The Institutes (29)

Book 1 Chapter 15

Calvin moves on from the work of God in creation to anthropology, the study of man. For Calvin, talking about man is still talking about God. Man, he believes, is the pinnacle of God’s Creation, and if there is any battle to be won over the character of God, it must be won as we examine the nature and character of His utmost creation.

For many today, the ultimate proof that God cannot exist is all the death and suffering in the world. All of life is bound to the law of death… no one escapes from it. Many will look at this and claim that God’s goodness must be a farce due to all the pain in the world. Calvin (and many other Christians) would respond that the effect of sin on the world was not brought in by God, but by man. It was man’s sin that brought about God’s curse; God did not arbitrarily determine to place His curse upon the earth. The blame goes to man, not God.

Now we must guard against singling out only those natural evils of man, lest we seem to attribute them to the Author of nature. For in this excuse, impiety thinks it has sufficient defense, if it is able to claim that whatever defects it possesses have in some way proceeded from God. It does not hesitate, if it is reproved, to contend with God himself, and to impute to him the fault of which it is deservedly accused. And those who wish to seem to speak more reverently of the Godhead still willingly blame their depravity on nature, not realizing that they also, although more obscurely, insult God. For if any defect were proved to inhere in nature, this would bring reproach upon him.

Calvin moves on from this initial consideration to the nature of man. Calvin is clearly a dichotomist (man consists of two parts, body and soul/spirit), and goes about proving his point. In the first part of the chapter, Calvin seeks to identify the “image of God” that was present in man at Creation. He believes that “the proper seat of the image is in the soul” and, quoting Ovid, says:

…while all other living things being bent over look earthward, man has been given a face uplifted, bidden to gaze heavenward and to raise his countenance to the stars.

This is Calvin’s take on the imagio deo… an ability to relate to the divine.

… although the soul is not man, yet it is not absurd for man, in respect to his soul, to be called God’s image… the integrity with which Adam was endowed is expressed by this word, when he had full possession of right understanding, when he had his affections kept within the bounds of reason, all his senses tempered in right order, and he truly referred his excellence to exceptional gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. And although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.

It is not uncommon to hear this side in the debate over the imagio deo. Others think that it’s moral accountability, others think that it’s reason. Calvin here asserts that it is the ability to relate to God, which includes all the other viewpoints on the imagio deo. But Calvin doesn’t stop here…

… we do not have a full definition of “image” if we do not see more plainly those faculties in which man excels, and in which he ought to be thought the reflection of God’s glory. That, indeed, can be nowhere better recognized than from the restoration of his corrupted nature… consequently, the beginning of our recovery of salvation is in that restoration which we obtain through Christ.

… “we… with unveiled face beholding the glory of Christ are being transformed into his very image.” Now we see how Christ is the most perfect image of God; if we are conformed to it, we are so restored that with true piety, righteousness, purity, and intelligence we bear God’s image.

The image of God is being restored in us daily as we’re conformed to Christ. Truly there is a restoration taking place in the Creation, and that is part of the Gospel. But it’s not a restoration of the earth in some enviromentalist-friendly way. The Gospel is, in some sense, the restoration of God’s image in mankind.

From the discussion of the image of God in man, Calvin moves onto the constitution of men’s souls. Calvin believes that man’s mind directs the other parts of his psyche. Here Calvin moves outside Scripture, something unusual for the Institutes. No Scripture is mentioned to back all of this up. But it’s thoroughly Scriptural… our minds lead our emotions and actions. So we’re to set our minds on things above according to Colossians 3:2, and on the basis of that we’re to change out the old clothing of evil works for the new clothing of spiritual fruit. Our minds lead our emotions and actions!

… the understanding is… the leader and governor of the soul; and that the will is always mindful of the bidding of the understanding, and in its own desires awaits the judgment of the understanding… shunning or seeking out in the appetite corresponds to affirming or denying in the mind.

Finally, Calvin discusses “free” will and Adam’s original sin.

Man in his first condition excelled in… pre-eminant endowments, so that his reason, understanding, prudence, and judgment not only sufficed for the direction of his earthly life, but by them men mounted up even to God and eternal bliss. Then choice added, to direct the appetites and control all the organic motions, and thus make the will completely amenable to the guidance of the reason.

But upon the snake introducing a new thought, man’s appetite and will was bent to do what was evil. Why had God created man thus? Here, it’s too much for Calvin’s mind, as it should be for any Christian.

… the reason [God] did not sustain man by the virtue of perseverance lies hidden in his plan; sobriety is for us the part of wisdom. Man, indeed, received the ability provided he exerciser the will; but he did not have the will to use his ability, for this exercising of the will would have been follower by perseverance. Yet he is not excusable, for he received so much that he voluntarily brought about his own destruction indeed, no necessity was imposed upon God of giving man other than a mediocre and even transitory will, that from man’s Fall he might gather occasion for his own glory.

If God did allow the Fall in order that the Cross might appear to be more glorious… does that cause us to balk? Do we proclaim the evil of a God who would exalt His own glory in our sin and salvation? Or do we shut our mouths when we realize that the cross is more supreme in God’s own mind than creation? In the cross we find the maximum display of God’s glory… in the cross we don’t just find the means of our salvation. We find the end of our salvation. God Himself.

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21


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