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Thoughts on Calvin and Calvinism

John on December 14, 2006 at 2:55 pm

Calvin seems to have been a genuinely good man. In Geneva, he introduced changes to public education, making it free for all, even orphans. He re-wrote the inheritance laws so that women could inherit. He jailed men for spousal and child abuse. He instituted more just divorce laws.

He opposed clerical celibacy as did Luther before him, and was himself married to a widow. He appears to have had a good marriage for ten years until she died. Calvin lived another 15 years, but died young. He had always been gaunt and sickly. His successor Beza wrote that he was in the habit of only eating one meal a day, though he sometimes had a glass of wine and an egg at lunch time.

Calvin’s system of theology was much broader than the 5 points often referred to as the TULIP. In fact, the five points of Calvinism, as they are known today, were really a response to five points of dissent presented to the reformed church by the followers of Arminius, who were known as the Remonstrants. The remonstrants were soundly rejected at the time, though it is also true (as Wesley later noted) that they were never allowed to air their views at the Synod (of Dort) which condemned them.

With regard to his theology, even Calvin’s opponents were deeply impressed with his acumen and wisdom.

I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.

Those are the words of Jacob Arminius, leader of the Remonstrants. We should all have such enemies.

Personally, I find myself siding with the Remonstrants in the debate over predestination, though it’s not something I have a settled opinion on. Not at all. In fact, I expect to do much more reading in this area in future. But on first grapple, I find Calvin’s tulip not fully convincing. Parts of it appear solid, such as the concept of “total depravity.” For those unfamiliar, this is not the idea that everyone is as depraved as they can be but rather that the whole man is depraved. There is no part of him that is untouched by sin.

My problems with Calvin mostly have to do with determinism. I’m not a fan of the idea that everything we do has been fated or ordained. I wasn’t a fan of the idea when I was an atheist. The idea that man was a chemical machine with only an illusion of freedom always struck me wrong. I should note that even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins struggles with this idea. At times he seems to embrace it and at others he specifically repudiates it.

As a Christian, Calvinism strikes me as remarkably similar to the atheistic form of determinism. Calvin’s view includes God, angels and human souls, but in the end the whole affair has been pre-determined from beginning to end. We’re merely actors playing our part but the whole script has been written and minutely choreographed ahead of time. Any sense of freedom we may have is illusory. Even, no especially, the choice to accept or reject God is part of that script.

It seems to me, from what I’ve read so far, that even Calvin may have found this idea somewhat unattractive. But he insisted that there were some questions about faith that man was never intended to get answers to. In fact, he suggested the wiser man would simply not ask the questions in the first place.

Only I wish it to be received as a general rule, that the secret things of God are not to be scrutinized, and that those which he has revealed are not to be overlooked, lest we may, on the one hand be charged with curiosity, and, on the other, with ingratitude. (Institutes III.xxi.4)

Now it should be noted that the protestant reformation was, in part, a response to the blending of faith and reason found in medieval scholasticism and best exemplified by Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica. Luther, taking a cue from Duns Scotus, famously said “reason is a whore.” I think there is some truth to that view personally, but ultimately I find Aquinas vision of truth the only compelling one. Aquinas did not believe that all doctrines of the church could be proven by philosophy or science. However, he did believe that faith and reason were ultimately describing the same reality. The “book of nature” and the book of revelation must, he believed, ultimately point to the same truth. How could they not if the same God is creator of both?

So I find Calvin’s warnings about prying into the secret counsel of God unsatisfying. And while he may not have seen it this way, it strikes me as more than a coincidence that this view has the added benefit of plastering over the one great problem (or tension) within Calvinism. The problem is this: If God is responsible for everything man does and becomes, if he has complete sovereignty then why does he not choose to save all men?

The Catholic church against which both Luther and Calvin reacted believed (and still does) in something called the thesaurus meritorium or treasury of merit. The idea was that the sacrifice of Jesus and the work of all the saints was stored up by the church in a kind of mystical lockbox. The church could, at its discretion, pay out some of these merits as a form of penance, i.e. it would reduce time in purgatory either for oneself or one’s deceased relatives. This is the promise that Tetzel was selling with the catch slogan, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” In other words, by buying an indulgence, the church agreed to open the treasury of merit on behalf of you or your relative.

Luther once asked, if this was so, why the church did not simply open the treasury and free all the souls in purgatory out of Christian love. Pope Leo’s response was to call Luther a “drunken German” who would change his views when he sobered up. In truth, Leo was perfectly aware that the selling of indulgences was necessary to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s and to pay Michaelangelo for his work on the Sistine Chapel. (So at least in this case something good came of bad theology.)

Calvin removes the Catholic trappings, but retains some of the concepts of the treasury of merit. It is the work of Christ alone that has the power to save and yet, says Calvin, God has ordained that some should be saved and others damned. Luther rightly asked why the Pope did not open his treasury of merit, but Calvin warns us not to ask the same question of God. Personally, this strikes me like a fireman who knows a certain building is burning and will soon collapse but decides to leave some people trapped inside. In fact, he decides ahead of time that some people will not even learn that they are in danger but will suffer a fiery death nonetheless.

In Romans the apostle Paul says that God may choose to make some vessels for honored use and others for dishonor. God may certainly choose to do so but is it what he has in fact done generally speaking? Calvin says yes. I don’t believe so. I think the scripture as a whole, and Jesus in particular, present another model, one which combines the best of Augustine, Calvin and Arminius.

Since this post is already pretty long, I’ll put my thoughts on the topic of predestination in another post.

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