducive to it, but such a position is seldom to be found in the tradition.

Now, to step back a moment, we have reached the conclusion of chapter 4. One chapter remains. We have traveled with Calvin through 142 pages of his commentary, and 13 pages remain. I am not convinced that many people keep up with this series (since a death of comments suggests otherwise), I am open to suggestions as to which biblical book I next tackle Calvin’s commentary concerning. For my own part, I’m thinking Malachi.

5 comments:

Luke said...

I find it interesting, but hard to follow. Perhaps, you can develop some of Calvin ideas on time and salvation.

I would be interested in Calvin comments on Paul.

WTM said...

Luke, I'm wary of tackling a Pauline epistle simply because of how contested Pauline interpretation is. I know just enough about it to know that I don't want to dive in unprepared, and I - unfortunately - don't have time to become prepared. :-(

Luke said...

I don't think Paul is less contested that any other author in the NT.

Come on!!

WTM said...

I have to disagree with you about Paul! How many people have you seen getting all agitated about the Petrine epistles?

In any case, I'm leaning heavily toward something in the OT simply because I want to deal with the problems of Christian interpretation of the OT,

Luke said...

Touché,Travis 

But you may be willing to concede that letters attributed to Peter and the other late ecclesiastical letters, do not enclose the high theological aspects, fights and controversies Paul letters do. Accordingly, at least in my opinion, are not so interesting.

Paul had to fight against prophets who pretended to produce miracle in the name of Jesus; he himself was accused of being a false prophet because he did not meet the historical Jesus; he had to face the problem of the unity of the church together with Peter and Jacob, who pretended that only Jews could be Christians; he had to fight against Christian communities that already believed they were in Christ; against Christian Gnosis that pretended knowledge was to replace faith, etc. These kind of fundamental problems are indeed polemical, but interesting.

To know Calvin’s opinion on that would be very interesting to me.