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…

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On Original Sin and Being “Dirty”

I’m going out on a limb here to discuss a doctrine that I struggle with, and particularly with the way it is used by some Christians. This blog is a place where I work out my theology, and I welcome everyone to discuss it with me (and help me figure it out!). That said, if you feel tempted to call me a heretic, please back it up thoughtfully, or don’t say it at all. I’m not here to pick a fight, and want to apologize in advance if that’s how I come off, but I feel like this needs to be discussed and I may not be able to avoid controversial statements.

The doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t make much sense to me, and further, I hate what neo-Calvinists have done with it. I wanted to talk about the former, but that’ll be next post – for now I’ll talk about the use of the doctrine to make Christians hate themselves.

I saw this comic floating around on Facebook the other day, and it made me very sad. I don’t think that there’s anything untrue in it (though I think it makes some theological assumptions), but I’m more concerned about its emphasis. There’s a mix of panels and text, so it’s hard to say exactly how long it is, but if you call major text sections a panel, then there are eight panels. Seven out of eight panels are bad news, and even the “good news” in the last panel is a backhanded gospel. Let’s take a look at it. (I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing here, but click the link and follow along as I look at a few key points)

The word “dirty” shows up several times here, which is interesting to me. I’m amazed at how wretched that word can make a person feel. Another word that people have used to make people feel wretched is “nigger”, which is used to mean that a person is inherently unsophisticated or defective (and as a child I was taught that it also means “dirty”). It’s super effective. I apologize for using that word, I know that it’s a trigger for some people and some people might feel that I don’t have a right to use the term, but it so clearly sums up the Christian use of the word “dirty” or “filthy” that I feel it’s appropriate. The message of this comic is that you’re a filthy nigger, that you were born this way and cannot change it, and that you need to accept this. Now, this comic is somewhat cutesy in its portrayal (it’s a comic, after all), so it wouldn’t use such harsh terms. It uses “dirty” and “smells bad” to refer to our nature. But the point is the same.

What’s interesting is that it refers us to Genesis 6 to make this point: “Mankind had become so utterly dirty and corrupt that God regretted creating us.” Now, God does say there that he regretted creating humans, and that this was because of corruption (actually says wickedness, evil), but it never mentions “dirty”. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any place in the Bible where it talks about us as “dirty”. I just did a search, and the English Revised Version is the only version of the Bible that uses the word more than a few times, and even then it’s rarely as a moral description of humans. The Bible usually talks about unrighteousness, which means not being good, or wickedness, which means being bad – these are moral terms meant to show that we’re wrong, even evil. “Dirty”, on the other hand, is a word that is used to shame people.

I think this is what bothers me about this comic: it’s not just about pointing out that we’re unrighteous, wicked, sinful, even evil. It wants us to feel that way. Oddly enough, at the end of the comic it says “instead of a cesspool of guilt, there is otherworldly freedom in knowing that we are bad and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it.” This is why I say that the “good news” of this comic is a backhanded gospel: it spends seven frames trying to instil a sense of shame in us, and then says “but you don’t need to feel bad anymore.” It spends seven panels calling us niggers, and then says that as long as we know in our hearts that we’ll always be niggers, we won’t be slaves anymore. Try telling that to an African American, whose ancestors were slaves; to them, the word “nigger” from someone outside of their community is a symbol of slavery, of dehumanization, of prejudice. It’s a statement that even though they’re free, they’re no better than slaves. This is obviously not true: human beings have dignity, were created in dignity, and none of us have any right to take that away by calling someone “dirty”.

The argument is, though, that this is a good thing because “this is the fallen state of mankind: the sickness that needs to be diagnosed before the cure will make any sense.” Apparently we’re incapable of understanding good news until we’re fully and completely convinced that we’re the absolute worst.

What they mean to say is that the grace of God is conditional upon repentance, and that sinful human nature (Original Sin) prevents us from doing anything that is good (such as repenting) without serious prompting from God, and that we won’t actually listen to God’s prompting unless we’re deeply aware of just how desperate we ought to be because of our wretched filthiness (and the eternal conscious torment that we can expect unless we repent, though this comic doesn’t mention that part). This is what I mean when I say that this comic has a lot of theological assumptions. (For the record, I don’t know for sure that this guy is a neo-Calvinist, but the comic doesn’t make as much sense under most other theological frameworks. Also, neo-Calvinists love this stuff; I did a search of “original sin verses” and the first site that came up was John Piper’s.)

I was taught this in church, growing up. I’m sure I even supported this evangelism strategy, even in Bible college. What I discovered is that it’s a sermon for the already converted. It makes perfect sense to someone who grew up in the church with this teaching, but from the outside it looks crazy. People in North America who aren’t Christians are not unaware of Christianity and its basic claims, including the claim that they are sinful. This “You and I are bad” comic isn’t news to them, much less convicting. It’s not that they haven’t heard this before, they just don’t believe you when they tell you that you’re evil, and they ignore you when you call them “dirty”, and walk away thinking “wow, that was rude. Who does that person think they are?” There is absolutely nothing attractive about this message.

The argument here, then, is “but it’s TRUE!” I have a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort “but…is it true?” Well, that’s a topic for another post, because this will be way too long. But I often want to respond to that professor with “but…is it useful?” What good is truth if there’s nobody to hear it? Being true doesn’t make it attractive, just like being right doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk. I’ve heard this approach justified many times by people who claim that “the gospel is offensive”; they wear it as a badge of honour, then, when people get offended at what they have to say. (For the record, the “offense of the gospel” is used to mean a lot of different things, but this use is taking it out of context – ask me about it, and I’ll write a post on it). Whether or not the argument is true, there are plenty of other ways to talk about the good news of Christ’s redemption of the world – perhaps by even mentioning redemption! This is sort of a central feature of the gospel. Redeemed, justified, sanctified, reconciled: these words are not mentioned here. After all, in this theology we’re permanently “dirty” and defective, and God’s grace towards us doesn’t change that fact – he only overlooks it.

Here’s some gospel that’s actually good news: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is, without our asking for it or even knowing it, we’ve been redeemed and justified. Being a Christian is about learning to live as if that’s true (and it is!). And the Holy Spirit within us unites us to Christ, and we become sanctified as he is sanctified. While we may still sin, we’re no longer sinners; while we may still get morally dirty, we’re not inherently dirty; while we still work for the devil from time to time, we’re not slaves to sin, and nobody can call us niggers.