Friday, May 16, 2014

“Not Aristotle, but the Holy Spirit:” John Calvin on Faith

A certain rationalist and enlightened picture of religious belief has pervaded the West since Maimonides. According to this account, all faith is divided into two parts. First, there is a set of theological claims about the world that the believer assents to. This belief can come about in many ways, from fever-dreams to philosophy, but the soundest belief is the one founded on dispassionate reasoning and unprejudiced empirical analysis of the world. Second, there is devotion—given the truth of the propositions that he has determined, the believer decides to behave in a certain way towards the God he has discovered. These two aspects of faith are partly separable from each other: I can know God but not care about him, but it makes no sense to obey God without having worked out exactly what it is that I believe in.

John Calvin thoroughly denies that picture of religion, giving an account of religious faith that completely elides the distinction between belief and devotion. To Calvin, faith is not the result of human investigation: it comes only from God. The tenets of faith do not lie in the open to be discovered by the curious beachcomber. Faith certainly involves assent to certain objective propositions, but that assent cannot come from anywhere but the work of the Holy Spirit. I think that Calvin, not Maimonides, shows us the way to modern belief.

Above all, Calvin insists that there is no backdoor to faith. The precepts of faith are not, like scientific propositions, statements about the world that we can agree with without God’s bringing our minds to them. Consider this statement, the foundation of Calvin’s theological epistemology:
When we call faith “knowledge” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.14
Calvin makes two strong claims here. First, faith is not derived from evidence that is visible to human eyes. After all, the world of sense is subject to all kinds of mutually contradictory interpretations, and there is nothing within the finite world that describes the infinite. Belief in God, of course, is real belief, but it is not a belief that corresponds to anything perceptible in the world. This makes Calvin’s second claim striking: that the human mind is, in fact, capable of being persuaded into faith that is stronger than any ordinary belief. The logical implication is unavoidable: the mind must be firmly persuaded without the eyes’ seeing. Only God, that is, can convince believers of the principles of their faith.

Calvin does not restrict this account of faith to belief in Christ. His claim extends even to a more general apprehension of God in the world. Even non-Christians, says Calvin, have a sense of the majesty of the universe—not, crucially, as the result of their own observations, but because God creates them with an innate sense of himself in their minds (see I.iii.1).

When it comes to knowledge of Christ, though (as distinct from a vague sense of a God who created the universe), human reason is all the more insufficient, for only through the Holy Spirit can Scripture be believed. Despite all the proofs that can be brought to bear to support its authority, Scripture
will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be in vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can they be known. (I.viii.13.)
This is a direct rebuke to the likes of C.S. Lewis, whose apologetic trilemma—Jesus was either a fool or a liar or God—is an attempt to give a firm rational foundation for faith to unbelievers. It is a recognition of the fundamental unknowability of God outside of the Bible. After all, as far as history and archeology are concerned, who is to say that Jesus has any more claim to authority than Zoroaster or Muhammad? To Calvin—and I think he is right to say so—it is only through a “special illumination” that man can know Christ. On this point, Calvin uses the same metaphor as Maimonides: man is like a traveller through a dark field which is lit up by brief flashes of lightning. The two theologians, though, give utterly different meanings to the simile: to Maimonides, the lightning is the result of the traveller’s own intellectual genius lighting up the darkness of ignorance. For Calvin, it is meant to show that man cannot discover anything about Christ unless God permits him to.

In fact, Calvin goes so far as to say that belief in Christ seems ridiculous on its face to anyone approaching through any means but the Holy Spirit. Discussing the Resurrection, for instance, Calvin makes a point of emphasizing its improbability—improbability, that is, within an Aristotelian, scientific worldview. All the better to impress on us the power of Christ. “Nothing,” says Calvin, “could be more unfitting to think of [the Resurrection as] something that can happen in the course of nature, when there is set before us an inescapable miracle, which by its greatness overwhelms our senses (III.xxv.4).” This is not credo quia absurdum, but it is close.

We might be tempted to call Calvin’s belief a radically new epistemological category. How can there be a truth that we cannot reach by looking? But this kind of unanswerable truth is common to everyone—Calvin is simply explicit about the fact that the foundation of his worldview is not strictly empirical. Calvin’s faith in Christ is a method of interpreting the world, and Calvin is clear that, while the method he applies has certain logical consequences, there is nothing logical to guide us to it. Maimonides, as Calvin (and I) would have it, operates under a similarly unaccountable heuristic—he just doesn’t talk about it.

Are we to understand, then, that Calvin demands the abolition of reason? To the contrary! Though he repeatedly stresses the insufficiency of reason to attain true knowledge of God, he does not deny its capacity, as a gift of God, to clarify certain points of theology. (Liberal arts, for instance, can give us a better understanding of God’s nature.) Calvin often uses the test of common sense and natural reason as a means of clarification, though not as a means of attaining faith. Reason is also capable of increasing a believer’s admiration of Scripture after the Holy Spirit has directed it down that path. Martyrs, for instance, testify to the truth of Scripture, but there is no distinguishing them from false fanatics unless a Christian is guided by God to admire them. We should thus distinguish between two uses of reason for Calvin. First, reason is falsely held to bring man to knowledge of God. That cannot be. Second, reason can be used to interpret God’s word once faith is already there—that use, according to Calvin, has profit.

One of the foundations of this attitude to faith is the concept of belief without understanding. This is more than vague belief: take, for instance, Calvin’s statement on the incomprehensibility of the Holy Supper: “I do not at all measure this mystery with the measure of human reason, or subject it to the laws of nature. I ask you whether it is from physics we have learned that Christ feeds our souls from heaven with his flesh.”(IV.xvii.24) In other words, we will never come to an understanding of the Holy Supper by examining the bread that Christians eat under a microscope. Nor will we understand it by crafting, like the Catholics, a delicate metaphysical apparatus to explain the bread’s transformation. A Christian must instead simply experience the union with Christ without understanding its metaphysical basis. (This lack of understanding, it is worth repeating, does not diminish in the slightest the communer’s faith—to the contrary, it increases it.) This attitude stands in sharp contrast to Maimonides’ conceit, put forward in his Guide for the Perplexed, that true believers are “those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything.”

Thus, Calvin’s faith is is accessible only to those to whom God has given it. Men cannot find God in the world unless God gives them the right means of using their senses. Still less can man come to a knowledge of Christ without God’s Word overcoming his natural sight. And still less can Christians believe in such seemingly impossible doctrines as the Resurrection without faith in God directly subverting the counsel of their senses.

To conclude. Science and history have now advanced to the point where, if we accept their criteria for truth, we cannot readily believe the teachings of the old religions. If a believer is to have orthodox faith, he must interpret the world in a way that resists scientific detachment and non-religious criteria for truth.

A modern orthodox believer, then, would do well to study Calvin’s attitude to religious faith. Calvin, who knew Vergil and Lucretius too well to completely ignore their empirical rejection of the gods, did not live in a world in which philosophy and empirical science led inevitably to knowledge of God. Nevertheless, he provided a solid foundation of faith by insisting on overcoming the senses, on unconditional reverence for doctrine, and on faith as part of a pious life free from temptation. Instead of predicating faith on rational proofs that use the same criteria as a chemistry paper, an orthodox believer ought, like Calvin, to allow his reverence for God to dictate the content of his belief and the patterns of his thought. He must abandon Maimonides and embrace Calvin.

I, of course, am not orthodox. I just want to clarify the grounds that orthodoxy can in fact exist on.

Abridged from an essay I wrote in spring 2013.

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