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Interpretatio Deformis

In a recent piece of pamphleteering in First Things, David Bentley Hart, not content to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Western-Augustinian “misreadings” of Paul on original sin and election, takes up arms to put to rout this sea of nefarious, abstractified, and downright mean-spirited troubles.

There is much of interest in the essay with which I have no intention to deal in this brief missive.

What I do intend to deal with is a comment Prof. Hart makes as it were in passing on the baleful John Calvin and his still more baleful reception of Augustine, progenitor of unintended Reformations hither and yon: “Yet, on the whole, the Augustinian tradition on these texts has been so broad and mighty that it has, for millions of Christians, effectively evacuated Paul’s argument of all its real content. It ultimately made possible those spasms of theological and moral nihilism that prompted John Calvin to claim (in book 3 of The Institutes) that God predestined even the Fall, and (in his commentary on 1 John) that love belongs not to God’s essence, but only to how the elect experience himSic transit gloria Evangelii.”

Oh, dear. Quelle horreur–non? Actually, yes, non, as it turns out. The offending passage comes, as far as I can make out, from Calvin’s commentary on 1 John 4.8 (“God is love”), where he writes, it is true (begging the reader’s pardon, I will avail myself of the original Latin lest I fall afoul of the thematics of Translationese Perilous in the essay in question): …de essentia Dei non loquitur: sed tantum docet qualis a nobis sentiatur (“…[John] does not speak of the essence of God, but he only teaches of what sort he is perceived by us to be”).1

Calvin doesn’t think that God is love, then? That’s just, like, our opinion? Thus the glory of the Gospel perishes, apparently. What Calvin thinks God’s essence is is not stated, but we are left to imagine all manner of things that go bump in the night.

Let us back up, however: earlier in the same lemma, Calvin writes: sumit…generale principium, quod Deus sit caritas: hoc est, quod eius natura sit homines diligere (“He sets out the general principle that God is love: that is, that it is his nature to love men”). At least two items struggle for our attention: first, that Calvin is perfectly comfortable talking about love as natural to God and, second, that it is his nature to love men. There is the clue: John is treating here of God in relation to man, the opera Dei ad extra.

This is significant, because shortly thereafter Calvin rejects an alternative exegesis of these verses:

Scio multos argutius philosophari, ac praesertim veteres hoc loco abusos esse, ut spiritus divinitatem probarent. Verum simplex est apostoli sensus, quia Deus sit fons caritatis, hunc affectum ab eo fluere et diffundi, quocunque pervenit eius notitia. Quemadmodum prius lucem vocavit, quia nihil sit in eo tenebrosum, sed potius omnia suo fulgore illustret.

I know that many philosophize with too much subtlety, and that the ancients especially have abused this passage in order to prove the divinity of the Spirit. But the meaning of the Apostle is simple: because God is the source of charity, this affection flows and is diffused from him wherever the knowledge of him comes, just as previously he called him light, because there is nothing dark in him, but rather he illuminates all things by his own radiance.

Then comes the scandalous remark, ellipticalized above: Hic ergo de essentia Dei non loquitur: sed tantum docet qualis a nobis sentiatur (“Here therefore [John] does not speak of the essence of God, but he only teaches of what sort he is perceived by us to be”). Both adverbs carry weight. Here: in this particular passage. Therefore: as a result of the reasons already set forth. Calvin is not making a general statement about the essence of God, as Prof. Hart would have us believe. He is arguing that in this particular passage the Apostle is not treating of God in se, but of God ad nos et pro nobis.

In one sense, of course, the essence of God is incomprehensible. But in another sense, there are things we can know about God from his effects. The opera Dei externa give rise to our knowledge of the opera Dei interna. Although the former do not precede the latter in the order of being, they do precede them in the order of knowing. From the experience of his love toward us apprehended by faith, we can conclude that it is the natura of God to love men, and that he is the fons of charity–this is not just our “sense,” but the fact of the matter. If Calvin thought that this was so of God in relation to man, one might make so bold as to suppose that this also indicated something of importance about God himself even to so dour a man as the Blackguard of Geneva, our erstwhile theological and moral nihilist.

And indeed, on 4.16 Calvin says as much:

Deus caritas est. Est veluti minor propositio in syllogismo: quia a fide caritatem ratiocinatur hoc modo, fide in nobis habitat Deus: atqui Deus est caritas: ergo ubicunque manet Deus, caritatem simul vigere oportet. Hinc sequitur, caritatem necessario fidei connexam esse.

“God is love.” This is as it were the minor proposition in a syllogism, because he concludes love from faith in the following way: by faith God dwells in us; and yet God is love; therefore, wherever God abides, it is proper that love flourish. Hence it follows that love is necessarily connected to faith.

If my exegesis of Calvin’s exegesis of the Apostle John comes closer to the mark than Prof. Hart’s exegesis of Calvin’s exegesis of the Apostle John, then we have found a rather delectable situational irony, in so far as Prof. Hart’s (actual) misreading of Calvin comes amidst a polemic against (putative) Western “misreading” of the Apostle Paul.

Prof. Hart no doubt attempts in his essay to render a service to the Church Universal(ist), but one is led–I am tempted to say “predestined”–to revert to the old Juvenalian question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?2

  1. All translations are my own. Another version can be found here.
  2. I of course mean all of the foregoing in good fun, and in the spirit of Prof. Hart’s original. But I do think there is a serious point, viz., I really don’t think Calvin means here what Prof. Hart says he means.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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