Monday, July 6, 2009

Calvin on Daniel 4:27: Alms and Forgiveness

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 358.

Cyprian was an African bishop in the third century. He states the following about God's forgiveness of sins:

As in the laver of saving water the fire of hell is extinguished, so by almsgiving and works of righteousness the flame is subdued. And because in baptism remission of sins is granted once for all, constant and ceaseless good works, following the likeness of baptism, once again bestow the mercy of God...those who after the grace of baptism became foul, may once more be cleansed.

Cyprian affirms that alms and good works can atone for a Christian's sins. His view was not radical, for other early Christian authors make this same claim. The apocrypha/deuterocanonical writings also present alms as a path to atonement. See my post, Legalistic Christians?

I say in that post: "And, to the Protestants who will say, 'That's one reason we don't like the apocrypha--it promotes salvation by works,' take a look at what Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:27: 'atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged' (NRSV). I do believe that Daniel is part of the Protestant canon."

On my Christian dating site, I once got into a discussion about Daniel 4:27 with some Protestant believers. Actually, I was the one who brought the verse up. A lady was saying that the apocrypha is bad because it promotes false doctrines, like alms atoning for sin. That went against her Protestant belief that we receive forgiveness only by trusting in Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead (sola fide, sola gratia, etc.). So I pointed out the Daniel passage to show her that atonement through alms is also in the Protestant canon.

In response, a Calvinist brother posted a link to John Calvin's lengthy interaction with Daniel 4:27. I much prefer for people to speak in their own words than to refer me to a book or article, but I guess I should get used to the latter, being in academia. In this post, I want to discuss John Calvin's treatment of Daniel 4:27, largely because July 10 will be the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Here's the passage: Daniel 4:27.

Calvin is all over the map in his treatment of Daniel 4:27. He does not agree with Catholics, who appeal to this passage to argue that good works can atone for sin. And so he offers the following alternatives:

1. Calvin treats the word translated as "atone" (peruq) as "break off," which is one meaning of the word. In this interpretation, Daniel is exhorting the king to free himself from his wrongdoing by performing good deeds. "Cease doing evil, and learn to do good" is what Calvin interprets this passage to mean. This is consistent with the Protestant view, which wants sinners to make a clean break from their sinful lifestyles. This may be what the King James Version has in mind when it translates the phrase, "break off thy sins."

Regarding the phrase that the NRSV translates "so that your prosperity may be prolonged," Calvin renders it as "this medicine may be suitable for the error." Calvin interprets this to mean that practicing righteousness is a cure for habitual evildoing. I have no idea where Calvin is getting this understanding of the phrase. The Aramaic reads "and they will be length for your prosperity" (or so my BibleWorks translates the words). Calvin states that the Greek carries the idea of "cure," but what I see in the Greek is this: "so that kindness may be given to you and you may be many days on the throne of your kingdom..." I have difficulty translating the rest of the passage, and I can't find any English translation of the LXX for it, since most translations seem to use another manuscript. But I can't find anything about "cure" as I put my mouse over the Greek words.

2. Another possibility that Calvin raises: Daniel is basically saying to Nebuchadnezzar, "Repent, and God will forgive you." True repentance occurs in the heart, and yet it is made manifest in good works. According to Calvin, the Hebrew prophets often describe repentance in terms of doing good for one's fellow human being, so Daniel is following that custom. One thing is evident, as far as Calvin is concerned: the "good works" that Daniel promotes are not the sorts of things that Catholics promote as means of atonement (i.e., fasting, rituals, pilgrimages); rather, they are acts of genuine righteousness.

3. In his third interpretation, Calvin acknowledges that peruq can mean "redeem," but he denies that the redemption is God's forgiveness of sins, which cannot be earned by good works. Rather, Calvin applies peruq to Nebuchadnezzar's forgiveness by human beings: Nebuchadnezzar makes restitution to those he hurt, thereby receiving their forgiveness.

I'm not sure what to do with Calvin's interpretations. When I first read them a while back, they looked like a stretch, but now they seem fairly reasonable. Overall, I think that Daniel was telling Nebuchadnezzar to start a new kind of life: one that was humble and kind rather than proud, selfish, and harmful to others. Then, God would take notice and grant Nebuchadnezzar long life and prosperity. Whether that accords better with the Protestant or Catholic view of forgiveness, I have no idea.

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