Beholden?

One of my great mistakes last semester was choosing Calvin’s *Institutes* as my theology text. The assigned reading for my theology class had merely required that I read the appropriate sections in any theology text, and then listed about fifty examples. I figured now was as good a time as any to bone up on my Calvin, since I’d heard so many good things about him.

Last semester was not the time. Three weeks after classes, I’m still slogging through it.

Understand, Calvin is good. In fact, as theologians go, he’s by far one of the most interested in the actual working out of the Christian life. I’ve even mentioned before that reading the *Institutes* was the closest thing in reading a book I’ve ever come to a direct worship experience: reading Calvin promotes a heart attitude of worship. But.

The problem with reading Calvin is that he wrote 400 years ago, and he wrote in Latin. (To his credit, he also wrote in 16th century French, but that doesn’t help me any.) And for some reason, even the best translations are horrible. They seem to think that Calvin has the best impact if they use the vocabulary and phrasing of mid-19th century Britain. So, they throw in extra commas, just for effect, and truly, the verbage choice is most astonishing, in its anachronism. Take, for instance, the following sentence:

When we are certain that the earthly life we live is a gift from God’s kindness, as we are beholden to him for it we ought to remember it and be thankful.

Beholden? Fortunately, the comma problem isn’t “in evidence” in the above sentence, but what’s up with “beholden/” Has that word ever been used, in normal conversation, in the last 100 years? Can anyone, from the top of their head, give an accurate definition?

I won’t quiz you. Beholden doesn’t exactly mean “in debt.” It sort of does, but not really. It describes the relationship between a liege lord and vassal. The vassal is beholden to the lord because the lord has given him something – a title, lands, etc. – and the vassal owes something in exchange: allegiance, service – all those good things. It’s different from simple debt in a couple of ways. First, the lord initiated the situation. The vassal didn’t approach the lord and say, “hey, if you’ll give me a title and an estate, I’ll rally your troops for you.” No, “when he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and gave gifts to men….he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets” etc. Second a debt is something you can pay off. To be beholden is to be in a perpetual relationship: continually inferior, continually making due payment in exchange for a situation one continues to hold.

In short, debt doesn’t cover the half of it. In fact, debt is a situation that many of us would prefer to be in. Debtors have rights. You can repay your debt ahead of schedule and get a discount. And most importantly, a debtor relationship comes to an end. Eventually, having done all that’s required of him, the debtor is equal to the debtor before the law. A vassal properly has no rights in relation to his lord, only duties. And the only way to end the payments is to renounce the gift that requires them.

If it was simply a debtor situation that we were in, it would be much easier for non-Christians (particularly westerners) to swallow. I was in a bad spot, God helped me out, now I need to pay him back, and then we’ll be even. But that’s not the way it works. “In a bad spot” is merely the natural state of man. God “helped me out” by dramatically altering the nature of my estate. Now, my blessed condition is entirely bound up in my favored relationship with Him. I don’t make payments on a debt, but merely render the services appropriate to our relationship. I might as well attempt to “pay back” my mother for giving birth to me. To even attempt it would be appalling.

It is, of course, possible to end such a relationship, the same way that it’s possible to terminate my relationship with my parents. It would be vile and despicable – ungrateful even – but it could be done. With my parents, it would make a technical orphan of me. To disinherit myself from God would irrevocably return me back to my former situation: a sinner with a one-way ticket to the trash heap.

So, beholden is a good word, even a theological word. Anselm, in the middle ages used this concept to explain the entire Christian condition. BUT, it worked because in the middle ages, the whole world was crawling with people in just that relationship. The idea that some people were superior to others was a common one, and easily adaptable to Christian teaching. Today, the idea is almost offensive, and the very mention of the word requires several paragraphs of explanation.

My version of the *Institutes* is copyrighted 1960. I assure you, nobody in the 60’s was using “beholden” in normal conversation, not even theologians. So…why is it in my book?

8 thoughts on “Beholden?”

  1. I do understand your point, but there are a couple of things to consider. First, your Institutes may have been copyrighted in 1960, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was translated in 1960. Second, sometimes language seems odd to us just because of gaps in our own vocabulary. “Beholden” is a word that you may not use, but it is still in use. For a few examples, click here, here, here, and here. I know I’ve used it, although not often.

    Institutes is definitely heavy reading. I have yet to tackle it seriously. Depending on the age of the translation, I don’t doubt that it does contain outdated expressions. That just isn’t one of them.

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  2. Perhaps beholden was the wrong choice. Although I may quibble with you on that. Every single one of your examples might have been replaced with “enslaved” with similar (though more emphatic) results. That is to say, the word is now used to refer to a kind of relationship which no longer exists and upon which we moderns look down our long noses in disdain. Nobody aims at being beholden; it’s an insult to suggest it. So I could argue that those who use the word are doing so with deliberate anacrhonism. Nobody is *really* suggesting that any of those officials are in a *bona fide* liege relationship. On the other hand, you could argue that, since it’s still the perfect word to describe the relationship.

    Better words were things like “thusly” or “nay” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “no.” But they didn’t make for as much fun blogging.

    As for the translation, I’ve been reading the Ford Lewis-Battles translation, which was recommended to me as the “best” translation. From a cursory search, it looks like he did finish in 1960 (see the first link). It’s pretty obvious Lewis-Battles didn’t intend it for the lay reader, though, and that’s disappointing, because I get the distinct impression that Calvin *did* intend his stuff to be accessable to lay Christians.

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  3. You do of course realize that you just spent several paragraphs explaining why it was the exactly precise word to use and then complained that it was use…..can you think of a culturally appropriate word that conveys the same meaning?

    I’m a little amazed that you of all people are complaining about a precisely accurate word.

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  4. As I said, I get your point. Regardless of the example, some authors do seem to like using words that sound impressive when they could write more simply. I’m sorry if I seemed contentious.

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  5. Nonsense. A little contention now and then is cherished by the wisest men.

    There’s a contentiousness that just gets people riled up for no reason, and there’s a lighthearted kind that can be quite entertaining. I’m find of the lighthearted contention. 🙂

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  6. Found this quote and it made me think of this post.

    “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

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  7. Ha! I completely used the word beholden the other day. Using myself as the epidimy of normality, there is nothing wrong with the poor translation.

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