May 26, 2004

Calvin on the Incarnation

Category: Theology - Christology :: Permalink

As I work through Calvin’s Institutes, I occasionally find things that raise my eyebrows. Recently, I was reading II.xiv.2 and 3. In 2, Calvin wants to give some examples of things that belong strictly to Christ’s divinity (e.g., being before all things), things that belong strictly to Christ’s humanity (e.g., increasing in wisdom), and places where the properties or characteristics of one are attributed to the other (e.g., God purchasing the church with his own blood).

In the second section, Calvin lists increasing in age and wisdom, not seeking his own glory, not knowing the Last Day, not speaking by himself, not doing his own will, and being seen and handled. All, Calvin says, are things which

refer solely to Christ’s humanity. In so far as he is God, he cannot increase in anything, and does all things for his own sake; nothing is hidden from him; he does all things according to the decision of his will, and can be neither seen nor handled. Yet he does not ascribe these qualities solely to his human nature, but takes them upon himself as being in harmony with the person of the Mediator.

I can’t say that I find this account entirely satisfactory. Calvin seems to think, for instance, that God always seeks his own glory (“does all things for his own sake”) and that therefore if Christ is said not to seek his own glory that statement must refer to Christ’s human nature. But in thinking this way, it seems as if Calvin is leaving the Trinity out of the picture: he’s dealing with God, that is, but not with the Triune God, not with a God who is three persons in a relationship of love, each of whom seeks the glory of the others. It isn’t “unGodlike” for Christ not to seek his own glory but to seek the glory of the Father. (Of course, maybe my complaint is that Calvin hadn’t read Jeff Meyers.)

I’m also not entirely comfortable with saying that as God Jesus couldn’t be seen. That doesn’t seem to fit with what Scripture tells us, namely, that man is made in God’s image, that Jesus is the true image of God, and that the disciples, seeing Jesus, saw not just his humanity but his glory, the glory of the only-begotten son of God (John 1:14). To see him, Jesus says, is to see the Father (John 14:9).

In II.xiv.3, Calvin writes something else that puzzles me. He’s working with 1 Cor. 15:24, where Christ is said to deliver the kingdom to “his God and Father.” Calvin writes:

For what purpose were power and lordship given to Christ, unless that by his hand the Father might govern us? In this sense also, Christ is said to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Yet this is but for a time, until we enjoy the direct vision of the Godhead. Here we cannot excuse the error of the ancient writers who pay no attention to the person of the Mediator, obscure the real meaning of almost all the teaching one reads in the Gospel of John, and entangle themselves in many snares. Let this, then, be our key to right understanding: those things which apply to the office of Mediator are not spoken simply either of the divine nature or of the human. Until he comes forth as judge of the world Christ will therefore reign, joining us to the Father as the measure of our weakness permits. But when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is, Christ, having then discharged the office of Mediator, will cease to be the ambassador of his Father, and will be satisfied with that glory which he enjoyed before the creation of the world. And the name “Lord” exclusively belongs to the person of Christ only in so far as it represents a degree midway between God and us. Paul’s statement accords with this: “One God — from whom are all things — and one Lord — through whom are all things” (1 Cor. 8:6). That is, to him was lordship committed by the Father, until such time as we should see his divine majesty face to face. Then he returns the lordship to his Father so that – far from diminishing his own majesty – it may shine all the more brightly. Then, also, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as yet it is covered by a veil.

Now there are many things that baffle me about this passage.

(1) Calvin says that Christ is seated at God’s right hand only for a time. It’s true that 1 Cor. 15 talks about Christ delivering up the kingdom to God and I’ll admit that I’m not too clear about the significance of that, but will Christ cease being king at that point?

(2) Calvin says we will someday “enjoy the direct vision of the Godhead.” It seems that Calvin is making a contrast between the direct vision we’ll enjoy at that time and the (I guess) indirect vision that we enjoy right now — and part of that indirectness, given the context of the sentence, is that Christ is ruling as king. Odd.

And odd, too, is the phrase “the Godhead.” Did Stephen see “the Godhead”? No, he saw the Father and the Son. When we see God, will we no longer see Christ (the Son)? Will we see only “the Unity”? Is Calvin really thinking like a Trinitarian when he uses this phrase? Or am I being too hard on him? Am I misunderstanding him?

(3) Calvin says that, when we see “God as he is,” then Christ’s mediatorial work will be done and he will no longer be “the ambassador of his Father.” That seems to imply that we will then have direct access to God instead of access to God in Christ. Christ will no longer be our mediator. All of that sounds very weird to me.

(4) Calvin indicates that the name “Lord” refers to “a degree midway between God and us,” and in fact it’s apparently something that obscures Christ’s majesty, since Calvin says that Christ’s majesty will shine more brightly when he hands the lordship over to his Father. That, too, sounds exceedingly strange. Or am I misunderstanding Calvin here?

(5) Calvin says that God will, at that time, no longer be Christ’s head. (It’s as if, to use some people’s terminology, the economic Trinity is only temporary and, on the last day, reverts to being just the ontological Trinity.)

(6) The reason Calvin gives seems equally odd to me: “for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as yet it is covered by a veil.” What is that veil? From the context, it would appear to be Christ’s mediatorial office, Christ’s lordship, and/or possibly Christ’s being human. Is Calvin implying that Christ will no longer be human at that time? He certainly appears to being saying that Christ will no longer be the mediator. But in what sense is Christ’s mediatorial office or lordship (let alone humanity) an obscuring or veiling of his majesty and deity?

All of this is quite puzzling to me. Can anyone help me out? Am I misunderstanding Calvin or is Calvin rather confused (confusing) at this point?

Posted by John Barach @ 6:14 pm | Discuss (0)

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