Calvin on Life's Perils and God's Providence

Calvin apparently lived with a profound awareness of the potential for death that constantly accompanies us as human beings. In 1.17.10 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer provided a rather sobering catalog of the "innumerable ... deaths that threaten" us in our day to day existence. It's intriguing, and perhaps profitable, to explore that catalog and reflect upon the ways in which our modern (sense of) vulnerability to death measures up to at least one man's (sense of) the same five hundred years ago.

"We need not," Calvin begins, "go beyond ourselves [to discern danger of death]. Since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases ... a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction and without [living] a life enveloped, as it were, with death." No doubt the bubonic plague, which by some accounts destroyed nearly half of Europe's population in the 14th century, figured among the "thousand diseases" Calvin has in mind, even if in his day the plague appeared only in regional outbreaks. Of course, vaccines and antibiotics have recently given humankind the edge over this and many other diseases, but fatal diseases (for example, various forms of cancer) persist, as most of us know only too well.

"For what else would you call it [but 'life enveloped, as it were, with death']," Calvin continues, "when [man] neither freezes nor sweats without danger?"  It's easy to forget, living in our climate controlled environments, how susceptible we actually are as human beings to cold and heat. Apparently humans must retain a body temperature between 70 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit to stay alive, and this requires avoiding any protracted exposure to external temperatures below 40 degrees or above 95, a rather alarming truth given temperatures nearly everywhere on earth that regularly transgress those boundaries. However talented we've become, at least in developed portions of the world, at shielding ourselves from fatal temperatures, we've not discovered ways of making our bodies per se less vulnerable to heat or cold. Extreme temperatures still take lives.

"Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs." Calvin perceived every mode of early modern transport to pose at least some danger of death. I suspect that we as modern folk are more vulnerable to transport-related death than our early modern counterparts. For one thing, we're much more mobile. For another, we've employed our God-given intelligence to develop modes of transport that are surely expedient but only relatively safe, especially when compared with the slow but steady art of walking to one's destination. We insist, for example, in hurtling past one another at insane speeds in small metal boxes, trusting in a pair of thin yellow lines and one another's eyesight and sanity to keep us from fatal collision. Or in launching ourselves 30,000 plus feet in the air, trusting not only in the skill of engineers and pilots (whom we've never met) but also in the ability of mechanics to slow the inevitable progress of the larger metal boxes we fly in towards mechanical failure and (mid-flight) breakdown. And so on. Travel is fatally dangerous, as -- again -- many of us know only too well.

"If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend's, harm awaits." It's intriguing that Calvin anticipates harm -- and especially death -- from a weapon in "your hand" or "a friend's" to the exclusion of other potential weapon-bearers. The danger posed by a weapon in the hand of an enemy is ostensibly so obvious it doesn't even merit mention. Calvin clearly can't be marshalled in defense of that opinion expressed by so many that more guns equals greater safety for everyone. I'm sure many modern Americans will wish to take exception -- whether on the basis of political persuasion, a particular interpretation of the second amendment, or sheer enthusiasm for weapons -- to Calvin's claim that arming one's self equals greater danger than safety, but the reality that legalized, private weapons in America (at least) are much more commonly employed in suicides and accidental deaths than self-defense lends some support to his perspective.

"All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden." I appreciate Calvin's singling out of snakes as particularly dangerous to human beings. It makes me think he might have shared something of my own admittedly neurotic fear of even the most harmless of snakes (just ask my wife). Nothing baffles me more than the choice some people make to keep snakes as pets within their homes. Surely that kind of insanity must be wholly modern in origin.

"Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you." What home owner hasn't experienced this sentiment? Perhaps our modern homes are more structurally sound than early modern buildings were. And, best case scenario, fire alarms alert us to the danger that flames pose to us in our places of residence. But even the most solid of our homes are susceptible to destruction from a number of elements and/or natural disasters. And, thus, so too are we within them.

"I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad." Actually, Calvin, you've not passed over these things. You've just mentioned them. And rightly so. Few realities pose as much danger to us in this fallen world as one another. Historical research into crime and murder in pre-modern times is a fairly recent academic phenomenon, and the initial results may surprise some. The medieval and early modern periods were apparently much more violent than our own modern age. In fact, the western world's overall homicide rate declined rather significantly in the seventeenth-century, and (thankfully) hasn't rebounded. The jury is still out on exactly why, but most scholars believe it was a product of stronger, more centralized states possessing the machinery to deal more effectively with perpetrators of violent crime. On the other hand, aggravated assault and robbery rates did climb significantly during the last several decades of the last century in America (even if the homicide rate remained more or less constant). Whatever the numbers ultimately mean, we're still rather obviously a threat to one another.

"Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?" Calvin rarely receives criticism for being too cheery. But his real point in highlighting the dangers that folk in his day (and ours) face is not to induce despair. It is, rather, to make us grateful for God's providential care that keeps us from any number of disasters, and permits those (and only those) to reach us which are ultimately for our good. Herein lays great comfort and joy. When "a godly man" comes to understand God's providence, "he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. [...] His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it."

Perhaps, then, regular and sober estimation of the dangers of death surrounding us is in order. Such should finally lead us to grateful and confident reliance upon our Father, who has, after all, wisely determined the boundaries of our existence. And God's providence in our lives, we must remember, is wholly informed by his tender love for us, love evidenced by the fact that he gave us his very Son to suffer true death, alienation from Him, in our stead, and on the basis of the same extends to us the ultimate gift of eternal safety in his own presence.