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(2 posts)

To Err Is Human

I must be feeling a bit pedantic today (“Just today?” the Mrs. smugly quips). When this morning I read the old adage, “to err is human,” my immediate response was to object, and launch (silently, to the unrealized but very real relief of said Mrs.) into a corrective lecture. To err is not inherently human. To say it is is to impute errancy to God, as human beings were created in the image of God. Adam and Eve were created with the ability to not err, therefore, errancy is not a necessary quality of humanness. But then came the Fall. Adam and Eve chose to listen to Satan, though it was not inevitable (due solely to their humanity, that is) that they do so. Having made that choice—fallen—the image of God in them was forever damaged. Errancy, while not a quality of humanness, was now characteristic of fallen humanity. Why does this matter? Since all of humanity is fallen, isn’t it, for all intents and purposes, acceptable to say “to err is human?” It matters because “to err is human” is a shrug toward our sinful condition. “Oh well,” it says, “no big deal. Nobody is perfect.” “to err is human” says we’re not so bad, we just make mistakes. People who make mistakes don’t need to repent, they just need to learn their lessons, try I bit harder, do a little better. They certainly don’t need to be saved. What needs to be acknowledged is that to err is not human, as God created humanity. Errancy is corrupted humanness. It is the result of sin; sin has broken the imago Dei, and therefore, fellowship with God is broken. That, dear readers, can be fixed, but not before rejecting the status quo that is tacitly accepted by the ironically erroneous phrase, “to err is human.”

The True Standard

It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured. For, because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure—so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. Just so, an eye to which nothing is shown but black objects judges something dirty white or even rather darkly mottled to be whiteness itself. Indeed, we can discern still more clearly from the bodily senses how much we are deluded in estimating the powers of the soul. For if in broad daylight we either look down upon the ground or survey whatever meets our view round about, we seem to ourselves endowed with the strongest and keenest sight; yet when we look up to the sun and gaze straight at it, that power of sight which was particularly strong on earth is at once blunted and confused by a great brilliance, and thus we are compelled to admit that our keenness in looking upon things earthly is sheer dullness when it comes to the sun. So it happens in estimating our spiritual goods. As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.1.2. In short, when we compare ourselves to our fellow man, sinners all, we can come out looking pretty good. When we compare ourselves to the one true standard of holiness, our many imperfections stand out in stark relief. Only then can we see the reality of our sin and our need of a savior. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).


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