Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2:9–12

Malachi 2.9–12

[9] “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” [10] Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another? [11] Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. [12] If anyone does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD remove him from the tents of Jacob – event though he brings an offering to the LORD Almighty.

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COMMENTARY: Calvin picks up in this, his 175th lecture on the minor prophets, right where he left off in the previous lecture—i.e., with (at least) one eye firmly fixed on the Roman church and its failings. Here he anticipates ways that the Roman clergy might try to wriggle out of the censures that Calvin laid upon them in his previous discussion of Malachi’s second chapter, namely, that they might try to distinguish their priesthood from the ancient Jewish priesthood. But, Calvin argues, insofar as it can be distinguished the Roman priesthood comes off as inferior to the ancient priesthood and therefore the censure still applies to them on the logic that censure of a superior form of priesthood must necessarily include censure of inferior forms. Here is how Calvin wraps up (more or less):

We therefore in short draw this conclusion—that what we read here of the Levitical priests not only applies to the Papal priests, but also bears with much more force against them; for they have no hereditary honour, their calling is not true or legitimate, and they cannot be counted the pastors of the Church; on the other hand, they deprive Christ of his honour, yea, they daily sacrifice and slay him. We hence conclude that they ought by no means to be suffered in the Church, for the covenant of God ought to remain inviolable; and what is it? that they keep the law of God in their mouth, and be his messengers and interpreters. (538)

Moving on to verse 10: this is a really interesting verse. If you look at the translation above, it is clear from the given capitalization that the translators think you should read “Father” as referring to God. Calvin argues that Abraham is the proper referent. Thus the passage would suggest first that those addressed are all members of one people defined (as appears toward the end of the verse) by the covenant. It is then within this context that reference is made to God as the common creator. Calvin reads this as a reference primarily to God’s creation of Israel as God’s special people, that is, as a reference to God’s election of Israel. So far, pages 539–40.

For my money, Calvin is right to prefer Abraham as the referent for “father.” And while I see what he is doing with the bit about the creator, I’m not particularly excited by it. It seems to me that what we have here is a clear indication that appeal to God as creator happens from within the covenantal context, not from outside of it. (On a related note, see this post about Paul M. van Buren.) In other words, it is only because the people in question share Abraham as a father as those within the covenant that it makes sense to talk about the affirmation that they are also created by the same God. The point is that this creator God is the same God that they have to do with in the covenant, and that the covenant funds their thinking about this God as the creator. So Calvin missed a neat opportunity here, although I’ll have something to say about how he picks up the general idea later on.

Moving to the end of the verse, we have also the question of how this unfaithfulness or false dealing between members of the covenant community fits into the picture. Calvin says: “the Jews are here condemned, because they were not only perfidious to God, but also fraudulent as to their neighbors” (541). And this fraudulent dealing with the neighbor is also understood to be a betrayal of the covenant. Calvin missed another great opportunity here. And in fact the translation given above brings this out better insofar as it suggest that this breakdown in relationship between members of the covenant community is causally related to the “perfidity” exercised in relation to God. Calvin might have said that this breakdown in love of neighbor is ingredient to the breakdown in love of God (to structure things by the twofold commandment), rather than simply suggesting that in this case you have a seemingly unrelated breakdown on both sides.

I know that I’ve dwelled longer than usual on a single verse, and this post is long enough already. If you want to see more you’ll have to go read Calvin for yourself which, at the end of the day, is seldom a bad idea. But I promised to mention where Calvin picks up on the idea that one can only think of God from within the covenant. This is finally the depth-grammar of the anti-speculative impulse in Calvin’s theology, and he gives vent to it toward the end of his discussion of verse 10. He continues to miss the specific connection to how we think about God as creator, but otherwise he well brings out the point. Here’s a quote, and with this I close (bold is mine):

Some, passing by all means, seek to fly upwards to God; and so they entertain many vain thoughts and devise for themselves many labyrinths, from which they never emerge. We see how many fanatics there are at this day, who proudly speak against God’s word, and yet touch neither heaven nor earth; and why? because they would be superior to angels, and do not acknowledge that they need any helps by which they might by degrees, according to their weakness, ascend up to God himself. Now this is to seek God without the covenant or without the word. This is the reason why the Prophet here unites father Abraham to God himself; it was done that they Jews might know that they were confined by certain limits, in order that they might in humility make progress in God’s school. (542)

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are so inclined to all kinds of wickedness, we may learn to confine ourselves within the limits of thy word, and thus restrain all the desires of our flesh; and that whatever Satan may contrive to draw us here and there, may we continually proceed in obedience to thy word; and being mindful of that eternal election, by which thou has been pleased gratuitously to adopt us, and also of that calling by which thy eternal election has been confirmed, and by which thou has received us in thine only-begotten Son, may we go on in our course to the end, and so cleave, by persevering faith, to Christ thy Son, that we may at length be gathered into the enjoyment of that eternal kingdom which he has purchased for us by his blood. – Amen.

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