Slavery, Expatriation, and Prosperity: Calvin on Gen. 11.31 - 13.4

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Scripture's account of Abraham's trip from Ur to Canaan via Haran, subsequent ramble through the Promised Land, and short but eventful stay in Egypt before rewinding his course through Canaan, provides Calvin with ample opportunity to reflect upon the nature of human faith in response to God's vocation and promises. "All should form themselves," Calvin contends, "to the imitation of [Abraham's] example" -- his example, that is, of faith. No matter his wife's barren status, Abraham took God at his word when God pledged himself to multiply Abraham's progeny (Gen. 12.2) and make him the father of one particular Man, the long promised Seed (Gen. 3.15), who would bless all peoples with restoration from their guilty and depraved plight (Gen. 12.3; cf. Gal. 3.16). Of course, nothing short of a share in "heaven itself" is at stake in our own "imitation" of Abraham's faith in God's promises (see Rom. 4).

The same narrative affords Calvin the chance to reflect on the less significant, albeit intriguing, subjects of human slavery, travel/expatriation, and worldly wealth.

Comments on slavery follow from the reference to such in Gen. 12.5: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." According to Calvin, "this is the first mention of servitude" in Scripture. Thus "it appears," he suggests, "that not long after the deluge the wickedness of man caused liberty which, by nature, was common to all, to perish with respect to a great part of mankind."

Calvin spends some time pondering how it came to pass that "a great part of mankind" found their natural freedom forfeit. Two possibilities present themselves: either men were driven to sell themselves into slavery by their own poverty, or the victors in some war "compelled those whom they took in battle to serve them." Regardless, "the order of nature was violently infringed" by the introduction of slavery into human experience," because "men," Calvin opines, "were created for the purpose of cultivating mutual society" -- not servitude -- "between each other." Calvin is not, of course, opposed to positions of authority in society: "It is advantageous that some should preside over others." But slavery, he believes, crosses the line into human oppression and violates the basic "equality" which "ought to have been retained" among men "as among brethren."

Calvin's disapproval of slavery, however, does not lead him to endorse uprisings for those who find themselves victims of it. "Although slavery is contrary to that right government which is most desirable, and in its commencement was not without fault; it does not, on this account, follow, that the use of it, which was afterwards received by custom, and excused by necessity, is unlawful." This claim, of course, goes some way toward vindicating Abraham for having apparently possessed "both servants bought with money, and slaves born in his house." It's probable that Calvin also has an eye towards the apostle Paul's apparent instructions to slaves not to seek freedom through dubious means, but to submit to their masters. However much slavery might constitute a "violent infringement" upon the proper "order of nature," no rebellious corrective to such infringement is warranted.

Calvin's comments on travel and expatriation are more scattered, cropping up at various points where Abraham and family are on the move in the narrative. One gets the impression in reading Calvin's comments here that he was rather uncomfortable with the extent of Abraham's migrations, no matter their divine impetus, and wished to discourage his readers from imitating Abraham's movements in addition to Abraham's faith. Thus Calvin accents the divine word which demanded Abraham's initial exodus from Ur, and notes that Abraham and travelling company "were not impelled by levity" to leave their homeland, "as rash and fickle men are wont to be; nor [were they] drawn to other regions by disgust with their own country, as morose persons frequently are; nor were [they] fugitives on account of crime; nor were [they] led away by any foolish hope, or by allurements, as many are hurried hither and thither by their own desires." Calvin's fairly exhaustive list of inappropriate reasons for leaving one's homeland leaves few valid reasons for doing so beyond, of course, that of (like Abraham) being "divinely commanded to go forth."

Calvin is subsequently eager to make it clear that Abraham's migrations within the Promised Land were fueled by persecution from its Canaanite inhabitants, and ultimately served to orient him towards Heaven, and in no way sprung from his having been bitten by the travel bug. "It is certain that he did not voluntarily, and for his own gratification, run hither and thither (as light-minded persons are wont to do); but there were certain necessities which drove him forth, in order to teach him, by continual habit, that he was not only a stranger, but a wretched wanderer in the land of which he was the lord.... In this respect [Abraham] is very unlike many, who are hurried away, by every slight occasion, to desert their proper calling."

Calvin's comments on prosperity follow Scripture's observation that Abraham, following his exodus from Egypt, was "very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 13.2). The Reformer capitalizes on this reference to Abraham's apparent wealth to observe "two extremes" which should be avoided in our own thoughts on prosperity. "Many," he observes, "[wrongly] place angelical perfection in poverty; as if it were impossible to cultivate piety and to serve God, unless riches are cast away." Calvin reprimands such "fanatics [who] repel rich men from the hope of salvation, as if poverty were the only gate of heaven," and astutely observes, without further explanation, that poverty "sometimes involves men in more hindrances [to true faith] than riches."

"On the other hand," Calvin notes, "we must beware of the opposite evil; lest riches should cast a stumbling-block in our way, or should so burden us, that we should the less readily advance towards the kingdom of heaven." Calvin's comments on poverty/prosperity demonstrate a good grasp of the truth that it is not wealth (or the lack thereof) per se, but how one deals with wealth, that dictates the degree of difficulty wealth poses to salvation. After all, Scripture names "the love of money," not money itself, as "the root of all evil" (1 Tim. 6.10), and Paul encourages his readers to imitate him in learning contentment (and, presumably, every other virtue) whether they discover themselves "living in plenty or in want" (Phil. 4.12).

In the end, Calvin's comments on slavery, travel/expatriation, and prosperity are more connected than they might seem, and more connected to the main theme of divine promises and human faith in this biblical passage than they might seem. There is an emphasis in Calvin's comments on each of these subjects upon accepting one's station and place in this life, and -- like Abraham -- setting one's sights upon the Heavenly Canaan that God still promises his children. Whether one finds himself slave or free, Spanish or French, scraping the bottom of the barrel or minted, he shouldn't chiefly busy himself with reconfiguring his earthly portion, but with fulfilling his duties, wherever God has placed him, in humble but confident hope of a heavenly inheritance that will render all earthly circumstances and stations deplorable by comparison. Such resignation, as it were, to one's place and station in life might prove a hard pill to swallow to present-day persons who are regularly sold (and regularly purchase) the gospel of self-reinvention which the modern world peddles. But Calvin's advice, as usual, might have merit.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Posted June 11, 2015 @ 10:12 AM by Aaron Denlinger

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