Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 5.5-7

1 Peter 5.5-7

[5] In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourself to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.” [6] Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. [7] Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

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COMMENTARY: The three pages of Calvin’s commentary on these verses are quite fascinating, at least to me, and I will here try to lift up the threat that I see running through it and trying to identify why it intrigues me as best I can.

Calvin begins by commenting on the exhortation that the ‘younger’ are to obey the ‘elder,’ and he argues that this exhortation is made with reference to physical age. Those who have accumulated fewer years are to submit to those who have accumulated more. There is certainly a common-sense plausibility to this reading, but I wonder if it might not be proper to read this more directly in light of the preceding discussion of ecclesial polity. Certainly the polity in question envisages the office of eldership as held by those who are physically elder, in some respect and at least as a general rule. Furthermore, if we really wanted to push things, couldn’t we understand this admonition in terms of spiritual age?

The reason that Calvin reads this as he does, I think, is because he fails to think about these few verses in ecclesiological terms. Rather, his imagination goes to civil polity. Submition is necessary “for if there be no subjection, government is overturned. When they have no authority who ought by right or order of nature to rule, all will immediately because insolently wanton” (147). Calvin’s elevation of physical maturity is coupled to his understanding of what is necessary for a stable society. This civil focus stays with Calvin throughout this section. Mutual submission is necessary, for instance, because “all ranks of society have to defend the whole body” (ibid).

Now, Calvin makes two interesting and related statements. First, he admits that “it was formerly very truly said, that every one has within him the soul of a king. Until, then, the high spirits, with which the nature of men swells, are subdued, no man will give way to another; but, on the contrary, each one, despising others, will claim all things for himself” (148). Second, we find this: “all those who recumb not on God’s providence must necessarily be in constant turmoil and violently assail others” (149). Do these statements bring anything to mind? For me, they scream “Nietzsche!” I have long been convinced that, if Christianity is not true, then one is generally left with something like Nietzsche as an alternative. Calvin seems to agree with me; at the very least, he thinks that Christianity is necessary for the stability of civil society. Otherwise, all people will act as a king unto themselves: “Thou art one who hast unlearned to obey: now shalt thou command!…This is thy most unpardonable obstinacy: thou has the power, and thou wilt not rule” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, para. 44).

What we see here in this passage of commentary is, I think, supporting evidence for the picture of Calvin drawn by William Bouwsma. His thesis is that Calvin is torn between two competing impulses: an impulse toward order and an impulse toward freedom. These impulses are driven by competing fears: fear of anarchy (whether of society of or the mind), and fear of being smothered by overly rigid and comprehensive strictures. This internal conflict helps us to understand a very interesting image that Calvin here paints of God: “We are to imagine that God has two hands; the one, which like a hammer beats down and breaks in pieces those who raise up themselves; and the other, which raises up the humble who willingly let down themselves, and is like a firm prop to sustain them” (148). In other words, those who seek to upset civil order are opposed, and those who do not so assert themselves will be sustained against that which may try to oppress them.

Finally, as an unrelated side note aimed at correcting those who think that Calvin’s appeal to God’s providence in the face of suffering is pastoral nonsense, he has this to say about verse 7: “we are not…bidden to cast all our cares on God, as though God wished us to have strong hearts, and to be void of all feeling; but lest fear or anxiety should drive us to impatience” (149).

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