Skip to comments.The Theology of John Calvin
Posted on 04/19/2003 7:32:39 AM PDT by drstevej
The Theology of John Calvin
The subject of this address is the theology of John Calvin and I shall ask leave to take this subject rather broadly, that is to say, to attempt not so much to describe the personal peculiarities of John Calvin as a theologian, as to indicate in broad outlines the determining characteristics of the theology which he taught. I wish to speak, in other words, about Calvinism, that great system of religious thought which bears John Calvin's name, and which also--although of course he was not its author, but only one of its chief exponents--bears indelibly impressed upon it the marks of his formative hand and of his systematizing genius. Of all the teachers who have wrought into it their minds and hearts since its revival in that tremendous religious upheaval we call the Reformation, this system of thought owes most perhaps to John Calvin and has therefore justly borne since then his name. And of all the services which Calvin has rendered to humanity--and they are neither few nor small--the greatest was undoubtedly his gift to it afresh of this system of religious thought, quickened into new life by the forces of his genius, and it is therefore just that he should be most widely remembered by it. When we are seeking to probe to the heart of Calvinism, we are exploring also most thoroughly the heart of John Calvin. Calvinism is his greatest and most significant monument, and he who adequately understands it will best understand him.
It was about a hundred years ago that Max Gobel first set the scholars at work upon the attempt clearly to formulate the formative principle of Calvinism. A long line of distinguished thinkers have exhausted themselves in the task without attaining, we must confess, altogether consistent results. The great difficulty has been that the formative and distinctive principles of Calvinism have been confused, and men have busied themselves rather in indicating the points of difference by which Calvinism is distinguished from other theological tendencies than in seeking out the germinal principle of which it itself is the unfolding.
The particular theological tendency with which Calvinism has been contrasted in such discussions is, as was natural, the sister system of Lutheranism, with which it divided the heritage of the Reformation. Now undoubtedly somewhat different spirits do inform Calvinism and Lutheranism. And equally undoubtedly, the disunguishing spirit of Calvinism is due to its formative principle and is not to be accounted for by extraneous circumstances of origin or antecedents, such as for example, the democratic instincts of the Swiss, or the superior humanistic culture of its first teachers, or their tendency to intellectualism or to radicalism. But it is gravely misleading to identify the formative principle of either type of Protestantism with its prominent points of difference from the others. They have vastly more in common than in distinction. And nothing could be more misleading than to trace all their differences, as to their roots, to the fundamental place given in the two systems respectively to the principles of predestination and justification by faith.
In the first place, the doctrine of predestination is not the formative principle of Calvinism, it is only its logical implication. It is not the root from which Calvinism springs, it is one of the branches which it has inevitably thrown out. And so little is it the peculiarity of Calvinism, that it underlay and gave its form and power to the whole Reformation movement--which was, as from the spiritual point of view a great revival of religion, so from the doctrinal point of view a great revival of Augustinianism. There was, accordingly, no difference among the Reformers on this point; Luther and Melanchthon and the compromizing Butzer were no less zealous for absolute predestination than Zwingli and Calvin. Even Zwingli could not surpass Luther in sharp and unqualified assertion of this doctrine; and it was not Calvin but Melanchthon who paused, even in his first preliminary statement of the elements of the Protestant faith, to give it formal assertion and elaboration.
Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system. Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith. It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God's activity looking to the salvation of man. And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them. Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows. It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia, and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul. Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, "What shall I do to be saved?" and answers it precisely as Lutheranism answers it. But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, "Whence this faith by which I am justified?" And the deeper response suffuses all the chambers of the soul with praise, "From the free gift of God alone, to the praise of the glory of His grace." Thus Calvinism withdraws the eye from the soul and its destiny and fixes it on God and His glory. It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.
If thus the formative principle of Calvinism is not to be identified with the points of difference which it has developed with its sister type of Protestantism, Lutheranism, much less can it be identified with those heads of doctrine--severally or in sum--which have been singled out by its own rebellious daughter, Arminianism, as its specially vunerable points. The "five points of Calvinism," we have no doubt learned to call them, and not without justice. They are, each and every one of them, essential elements in the Calvinistic system, the denial of which in any of their essential details is logically the rejection of the entirety of Calvinism; and in their sum they provide what is far from being a bad epitome of the Calvinistic system. The sovereignty of the election of God, the substitutive definiteness of the atonement of Christ, the inability of the sinful will to good, the creative energy of the saving grace of the Spirit, the safety of the redeemed soul in the keeping of its Redeemer,--are not these the distinctive teachings of Calvinism, as precious to every Calvinist's heart as they are necessary to the integrity of the system? Selected as the objects of the Arminian assault, these "five-points" have been reaffirmed, therefore, with the constancy of profound conviction by the whole Calvinistic world. It is well however to bear in mind that they owe their prominence in our minds to the Arminian debate, and however well fitted they may prove in point of fact to stand as a fair epitome of Cavinistic doctrine, they are historically at least only the Calvinistic obverse of "the five points of Arminianism." And certainly they can put in no claim, either severally or in sum, to announce the formative principle of Calvinism, whose outworking in the several departments of doctrine they rather are--though of course they may surely and directly conduct us back to that formative principle, as the only root out of which just this body of doctrine could grow. Clearly at the root of the stock which bears these branches must lie a most profound sense of God and an equally profound sense of the relation in which the creature stands to God, whether conceived merely as creature or, more specifically as sinful creature. It is the vision of God and His Majesty, in a word, which lies at the foundation of the entirety of Calvinistic thinking.
The exact formulation of the formative principle of Calvinism, as I have said, has taxed the acumen of a long line of distinguished thinkers. Many modes of stating it have been proposed. Perhaps after all, however, its simplest statement is the best. It lies then, let me repeat, in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the poignant realization which inevitably accompanies this apprehension, of the relation sustained to God by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God's sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners. He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him, in all his thinking, feeling, willing--in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual--throughout all his individual, social, religious relations--is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.
If we wish to reduce this statement to a more formal theoretical form, we may say perhaps, that Calvinism in its fundamental idea implies three things. In it, (i) objectively speaking, theism comes to its rights; (ii) subjectively speaking, the religious relation attains its purity; (iii) soteriologically speaking, evangelical religion finds at length its full expression and its secure stability. Theism comes to its rights only in a teleological view of the universe, which recognizes in the whole course of events the orderly working out of the plan of God, whose will is consequently conceived as the ultimate cause of all things. The religious relation attains its purity only when an attitude of absolute dependence on God is not merely assumed, as in the act, say, of prayer, but is sustained through all the activities of life, intellectual, emotional, executive. And evangelical religion reaches its full manifestation and its stable form only when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace as the immediate and sole source of all the efficiency which enters into its salvation. From these things shine out upon us the formative principle of Calvinism. The Calvinist is the man who sees God behind all phenomena, and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God, working out His will; who makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer the permanent attitude in all its life activities; and who casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of his salvation.
I think it important to insist here that Calvinism is not a specific variety of theistic thought, religious experience, evangelical faith, but the perfect expression of these things. The difference between it and other forms of theism, religion, evangelicalism, is a difference not of kind but of degree. There are not many kinds of theism, religion, evangelicalism, each with its own special characteristics, among which men are at liberty to choose, as may suit their individual tastes. There is but one kind of theism, religion, evangelicalism, and if there are several constructions laying claim to these names they differ from one another, not as correlative species of a more inclusive genus, but only as more or less good or bad specimens of the same thing differ from one another.
Calvinism comes forward simply as pure theism, religion, evangelicalism, as over against less pure theism, religion, evangelicalism. It does not take its position then by the side of other types of these things; it takes its place over them, as what they too ought to be. It has no difficulty thus, in recognizing the theistic character of all truly theistic thought, the religious note in all really religious manifestations, the evangelical quality of all actual evangelical faith. It refuses to be set antagonistically over against these where they really exist in any degree. It claims them in every instance of their emergence as its own, and seeks only to give them their due place in thought and life. Whoever believes in God, whoever recognizes his dependence on God, whoever hears in his heart the echo of the Soli Deo gloria of the evangelical profession--by whatever name he may call himself; by whatever logical puzzles his understanding may be confused--Calvinism recognizes such as its own, and as only requiring to give full validity to those fundamental principles which underlie and give its body to all true religion to become explicitly a Calvinist.
Calvinism is born, we perceive, of the sense of God. God fills the whole horizon of the Calvinist's feeling and thought. One of the consequences which flow from this is the high supernaturalism which informs at once his religious consciousness and his doctrinal construction. Calvinism indeed would not be badly defined as the tendency which is determined to do justice to the immediately supernatural, as in the first so in the second creation. The strength and purity of its apprehension of the supernatural Fact (which is God) removes all embarrassment from it in the presence of the supernatural act (which is miracle). In everything which enters into the process of the recovery of sinful man to good and to God, it is impelled by the force of its first principle to assign the initiative to God. A supernatural revelation in which God makes known to man His will and His purposes of grace; a supernatural record of the revelation in a supernaturally given Book, in which God gives His revelation permanence and extension ,--such things are to the Calvinist matters of course. And above all things, he can but insist with the utmost strenuousness on the immediate supernaturalness of the actual work of redemption; this of course, in its impetration. It is no strain to his faith to believe in a supernatural Redeemer, breaking His way to earth through a Virgin's womb, bursting the bonds of death and returning to His Father's side to share the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. Nor can he doubt that this supernaturally purchased redemption is applied to the soul in an equally supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.
Thus it comes about that monergistic regeneration--"irresistible grace," "effectual calling," our older theologians called it,--becomes the hinge of the Calvinistic soteriology, and lies much more deeply imbedded in the system than many a doctrine more closely connected with it in the popular mind. Indeed, the soteriological significance of predestination itself consists to the Calvinist largely in the safeguard it affords to the immediate supernaturalness of salvation. What lies at the heart of his soteriology is absolute exclusion of creaturely efficiency in the induction of the saving process, that the pure grace of God in salvation may be magnified. Only so could he express his sense of men's complete dependence as sinners on the free mercy of a saving God; or extrude the evil leaven of synergism, by which God is robbed of His glory and man is encouraged to attribute to some power, some act, some initiative of his own, his participation in that salvation which in reality has come to him from pure grace.
There is nothing therefore, against which Calvinism sets its face with more firmness than every form and degree of auto-soterism. Above everything else, it is determined to recognize God, in His son Jesus Christ, acting through the Holy Spirit whom He has sent, as our veritable Saviour. To Calvinism, sinful man stands in need, not of inducements or assistance to save himself; but precisely of saving; and Jesus Christ has come not to advise, or urge, or woo, or help him to save himself; but to save him; to save him through the prevalent working on him of the Holy Spirit. This is the root of the Calvinistic soteriology, and it is because this deep sense of human helplessness and this profound consciousness of indebtedness for all that enters into salvation to the free grace of God is the root of its soteriology, that election becomes to Calvinism the cor cordis of the Gospel. He who knows that it is God who has chosen him, and not he who has chosen God, and that he owes every step and stage of his salvation to the working out of this choice of God, would be an ingrate indeed if he gave not the whole glory of his salvation to the inexplicable election of the Divine love.
Calvinism however, is not merely a soteriology. Deep as its interest is in salvation, it cannot escape the question--"Why should God thus intervene in the lives of sinners to rescue them from the consequences of their sin?" And it cannot miss the answer--"Because it is to the praise of the glory of His grace." Thus it cannot pause until it places the scheme of salvation itself in relation with a complete world-view in which it becomes subsidiary to the glory of the Lord God Almighty. If all things are from God, so to Calvinism all things are also unto God, and to it God will be all in all. It is born of the reflection in the heart of man of the glory of a God who will not give His honour to another, and draws its life from constant gaze upon this great image. And let us not fail punctually to note, that "it is the only system in which the whole order of the world is thus brought into a rational unity with the doctrine of grace, and in which the glorification of God is carried out with absolute completeness." Therefore the future of Christianity--as its past has done--lies in its hands. For, it is certainly.true, as has been said by a profound thinker of our own time, that "it is only with such a universal conception of God, established in a living way, that we can face with hope of complete conquest all the spiritual dangers and terrors of our times." "It, however," as the same thinker continues, "is deep enough and large enough and divine enough, rightly understood, to confront them and do battle with them all in vindication of the Creator, Preserver and Governor of the world, and of the Justice and Love of the divine Personality."
This is the system of doctrine to the elaboration and defence of which John Calvin gave all his powers nearly four hundred years ago. And it is chiefly because he gave all his powers to commending to us this system of doctrine, that we are here today to thank God for giving to the world the man who has given to the world this precious gift.
And how does that differ from Arminianism?
(Wouldn't you agree, Steve?)
I don't believe that Arminians believe that they save themselves. It is the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross that saves. It is the Holy Spirit's working on the person that brings them to salvation.
But no thinking Arminian thinks that they save themselves. The statement of Warfield applies to Arminians as well as Calvinists. Warfield makes that statement (and Dr Steve emphasized it) apparently to set Calvinism apart from other theological systems. The problem is that those sentiments are not exclusive to Calvinism.
I prefer to hitch my wagon to Jesus.
I think this is definately the case. It wasn't my own stumbling block (I recoiled in horror at the idea of "limited atonement," and the whole system came crashing down. Whoever named it that should be shot; "particular redemption" or "definate atonement" is much better.)
What I find fascinating is I know 2 people who believe in "limited atonement" as I've explained to them, but reject "irresistible grace." I find that intriguing; that's not where I choked on Calvinism.
Good summary, UR. Not much more I can add to it.
Jesus dispelled the pagan notion of "fate" and the fear that flows from it, and Calvin reintroduced it with his double predestination.
I find his ideas to be...well...sinister, definitely paganistic, possibly satanic, but certainly not Christian.
Sorry to be blunt, Steve, but you invited comments.
But did YOU ask the Holy Spirit to hitch your wagon, or did the Holy Spirit hitch it while you were sleeping?
And if YOU didn't ask for forgivenenss, how did you receive it? Is not asking for forgiveness, a prerequisite to its being granted?
How did Jesus dispel that notion? Were the Jews under some pagan notion of "fate"? Explain.
"Repent and believe, and you will be saved."
Were the Jews under some pagan notion of "fate"?
No. The Jews were not pagans (in general.)
FATE, DESTINY, LOT, PORTION, DOOM mean a predetermined state or end. FATE implies an inevitable and usually an adverse outcome. LOT and PORTION imply a distribution by fate or destiny, LOT suggesting blind chance.
In other words, a man's lot was decided by fate or chance, and he was powerless to effect his life's outcome.
Calvin's "predestination" is just a rehashing of this pagan notion man's lot was decided by fate or chance, a notion still common to pagan religions like Hinduism.
The debate between God's Grace and our Free Will has gone on from day one, with no satisfactory agreement, no final word. Calvin's word sure as Hades is not The Final Word.
Because it is, afterall, a "Mystery" that will never be fully understood by man, nor fully explained by man's finite intellect and language.
That is why I see as only a worldly FOOL those men who proclaim to have definitively stated "The Final Word" on the issue of Grace vs Free Will. And that is why I see it as earthly foolishness this obsession over one failable man's explanation of the issue. Calvin most certainly was NOT granted some extraordinary grace and infallibility to be the sole arbiter in the debate.
As OrthodoxPresbyterian has eloquently pointed out, my own Church has differing explanations of the interaction between Grace and Free Will.
Because it is an infinitely faceted MYSTERY and our finite intellect and limited language is only able to express finite glimpes of these infinite facets of this Divine Mystery.
But to devolve the whole issue backwards to pagan fatalism is below us, and, as I said earlier, downright sinister, for the reasons Ultima Ratio outlined.
And the reasons I outlined here are the reasons I gave up this debate with OrthodoxPresbyterian long ago.
Only a fool thinks they have The Definitive Last Word in this debate.
Can a dead man displease God?
Can a dead man sin?
Can a dead man despise or reject Christ?
Can a dead man resist the Holy Spirit?
Can a dead man reject the Gospel?
Is a dead man responsible for his "actions"?
And how is a dead man any different from a dead baby?
In that case, I'll give you the last word. :-)
Yet I will gladly grasp the final word in stating once again,
Only a fool thinks they have The Definitive Last Word in this debate! 2000 years of hard cold Christian reality are firmly in my corner in saying this.
Can a dead man sin? YES THEY CAN
Can a dead man despise or reject Christ? YES THEY CAN
Can a dead man resist the Holy Spirit? NEED A MORE SPECIFIC QUESTION HERE
Can a dead man reject the Gospel? YES THEY CAN
Is a dead man responsible for his "actions"? YES THEY ARE
And how is a dead man any different from a dead baby? NEED A MORE SPECIFIC QUESTION HERE
In drawing this line of theology almost full circle, he quotes Garrigou-Lagrange, a Dominican professor of mystical and spiritual theology, who had as one of his best known students, a Polish Man named Karol Wojtyla. One of his lesser known students (except in certain small circles) was a Passionist priest who is my spiritual director.
I'd appreciate it if you took an honest and careful look at this link, and get back to me with your thoughts via FReepmail.
You are either misrepresenting Calvin's views or you are just ignorant.
Those who would cast obloquy on this doctrine, calumniate it as the dogma of the Stoics concerning fate. The same charge was formerly brought against Augustine, (lib. ad Bonifac. II, c. 6 et alibi.) We are unwilling to dispute about words; but we do not admit the term Fate, both because it is of the class which Paul teaches us to shun, as profane novelties, (1 Tim. 6:20,) and also because it is attempted, by means of an odious term, to fix a stigma on the truth of God. But the dogma itself is falsely and maliciously imputed to us. For we do not with the Stoics imagine a necessity consisting of a perpetual chain of causes, and a kind of involved series contained in nature, but we hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, - that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, he decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed. Hence we maintain, that by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined. What, then, you will say, does nothing happen fortuitously, nothing contingently? I answer, it was a true saying of Basil the Great, that Fortune and Chance are heathen terms; the meaning of which ought not to occupy pious minds. For if all success is blessing from God, and calamity and adversity are his curse, there is no place left in human affairs for fortune and chance. We ought also to be moved by the words of Augustine, (Retract. lib. 1 cap. 1,) "In my writings Against the Academics," says he, "I regret having so often used the term Fortune; although I intended to denote by it not some goddess, but the fortuitous issue of events in external matters, whether good or evil. Hence, too, those words, Perhaps, Perchance, Fortuitously, which no religion forbids us to use, though everything must be referred to Divine Providence. Nor did I omit to observe this when I said, Although, perhaps, that which is vulgarly called Fortune, is also regulated by a hidden order, and what we call Chance is nothing else than that the reason and cause of which is secret. It is true, I so spoke, but I repent of having mentioned Fortune there as I did, when I see the very bad custom which men have of saying, not as they ought to do, 'So God pleased,' but, 'So Fortune pleased.'" In short, Augustine everywhere teaches, that if anything is left to fortune, the world moves at random. And although he elsewhere declares, (Quaestionum, lib. 83.) that all things are carried on, partly by the free will of man, and partly by the Providence of God, he shortly after shows clearly enough that his meaning was, that men also are ruled by Providence, when he assumes it as a principle, that there cannot be a greater absurdity than to hold that anything is done without the ordination of God; because it would happen at random. For which reason, he also excludes the contingency which depends on human will, maintaining a little further on, in clearer terms, that no cause must be sought for but the will of God. When he uses the term permission, the meaning which he attaches to it will best appear from a single passage, (De Trinity. lib. 3 cap. 4,) where he proves that the will of God is the supreme and primary cause of all things, because nothing happens without his order or permission. He certainly does not figure God sitting idly in a watch-tower, when he chooses to permit anything. The will which he represents as interposing is, if I may so express it, active, (actualis,) and but for this could not be regarded as a cause.
I don't think bluntness is abuse....
(BTW: Polycarp -- cool name!)
Then there's Alex Murphy, who's taken the appelation "Athanasius contra mundum" in that fight. LOL.
I have the same problem with Calvinism. While the strident Calvinists seem to have all the answers, none of them are biblically satisfactory.
I opt rather to entrust the answer to God, Who is sovereign, loving and just. Whatever the answer, it will conform to His character.
Agreed, but the description of God under the definitions of Calvinism shows a God who is soverign to the exclusion of being loving and just; a god who created most of mankind for the sole purpose of burning them in hell for eternity merely for the good pleasure of his will. Sorry but that is out of character for the God of the Bible. I am certain it is out of character for the God you worship as well.
How's that work, in light of this?
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Romans 9:18 NASB)(This bodes well to be the most informative Calvinism thread in a long time. Everyone, thus far, is calmly and rationally discussing the topics without hurt feelings -- or that freakin' abuse button.)
Good response, thank you.
If God provides irresistible grace to some and to all others he provides no means whatsoever for repentance, or salvation, then by definition those who are created without the ability to respond to the gospel have been created for the sole purpose of being condemned to hell for eternity. If man has no ability because he was created that way by God, then he is surely predestined for hell in the same manner as those who have been "graced" with that ability are predestined for salvation.
I don't see how if there is predestination according to irresistible grace that there cannot be predestination according to God directed and God ordained inherent inability to respond to the gospel message.
BRAVO, BRAVO! </ standing ovation>
Neither, thanks. I have had lengthy debates with OrthodoxPresbyterian (as I'm sure he will attest) and I am certainly not ignorant of Calvin'c views.
Whether you agree with me that double predestination is the equivalent of pagan fatalism is a moot point, i.e., its my opinion against yours.
"Fate" is a perfect summary of Calvin's predestination, IMHO, and certainly not a misrepresentation.
If salvation were to be so exclusively God's doing, even apart from any freely given choosing by ourselves, then damnation would be all God's doing as well. The suffering souls in Hell would have had no part at all in their own choice of evil over good. This is repulsive to us on the face of it.
This is a perfect explanation of the inherent fallacy of Calvin's theology. Calvin's "God" is a pagan, angy repulsive "God."
His "God" is not the God of Christianity.
Cool! I finally agree wholeheartedly with you on somethin' !
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