Tuesday, April 01, 2008

John Calvin - What's the Big Idea?

I thank Professor McGowan for his kind invitation to deliver this John Murray Lecture. I met Professor Murray only once, but I have profited from his writings many times, and it is an honour to be associated with him in this way.

I have boldly, perhaps foolishly, chosen to talk about a central theme in the thought of John Calvin. There is danger here, the danger of attempting to tell you what everyone in this part of Scotland already knows, the danger of bringing coals to Newcastle. And I do not want to spoil my time at HTC, and the warmth of the welcome you have given me, by saying the wrong thing. You may also think it somewhat impertinent for an English outsider a to enter this bastion historic Calvinism, where the memory of Calvin is revered, and impertinently to tell you what to think about the Reformer. Who is this fellow Helm? Who does he think that he is? There may be something in that; but I myself also am a Calvinist, though one from a different strand of Calvinism than is Scottish Calvinism. It may also be that a spectator, or at least a visitor, sees a bit more of the game.

A stronger defence would be to claim there is also something quintessentially Calvinian about this project of mine. And I do claim this. For what I am proposing is an exercise in ad fontes - back to the sources! - a catchphrase of the Renaissance. And John Calvin, whatever his other gifts and accomplishments, was a Renaissance figure. These days the Renaissance's celebration of 'humanism' is perversely interpreted as the lauding of secular humanism, of the idea that man is the measure of all things. But John Calvin was no more a humanist in this sense than were Erasmus or Melanchthon. I think that we may understand John Calvin's endeavour to get back to the sources of the Christian Faith - to the Holy Scriptures - as an expression of the Renaissance project. So - greatly daring - this is what I propose to do this evening: to return to the sources of Calvin’s thought and to talk about his Big Idea.

The mention of John Calvin's 'Big Idea', the very idea that he had one big idea, is likely to provoke different reactions. Some will immediately think of predestination. In the nineteenth-century the idea of a significant theologian having a 'central dogma’ became widespread. A 'central dogma’ is a controlling idea, to which every other dogma propounded by the theologian in question is subordinate and dependent, like the rim of the wheel depends on its hub, or even - so some crazily said - it is that idea from which every other of the person's religious ideas were logically derived, like a theorem of Euclid. For Martin Luther that central dogma, his controlling idea, was said to be justification by faith alone; for John Calvin it was the dogma of predestination.

But a moment or two's flip through Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion , or for that matter any other of his writings, including his writings devoted to the theme of predestination - will show that this was not the case, and could not have been the case. For Calvin's model for theological exposition, at least in the later editions of the Institutes, was the so-called Apostles' Creed, or perhaps Paul's Letter to the Romans. Both documents may be said to be predestinarian, the one implicitly, the other explicitly so. But in neither is the concept the controlling concept. This idea of a Calvinian 'central dogma' has more recently been met with an overreaction: scholars have been at pains to try to show that because of where predestination was placed in the Institutes, in Book III, where Calvin deals with salvation through Christ, it could not have been his central dogma. The idea is that were it to have been found in Book I then it would have been the central dogma, or at least have been a promising candidate for that dubious honour. But Calvin's notably predestinarian treatment of divine providence is in Book I. So this argument is hardly convincing. In any case, I think that the search for such a concept is a vain one.

But even if there is no Calvinian central dogma, there is, I believe, a central thrust to Calvin's thought, a Big Idea. The recent Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, in many ways a very useful book, disappointingly gives no sense of what made the Reformer tick. No scholar writing in that book succeeds in finding or disclosing Calvin's heartbeat, or even attempts the job. The significance of his life is dissolved into a series of scholarly reflections on this or that aspect of his career and of his thought. It is as if no one dare ask the central question, what was Calvin's big idea, for fear of being accused of wanting to restart the search for a central dogma. The sum of the parts of Calvin’s thought turns out to be less than the whole of it.

But I predict another reaction to this idea of Calvin's big idea, one that, I confess that I find even harder to understand. Some will be bold to assert that Calvin's central idea is the idea of common grace. Here, I think, 'central' has the meaning of 'distinctive'. In the pantheon - if that's the right word - of the great theologians - Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Luther, perhaps Jonathan Edwards - Calvin' s distinctive contribution is said, at least by those who read him with the lense provided by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, to have been to rehabilitate and legitimise culture, particularly modern culture, by noting that culture is God's gift, his gift of common grace, and so freeing us from the ‘dualism’ of nature and grace. People who think this about Calvin point to passages such as this in the Institutes

If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labour to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?

This is fine stuff, but are such data sufficient to do the trick, to show that Calvin is a revolutionary in this area of the relation of faith to culture, a revolution accomplished by overthrowing the 'nature-grace' dichotomy bequeathed to him, and to us, by medievalism? I think not. And I think not because there is abundant evidence that Calvin endorsed that 'dichotomy' (if that is what it is) between nature and grace. Space forbids me to develop this claim, but I briefly and quickly note a couple of things: what Calvin has to say about the 'eternal law' in his exposition of the Decalogue, as in this statement: ‘Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call the moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws.’ Secondly, there is the pervasive approving references to natural law throughout his writings. The Calvin scholar Harro Höpfl reports that "Calvin thought that 'nature' or 'natural sense' or 'reason' teaches the authority of fathers over wives and children, the sanctity of monogamous marriage, the duty to care for families, breast-feeding, primogeniture (albeit with qualifications) the sacrosanctity of envoys and ambassadors, the obligation of promises, degrees of marriage, the need for witnesses in murder trials, the need for a distinction of ranks in society; and natural law prohibits incest, murder, adultery, slavery, and the even the rule of one man. And again, nature itself teaches the duty to award honours only to those qualified, respect for the old, equity in commercial dealings and that religion must be the first concern of governors.' Höpfl provides textual support for each of these claims. I shall have more to say about common grace a little later.

So, Calvin's Big Idea is not predestination, nor, I have ventured to suggest, is it common grace. Then what is it?


For an answer to this question I believe we need look no further than the opening sentences of the Institutes, sentences which appeared at the head of every edition of that great work, and particularly the first two sentences: 'Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts; the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern'. Before I try to make good this claim, it is well to note certain features of what Calvin says here, as well as noting what he is not saying. First, note the emphasis on wisdom. The Christian religion offers a method of possessing true and sound wisdom. Here Calvin taps into one medieval emphasis, that the Christian religion has to do with the imparting of wisdom, sapientia, and he implicitly rejects another medieval emphasis, that theology has to do with theoretical understanding and certainty, scientia. In this sense Calvin is a Franciscan rather than a Dominican. Theology does not provide us with more knowledge in the form of more explanations, as nuclear physics and astronomy and criminal detection do, but with wisdom. It has to do with the knowledge of God, certainly, but with that sort of knowledge that enables us to enjoy the favour and presence of God, and to bring us to our everlasting home. It is an exaggeration to say that for Calvin the knowledge of God is mere know how, but there is nevertheless more than a germ of truth in this. Here is one place at least where the affinity of Calvin's thought is more with John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progess than it is with Aquinas's Summa Theologiae.

A moment or two ago I used the word 'theology' in connection with Calvin' s thought. This was a mistake. Calvin rarely uses that word, and scarcely ever of himself. When he does use it, it is often as a term of contempt. For Calvin, the 'theologians' are the speculative thinkers, especially the sorbonnistes of his own day who attempt to distract attention from and to disrupt the progress of the Reformation in France by their own ‘blasphemous inventions’ (as Calvin frequently dubbed them) about God. Calvin's word was not theologia (a word which, after all, was the invention of Aristotle) but religio , which bespeaks the binding of the self to God.

And then there is the emphasis, in these opening sentences, of where this wisdom is to be found: in the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Where did Calvin get this emphasis on wisdom from? One plausible suggestion is that he simply took it from Scripture, from the emphasis on Christ as the wisdom of God, from its warnings against the wisdom of this world, from the 'wisdom literature', and especially from the Psalms. Perhaps this is the correct suggestion. But there are other possibilities, too, not incompatible with this. Suppose we ask, where does that emphasis on the twofold knowledge, of God and of ourselves, in this particular formulation, emerge from? I suggest that it was one of the very many things that Calvin learned from St. Augustine. The supreme importance for Augustine of this twofold knowledge, of God and of ourselves, is found vividly in the Confessions. In his wonderful discussion of memory in Book X he says, addressing the Lord, 'to hear you speaking about oneself is to know oneself' and 'what I know of myself I know because you grant me light'. The fundamental point is stated with deliberate plainness, and rather more formally, in the Soliloquies: 'I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing more? Nothing at all'.

Although Calvin may get it from Augustine, I shall suggest in a moment or two that he gives this relation between the knowledge of God and of ourselves his own distinctive twist. But in any case, he did not quite say what Augustine said, did he? He did not add Augustine’s 'nothing more', and there is much evidence in the Institutes and elsewhere that there were other things that Calvin desired to know, and other sources of wisdom than the self in its relation to God . For instance, he was particularly fascinated and impressed by astronomy. He's very careful to state, in the opening sentence of the Institutes, that 'Nearly all the wisdom we possess - nearly all, but not quite all - consists in the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Before looking at the distinctive twist that he gives to the idea of the knowledge of God and of ourselves, however, it is also worth looking ahead, to another Frenchman who was also greatly indebted to Augustine, René Descartes. For he also has interesting things to say about the knowledge of God and of ourselves. In his Meditations Descartes subjects his own claims to knowledge to a series of unrelenting sceptical doubts, doubts that he imagines are produced by some malign demon, in order to reach, if possible, an indubitable foundation of knowledge. He believes that he finds this indubitable foundation in the knowledge that he has of himself. But this knowledge is rather meagre, about as meagre as can be: it is merely the knowledge that he has a self, that even when he is doubting there is something that is doing the doubting of which he is indubitably aware, namely his own consciousness. The foundation of his certainty is in his consciousness as such rather than any particular content of his consciousness. It is this alone that provides Descartes with relief from scepticism. Cogito, ergo sum. But that's all that he can know. At least this meagre fare is all that he can immediately know. What more he can know emerges when - by a series of rather questionable steps, it has to be said - Descartes is able to establish that God exists. So there are two things that he knows, the soul and God. Though Descartes was undoubtedly a religious man, when it comes to the articulation of his epistemology, the knowledge of God is a consequence of the knowledge of oneself. For Augustine, the goal is knowledge of God and the soul; the two have parity. For Descartes, at least in his formal philosophy, the goal is certain knowledge that he has, or is, a soul, and derivatively that we can be certain that there is a God. The emphasis is on that there is a God rather than on what God is like.

But John Calvin and before him Augustine, occupy a much richer world than the spare, theoretically-orientated world of Descartes. It is a world of sapientia, as we have already seen, but more. I mentioned a few moments ago that in the opening sentences of the Institutes not only does Calvin assert the importance of the knowledge of God and of ourselves, but he imparts his own distinctive emphasis to this. We must now go on to look at this, and to tease out some of its importance for us.


As I have said, in bringing together the knowledge of God and of ourselves Calvin imparts his own distinctive twist. The theologian John R. Franke, coming from the Reformed tradition, begins his recent book The Character of Theology by quoting the words of Calvin from the beginning of the Institutes that I have quoted. And then he says 'Calvin's observation continues to provide a helpful model for reflecting on the character of theology and suggests that we must always be attentive not only to the knowledge of God but also to the knowledge of ourselves as human beings if we hope to practice an approach to theology that leads to wisdom.….This suggests that in the discipline of theology we must take account of the particular social and intellectual settings in which we engage in theological reflection and exploration'. Then follows what is by now an all-too-familiar apologia for the need for us to be postmodernists in theology.

But despite this genuflection in Calvin's direction, this is a radical misunderstanding of what he is saying. Calvin is not saying that when we do theology (which concerns the knowledge of God) we are to be aware of the social and cultural setting in which we, as human beings, are placed (the knowledge of ourselves). This is a point almost too obvious to be worth noting. After all, the opening words of Book One of the Institutes are preceded by an elaborate apologia for the Reformation addressed to King Francis the First of France. When it comes to being a contextual theologian (which all theologians are now urged to become) John Calvin was certainly no slouch. In any case, in 16th century Geneva, Calvin could hardly have been unaware of his cultural setting! Unfortunately, Franke has missed Calvin's distinctive twist, even though he quotes the very words that express it. That emphasis is that the knowledge of God and of ourselves are immediately reciprocal. In knowing God we at once gain true knowledge of ourselves, and in knowing ourselves we are at once led to know God. There is, so to speak, no choice in the matter. It is not that there are two distinct subject matters, God, and ourselves, which it is wise to bring into some kind of positive relationship. No, the knowledge of the one immediately leads to the knowledge of the other; the knowledge of the other leads immediately to the knowledge of the first. For a moment or two let us see how Calvin works this out in the first few paragraphs of the Institutes.

Bear in mind that in the first instance at least the Institutes is addressed to Christian people. It is not a work of apologetics, except in the sense that it is an apologia for the Reformation, nor is it a textbook of theology, a systematic theology like those of Berkhof or Hodge or Pannenberg. In the crisis of the Reformation Calvin is attempting to set forth the character of the Christian religion to those who already confess Christ. So what does he tell them?

He tells them that the knowledge of God and of ourselves are 'joined by many bonds', but that 'which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern'. If we look on ourselves then we immediately turn our thoughts to the contemplation of God. For our 'mighty gifts' are clearly not of our own creation. Further, it is our 'miserable ruin' that especially 'compels us to look upward'. He goes on, 'Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and - what is more - depravity and corruption, we recognise that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone'. So 'We cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves'. So, 'the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him'. So, the knowledge of ourselves leads to God.

In the same way, the knowledge of God leads us to a knowledge of ourselves. 'Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.' Our innate pride is such that unless we look to the Lord, the sole standard of righteousness, we shall not be convinced 'of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity'.

These are not only words from the opening sections of the Institutes, a sort of motto, they are, I shall now briefly argue, words that provide the orientation of the entire work, the orientation of Calvin's theology, even though, as we have seen, he would not have liked that word 'theology' applied to himself. Or, if you like, since the word is now fashionable, we could say that these words are fundamental to Calvin's worldview. Given the time that remains, I shall have to be selective in indicating the pervasiveness of the theme in Calvin. And so I shall attempt to look at three areas, albeit sketchily, to try to persuade you that this is indeed Calvin's Big Idea - first, what he has to say about God, then about faith, and finally about our life in society.


Fundamental to Calvin's treatment of God in the Institutes and - I would argue - throughout the large corpus of his other writings, is the distinction he draws between God as he is in himself, and God as he is revealed to us. I believe that he took this distinction from Thomas Aquinas, though there is no direct evidence of this: at least, he took it from the climate of late medieval thought in which he was educated. (Educated in philosophy and law, remember, but never in theology). But from wherever exactly he got that idea it perfectly served his purpose.

It is clear from what we have seen already (I hope) that for Calvin the knowledge of God is not what we might call theoretical knowledge, knowledge of something that may not affect us, that we can take or leave as we see fit. This is the 'frigidity' of the scholastics which repels him. That is knowledge which, as he puts it, merely 'flits in the brain'. In fact, for this reason he can scarcely bring himself to call it knowledge at all. Here are some characteristic ways that Calvin has of using the distinction to make this point: 'What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is more important for us to know of what sort he is and what is consistent with his nature.'

In Exodus 34.6, God reveals himself to his people as Jehovah. Calvin’s comments in the Institutes on this passage constitute a fundamental locus of his exposition of the divine nature as it is to us:

Here let us observe that [God’s] eternity and his self-existence are announced by that wonderful name twice repeated. Thereupon his powers are mentioned, by which he is shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us: so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation. Now we hear the same powers enumerated there that we have noted as shining in heaven and earth: kindness, goodness, mercy, justice, judgment and truth.

And again

The pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself.

Calvin invites us, as part of our Christian confession, to think of God 'operationally' or functionally. For this is how God has revealed himself to us in Scripture. This does not mean that Calvin is a reductionist or pragmatist in his religion, for how God has revealed himself - his nature - is a fitting expression of his essence, that which is incomprehensible to us because we cannot know God as God knows himself. So it would be badly wrong to think of Calvin as a theological agnostic. Furthermore God has revealed himself; but he has not done so to satisfy our curiosity, he has not revealed the whole of himself, and he most certainly has not revealed himself as he knows himself: this is not revealed and is not revealable. This approach of Calvin's to our knowledge of God is reinforced by what he says about the way in which God accommodates himself to us. Part of his self-manifestation to us is that he lisps to us like a nurse talks to her children. God adapts himself to our time bound and space bound circumstances, both in the language that he uses of himself, and supremely by taking unfallen human nature in Christ.

So if we are tempted to speculate about God, to ask 'What if?" questions about him, to attempt to peer into his secrets, to offer solutions to the divine mysteries, then we are moving in a decidedly unCalvinian direction even though - it must be said - Calvin himself occasionally, perhaps without realising it - indulged in a little speculation on his own account. More importantly, it is the knowledge of this God, the God as he is toward us, that gives us the knowledge of ourselves, and so makes us wise.


According to Calvin by God’s grace our knowledge of our own weakness immediately causes us to reflect on God as he is manifested to us: this is the path of true wisdom. Such reflection in turn produces penitence and faith. So in believing we come to know ourselves. For Calvin, Christian faith is always faith in the word of God, supremely faith in the God-man. To the extent that we understand our own believing, its ups and down, the sources of its health and strength, to that extent we know ourselves as believers, and know ourselves as we really are. Calvin's definition of faith is well-known

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Many have seen in this definition the idea that faith, and the assurance of faith, are for Calvin essentially connected. And such a reading of Calvin is natural given the current evangelical mindset, which easily concludes that if a person thinks that he is a Christian then he is a Christian. No doubt should ever be allowed to cloud the sunny Christian mind, for is not doubt unbelief? But I am afraid that this is far from being Calvin's view. For it would be a big mistake to think that this definition of faith was Calvin's last word on the subject. It soon becomes clear that this is a definition of an ideal, of what faith ought to be like, of what at its best it is, not of faith as we routinely experience it.

This is clear from what Calvin goes on to say immediately after giving his definition. So we must read on, beyond the definition. For example, he claims that there can be temporary faith, as in the case of Simon Magus, people who taste the Word, giving an assent to it that does not penetrate to the heart. 'The human heart has so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself'. So 'believers are taught to examine themselves carefully and humbly, lest the confidence of the flesh creep in and replace assurance of faith'. Note this, then: the assurance of faith is not automatic, part of faith itself, but it must often be fought for, preserved against doubts and fears and distinguished from false confidence. So it is not surprising that Calvin takes great pains to distinguish true faith from its counterfeits. On the one hand he stresses faith's certainty, yet before giving the celebrated definition of faith he says that it is surrounded by error and unbelief, and after giving the definition he goes on to say that even weak faith is real faith, and that faith is 'not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion, (the sort of thing that is the result of speculation) .....but requires full and fixed certainty'. It must contend with the deeply rooted unbelief of our hearts. At the other extreme Calvin says there are those who artificially constrain God's mercy, and so receive no consolation in believing. 'They ponder that (God's kindness) is indeed great and abundant, shed among many, available and ready for all; but that it is uncertain whether it will ever come to them, or rather, whether they will come to it'. True faith renders the conscience calm and peaceful before God's judgment. 'Without it the conscience must be harried by disturbed alarm, and almost torn to pieces; unless perhaps, forgetting God and self, it for the moment sleeps'. Note once more the explicit interlinkage between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. In a way that is shocking and scandalous to the modern Christian mind, Calvin even speaks of the possibility of temporary faith, of faith that may even bear some fruit, and yet does not endure to the end. All these convictions about faith arise by virtue of the interplay between the knowledge of God, revealed in his word, and the knowledge of ourselves, weak and wounded as we are.

It has frequently been claimed that there is a great gulf fixed between Calvin and those who later called themselves Calvinists, the 'precisionists' of the Netherlands, the Puritans of old and New England, and of course the Covenanters of Scotland. There are indeed many differences between Calvin and the Calvinists. Yet not so many as we are sometimes told that there are. Here, in Calvin's remarks on faith, part of his Big Idea, we can see a strong link, the link of 'experimental religion' as it was once quaintly called, a link between Calvin and Samuel Rutherford, and Calvin and William Perkins, and Calvin and Thomas Shepherd. If we are to know ourselves, then we must be aware of our capacity for hypocrisy and self-deception, of the wonderful ability of our minds to manufacture idols, and of our readiness to enjoy false comfort. We come to know this as we come to know God: it is part of the awakening and enlightening activity of His Spirit. We must know ourselves, but this knowledge is not gained ourselves, nor does it rest in our capacity to speculate, peering into the secrets of God, but in Christ.

If we have been chosen in him we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is unto his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life [cf. Rev. 21:27] if we are in communion with Christ.

Earthly and heavenly things

You will recall that in the opening words of Book One of the Institutes to which I earlier called attention Calvin refers not only to our 'poverty' and 'miserable ruin' but also to the 'mighty gifts with which we are endowed' as propelling us to a knowledge of God. Awareness of these gifts immediately tells us that we are the offspring of God, just as awareness of our poverty and miserable ruin tell us that we need the Saviour. Calvin is not one to belittle these gifts; they are to be recognised and admired where they occur, and whoever has such gifts must use and foster them. So there is tension here: man, made in the image of God, has great gifts. But these gifts are misdirected due to fallenness. But they are not worthless, nor is it a waste of time for the mind to turn its attention to 'things below'. But note the terminology; 'things below'.

In what is probably the fullest discussion of the theme of common grace in Calvin, H. Kuiper's Calvin on Common Grace, Calvin's references to nature are simply counted in with all the other expressions in Calvin of God's common goodness which Kuiper records, He invokes the view of Herman Bavinck as claiming that 'Calvin was the first one to overcome the unwarranted dualism between nature and grace which is inherent in the Romish system of thought....Calvin's logical mind could not put up with this dualism'. Kuiper's own bias is revealed in the comparison he draws between Luther and Calvin.

Luther did not entirely do away with this dualism although he emphasised the truth that the opposite of grace is sin rather than nature. The great German Reformer sought to leave room for the good found with natural man by drawing a sharp line of demarcation between things heavenly and things earthly.

But the very same line of demarcation is to be found in Calvin. Indeed he uses the very same terminology as Luther, distinguishing between earthly things and heavenly things. So if Luther exhibits remnants of 'dualism' in using that distinction then so does Calvin. But in fact there is no dualism there, not if by such dualism is meant an opposition between nature and grace. For Calvin nature is God's gift, his common grace.

Calvin sets considerable value by the activities of those engaged in 'things below'. Mankind tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society, through fair dealing, and the recognition and respect for law, despite many disputes and quarrels. Human acuteness is to be seen in the arts, and in our talent for undertaking and appreciating them. Literature shows that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted, is nevertheless clothed with God's excellent gifts. He says 'Those men whom Scripture calls 'natural men' were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.' 'If the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance.'

On such statements from Calvin, scholars have endeavoured to build a Calvinistic view of culture, a world and life view. And there is some justification for this. But attention to Calvin's language shows that whatever warrant there is to find a warm appreciation of culture in Calvin, , this cannot be the main thing for him, his Big Idea. These gifts, for all their grandeur, concern 'things below', not 'things above', 'earthly things', not 'heavenly things', 'inferior things', they are 'unstable and transitory'.

Take, for example, Calvin's attitude to philosophy. He often writes approvingly of it, or of some of it. He incorporates elements of Stoicism and of Aristotle, and of course Plato, into his thought, or at least permits himself the use of their terms. He writes approvingly not only of the ideas of the philosophers but of the activity of doing philosophy. In the Institutes we find that Calvin is somewhat ambivalent with respect to the value of philosophical discussions about the soul. On the one hand he characteristically wishes to avoid anything that is subtle or speculative, but on the other hand he does not think that philosophical discussions about the soul are worthless. Subtle questions are the province of the philosophers, yet they are not to be entirely repudiated.

But I leave it to the philosophers to discuss these faculties in their subtle way. For the upbuilding of godliness a simple definition [of the soul] will be enough for us. I, indeed, agree that the things they teach are true, not only enjoyable, but also profitable to learn, and skillfully assembled by them. And I do not forbid those who are desirous of learning to study them. Therefore I admit in the first place that there are five senses . . . .

Thus, despite his reservations about including philosophical discussion in the Institutes, he does at times nevertheless commit himself to certain philosophical conclusions. At other times he is more scathing of philosophy in general, particularly when the philosophers deal with moral and spiritual matters: they are, he says, 'blinder than moles'! But all in all is there an endorsement here of what might be called 'Christian Philosophy’? I do not think there is. Like his mentor Augustine he sees the value of philosophy to be its service to the Christian religion. It is not to be autonomous, and Christians with philosophical gifts are to respect the mysteries of the Christian faith, resisting the temptation to reduce or smooth these away in the interests of developing a philosophical system out of the Christian gospel.

As it is with philosophy so it is with other disciplines. Had we time we could work it out.

It might be said: but if such gifts, and the ability to develop and appreciate them, are instilled in us by the Spirit, as Calvin says they are, is not their possession and use a part of what it means to know God, and to know ourselves, and so be at least as aspect of Calvin's Big Idea? Not according to Calvin. In answering the objection, what have those who are utterly estranged from God to do with his Spirit? He replies that the Spirit of God is not here to be considered as the Spirit of sanctification. It is in his aspect as Creator, as the one who in the beginning moved on the face of the waters (Gen. 1.2), that he fills, moves and quickens all things.


I have attempted to argue that Calvin's big idea is a particular view of religion. He sees himself as setting forth a purer version of the Christian religion than those then current, and ambitiously - and vainly - endeavouring to reform the visible church, at least the visible church of the West, in its likeness. To the attaining of this end, the knowledge of God and of ourselves, Christian dogmas - even the dogma of predestination - are subordinate, they are means to ends. By comparison, other ambitions and activities, even though imbued with the Spirit of God and therefore divinely warranted, are inferior - even philosophy.

I can forsee at least a couple of objections to what I have said. Perhaps there are more. So before I come to an end it is well briefly to consider these. The first likely objection is that I have been advocating pietism, painting a pietistic portrait of John Calvin. I plead 'not guilty' to this charge. 'Pietism' is a regular term of abuse, a sort of religious swear word, and it can be taken to mean various things. But if it means a religious attitude of withdrawal from 'the world' because of its capacity to distract us from the life of the soul then Calvin was no pietist and the sketch that I have made of him was not that of a pietistic Calvin. For as we have seen he had a high estimate of the arts and sciences, of the gifts of theoretical thought as well as of leadership, even when he is critical of the empty and worthless things that we can expend our energies on. He was a cultivated, aristocratically-minded Frenchman who remained that even when Christ conquered him. He did not take a 'dualistic' attitude to the world and the church, but he did place a subordinate though real value on what does not directly contribute to the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Secondly, it may be said that the picture that I have painted is of an undogmatic or untheological Calvin. Certainly not! There is no controlling dogma in Calvin, but that does not mean that he did not value dogma! He believed. that God has given us the knowledge of himself in Scripture, and that Christians are under an obligation to come to as clear a view as they can of that. However, part of this clarity lies in the discipline of respecting the limits of what God has revealed, and of recognising that the articulation of Christian dogma is not an end in itself but subordinate to the main thing.

Finally, have I presented an 'other worldly' Calvin? Here I willingly plead guilty. Another way of putting the point is to claim that Calvin’s understanding of religion is founded on his understanding of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Everything else takes second place, and has this grace as their axis. But he did not have such an all-encompassing view of ‘religion’ as to allow the doctrine of creation to swallow up and neutralise the doctrine of redemption. Christianity must not be subordinated to the culture, nor made into a message about culture. If Christ, in his warnings about the danger of planning to build bigger barns, and to neglect the soul, or in his urging on us of the need to find the pearl of great price, is an ‘other worldly’ Christ, then so was Calvin. Nevertheless, as we have seen, Calvin does not neglect culture, he does not fail to praise it, and to be fascinated by it.

This leaves us with something of a dilemma. If we are, as Calvinists, not to neglect the one thing that is needful, but at the same time we are not to seek the destruction of culture, or to seek to escape from or disparage the life of the human mind, broadly considered, or to put it into a separate compartment from that occupied by our ‘spiritual life’, or to consider involvement in it as a necessary evil, what is to be our attitude to education?

Our intellectual powers and all that they imply are the gift of God. How then are they to be regarded?

They are not to be disparaged or belittled, for that would be to dishonour God our Creator. But neither are they to be so valued as to squeeze out the central quest for the knowledge of God and of ourselves, for that would be to disparage God our Redeemer. It is not a case of either – or, but of both – and. What then? How are we to proceed? Here’s my suggestion. We are to seek the highest attainments possible in these ‘lower things’, gifts of our heavenly Father, and in doing so to consecrate them to the service of God. Such consecration involves an earnest quest to connect these endeavours to the gospel. We must dedicate our powers to God, and find that those powers are enlarged and heightened as we do so. In familiar words, if we seek first the kingdom these things will be added to us. In pursuing our studies in this manner we shall both increase in the knowledge of God and in wisdom regarding the culture in which God has providentially placed us. *

* This is a slightly revised version of the John Murray Lecture delivered at the invitation of the Highland Theological College, Dingwall, Scotland, on March 6th 2008. An earlier version was given as the Byron I Bitar Memorial Lecture at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in November, 2005. I thank each of these Colleges for their invitations, and for the kindness and warmth of the welcomes I received.

Analysis 13 - Owen's Option

'The foundation of this whole assertion seems to me to be false and erroneous – namely that God could not have mercy on mankind unless satisfaction were made by his Son.'

- Owen, The Death of Death, (1647), (Works, 10, 205).

His personage was proper and comely and he had a very graceful behaviour in the pulpit, an eloquent elocution, a winning and insinuating deportment and could, by the persuasion of his oratory……move and win the affections of his admiring auditory almost as he pleased. - Anthony Wood

John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653) was the beginning of his response to the onset of Unitarianism in England, represented by the person of John Biddle (1615-1662) and the appearance of an English translation of the Racovian Catechism. The Dissertation was written while Owen was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and dedicated to the Lord Protector , Oliver Cromwell. We must in such cases (as Carl Trueman reminds us, (Minority Report, Mentor Books, 2008, 18-9)) have regard not only to what a man is saying, but also to what he is doing, in this case to Owen’s contribution not to Puritan theology but to strengthening or solidifying certain elements in the Cromwellian Protectorate, or to doing the same for his position in Oxford, or both. Here we restrict ourselves to what Owen is saying. Note however that Owen's Dissertation was followed the next year by the command of Parliament for him, by now Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, to write more fully against Socinianism. Owen complied, and wrote Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655) dedicated to 'His Highness' the Lord Protector.

Justice and mercy in God

Owen's view of the atonement is that it is necessary if sin is to be pardoned, because justice is essential to God . The pardon of sin requires the satisfaction (or vindication) of divine justice, and only atonement by God himself (in the person of the God-man) could be sufficient. The justice that is essential to God is the same justice as that which is contingent to a just person, or a just king. In 1653 he finds it amazing that an orthodox theologian might suppose that God could have saved us by a word. Owen must thus be amazed at his earlier self, who in The Death of Death had taken the position respecting the atonement which he now argues against, as we can see from the quotation at the head of this Analysis. We cannot hold this against Owen of course; a man is entitled to change his mind. Here we shall be concerned not with the necessity of the atonement but the view of divine sovereignty, and especially the relation between the will of God and the justice of God that it implies.

The later Owen counters that 'vindicatory justice' (not to be confused with vindictive justice) is an exercise of 'the universal and essential rectitude of the divine nature'. (505) Justice is not a separate attribute of God, much less are there attributes of different kinds of justice. God’s acting justly is one exercise of the one God. It is an aspect of his government of the creation, God being not a 'private' but a 'public' person.

For Owen God is free, and his actions are free, and yet necessary. Free because they are the exercise of his will, necessary because his justice is a necessary or essential feature of his character. That is, God is not constrained from outside to exercise justice since it is part of his nature. In exercising justice God is simply being himself. So God exercises justices willingly. God is free in respect of extrinsic matters, (whether or not to create the world, say) but not similarly free with respect to the exercise of his own nature. That is, if he freely decrees to pardon mankind, then there is only one way, consistent with his justice, of providing for such pardon, namely, by atonement through the penal satisfaction of the God-man. That alone satisfies divine justice which is essential to the pardon of sinners.

It is necessary that God should speak truly, but he doth not speak from an absolute necessity; but it being supposed that he wills to speak, it is impossible that he should not speak truly. We say, therefore, that God cannot but punish sin, or that he necessarily punishes sin; not however, from an absolute necessity of nature, as the Father begets the Son, but upon the suppositions before mentioned , - by a necessity which excludes an antecedent indifference but not a concomitant liberty in the agent, for in punishing sin he acts by volition and with understanding. (589)

But whereas the exercise of justice is necessary, the exercise of mercy is free, discretionary

So whereas justice is necessary, mercy arises from the divine decree......These natural egresses (of justice) are the consequences, not of an absolute but of a conditional necessity, - namely, a rational creature and its sin being supposed, and both existing freely in respect of God, but the necessary suppositions being made (regarding the divine attributes), the exercise of other perfections is also necessary. (511-2)

So the exercise of mercy is necessarily subject to God's discretion, justice necessarily is not .

The difference may be put thus. For Twisse, the external exercise of God’s nature is freely decreeable. Although he is necessarily displeased by sin, nevertheless he may decree to pardon sin by a word, or by an atonement, as he sees fit. For Owen, once pardon is decreed, certain means are necessary for that end. So it is up to God whether or not he pardons sin, but if he decrees to pardon sin this must be in a way consistent with his nature and, Owen avers, it must be by atonement. Hence, in this subordinate, conditional sense, the atonement is necessary.

So the difference between Owen and Twisse starts not from consideration of the atonement, nor even of God's relation to justice, but from God's freedom. Owen and Twisse have a different understanding of how justice and mercy operate in God. Owen believes that there are asymmetries that Twisse fails to acknowledge, in particular the asymmetry between God's justice and his mercy. Owen argues at the start of the Dissertation that the logic of the two is different, and that even God must respect this logic. For Owen, divine justice, 'the power and readiness of God to do all things rightly and becomingly, according to the rule of his wisdom, goodness, truth, mercy and clemency' (503) 'presides' over all God's decrees and actions.

In a word, whatsoever, by reason of his right, he doeth or worketh "according to the counsel of his will", whatever proceeds from his faithfulness, mercy, grace, love, clemency, anger, and even from his fury, is said to be done by, through, and because of his justice, as the perfection inducing to, or the cause effecting and procuring, such operations. It is evident, then, that justice, universally taken, denotes the highest rectitude of the divine nature, and a power and promptitude of doing all things in a manner becoming and agreeable to his wisdom, goodness and right. (503)

So it follows, for Owen, that given the occurrence of sin, it is necessary that God punishes it. So when Samuel Rutherford, taking Twisse’s line, claims 'punitive justice to be a free act of the divine will', Owen is astonished, (507) denying that 'supposing a sinful creature, the will of God can be indifferent (by virtue of the punitive justice inherent in it) to inflict or not inflict punishment upon that creature, or to the volition of punishment or its opposite.' (509-10)

If for Owen divine justice is inexorable, divine sparing mercy behaves differently.

The nature of mercy and justice are different in respect of their exercise: for between the act of mercy and its object no natural obligation intervenes; for God is not bound to any one to exercise any act of mercy, neither is he bound to reward obedience, for this is a debt due from his natural right, and from the moral dependence of the rational creature, and indispensably thence arising. But between the act of justice and its object a natural obligation intervenes, arising from the indispensable subordination of the creature to God; which, supposing disobedience or sin, could no otherwise be secured than by punishment. (511)

God is thus subject to the ‘natural obligation’ which justice, and being a just God, requires.

Which is it to be, John?

Towards the end of the Dissertation, writing in defence of the Reformed theologian Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), Owen rather surprisingly offers some comments which might which may in fact be inconsistent with it.

It is necessary, sin being supposed to exist, that he (viz. God) should inflict punishment, - not the greatest that he is able to inflict, but as great as his right and justice require; for in inflicting punishment, he proceeds freely, according to the rule of these. It is necessary that the glory of the divine holiness, purity, and dominion should be vindicated; but in what manner, at what time, in what degree, or by what kind of punishment, belongs entirely to God, and we are not of his counsels. (604-5, italics in the original translation)

So because the justice of God is executed in accordance with his wisdom, Owen allows that it is possible for him to vary the 'degrees, modes, duration, and extension of punishment, according to the degrees of the demerit or circumstances of the sin, or even to transfer it upon the surety, who has voluntarily, and with his own approbation, substituted himself in the room of sinners'. (605) Again (against Rutherford on this occasion) Owen states 'Neither, however, do we think ourselves bound to teach that God could not forbid sin but under the penalty of eternal death'. (613) Owen argues that a punishment is determined by its end, the vindication of justice, and provided that end is met then the means to that end may vary. (614)

Here Owen appears to waver. On the one hand he allows that punishments may vary provided that the end of satisfying justice is met. On the other hand he seems to make an exception of the atonement, arguing or rather implying that there could not be another mode of satisfaction for sin than atonement by the God-man, the surety who has substituted himself in the room of sinners. Yet he seems to allow the possibility (though one that we are not in a position to know about) that the manner, time etc. of punishment belongs entirely to God, whose counsel we do not know. Which raises the question of why, if punishments in general, in respect of the their nature and circumstances, are in the hand of God, why the punishment for sin may not similarly be. And if it may similarly be, even if we have not a clue about what an alternative mode of punishment may be in this case, then the atonement by Christ is not necessary in even the restricted sense that Owen has argued for earlier. For there may be, for all we know, a possible world in which God exists, decrees sin, and ordains a mode of satisfaction that is a punishment different in kind from the one he has in fact ordained in the priestly work of Christ.


It’s not my idea to attempt at this point to adjudicate between Owen and Twisse, except to say that besides the possible inconsistency just noticed, Owen’s view is much more complex than Twisse’s and the character of this complexity takes away some of the force of some of his own criticism of Twisse. For Owen God is necessarily (though freely) just, and not necessarily (though freely, in a different sense of ‘free’) merciful. This second sense of freedom , the sense in which God is free to exercise mercy or not, seems not a hairsbreadth away from Twisse’s view that God is indifferently free to pardon without atonement or not. If God, according to Owen, and in virtue of Christ’s atonement, is free show mercy to X and not to Y, how does this differ from an appeal to the freedom of indifference that he criticises Twisse for? Owen is not in a good position to critique Twisse’s view of freedom since he uses it, or something very like it, himself.

Logic chopping? Yes, logic chopping. (But remember that logic chopping is when the logic is doing the chopping and not when the logic is being chopped). And the way the logic chops often has significant consequences for central theological issues, in this case, the necessity or otherwise of the atonement.