I’m Not Ready to Be Taught by Calvin (And That’s Okay)

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Beyond a doubt, one of the most frustrating (though rewarding) experiences of my undergraduate career was a class I took on Immanuel Kant’s book, The Critique of the Power of Judgment.  It was my first exposure to Kant in my first semester taking philosophy courses of any kind.  I had no grasp of a priori concepts, why a priori synthetic concepts were at all problematic, nor how the ability to generate new concepts out of impressions completed Kant’s critical system of transcendental idealism.  If you’re lost after that sentence, we would have been birds of a feather in the early weeks of that semester.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough to follow these ideas or learn about them.  Instead, I didn’t have the mental infrastructure to take on the weight of Kant’s book without doing some serious work beforehand.

The experience of trying to jump into Kant in many ways felt like reading the John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, though the latter was certainly less intense.  After all, I know the meanings of all the words Calvin uses.  “Faith,” “God,” “grace,” “law,” “scripture,” are all familiar terms to me.  That didn’t matter, though, because the heights that Calvin soared to in his Institutes exceeded the height of my mental infrastructure to permanently attach the truths in that book to the truths that I understood immediately and permanently.

For a layman, I’m modestly well read and informed about church history and doctrine and, since laymen outnumber our more educated brothers, I suspect I’m not alone in loving the great theologians and reformers of days past.  So when we encounter an analysis of truth that feels beyond our grasp, how do we try to benefit from their wisdom and insight without becoming discouraged?  It can be tempting to delay reading the old, hard books until a later time or, worse, discard them to another time.  We should resist this tendency, though.

First, it is not such a terrible decision to expose our hearts and minds to things that are discouraging.  A part of Christ’s very nature is to comfort the tarrying.  In John 7:37 Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” and in Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Our Savior assumes our relationship to him is predicated on our need.  Our exhaustion, confusion, and outright befuddlement serve a purpose no less than everything else God ordains for our lives.  They drive the Christian to his or her knees where we confess our weakness and ask for help.  In front of a book is as good as place as any for that to happen. 

Grappling with hard and high doctrines is as good a reason as any to realize that we depend on God.  We need to disbelieve the myth that we should be good at everything we do.  If for no other reason than it showcases, and thus glorifies, the provision of God, we should be glad to face our inadequacies and pray for God’s help as we work through hard books.

Of course, second, we also get better at reading hard books only by reading hard books.  We live in a culture that seems to have very little patience for those things that are complex and bit tiresome.  A good way to resist the tendencies of sound-bite culture is to ponder over something over a long period of time, to force ourselves to think about something in a hundred different ways and through all its implications.  The danger in this practice is that when we begin, our impressions may not be reliable.  They may not be godly and inline with the total witness of scripture. 

Our inexperience may cause us to stumble beyond the boundaries of good reason.  How may we maintain safety in our thought as we explore the God-created ability to take on an issue at its full depth?  We do so under the tutelage of those masters of thought who are proven to have thought powerfully and deeply within the bounds of scripture, in ways that are worth imitating and being trained by. 

We see the path of the development of our minds precisely because of the illumination the old, great teachers provide.  Even if we feel like the path is only dimly lit at first, our eyes will adjust and soon these paths will become clear.  We even begin to wander on our own, creating our own paths that are both like and unlike those that have come before.  So, we wrestle with the old great teachers to be able to think ourselves.

Finally, though, there is a more immediate advantage to reading the great scholars.  The fight of the Christian life is to have such affection and love for Jesus that we seek to obey him and enjoy him.  This is rarely as easy as we might like.  One way to fight the fight is to aggressively incorporate truths that we totally and perfectly comprehend into the vast network of truths that makes up our life. 

The only danger in this is that these truths may very well become so well integrated into our lives that they become mundane to us.  They may become boring.  This robs the greatest truths of reality of the magnificence that entitles them to command our rapture in the first place.  This is dangerous because these truths are not morally neutral.  The very project of holiness itself depends on enjoying these truths in proportion to their glory.

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The great teachers present truths in a way that is novel because they present them in a way that reaches beyond what is immediately available to us.  Like reaching into heights of reverence during organized worship, being propelled into the highest ideas inspires adoration and private worship.  Even if I don’t have the mental infrastructure to permanently adopt and apprehend the high truths that the great old writers show me,

I can climb with them for a short while and benefit from their insights through the feelings they inspire.  I may not be able to recall all that is said about God in the first book of the Institutes, but I do remember being genuinely amazed by the fullness of the picture I was seeing.  It is a taste that propels me forward to learn more and learn permanently, but that’s not the most important point.  The most important point is that in those moments I held high affections for God.  So I’m not ready to be taught by Calvin yet, but I am ready to worship alongside him.


Logan Hurley is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Lexington, KY and senior at the University of Kentucky where he studies Communication, Arab & Islamic Studies, and Philosophy.  He desires to attend seminary in Fall 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @loganmhurley.

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