A theology for suffering

All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.

—John Calvin

Calvin knew the truth of this in his bones.  As Peter Sanlon writes in his essay “Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken,”

It impossible to read Calvin’s work and not see that he spoke from experience.  Calvin himself had a sense of God’s goodness to him, even in trials and struggles.  Exiled, bereaved, persecuted, reviled and unhealthy—Calvin’s life was one in which he still felt God goodness toward him, personally.

Sanlon’s analysis of the ways that Calvin’s suffering shaped his theology, and his expression of his theology, is fascinating.

Read the opening sections of his 1536 Institutes.  The famous first sentence is present in a recognisable form:  ‘Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts, knowledge of God and ourselves.’ . . .

in the 1536 edition, Calvin, after his opening sentence proceeds to assert, ‘Surely we ought to learn the following things about God . . .’  He then lists four lessons all should learn. In the next section, about the knowledge of man, he follows a similar approach of listing the main lessons.  All he says is true and important—but the tone is in stark contrast to later editions of his work.  After Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva in April 1538, Calvin wrote another edition of his Institutes.  This version, published in 1539, added the words:  ‘Which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’  A note of uncertainty, humility and awe begins to permeate what had previously been merely a clear explanation.

The humility Calvin seemed to feel before the awesome reality of God, climaxed in his 1559 edition, which may be seen to be markedly different in tone to the edition published in 1536.  Calvin probes and explores the obscure and intangible links between knowledge of God and humanity.  Gone are the three or four points that must be learnt; added is the section on piety quoted above.  The final 1559 edition carried readers into an experience of the knowledge of God, precisely because Calvin had himself matured and entered more fully into a personal sense of God’s goodness in suffering.  Doubtless there were people that Calvin ministered to in his time of exile from Geneva; they and us benefit from the embarrassment caused to Calvin by his experience of suffering.  Calvin’s sufferings were a shaking which caused his knowledge to be more personally appropriated.  His struggles inculcated piety.

Calvin’s suffering developed his theology in a profound and unusual way.  Many theologians have developed a theology of suffering, wrestling with it as a theological abstraction.  Calvin ended up writing a theology for suffering, in which suffering is incorporated into theology.  Suffering gives theology living depth, moving it from an intellectual exercise to an existential truth, apprehended at the deepest levels of the heart.  In turn, theology gives suffering existential meaning.

Suffering and sadness is a large part of our lot in this fleeting life.  It is how the theology of Calvin is shaken, so that it can be truly refreshing to those who drink it.  I would like to suggest that Calvin was cognizant of this need for theology to be shaken by life’s sadnesses. . . .

Calvin is teaching that a personal, existential appreciation of God’s kindnesses is essential to real Christianity. Indeed, bringing about such an experience is a key goal of his theological endeavors. There must be a sense of God’s kindness which goes far beyond the speculation so highly prized by Aquinas. Piety necessitates a ‘heart certainty’ (certitudinem cordibus) Inst.1.7.4.

A heart certainty which is to be sensed and experienced, must be forged in the travails of life. By definition that which is sensed cannot be attained by mere speculation. Calvin placed great emphasis upon the fact that knowledge of God must ‘not merely flit in the brain, but take root in the heart.’ There it must be ‘felt, sensed and adored.’ It must ‘affect’ and induce ‘wonder.’ Inst.1.5.9. With these and other terms Calvin urges readers to appropriate his theology.

The sufferings of life shake Christians; the result is that they experience, by faith in the Spirit’s power, God’s goodness in the midst of sadness. Such piety is not, as many Christians imagine, merely an extra, optional comfort to some who suffer. Rather, it is essential for all real Christians. Calvin’s theology must be shaken by life’s trials before it can be tasted for the revitalising drink that it is.

As Sanlon says, “One of the most satisfying aspects of Calvin’s views is that they taste best when shaken by life’s sadnesses.”  This is a great gift to the church.

Posted in History, Presbyterian/Reformed, Religion and theology.

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