Week 34 of 50 in the Institutes (Part 1 of 2): An Insightful Inversion

Since this blog is about my reflections on theological writings by dead guys (mostly Puritans along with the occasional Reformer, such as Calvin), I’m going to take a brief stroll down memory lane.  If you don’t want to accompany me on this brief excursion, you may skip down to the next paragraph.  I suspect some of you have made a pilgrimage similar to mine anyway.  Those who have may recall a song from the days of hymnals with shaped notes, “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life)”.  Those who aren’t familiar with that hymn may listen to it here (if you dare).  In the Independent Baptist church I grew up in, we had a tenor who liked to be a little mischievous on occasion, and when it came to the phrase “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life, life, O yes”, he would change it up as follows:  “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new wife, life, O yes!”  You had to listen carefully to catch his subtle change, and he would usually give himself away by an unusually large smile when he did it.

I share that because the words of that hymn immediately came to mind when I read 3.25.7 of the Institutes, because therein Calvin demonstrates how wrong they are!  Instead of a new body, every glorified saint receives a resurrected body.  After showing the error of those who would deny the immortality of the soul, Calvin turns his attention to another error, namely, the idea that saints receive new bodies, which is inconceivable or else the head (Christ) and the members will not match (3.25.7, bold emphasis added):

Equally monstrous is the error of those who imagine that the soul, instead of resuming the body with which it is now clothed, will obtain a new and different body. Nothing can be more futile than the reason given by the Manichees—viz. that it were incongruous for impure flesh to rise again: as if there were no impurity in the soul; and yet this does not exclude it from the hope of heavenly life. It is just as if they were to say, that what is infected by the taint of sin cannot be divinely purified; for I now say nothing to the delirious dream that flesh is naturally impure as having been created by the devil. I only maintain, that nothing in us at present, which is unworthy of heaven, is any obstacle to the resurrection. But, first, Paul enjoins believers to purify themselves from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (2 Cor. 7:1 the judgment which is to follow, that every one shall “receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad,” (2 Cor. 5:10). With this accords what he says to the Corinthians, “That the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body,” (2 Cor. 4:10). For which reason he elsewhere says, “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess. 5:23). He says “body” as well as “spirit and soul,” and no wonder; for it were most absurd that bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples should fall into corruption without hope of resurrection. What? are they not also the members of Christ? Does he not pray that God would sanctify every part of them, and enjoin them to celebrate his name with their tongues, lift up pure hands, and offer sacrifices? That part of man, therefore, which the heavenly Judge so highly honors, what madness is it for any mortal man to reduce to dust without hope of revival?. . . Moreover, if we are to receive new bodies, where will be the conformity [that is, matching ] of the Head and the members? Christ rose again. Was it by forming for himself a new body? Nay, he had foretold, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19). The mortal body which he had formerly carried he again received; for it would not have availed us much if a new body had been substituted, and that which had been offered in expiatory sacrifice been destroyed. We must, therefore, attend to that connection which the Apostle celebrates, that we rise because Christ rose (1 Cor. 15:12); nothing being less probable than that the flesh in which we bear about the dying of Christ, shall have no share in the resurrection of Christ. This was even manifested by a striking example, when, at the resurrection of Christ, many bodies of the saints came forth from their graves. For it cannot be denied that this was a prelude, or rather earnest, of the final resurrection for which we hope, such as already existed in Enoch and Elijah, whom Tertullian calls candidates for resurrection, because, exempted from corruption, both in body and soul, they were received into the custody of God.

At the beginning of the next section (3.25.8), Calvin talked at some length about the significance of rites honoring the body.  He pointed out that the etymology of the word “cemetery” (sleeping place) underscores the truth of the nature of the resurrection.  Scripture, Calvin contends, constantly “exhorts us in Scripture to hope for the resurrection of our flesh.” The sacraments also point to the reality of the resurrection:

For this reason Baptism is, according to Paul, a seal of our future resurrection; and in like manner the holy Supper invites us confidently to expect it, when with our mouths we receive the symbols of spiritual grace. And certainly the whole exhortation of Paul, “Yield ye your members as instruments of righteousness unto God,” (Rom. 6:13), would be frigid, did he not add, as he does in another passage, “He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies,” (Rom. 8:11). For what would it avail to apply feet, hands, eyes, and tongues, to the service of God, did not these afterwards participate in the benefit and reward? This Paul expressly confirms when he says, “The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God has both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power,” (1 Cor. 6:13, 14).

At the end of the section (3.25.8), Calvin went on to describe what the manner of the resurrection involved, saying that it would be a resurrection in the same body we now bear, but that the “quality” will be different.  His emphasis, in terms of sheer number of words, however, was on the continuity, rather than the discontinuity between the two states, because of the errors he felt compelled to correct in his day.  In so doing, his treatment of the subject constitutes a very interesting inversion, with primary emphasis on the sameness of the body now and hereafter.

Could it be that the hymn writer of that old “convention” song unwittingly imbibed a spirit of Gnosticism which has subtly been passed along to everyone who has ever heard that song (and made popular way back in the day by Hank Williams)?  After all, why bother so much with holiness and sanctification here if every believer gets a new body hereafter (and maybe even a new wife!)?

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 24: 3:25.7 – 3.25.8

Aug. 25: 3.25.9 – 3.25.12

Aug. 26: 4.1.1 – 4.1.4

Aug. 27: 4.1.5 – 4.1.8

Aug. 28: 4.1.9 – 4.1.14

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