Professor Helm, why does a professor of philosophy write books on a theologian like John Calvin? Why are you interested in him rather than someone who is a renowned Christian philosopher like Thomas Aquinas?
Actually, there are a number of reasons for my interest in Calvin. When I wrote my first book on Calvin, Calvin and the Calvinists, I was responding to a book by Dr RT Kendall, later a well-known minister in London, in which he suggested that Calvin’s so-called theological ‘successors’ in the period after the Reformation misrepresented many of his positions and introduced a number of corruptions into the brand of theology which has come to be associated with Calvin’s name.
My own view, which I still hold, was that RT Kendall had done a poor job in trying to distinguish between Calvin and the Calvinistic tradition. In fact, his book undermined the Calvinistic tradition, which is the tradition out of which I come. So I became rather alarmed at the thought that the tradition that we have associated with John Calvin was being ‘trashed’ for what I considered to be rather flimsy and superficial reasons. So Calvin and the Calvinists was a response to RT Kendall’s book, and nothing more.
However, in my latest book on Calvin, John Calvin’s Ideas, I am seeking to do something rather different. I think we can learn from him about how to think and how to engage in theology and philosophy. I am particularly interested as a professional philosopher in Calvin’s approach to gaining knowledge and establishing truth.
Calvin has a lot to teach Christian philosophers of today about our attitude to knowledge. One of the most pleasing developments over the last few decades has been the rise in interest in what is now called ‘Christian’ philosophy. What we have seen, particularly in North America and elsewhere, has been a renaissance of Christians who are interested in philosophy. This has been a very encouraging phenomenon, but it has had a glaring deficiency. Parts of the movement are not as theologically aware or informed as they could be. Unfortunately, this has affected the quality of work that some of these Christian philosophers have undertaken when they write on the philosophy of religion. If some of them had a better appreciation of Calvin, as well as other theological ‘greats’, I daresay that they would have probably produced more useful philosophy.
How does an understanding of Calvin’s views about knowledge help them?
Calvin spoke about a distinction between God as he is in himself—that is, his essence, and God as he is revealed towards us, in other words, his nature. In Book 1 of the Institutes, Calvin says:
What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is far better for us to inquire ‘What is his nature?’ and to know what is consistent with his nature … indeed his essence is incomprehensible; hence his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakeable marks of his glory.
Here Calvin makes a rather nuanced distinction between God’s nature and God’s essence. He believes while we cannot properly understand God’s essence (it is, in a sense, incomprehensible), we can know his nature, which is revealed to us. Of course, Calvin isn’t saying that since God’s essence is incomprehensible, we can’t know anything about it. We can know what has been revealed to us, thus giving an insight into the character of God’s nature, from which we can then go on to draw some conclusions about his essence. But the essence of God has not been revealed to us. For God to fully impart himself to us would require us to be divine. This means that there is no name or concept that fully encompasses God. Nor is there any description of God that fully defines him. We cannot explain God completely with our own thoughts, imagination or language.
If philosophers fully understood this, they would recognize more acutely than they do the limits of human reason to comprehend God and his ways. Calvin reminds us that we must be constantly aware of the presence of mystery in the Christian faith. He also helps us to see why the mystery is there. He seeks to preserve and protect that mystery and, in a sense, not allow it to be trampled on by the philosophical intellect. Calvin believes that God’s incomprehensibility warns us against unwarranted speculation in theology, and about trusting human analogies of the divine. So I believe Calvin is enormously helpful in getting us started on the right foot as we try to think philosophically. And, as I said before, knowing Calvin thoroughly is essential to understanding and safeguarding the Reformed tradition.
I think many people who will read your latest book, John Calvin’s Ideas, will say that it’s a groundbreaking book because it’s looking at Calvin’s intellectual and philosophical roots. Did you have a specific reason that led you and Oxford University Press to publish it?
I wanted to clear up a number of modern misconceptions about Calvin. One of the misconceptions held by many Christians today about Calvin is that they think that he is a purely biblical thinker—he had no real interaction with or knowledge of philosophy. They think he was born in the heavens, as it were, and was untouched and unaffected by medieval philosophy. But I think I have demonstrated in my book that Calvin was a child of the medieval period. A thorough reading of Calvin’s works shows that he was also affected by the Renaissance and was very familiar with a whole range of theological and philosophical positions.
Throughout my book I use the Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, as a kind of foil for Calvin. I am not suggesting, incidentally, that Thomas Aquinas directly influenced Calvin. But someone or something that has Aquinas’s intellectual ‘shape’ certainly did. The interesting thing is that on a number of important issues, the positions that he and Thomas adopt marry up with each other. So that’s one reason why I am so interested in Calvin. I think it’s important to understand his theological method as well as his view of knowledge, and to discover who his theological and philosophical predecessors were.
The other major reason why I am so interested in Calvin—especially his understanding of how and what we know about God—is that in some branches of contemporary Christian philosophy, Calvin is viewed as a supporter of what is known as ‘reformed epistemology’. ‘Reformed epistemology’ is the name we give to a branch of philosophy that is concerned with religious knowledge and how we can establish certain religious truth-claims. Those who believe in reformed epistemology challenge the idea that all beliefs, other than those that are allegedly self-evident, must be supported by evidence to be fully rational. Reformed epistemologists think it’s perfectly reasonable, for instance, for a person to believe many things without having evidence to support their beliefs. Most strikingly, they insist that believing in God does not need the support of evidence or argument in order for it to be rational.
Famous contemporary philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, who are coming out of a Calvinist tradition, have tried to find precedent for what they believe in Calvin. They claim that if Calvin is right in thinking that people are born with an innate sense of God, then we can rationally come to belief in God without the need for supporting evidence. Personally, I am not convinced that they are entitled to draw all these conclusions from Calvin, and so I evaluate their ideas about Calvin as part of my book.
In your latest book, you say very little about John Calvin’s views on predestination. Yet popular historians and other scholars often identify his views on predestination as the central plank in his theology. Why haven’t you used that as the defining point of Calvin?
I haven’t focused on Calvin’s doctrine of predestination because I believe it’s a wrong reading of Calvin to want to identify in his thought a central dogma from which all other theological positions can be deduced or derived. Instead, I have tried to show that there were actually many ideas in Calvin’s head besides the idea of predestination. Though I don’t deal with predestination in the book, I should point out that there’s a chapter on the closely aligned subject of providence.
I think the other thing that I’d say is that Calvin’s views on predestination and election are hardly unique to him. Unfortunately, in the popular mind Calvin is the author of the doctrines of predestination and election. The reality is somewhat different. The fact is that we find very similar views to Calvin’s in Augustine and, to a lesser degree, but definitely to a considerable degree, in Thomas Aquinas.
It’s often made out that Calvin burst on to the theological scene like a meteor from another galaxy. People have said that he has little in common with earlier theologians in terms of theological method, style and content. Is that an accurate view of Calvin?
No, not really. Calvin certainly brings a freshness of style to theological writing. Clearly he is one of the founders, if that’s the right word, of the modern French language. He’s enormously important in that sense. And he certainly had prodigious, unique Renaissance-cultivated literary gifts. You certainly find these in The Institutes, for example, where Calvin constructs his work in the second person rather than the third person. Sometimes he even writes in the first person. So, in one sense, he is rather unique in terms of his style—his language is elegant, economical, graceful and un-scholastic.
However, even recognizing that Calvin brings his very own style to theological writing, we should not be blind to the signs of scholastic influence in both The Institutes and a number of other works. For instance, he employs the medieval disputatio tradition. This is a mode of exposition in which the question for discussion is raised, then authorities are advanced in support of and also in opposition to the proposition to be discussed, and then some reasoned judgement. I think this demonstrates that Calvin was a man of his times who worked within the conventions of his age.
This brings me to the claim, sometimes heard, that Calvin is so unique, he seems to come from another world. My own view is that lots of people have tried to appropriate Calvin for their own theological and political agendas. A modern example of just this sort of thing is the controversy that arose in Europe between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, both leading Protestant theologians at the time of the Second World War. Barth and Brunner quarrelled over whether Calvin was or was not a natural theologian. One of the reasons for the intensity of this debate was that Barth was trying to enlist Calvin to support him in his stance against the ‘German Christian’ movement (a creature of the Nazi party) in the early years of the Third Reich. The German Christian movement sought justification for its teachings from so-called natural theology. I think this particular controversy is a reminder that we should always be wary of anachronism in appropriating ideas from the past to the present.
To what extent was Calvin indebted to his medieval predecessors?
It’s interesting that Calvin was educated in philosophy and in law, but not in theology. He picked up theology, so to speak. I think it’s impossible to deny he was influenced by his educational background.
I find it interesting when people say that Calvin has an anti-speculative, anti-scholastic frame of mind. There’s considerable evidence that he’s anti-speculative, but a lot less evidence that he’s anti-scholastic. When he inveighs against the scholastics, he has very specific people in mind—namely, his contemporaries at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) who were ardently obstructing the Reformation. In other places, he simply deals with his scholastic inheritance either by accepting or rejecting its various insights, based on whether he thought they were good and useful in fostering the Reformation project. So, almost on the same page, you can find an instance of Calvin praising Aristotle on some particular issue, and then, a short while later, critiquing him for some other matter. Again, sometimes he applauds the scholastics in general for some useful distinction they have made, and then soon afterwards, he rejects their vague and useless speculations. So he’s totally familiar with the range of material he is working with. He was the master of it, and was prepared to use it or not as he saw fit.
There’s a popular view that the reformers, particularly Luther, scorned philosophy. Luther once referred to philosophy as ‘the devil’s whore’. What was Calvin’s attitude to philosophy? Was he hostile to it?
No, Calvin wasn’t hostile to philosophy at all. In fact, there are many positive evaluations of philosophy in The Institutes. I am sure that his evaluations were influenced by Augustine, to whom he was enormously indebted. I don’t think we should overplay the originality of the range of judgements that he makes about the various philosophies and philosophical schools. It’s also important to bear in mind that Calvin maintained a clear distinction in his thinking between the various intellectual disciplines. He has a strong view of the autonomy of theology. This leads him to distinguish sharply between theology and philosophy. However, in making that distinction, we mustn’t think that he disavows philosophy. When he makes a distinction between the various disciplines, such as theology and philosophy, it is no more significant than the distinction he makes between, say, theology and astronomy, or theology and medicine. Each of these disciplines has a legitimate place and exists in its own right.
Over the last 50 years, it’s been popular to pit Calvin’s followers, like Beza, William Perkins and the Westminster divines, against Calvin himself. Scholars like RT Kendall, the Torrances and Holmes Rolston III have pushed this idea. Is there any substance to their claims? Why do they do it?
I myself believe there’s very little substance to their claims. There is a certainly a difference in method that we find among Calvin’s followers. And we also see a strong reassertion after Calvin of scholastic methods within the Reformed tradition. Reformed scholars like Professor Richard Muller argue, quite plausibly, I think, that this simply reflects the fact that once the Protestant Church was faced with the Counter-Reformation, the Reformed community had to set about training their own ministers.
This meant that they were suddenly forced to reflect upon a whole range of matters that had not been dealt with at an earlier stage of the Reformation. The Institutes, for all its greatness as a work in systematic theology, is, after all, essentially an occasional book. Calvin does not give equal weight in that book to every aspect of the theological curriculum. He deliberately emphasized certain matters at the expense of others—partly because some of these matters could be taken for granted, and partly because of the need to debate the issues that lay at the heart of the Reformation conflict.
The simple fact is that when you come to educating young men for the Christian ministry, you have to adopt a much more formalized method of instruction. Educators such as Francis Turretin deliberately reverted to the scholastic method of teaching to ensure that students were thoroughly prepared on all issues. As it has become clear from my own studies of Calvin that this move wasn’t altogether outside of the spirit we find in Calvin’s work. After all, as I have already mentioned, Calvin freely appropriated scholastic distinctions and terminology when he thought that these would further the thoughts of his argument in The Institutes.
Why do you think scholars try to drive a wedge between Calvin and his Reformed successors? Do they have ulterior motives, or have they just failed to read Calvin properly?
In my opinion, I think they want to think of Calvin as a kind of re-discoverer of the pure gospel. They have a rather sort of simplistic ‘heroes and villains’ view of church history. Calvin is their hero. Therefore, in their judgement, he mustn’t be tainted with anything that seems unheroic or unimpressive. They caricature, quite unfairly, the movement that follows Calvin as a kind of degeneration into legalism. This is one of the main charges that they level against the theology of Calvin’s successors. Another charge is that his followers taught preparationism—that is, the teaching that Christian conversion must always be preceded by the preaching of the law.
I think we can find sporadic evidence of these things, depending, of course, on what the critics mean by legalism and preparationism. But the simple fact is that Calvin assigned a significant role to the law, and while he didn’t explore it as fully as his successors, nevertheless, he stands at the head of the Reformed tradition. It is a serious misreading of Calvin to think that he was opposed to it.
What are some of the novel ideas about Calvin that Kendall and others have advanced? Are they significant, and why have you engaged them in fairly extensive controversy?
Well, the areas that concern me relate to doctrinal matters that are central to our understanding of the gospel. These issues arose after Calvin’s death as Reformed theologians were forced to reflect further on the pastoral implications of the gospel. One area of particular importance has to do with the nature of the atonement. In the early 17th century, Arminius, the Dutch theologian, began to teach that Christ died on behalf of all men. This raised the question: for whom did Christ die? Did he die for all people or just for the elect?
The Reformed community defended the view that Christ’s death was to save his people from their sin; it was a definite atonement. Now Dr Kendall and others have been arguing that the idea of definite atonement is a serious departure from Calvin. What I strove to say in my little book, Calvin and the Calvinists, was that the doctrine of definite atonement is consistent with what Calvin taught. Furthermore, the doctrine of definite atonement may be said to be implied by what Calvin taught on the substitutionary nature of the atonement. The problem, of course, is that Calvin was never forced to defend a definite view of the atonement. The issue, as a controversy on which he was required to take sides, simply hadn’t come up by the time of his death.
Despite your disagreements with RT Kendall, do you see any significant break between Calvin and the Puritans? I mean, were there genuine differences?
Naturally, there were many differences as one would expect. The Puritans came almost a century later, and were operating in a different culture and political context. However, despite the existence of such differences, I think it is important to point out that they were largely matters of style and emphasis, rather than matters of substance.
Is there any basis to the oft-repeated claim that Calvin was warm, exuberant and evangelical in his understanding of the gospel, and the Westminster divines were formal, introspective and legalistic?
I really don’t think so. The writings of the Westminster divines and the pastoral theology of the Puritan period reveals a deep spiritual sensitivity and warmth of piety. In any age, you will find instances of arid theology, but, for the most part, the Puritans certainly were concerned for heart-religion.
The problem with these sorts of claims is that they are made quite recklessly. When scholars say that Westminster theology is infected with legalism, rationalism, Aristotelianism, formalism and the like, they usually use these terms in such imprecise ways, it’s hard to know what they mean and to what these terms apply. Unfortunately, most of the charges come down to nothing more than ‘theological slang’. It is regrettable that these charges against Westminster theology are a dust storm that does nothing to clarify our vision of the field.
Let’s get down to specifics. Kendall claims that Calvin taught universal atonement—that is, that Christ died for all, and the doctrine of definite atonement is a Westminster aberration. Is there any justification for that view?
If Kendall’s view is meant to imply that Calvin denied in express terms the limited or definite view of the atonement, then the answer is that there is no justification for it. If we ask the question “Did Calvin expressly teach the doctrine of definite atonement?”, then it’s hard to say. Of course, we must always be on our guard against inaccuracies in attributing to earlier writers views that have only been developed in subsequent periods. We must be honest and admit that Calvin did not engage in any such controversy over the atonement. However, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Calvin’s views of the atonement as substitutionary and efficacious lead naturally into the doctrine of definite atonement. The seeds of definite atonement are definitely there. When people like Dr Kendall point to the universal terms in which Calvin’s language is cast, I think it can be readily shown that this really refers to the universal preaching of the gospel without restriction or condition to men and women everywhere.
Kendall seems to suggest that the Westminster divines turned saving faith into a work, whereas Calvin had always seen it as a gift. Is he correct in saying that?
No, he is not. Both the Westminster divines and Calvin teach that faith is a gift from God. Interestingly, this is a point where Calvin has recourse to Aristotelian philosophy to make his position clear. He repeatedly refers to faith as the instrumental cause of justification. In this sense, faith is not the material cause or ground of justification; it is simply the instrument that appropriates the benefits of Christ’s death to the individual believer. This means that there is a certain element of conditionality about faith. Without faith, there is no salvation. But this does not mean in Calvin’s mind, or in the minds of the Westminster divines, that faith is therefore the meritorious cause of justification. Such an idea would fill both of them with horror since it would have the effect of dethroning Christ from his office as the sole mediator between God and man.
Kendall also suggests that the Westminster divines undermine Calvin’s teaching that every Christian should be fully assured of his or her salvation. Is this true?
I think it’s important to approach Calvin’s work on faith with a distinction in mind—that is, that he distinguished between faith in its ideal form and faith as one frequently finds it empirically in the hearts and lives of Christians. The ideal view of faith for Calvin in The Institutes is the faith that carries assurance with it. On either side of where that definition occurs in The Institutes, he frequently shows that faith can be mixed with doubt and unbelief, which issues in a lack of assurance on the part of the person who has it.
What are the pastoral consequences of denying definite atonement and claiming that faith is essentially a passive intellectual persuasion, rather then an active exercise in thought?
If Christians understand the pastoral consequences of denying definite atonement, they will realize that they are pretty serious. It would mean that Christ’s work was so presented, it had to have some kind of a human contribution to make it effective. If Christ died with the intent of saving the whole world and, clearly, the whole world is not saved, then the efficacy and merit of Christ’s atonement cannot ensure the salvation of a single soul. I find it hard to imagine a doctrine that would do more to undermine the finality and sufficiency of the atonement than that.
As far as the nature of faith is concerned, it is more than simple agreement with a proposition. James tells us that even the devil has that sort of faith (Jas 2:19) The presence of true biblical faith can be seen through the effects of such faith in our lives. Faith is known by its fruits, as the New Testament teaches, so it is by an appreciation of these fruits in our lives that faith should be recognized. That does not mean that these fruits (the evidence of such faith) supplant faith or supplant the work of Christ, which is a widespread misunderstanding on the part of many interpreters of Calvin. It is through seeing the fruits of faith that we gain assurance of the reality of our faith in the Redeemer. However, and I want to stress this point, these fruits are not the basis of our acceptance with God. The basis of our justification is the righteousness of Christ.
Kendall says that the idea that we must preach the law as a stage in leading to conversion is a Puritan idea that has no support in Calvin, and represents a work of legalism. Is he right, given the fact that Calvin does not believe that there is one typical manner in which people become Christians?
The suggestion that Calvin’s successors believed in the rigid process known as ‘preparationism’ (the idea that people must unaidedly prepare themselves to receive God’s saving grace) is without foundation. Furthermore, Calvinists do not believe, and have never believed, that there is one stereotypical manner in which people become Christians. For instance, compare the conversions of Augustine of Hippo and Bishop JC Ryle, the famous Anglican evangelical. Augustine experienced intense contrition for his sins at the time of his conversion, whereas Ryle tells us in his book, A Self-Portrait, that he underwent a very gradual change and was not aware that the Holy Spirit was working in his life at the time he became a Christian. These were two very different experiences, but they are both cases of conversion. Indeed, such variety of experience in the church is already found in the New Testament. The experience of Zaccheus is different from that of Saul (Luke 19:1-10, Acts 9: 12-22).
Yet for all this variety, it is clear that there are certain strands that are part of biblical conversion. One of these is a conviction of sin. That is why we should not be surprised that there are many explicit passages in The Institutes where Calvin talks about the preaching of the law and the appreciation of the law on the part of the individual as being a necessary element in arousing a sense of spiritual need. Calvin certainly sees that the law plays an essential part, along with other doctrines, of convincing individuals of their sin and arousing in them a desire to repent.
So to what extent should pastors take a cue from Calvin about preaching on God’s law?
This is a very important matter. For Calvin, the law is not simply the Torah of Israel, the gift of God to his people at Mount Sinai. In Calvin’s mind, the law, and the reality of the divine commands, originate in God’s relationship with Adam. So the law is not to be traced only to Moses; it goes back much further. In fact, it precedes even Abraham. Calvin traces the origin of God’s law to Adam. Furthermore, Calvin interprets Romans 1 and 2, and particularly what Paul says in Romans 2 about the conscience having an understanding of the law, even though it doesn’t have access to the revealed law of God, as being an essential part of understanding the relationship of the law and the gospel. I think the point that Calvin makes is that the concept of God’s law is much broader and deeper than the commands the Lord gave to the Israelites.
What is it about Calvin’s understanding of God—especially his understanding of God’s incomprehensibility—that people in the 21st century so desperately need to hear?
The term ‘incomprehensibility’ is a little unfortunate. To people today, it might suggest that all thinking about God is ‘mumbo jumbo’. Again, it might suggest a view of God in which anything goes. Some might reason that because God is incomprehensible, each one is entitled to make up a view of God to suit him or herself.
For Calvin and his successors, the incomprehensibility of God is a technical term—a term of art. It simply denotes the idea that it is impossible for us to get our minds around the infinitude and glory of God. The creator/creature distinction is absolutely fundamental to Calvin’s theology. From this, he reasons that we cannot fit God into the sort of categories that we use to describe and understand aspects of created reality. The reason, then, why the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility is so important is that it is all too easy for us to devise a god whose character is made in our own image. What Calvin, and all those who have followed him, stresses is that the distinction between the Creator and the creature lays the foundation for our relationship with God and the limitations of our knowledge. God’s thoughts will always be beyond human ones. We are limited by our creatureliness.
Some philosophers suggest that human language is too weak and limited to speak usefully about God. Since Calvin had a very big view of God, did he have difficulty with God-talk, and were human words inadequate as far as he was concerned?
Calvin’s view on human language is very interesting: he sees the whole process of divine revelation as being part and parcel of God’s grace. When God reveals himself to us, he is revealing the good news of his grace and mercy. When God does this, he comes down to our level by accommodating himself to human thought-patterns and forms of speech. In other words, God accommodates himself to our own time-bound and space-bound condition. That’s an act of condescension and grace for Calvin. God’s accommodation to us when he speaks is paralleled in the incarnation, which itself is an act of condescension and grace. Obviously, human words can never fully encapsulate the grandeur and glory of God. But that does not mean that language is inadequate for the tasks it has to perform. It is certainly adequate as a vehicle of communication. But that does not mean that it is exhaustive. We can never by our human language encompass God’s majesty and wisdom.
Calvin taught that everyone has an innate knowledge of God. Does this mean that Calvin is opposed to the traditional proofs of the existence of God as well as the use of reason in apologetics as some Calvinists have suggested?
I believe that Calvin thought that the sensus divinitatis (innate sense of God) as he taught it (Rom 1:19) is itself an aspect of natural revelation. In other words, it’s one of the pieces of evidence in the created order that demonstrates (perhaps in a dramatic, rather than an argumentative fashion) that God exists. Calvin doesn’t think that being a believer is simply a blind leap of faith or a mere act of the will. Our belief in God may be based on various lines of evidence that, together, make such a belief plausible. Some of those grounds for believing in God are the evidence of God’s wisdom, power and glory as revealed in the creation. And it’s interesting to see how this works out, for example, in his commentary on Acts 17, where he deals with Paul at the Areopagus. Calvin sees Paul’s preaching as following a fairly clear pattern that presupposes some natural revelation as part of that pattern. People need to remember in this connection that not everything in the Reformation period was brought into question. Calvin was not a revolutionary; he was a reformer. I am not convinced that the doctrine of natural revelation was an issue at the time of the Reformation. It would be foolish to expect Calvin to have as much to say on it as, for example, he does on the nature of human merit.
Do you have any advice to people on how to read The Institutes?
My rather unoriginal advice is to begin at the beginning and to pay particular attention to the first three books and less attention to book four. The other thing I would say is to read patiently. Remember that The Institutes was a much-revised, central text for Calvin. The Institutes represent the key to properly understanding Calvin’s essential thought, as well as providing the theological background to his commentaries. So it’s a key Calvin text that must be read slowly and carefully.
Furthermore, we need to remember, as we noted earlier, that The Institutes is not a theological textbook in the modern sense of the term. For instance, Calvin does not give equal treatment to every topic. And because it is an ‘existential’ work, addressing the whole man, it continually challenges the reader. It’s a Reformation classic—one of the ‘great books’ of the Christian faith.
Reproduced with kind permission from Australian Presbyterian, April 2005.