Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.1-5


1 Peter 2.1-5

(1) Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. (2) Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, (3) now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (4) As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by human beings, but chosen by God and precious to him – (5) you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.



This section was not quite as interwoven with interesting themes, at least to my eyes, as the last few section have been. But, there are quite a few intriguing tidbits that I want to place before us. We have seen some of them before, but it is good to get a sense of how different ideas in Calvin keep popping up. Here is what we will cover: Ethics Follows Regeneration, Got Milk?, Mirror, Mirror, One Temple, Acceptable Spiritual Sacrifices.

Ethics Follows Regeneration

I am constantly impressed by the constant presence of this theme in Calvin. It is unthinkable for Calvin that one could be regenerated without a corresponding change in life. However, I’m not feeling particularly inspired in writing about this at the moment, so I’ll simply quote a couple of Calvin’s discussion of the topic found in this passage.
“After having taught the faithful that they had been regenerated by the word of God, he now exhorts them to lead a life corresponding with their birth. For if we live in the Spirit, we ought also to walk in the Spirit, as Paul says. It is not, then sufficient for us to have been once called by the Lord, except we live as new creatures.”
“[Peter], in short, urges this, that new morals ought to follow a new life.”
Got Milk?

When I was growing up, there was s fair bit of discussion in my ecclesiastical circles (I’ll let you figure our what those circles might be) about what the “milk of the word” was. This terminology shows up in a few places, and Calvin notes them in his treatment. He concedes the interpretation that I had always grown up hearing – that the “milk” is simple teaching – as accurate in the other instances of this term. However, he thinks that it is incorrect here. Instead, Calvin writes: “[M]ilk, here, is not elementary doctrine, which one perpetually learns; and never comes to the knowledge of the truth, but a mode of living which has the savour of the new birth, when we surrender ourselves to be brought up by God.” Milk, then, is a manner of life befitting infancy, which Calvin characterizes in this passage as being free from guile, i.e., as innocent. This is the mode of life that comes with new life in Christ.

One interesting corollary to this for Calvin is his discussion of infancy. We tend to think in terms of the life cycle, and therefore we think of infancy as a temporary thing. That is certainly true if milk is elementary doctrine. But, if it is the fitting mode of life for a Christian, then it is not temporary. Thus, Calvin says that “the infancy of the new life is perpetual.” Perpetual infancy? What kind of imagery is this? Well, if I wanted to develop this seed of Calvin’s thought (which I do), I would note that infancy is the beginning of life as innocent. Infants posses nothing. They live only in the present. They recognize no past and no future. This is the mode of life that is befitting a Christian. Possessing nothing, living in the moment of faith with an innocence that is perpetually renewed by the Spirit of God.

Mirror, Mirror

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to keep track of when Calvin uses his mirror metaphor. It shows up here in his discussion of verse 1. It is only a passing reference, and the force is that in the few vices listed in this verse we are meant to see all of our vices as though we were looking into a mirror.

One Temple

This point arises in Calvin’s discussion of the spiritual house that Christians are being built into, a la verse 5. Calvin drives home the fact that, even though Scripture calls each Christian a temple of God in some passages, the point that we find here has to do with the Christian community. It is the community that is being made into this house, this temple. Because we can never hear enough about how the Christian community takes precedence over the Christian individual, I’m going to quote Calvin’s own formulation here.
“Peter no doubt meant to exhort the faithful to consecrate themselves as a spiritual temple to God; for he aptly infers from the design of our calling what our duty is. We must further observe, that he constructs one house from the whole number of the faithful. For though every one of us is said to be the temple of God, yet all are united together in one, and must be joined together by mutual love, so that one temple may be made of all. Then, as it is true that each one is a temple in which God dwells by his Spirit, so all ought to be so fitted together that they may form one universal temple. This is the case when every one, content with his own measure, keeps himself within the limits of his own duty; all have, however, something to do with regard to others.”
Acceptable Spiritual Sacrifices

We often think of Jesus as mediating salvation to us, but we seldom think of Jesus as mediating something from us back to God. But, as TF Torrance and George Hunsinger are quick to point out, Christ mediates both ways. God comes to us through Christ, and we go to God through Christ. Now, I don’t mean to imply that Calvin has this carefully worked out in this section of his commentary, but the pattern of upward mediation is present in Calvin’s discussion of verse 6 and acceptable spiritual sacrifices.

Calvin wants to spur us on to good works. He notes here that this passage is beneficial because it “declares that what is required is acceptable to God, lest fear should make us slothful.” That is, we are required to do something, and to make sure we don’t get lazy because we don’t see the value in doing it, we are assured that God does accept these spiritual sacrifices. But, Calvin also wants to make sure that we don’t get cocky. It isn’t that we can offer acceptable sacrifices to God on the basis of our own capability. If this were the case, there would be no need for Christ – i.e., this would be very close to what commonly passes under the name of Pelagius. Instead, Calvin frames things this way:
“There is never found in our sacrifices such purity, that they are of themselves acceptable to God; our self-denial is never entire and complete, our prayers are never so sincere as they ought to be, we are never so zealous and so diligent in doing good, but that our works are imperfect and mingled with many vices. Nevertheless, Christ procures favour for them…we offer sacrifices through Christ, that they may be acceptable to God.”


Shane said…
you say that for calvin, ethics follows regeneration. Am i to take this to mean that regeneration is a necessary cause of right behavior, a sufficient cause of right behavior or a necessary and sufficient cause of right behavior? must i be regenerate to be ethical, for calvin?

What a great question. I don’t know your scholastic terminology well enough to formulate my response in it, but I’ll try to get at things briefly. The last blockquote in the post deals with your question. For Calvin, even after we are saved our obedience to God “right behavior” is imperfect and requires a work of God (in Christ) to make it acceptable to God. So, “right behavior” is a relative term, even for Christians. But, ultimately, what is at work here is Calvin’s three uses of the Law (contra the 2 of Luther; I probably don’t have these in the right order, btw): (1) restrain the evil of the unsaved, (2) convict us of sin thereby showing us our need for salvation, (3) provide Christians with a pattern of living that is acceptable to God (as long as we remember that we live up to this pattern only imperfectly, as has been mentioned). The first use of the Law suggests that even the unsanved can obey the law in some sense, but Calvin (along with Augustine) would say that they do so selfishly and not out of love for God, and therefore even this apparent obedience is deeply flawed.

That’s the background. Now, your question has to do with the causal relationship between X and Y, where X = regeneration and Y = right behavior. I cannot accept these definitions as far as Calvin goes, so I need to re-define these terms. X = justification and Y = sanctification; for Calvin, regeneration includes both and right behavior as in attempted obedience to God if only imperfectly, belongs to the Christian only. I think that Calvin would say that X is a necessary and sufficient condition for Y, such that those who are justified will necessarily progress in sanctification, if only by fits and starts and with a lot of imperfection.

But, through all this I’ve been dancing around your core question, which I take to be your last – “must i be regenerate to be ethical, for calvin?” As we have seen by now, it depends on what you mean by “ethical.” If ethical = correspond in some way with the commands of Law, then you do not need to be regenerated to be ethical. If ethical = one whose actions are pleasing to God, then you need to be regenerated, and still then your actions are pleasing to God only as mediated by Christ.

Feel like pushing back? Did I misconstrue something? Did I miss your point altogether?
Shane said…
so does it please God when a muslim man loves his wife or not?

For Luther, as I understand him, the answer would be no.
The loving of a wife is a poor example as there are multiple interpretations of what this means to be found within both the Christian and the Islamic traditions. Let us choose a more self-evident example: “Does it please God when a Muslim refrains from committing adultery?”

The answer can never be a qualified “Yes” or “Not,” for what does one mean by “God” and “adultery” and “committing” and “please”? But, we will set aside these questions for now in order to give an answer.

Insofar as this man’s refraining from committing adultery in the absence of justification is the lesser of two evils (committing adultery being the other evil), then this refraining is more pleasing to God than not refraining. But, we can make this qualitative judgment (lesser of two evils) only because we are operating here on only one side of a qualitative judgment (the absence of justification). One’s actions can only truly be pleasing to God if they are performed within the context of justification and are thus mediated by Christ (for Calvin); anything else is an exercise in the ordering of various levels of disobedience.
Shane said…
By "God" i mean "the trinity", i.e. the deity whom the Church worships. By "regenerate" I mean a person who has been made alive by the grace of God.

P1. Only Christians are regenerate.
P2. No Muslim is a Christian.
C1. Therefore, no Muslim is regenerate.

P3. All good actions please God and no evil actions please him.
P4. If a Muslim man loves his wife (or gives money to charity or . . . ) he does a good action.
C2. If a Muslim man loves his wife he pleases God.

Calvin and Luther want to deny C2, so I presume they will take issue with P4, saying that the man's love is always tainted with self-love or some other fault which disqualifies it as a purely good action. For Calvin's view that this morally virtuous actions is always a 'lesser evil' to work he has to show me why this concrete action of a non-regenerate man loving his wife is always, necessarily evil in some respect.

Luther and Calvin's position seems not only incredible based on observation and introspection, but also completely mendacious and petty.

You, Travis, being a universalist might have some way of weaselling out of this problem by saying that everyone is regenerate proleptically and able to do good actions in the virture of that grace. But then my question would be--why is this any different from the view of natural grace which Barth so vehemently rejected?

My dear Shane, I believe that you have the wrong blog. If you want to talk about universalism, you need to go visit David.

I don’t understand why you are so committed for finding a ‘theological’ basis for saying that a Muslim man pleases God on the basis of some action that is, by some reductionistic understanding, morally virtuous. But, I think that is precisely the problem, i.e., you are equating some abstract notion of virtue with that which pleases God. We must clarify.

God is pleased by a life that conforms not only in outward activity but inward motivation to his Law given in the 10 Commandments. Anyone can conform to the outward activity of these commandments to some degree should they so desire. But, this outward conformity is, in these, cases, divorced from proper inward motivation, which is tied up with justification or, to put it in slightly more common parlance, “a personal relationship with [the Trinitarian God of Christianity through] Jesus.” Indeed, only Jesus ever possessed both perfect outward conformity and perfect inward motivation; human live, even as Christians, falls short on both counts. As Christians, we have Christ’s activity of mediation to the Father to render our attempts at obedience pleasing to God.

But, all this is not to say that it matters nothing whether or not non-Christians live lives of outward conformity to God’s Law. Indeed, God’s Law was given as a guide for society which, for the Reformers, is comprised of the same community as the Church and is, therefore, a mix of both Christians and those pretending to be Christians. To transpose this idea into the realm of Muslim society (Calvin did, after all, frequently insist that we pray for the “Turks”), this means that God’s Law is properly used even there as a benchmark for activity. But, any conformity or lack of conformity to the Law is outside the realm of Christ’s mediation, and therefore not “pleasing” to God in the technical sense. However, as I said, it may be helpful to think in terms of “less displeasing.” Again, there is a qualitative judgment that is all or nothing, and there is a quantitative judgment that operates on either side of the qualitative judgment. Thus, some Christians live better lives than others, even though all Christians are saved by virtue of Christ’s work. The same principle applies on the other side of the qualitative divide: some non-Christians live lives of greater outward conformity to the Law than others, and in this case the former are – in terms of a purely human conception of ethics – to be considered more ethical.

“For Calvin's view that this morally virtuous actions is always a 'lesser evil' to work he has to show me why this concrete action of a non-regenerate man loving his wife is always, necessarily evil in some respect.”

This “love” is always, necessarily evil in some respect at least in as much as even the love of a Christian man for his wife is tainted with the self-serving desires of lust. No human life or action is ever entirely in correspondence to the Law either in outward conformity or inward motivation. In the case of our Muslim man, even if the outward conformity is great than that involved with an analogous Christian man, the Christian necessarily has the “upper hand” in terms of inward motivation for he worships the Trinity.

What is this rejection of “natural grace” by Barth of which you speak?
Shane said…
continuing the conversation chez moi.
Macht said…
I think it is important to remember that for Calvin, all righteousness that God sees in man comes from grace, not works. This is true of both Christians and non-Christians.

"Does it please God when a Muslim man loves his wife?" Calvin would answer that it is by God's grace alone that a Muslim man or any man for that matter could love his wife. So, in so far as the good work of the Muslim is a sign of God's grace, it does please God.

Calvin's discussion of this is in the context of his discussion of justification (Institutes, Book III, Chapter XIV), which I think is important. In this passage, he seems most concerned with the question "What is it that makes us right with God?" His answer, of course, is that only by God's grace are we made right. In this respect, I think Calvin would say that God rejoices when non-believers do good things (and therefore pleased with them), but doing these things do not make these people right with God.

I am very pleased to see you around here once again. Your presence and participation are greatly appreciated indeed.

My purpose in this brief comment is not to contest in any serious way your claims concerning Calvin, but simply to point out that the difference between you and I on Calvin here is the difference between a Neo-Calvinist (Kuyperian) reading of Calvin and a more Neo-Orthodox (Barthian) reading. CAlvin, of course, is likely somewhere in the middle.
Shane said…

Very interesting. I'm not a calvin expert . . . Calvin gets under my skin so I don't read him much.

I was presuming an interpretation of Calvin that said that it was 'regenerating' grace (not natural grace or general grace or something) that was the necessary and sufficient cause of doing a moral action. This would be the neo-orthodox interpretation according to WTM, I presume.

I have to say that I am much more sympathetic to your point that Muslims can do good actions, pleasing to God by means of natural grace. The question left in my mind (which is as much a question to me as to you) is this: if you allow that non-christians can do good works by natural grace, then why aren't they saved by natural grace? I have some ideas, but I'd like to hear what you think.
Macht said…

I agree with a large part of what you said. Calvin makes it very clear that if a person's eyes are not set on God then it doesn't deserve to be called "right."

"[W]hen we remember the constant end of that which is right - namely to serve God - whatever strives to another end already deservedly loses the name "right." (Institutes, Book III, Chapter XIV, Sec. 3)

But despite of him writing things like that, I think he qualifies that enough that he would say that God is pleased with the good things that nonbelievers do. As I said, I think that Calvin recognizes two senses that God can be pleased (Calvin talks about "virtue" and the "image of virtue"). This brings me to shane's comment.

Perhaps you know this, but there was a major split in the Dutch Calvinist churches over "common grace." Some said there was no common grace, only redemptive grace. Others said God bestows his redemptive grace on the elect, but also that he shows a common grace towards. Both sides, of course, claimed Calvin was on their side. The former might say that God sends the rain for the crops of the elect and the non-elect benefit from it. The latter group would say that God sends rain for the crops of elect and non-elect alike.

But anyway, Calvin talks not only about moral deeds but about literature, the arts, the sciences, etc. Calvin recognized that nonbelievers could produce good works of art and excellent writings. He said that their (and everybody's) ability to do this was a gift from God.

To answer your question is difficult. It is one of the questions that the two groups I talked about above argued about. There is an excellent (and quite short) book by Richard Mouw called "He Shines in All that's Fair" which tries to sort some of that out. Some might say that it is the difference between providence and predestination. The former referring to God's general "plan" for all of creation and the latter referring to God's specific "plan" for the elect.

I have to go now, but maybe I'll try to write some more on this later on. I hope some of that helped, though
Anonymous said…
Well written article.

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