Calvin. History and Reception of a Reformation Week 2. Calvin's Thought. Sequence 3. What is the meaning of human life? Hello and welcome to this sequence, which will focus on the very first page of Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." Ideally, we'd like to discuss the entire book, but that is quite obviously beyond the scope of our course. If we were to give the first page of the "Institutes" a name, it would be: "What is the meaning of human life?" Calvin opens his book with this question. Before continuing with this sequence, I'd like you to read the text, which has been supplied in your study materials. If you can, print it out. As you'll see, the text in your materials uses the Benoit edition of the "Institutes," based on the 1560 edition. As you'll see, I've numbered the sentences, and simplified and modernized the language. I even took the liberty of retranslating Sentence 13 directly from the Latin edition of 1559, as I felt it contained a mistake. Let's take a look at some of the most important elements of this text. In Sentence 1, Calvin refers to a "somme" (sum, total). "The sum of our Wisdom, insofar as it is deemed true and undivided Wisdom, consists of two parts: that by knowing God, each of us also knows himself." What does the word "sum" mean here? It most certainly does not refer to addition. Calvin is not saying that to knowledge of God should be added knowledge of self. Quite the contrary: in this context, "sum" means the recapitulation, or summary, of all things. And already we see that, for Calvin, knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself are intrinsically connected, or interrelated. What is wisdom? Calvin likes this word a lot. On the other hand, there is another word that Calvin absolutely hated, and which, in the few instances when he did use it, he always used pejoratively: theology. If you wanted to offend Calvin, the best way to insult him would have been to say, "You're nothing but a theologian." Calvin's purpose is not to create a theology, but to state wisdom. In fact, in book II of the Institutes, Calvin writes: "True wisdom is to know God and to know His paternal will towards us." For Calvin, it does not make sense to endeavor to know God as such -- as opposed, for instance, to Aristotle's "primum movens immobile" (unmoved mover, or prime mover). What matters, what makes sense to Calvin, is to seek to know God insofar as we relate to God. This insistence on the relationship between God and man is a unique feature of Calvin's theology. Thus knowledge is presented here as a duality, consisting of both knowledge of God and knowledge of self. This idea also appears in the works of Luther and Zwingli, and there are even, to some extent, occurrences in St Augustine. But medieval scholastics -- here I am paraphrasing the words of Gerhard Ebeling -- were not particularly sensitive to the question of the duality of knowledge. It appears, therefore, that this is something truly specific to Reformation theology, of which Calvin was a major figure. Second sentence: knowledge of God and knowledge of self are interrelated. We are dealing with what may accurately be called a system. Knowledge of God enables us to know ourselves, and knowledge of self elevates us towards knowledge of God. It is this system that Calvin develops in the first two paragraphs of the text. The entire point of theology, then, is not to know God as such, but to know God in his relationship with humans. And although Calvin uses other terms than the word "theology," this is exactly what he proceeds to explore in the following pages. In sentence 3, you'll notice the use of the phrase "en premier lieu" (first of all), which invites us to pay close attention to the structure of the argument. This "en premier lieu" (first of all) is followed in sentence 10 by "d'autre part" (on the other hand; furthermore). Sentences 3 through 9, then, pertain to the ascending movement that, beginning with knowledge of self, elevates us towards knowledge of God. Beginning with sentence 10, Calvin then writes about the descending movement, which moves downward from knowledge of God towards knowledge of self. Calvin begins with an analogy, that of a river (or stream). If you are standing on the banks of a river, even if you've never seen the place from which it flows, you can nonetheless safely assume that, were you to follow it upstream, you would sooner or later reach its source. Notice all the watercourse metaphors in sentence 4: Calvin talks about blessings being distilled drop by drop, he mentions a stream, a fountain (which is the translation of the Latin word "fons," meaning "source"). Sentences 3 through 7 can be split into two parts. Sentences 3 and 4, first, bring up human dignity and strength, and the very life we recognize in ourselves. And if we analyze ourselves honestly, we have no choice but to acknowledge that all of these things are not of our doing -- no one, indeed, creates his/her own life -- but come from a source
that precedes us. Thus knowledge of my own dignity points me directly to the source of this dignity, which Calvin calls God. In sentences 5 through 7, Calvin alludes to our misery, our weakness, our ruin, our shame. Whenever I become aware of my own misery, this implies the idea of non-misery. To use a rather trivial example, if you say "my arm hurts," that means it is also possible for your arm not to hurt. It is the very fact that you are (most of the time) able to say "my arm does not hurt" that makes the phrase "my arm hurts" a meaningful statement. If Calvin insists on human misery as much as he does, it is for this very reason: awareness of our own misery points us directly towards the supreme good; in other words, knowledge of self leads to knowledge of God. As you'll have noticed, Calvin talks about human misery much more than he does about human dignity. Should we attribute this to a pessimistic outlook, perhaps acquired from Augustine? It's possible. But I believe Calvin would probably have described himself as a realist, pointing to the prevalence in human life of ruin, misery and shame on a day-to-day basis. Sentences 8 and 9, which I've omitted from the text in your study materials, basically reiterate the preceding sentences. Let's take a look at the second paragraph, beginning with sentence 10. Calvin is now describing the descending movement from God to man. Once again, he is not seeking to know or define God as such, which to him would be no more than frivolous speculation. What matters is knowing God as a source, as a gift, as that through which knowledge of self is possible. In sentences 11 through 15, Calvin presents the following argument: if man were his own measure, he would find himself to be perfect. Indeed, were I to define myself using myself as the criteria, I would tend to set up my own limited being as the standard by which to judge all things. Yet our senses betray us, argues Calvin. As we well know, we are susceptible to a variety of optical and auditory illusions, for instance. In the same way, we are victims of what could be called "illusions of the soul" whenever we believe that our justice and our strength are perfect justice and perfect strength. In sentence 16, which I didn't include in the text supplied to you and which is quite long, Calvin gives an example of an optical illusion: when you look at an object, it seems to you that your eyesight is good, but as soon as you turn your eyes towards the sun, it becomes
obvious how weak it actually is. In sentences 17 through 19, Calvin gives his conclusion. Only once we've understood the perfection of God's justice, wisdom and virtue -- that is, God's power -- can we truly perceive our own weakness and imperfection. At this point of the text, Calvin has not addressed either God or man as such, but only knowledge of God and knowledge of man. The theologian's task requires that (s)he first reflect upon knowledge of God before (s)he can begin to talk about God Himself. And that is exactly what Calvin is doing here. So what is the meaning of human life? For Calvin, as we've just seen, it is to know God and to know oneself. Over the course of the upcoming sequences, we will see that such knowledge, far from being theoretical, translates to a living practice. We've reached the end of this sequence; thank you for your attention.