Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Calvin's pietas

Part of my purpose for these occasional posts on John Calvin, in this 500th anniversary year of his birth, is to help correct some common misconceptions about the theological tradition that bears his name. This excerpt from an essay by Joel Beeke gives the lie to the idea that Calvin propounded a "theology of the head" that gave no place to personal piety.

John Calvin's Institutes has earned him the title "the preeminent systematician of the Protestant Reformation." His reputation as an intellectual, however, is too often disassociated from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology. For Calvin, theological understanding and practical piety, truth, and usefulness, are inseperable. Theology primarily deals with knowledge -- knowledge of God and of ourselves -- but there is no true knowledge where there is no true piety.

Calvin's concept of piety (pietas) is rooted in the knowledge of God and includes attitudes and actions that are directed to the adoration and service of God. Right attitudes include heartfelt worship, saving faith, filial fear, prayerful submission, and reverential love. "I call 'piety' that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces," Calvin concludes (3.2.14).

This love and reverence for God is a necessary concomitant to any knowledge of him and embraces all of life and its actions. As Calvin says, "The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness." Thus, for Calvin pietas includes a host of related themes, such as filial piety in human relationships, and respect and love for the image of God in human beings.

The goal of piety, as well as the entire Christian life, is the glorifying of God -- perceiving and reflecting the glory that shines in God's attributes, in the structure of the world, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (3.2.1). Glorifying God supersedes personal salvation for every truly pious person...

Joel R. Beeke in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (pp. 271-272)

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