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?