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  • Writer's picturecocodensmore

Seminary one bite at a time: Calvin's Institutes Book I

January 1, 2029

OK folks… I’m not sure how many folks will think this is riveting stuff, but naturally I do, because I’m in seminary for goodness’ sake! If nothing else, you’ll see me working through this stuff. So I’m doing this “Seminary one bite at a time” series. I might change the title but it came to me in a vision. Just kidding.

Reading Calvin puts my 31-year-old self sitting across from my uncle, the Reformed Baptist minister, in my living room in Vernonia as he lectured me on my sinful nature. I know he thought me destined for hell. And I thought that too. But something inside of me knew that was not true. It just took me a couple more decades to deconstruct and recognize Calvinism as incredibly misguided and incredibly dangerous theology which has been the foundation for the spiritual abuse of millions of people.

My uncle has passed. I have this fantasy that those who have passed can see into our hearts when we think of them. People live on in us, and I believe we are connected to them in the spiritual realm. Woooooooo, new agey stuff there! Perhaps. But it is comforting to me and it doesn’t hurt anyone for me to believe it.

I imagine my beloved Uncle Dexter now, seeing into my heart, seeing my struggles, witnessing the ugly events of my past, and putting all the pieces together. He knows, now, his brother was sexually abusive. It wasn’t false memories planted by secular counselors, as he often told me. My depression wasn’t rooted in my inability to forgive my father, as he often told me. He knows just how wrong he was now. I’d like to forgive him, now that I know he knows. Working on that… Working through that…

And here we go…

I.1.1.1 “Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and — what is more — depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.”

I was often told “Every good thing comes from God” (James 1:17), a verse that very effectively ensured I took no pride in my inherent goodness. I am undeserving of any credit apart from allowing God to work through me, because it is God who alone is good. And even when I allow God’s goodness to work through me, it is only because God has initiated it by gifting me his grace.

I.1.3.1“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy.”

This is not taken beyond controversy. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not people are born with an innate knowledge of God. It is impossible to measure knowledge of God in an infant, and by the time a child can articulate their beliefs, nurture has molded them substantially.

Furthermore, although many people throughout time have reported embodied spiritual experiences with the Divine, I would venture to say the majority of humankind have never experienced any such phenomenon. Much of our belief system is based on evidence and experience, and to an atheist, there is no evidence nor experience of God. Whereas I view creation as clear evidence of a Creator, an atheist sees the universe and everything in it as the logical and inevitable result of evolution. What I label a miracle, an atheist sees as just one occurrence out of millions of possible random occurrences. Even things that are statistically unlikely occasionally occur as statistical outliers. (I must admit, atheists present some very compelling arguments.)

I.1.4.1“We see than many, after they have become hardened in insolent and habitual sinning, furiously repel all remembrance of God, although this is freely suggested to them inwardly from the feeling of nature.”

Many a Christian speaks of the tragedy of the “hardening of the heart”, a phenomenon resulting from repeatedly succumbing to our inherently rebellious, sinful nature. One Christian told me that repeated willful sin “kills your conscience”. I bought into that for a very long time; it was a very effective means of control others exerted over me and I used to attempt dominion over sinful desires.

However, it’s a habituation or desensitization effect that results when we repeat a behavior. This effect occurs whether or not a thing is feared, and I posit that a state of conviction (a guilty conscience) is nothing more than a state of fear. Over time, the convicting behavior no longer convicts. That is not a hardening of the heart, that is a survival mechanism.

Discussion Questions:

1.      If no good thing comes from within us, if our works are as filthy rags, it follows that we are not to love ourselves. From that, it follows we are not to take pride in ourselves when we do good because good never initiates from us alone, only God working through us. It then follows that only the elect are able to do good, since God decided before creating the non-elect they would not receive God’s grace which is a requirement to do good. Are the non-elect only capable of harmful actions and evil? If that’s the case, how do the non-elect remain in community without being banished, jailed, or killed?

2.      Does scripture support God’s desire we love and value ourselves? For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself…” (Mark 12:31). How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you can’t measure your commitment to that commandment against how much you love yourself?

3.      Is the “hardening of the heart” really a thing? Can you become impervious to sinful behaviors so that you no longer recognize what you are doing is immoral or unethical? How can we hold the non-elect responsible for their actions if they never receive God’s grace and are unable to have open hearts?

4.      Are we born with an innate knowledge of God? If the only people who experience the presence and closeness of God do so only because God elects to call them to Godself through the gift of grace, how can it logically follow that all people have an innate knowledge of God?



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