Book 1 - Chapter 15 (parts 1-2)
DISCUSSION OF HUMAN NATURE AS CREATED, OF THE FACILITIES OF THE SOUL, OF THE IMAGE OF GOD, OF FREE WILL, AND OF THE ORIGINAL INTEGRITY OF MAN’S NATURE
In this chapter Calvin enters into a discussion of the soul, the image of God and the fall. Though Calvin will discuss each of these ideas in more detail later in the book, this chapter provides both an overview and an introduction to his theology of humanity.
Summary: Calvin begins with the observation that “….we cannot have a clear and complete knowledge of God unless it is accompanied by a corresponding knowledge of ourselves.” (pg. 183) This is so because knowing who we were before the fall, namely the perfect image of God, who we are after the fall, namely corrupted human beings, and who we are after the work of Christ, namely redeemed humanity helps us understand the nature of God more fully; a God who has a plan to make humanity whole.
In order for us to know who we are, Calvin believes that we need to begin with the concept of the soul. The soul for Calvin is the immortal spirit which God gives to each human being. The soul is “an immortal yet created essence, which is man’s nobler part.” (pg. 184) What this means is that the soul is first a creation of God and second that when it is freed in death, it returns to God. And even though people are afraid of death, Calvin believes that most human beings have a “sense of their own immortality.” (pg. 184) He also believes that this immortal soul is the “seat of man’s intelligence.” (pg. 185)
Having clarified his understanding of the soul Calvin launches into a discussion of what it means that we are all created in the image of God. He begins by declaring that the image of God is spiritual and that it dwells within the soul. Though he is willing to accept some linkage between the physical body and the image of God, Calvin wants to be clear that God does not have a body like ours and so our bodies are not the image of God. Even so Calvin states that “although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks (of God’s image) did not glow (at creation and before the fall).” (pg. 188)
Interestingly enough, Calvin does not spend much time trying to flesh out exactly what the image of God is. Calvin comes closest to a description of the image of God when he speaks of it as “those faculties in which man excels, and in which he ought to (see) the reflection of God’s glory.” (pg. 189) These faculties include “…knowledge, then pure righteousness and holiness” (pg. 189) and can be seen most clearly in Jesus Christ, who is “the most perfect image of God.” (pg. 190) He sums it up this way. “Now God’s image is the perfect excellence of human nature which shone in Adam before his defection.” (pg. 190)
In this discussion Calvin also tells his readers what the image of God is not. It is not God’s substance being shared with humanity (pg. 191) but is instead a gift of God. This is a critical understanding in that it insures that we know the difference between creator (God) and creatures (us).
Reflection: So what can we learn about God from the fact that we are made in God’s image and that we have been given immortal souls? I believe that there are several things we can lean. First we learn that God created human beings to be in relationship with God’s own self. God could have created human beings as just another animal operating out of pure instinct. Instead God made us with souls which begin and end with God. Second we learn that God loves humanity. We see this in God’s gift of intelligence and rational thought; in our ability to “grasp things that are right, just, and honorable.” (pg. 185) Finally we learn that God desires that each of us discover how we can make this image live fully within us.
In this chapter Calvin enters a discussion of the soul, the image of God, human will and the fall. Though Calvin will discuss each of these ideas in more detail later in the book, this chapter provides both an overview and an introduction to his theology of humanity.
Summary: The question that confronts us is, if we are made in the image of God, why is the world so messed up? For Calvin, the answer is that the image of God was corrupted in the Fall. Even so, Calvin makes it clear that the image of God was never extinguished in human beings, but merely severely corrupted. “Therefore, even though we grant that God’s image was not totally annihilated in him (Adam), yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity.” (pg. 189) The good news however is that in Jesus Christ we can be restored to “true and complete integrity.” (pg. 189) In this way “…the end of regeneration is that Christ should reform us to God’s image.” He quotes the Apostle Paul from 2 Corinthians 3:18, that “we…with unveiled face beholding the glory of Christ are being transformed into his very image.” Thus since Christ is the “most perfect image of God; if we are conformed to it, we are so restored that with true piety, righteousness, purity and intelligence we bear God’s image.” (pg. 190)
Calvin next enters into a discussion of “understanding” and “will”, both of which are aspects of the soul. Understanding is the ability to see what is good, or which choices are “worthy of approval or disapproval...” (pg. 194) Will on the other hand is the ability to either choose to follow what is good or to flee from what is evil. These two “facilities” of the soul (understanding and will), as Calvin calls them, were both fully present in Adam at the beginning of time. “Therefore God provided man’s soul with a mind by which to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong; and the light of reason as guide to distinguish what should be followed from what should be avoided….to this is joined the will, under whose control is choice.” (pg. 195) This combination was so potent that, “In this integrity man by free will had the power, if he so willed to attain eternal life. “ (pg. 195) What Calvin means by this is that Adam and Eve had the understanding and the will to be obedient and thus choose to live eternally with God in the garden.
Unfortunately Adam’s will was “capable of being bent to one side or the other, and was not given the constancy to persevere, that he fell so easily.” (pg. 195) Thus his choice to disobey God was his and his alone and he is responsible for the fall. Calvin understands the arguments about the fall being God’s fault; that it was God who created Adam as fallible, yet “…nor was it reasonable for God to be constrained by the necessity of making a man who either could not, or would not sin at all. Such a nature would have indeed been more excellent…(however)…no necessity was imposed upon God of giving man other than a mediocre and even transitory will…” (pg. 196)
Reflection: One of the great struggles of human beings is to both know and do what is right and good. There are moments when we think we know what we ought to do, but can’t follow through. At other times we know what we ought not to do and yet we give in and do it anyway. Fortunately there are moments where we both know and do what is right. Calvin believes we don’t often get it right because our ability to will (do) what is right has been corrupted by the fall. Thus there is no longer “free will” again, because our ability to both see what is right and our will do it, have been damaged. He could point to war, violence, greed and the general state of the world to make his point. The challenge for us then is to be intentional about our choices that we might get it right more than we get it wrong.