Friday, July 08, 2011

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.2-6

Malachi 1.2-6

[2] “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob, [3] but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” [4] Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the LORD Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the LORD. [5] You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the LORD – even beyond the borders of Israel!’ [6] A son honors his father, and slaves honor their master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty.

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COMMENTARY:

This lecture is concerned with the doctrine of election, as Calvin promised it would be in the last lecture. He struggles to stick with Malachi’s text, instead reverting frequently to Romans 9-11. There is enough overlap between the passages to justify that move, however. Aside from Calvin’s usual comments when treating this doctrine – admonition against speculation, emphasis on election as the guarantee that God’s grace is free, etc – there are three things here that deserve highlighting.

Four-Step Program

Putting Malachi’s text together with Romans 9-11 and, indeed, the whole scope of the Old Testament narrative at a very general level, Calvin explicates God’s electing activity as a four-step program. First, God creates humanity, binding them to him in a unique way (i.e., the image of God, souls, etc.). This is a type of divine favor and election since it establishes human beings as better than, say, “asses and dogs” (473). Second, God then selects Abraham and his descendents for special consideration. This is an entirely gracious act given that Israel is precisely the same as the rest of humanity, naturally speaking, and yet they receive special favor. Third, the freedom of God’s grace is further exhibited in that God was not bound to accept all of Abraham’s descendents indiscriminately, but chose Isaac over Ishmael. Fourth and finally, God discriminates further between Jacob and Esau. For Calvin, all this demonstrates that God’s election is always personal and not enacted in virtue of any merit, whether ethical or genetic.

General Vs. Effectual Calling

Calvin’s four-step program also supports the distinction that he will go in this passage to make between general and effectual calling. In this four-step program, there are a number of instances where a promise has been made, only to be followed up on God’s side with further discrimination and promise-making. What Calvin takes away from this is that a difference obtains between a general promise and the actual and effectual work of the Spirit. This comes out when he applies this four-step program to his polemic horizon:
the Papists…estimate faith by external tokens, they haughtily object to us, and say that they are the Church; as though a general promise were sufficient without the Spirit, who is justly called the Spirit of adoption, by whom God seals it within, even in our hearts. (474)
The same logic is clearly at work with reference to the two types of calling. Calvin admits that “God addresses all men generally, ‘Come unto me’ – ‘I am your Father’” (480) but he denies that one properly concludes from this that all are elect. Such a notion is self-evidently false for Calvin since faith is always joined to election (sooner or later), and it is clear that faith does not arise in every bosom prior to death. What accounts for the difference? Particular election, and the derivative concept of effectual calling. So Calvin:
If then it be asked, why some obstinately reject the grace of God, and other embrace it in the spirit of meekness, Paul assigns the reason, and it is this – because God illuminates those who believe, inasmuch as he has chosen them before the creation of the world. It then follows that God so speaks generally, as that the efficacy of the doctrine still depends on his secret good pleasure; for whence is faith, but from his peculiar favor? And why does he not communicate his grace to all? Even because he has not chosen all (480-1).
Dueling Logics

As some of my readers may know, Calvin is of two minds about the order of the divine decrees. Sometimes he sounds like an infralapsarian (creation and fall come before election) and sometimes like a supralapsarian (election comes before creation and fall). This lecture on Malachi is interesting in that it contains both logics. Calvin first sounds infralapsarian when he argues that election cannot occur with respect to merit (and, consequently, foreknowledge) because election takes place with reference to the mass of perdition, that is, with reference to humanity as fallen and therefore devoid of merit. As Calvin puts it:
Now after the fall of Adam we are all lost. What can then be more foolish and absurd than to imagine that there is some virtue in man by which he excels others, since we are all equally accursed in the person of Adam? …All are naturally reprobate in Adam and liable to eternal death, and the reason is evident, for nothing is found in men but sin. The foreknowledge of God then cannot be the cause of our election, for by looking on the whole race of man, he finds them all under a curse from the least to the greatest. (477)
But then Calvin turns around a couple pages later and sounds supralapsarian. Whereas before he was rejecting the possibility of foreknowledge playing a role in election, now he is discussing reprobation. He seems to be following his usual infralapsarian logic when the following appears seemingly out of nowhere:
It must still be observed, that the election of God is anterior [ed.: prior to, before!] to Adam’s fall; and that hence all we who are rescued from the common ruin have been chosen in Christ before the creation of the world, but that others justly perish though they had not been lost in Adam; because God appointed Christ the head of his Church, in order that we might be saved in him, not all, but those who have been chosen. (479)
I don’t know what to make of this, except to say (1) that Calvin’s desire to be comprehensibly biblical sometimes pushes him in multiple and conflicting directions, and (2) that his christocentrism (even Muller thinks he has a sort of christocentrism) subtly pushes Calvin in the direction that Barth would later develop.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast been pleased to adopt us as thy people for this end, that we may be ingrafted as it were into the body of thy Son, and be made comformable to our head, - O grant, that through our whole life we may strive to seal in our hearts the faith of our election, that we may be the more stimulated to render thee true obedience, and that thy glory may also be made known through us; and those whom thou has chosen together with us may be labour to bring together, that we may unanimously celebrate thee as the Author of our salvation, and so ascribe to thee the glory of thy goodness, that having cast away and renounced all confidence in our own virtue, we may be led to Christ only as the fountain of they election, in whom also is set before us the certainty of our salvation through thy gospel, until we shall at length be gathered into that eternal glory which He has procured for us by his own blood . – Amen.
Quick concluding aside: this prayer is interesting for that line in the middle about working to bring together the elect. The reformers don’t often give us glimpses in their theology of something like the church’s missionary task. It is thus noteworthy that Calvin tip-toes into that vicinity here.


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2 comments:

Matt Frost said...

I find the way Calvin reads the narrowing of election surprising since he's connecting with Romans 9-11 here. Especially with respect to 11:16ff. The later tradition, in light of the sack of Jerusalem and the world that followed it, has every reason to think few will be saved; but Paul's mission presupposes the vast expansion of salvation. It may simply be a question of how you view the remnant, eschatologically: optimistically, as the challah that sanctifies the lump, or pessimistically, as those left among a world of unfaithfulness.

And yet Malachi preaches into the void of piety. With which Calvin has sympathy! The excess of false piety, of despite masquerading as filial love. What is the narrowing view of election, if not a reflection of the same pessimism in light of the way of the world, saying that the number of those saved will be few? Paul has little use for the concepts of general and effectual calling; everyone to whom he speaks may come in. If the Judeans are experiencing God's hardness toward them, it isn't the first time, and it won't be the last, but it has a purpose: the entrance of the nations. But Paul is preaching extramurally; and yet he remains troubled by the intramural strife. For those whose eyes are set strictly on what lies within the Judean walls, the question of righteousness in response to God's love takes on a very different cast. We quarrel among the saved.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Interesting reflections, Matt. I especially like the last line.