Calvin, Self-Loathing, and the Image of God

I’m currently reading T. F. Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2001), and I’m coming to the conclusion that I was wrong about Calvin.

You see, I’ve been frustrated with the way the neo-Calvinists love to baste us in a strange self-loathing in their emphasis on the total depravity of humanity. For years, when I bring this up, I’ve been told that Calvinism as we have it today goes much further in many respects than Calvin ever did, and that he probably wouldn’t roll with those guys if he were still here. Total depravity in Calvin’s mind, I’ve been told, refers to the fact that all humans are fallen and in need of grace, rather than some notion that everything we do is inherently evil and sick. So in spite of my frustration with Calvinism, I’ve held out hope for Calvin. I even asked for his massive commentary set for a birthday gift, complete with his Institutes. I want to like Calvin so bad, and I really thought that his thought was different than I feared it was.

I was wrong, apparently.

Here’s an excerpt from Calvin’s Doctrine of Man. I think I’m with him this far.

Because grace implies a total judgment on man, it also implies a total judgment on his possession of the imago dei. It is an inescapable inference from the revelation of grace that Christ is our righteousness, and wisdom, and imago dei, that fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God. He is therefore alienated from himself, and is totally corrupted or perverted. If there is anything left of the image of God in him it is a “fearful deformity.” – p. 86-87

Calvin starts with the concept of grace, and from that he figures that we were in need of saving. This is fine; Paul does the same thing, starting from the cross and deducing that if we were saved, we must have needed saving. Paul also says pretty clearly that Christ is our righteousness, and I’m totally fine with that: we are righteous before God because we identify with Christ (or rather, because Christ identifies himself with us). I’m also okay with saying that Christ is our wisdom, though I’m more prone to identify wisdom with the Holy Spirit. I’m also okay with saying that Christ is the true image of God. What I’m not so sure about is saying that “fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God.”

Here’s another quote, picking up where the last one left off. Tell me if you think he takes it a bit too far.

There can be no doubt, therefore, in the mind of Calvin, that from the point of view of salvation in Christ faith must speak of fallen man in total terms. By the single word of our Lord that we must be born again, he says, “our whole nature is condemned.” “In our nature there is nothing but perversity.” “Our whole nature is so vitiated that we can do nothing but sin.” “The soul of man is totally perverted and corrupted.” Even the natural virtues and the natural goodness of men must be regarded as “wholly iniquity”. Calvin can even say of fallen men: “Their proper nourishment is sin and there is not so much as one drop of goodness to be found in them, and, to be short, as the body receives its sustenance from meat and drink, so also men have no other substance in them than sin: all is corrupted.” “There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature in whom the image of God has been effaced.” Again, speaking of man after the fall Calvin says: “And truly, it was a sad and horrible spectacle that he in whom recently the image of God was shining should lie hidden under fetid skins to cover his own disgrace, and that there should be more comeliness in a dead animal than in a living man.” “It is true that our Lord created us after His own image and likeness, but that was wholly defaced and wiped out in us by the sin of Adam. We are accursed, we are by nature shut out from all hope of life.” – p. 87-88

Calvin identifies the image of God as being the relationship between God and humanity. If this is the case, then I suppose there’s a logic in all of this. I’m much more inclined to think of the image of God as being a vocation, duty, or command. We represent God on earth. Image is stewardship, which is the responsibility to represent, and therefore resemble, the One who has charged us with this task. The imago dei is not so much that we resemble God, as it is that we’re made to resemble God. Not in the sense of being forced to do so, but in the sense of being created for this purpose. This is our telos, the inherent goal of human existence, included in us from our very creation and grown into as we grow in Christ-likeness. If this is what the imago dei or image of God is, then I’m willing to grant that it may be a “fearful deformity” in most of us, but it can never be separated from us or extinguished within us. In fact, it is the very obviousness of the image of God in us that makes our deformity of it so fearful: it’s still there, and it’s clear what we’re supposed to be, which makes our deviance from it so grotesque. Seeing a D student write a D paper is a shame, but it’s expected; seeing an A student write a D paper is tragic. Seeing someone get into petty crime is sad, but seeing the child of a spiritual leader or politician or chief of police is tragic. The tragic nature of the Fall is not that we’re bad to the core, it’s that we’re “very good”, even still, and we go against that goodness.

What bothers me about Calvin, aside from the fact that it appears that the neo-Calvinists aren’t exaggerating his views as much as I had hoped, is that he polarizes things so much. Everything is in absolutes with him. It’s not simply that we’re fallen, it’s that everything is as bad as it could possibly be. It’s not just that Christ redeems us, but that everything even remotely good in us is Christ and our only role on this earth is to give God glory for doing everything else for us because we’re so thoroughly evil that even our natural goodness is actually evil.

I find this kind of talk to be disrespectful toward God, and his creation. It implies that, rather than redeeming humanity, God decided to just do it all himself. Remember when you tried to help your dad with a chore or task when you were a little kid, and your “helping” just created more work for him? Sometimes, he’d get frustrated and just do it himself; but when he was being a really great dad, he’d take his time and show you how to do it right. And then watch while you screwed it up a dozen times. Calvin’s God is the one that just decides to do it himself.

There’s a logic in this, too. See, in Calvin’s view the imago dei, the image of God, is something that God sees, not something that anyone else does. In Calvin’s view of the imago dei, God created human beings in order to bring himself glory: we’re the mirror that he can admire himself in. Actually. So when we failed to reflect him well, and showed up in the mirror being dirty and bleeding from the effects of sin, God pushes us out of the mirror and incarnates his Son to take our place, so that he can continue to see his own glory in the world.

If that was his purpose, of course he would get frustrated with our failure and just do it himself! Now, if he actually desired to have creatures who not only resemble him, but would grow up into his image in the sense that they would come to be like him and represent him (that is, help him with his work), then he would be the other kind of dad, taking the time and effort to help us get it right, no matter how much he might get dirty and hurt along with us.

So I get Calvin now. I can even appreciate that our views on the depravity and perversity of humanity are pretty close. I can even get his sense of our utter grossness, when I think about it. But when it comes to why that’s important, and how it relates to our created purpose, we couldn’t be further apart.

Now I gotta figure out what I’m going to do with this 22-volume commentary set…


8 thoughts on “Calvin, Self-Loathing, and the Image of God

  1. Thanks for your post, Jeff. It can help tease out what Calvin’s true meaning is. I think that one of two things must be true: either (1) Torrance overstates things when he writes that for Calvin “fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God”; or (2) Calvin either contradicts himself, or, more passively, fails to notice a contradiction in his thinking.

    Why do I say this? Well, because Calvin can be quite respectful of the natural good in humans when it is there to be found. Unlike Luther, who, for example, despised the philosophers (Aristotle is a “buffoon”) Calvin not only respected but listened to them. So, I wonder how a person could believe the things that Torrance attributes to Calvin (as stated above, in absolute terms) and can go on to say things like this:

    “Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf, were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God?” (Institutes, II.2.15)

    So, how to resolve the conflict (if it is, in fact, resolvable . . . perhaps it’s just a paradox?). One possibility is that Calvin’s more negative comments refer to what humans can hope to contribute to their salvation. Answer: nothing! SALVIFICALLY, even our goodness is tainted and useless to effect salvation (dirty rags, as Isaiah says): we cannot offer the pure sacrifice of immeasurable worth required for atonement (just to pick up on one important atonement metaphor amongst several). But, when it comes to recognizing God’s common grace (and along with it, a measure of goodness going back to our creation in God’s image and ultimately attributed to the working of God’s Spirit in all) he is happy to recognize this.

    Calvin’s doctrine of the imago is interesting: it seems primarily to be dynamic (a mirroring of God’s glory, character, and reign) but also a quality of the soul (picking up on the tradition of locating human dignity with the imago, stemming from Gen. 9:6 and the theological tradition that follows). It’s fairly easy to see how the first can become marred, distorted, even almost totally lost in some cases (Hitler, Stalin, serial killers, etc.). But the second would seem to endure, pointing to the original call of God and perhaps to hope in the possibility of future restoration. In both cases, however, we need to be regenerated/reborn into and reoriented toward the imago Christi.

    • Thanks for this Patrick – you’ve zeroed in on the issues well. What I find missing in Torrance’s summary and references to Calvin is the greater context of his comments: It appears that Calvin feels no need to mediate his extreme comments with clarifications on their application or limitations, which leads to us feeling like he swings from one extreme to the other. Part of me would like to blame Torrance for not giving greater context (are all of these comments actually limited to the issue of salvation, or of human being in general?), and then I recall that Torrance himself comments on the seeming contradictions, tensions, and other difficulties.

      Note though that Calvin is explicit about the imago not being inherent to the soul itself, as if it were an attribute that the soul has or owns. Even though the imago is something that applies to all created things, being a way of talking about something as God’s handiwork, it is only there by grace. Whether something could actually lose all traces of the imago is a difficult question: at times he says that it’s completely obliterated, and other times he says it could never be, and other times he says that it, like life itself, is maintained in existence continually by the will of God.

      • Calvin argues in two directions about the imago. On the one hand, it is how humans reflect God’s glory and character (mirror).

        On the other hand, Calvin argues that “though the divine glory is displayed in man’s outward appearance, it cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is in the soul.” He goes on to argue that “our definition of the image seems not to be complete until it appears more clearly what the faculties are in which man excels, and in which he is to be regarded as a mirror of the divine glory.”

        Calvin then highlights knowledge, righteousness, and holiness and infers that “the image of God was manifested by light of intellect, rectitude of heart, and the soundness of every part.” And finally, the image “is properly the internal good of the soul.” See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I.XV.3–4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 162–65.

        He doesn’t argue that the imago applies to all created things, does he? Scripture pretty clearly ascribes it to human beings. Yes, the whole earth “declares the glory of God,” but that’s not the same things as reflecting God’s image.

        Agreed on needing more context! See the Institutes passage I quoted.

      • Thanks Patrick! Yes, he argues that all creation reflects God’s glory, and God’s glory is grace, and the reception of grace is right relationship with God which, while it can only be properly engaged in by humans, to some extent is exhibited by all creation. At least, that’s what I read Torrance as reading Calvin as saying.

        I think my biggest issue with Calvin’s anthropocentric notion of image is that it treats all the rest of creation as having almost purely instrumental value for humanity, and humanity as having largely instrumental value to God. Nothing is really valuable for its own sake, which bothers me. Also, Calvin bases much of his notion of image on faculties, which implies that lesser-abled humans have less of God’s image (at times he insists that image is something that you either have or you don’t, and other times he describes it with gradation; either way, it’s difficult to think of what that would mean for the mentally challenged or comatose). It’s difficult theologically, but perhaps moreso ethically.

  2. Having just read “Marguerite de Navarre” by Marilynne Robinson, which is largely about Calvin, but otherwise more familiar with Karl Barth than Calvin directly, my perspective is that he is drastic in his sense of the fall, but very liberal in his understanding of Christ. As Robinson points out, the metaphor of mirror was very central to Calvin’s thought; “depravity” in Calvin’s writing still had the original latin sense of (visual) “distortion”. This view is a “limit” or projection of life without Christ.

    Through the fall the image is essentially distorted, but then restored in Christ. For Calvin Christ is also redeems the Jews, and indeed the whole of creation. This is crystallized in Barth, who (until corrected) I see as “Calvinism in a Kantian framework”. Without Christ “true” nature is unreachable from the rational mind … the “Ding an sich” Christ is the pinhole through which meaning is restored.

    I don’t think its right to characterize relations between the rest of creation, humanity and god is a “purely instrumental” in Calvin per se. Rather we are to understand, nurture, love the rest of creation just as god loves us. “Pure instrumentality” is a “fallen” version of the relationship, which is restored by Christ. Christ also restores the rest of creation — not just us.

    • Thanks for this, Shaun, it’s helpful.
      I struggle with Barth almost as much as with Calvin!
      I don’t for a moment doubt that Calvin believed in the redemption of creation, and “pure” is a term that should probably never be applied to something so complex as theology, but my strong impression of reading Calvin (through Torrance) at the time was of a highly instrumentalized view of creation. Even if Calvin allows for creation to have value in itself, such value seemed deeply subordinated to its value in glorifying God first, and serving the needs of humanity second. If intrinsic value is third-rate at best, then it’s not particularly meaningful. Even allowing for the prejudices and worldview of his age, reading even a bit of Calvin has made it pretty clear to me how Calvin’s thought has been used to promote an anthropocentric theology, ethic, and even (through some translation) secular worldview much more than others. The real questions for me are: a) how much does this problematic view actually represent his theology more generally, and b) how much does this view, if it really is as prominent and foundational to his thought as it seems, undermine the rest of his thought? Since I’m generally frustrated by virtually any theology that is prefaced by the word “Calvinist”, I haven’t felt the need to investigate it, but it’s a good question for Calvinist scholars. My own biases would require too much effort to overcome before I could make a more objective attempt 🙂

    • Donated them to a Reformed church 😉

      Sadly, they debated about whether or not they would take them. Apparently even foundational theological literature isn’t always welcome in church.

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