Tuesday, March 10, 2015

John Calvin and the Wheat and Tares Parable (1 of 2)

John Calvin

As with all of his parable interpretations, in his discussion of the Wheat and Tares, Calvin seeks to explain Jesus’ mind and intention. Calvin connects the meaning of the parable with Jesus’ concern “to prevent the minds of the godly from giving way to uneasiness or despondency, when they perceive a confused mixture of the good along with the bad.” In other words, although Jesus has purified the church of God, he allows it to continue to be “polluted by many stains.” These stains are not ordinary human weaknesses—the “remaining infirmities of the flesh”—common to all believers, even after they become Christians.  Instead, even in the fledging ministry of Jesus, many hypocrites and immoral people have joined themselves with the believers.
In my opinion, the design of the parable is simply this: So long as the pilgrimage of the Church in this world continues, bad men and hypocrites will mingle in it with those who are good and upright, that the children of God may be armed with patience and, in the midst of offenses which are fitted to disturb them, may preserve unbroken stedfastness (sic) of faith.
Calvin states that Jesus here employs a synecdoche, in which the field designates the Church (Calvin often uses a discussion of synecdoche to draw general lessons from specific teachings; McKim 147).
The wheat does not designate correct doctrine and tares heresy, because Jesus never would have forbidden Christians “to labor strenuously to purge out that kind of corruption.” It is true that as far as morality is concerned, whatever human faults cannot be corrected must be endured, “but we are not at liberty to extend such a toleration to wicked errors, which corrupt the purity of faith.”
Jesus himself provides the correct interpretation, however, by saying that “the tares are the children of the wicked one.” Here Calvin argues against the position of the Manicheans:
this cannot be understood simply of the persons of men, as if by creation God sowed good men and the devil sowed bad men. I advert to this, because the present passage has been abused by the Manicheans, for the purpose of lending support to their notion of two principles. But we know that whatever sin exists, either in the devil or in men, is nothing else than the corruption of the whole nature. As it is not by creation that God makes his elect, who have been tainted with original sin, to become a good seed, but by regenerating them through the grace of his Spirit; so wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil, and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed.

The devil is to blame, however, because the tares are sown “by the trick of an enemy,” and the existence of the wicked among the righteous is therefore no accident. This fact does not absolve humans of blame—and, of course, God cannot be blamed—but we should therefore not be surprised “to find tares frequently growing in the Lord’s field, since Satan is always on the watch to do mischief.”

The next post will discuss Calvin's view of the conclusion of the parable and the parable's implications for the church.

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