Saturday, October 09, 2010

Calvinist Self-Confidence

Under Calvinism, the medieval division of humanity into those engaged in secular work vs. those engaged in spiritual callings (priests and nuns) was displaced by an acute awareness of the division between the reprobate and the regenerate, between those who are predestined to eternal life vs. those who are damned to an eternity of darkness.[1]

This new division presented certain practical difficulties, the chief one being the obvious question: how am I to know whether or I am predestined to salvation?[2]

John Calvin – who never personally struggled with doubt - was cavalier in dismissing the question.[3] Yet the question lost none of its potency, for as Calvin rightly discerned, “those who do not know that they are God’s own will be miserable through constant fear.”[4] To overcome this fear, Calvinists did not have the luxury, as Roman Catholics did, of assuming that one’s salvation could be guaranteed by the extent of one’s devotions to prayers, good works and participation in the sacraments. Salvation rested entirely in the hidden decrees of God, and if God had ordained you for destruction, there was nothing you could do to change this fact. So how could you know if you were saved? For the Lutherans the answer was simple: you knew you had been chosen by the fervency of your faith.[5] For Calvinists, who repudiated what Weber calls the “purely inward emotional piety of Lutheranism”[6] and were less inclined to separate law and grace, the matter was more complicated.

The answer, according to Calvin, is that a Christians knows he has been saved by his perseverance[7], good works[8] and ironically by the feeling of assurance itself.[9]

The resulting soteriology was not that God helps those who help themselves; it was rather that helping ourselves was the proof that God had already helped us, and was still doing so.[10] For the Calvinist, good works were not the ground of our justification, but they were the necessary fruit of it.[11] Man did not create his own salvation, but his good works functioned as the instrumental means for creating the conviction of it.[12]

Given this framework, it is not surprising that “a more intensive form of the religious valuation of moral action than that to which Calvinism led its adherents has perhaps never existed.”[13] This moral action also included an enormous sense of self-confidence. “ is held to be an absolute duty” Weber noted, “to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, since lack of self-confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace.”[14]

Assurance and self-confidence became the new sacrament: technically these psychological states were powerless to save a person, but they did function as the instrumental means for knowing that God had already predestined you. Calvin himself had urged that faith demands a “solid constancy of persuasion”[15]  since “faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion” [16]; true faith requires “full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved.”[17] And again, “Especially when it comes to reality itself, every man’s wavering uncovers hidden weakness.”[18] Only those with full assurance of their salvation can be guaranteed victory over the devil and death: 
“No man is a believer, I say, except him who, leaning upon the assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death... Yet, once again, we deny that, in whatever way they are afflicted, they fall away and depart from the certain assurance received from God’s mercy.”[19]

The psychology of self-confidence implicated – and indeed, mandated - by the Calvinist project found expression in an inversion of the Roman Catholic paradigm: you proved your salvation and gained assurance, not by withdrawing from the world, but by confidently engaging with it.[20] The result was not overlooked by Abraham Kuyper, who noted that “in every instance [Calvinism] exhibited the same characteristic: viz., strong Assurance of eternal Salvation, not only without the intervention of the Church, but even in opposition to the Church.”[21] The posture of self-confident assurance was by no means limited to soteriology but may go a long way towards explaining the pulse of productive energy that became characteristic of Northern Europe in the 17th century onward.[22]

[1]   As Calvin himself put it, “God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.” Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter XXI, section VII (ed., John T McNeil, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).

[2]  The force of this question was accentuated by the fact that the regenerate and the reprobate can be visibly indistinct from each other “for some years”. Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XII.

[3]   John Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter XXIV, section IV

[4]   John Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter XXI, section I.

[5]    It actual fact, however, things were not quite that simple, for as Ganoczy has pointed out, “The depth and purity required of [Lutheran] faith (omnibus virbus, in hilaritate, perfect love) means that most often faith is beyond the reach of the average Christian.” Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, Ltd, 1987), p. 24.

[6] Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 68.

[7]   Institutes, Book III, chapter XXIV, section VI.
[8]   “When therefore, the saints by innocence of conscience strengthen their faith and take from it occasion to exult, from the fruits of their calling they merely regard themselves as having been chosen as sons by the Lord….they take the fruits of regeneration as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit...” Book III, chapter XIV, Section 19. “This thesis gains a degree of plausibility by considering that Calvin himself urged that “the saints quite often strengthen themselves and are comforted by remembering their own innocence and uprightness, and they do not even refrain at times from proclaiming it.” Book III, chapter XIV, Section 18.

[9]    Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XVI, p. 562

[10]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter XIV, sections XVII- XVIII

[11]    “...we have been chosen to this end: that we may lead a holy and blameless life” and that “election has as its goal holiness of life...” Book III, chapter XXIII, section XII, Ibid, p. 960

[12]  Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 69.

[13]  Weber, Ibid., 70.

[14]  Weber, Ibid., 66-67.

[15]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XV.

[16]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XV.

[17]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XV.

[18]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, section XV.

[19]   Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chapter II, sections XVI-XVII.

[20]   Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 40.

[21]   Kuyper, Ibid, p. 23
[22] See Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress: The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World, 1st ed. (Fortress Pr, 1987).
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!