Friday, December 29, 2006

God = Father, according to Calvin [part 1 of 4]

A caricature, at its most fundamental level, either over-exaggerates or under-exaggerates distinctive elements of a person or thing, distorting its actual appearance. And so, like funny pictures drawn at an amusement park, portraits painted of John Calvin’s theology often render his doctrine with the equivalent of an inflated head and dwarfish body. Scholarship has neglected a pervasive concept in Calvin’s theology, an idea that saturates his thought on the character and work of God. This concept is the fatherhood of God.[1] And it is an idea which permeates Calvin’s theology comprehensively; and to formulate any interpretation of his thought without consideration of this notion inflates other elements of his thinking much like a caricature distorts the features of a person. Many have rightly explained that Calvin emphasizes God’s sovereignty absolutely. But Calvin’s God is not a monolithic sovereign. He is a Father. This paper, then, will seek to argue the following: the Fatherhood of God is an idea which is woven integrally and organically into the fabric of Calvin’s theology, interrelating, especially, his doctrines of faith, salvation and providence.

These posts will trace this theme of Fatherhood in Calvin’s theology in the following way:

  1. The Relationship Severed [part 1]
    1. At Creation, Adam stood in unaffected relationship to God, relating to him as a son
    2. The Fall severed that relationship in a profound way, and men were then condemned
  2. The Relationship Restored [parts 2 & 3]
    1. God, in his fatherly character, initiated reconciliation
      1. This reconciliation is enacted by faith in Christ
      2. By faith we are adopted into Christ (the true Son) and again relate to God as Father
  1. The Relationship Trusted [part 4]
    1. Because believers relate to God as Father, they may trust him in his sovereign and providential work in their lives

The Relationship Severed

Calvin fairly clearly implies that at creation Adam related to God as Father. Though he does not elaborate upon this pre-Fall relationship, Calvin comments on the fatherly kindness of God toward humanity at creation. He explains that “we ought in the very order of things diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love toward mankind, in that he did not create Adam until he had lavished upon the universe all manner of good things.”[2] From this we infer that Calvin sees between un-fallen man and God himself an unbroken and tender Father-son relationship. Both what God created and when he created it revealed perfectly his “fatherly love toward mankind.” Because he loved Adam, and thus all mankind, he created “all manner of good things” (what) before (when) he created Adam, lovingly purposing that Adam might be the beneficiary of all God’s good and creative work, receiving only and all good things from this ever- and all-loving Creator-Father.

But this relationship was then profoundly disrupted by the Fall. Calvin treats the effects of the Fall at length, and much of his discussion lies beyond the scope of this discussion. However, several points are relevant for our purpose here. Calvin defines man’s fall into sin as “the depravation of a nature previously good and pure.”[3] Similarly, in his treatment of Original Sin, Calvin explains, “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and a corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath.”[4] We note here that Calvin explains that man is “liable to God’s wrath.” This means that God no longer interacts with man as a beneficent, loving Father, but as an angry and wrathful judge.

In a profound and foundational way God is no longer father to Adam, a point well summarized when Calvin says, “In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation, or favorable in any way.”[5] So, again, for Calvin, the Fall’s most profoundly constituted a breach in the Father-son relationship between God and man because the Father could not righteously relate as Father with a son perverted and depraved by sin. Just as sin brought judgment upon Adam and all of his natural offspring (the rest of humanity), so too did it corrupt the created order, especially in its testimony of God’s character.

Because the Fall subverted creation’s perfect testimony to the fatherly goodness of its Creator, Calvin explains that “even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways […] we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father.”[6] Here we note that the Fall not only breached the relationship between God and man, but also had massive epistemological ramifications. It distorted our ability to discern that God, out of his gracious character alone, would still manifest his fatherly love toward wretched humanity. Calvin still sees God as acting in some way toward humanity in fatherly love (very much related to Calvin’s doctrine of common grace). This leads to the provision of reconciliation in Christ, the true Son, as will be seen. This implies what we will below see Calvin explicitly illustrate: that God still operates out of fatherly love toward condemned men, desiring and initiating the restoration of his relationship to them.

[1] As far as I can tell, only Garret A. Wilterdink has written explicitly on this topic. Wilterdink first explores this notion in “The Fatherhood of God in Calvin’s Thought,” in Reformed Review (Vol. 30, no. 1, Autumn 1976, 9-22), then in his book, Tyrant or Father? A Study of Calvin’s Doctrine of God, 2 vols. (Bristol, IN: Wyndam Hall, 1985).

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Inst.], ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battle, 2 vols (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know, 2006),1.14.2.

[3] Ibid., 2.1.5.

[4] Ibid., 2.1.8.

[5] Ibid., 1.2.1.

[6] Ibid., 2.6.1.


Sungkhum said...

Why do you think Calvin felt this "Father" view of God was so key? Was there something different in his view than other people's views of the time?


Danny Slavich said...

I actually think it is assumed in Calvin's theology. When reading the Institutes I found that it was a pervasive motif, and Calvin consistently used it as an assumed argument: "Our benevolent Father..." as an appeal to the loving character of God. The rest of my posts (which are the rest the paper I wrote) hopefully will explain more fully the position. It is mostly descriptive of Calvin, and not interpretive. I think that it's important that Calvin held to this position because of what I say in the intro--that people create a caricature of Calvin's theology (i.e., God is a tyrant). I have found this tendency even in Reformed people with good theology.

Hopefully the next three posts will help.

My time at home has gone so fast! Wish we could have spent more time together, but it's hard at the holidays.

I'm going to try to be more active on this blog, and use my personal blog for poetry.

Sungkhum said...

Ok, that makes sense.

I look forward to reading the next parts :)