Regarding jealousy of pigs and dogs: Calvin on Genesis 3.1-19

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Calvin thinks none too highly of persons who covet the lives of pigs and dogs. It seems to have been a considerable problem in his day; he refers in his comments on Genesis 3 to the "well-known complaints" of persons who consider the lot of "swine and dogs" (porci et canes) in life preferable to their own. 

Upon encountering Calvin's passing condemnation of such individuals, I initially felt a bit nervous. I can't recall ever having coveted the life of a pig, but -- I confess -- I have cast an envious eye upon my dog on occasion. It's not so much his diet (primarily whatever scraps "fall" from my daughters' plates) or routine (napping, playing, eating, napping again, etc.) that spark jealously in me, though the latter does seem rather desirable. It's more the reality, or at least my sneaking suspicion, that he ranks ever so slightly higher than I do in my wife's affections, even on my best days. I can't really blame my wife; our dog is rather endearing, even if at times annoying. I, on the other hand, am not endearing at all, and am almost always annoying.

I suspect Calvin would have some significant words of reproof for me on this score (both for being envious and for being annoying). Upon closer reading of his rebuke of swine-and-dogs-coveters, however, I'm not sure that my envy of Oakley (our dog), if viewed in relation to its roots, is really the kind of thing that was worrying him. That rebuke occurs in the midst of reflection upon "the number and nature of those evils" which humankind has brought upon itself by its defection from God. Calvin observes that many persons, with a view towards the difficulties that human sin has introduced to human experience, prove "unable to restrain themselves from raging and murmuring against God," professing among other things "that God has acted more mercifully to swine and dogs than to them." Thus they fail, Calvin observes, to "refer [their] miserable and ruined state... to the sin of Adam as they ought," and they "fling back upon God the charge of being the cause" of said evils.

Calvin's accusation against such "raging and murmuring" men is, ultimately, one of blasphemy more than one of envy. His particular concern with how persons relate the consequences of human sin to God requires further note, but first it may be useful to categorize such consequences of Adam and Eve's sin as Calvin sees them. 

1) Human sin entailed consequences, first of all, for human nature. Corruption resulting from Adam's sin infects every faculty of the human soul of every natural child of Adam; "no part is free from the infection of sin." The "mind" in particular, from which all affections and decisions flow, has been made subject to "horrible blindness, contumacy against God, wicked desires, and violent propensities to evil." Calvin is keen to point out that the "whole perverseness of our disposition" is "adventitious" (not to be confused with advantageous); i.e., human beings, prior to the fall as such, knew nothing of such "perverseness" in their inner persons. Perversity attached itself to human nature at a specific point in time; it is not, therefore of the essence of what it means to be human.

2) "The earth [was] cursed on account of the sin of man," thus becoming "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Such "deformity of the world... ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God." Under the rubric of "deformity of the world" belongs "inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, [and] hail," as well as "diseases" and (sinful) human activities which serve to further destroy, rather than cultivate, the world entrusted to humankind.

3) Sin has introduced "strife, troubles, sorrow, dissensions, and a boundless sea of evils" into human relationships. Calvin offers as a particular case study of this point the institution of marriage: "It has happened by our fault, and by the corruption of nature, that [the] happiness of marriage has, in a great measure, perished, or, at least, is mixed and infected with many inconveniences." (Calvin, interestingly, had nearly a decade's experience of marriage when he wrote these words. He spoke of his late wife in other contexts as his "best companion" and "faithful helper." It appears, nevertheless, that he could remember the occasional spat or rough patch from his married years.)

4) Most seriously, sin has brought about "alienation from God," who created human beings in his own image and endowed them with every good gift from the first moment of their existence. "Alienation from God" is, in fact, that very "death" which God promised to Adam and Eve as the consequence of transgressing his law. In Calvin's view, then, the cessation of breath and brain waves constitutes the culmination but not the substance of death. The "life of man without God," being "wretched and lost," is the experience of death in its truest sense.

So, to return to pigs and dogs: Calvin's concern is that, in experiencing these consequences of sin on a day to day basis, we give blame where blame is properly due. He recognizes within us a tendency to immediately credit God for whatever ills -- perverse inclinations, ruined relationships, disease, death, etc. -- befall us, when in truth we should consistently credit ourselves for the same. It was, after all, we -- in solidarity with Adam -- who turned our backs on God, thereby inviting such ills into human experience. 

It seems to me that, somewhat ironically, it is Reformed Christians -- Calvin's heirs, if you will -- who might be most prone to do exactly what Calvin here denounces, that is, wrongly credit God, rather than human sin, for the inward perversity and outward deformity they experience in life. It is Reformed Christians, after all, who are typically quickest to recognize and (rightfully) assert that all things happen in accordance with God's perfect will (Eph. 1:11). And there is, to be sure, great comfort to be had in the knowledge that God has decreed and providentially rules over even the sin and evil in our lives. But ordering and providentially ruling is not the same as causing, and we must be careful -- even as we find comfort in God's sovereignty over every detail of our lives -- not to be guilty of laying upon God "the charge of being the cause of all... our evils." 

If anger at God, rather than trust in God, is our default response to troubles in life, we may be guilty of that very act of blasphemy which Calvin decries, even if pigs and dogs don't immediately figure into our outlook. And if, moreover, we're busy blaming God for whatever evil we encounter in and around ourselves, we miss the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to engage in "humble confession of our fault, [and] to bewail our evils," even while we rest and take comfort in the knowledge that absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside of the sovereign control of the one who never causes, but rather provides the ultimate answer to, sin and all its consequences.

Aaron Denlinger is blogging a series of reflections based on Calvin's Genesis Commentary. Catch up with the series here, here, and here.
Posted September 3, 2014 @ 9:00 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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