Thursday, August 6, 2009

Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion – John Calvin

Book I The Knowledge of God the Creator: 1- 7; 15

Chapter 1
In the first book of the Institutes Calvin discusses the natural knowledge that we have of God as the Creator of the World. The knowledge of God that we have of him as Creator of the world is distinct from the supernatural knowledge that we have of him as Redeemer.
Calvin maintains that knowledge of God and knowledge of our own selves are interrelated. On the one hand, he claims that without knowledge of the self we cannot have knowledge of God. When we come to know our own terrible state we become aware of the perfection of God. On the other hand, without knowledge of God we cannot have knowledge of ourselves. When we come to know how great God is we see more clearly how terrible we actually are.

Chapter 2
In contrast to a purely intellectual view of knowledge of God, Calvin maintains that piety is requisite for knowledge of God. Knowledge of God for him does not consist merely in conceiving that God exists, but also what our response to God should be. We need to acknowledge not just that God exists but his power and beneficence to us as the source of all good. Knowledge of God also requires truth and reverence. This knowledge should teach fear and reverence. It should seek good from God and give credit to him. It necessitates a realization of creaturely dependence and requires obedience; faith and fear, reverence and worship.

Chapter 3
Calvin further argues that this knowledge of God as the Creator is naturally implanted in the minds of men. This innate awareness of divinity, therefore stands as an ever present conviction of man for his infidelity to God. Man cannot claim not to know God. While Calvin acknowledges that oftentimes individuals have contrived religious forms in order to oppress others, he ardently claims that each individual has a natural, true sense of the existence of God. He states that actual godlessness is impossible, and that belief in God is ineradicable. Additionally, because he believes that belief in God is in innate, when individuals do try to get rid of it, they are acting against their nature. Worship of God is, according to Calvin, the natural end of man as a law of his creation.

Chapter 4
As Calvin has just argued that belief in God is natural and ineradicable, he must know account for the readily apparent lack of piety in the world around him. He argues that in sin the natural knowledge of God is either smothered or corrupted. He claims that impious superstition stems from haughtiness, an overstepping of human boundaries and, consequent, fashioning God in one’s own image. This becomes a central point for Calvin. According to him, we are not to fashion God according to our own whims. Additionally, all false worship springs from false conceptions of God. Hypocrisy results from religion that is performed merely out of fear of punishment, instead of pious life, expiatory rites. Thus, according to Calvin, in every type of sinning there is recognition of God, though this recognition is a mutilated form of true belief and piety.

Chapter 5
In addition to the awareness of God, which Calvin thinks is innate, he also argues that knowledge of God is available from the universe itself. Indeed, Calvin maintains that God’s existence is readily apparent in all of his works. This clarity is so self-evident that it strips us of all excuse for not acknowledging God. The divine wisdom is displayed for all to see, including the ignorant, in the order of the universe and of the human being. In fact, the majesty and order of the human being is the loftiest proof of the divine.
However, despite the apparentness of God’s existence and wisdom, man turns ungratefully away from God. Moreover, they use their minds and bodies, which should be the greatest sign of God, to distance themselves from him. Additionally, they substitute the other sign of God – nature – in the place of God.
Calvin then discusses the soul and nature and their relationship to God. First, he argues against the idea that the soul is mortal. He claims that since the soul occupies itself with many divine things, outside of the scope of the body, it must be immortal. The soul is not just the form of the body. Further, if the soul is immortal, then God is needed to give it its supernatural gifts. Turning to nature, Calvin argues against pantheism. God is not nature, rather he is the creator of nature. When we contemplate both the powers of our soul as well as the power of nature we must contemplate their source.
Calvin then turns to God government and judgment. In addition to revealing himself in the regular order of nature, God is apparent in that which is outside of nature – miracles and reward and punishment (hedged appropriately to allow good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to good people, of course). Indeed, it is shown that God has sovereign sway over the whole life man. Personal events that seem to occur by chance are really from God. God’s wisdom and power are readily apparent, though most do not see them. (This is a theme that will be constantly returned to – readily apparent, yet not seen by most) Consequently, Calvin maintains that we ought not to rack our brains to prove God; rather we should simply apprehend him in his works. Thus, Calvin prioritizes a particular form of perception over speculation. The purpose of this knowledge is not for pure speculation but rather for worship. Additionally, this knowledge leads to the awareness of the future life and future punishment.
Despite the readily apparent signs of God’s power and wisdom in nature, this evidence does not seem to profit human beings. We all turn away from the God that is perceptible in man and nature. The manifestations of God are obscured by both human superstition and philosophical errors. Instead of being open to the true God, individuals make up their own Gods. This theological diversity, in turn, causes people to doubt God entirely. Thus, despite the apparentness of God, we cannot gain certainty about God from both man and nature. In truth, only God himself can give proper, certain witness of himself. The evidence for God in nature is therefore not enough to allow us to proper recognize God, though it suffices to render us inexcusable when we deny him.

Chapter 6
Since nature is not enough for the proper recognition of God, Scripture is needed to give us proper ideas about God. God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only though Scripture. He gathers up the vague sense of him that we have though man and nature and clarifies it. Scripture helps us to identify the proper God. Without Scripture we are left with our own contrivances. There are two sorts of knowledge of God in Scripture, Knowledge of God the Creator and God the Redeemer.

Chapter 7
Calvin next polemicizes against that Catholic Church’s insistence that Scripture gains its authority through canonization by the Church. Instead, Calvin argues that Scripture has authority from God. Any other authority from men would leave room for uncertainty. Indeed, the Church itself only gains authority from Scripture. Furthermore, Calvin claims that it is readily apparent that the Scriptures are from God. Scripture, according to Calvin, bears its own authentication. Through the testimony of the Holy Spirit individuals can perceive and have immediate certainty that God is manifest in Scripture. This faith is only given to a few and is sealed in the heart through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter 15
Calvin then discusses the human nature as it was originally created. We must recognize the difference between man’s state/nature before and after the fall from Paradise. He maintains that man was initially created perfect from God’s hand. Indeed, that is why Scripture says that he was created in the image of God. In order to understand this human perfection we must look towards what Scripture promises will be restored through Jesus. Jesus as Second Adam comes to correct the flaws introduced by the First Adam. Original and Restored man are complete in righteousness, knowledge, and holiness. This original nature, which will be restored in the future, is at present vitiated, though it is faintly present in those that have been elected for Grace.
Calvin then argues against the Manichean belief that the soul is an emanation of God. He argues that if this was so, then God would be capable of change because, as we see, the soul can change.
Finally, Calvin discusses the nature of the soul and its faculties. As mentioned, the soul is immortal. It role is to govern the body. Its natural purpose is to cultivate righteousness and closeness to God through reason. He then goes through the classical components of the soul, dividing it first into the Understand and the Appetite. The Understanding can, in turn, be divided into the Theoretical and Practical Understanding, while the Appetite can be divided into Will and Concupiscence. This scheme can be simplified into just the Understanding and the Will.
Calvin discusses Adam’s Fall from the point of view of this psychology. He maintains that Adam had the capacity to stand and choose well – not sin. He argues that, indeed, it is only before the Fall that truly Free Choice existed. Weak will lead to the Fall and now we lack the perfect Free Choice that Adam possessed.

Book II: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Father Under the Law and then to Us in the Gospel: 1-4; 6; 12-14

Chapter 1
In Book II Calvin proceeds to discuss the fallen state of man and how he is in need of a Redeemer. He begins by describing the Fall of Man. According to him, it is important to know the greatness of our original condition as well as the extent to which we have degenerated from that state as it motivates us to recover what we have lost. Additionally, knowledge of our initial purposes and gifts shows us our duty, while knowledge of our current state shows us our lack of ability to discharge that duty.
Additionally, the story of the fall shows us that the initial impetus for sin is unfaithfulness, which then leads to pride, ambition, ungratefulness, and eventually heresy.
Moreover, Calvin argues that the original sin is transmitted from one generation to another through our corrupted carnal nature. It is a hereditary depravity and corruption of nature, which makes us liable to God’s wrath. Also, it is the cause of all further sins. While sin is transmitted through the carnal nature, it corrupts more than that, both the flesh and the mind. Original sin is a natural corruption of the nature created by God. It is not due to man’s original nature, but can be considered natural because of its heredity.

Chapter 2
In an assault of a large part of the Western philosophical tradition and, specifically, many of the Church Fathers, Calvin argues that, while man was created with Free Will, since the fall he has lost it. Against many Christian thinkers that attempt to establish the consistency of Free Will and Grace, Calvin, according to him following Augustine, argues that there really is no Free Will in man’s fallen state. Indeed, after the fall man is only really free to be servile to sin. Freedom only comes through Grace. To ascribe true Free Will to man is to deprive God of the honor that is due to him. It is the work of the devil to make us think that we accomplish anything on our own.
Though through the Fall man has lost all of his supernatural gifts, faith righteousness, love of God, and charity, as well as corrupted many of his natural gifts, soundness of mind, uprightness of heart, enough reason remains to differentiate man from the animals. We still have a love of truth, though we often use this love to pursue quibbles and vanities. Reason is efficacious in the human domain, social and political organization, while it handicapped in the heavenly domain, discriminating God’s will and commandments. Indeed, our natural spiritual insight as regards knowing God, salvation, and the way to follow to God is seriously limited.
Thus, man’s knowledge of God must be God’s own work. It is the result of a special illumination of the Holy Spirit that is beyond the power of unaided man. Without God’s help we cannot know our own calling. This special insight is above and beyond the knowledge of God the Creator which is derivable from the natural world. As discussed above, that knowledge does not give us specific knowledge of God, it merely renders us inexcusable. Additionally, though natural knowledge is partially helpful in leading us to interpersonal, social values and laws, it gives us no insight into religious doctrine and rites.
Calvin maintains that unaided by the Holy Spirit man never follows that Good. He may pursue the natural, but this does not demonstrate Free Will, but compulsion by nature. We do not follow the good unless the Holy Spirit impels us. Indeed, it is not that we want to follow the good but are too weak; rather our will does not even desire to follow the good unless the Holy Spirit motivates us.

Chapter 3
Calvin argues that fallen man’s nature is entirely corrupted and nothing good can come out of it. God grants grace to the elect and cleanses their soul. Short of this, God may sometimes restrain the un-elected from sinning for the sake of others. Sin is necessarily part of man; it is of man’s nature. However, he still cannot be said to be compelled to sin.
True Grace does not merely aid man to do good, rather it wholly renews and transforms man. Moreover, the elected does not even cooperate with Grace, rather the will is only first actuated to do good by Grace. Faith, seen as the cause of willing and doing good, is the free gift of God. Furthermore, the decision to continue to do good after we receive initial grace is not in our power either, rather it too is wholly from God. In sum, God is exclusively responsible for any good will we have or good deed we perform. There is not partnership in God’s Grace.

Chapter 4
As long as man is not renewed through Grace, he is under Satan’s power. This causes him to sin. However, he is not compelled to be under Satan’s sway, indeed, he is there willingly. Calvin maintains though that God may use both Satan and sinning individuals as tools in his Divine plan. In every case, God’s sovereignty stands above any creatures’ freedom.

Chapter 6
Calvin claims that only Jesus as the Mediator between God and Man can help fallen man attain redemption. He argues that even in the Old Testament the Grace of God can only be attained through the Mediator. A Mediator is necessary because God’s majesty is too lofty to be attained by unaided man. Therefore, Jesus as Mediator is needed in order for us to know we are saved. Indeed, God can be comprehended only through Jesus; we cannot taste God’s mercy through the God of Creation.

Chapter 12
Only one who was true God and true Man could mediate between man and god. He must be God because no man could reach God. Additionally, God alone is too removed and could not come down to us. Thus, the Mediator must be both God and Man. He must be a God, but must have lived and been tempted like men.
Additionally, the Mediator took upon himself our nature in order to give us what was his - grace. Moreover, he must be a God in order to oppose death and sin with life and righteousness. Also, only one who was true God and true man could be obedient in our stead. Only man is obligated to be obedient, only God could have succeeded in being obedient. Finally, only one who is true God and true man could overcome death. Only a man could have died, while only a God could overcome death.

Chapter 13
In contrast to a number of other Christian thinkers, Calvin maintains that the sole purpose of Christ’s incarnation was man’s redemption. Additionally, contrary to many ancient heresies, Calvin claims that Jesus assumed the true substance of human flesh. Through the flesh he was a descendent of the Virgin Mary, through the spirit he was Son of God.

Chapter 14
Calvin then explains how the two natures of the mediator, God and Man, make up one person. He compares it to the body and the soul; two things which have different attributes, yet make up one person. Similarly, some attributes of Jesus refer to him as Man, some to him as God, and some of them to him as the united God/Man person. This is contrast to Nestor, who recognized two Christs, one Divine and one Man. Additionally, it is opposed to the doctrine of Eutyches who fused the two natures together, God-Man instead of true God and true man. Jesus is the Son of Man and the Son of God. He is descended from David according to the flesh and the designated Son of God in power.

Book III The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ; What Benefit Come to Us from it, and What Effect Follow: 1-2

Chapter 1
According to Calvin, the Grace that Christ endows us with works through the secret working of the Spirit. It is affected by the Holy Spirit that bonds us to Christ. This Holy Spirit was given to Christ in order to separate the elect from the world and gather them into the hope of eternal inheritance. In order to understand the Holy Spirit we must not coldly contemplate it, rather we must become intent upon it. The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to endow us with Faith.

Chapter 2
The faith endowed by the Holy Spirit is not a believing in something, some sort of holding a propositional statement. Rather, it seems to be state of reliance upon God and Christ. This reliance is necessary because of the fact that we, as God creatures, are obligated to observe the law, yet we cannot. Therefore, only Christ can liberate us from this snare. Faith is in Christ as the Mediator, who can reconcile us to God, despite our sinfulness. God is the destination and Christ is the path.
Despite the fact that faith is not restricted to a propositional statement, it does involve knowledge. In particular, faith is not pious ignorance and certainly not mediate, implicit faith in God through faith in the Church. In order to possess faith one must know that God is a merciful father, who we are reconciled with through Christ, and that Christ is given to us as righteousness, sanctification, and life. This faith rests on the foundation of God’s Word. Knowledge of Christ is gained through the Gospel. The Gospel does not tell us that God exists, we can know this through Nature. However, it does not tell us what his will is towards us, he is merciful and will grant us salvation Faith arises within us from God’s promise of Grace in Christ. It can only be known through Christ.
After having discussed his view of faith, Calvin begins to discuss other views on faith. He describes the difference between formed and unformed faith. Unformed faith is mere assent to propositions. Formed faith, in contrast, is piety and is of the heart and the spirit. Then, he argues that what is called unformed faith is only an illusion of faith; it is hypocrisy and vanity. True faith, formed faith, requires love.
Calvin maintains that sometimes even the reprobate have a feeling of faith. This faith is similar to that of the elect, but does not posses the same confidence. It is, rather, transitory. True faith, that of the elect, is steadfast.
Calvin now continues to discuss faith in greater detail. According to hum, it is a form of higher knowledge. It is a certain persuasion of that which cannot be grasped. It endows a certainty that is greater than anything else. It is a form of assurance, rather than mere comprehension. It is a full and fixed assurance that one is saved, that God’s goodness towards the individual is beyond a doubt. This assurance renders the conscience calm and peaceful before God’s judgment. It is an undoubted expectation of salvation.
Calvin does acknowledge, however, that one can still struggle with temptation while possessing faith. If one has faith, though, then even in one’s struggle with weakness and anxiety, one continues to press forward. In the midst of the temptation faith is always already victorious. This temptation in the midst of faith is a consequence of the fact that, despite one’s faith, one is always of the flesh. Because we are always of the flesh, we are always imperfect. Calvin insists, however, that, despite this imperfection, in our faith we still possess the requisite certainty that we will be redeemed.
After having claimed that the elect do not suffer from anxiety over whether they will be saved, Calvin argues that there is still a proper fear that they should have one they consider God’s wrath, which will cause them to take extra care not to commit the same offenses as the reprobate. This fear will also affect them when they envision where they would be if they were left to their own devices, without God’s gift of faith.
Calvin then discusses the indestructible certainty of faith. The elect do not alternate between certainty and despair, as if Christ was outside of them. Rather, Christ is so internal to us that even when we consider our own wretchedness we have hope in God’s salvation. While a certain type of fear, which is more like reverence, is necessary, fear of punishment cannot coexist with the faith and love of the elect.
Faith, according, to Calvin does not assure us of the earthly prosperity, but of God’s enduring favor. The goodness of this world is not allotted to the elect, rather they receive goodness in the life to come.
Our faith in being saved does not rest on any sense that we are worthy based on our works. Rather, is solely depends on God’s freely granted promise of mercy. This promise is fulfilled through Christ. It demonstrates God’s love for us. No one is loved by God apart from Christ.
While the promise that lies at the basis of faith is readily apparent in the Scripture, it does not cause faith to blossom unless it is affected by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit must awaken us to the Word. This Holy Spirit is a gift to both the heart and the mind. Our own understanding is insufficient. When we are drawn by the Holy Spirit we transcend our understanding. It gives us a taste of the Kingdom of God. This taste causes us to have faith in things that we initially believed to be foolish. Thus, we cannot truly understand Scripture unless God illuminates our mind and heart. One again, Calvin explains how without the workings of the Holy Spirit man incapable of faith. Faith cannot be initiated by man and is a manifestation of God’s power. According, to Calvin momentary doubts cannot smother faith. As explained above, the faithful are sill tempted, though they always already have prevailed.
Calvin then discusses a number of Scholastic views on faith. He rejects their view that faith is established as moral certainty on the basis of good works. According to him, this would prevent man from ever gaining full assurance, which is necessary. He rejects the Catholic criticism that it is presumption to have full assurance of God’s Grace. He argues that it is attested to in Scripture that faith is given by the Holy Spirit. He also rejects the notion that even in faith there is uncertainty as to whether one will persevere in one’s faith. Rather, according to Calvin, faith is full assurance for today and the future.
Calvin finally discusses the relation between Hope and Faith. He maintains that faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the indication of things not appearing, evidence of things not yet seen. Additionally, Faith leads to Love. It is a taste of divine goodness. Faith and Hope belong together. Hope of eternal salvation always goes along with Faith in God/Christ. We expect that God will fulfill his promise. Faith believes and Hope expects. Hope supports faith by compensating for temptations during the time that God/Christ is not revealed.


  1. Thanks Yoni, and thanks Liane for the post last week. I didn't have much to say about Luther or Oberman, but the post will no doubt be helpful down the line.

    I found Calvin's rejection of free will interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is only natural that when "justification by faith alone" is pushed to the extreme, the importance of the entire world of human action is reduced to nil. We either act in accordance with the will of Satan, or with that of God. It is certainly a sweeping correction to agency talk. Indeed, the only thing that we can do is have faith, and even then, the possession of faith provides us with the knowledge that that faith is only possible by the grace of God. Complete dependence in recognition of our complete corruption.

    Within Calvin's theology, it is not that one can have faith or one can do works, but rather that the only course of action available to us is to have faith. Strictly speaking, there is nothing else that the human being can do. It is the only course of action available to us, and it is not even really an action, nor is it done freely. And this one internal decision decides everything: it is a complete transformation of the person. Only good things flow from the good person, and only the rotten from the rotten. It's a very appealing idea for me in comparison with the "what have you done lately" ethical reward system. The idea that what is important is not that one do good things but that one lead a good life, in its entirety, as a unified thing, seems to wreck our contemporary notion of philanthropy. But perhaps that's too easy a target.

  2. Thanks, Yoni.

    I have to say, I love Calvin. If it weren't for the Jesus thing, I would be a Calvinist. In fact, I'm thinking of describing myself henceforth as a secular Calvinist. I love the language of creatureliness. It's such a different way of conceptualizing finitude than the sort of thing we see in Heidegger and Blanchot and co., with being-toward-death. I think Calvin might be one of the first authors we've come across who has a real sense of man's connection to the physical world. Man is first among creatures, yes, and the one responsible for dragging all other creatures into this fallen state, but there's nonetheless a profound sense of solidarity with the world behind this stance. It reminds me a great deal of this section Michel Serres has in the Natural Contract, when he's talking about the disdain we so often feel for homo religiosus/primitive man, who thought his rites made the sun rise. As moderns we dismiss him as horrendously egotistical and naive, Serres argues, but in doing so we miss something essential about the religious way of life. Homo religiosus saw himself as responsible for the world in a profound way; religion, in essence, is a way of being responsible for the world. That's absolutely evident in Calvin, and it's an understanding of religion that I admire intensely.

    Some of those passages about man being formed from dust were incredibly moving, I thought. As for the predestination, I'm with Ben about it being in some ways a preferable alternative to contemporary philanthropy. Frankly, I've always thought Calvin was dead on, if one reads predestination as a phenomenological description of the world. There are the drowned and the saved; it's not always clear who falls on what side, but eventually it becomes obvious.....

    Here's the one thing I'm not entirely sure about; does man ever become a good person, even if one of the elect? God's grace gives us faith, I know, but does it ever take away our sense of being fallen and finite? Or is it rather something closer to what Tillich had in mind when he spoke of "the necessity of accepting oneself as accepted despite one's blatant unacceptability?" I suppose what I worry about in your way of phrasing it, Ben, when you spoke of leading a good life in its entirety is that we're getting too close to aretaic ethics. In truth, I think Calvin had some anxiety about how one determines if one is among the elect, at least judging by his somewhat muddled section on anxiety in the believer v. unbeliever. If there is that transformative moment, I think under Calvinism it's not clear whether or not it was true until the end. I'm not sure there is that moment of internal decision.

    Anyway, I'm a little in love.