Painful Lessons in Humility: Calvin on Gen. 17.1-27
Scripture's account of God's command to Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" (Gen. 17.11; KJV) affords Calvin ample opportunity to reflect on the reality and nature of sacramental signs. Thus he is keen, in his comments on this and surrounding verses, to emphasize the close relationship of sacramental signs to God's covenant word of promise (and so the need to articulate that word of promise when administering said signs). He is equally keen to highlight the critical role that such signs, being "sculpture[s] and image[s] of that grace of God which the word more fully illustrates," play in sustaining human faith. He is likewise keen to insist that God's promises are themselves, apart from those signs, "effectual to... salvation," and so to discourage his readers from "restrict[ing] God's own effectual working [of the spiritual realities that sacraments signify] to those signs." And closely following from the last point, he is keen to censure any person who holds God's sacramental signs in contempt, and so -- "feigning himself to be contented with the bare promise" -- violates God's covenant "by an impious severance of the sign and the word" (i.e., by a failure to observe the sacrament).
Yet Calvin does not fail, in the midst of such sacramentologizing, to note the remarkable character of what God actually commands Abraham to do in Gen. 17.11. God's bidding of Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" is particularly noteworthy, in Calvin's estimation, given the unprecedented nature (to Calvin's knowledge) of such a surgical procedure in the ancient world, not to mention the primitive nature (again to Calvin's knowledge) of ancient medicine if measured in terms of proper surgical tools, adherence to principles of hygiene, possibilities for anesthesia, and so on.
"Very strange and unaccountable would this command at first sight appear," the Reformer reckons. Calvin further speculates about what Abraham's thought process might have been regarding this "strange and unaccountable... command": "this might [have] come into his mind, '...if, by this symbol, [God] would consecrate me to himself as a servant, why has he put me off to extreme old age? What does this mean, that I cannot be saved unless I, with one foot almost in the grave, thus mutilate myself?'" Reservations about circumcising himself (and his household) might, Calvin reflects, have likewise stemmed from the prospect of "acute pain" associated with the act, some "danger of [the loss of] life," and the almost certain consequence of being made the "laughing-stock" of his immediate world.
Such consideration of Abraham's sentiments toward the act he was bid to perform ultimately serves to highlight the remarkable character of Abraham's faith and obedience. "He must, of necessity, have been entirely devoted to God," Calvin reasons, "since he did not hesitate to inflict upon himself [that] wound." Abraham likewise "circumcised the whole of his family as he had been commanded," testimony both to Abraham's obedience and to the respect and trust he had previously earned from his servants, who "meekly receive[d] the [same] wound, which was both troublesome and the occasion of shame to carnal sense." Abraham's promptness in obeying God also deserves note: "he does not defer the work to another day, but immediately obeys the Divine mandate."
All in all, one gets the impression that Calvin considers Abraham's willingness to trust and obey God in this command almost as extraordinary as his subsequent willingness to trust and obey God when ordered to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar some years later.
But Calvin is equally keen to discern some motive on God's part for issuing such a strange command, beyond (of course) the appropriateness of the ritual commanded to represent the peculiar promise of God's covenant. And, naturally, Calvin succeeds in this, ultimately arguing that God's command served its own peculiar role in humbling Abraham.
On this score again the sign corresponds to God's word of promise, which itself elicits humility by reminding Abraham (and every true believer) that ultimate blessing lies outside any person's grasp and is freely offered to those (and only those) who understand and feel their inability to seize such blessing by some effort or merit of their own. God's command to Abraham to circumcise himself and his household humbles the patriarch in two distinct ways. Abraham is humbled, first of all, by the sheer and simple "shame" associated with the act he is ordered to perform. "It was necessary," Calvin comments, "for Abraham to become a fool , in order to prove himself obedient to God."
But Abraham is humbled even more profoundly by God's further instructions, having just identified circumcision as "a sign of the covenant between you and me," to circumcise both his sons and his slaves without any apparent distinction between the two. By these further instructions "the pride... of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons, gathers together both freemen and slaves."
Calvin's logic runs something like this: by administering the sign of the covenant to his slaves, Abraham was -- at God's express bidding -- extending God's twofold promise of redemption through the Seed and inheritance of a (heavenly) land to persons who, at least according to their earthly station, never expected (nor were expected) to inherit much. Abraham was, in other words, reminded that God shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11) in the distribution of his grace and gifts, no matter man's natural proclivity to privilege sons over slaves in the bequeathing of material blessings. The truth so clearly expressed in Gal. 3.28-29, then, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female," but all are equally "heirs according to promise" was foreshadowed at the earliest expression of God's promise, when Abraham extended the sign of said promise to all (both slave and free) within his household.
Calvin's teaching on this point yields several practical considerations. For one, it reminds us that God seldom -- or rather, never -- shares our biases, whether such be founded on social, economic, racial, or other differences. For another, it reminds us that humility is indispensable to securing a share in God's promise of eternal fellowship with himself. Indeed, God's promise itself induces humility (inasmuch as faith entails humble recognition of one's need). But even in our day, the signs that God has attached to his promise can do their part to hasten the debasing of our pride. Few things, after all, are as un-cool (by the standards of the world) as having water applied to oneself in the Triune name, or regularly breaking bread and sharing a cup in remembrance of Christ with fellow members of Christ's church.