Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Augustine and Calvin on the Knowledge of God

In his use of Augustine what Calvin latches onto what, for Augustine, came after the vision, the knowledge of God and of ourselves which it initiated and made possible. Although Calvin looks to the Bishop of Hippo for much of his theological inspiration, or at least for the formulation of it, we need to bear in mind that he is no means an uncritical Augustinian. This often comes out in incidental details. So in his work on predestination, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, Calvin notes that Augustine's account of evil as a privation, which he accepts as true, is nonetheless a subtlety 'which does not satisfy many';1 and elsewhere he is critical of Augustine's platonically-influenced account of the creation.

Augustine, who is excessively addicted to the philosophy of Plato, is carried along, according to custom, to the doctrine of ideas; that before God made the world, he had the form of the whole building conceived in his mind; and so the life of those things which did not yet exist was in Christ, because the creation of the world was appointed in him. But how widely different this is from the intention of the Evangelist we shall immediately see.2

So one line of Calvin's criticism is over the evident or avowed platonism of Augustine. We may also see such filtering of Augustine's thought at work in the way in which Calvin assimilates the Augustinian theme of the interrelatedness of the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But it must also be remembered that Calvin was never in agonies over Manicheism and over what might take its place.

So we should not assume, a priori, that in developing his thoughts on the relation between the knowledge of God and of ourselves, Calvin slavishly follows Augustine. It is obvious that he cannot do that, for we have seen that this theme is an important strand in his discussion of the nature of faith, and the relationship between faith and assurance. And though Augustine discusses the place of faith in justification, and the relation of faith to belief, (as we shall note in Chapter Seven), there is nothing comparable in Augustine to Calvin's discussion of the nature of faith. The Reformation sola fide had intervened, as well as Calvin's genius as a 'theologian of the Holy Spirit'.

For another thing, there appears to be nothing in Calvin's experience that corresponds to what, for Augustine, followed the reading of the books of the Platonists. It is true that Calvin, by comparison with Augustine, was a very reticent, private individual. Nonetheless, he tells us something of his conversion and of other turning points in his life, and from time to time he mentions his own character traits. But even if we were to read portions of the Institutes autobiographically, there is nothing that corresponds in Calvin's experience to Augustine's 'ascent'. We have noted that at the centre of Augustine's experience of 'ascent' to God is both a metaphysical and an epistemological conclusion. As a result, he both learns how to think about God, and is certain of him. Through the use that he makes of these conclusions in the Libero he endeavours to bring them to others in a discursive way. There is nothing like this in Calvin. No vision, and no concern to establish the certainty of God's existence in such a manner.

Nevertheless, in the context of the Reformation and of his polemic against the Church of Rome, Calvin was most certainly interested in certainty, in the assured authority of Holy Scripture and what it teaches, and in the assurance of faith, as we have already noted. Calvin believed that he and all other Christians have certainty, or may have it, through the work of the Holy Spirit illuminating the revealed truth of Holy Scripture.3 But of course he does not discuss the character of this certainty in epistemological vein, carefully comparing it with that incorrigibility that later on Descartes was to claim for his knowledge of himself. Though it is interesting that there is one isolated example of an Augustinian (and by implication a Cartesian) turn of phrase. In his early Psychopannychia (1542) a sustained polemic against the Anabaptist doctrines of post-mortem 'soul-sleep' and of 'mortalism', commenting on Hebrews 11.6 ('they desire a better country') Calvin says,

Here our opponents argue as follows: If they desire a heavenly country, they do not already possess it: We, on the contrary, argue; If they desire, they must exist, for there cannot be desire without a subject in which it resides. 4

Calvin here commits himself to 'Necessarily, if A desires, then A exists'. This was, for him, in the case in hand, a refutation of the doctrine of 'mortalism', the belief that at the death of the body the soul also died, albeit temporarily, a refutation drawn from a premise of Holy Scripture. Despite at least one commentator drawing a parallel with Descartes' cogito it would be unwise to ascribe any greater epistemological significance to it than Calvin supplies in the context.5 It is an exaggeration to suppose that 'Both Calvin and Descartes start from an Augustinian premise, namely that personal experience is our gate of access to being. Calvin, however, places the experience of the self in desire rather than, as Descartes does, in thought.' 6 This is to promote an inference from a biblical text into a fundamental epistemic principle. It is not so much the individual experience of desire, but the fact of post-mortem desire, from which Calvin draws the inference that therefore there must be post-mortem awareness.

Further, Calvin's appreciation of divine transcendence was couched in much more negative terms than Augustine's - he stresses the incomprehensibility of God, the 'secrets' of his providence and grace, the fact that we cannot know God 'in himself', and the inscrutability of his will. Calvin was not so much concerned with scepticism as with what does and ought to count as the knowledge of God in the Church. No mere assent, not implicit faith, was sufficient, only explicit trust in God as he is to us, the God of the covenant, the God of promise. So, much of what there was of value for Descartes in Augustine passes Calvin by.

In addition, Calvin differs rather markedly from Augustine in one respect that we have not so far brought out very fully, and this also will be significant when, in the next Chapter, we consider the question of the reception of Descartes and Cartesianism in the Reformed churches. We noted at the beginning of the Chapter 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. He finds in our knowledge of God as Creator another source of wisdom. Calvin here opens the door onto a significant difference between Augustine and himself over what I shall call 'worthwhileness', a difference which at the same time brings him nearer to Descartes. We now go on briefly to look at this, and to tease out some of its importance for our theme.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, Augustine certainly had a positive view of the body, and of the physical world in general. It was after all the creation of God, and was originally good. And he had been emancipated from Manichean dualism. Yet he never ceased to be concerned with his own physicality and with what he judged to be its negative impact on his life with God. The external world was also distracting. The lizard on the wall is something that, despite himself, fascinated Augustine. But it is a distraction which results in his mind being filled with 'a mass of empty thoughts',7 not something to be interested in or to wonder at. For Augustine the place of the physical world was an element in a life-long tension, a deep strain in his thought between use and enjoyment, uti and frui; a strain revealed, for example, in human friendship, and over his reaction to the death of his mother Monica. 8

Augustine sets out the distinction between uti and frui in a rather deadpan, matter of fact way in his On Christian Teaching.

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use. Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy. And we, placed as we are among things of both kinds, both enjoy and use them; but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things. 9

Yet things are not always that clear for Augustine

When you enjoy a human being in God, you are enjoying God rather than that human being. For you enjoy the one by whom you are made happy, and you will one day rejoice that you have attained the one in whom you now set your hope of attaining him.... Yet the idea of enjoying someone or something is very close to that of using someone or something together with love.10

There is enough ambivalence here to have provoked a justifiable scholarly controversy over the relation of uti to frui in Augustine.11

Calvin has a different emphasis. He does not seem to have been plagued by physical temptations as Augustine was, any more than he was attracted by the pull of Platonism, and as a consequence, and as a part of his reaction against the medieval clergy-laity distinction, he himself supported secular disciplines and callings, and emphasised, with Luther, their legitimacy. He was, after all, at one time destined for the law, and then set out to become a Renaissance scholar. In his conversion he does not turn his back on all this, but comes to have a different estimate of it.

At the personal level he did not feel the strain between uti and frui as Augustine did. He was as aware of the dangers of misusing things below, and setting one's affection on things below and not on things above. We shall look at this, and at the different kind of strain that it imposes on Calvin's thought , in Chapter Ten. Nevertheless, in drawing the distinction between 'things below' and 'things above', a distinction he took, of course, from the New Testament,12 and giving overriding importance to the second, Calvin nevertheless recognised the legitimacy of the first in a way that Augustine found it difficult to do. He was comfortable with the everyday world in a way that Augustine never was, not at least after his conversion.

As far as one can tell Calvin finds little or no tension in uti and frui because he thinks, in a fairly straightforward way, that the same things can be both used and enjoyed. This is because he believed that many created things possess features which are at one and the same time both useful and enjoyable, and are designed as such by their Creator. In his treatment of marriage he writes that man may 'enjoy a help-meet for him',13 something that it would be difficult to imagine Augustine saying. In his discussion of the present life and its helps it is striking that Calvin has a positive view of life which goes well beyond regarding it as merely a disposable means to a greater end. There is not only necessity, but delight.

For if we are to live, we must use the necessary supports of life; nor can we even shun those things which seem more subservient to delight than to necessity. We must therefore observe a mean, that we may use them with a pure conscience, whether for necessity or for pleasure. 14

He refers to

some good and holy men who, when they saw intemperance and luxury perpetually carried to excess, if not strictly curbed, and were desirous to correct so pernicious an evil, imagined that there was no other method than to allow man to use corporeal goods only in so far as they were necessaries: a counsel pious indeed, but unnecessarily austere; for it does the very dangerous thing of binding consciences in closer fetters than those in which they are bound by the word of God.15

Calvin counsels moderation, and enjoyment, not abstinence. Our guide is to discern the end for which God gave us the gifts. They are for our good, not our ruin.

Now then, if we consider for what end he created food, we shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight. Thus in clothing, the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and honour; and in herbs, fruits and trees besides their various uses, gracefulness of appearance and sweetness of smell….The natural qualities of things themselves demonstrate to what end, and how far, they may be lawfully enjoyed. Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents itself to the eye, and that sweet odour which delights the sense of smell, and shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and that odour? What? Has he not so distinguished colours as to make some more agreeable than others? Has he not given qualities to gold and silver, ivory and marble, thereby, rendering them precious things above other metals and stones? In short, has he not given many things a value without having any necessary use? 16

No tension here, then, between use and enjoyment or delight. Certainly not an emphasis upon the first to the exclusion of the second, but moderate enjoyment, moderate delight, as expressed in this amusing passage.

For many are so devoted to luxury in all their senses, that their mind lies buried; many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures that they become marble-hearted - are changed as it were into metal, and made like painted figures. The kitchen, with its savoury smells, so engrosses them that they have no spiritual savour. 17

This outlook translates itself into Calvin's regard for secular callings, including those of philosophy, law and medicine, as quaintly expressed in Arthur Golding's translation of part of a sermon on Job.

Furthermore, they have also trades and handicraftes: as, one is a Baker, another a Plowman, another a Shoomaker, and another a Clothyer: and all these trades are the gift of God, and they be common, as well to the unbelievers, as to the faythfull whome God thath inlightened by his holy spirite.... to speake of some handicraft: before a man come to be cunning in the occupation, he shall find straunge things: yea there are some woorkes that require such cunning, as ye would woonder. Howe is this possible to be done, will men say? Howe coulde men know where Golde lyeth in the earth? Beholde men make Salt of water. Howe commeth that to passe? Surely even bycause God has given men the skill.... When wee once knowe these things, wee thinke them not straunge at all, but yet is it God that hath given us the skill of them...18

Calvin and Calvinism, while generally Augustinian in outlook, had a regard for those callings that proved to be the seedbed of modern science, and so of modern industry, an outlook that was quite foreign to Augustine himself. The wisdom of God could be known in these ways also and those who are properly versed in them would become, in their turn, wise. Such wisdom is enjoyable and worth having for its own sake, even though it is eclipsed by God's saving wisdom as revealed in Jesus Christ, the key to which is the fear of God.

1 Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God , (1552), trans. J.K. S. Reid (London, James Clarke and Co., 1961), 169.
2 Comm. on John's Gospel 1.3, perhaps a reference to Book XII of the Confessions.
3 Inst. I.7
4 Psychopannychia, in Selected Works of John Calvin III. 473
5 George Tavard, The Starting Point of Calvin's Theology, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000.), 103
6 Tavard, 103
7 Confessions, X 35.57
8 On one aspect of this tension, see Paul Helm, 'Augustine's Griefs' in Augustine's Confessions ed. William E. Mann, (Lanham, Ma., Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)
9 On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford, Oxford World's Classics, 1997), 9
10 On Christian Teaching , 25
11 For a summary of this see Raymond Canning, 'uti/frui',
in Augustine Through the Ages , ed. Allan D Fitzgerald, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,
12 Inst. III.10.2
13 Inst. II.8.41
14 Inst. III.10.1
15 Inst. III.10. 1
16 Inst. III.10.2
17 Inst. III.10.3
18 Sermons of Maister John Calvin, upon the Book of Job, trans.Arthur Golding (London, 1574; repr. in facsimile, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 477