John Calvin’s Motherly God (Or, Maybe He’s Worth Actually Reading)

mother“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.

-Institutes, 1.5.3

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

The Jesus Who Quotes Himself

Jesus SpeakingBack in the day, liberal theologians liked to say Jesus never claimed any particularly extraordinary authority for himself; not to be the Messiah, the Son of God, or any of it, and that all of the church’s later teaching on it was an unjustified addition and corruption of Jesus’ originally pure, moral message about God’s Fatherhood, and the universal brotherhood of man. Usually this claim was advanced in order to forward a less doctrinally-“rigid” Christianity, more in keeping with the modern spirit, picturing Jesus as a teacher of universal moral truths and general wisdom suited to their post-Victorian sensibilities.

Actually, this kind of move still gets made today only we don’t use the “sexist” and gendered language of the “Fatherhood of God”, or the “brotherhood of man.” Typically we replace that with some talk about justice, equality, the end of oppression and such things. Don’t get me wrong, justice and ending oppression are good, biblical things. Still, it’s not uncommon to hear sentiments like, “If only we could forget all this business about Christ being ‘Lord’, or those abstruse Trinitarian controversies, or his atoning death with all of the silly theological disputes that go along with it, we could get down to the real business Jesus was about–you know, all that stuff in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount! That’s the real Jesus. That’s the Jesus we should be listening to, considering, and putting what he preaches into practice. The Sermon on the Mount is where you find what Jesus was really all about–not all of this silly dogma about him that mainstream Christianity has gotten hi-jacked with.”

MachenBasically, if we could get Jesus’ ethics, his moral teachings, without all the doctrine, then we’d be good.  When J. Gresham Machen encountered this line of thinking back in his own day he pointed out the flaw, at least from the New Testament standpoint, with it:

Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims….But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology) in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person. That presentation appears in the strange note of authority which pervades the whole discourse; it appears in the recurrent words, “But I say unto you.” Jesus plainly puts His own words on an equality with what He certainly regarded as the divine words of Scripture; He claimed the right to legislate for the Kingdom of God. Let it not be objected that this note of authority involves merely a prophetic consciousness in  Jesus, a mere right to speak in God’s name as God’s Spirit might lead. For what prophet ever spoke in this way? The prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” but Jesus said, “I say.” We have no mere prophet here, no mere humble exponent of the will of God; but a stupendous Person speaking in a manner which for any other person would be abominable and absurd. –Christianity and Liberalism, pg. 31-32

In essence he said, “Fine, let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s see what kind of Jesus we find there: the Jesus who quotes himself.” What’s significant about that? Well, I mean, even in our modern context if you find a guy walking around quoting himself, you know he’s got a high opinion of himself. In the Bible this was a slightly bigger deal. See, a prophet of God would say, “Thus says the Lord”, but Jesus goes ahead and basically says, “Here’s what I say”–essentially elevating his word alongside the word of Lord. Actually, Machen goes on to point out that Jesus explicitly does that:

The same thing appears in the passage Matt. vii. 21-23: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many shall say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out demons, and in thy name done many mighty works? And then I shall confess to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work lawlessness.”’ This passage is in some respects a favorite with modern liberal teachers; for it is interpreted − falsely, it is true, yet plausibly − as meaning that all that a man needs to attain standing with God is an approximately right performance of his duties to his fellow-men, and not any assent to a creed or even any direct relation to Jesus. But have those who quote the passage triumphantly in this way ever stopped to reflect upon the other side of the picture − upon the stupendous fact that in this same passage the eternal destinies of men are made dependent upon the word of Jesus?

Jesus here represents Himself as seated on the judgment-seat of all the earth, separating whom He will forever from the bliss that is involved in being present with Him. Could anything be further removed than such a Jesus from the humble teacher of righteousness appealed to by modern liberalism? Clearly it is impossible to escape from theology, even in the chosen precincts of the Sermon on the Mount. A stupendous theology, with Jesus’ own Person at the center of it, is the presupposition of the whole teaching. -ibid., pg 32

Basically, if you want the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, you can’t get away from that Jesus of “doctrine”. Inevitably Jesus himself points you to the Jesus of the creeds–the Messiah, dead, buried, risen, ascended, the ruling and reigning Lord, equal with the Father, and coming to judge the quick and the dead. There is no ethical Jesus without the doctrinal Jesus; eventually you have to deal with the Jesus who quotes himself.

Soli Deo Gloria