Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Ecclesiastes by John Calvin

All future events being uncertain to us, seem in suspense as if ready to take either direction. Still, however, the impression remains seated in our hearts, that nothing will happen which the Lord has not provided. In this sense the term event is repeatedly used in Ecclesiastes, because, at first glance, men do not penetrate to the primary causes which lies concealed. And yet, what is taught in Scripture of the secret providence of God was never so completely effaced from the human heart, as that some sparks did not always shine in the darkness.

To charge the intellect with perpetual blindness, so as to leave it no intelligence of any description whatever, is repugnant not only to the Word of God, but to common experience. We see that there has been implanted in the human mind a certain desire of investigating truth, to which it would never aspire unless some relish for truth antecedently existed.

There is, therefore, now, in the human mind, discernment to this extent, that it is naturally influenced by the love of truth, the neglect of which in lower animals is proof of their gross and irrational nature. Still it is true that this love of truth fails before it reaches the goal, forthwith falling away into vanity.

As the human mind is unable, from dullness, to pursue the right path of investigation, and, after various wanderings, stumbling every now and then like one groping in the darkness, at length gets completely bewildered, so its whole procedure proves how unfit it is to search the truth and find it. Then it labors under another serious defect, in that it frequently fails to discern what the knowledge is which it should study to acquire. Hence, under the influence of a vain curiousity, it torments itself with superfluous and useless discussions, either not adverting at all to the things necessary to be known, or casting only a cursory and contemtuous glance at them. At all events it scarcely ever studies them in sober earnest.

Profane writers are constantly complaining of this perverse procedure, and yet almost all of them are found pursuing it. Hence Solomon, throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes, after enumerating all the studies in which men think they attain the highest wisdom, pronounces them vain and frivolous.

Still, however, man's efforts are not always so utterly fruitless as not to lead to some result, especially when his direction is directed to inferior objects. Nay, even with regard to superior objects, though he is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress. Here, however, his ability is more limited, and he is never more sensible of his weakness than when he attempts to soar above the sphere of the present life...

Grant that man recieved at his creation a power of acquiring life or death; what, then, if we, on the other hand, can reply that he has lost it? Assuredly, I have no intention to contradict Solomon, who assserts that "God has made man upright;" that "they have sought out many inventions" but since man, by degenerating, has made a shipwreck of himself and all his blessings, it certainly does not follow, that everything attributed to his nature, as originally constituted, applies to it now when vitiated and degenerate.

Therefore, not only to my opponents, but to the author of Ecclestiasticus himself (whoever he may have been) this is my answer:

If you mean to tell man that in himself there is a power of acquiring salvation, your authority with us is not so great as, in the least degree, to prejudice the undoubted word of God; but if wishing only to curb the malignity of the fleshy which by transferring the blame of its own wickedness to God, is wont to catch at a vain defense, you say that rectitude was given to man, in order to make it apparent he was the cause of his own destruction, I willingly assent.

Only agree with me in this, that it is by his own fault he is stript of the ornaments in which the Lord first attired him, and then let us unite in acknowledging that what he now wants is a physician, and not a defender.

- Institutes of the Christian Religion-

"the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to the men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all"- Ecclesiastes 9/11

see the comment


  1. Of all the Western church reformers of the sixteenth century, none has been so consistently defamed, from his own time to the present, as John Calvin of Geneva. I use the word defamed with some care, since Calvin’s name is capable even today of provoking violently negative responses in connection with issues that often have remarkably little to do with what he actually did, thought, or wrote. Henri Daniel-Rops, the great Roman Catholic historian, snarled at Calvin as “one of those terribly pure men who ruthlessly enforced principles,” the theological dictator of a town where there were “too many policemen, too many pliable judges, too many prisons, and too many scaffolds.” Stefan Zweig wrote of Calvin in 1936 as though Calvin were interchangeable with Adoph Hitler and Oscar Pfister, Sigmund Freud’s Swiss theological admirer, wrote off Calvin as a “compulsive-neurotic who transformed the God of Love as experienced and taught by Jesus into a compulsive character, a fanatic of hateful cruelty, bearing absolutely diabolical traits. . . .” Even a modern American televangelist, the much-lamented Jimmy Swaggart, declared that Calvin was responsible for causing “untold numbers to be lost—or seriously hindered—in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.”
    Despite the momentary burst of sympathy one might be inclined to feel for anyone whom Mr. Swaggart disliked so intensely, it is difficult to read all this and not conclude that Calvin was a 16th-century megalomaniac. And in like manner, it is rare to encounter anyone formed by the Catholic or Orthodox traditions who thinks of Calvin as anything other than the author of a schismatic system of church polity (Presbyterianism) and the promoter of a repulsive theological idea (predestination) that reduces human beings to the level of wooden playthings and God to the level of a tyrannical dictator.
    In this light, the appearance of Alister McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin is particularly welcome. Not only is McGrath a fine writer, but he is also an Anglican (which keeps him from being too much of either an instinctive admirer or an instinctive hater of Calvin) and an accomplished scholar of 16th-century theology (his earlier two-volume study of the doctrine of justification, and his books on Luther and Reformation context, have all met with generous critical acclaim). He also is able to ride the tide of some important reappraisals of the anti-Calvin mythology (such as Jack Hexter’s connection of Calvin and Thomas More’s Utopia, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s writings on Calvin’s Erasmianism and the faults of the Weber thesis, and Robert Kingdon’s work on Geneva), and two major biographical and intellectual histories of Calvin by T. H. L. Parker (another Anglican) and William Bouwsma. And like these previous revisions of the myth, McGrath takes as his chief objective setting Calvin firmly in his sixteenth-century environment, where the frantic defamations have a fairly predictable tendency to fizzle away into critical nothingness.

    Allen C. Guelzo in Touchstone; A Journal of Mere Christianity

    I am particular indebted to the work of William J Bouwsma -John Calvin. A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York/Oxford, 1988-
    a UC Berkeley scholar and author on the European Renaissance and its influence on modern culture. As vice chancellor of Berkley, Bouwsma eased the way for more studies of ethnic history and culture in a period when traditional educators resisted the changes.

  2. "In his late years, Trotsky often compared Marxism with Calvinism: the determinism of the one and the doctrine of predestination of the other, far from weakening or 'denying' the human will, strengthened it. The conviction
    that his action is in harmony with a higher necessity inspires the Marxist as well as the Calvinist to the highest exertion and sacrifice."

    The Prophet Armed; Trostsky: 1879-1921 by Isaac Deutscher, 1954

    It is not for nothing that Calvin is regarded by many as the original atheist! His conception of God is quite complex and unsatisfying for an "other-worldly" purpose. He never spoke of "Hell" as a place but rather as a process whereby the soul is divested of its "triumphant infamy and grovelling
    stupidity" (as Trotsky put it), something we always endure with great pain and reluctance. "Heaven" of course is whatever may be left of our souls when divestment is complete, not always that much! Trotsky admired the work of the Reformation, seeing that many of Russia's worst problems could
    be attributed to the fact that it never had one.

  3. Perhaps no one represents Calvin to the mind of the modern soul better than the very father of evangelical christianity in America- Jonathan Edwards. It is any wonder that they would distance themselves from the teeth-gnashing potency of self-criticism at the core of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? No one with greater alacrity than the evangelicals themselves...

    "That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

    Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun does not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God's enemies.

    When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

  4. Shaplin,

    This is a great post with great following comments. You should repost these. Let me know when you do.