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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