Monday, June 15, 2009

John Calvin and Doubt

This week's quotes comes from Calvin's treatment of faith. In part of this chapter he deals with the doubts that plague the mind of the believer. Many today have begun to make a virtue out of doubt. It is one thing to admit to doubts and not shy away from the fact that we have them. But it's another thing to wear it on our sleeves as a badge of honor. To live with doubts with no thought of trying to resolve it would be, I believe, a curious notion for Calvin. As he notes, "Surely, as often as God commends his Word to us, he indirectly rebukes us for our unbelief, for he has no other intention than to uproot perverse doubts from our hearts." (Institutes 3.2.15) I know not every doubt can be classified as "perverse" but I think for Calvin whatever enters our heart that causes us to doubt God dishonors Him and to that extent every doubt is perverse. Calvin is not immune to the realities of life. He says "we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief." (3.2.17) He knew believers struggled with all sorts of doubts. But he directed believers to hold fast to the Lord during times of doubt (3.2.37).

Doubt. We can't live without it but it doesn't have to become a new fruit of the Spirit.

Calvin's heart as a pastor comes shining through. Commenting on Matthew 8:25-26 he says, "Indeed, while he reproves them for their little faith, he does not cast them out from the ranks of his disciples or count them among unbelievers, but urges them to shake off that fault. Therefore, we repeat what we have already stated: that the root of faith can never be torn from the godly breast, but clings so fast to the innermost parts that, however faith seems to be shaken or to bend this way or that, its light is never so extinguished or snuffed out that it does not at lest lurk as it were beneath the ashes." (3.2.21)

1 comment:

Paul said...

Ooh....you've hit a (philosophical) nerve, my friend and I'm not surprised that Calvin saw some value in doubt. Sadly, many believers today are NOT in any conflict with their own unbelief" since jumping in bed with some kind of hard fiedism, they simply hold their beliefs without even acknowledging any kind of doubt. But I ask...

Is commitment to a belief compatible with criticism of that belief? Put differently, is there any value in doubting my beliefs? I say (along with Calvin the realist)...YES! You see, I can be justified in holding the belief that my wife loves me while still being critically aware of the logical possibility that she may not love me. To say that I can recognize what it would look like if my wife did not love me is not to say that she in fact does not love me. So too with my belief in God's existence.

And so, a genuine commitment to a belief is dependent on the logical possibility that my belief be false. For example, to say that I can recognize when a rhinoceros is standing on my computer does not mean I believe there is one!

Also, to say that my belief could be false is not to say that I’m unjustified in holding to my belief.

Thus, aside from those beliefs that are logically certain (e.g., "my brother is not an only child," "I exist", etc.), I must entertain some measure of doubt, which may only serve to strengthen my beliefs.

Where would we be without Descartes (and Calvin)!?