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Calvin on Charity

4 January 2012

As I slowly make my way through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the 1845 Henry Beveridge translation) I am occasionally struck quite surprised by the nuances and unexpected turns of his thought, which often jar with the received evaluations of his theology. Other times I am amused at how well the stereotypes reflect the man. On still other occasions what strikes me is his strange, almost inside-out way of thinking, particularly in cases such as when he seemingly finds himself trying to reconcile his famously low view of human beings with the Scriptural exhortations of love for all persons. The following quotation from “A Summary of the Christian Life. Of Self-Denial,” illustrates this point with Calvin’s thoughts on the theological virtue of charity:

The Lord enjoins us to do good to all without exception, though the greater part, if estimated by their own merit, are most unworthy of it. But Scripture subjoins a most excellent reason, when it tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honor and love. But in those who are of the household of faith, the same rule is to be more carefully observed, inasmuch as that image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whoever be the man that is presented to you as needing your assistance, you have no ground for declining to give it to him. [Institutes 3.7.6]

You may be forgiven if you fail to see immediately how this is about the virtue of charity (the following section states it explicitly), since it seems to describe not a stable internal disposition toward certain actions but a categorical imperative to act in a certain way regardless of internal disposition. That is, Calvin seems to take charity to be a duty rather than a virtue. More specifically, it is a duty which we owe to God, since we act upon it not for the person but for the image of God within that person, especially in the case of fellow Christians, in whom, according to Calvin, the image of God is renewed from its obscuring by the stain of sin. Though the idea that we owe a particular character of acts to human beings in consequence of the image of God is hardly distinct to Calvin what is peculiar here in the thought of the crouchy old reformer (and his followers) is that the human being him or herself is evacuated of moral worth entirely, in consequence of sin, though that point is not explicated here as it is covered at length earlier in the Institutes, and human moral obligation rests entirely upon the reflection of God in the person.

This move from moral disposition to moral imperative is required by Calvin’s theological anthropology; he wishes to maintain both of the prima facie contradictory positions that human beings are both unworthy and incapable of moral actions in consequence of sin and that we ought, as scripture enjoins, to act toward all human beings morally. Therefore he evacuates charity of what makes it a virtue and replaces that with an obligation to the image of God. The problem that seemingly escapes Calvin’s eye is that love, in any form, cannot be commanded, only the semblance of it. In trying to reconcile scriptural exhortations to love with his low anthropological views Calvin has reduced charity to a set of exterior of actions, a most belittled state when compared to the selfless and self-giving love described in the scriptures which Calvin sees himself as expounding.

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