Calvin’s Enduring Sense

The world has changed so dramatically
in the half-millennium since John
Calvin’s birth that one suspects the
old Reformer would be merely baffled and
dumbfounded were he able somehow to see
and observe life as we now know it. Calvin
was never at a loss for words, but our
fast-paced, technological society–and the
ways that ethos has influenced also the
churches that continue to teach Calvin’s
views on Scripture–could just be enough
to render even John Calvin at least temporarily
speechless.

Maybe, just maybe, however, if Calvin
had enough time to start to plumb twenty-first
century church and society, he would
find his voice again and–when he did–he
would very likely return to his own doctrinal
roots, repeating the same things he
had said and written already in the sixteenth
century. Certainly he would have
resonated with the same news story that
caught my attention on a Saturday morning
this past May on the Op-Ed page of
The New York Times.

Calvin is sufficiently famous–or, depending
on your perspective, is sufficiently
infamous–for his teachings on topics
like predestination and depravity that
sometimes other key features to his theology
are forgotten by many even Reformed
Christians. One of the earliest teachings
in Calvin’s landmark Institutes of
the Christian Religion
may count as one of
those lesser-known points of doctrine. In
particular I have in mind Calvin’s foundational
principle that all people are incurably
religious by design. Back in the day
when it was still acceptable to use Latin
in pre-seminary classes at Calvin College,
we used to savor key Latin phrases from Calvin, among them–and from the earliest
pages of the Institutes–were divinitatis
sensum
and religionis semen as these concepts
were vital to the groundwork Calvin
laid down in Chapters III and IV of Book
One.

“There is within the human mind,
and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness
of divinity (divinitatis sensum). This
we take to be beyond controversy” (I.III.1).
“As experience shows, God has sown a
seed of religion (religionis semen) in all
men. But scarcely one man in a hundred
is met with who fosters it, once received in
his heart, and none in whom it ripens–much less shows fruit in season” (I.IV.1).
At this juncture the better-known Calvinist
predilection to discuss the depravity of
sin enters the picture as an explanation
of why people who are by nature incurably
religious so seldom actually practice
anything resembling true piety or faith in
God.

Nevertheless, a foundational piece in
the huge argument that is Calvin’s Institutes
centers on the idea that seeded into
the consciousness of every person is an
awareness–however dim it may become
over time–that God exists and that our
religious impulse is properly to find out
more about this God so as better to worship.
Myriad obstacles can and do impede
any given person’s grasping and following
through on this God-sense but for Calvin,
when a person did come to faith in the one
true and living God, this phenomenon was
nothing more than the proper closing of a
loop that was traced out by no less than
the Creator of us all.

All of which brings me back to that
May 2, 2009, New York Times article by
Charles M. Blow, which opened, “‘Most
people are religious because they’re raised
to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.’
So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends. Maybe, but a study entitled
‘Faith in Flux’ issued this week by the Pew
Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned
nearly 3,000 people and found that
most children raised unaffiliated with a
religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination
be damned” (“Defecting to Faith” by
Charles M. Blow, The New York Times, May
2, 2009, p. A19).

The article then went on to note that
in the Pew study over 50% of those interviewed
indicated that the chief reasons
they became affiliated with religion (despite
not having been raised in any religious
tradition) were because their spiritual
needs were not being met in life and
they felt called by God to join a particular
faith. True, there were a few less spiritual
reasons listed, too, including enjoyment
of a particular style of worship and
music or marrying into a faith tradition
and so becoming active in it along with the
new spouse. Still, despite the shrill cries
of the Dennett-Hitchens-Dawkins crowd
that declare with ever-greater fervency the
inanities and irrationalities of religious
faith–and that prop up science and cool
logic as the proper provenance for human
repose–people in the early years of this
twenty-first century continue to find voids
in their lives that seem best filled through
the worship of God.

This reminds me of a wonderful poem
to which a colleague recently introduced
me. In his poem “At the Smithville Methodist
Church,” Stephen Dunn charmingly
sketches what happened to a pair of unbelieving
parents when their daughter went
to a summertime Vacation Bible School
at the local church. The parents thought
it would be all arts and crafts. The child,
however, found religion. And she lapped it
up. She beamed as she exuberantly sang
songs about Jesus. Her parents didn’t know
what to do. They realized that the secular
outlook on the world offered no stories as
good as the ones in the Bible. They discovered
that children–maybe all of
us–need a story within whose narrative
frame one can make sense out of life. As
Dunn writes about these parents, “Soon it
became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child” (Stephen Dunn, Local Time.
New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1986,
53-55).

No, you can’t. Nor, for that matter, can
you teach disbelief to an adult who has
discovered, deep inside her heart, that she
has some kind of inexplicable transcendent
longing to find the God who is behind
this whole big cosmic drama and, having
found this God, to offer up something resembling
worship. Many then and now
would dispute this, but Calvin claimed the
presence of the divinitatis sensum and religionis
semen
were manifest from common
experience and so “beyond controversy” as
deep-seated facets to human nature.

So I imagine that had John Calvin
been at my breakfast table that Saturday
morning in May perusing the Times along
with me, he would surely have found much
in the news that would have been to him
startling, stunning, even stupefying. But
when he got to this one Op-Ed, I imagine a
twinkle would gleam from the eyes of the
old Reformer as he recognized the truth
of his own thinking still bubbling to the
surface in even the year of our Lord 2009.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in
Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.