Do some theology! Calvin on the importance of theological study to one’s faith

John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, 5.278-79.

One of the facets of Calvin’s work that receives the least attention was his letter-writing to those under sentence – or at least threat – of execution for their Protestant convictions. While France was always eager to support Protestants in Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire, for political reasons, its regime could tend to be fairly vicious in the persecution of Protestants within its own borders. If those imperiled or imprisoned were known to Calvin or any of Calvin’s friends, or even if Calvin got word that they had read some of his work appreciatively, he made it a point to write to them. So for instance, he begins a letter from July 1550 as follows: “Although we have been unknown to each other by sight, yet since you recognize the Master Christ in my ministry, and submit yourself cheerfully and calmly to his teaching, this is a sufficient reason why I should, on the other hand, esteem you as a brother and fellow-disciple” (278).

What interests me most in this letter is the way Calvin connects piety with theological study. He observes that among those who have recently come to their convictions, as his correspondent has, “we see sparks of piety immediately disappear which had shone forth on many occasions” (279). The best plan to avoid this occurrence, Calvin exhorts, is the employment of “daily exercises.” Piety, then, is like a muscle that requires regular exertion if it is to become stronger, disciplined, and consequently more useful. Without these regular exercises, which Calvin says should occur daily, the muscle of piety with atrophy and become so much unreliable and worthless “flab” (I believe that’s the technical term).

But of what, you may ask, ought these “daily exercises” consist? Calvin is glad you asked! He goes on to list two things that these exercises should include. First, “give devoted submission to the will of the Lord” (ibid). One must assume that he means by this that one out to avoid those things that so often extinguish the spark of piety once received: “the empty allurements of the world, or the irregular desires of the flesh” (ibid). So the first thing you ought to do in exercising your piety is to look to your way of life and ensure, as much as you are able, that it embodies the sort of justice-doing, kindness-loving, and with-God-humbly-walking-ness that the prophet charts (Micah 6.8).

Second – and this is where it gets truly interesting – Calvin includes in these daily exercises something that many folk today would not recognize as being central to piety, namely, theology: “you must fortify yourself by his sacred doctrines” (ibid). Why? Isn’t theology just a complicated mind game, bordering on intellectual autoeroticism? Doesn’t it just distract you from actually getting out there and making the world a better place? Doesn’t it just distract you from developing the sort of relationship with God (i.e., in Calvin’s parlance, piety) that Calvin recommends? How could he (Calvin) be so contradictory!

Here’s the thing: it is impossible to live a Christian life without theology. Theology’s task is to answer three questions (not necessarily in this order, at least all the time): [1] Who is this God we’re talking about? [2]Who are “we,” the one’s doing the talking? [3] How do these two things go together? It is theology’s task to ask these questions in innumerable permutations, over and over again, and then – just when we think we might be getting somewhere – to start right back at the beginning once again.

But the key is that Calvin, a universally recognized master of piety and spiritual self-discipline (whatever his alleged failings may have been), thinks that precisely this theological task is central to piety.
  • Don’t really feel like loving your neighbor right now? Do some theology!
  • Could never really get your head around that loving your enemies thing? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like donating to charitable causes? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like being nice to your sister? Do some theology!
  • Don’t feel like getting engaged in politics to better the world around you? Do some theology!
  • Think that everyone should just leave you alone to do as you please? Do some theology!
  • Think that the only thing that matters is you and Jesus? Do some theology!
  • Finally, and as an explicit key to all of the above: Have weak piety? Need to exercise your piety muscles? Do some theology!
Faith, piety, spirituality, religion – pick your word. Pray an hour a day, 2 hours a day, 10 hours a day – whatever. Show up to church once a month, twice a month, every week, multiple times a week – who cares? All of it is utterly worthless without a constantly deepening and expanding conception of who God is, who you are, and what all that should mean for your life in the world.

Do some theology!

(Disclaimer: I take it for granted that one ought to do good theology. Perhaps this will help.)

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