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A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Bluegoat » 25 Mar 2009, 19:20

I have a few questions about Calvin that have come up in my reading for a class I am taking. We are looking at the Reformation now, and there are a few things that I am wondering about with regard to Calvin's theology, esp relating to authority. My text is meant to be introductory which likely accounts for some of my questions.

One thing I noticed is that while Calvin felt that he should/could break away from the authority of the Roman church, he very quickly moved to put another authority in it's place. What's more, he worked through political assemblies to get this done. It seems clear that he didn't have a problem with authority, and he didn't think people should just be able to interpret scripture for themselves, or that they should be free to reject it. Where does he see authority as residing or coming from? Based on the way his understanding of "apostles" was explained I am wondering if he sees it in the members of the visible church? But then how are they to understand scripture?

My second question relates to this. My text said that Calvin believed the meaning of scripture was plain from reading it; that the Church's argument that they were required to interpret it was wrong. How does this relate to his feeling that individuals were not interpreters of scripture? Also, there seem to have been various disagreements over the interpretation of scripture by various clergy members of the reform movement with Calvin. On the face of it it seems the contention that the plain meaning is clear is untrue, and that must have been clear to Calvin also.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby postodave » 26 Mar 2009, 19:40

On civil government see http://www.reformed.org/master/index.ht ... nstitutes/
you will need Book 4 chapter 20.
On the matter of perspicuity. My own understanding is that the doctrine implies the authority of both church and tradition. Calvin does not believe each individual must interpret scripture for himself like many modern evangelicals. For a really good read on this by a modern Calvinist see 'The Shape of Sola Scriptura' by Keith Mathison. A good summary of which is given here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scrip ... _Tradition
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Bluegoat » 27 Mar 2009, 11:27

Thanks, Postodave. I don't think I am cut out to be a Calvinist. I have been reading Chesterton's biography of St Thomas, and last night I got to the it where he says Calvinism is a type of Manicheaism. Very interesting, but likely to tick off Calvinists, I think.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Adam Linton » 27 Mar 2009, 16:47

This may be more than you want or need, Bluegoat, but here goes:

For Calvin, authority always resides in and comes from God. He does not deny either civil or ecclesiastical authority (rather affirming both), but asserts that theirs is derivative, contingent, provisional. The authority of church and state must both be permeable to correction and reform.

In terms of Calvin's view of Scripture, first of all read the Institutes, Book I, chapters VI and VII. Calvin never suggests that Scripture is to be read in a vacuum, unmindful of church history. What he does affirm is that Scripture, as God's Word, has an enduring, unique, decisive quality as his Word to his people--never to be merely absorbed into general church experience or reduced to merely one element among many. The position of Scripture, therefore, while not isolated, is nevertheless privileged. The Scriptures, as such, can no more "derive" their authority from the church anymore than God derives his authority from the church. Calvin never denies the ecclesial role in interpretation and application of the Scriptures. He places a high premium on doing these both well. These tasks, however, are to be governed by the priority of their task. So, he insists that Scripture really be allowed to critique the church--and that the church can't be healthy without this critique.

I wouldn't suggest Chesterton as a good source for an inital take on Calvin anymore than I would suggest a brilliant, popular Protestant apologist for an inital take on the Council of Trent!

Here are a few (well, maybe not exactly a few) suggestions for study:

Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, perhaps, as an initial, quick resource.

And for more involved efforts, here's a list of solid resources:

William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait
Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas
Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture
Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin
Ronald Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of Word and Sacrament

And additionally, an indespensable--as far as I am concerned--for serious Reformation studies, is Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation.
Last edited by Adam Linton on 29 Mar 2009, 20:02, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby archenland_knight » 27 Mar 2009, 17:28

Postodave wrote:I have been reading Chesterton's biography of St Thomas, and last night I got to the it where he says Calvinism is a type of Manicheaism.


I know Chesterton is well respected, but I am confused on how he could consider Calvinism a type of Manichaeism. While I'm no Calvinist, one thing Calvinism does stress is the absolute Soverignty of God. Manichaeism is dualistic, without an omnipotent, infinitely good God. I don't see any similarities at all.

What I do see, however, is that many non-Calvinist writers who write about Calvinism produce a rather inaccurate picture.

Adam Linton wrote:I wouldn't suggest Chesteron as a good source for an inital take on Calvin anymore than I would suggest a brilliant, popular Protestant apologist for an inital take on the Council of Trent!


Exactly. If you want to learn about Calvinism, read about it from Calvinists first. Then read what the critics have to say.

I find the exact same thing happens with Pentecostal Theology. If you read what critics of Pentecostal theology write, you will read an argument against a theology which, as far as I know, does not actually exist anywhere on earth.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby postodave » 28 Mar 2009, 14:22

It was bluegoat not me referring to Chesterton. Adam I don't know how sympathetic you are to Calvin but that is a very fair summary and as far as I can judge a good reading list. I would want to add R. C. Sproul's 'Chosen by God' which gives a good presentation of the doctrine of predestination. The only qualm I would have about reading Calvinists on Calvinism is that Calvinism developed after Calvin's death and so it is easy for a Calvinist to read later ideas back into Calvin. For example although what became known as limited atonement, the idea that Christ died only for the elect, is one of the five points defended at the Synod of Dort (usually known as the five points of Calvinism) it is not a doctrine which as far as I am aware Calvin clearly affirms - or at any rate when Calvin comments on a verse like John 3: 16 Calvin does not feel any need to say, as later Calvinists would, that the world does not mean everybody who ever lived. After Calvin's death the Calvinist developed a kind of top down approach to predestination where having a system that could explain everything seems to have been much more important than it was to Calvin. It is the same with the doctrine of atonement; the 'Calvinist' doctrine is highly systematic where Calvin is a bit more ragged.
I think the charge of Manicheanism is a bizarre one. Or at least if he is going to convict Calvin on that charge he will have to have Augustine and probably Aquinas as well. My own take on the business of divine sovereignty and human responsibilty would be that of Wheeler Robinson who in his book 'The Christian Doctrine of Man' says that both Catholics and Protestants came out of the Reformation with one-sided views on this matter and that there were corresponding corrective protests on both sides - for Protestants there was Arminianism and for Catholics Jansenism. While Calvin was always clear that the doctrine of divine sovereignty did not imply that humans do not make responsible choices Luther was less clear on this (men are saved like sticks and stones) However Lutheranism was modified by Melancthon after Luther's death because he introduced the Orthodox doctrine of synergism into Lutheran theology whilst Wesley inspired by Luther modified Arminianism to reintroduce some elements of post Dort 'Calvinism'. Nothing stands still - BTW I could recommend some good 'Calvinist' writers on political theory but perhaps you have enough reading suggestions for now.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Tom » 28 Mar 2009, 15:12

postodave wrote:. While Calvin was always clear that the doctrine of divine sovereignty did not imply that humans do not make responsible choices. . .


I read the Beveridge translation of Calvin's Institutes and it seems to me Calvin tries to have it both ways. He says: "But whoso has learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God." (pg 173 near top) That's hard determinism. It seems to me that Calvin's view of divine providence reduces to a kind of pantheism in which, while the matter that makes up man isn't God, all of man's thoughts and actions are caused by God. Other parts of the institutes were very good but he's confused about the implications of claiming that God causes all events whatsoever. My two cents.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Adam Linton » 29 Mar 2009, 19:57

Sorry for the delay in responding, postodave,

I knew that it was bluegoat, not you who had referenced Chesterton.

Very good post, by the way; thanks.

As an Anglican/Episcopalian who is consciously connected to/appreciative of the Reformed dimension of my church's theological heritage--a heritage that has far more Reformed theological "DNA" than most know or remember (as the early Prayer Books, Articles, as well as folks like Cranmer, Hooker, Herbert, and Donne, etc., make quite clear), I actually do have a substantial sympathy with Calvin. He often gets represented in ways that are inaccurate, hugely unfair (and sometimes out-and-out libelous). One of the most important theologians in Christian history--and one of the best biblical exegetes, too, as work with his commentaries will show.

Now, too be sure, such things as the virulence of many Puritans against Church of England practice (which today a good number of Reformed folks admit really did not have substantial theological basis), the militance of the Laudian party, and the strife and destruction of the English Civil War, all created a rift in the family relationship that has never been fully healed. And we have popular presentations of Anglicanism/The Episcopal Church as some sort of "Roman Catholic lite" (trivializing and inaccurate for both traditions) adding further distancing.

The "other" main stream of my own formal theological education (Gordon-Conwell seminary) is rich in Reformed connections, by the way.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby postodave » 29 Mar 2009, 21:09

Tom said:

I read the Beveridge translation of Calvin's Institutes and it seems to me Calvin tries to have it both ways. He says: "But whoso has learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God." (pg 173 near top) That's hard determinism. It seems to me that Calvin's view of divine providence reduces to a kind of pantheism in which, while the matter that makes up man isn't God, all of man's thoughts and actions are caused by God. Other parts of the institutes were very good but he's confused about the implications of claiming that God causes all events whatsoever. My two cents.

He's not confused at all because he distinguishes between remote and proximate causes. A Calvinist philosopher like Dooyeweerd would say that strictly speaking God is the creator of all the causes in the cosmos rather than being himself one of those causes. You could argue that Calvin's view and even more the later Calvinist view does not allow sufficient freedom to the creation but this cannot be understood as a form of pantheism because to say God is active everywhere in creation is not to identify God with creation. In any case many Calvinists would not interpret this action deterministically. For example the Calvinist Francis Schaeffer was a fervent critic of the humanistic determinism of Crick and Skinner. On the other hand Donald McKay a Calvinist philosopher of science does argue that our actions are materially determined and ironically Skinner tries to identify his own determinism with the teaching of Calvin. Without wanting to sign up to the whole of the Westminster Confession I think this is a pretty clear summary of the developed Calvinist position:
I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established

You can disagree with that or you can say it is impossible to have both divine sovereignty and a freedom within creation and human beings who make significant choices. Calvin and the Calvinists did not think so.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby Tom » 30 Mar 2009, 01:14

Hi postodave,
I have a terminology question. Is unchangeably ordaining something to come to pass synonomous with cause?

I agree with you that those who believe in Calvin's idea of providence also believe that people are responsible for their own actions. My claim is that those are self contradictory positions. Now, if there's a difference between unchangeably ordaining and causing that might give the position some wiggle room.

Lastly, saying that there are secondary causes in the mix doesn't change who's responsible if those secondary causes follow inexorably. It's like the old game mouse trap. The one who turns the crank is responsible for capturing the mouse. It's not the net that falls. The net falls unalterably while the turner of the crank had the choice.
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Re: A question about Calvin and Calvinism.

Postby postodave » 30 Mar 2009, 21:45

Tom wrote:Hi postodave,
I have a terminology question. Is unchangeably ordaining something to come to pass synonomous with cause?

No. But causality is a tricky idea. According to Mill, and I think this would be generally accepted, the cause of any event is the sum total of prerequisites necessary for that event to happen. So in that sense God is a cause of any event whatsoever but that is hardly helpful. Normally we think of causes as events within the cosmos. God can enter the cosmos and become a cause in this sense but if we are talking of God ordaining events from before time we are not talking of causality in that sense as if one could trace back a temporal or metaphysical sequence and find God at the end of it.

I agree with you that those who believe in Calvin's idea of providence also believe that people are responsible for their own actions. My claim is that those are self contradictory positions. Now, if there's a difference between unchangeably ordaining and causing that might give the position some wiggle room.


It seems to me that scripture never sees holding God responsible for an event as an alternative to holding some entity within creation responsible for the same event.

Lastly, saying that there are secondary causes in the mix doesn't change who's responsible if those secondary causes follow inexorably. It's like the old game mouse trap. The one who turns the crank is responsible for capturing the mouse. It's not the net that falls. The net falls unalterably while the turner of the crank had the choice.
Regards, Tom

As I say I don't think Calvin or the Westminster divines meant God was the first in a temporal sequence of causes. They may have thought of God as a sustaining first cause in something like the sense Aquinas did but I do not think even that is correct as I indicate above. Personally I don't really want to defend hard line scholastic Calvinism - I think that position can be defended philosophically as it is by people like Edwards or Van Til - I just think it's rather arid and not true to scripture or to experience - but then I think Arminianism is equally rationalistic.

There is a tendency on modern theology to switch from a concept of God as soverighn over creation to a concept of God as self limmiting in relation to creation. The fact that as Keith Ward has demonstrated the same idea comes up in Christianity, Judaism, Islaam and Hinduism would suggest that it is a product of the zeitgeist but then maybe the idea of God as sovereign has the same roots and the shift from monarchy to democracy has given us new insights.
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