John Calvin


I have just posted a guest post (at my other blog Behind The Back) by Myk Habets on Thomas Torrance’s Framing of Natural Theology through John Calvin & Karl Barth (my title). This is quite good, and would’ve fit in quite well with Travis’ recent Barth Blog Conference. For anyone interested in such things come give it a read, give some feedback, I’m sure Myk would be happy to respond back. See you there . . .

Here is a video that is quite excellent in elucidating the kind of Calvin theology that T. F. Torrance develops in his book Scottish Theology; and the thesis, in regards to understanding Calvin’s theology, that Charles Partee develops in his newer book The Theology of John Calvin. The thesis is that Calvin’s theology is oriented around Unio mystica, or “Union with Christ.” This video is also interesting, because it comes from a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in PA, his name is Dr. Lane Tipton. Ironically, but not really, another WTS professor (although this one from the CA campus) takes issue with Tipton’s statement on the forensic component of justification overshadowing the person of Jesus Christ in salvation, and in particular the theology of John Calvin (not the “Calvinists,” per se) . . . you can read what he has to say here. Watch the video, it’s only about 5 minutes, and then I’ll pick you up on the other side:

H/T: R. Scott Clark

This, if taken at face value from Tipton (which I am), writhes against dyed in the wool Federal Theologians; that is, their interpretation of Calvin, and the continuity of heritage, reads Calvin almost exclusively through forensic lenses (which is what Federal theologians must do, at least if they are going to claim to be the only living heirs of Calvin). What Tipton is saying, is what Partee is saying about Calvin, and this is what T. F. Torrance is saying about the Scottish/Evangelical Calvinists who emphasized this ‘Calvin’ theme of “Union with Christ” within their own theological development.

The question is, theologically, does Calvin ground his view of justification on the terms of the decree (Covenant of Works/Grace) being met; or does he ground it in the person of Christ? The Federal says the former, the Evangelical says the latter. Not to be too audacious, but it almost sounds as if Tipton is Evangelical, at least his interpretation of Calvin is.

Here is J.K.S. Reid in his Introduction to his translation of John Calvin’s Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God. He is concerned with underscoring Calvin’s procedure of thought and method per his “system” of things. Calvin’s appropriation by the post-Reformed (those who followed Calvin, through Beza, Zanchi, Perkins, Ames, and others) is a very “logic” driven system of coherence; i.e. they “finish off” where Calvin supposedly “left off.” Certainly they could’ve, but then again they “could’ve not.” This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories — thus the existence of “Evangelical Calvinism” in Scotland, and what Janice Knight has called The Spiritual Brethren in Old England (where they predominated for a time), and New America (where they were overshadowed by The Intellectual Fathers, or Federal/Classic Calvinists). Here is Reid:

. . . A good deal of nonsense is talked about Calvin, as though his system were logical in the sense of being rounded off and complete; and the statement by frequent repitition has become almost a commonplace. In fact his system has not this character at all. It is certainly logical in the sense that the argument moves carefully step by step from one point to the next. But, to do it justice, it must bejohncalvin7recognized as including elements not easily (or at all) capable of being harmonised — a complexio oppositorum, as H. Bauke says of it (see J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, p. 202). Of special relevance to the purpose here is the following example. Pighius objects to Calvin that the dominical command to preach the Gospel universally conflicts with the doctrine of special eleciton (§VIII. I). Calvin’s brief answer to this conundrum is that Christ was ordained for the salvation of the whole world in such a way that only those  who hear are saved. The universality of the grace of Christ is symbolised by a promiscuous preaching of the Gospel; the universality of the Mediator is paralleled by the universality of the call to penitence and faith. But at this point the harmony ends; the offer of salvation is made equally to all, but salvation itself is for those who are elect. It is the bare bones of the argument, then, that are exposed, even if the result manifests a certain awkward untidiness. There is no attempt to compel harmony or to systematise by force. That there is a consequent practical difficulty is obvious; and it is one which, whatever Calvin thought of it, was compelling enough to drive his opponents into another camp. The situation for Calvin is not really significantly relieved by what he adds to the argument. The universal offer of the Gospel does indeed have a meaning for those in whose case it is not effective. Quoting St Paul, Calvin says that for them it can only be a “savour of death unto death.” The logicality of the exposition is so far preserved that the universal offer of salvation has at least some effective consequence in all cases. But the parallelism on analysis is found to be specious; the awkwarx untidiness reappears at a different point. It does not now consist in the fact that the same offer of the Gospel sometimes has and sometimes has an effect commensurable with its nature and with the purpose with which God designed it, and that sometimes, on the other hand, it has a quite opposite effect, incommensurable with its nature and the saving purpose of God — it precipitates death instead of life, destruction in place of salvation. This goes to show that Calvin’s first loyalty is directed, not to formal adherence to abstract logicality, but to the facts of the case and situation as he conceived them, or rather as he conceived the Scriptures to depict them. The logicality of his thought is dedicated not to the formation of a system, but rather to the eliciting of the meaning and the implications of those facts which, as it seemed to him, belong the body of Christian truth. (John Calvin, trans., J.K.S. Reid, “Concerning The Eternal Predestination Of God,” 13-14)

This fits well with Charles Partee’s point on Calvin as a “confessor,” more than a dogmatician; Calvin certainly had a logic and method to his theologising, but it was driven by his ineluctable commitment to say what scripture says — even if coherence remains tenuous. Richard Muller and his followers, and those he follows in the history of post-Reformed orthodoxy, have sought to provide, by and large, the “rounded-offness,” or logical coherence to Calvin’s enthymemic (unstated premises) articulation. It is this crux upon which this school claims to be orthodox, its orthodoxy is proximate to its genealogical lineage to Calvin himself; or so goes the thinking. Of course this claim remains questionable at best, since enthymeme is by definition “unstated;” the danger with discerning the unstated is that we might “state” where or what Calvin, in this instance, never intended.

Since, if as Reid has stated, the “lack of logicality” is real in Calvin; the door is open for, as stated before, multiform appropriation of Calvin. My contention is not that the “orthodox” don’t have a credible claim on Calvin, instead that their’s is not to be understood as exclusive. The history of “Calvinism” bears witness to this, amen, amen! 

P.S. The theology that Reid brings up in the quote will have to be addressed at a later date, it is substantial.

Here is Charles Partee on Imago Dei (Image of God) and Imago Christi (Image of Christ):

Having praised the original creation of human understanding and will, Calvin concludes that God is comprehended in Christ alone (II.6.4) until such time as we shall see God as he is (II.14.3). God cannot be known apart from Christ because “all thinking about God outside Christ is a vast abyss which immediately swallows up all our thoughts.” Those who philosophize about God without Christ are deluded (compare 1 Pet. 1:20; I John 2:22). Since Calvin’s theology is based on faith, not on reason, the Christian life is not linked by chains of reasoning but guided by faith in Christ, which is the principal work of the Holy Spirit. “We hold ourselves to be united with Christ by the secret power of his Spirit (III.11.5). “Therefore, that joining together of head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed” (III.11.10).

Image and Likeness. The same dynamic from created to fallen to restored also applies to Calvin’s view of the image of God. Mankind was originally created in God’s image, which means “that man was blessed, not because of his own good actions, but by participation in God” (II.2.1). The image of God is not to be understood only as a possession but a relationship—and “participation in God” involves “union with Christ.” In the fall, while “God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in [Adam], yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity” (I.15.4). Human sin means that the image of God cannot be understood solely in terms of creation or fall but in the true image of God restored in Jesus Christ. In other words, Calvin defines the image more in terms of redemption than creation. Regeneration is nothing else than the reformation of the image of God in the godly, but the second creation of the image in the restoration by Christ is a far more rich and powerful grace (Com. Eph. 4:24). The grace of God exhibited in Christ exceeds all miracles. Indeed the redemption that he has brought surpasses even the creation of the world (Com. Is. 9:6).

Since Christ is the perfect image of God and we are united to him, we are restored to God’s image. . . . (Charles Partee, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 86-87)

Much to be said, and I will reflect on this over the weekend. Let me just place a bookmark on the participation and Imago Dei/Christi point, this is important, even if Calvin himself was not entirely internally consistent, himself.

Go see this really good post by Jason Goroncy on Calvin:

Michael Jinkins on, ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’

Two quotes from Calvin on Union with Christ (or Unio Mystica):

First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us.

— Institutes III. 1. 1 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 40

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts — in short, that mystical union — are accorded by us the highest degree of importance. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body — in short because he deigns to make us one with him.

Institutes II. 16. 19 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 41

Both of these quotes illustrate something that stands at the heart of an ‘Evangelical’ approach to Calvinism; and that is the vicarious life of Christ. If we aren’t ‘really’ brought into His life, in the Incarnation and Atonement (both of these being inextricably linked), then salvation only ends up dealing with the symptoms (murders, lying, stealing, lusting, blaspheming, etc.) — the external problems — and not with the “heart problem” (where the murders, lying, etc. flow from). If Jesus didn’t get into our skin, and thus we into His, then we end up with a half baked salvation . . . which really is no salvation. More to come . . .

For anybody interested, and who has access to academic journals, Dr. Myk Habets — “Evangelical Calvinist, extraordinaire” 🙂 — has yet again been published in the Scottish Journal of Theology. His most recent essay is entitled:

“Putting the ‘Extra’ back into Calvinsm”

Here is the bibliographic info: SJT 62(4): 441–456 (2009) Printed in the United Kingdom C  2009 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi:10.1017/S003693060999010X

If you hadn’t guessed, the article is dealing with the so called extra Calvinisticum. Here is the abstract:

With a long and venerable history in both Catholic and Protestant traditions the doctrine represented by the term extra Calvinisticum has fallen out of favour within contemporary theologies of the cross. Through an examination of the history of the doctrine and its constituent features the present article advocates the reclamation of the doctrine as a necessary component for a contemporary theology of the atonement, with special emphasis on the trinitarian dimensions of the death of God on the cross. The extra Calvinisticum is then adopted to refute contemporary theologies of a suffering God. (see biblio info above)

Unfortunately, but fortunately at the same time (I am moving onto Thomas Boston), I am leaving TFT’s discussion on Jonathan Fraser of Brea’s theology. All I can say, as I’ve read the presentation, there are striking points of contact between Calvin’s and Fraser’s theology; not least of which, and most importantly for our discussion here at The Evangelical Calvinist, is there respective views on the Unio Mystica or “Mystical Union.” I thought I would just “blog” out of this section with a nice and telling closing comment made by Torrance on the effect of Fraser’s treatise ‘A Treatise of Justifying Faith’, and how it was received during its initial printing by the ‘other Calvinists’ of the day. Not surprisingly, its reception then, is much like it is today (even evident on this blog). Here we go:

Published only after his death, like the first edition, this work of James Fraser, A Treatise on Justifying Faith, was late in making its impact on the Church of Scotland. Its call to return to authentic Reformation doctrine was misunderstood by the so-called ‘orthodox’ Presbyterians, and its powerful biblically sustained argumentation for the sovereign act of divine forgiveness and the universal offer of salvation to all people without discrimination was resented by the hyper-Calvinist establishment. They realised that their doctrine of redemption, formulated within the logical strait-jacket of the absolute decree of God, was being called radically into question on the ground of the solia gratia principle of the Reformation. Being unable to meet its challenge except through reiterating the propositions of strict federalist and predestinationist theology, they set Fraser’s teaching aside, but could not denigrate a saintly Covenanter who had suffered so much for his faithfulness to the Gospel and his refusal to yield to the imposition of Erastian Prelacy upon Scotland. However Fraser’s work steadily bore fruit in turning people’s minds back to the primacy of the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ and his infinite Good-will toward sinners, and thereby opened the door for the proclamation of the Gospel of free unconditional grace, without yielding to Arminian universalism. . . . [italics mine] (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 202)

The italicized portion is an inside hat-tip to all you Scotists out there. Here is one reason why I like TF Torrance so much, he was a man ahead of his time in many respects — even if this means that he was also overstated at some points. I say this, because he (his brother James) was pressing this notion of the ‘mystical union’ and Calvin much before it was popular (it’s still not, but increasingly and slowly it is becoming accepted). That is to say, that TFT saw the Unio Mystica as a core to understanding Calvin’s theology; because he saw this at work in the Scottish theology that he was so much apart of — viz. he was able to recognize a side of Calvin that other predispositions to Calvin’s theology placed on mute.

People like Charles Partee (his recently released book: The Theology of John Calvin), and Julie Canlis (Calvin scholar, see her short essay entitled: Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation) all are both noticing this same thing in Calvin’s theology — viz. the centrality that union with Christ played as evinced in Calvin’s duplex-gratia (gift and gratitude) versus the more culturally popular and thus trenchant appropriation and framing of Calvin’s theology as outlined by people like Muller and the post-Reformed ‘orthodox’ — the framing that blushes Calvin as a ‘theologian of decretal determinism’.

TFT commenting on Jonathan Fraser of Brea’s understanding of the Incarnation and Atonement. Notice how Fraser’s view (according to TFT) is at odd’s with the Westminster Confession of Faith’s ‘partitive’ understanding of the extent of the atonement.

Fraser realised that the extent of the atoning death of Christ had to be thought out in light of the interrelation between the Incarnation and the atonement, and so of the saving assumption by Christ of our Adamic humanity which was comprehensive in its nature and range. As the one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ embraced all mankind, and therefore what Fraser called all ‘mankind sinners’. As the first Adam brought death by sin upon all flesh, so Christ came as the second Adam in order by means of death to lay a foundation of reconciliation and life for all. He did not take on himself the nature of man as elected, but the actual human nature of mankind as the object of his atoning death and satisfaction, which applies to all and every member of the human race. Hence it may be said ‘All men are fundamentally justified in him and by him.’ ‘Christ obeyed, and died in the room of all, as the Head Representative of fall man.’ Fraser understood this incarnational assumption of our humanity in accordance with St Paul’s teaching in Romans 8.2f about Christ condemning sin in the flesh, i.e. all sin in all flesh, and in 2 Corinthians 18.5f about Christ being made sin for us, that through his death and blood we might be reconciled to God, and be made the righteousness of God in him. Christ came into the world, then, as Mediator not to condemn it but to save it. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 198 [He is referencing Fraser’s Justifying Faith ppgs 104f & 184f, 264-70, 201ff & 206ff])

This is not different from John Calvin’s understanding (here Calvin interacts with his interlocuter, Georgius):

Georgius thinks he argues very acutely when he says: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world; and hence those who wish to exclude the reprobate from participation in Christ must place them outside the world. For this, the common solution does not avail, that Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect. By this great absurdity, this monk has sought applause in his own fraternity [the ‘Lombardians’], but it has no weight with me. Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mixed up with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life (Jn. 3.15). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom He gives Himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that only he is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will be a partaker of Christ. The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by His death to gather the children of God into one (Jn. 11.52). Hence, we conclude that, though reconciliation is offered to all through Him, yet the benefit is peculiar to the elect, that they may be gathered into the society of life. However, while I say it is offered to all, I do not mean that this embassy, by which on Paul’s testimony (II Cor. 5.18) God reconciles the world to Himself, reaches to all, but that it is not sealed indiscriminately on the hearts of all to whom it comes so as to be effectual. As for his talk about no respect of persons [Georgius], let him learn first what the term person means, and then we shall have no more trouble in the matter. [brackets mine] (John Calvin, trans. J. K. S. Reid, “Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God,” 148-49)

This appears to agree with Fraser’s understanding, indeed, I think it does. Richard Muller disagrees:

Much of the dispute over the doctrine of “limited atonement” in Calvin’s thought can be laid to rest, moreover, by an examination of Calvin’s own language. In a strict sense, “atonement” is not Calvin’s word: Calvin uses expiatio, satisfactio, and reconciliatio as well as the more general term redemptio (particularly in Institutes, II. xvi. 4-6). The two former terms refer to the work of Christ as it relates to the problem of sin and guilt, expiatio indicating specifically the propitiation or propitiatory sacrifice (i.e., the “atonement”) and satisfactio indicating the reparation or amends made for the wrong against divine justice. Here Calvin insists on the fulness of Christ’s work, the complete expiation or satisfaction for sin—which is to say and unlimited “atonement.” On the other hand, the benefits of Christ’s death, the reconciliatio or actual redemptio, the restoration and purchase of individuals, is restricted to the elect, to those upon whom Christ bestows his benefits; and, thus, if the term “atonement” is loosely construed  to mean “reconciliation” or “redemption,” Calvin arguably teaches “limited atonement.” In fact, Calvin’s usage of an unlimited expiatio or satisfactio and a limited reconciliatio, redemptio, or as we shall see intercessio, follows closely the old distinction between sufficiency and efficiency and well fits what is loosely called “limited atonement” not only in Calvin’s thought but also in later Reformed theology. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree,”34).

How convenient. As is quickly apparent, Muller’s thesis of continuity between Calvin/Calvinists is driving this paragraph (as the last clause indicates). More importantly is what he is actually saying, he says ‘if the term “atonement” is loosley construed to mean “reconcilation” or “redemption,” Calvin arguably teaches “limited atonement”.’ That is a big IF, and Muller’s thesis pivots on it. There is no doubt that for Calvin, atonement is universal (even Muller says this); but the question (as this is the control) then becomes, do the Westminsters also hold to universal atonement in the same univocal terms as Calvin, or is their’s a true ‘limited atonement’ (not hypothetical)?

All I want to suggest, at this point, is that the Scot’s I’m reading about seem to be much more in line with Calvin’s understanding than the Westminsters. Calvin grounds, at least in the quote above, atonement in Christ (not a decree) — this does not mean that he cannot speak of election and reprobation in terms of decrees — the question, is, do the ‘post-Reformers’ likewise ground the extent of the atonement within the life of God (i.e. like Fraser who frames satisfaction in filial terms between Father and Son by the Spirit); or do they base satisfactio on the ground of the decree (i.e. conditions of a contract being met)? Is the ground love or contract? This is a significant question, I think . . .

I apparently have a bunch of “Calvin scholars” reading here, what do you think?

It seems that Muller wants to frame Calvin’s theology per the ‘sufficient’ ‘efficient’ dichotomy, which Calvin appears to distance himself from, in the quote above (then there’s his comm. on I Jn 2:2 [Calvin’s]). I think what’s important though, is if Calvin really did think in those terms, per the extent and thus grounding of the atonement. For Fraser ‘Sufficiency’/’Efficiency’ was  relativized and grounded in the Son’s love for the Father by the Spirit, it looks like this is also true of Calvin (notwithstanding Muller’s comments).

Let me close in relief, by returning where we started with Jonathan Fraser of Brae’s understanding. TFT holds that Fraser is in line with Calvin on universal atonement, and then the application of that to the elect/reprobate:

. . . Fraser held that Christ died for all people, the unbelieving as well as the believing, the damned as well as the saved, the reprobate as well as the elected. How, then, did he think that the death of Christ, not least his atoning satisfication for sin, bears upon those who reject Christ and bring damnation upon themselves? This was one of the basic issues where James Fraser sided with the teaching of John Calvin, rather than with that of those ‘Protestant Divines’ who, he complained, had not followed the old road. The paricular point we must take into account here is that according to St Paul the knowledge of Christ is to some people a ‘savour of life unto life’, but to others it can be a ‘savour of death unto death’. In that light it may be said that while the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified for all mankind is mean for their salvation, it can also have the unintended effect of blinding and damning people — it becomes a ‘savour of death unto death’. That is how Fraser regarded what happened to the reprobates in becoming ‘the vessels of wrath’ [see Fraser’s “Justifying Faith,” 279). . . . While the Arminian used this as an argument for universal redemption, Fraser, like Calvin, interpreted it as indicating how the death of Christ proclaimed in the Gospel has a ‘twofold efficacy’ in which it can act in one way upon the elect and in a different way upon the reprobate. That is to say, it is the Gospel that acts in that way. Those who reject the Blood of Christ thereby become objects of ‘Gospel and Wrath and Vengeance’ and bring destruction and damnation upon themselves. It is the very condemnation of sin in the atoning satisfaction made by Christ for all mankind, elect and reprobate alike, that becomes the condemnation of the reprobate who turn away from it, and thereby render themselves inexcusable. ‘Reprobates by the death of Christ are made more inexcusable . . . If the death of Christ affords clear ground for all to believe, then I think the death of Christ makes all Unbelievers inexcusable.’ Fraser spoke of this judgment of the unbelieving and the reprobate as ‘Gospel wrath’ or wrath of a Gospel kind. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 199-200)

I have to quote this, simply because it verifies a very important point; that Calvin’s Doctrine of God is Scotist not Thomist. Here Muller is discussing how Calvin conceived of predestination and election in Christ. I will just quote this quickly, and come back later (I just want this for future reference, and for all of you to see).

. . . Calvin must depart from a doctrine which examines the predestination of an abstract humanity which does not exist apart from the person of Christ. A similar redefinition of the predestination of Christ is seen in the theology of Bonaventure — who will apply the divine determination neither to the Word, since the divine Word disposes all things, nor to the human nature abstractly, but to the God-man as the foundation of the predestination of mankind to salvation. Calvin, I believe, goes farther still than this, but the underlying theological motivation is similar and the precedent, which places Calvin once again in continuity with Francisan and ultimately Scotist rather than Thomist thought, is significant.

— Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree,” 37

We see themes in this quote of an-enhypostasis (have to explain later for those unaware, in fact just go here), and also Muller goes on and discusses Calvin’s extra Calvinisticum in re. to Christ’s mediatorship and the decree; all important points . . . we will have to discuss later. BUT, the most important point for me at the moment, is the one on establishing Calvin’s ‘Doctrine of God’ as ‘Scotist’ and not ‘Thomist’ — thanks, Richard!

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