“John Calvin’s God is nothing but an autocratic tyrant, an arbitrary despot, who may be concerned with legal justice, but who was the worst sort of example of ‘forensic theism.’ Yes, he might be ‘gracious’, but it is an almost unfeeling graciousness, concerned only to preserve his own rights, rather than bestow good on his creatures.”
At least, that’s the picture I had before I’d read any Calvin.
I know I’m not alone in this. For most people who’ve read a little theology, or maybe a lot, but not done too much hands-on work with the man himself, it’s quite easy to see a cold systematician, with his precise, logic-chopping predestinarianism, and his absolute God who is the apotheosis of power, but not love; the king, but not the father.
It came somewhat as a surprise when I found out that “scholars who have devoted a lifetime to Calvin research have arrived at exactly the opposite reading of his doctrine of God”, (B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, pg. 23). Upon actually reading Calvin–a substantial amount, not just cherry-picked ‘gotcha’ texts–I came to understand why: Calvin is all about God’s good fatherhood. Indeed, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Divine Fatherhood is one of the main roots and wellsprings of Calvin’s understanding of God.
For instance, in creation:
…we ought in the very order of things diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love toward mankind in that he did not create Adam until he had lavished upon the universe all manner of good things…thus assuming the responsibility of a foreseeing and diligent father of the family he shows his wonderful goodness toward us.
Quotes such as this could be multiplied ad nauseum with respect to just about every doctrine; from providence to prayer, atonement and adoption, election and ecclesiology, the fatherhood of God is everywhere seen. For those of us who’ve spent any amount of time in the Institutes, not to mention the commentaries, it’s obvious that Calvin has a deeply paternal picture of God.
What comes as a surprise even to Calvin readers though, is God’s motherly instincts in Calvin’s theology. Gerrish calls attention to a number of fascinating passages in which Calvin compares God’s care to that of a mother (Grace and Gratitude, pg. 40). Commenting on Isaiah 42:14:
Like a woman in labor. By this metaphor he expresses astonishing warmth of love and tenderness of affection; for he compares himself to a mother who singularly loves her child, though she brought him forth with extreme pain. It may be thought that these things are not applicable to God; but in no other way than by such figures of speech can his ardent love towards us be expressed. He must therefore borrow comparisons from known objects, in order to enable us to understand those which are unknown to us; for God loves very differently from men, that is, more fully and perfectly, and, although he surpasses all human affections, yet nothing that is disorderly belongs to him.
Besides, he intended also to intimate that the redemption of his people would be a kind of birth, that the Jews might know that the grave would serve them for a womb, and that thus, in the midst of corruption, they might entertain the hope of salvation. Although he produced a new Church for himself without pain or effort, yet, in order to exhibit more fully the excellence of his grace in this new birth, he not inappropriately attributes to himself the cry of “a woman in labor.” –Comm. Is. 42:14
And again, in a sermon on Job he speaks of the humanizing effects God’s motherly love effects in us:
True, our Lord for his part becomes more familiar with us than anything else. He is like a nurse, like a mother. He does not just compare himself with fathers, who are kind and good-natured to their children. He says he is more than a mother, or a nurse. He uses such familiarity so that we shall not be like savage beasts anymore. –Serm. Job 22:1-22
And further he writes about Is 49:15:
By an apt comparison he shows how strong is the concern he bears for his own. He compares himself to a mother, whose love for her baby is so engrossed and anxious as to leave a father’s love a long way behind. Thus he was not content with using the example of a father, which he employs frequently elsewhere. To express his burning affection, he preferred to compare himself to a mother, and he does not call them just “children” but his”baby”, since affection for a baby is normally stronger. The affection a mother feels for her baby is amazing. She fondles it in her lap, feeds it at her breast, and watches so anxiously over it that she passes sleepless nights, continually wearing herself out and forgetting herself. –Comm Is. 49:15
Of course, for Calvin, as for the text, even a mother’s love may fail because it is human–God’s passionate, motherly love never will. God is motherly towards us so as to be a type for all mothers, even as he is revealed as the Father from whom all fathers gain their name. (Eph. 3:15)
If you’re looking for a loving God, one who is, yes, a strong sovereign, but also a tender Father–even more, gentle as a mother–I would direct you to Calvin’s God. I will be the first to admit that Calvin was not a perfect man, nor a perfect theologian. And yet, I can think of few surer guides into a rich, biblical, and pastoral portrait of the God of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks so much for this. In the current conservative paradigm, it’s hard to talk about the idea of God’s “motherly” attributes without fear of sounding like a radical feminist. I also recently realized that when Jesus uses the metaphor being “born again,” He is describing God’s salvation in terms of something that only a woman can uniquely do. The Holy Spirit brings forth physical life the same way a woman brings forth spiritual life.
I can’t tell you how much this means for women–to begin to understand ourselves imago dei, to realize that God uses the things that we uniquely contribute to describe HImself– this does more to elevate the status of women than a hundred sermons directed toward men to care for us.
I’m glad you were blessed by this. Yeah, the goal is to be no more biblical than the Bible is. Sometimes we’re not too good at that and it is has hurt our sisters in the Gospel. No, the Gospel is that my wife can look as much like Jesus as I can–often-times a lot more.
Thanks for commenting!
I’ve seen this fear expressed, although it comes across more as offense and anger at the idea of God somehow having “feminine” attributes that men are on the hook to emulate, rather than women having unique attributes that men are called to honor in women’s unique imaging of God.
Thanks for writing this. My Mother’s Day was not the greatest, but this helped me reorient my thinking this morning.
I’m glad this blessed you. It blessed me to write it.
I had a great seminary professor teach me who Calvin really seems to be. Thoughtful and pastoral, though often painting himself intellectually into corners — ie double predestination, a doctrine he himself said was a painful conclusion. In short, she made a fan of Calvin, though not a “Calvinist”. Thanks for the post. Calvin would be happy, though maybe not many Calvinists.