II. His Theology of Consolation (1559 Institutes)
In the previous installment we looked at the way Calvin read Paul’s epistles and how he drew from them a doctrine of consolation, of God’s presence with his people in Christ, by the Spirit, in the gospel, in the sacraments, and in prayer. In this (third) part of this series we consider Calvin as a theologian of consolation.
We think of Calvin’s Institutes as a summary of doctrine and it is that, but it is more than that. It is a harvest of his biblical exegesis and a rich collection of pastoral and spiritual reflection that brings help and relief to Christ’s people. In Institutes 2.15.12 on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell” Calvin insisted on the true humanity of Jesus. In order to be our Mediator and our helper Jesus must be like us in every way, sin excepted. Of course, this is the teaching of Scripture (Hebrews 4:15) and it permeated Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s person and work for us and in us. He wrote, “Mediator has experienced our weaknesses the better to help us in our miseries.” According to Calvin, Christ submitted to “weakness” “purely by his love for us.” Calvin’s opponents, he said, don’t appreciate what Christ has done for us because “they have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.”
Because Christ suffered the pangs of death, we know that he experienced “the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith.” He himself felt that he was “forsaken by God.” Even so, Jesus did not waver in the least from trust in the goodness of God. This is a frequent theme with Calvin. Even in the cry from the cross, Calvin noted that Jesus “did not cease to call him his God....”
The focus on consolation was most intense in book 3. He observed that “there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it.” They are full of anxiety because they are full of doubt. They lack assurance because they doubt that the promises of God apply to them in particular. They are guilty of poor reasoning and they misunderstand the true nature of faith. “But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves” (Institutes, 3.2.15).
True faith produces confidence (fiducia). The very boldness or confidence which the Council of Trent damned as “presumption,” Calvin said is “right faith” which dares “with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence” (fiducia).
He called this “confidence” the “axis” (cardo) “on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.” (Institutes, 3.2.16).
He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘...repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).
The source of consolation is faith and the object of faith is the promises of God in Christ. The first thing that faith apprehends is Christ and the first benefit of Christ is justification sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, through faith alone). He called this benefit the “axis of religion” (religionis cardinem) or the thing on which the Christian faith pivots.
For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself (Institutes, 3.11.1).
On the connection between justification through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone and consolation he wrote: “This is our whole confidence, this is our only consolation, this is the whole ground of our hope (Institutes 3.13.4). Here he invoked a series of crucial biblical, evangelical, and Reformed ideas. He equated consolation with confidence. They are two sides of the same coin. We have consolation because we have confidence in the gospel and we have confidence because we have consolation.