Saturday, June 30, 2012

Calvin and Bolsec

Geneva March 1551. It is over ten years since Calvin, now 42, has returned  from his enforced exile in Bucer’s Strasbourg, no doubt having learned much from the way Bucer organised things in that city. Calvin is bent on cementing the work of Reformation in the church and the society of Geneva. For him this involves the tricky and contentious matter of distinguishing the jurisdiction of the church, which had to do with spiritual matters, and of the magistrate, who is the ‘minister’ of the gospel in civil affairs, charged with upholding and defending the one true church.  Where is the line between the jurisdiction of each to be drawn?

The issue was soon to be put to the test. Jerome Bolsec, an ex-Carmelite monk, now a physician, appears in the city. He holds ‘certain mistaken opinions concerning free will and predestination’, and is reprimanded by the pastors of Geneva (exactly whom, we are not told). He is summoned before the Consistory three times. He openly kept up his opposition to Calvin’s views. The story is that on the third of these occasions Calvin came into the meeting, slipping in unnoticed at the back. As soon as Bolsec had finished speaking Calvin stood up and offered a refutation, quoting passages from Augustine verbatim, which lasted for an hour. And then Bolsec was arrested. It appears that this was not what Calvin wanted, but rather that the matter be quietly dropped. Even in prison Bolsec kept up his opposition, slandering Calvin and the ministry more generally. The next we learn is of Bolsec’s trial, in October of that year, on a charge of promoting civil disorder, disturbing the peace by spreading his views in the city.

The theological issues

Bolsec denied Calvin’s teaching regarding eternal predestination, saying that the doctrine made God a tyrant. Instead he proposed that predestination is based on foreseen faith (and reprobation on foreseen unbelief), and so neither was ‘eternal’, or ‘absolute’.  For on this understanding of the word, God elects and predestines those whom he foresees will respond in faith to the gospel. In the views of the pastors of Geneva, headed by Calvin, such sentiments weakened the foundation of God’s sovereignty in the gift of his grace and was contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. Although Calvin had private discussions with Bolsec before his trial, the significance of which will emerge later, he does not appear to have published any rebuttal. But he offered a written defence of the Genevan view in the form of an explicit refutation of Bolsec’s claims, provided in the trial as evidence of the likely disruptive effect of Bolsec’s public disputations.

Calvin focuses on the charge that in eternal (or absolute) predestination God is the author of sin, because in such predestination  he necessitates the sinner to sin. That is, Bolsec concentrates his attention not so much on predestination as on reprobation. Calvin responds

To begin with, this terminology that God necessitates is not my language but the jargon of monks  which I never use. But it is also malicious impudence to say that I have applied the term sin to God or to his will. What I have said is that the will of God, in that it is the supreme cause, is the necessity of all things; but time and again I have stated that God for His part disposes and controls all that He does with such equity and justice that even the most wicked are compelled to glorify Him, and that His will is neither a tyranny nor an irrational whim but is in fact the true rule of all good. Moreover I have particularly stated and affirmed that men are compelled to do neither good or evil, but that those who do good do so of a free will which God gives them by His Holy Spirit, and that those who do evil do so of their own natural will which is corrupted and rebellious. M Jerome is thus shown at every point to be a slanderer who perverts good doctrine and the pure truth of God.

A number of things are noteworthy here. First, that Calvin himself is quite capable of drawing fine distinctions. Here, he draws the distinction between God necessitating men to sin, which he denies, and the will of God being the supreme cause, and the necessity of all things. What’s the difference?  The difference is that in sinning men act as men, of their own will. They have beliefs and desires of their own, and are able to act in accordance with them, whereas if God were to necessitate men to sin, this would obliterate their will.  God necessitates all things – rocks, plants, non-human animals, human beings, angels - in accordance with their various natures. Also it is important to note that Calvin reserves the term ‘free will’ for the activities of the regenerated will, freed from the slavery of sin. Those who do evil do so of their own natural will, that is a will that is ‘natural’ yet ‘unfree’ because unregenerate, in bondage to sin. ‘Freedom’ as it applies to human action, is a moral and spiritual term for Calvin, as it was for his mentor Augustine. Only the Son can make a person free. But Bolsec denies the operation of such effectual grace. Calvin again

He attempts, finally, to hide the wicked and disgraceful errors which are involved in his doctrine, such as his assertion that God gives to all a heart capable of obeying Him by faith, which implies that He does not give the will, but that man of his own free will accepts, if he so chooses, the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that our election and salvation are founded upon our merits. He asserts, in fact, that man has not lost his free will and that if he did not have free will, he would be a beast…..Again, the error of his assertion that the grace of God is equal for all and that men decide for themselves whether they are saved or damned, as though God does not elect by His free goodness that whom it is His will to have for his children, and having elected them does not reformed their hearts and affections in order to bring them to Jesus Christ, as though, having brought them to Christ, He does not establish them right to the end.

What is interesting about this is the way that Calvin displays the implications of the denial of eternal predestination. If Bolsec denies predestination in the way that Calvin and the Genevan pastors (and Augustine) understood it, then he has to say that God places all men, or some of all men, in a situation where his grace makes them salvable. God grace is thus merely enabling rather that efficacious. Men may by their wills freely cooperate with it, or they may freely decide not to do so. So, as Calvin puts it, in such thinking man in sin has not lost his free will, but may and must exercise it as a co-partner with God. And, contrary to Bolsec, Calvin states that those whom God elects in Christ he establishes ‘right to the end’. Election and predestination - the bondage of the will to sin - efficacious grace – renovation – perseverance to the end, form a web of ideas which stand or fall together.

So predestination was not an obsession for Calvin, but a key component in the display and deployment of an understanding of God’s grace for sinners. In defending it he was defending the gospel of grace. And the lines of the future controversy of the Calvinists with the Arminians were already beginning to be etched out, half a century before it erupted. The so-called ‘Five Points’ are not all here, and certainly they do not have the developed form they came to have later on, but they are well on their way.

One oddity is the way that critics of Calvinism such as Bolsec repeatedly attack the idea of predestination  (as they still do) when, theologically, it is divine election that is the more basic. For predestination is the divine ensuring that those who are elected to grace and glory in Jesus Christ are brought first to grace, and then to glory. Election sets the goal, and predestination is God’s achieving of it.  Still odder is the idea that predestination was Calvin’s invention, but of course it is scriptural terminology and is prominent in the theology of one of the great fathers of the church, St. Augustine, as well as others. Easier to understand is the close intertwining in Calvin’s mind of predestination and divine providence, since is through the workings of God’s providence that predestination works as well.

Bolsec had requested that his views be sent to the Reformed churches in nearby cities for comment, for he seems to have thought that he would find allies there.  They duly were circulated. The questions put to Bolsec, his answers to them, and the rejoinder of the ministers of Geneva, went out to Basle, Berne and Zurich. Calvin helped personally in preparing this circulation.  His name was at the head of the sixteen signatories. The copy to Zurich, preserved there still, is in his hand.

Calvin had mixed feelings about the character of the responses of the churches, received in November. He thought that from Berne was too timid, while Zurich’s pleased him. Support arrived in the form of an unsought letter from Neuchatel, where William Farel was a minister. Nevertheless, milder or stronger, all responses were unanimous in viewing Bolsec’s teaching with disfavor. The reception of these letters in effect brought the deliberations of the trial to a conclusion. The findings were relayed to the Congregation by Calvin on 18th December 1551. They were then ratified by the Council of Geneva.

‘On Thursday the 23rd of the month Maître Jerome was banished to the sound of the trumpet from the territory of Geneva’.

The banishment

As I mentioned at the outset, in the government of Geneva ecclesiastical and civil affairs were closely intertwined, in a way that made tension between the two inevitable. For the magistrate’s concern for civil affairs included the responsibility to curb disturbances of the peace. It was one thing to discuss theological issues at a conference of the learned, or by private correspondence, or by the publication of books in Latin. It was judged altogether another thing to have unorthodox opinions visited upon the ministry, or on the people at large. When Jerome Bolsec arrived in Geneva he at once made himself into a pubic figure, though it has to be said that the public authorities let him alone for a while. It was only when, in Calvin’s words (in his letter to the ministers of Switzerland in October 1551), having debated with the ministers of Geneva, he was imprisoned after he had ‘been tumultuously haranguing the common people not to allow themselves to be deceived by us.’

So by this stage Bolsec had become not only theologically awkward to the ecclesiastical authorities, but a civil nuisance, not because he was threatening violence, but because he was determined to keep up his opposition in the most public way, haranguing ‘the common people’. This in the eyes of the magistrates of Geneva was an issue of civil order, an aspect of which involved the maintenance the good  standing of the Christian faith in its Reformed understanding. Hence the theological character of the court proceedings which were designed to prove that  (despite Bolsec’s protestations) his errors were serious, and that it was against good order that ‘the common people’ should be exposed to his teaching and incited to disloyalty. Calvin says in one of his statements that he ‘had besought Messieurs [the magistrates] with tears that the matter might not be taken any further‘. What this would have meant in practice is not made clear. Perhaps it was that Calvin wished the affair to remain a purely ecclesiastical matter, though as Bolsec was not a citizen of Geneva he could not have been excommunicated, nor could he have been banished from Geneva without the active support of the magistrate. The complications of church-city relations in Calvin’s Geneva are all too apparent.

The first of three controversies  

While attending to Jerome Bolsec, Calvin was also reading a newly-published book by the Roman Catholic theologian Albertus Pighius of Louvain, Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace, published in August 1542, before the onset of the Bolsec affair.  In the book Pighius criticized  the 1539 edition (the second) of Calvin’s Institutes, on free will, the bondage of the will, and predestination. Calvin was anxious to rebut Pighius’s errors on the will as speedily as possible, and writing in great haste he produced The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, in time for its dissemination at the 1543 Frankfurt Book Fair. Later. In 1552 (Pighius in the mean time having died) Calvin published the other half of his rebuttal  of Pighius’s views, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. This book has become the standard account of Calvin’s views on the topic, besides the treatment to be found in the 1559 Institutes.  So while the Bolsec affair unfolded Calvin was also giving more formal, scholarly attention to the topic.  Perhaps he was spurred on by his concern over the public stir that Bolsec was trying to make. This was the second of his public debates on the subject.

The third controversy concerned a man whom Calvin had befriended, Sebastian Castellio, a skilled linguist. At one stage Calvin had found him a job, but Castellio later became disenchanted with his theology, and began speaking and publishing against him, not only on theological questions, but on how Calvin had behaved in the Servetus affair. Calvin’s Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person was published in 1557.  In that year, undeterred,  Castellio anonymously circulated Fourteen Articles or ‘calumnies’ on  Calvin’s views of providence and predestination, accompanied by a provocative letter. Beza persuaded Calvin to take up his pen again. The result was a fuller work against Castellio (though he is not mentioned by name), A Defence of the Secret Providence of God (1558), which despite its title was concerned with the theme of predestination as much as with providence. For in Calvin’s view the two were intertwined.

So predestination, though not for Calvin a theological axiom from which the main elements of the Christian faith can be deduced, plays a key role in understanding various important aspects of Calvin’s career. We might think of it in this way. Calvin came by a ‘sudden conversion’ to be captured and captivated by God’s sovereign grace to sinners through Jesus Christ. Predestination was woven into the fabric of this gospel. But predestination above all the themes of the Christian gospel, became an object of scorn and derision to various people, such as Bolsec and Castellio. Calvin defended it, often with an outspokenness which had the effect, if not the intention, of stoking up opposition to it still further. In this way the idea came to have a prominence that Calvin never intended it to have. We must bear this in mind the next time we are tempted to associate him with this one single idea.  Nevertheless,  studying his responses to critiques of it provides one window into his mind and heart, as well as revealing the uneasy alliance between church and magistrate in Geneva, and offering an introduction to some of the most significant  of Calvin’s publications.


The chief source of information regarding the Bolsec affair is The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva, edited and translated by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (Grand Rapids Mich., Eerdmans, 1966), from which most of the information about the response to Bolsec has been taken. This gives full documentary evidence of the trial. See also the Letters of Calvin ed. Bonnet for 1551. Calvin’s work on predestination against Albertus Pighius (1552) is translated into English by J.K.S. Reid as Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, (London, James Clarke, 1961). The latest translation of Calvin’s early work on Castellio is contained in Calvin: Theological Treatises translated by J.K.S Reid (London, Library of Christian Classics, XXII, SCM Press, 1954). The most recent English translation of his main work against Castellio, A Defense of the Secret Providence of God, (1558)  (which includes the text of the Fourteen Articles) is by Keith Goad, edited by Paul Helm, (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010).

Monday, June 18, 2012



Lee Gatiss, the secretary of the Church Society has produced an attractive defence of definite or limited or particular atonement,  For Us and For Our Salvation, which discusses the issues both exegetically and also historically. It is an high-class introduction to a much misunderstood and much maligned doctrine. Lee has also written an equally excellent introduction to Augustus Montague Toplady, The True Profession of the Gospel. Both are published by the Latimer Trust.

Also, In Writing (Spring/Summer 2012) the magazine of the Evangelical Library contains two papers given at a Day Conference remembering (though not of course celebrating) the 350th Anniversary of the Great Ejection of 1662. The papers are Gary Williams, 'The Great Ejection of 1662' and Robert Oliver, '1689 and the Toleration of Dissent'. Further details from the Library's website 

Due to a hitch the piece on Turretin on faith and reason has been put back. Instead in July I‘m posting a piece ‘Calvin and Bolsec’, which originally appeared in the e-magazine Credo.  Calvin’s name is associated in the public mind with predestination, as if he invented the idea, or desired to give it special prominence. Scholars in the 19th century thought of predestination as Calvin’s central dogma, and this may also have influenced wider opinion. But I think that this prominence got going through three public controversies about it that occurred during his lifetime. The first of these was in connection with the ex-Carmelite Jerome Bolsec, closely followed by Calvin’s response to the anti-Calvinist writing of the Roman Catholic theologian Albertus Pighius. The final outing was his writings against his erstwhile friend Sebastian Castellio, culminating in his A Defence of the Secret Providence of God (1558). Providence and predestination were closely allied in Calvin’s mind even if eventually the treatments of the two topics were situated in separate places in his Institutes.   The ‘Bolsec Affair’ reveals not only Calvin’s strong views on this issue, but also the difficulty of distinguishing the jurisdiction of the church from that of the civil government in Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin's doctrine of the two kingdoms was unfortunately muddied by the idea that the magistrate in Geneva had a duty to uphold (and in that sense be a 'minister of') true religion i.e. the Reformed faith, in that city.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Reason and 'Right Reason'

There has been quite a bit written lately about ‘right’ reason in connection with the Princeton theology. It is less easy to say what ‘right’ treason is than it is to cite the phrase. This is an attempt to put flesh on the bones.

Various influences

There are certain matters  which are clear, and certain matters not so clear. Here’s one that is not so clear. Many of the later Reformed thinkers who appealed to right reason did so because they emphasised  the unity of the self, endorsing the biblical language about as a man is as he thinks in his heart, and that out of the heart are the issues of life. Often they coupled this with the thought that the will (say) as such is neither free nor unfree, but it is the man who is free, or not, not the will.

In this way they saw themselves as moving away from faculty psychology of the scholastics, including the Reformed Orthodox. On this view a person is composed of a set of faculties – the reason, the will and so on each of which have the ‘room’ to exercise themselves independently of the other. (I must say that apart from the will, to which was by some ascribed the liberty of indifference, I have never encountered a version of this wholesale faculty psychology in which each faculty has this sort of independence.  But that’s what the textbooks say.) Much depends I suppose on whether the faculties are thought of as departments, or as homunculi – as mini-persons constituting the person.  And of course ascribing a freedom of indifference to the will was often the only prize that certain faculty psychologists were after.

But if, in turning our backs on faculty psychology, we think that we are at the same time turning towards an outlook which is more biblical, because more holistic, and free from ‘alien’ philosophy, we would mistaken. For John Locke was an influential anti-scholastic.

For when we say the will is the commanding and superior faculty of the soul; that it is or is not free; that it determines the inferior faculties; that it follows the dictates of the understanding, etc; though these and the like expressions, by those that carefully attend to their own ideas and conduct their thoughts more by the evidence of things than the sound of words, may, be understood in a clear and distinct sense: yet I suspect, I say, that this way of speaking of faculties, has misled many into a confused notion of so many distinct agents in us, which had their several provinces and authorities and did command, obey, and perform several actions, as so many distinct beings; which has been no small occasion of wrangling , obscurity and uncertainty in questions relating to them (Essay II.21.6)

And Locke influenced Jonathan Edwards.

And therefore to talk of liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very will itself, is not speak good sense; if we judge of sense, and nonsense, by the original and proper signification of words. For the will itself is not an agent that has a will; the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul and not the power of volition itself.  And he that has the liberty of doing according to his will, is the agent or doer who is possessed of the will; and not the will which he is possessed of. (Freedom of the Will, Pt. I Sect.5)

Edwards  must in turn have been influential on what became the Princeton tradition of theologizing, and particularly the Princeton anthropology. For from time to time one finds the Princeton theology, early and late, expressing itself using the Lockean/Edwardsean terminology, to take the anti-faculty psychology line. So Machen

If we regard the will as a sort of separate somewhat inside of a man, going about its business in its own ways…We are really making of something that we call the will a little separate  personality; we are doing away with the unity of the man’s personality.’

 (One of many good things about Paul Helseth’s book is the way in which he has drawn such matters together.  The Machen passage is from 1,2, 3 in Helseth. Those interested should also look at 40-1, 52-4, 153 and no doubt other places.)

I’m not saying that the only influence upon the Princeton people was Locke via Edwards. It’s pretty certain that another influence was the Augustinian teaching, transmitted through Calvin and others, that the voluntas is the will not in the sense of choice, but as a characterization of the heart, or self. It is the way that the self is ‘set’, either in active response to the grace of God or in continued hostility and rebellion against God. As a man’s voluntas is set, so is he.

But, as if matters were not complicated enough, Scottish Common Sense (which also influenced Princeton) can also be thought of as resuscitating a form of faculty psychology, an endowment by God with a set of faculties permitting knowledge of the external world, an external sense, and of morality, a moral sense. These days these are more likely to be referred to as belief-forming mechanisms. So in the formulation of the belief in the unity of the self and how they expressed it, the Princetonians’ thought does not have a clear pedigree.

Coming to right reason

You might well ask, what has all this to do with reason, and especially with right reason?  We might try an answer to that question using the theological categories of creation, fall and redemption.


Reason is said to be at least part of that in which the imago dei consists. We could debate that, asking whether reason has the requisite degree of relationality about it. In any case there are creatures, the heavenly messengers, who have reason a plenty, but lack the image, or so it seems, though arguments from silence are not the most robust. Anyhow reason is one of several features which, if the image does not consist in them, in their combination, are at least apt for the image, that which the image fits atop. It is reason in that sense that is used in the phrase ’right reason’. No equivocation. What makes reason it right reason is not that it is a peculiar sort of reason. It is human reason, but possessed of a certain kind or orientation.

One perennial enemy of the faith, not much discussed at present, is Gnosticism, the idea that true religion consists in a certain kind of knowledge or insight, discontinuous with natural languages and senses, and what they convey, which the would-be Christian must be initiated into. In contrast to such an approach, it must be insisted Christians occupy the natural world as their Messiah did, that’s why in his first letter John was ready to emphasise that the Word of life, whom he proclaimed, was heard and seen and touched. The Word made flesh was a public figure.  


In the Fall, whatever happened reason is not lost, otherwise  humanity would have been lost. But reason was skewed, because mankind was skewed; in the Fall, and as a consequence of it. The skewing of reason is, or leads to, the loss of ‘right’ reason.


In the work of redemption and restoration, all aspects of the soul, including reason, begin the process of being restored. There is no perfection, sinless moral perfection, or complete restoration of the reason. But there is a definite beginning, a reorientation of the self, the mind, the voluntas., including its autonomy. The reasoning regenerate person recognizes the limitations of creator-creature distinction, and the limitations intrinsic to being a creature, and the presence of ineradicable mysteries of the faith. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are, as Calvin taught, intrinsically related.

The influence of regeneration

The influence of such regeneration upon reason can be felt far and wide, insofar as Christian influence on the wider culture becomes effective. So that while the impetus and energy for right reason is a fruit of regeneration, effects of that fruit can be felt more widely. Conversely, what we call secularism or modernism, includes the eclipse of a recognition that we have a Creator about whom it us right to recognize that many matters about him and his ways are mysterious. Instead it asserts the autonomy of reason, and eliminates creaturely dependence from public discourse. A prominent example of such autonomy is when the theory and practice of natural science is changed into scientism, the idea that scientific understanding and explanation is the only valid type of explanation.

So we are not to understand right reason as a gift that helps us to do our sums better, or to be quicker than others at drawing inferences from data, but in terms of an orientation that befits creatures made in God's image.

Next time I hope to look at right reason as considered by Francis Turretin.