John Calvin's Doctrine of
by Rev. Bryn MacPhail
For the last four hundred years there have been those who have found Calvin's doctrine of election to be a sign of the profundity of his thought, yet there have been equally as many who have found Calvin's doctrine of election to be a mark of absurdity(Gerrish 49). James Arminius, for one, argued that Calvin's predestination is "repugnant" to the justice of God because it affirms that God has absolutely willed to save certain men without having the least regard to righteousness and obedience(Arminius 624), and is "prejudicial" to man because it has been "pre-determined" that the greater part of mankind shall fall into everlasting condemnation(Arminius 626).
In the spirit of Calvin's statement "whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God"(Inst. III, 21, 4) this essay will endeavour to accurately expound John Calvin's doctrine of predestination with the expectation of illuminating its veracity and congruence with Scripture.
1.The Historical Origins of
The doctrine of predestination is not unique to Calvin. It did not originate with him. It has been propagated since the time of Paul by a plethora of theologians who sought to articulate the method by which the "elect" were "eternally adopted" as "sons of God" . Of these theologians, it is commonly been recorded that the greatest influence on Calvin's doctrine of predestination was Augustine(Wendel 124). Calvin constantly read Augustine, quoted him at every opportunity, appropriated his expressions, and regarded his teachings as his ally in the face of controversy(Wendel 124).
In undertaking the exposition of Calvin's predestination it is also noteworthy to recognize that this doctrine must not be understood as the centre or foundation of his teaching(Wendel 264). Theologian, Paul Wernle, writes that "it cannot be over-emphasized . . . predestination is a long way from being the centre of Calvinism"(Wendel 265). In the Institutes of 1536, predestination did not even appear as an independent doctrine. Calvin mentioned it only in two places; in the explanation of the second article of the Creed, and in regard to the definition of the Church(Wendel 265). Wendel observes that Calvin accorded a growing importance to predestination because of "the sway of ecclesiological and pastoral preoccupations rather than in order to make it a main foundation of his theology"(Wendel 264).
These "preoccupations" often took the form of controversy for John Calvin. One of his most formidable opponents to his doctrine of predestination was a former Carmelite friar, Jerome Bolsec(McNeill 172). Bolsec charged Calvin with making God the author of sin with his doctrine of predestination(McNeill 172). Calvin took Bolsec's charges before the city government in 1551 which led to the eventual banishment of Bolsec(Walker 478). This episode led Calvin to an even greater insistence on the vital importance of predestination than ever before(Walker 478).
Calvin recognized that there were many, like Bolsec, who wished that "every mention of predestination be buried"(Inst. III, 21, 3). Calvin, however, reminds us that predestination is a biblical concept, and that nothing is taught in Scripture "but what is expedient to know"(Inst. III, 21, 3). Wendel infers that since predestination is taught by the Scriptures and is "expedient to know" it must be preached in public(Wendel 271). Calvin warns that to reject the preaching and expounding of predestination on the pretext that it may trouble "weaker souls" is to openly reproach God "as if he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church"(Inst. III, 21, 4). Calvin's ambition in bringing predestination to the forefront was not to centralize it in his theology, but to avoid neglecting what God "has brought into the open" so that we may not be convicted of "excessive ingratitude"(Inst. III, 21, 4).
2.The Definition of Calvin's
Since we cannot deny the necessity of confabulating with the doctrine of election, the fundamental task remaining is the coherent and veracious articulation of this doctrine. Calvin defines predestination as,
God's eternal decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others(Inst. III, 21, 5).
This definition requires some qualification because many of Calvin's opponents, including Arminius, would not have a problem with this definition. Arminius did not deny predestination, in fact, he believed in it, "I do not present as a matter of doubt the fact that God has elected some to salvation, and not elected or passed by others"(Bangs 201). The difference is he did not base it on a "divine arbitrary decree", but upon God's foreknowledge of man's merit(Bettenson 268).
Calvin seemed to foresee that there would be people that would argue that God "distinguishes among men according as he foresees what the merits of each will be"(Inst. III, 22, 1). Calvin, accordingly, writes against this notion, "by thus covering election with a veil of foreknowledge, they not only obscure it but feign that it has its origin elsewhere"(Inst. III, 22, 1). Calvin contests that this view of foreknowledge makes man God's co-worker in salvation, and implies that election is ratified only by man's consent. This is to make the gravest of errors because it suggests that man's will is superior to God's plan, or at the very least, implies God's plan is partially dependent on man(Inst. III, 24, 3). In refutation of this view, Calvin asserts that "this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth"(Inst. III, 21, 7 emphasis added).
Calvin wisely proceeds to draw exhaustively from Scripture to buttress his argument citing that God chose us "before the foundations of the world were laid"(Eph.1:4a), "according to the good pleasure of his will"(Eph.1:5), in order "that we should be holy and spotless and irreproachable in his sight"(Eph.1:4b). Calvin observes that Paul sets "God's good pleasure" over against any merit of ours, declaring all virtue in man to be the result of his election(Inst. III, 22, 2). Calvin continues by arguing that if God chose us to be holy, it naturally follows that he would not have chosen us because he foresaw that we would be so(Inst. III, 22, 3). The fact that God chose the elect to be holy also refutes the accusation and misrepresentation that predestination overthrows all exhortations to godly living(Inst. III, 23, 13). Calvin reminds his opponents that election has as its goal, holiness of life, "therefore, it ought to arouse us to eagerly set our mind upon it than to serve as a pretext for doing nothing"(Inst. III, 23, 12). Calvin remarks that Paul afterward confirms what he had earlier said about the origin of our election when he states: "According to the purpose of his will"(Eph.1:5), "which he had purposed in himself"(Eph.1:9). This is to say that God considered nothing outside himself with which to be concerned in making his decree(Inst. III, 22, 2).
To more meticulously deal with the objection by some that God would be contrary to himself if he should universally invite all men to him but choose only a few as elect(Inst. III, 22, 10), Calvin draws heavily from the ninth chapter in Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul writes that before Jacob and Esau were born, or had done anything good or bad "in order that God's purpose of election might continue . . . the elder will serve the younger"(Rom.9:11,12). Calvin therefore argues that, "rejection does not occur on the basis of works"(Inst. III, 23, 11). He argues that Paul specifically emphasizes that point by showing that before Jacob and Esau had done anything good or evil, one was chosen, the other rejected(Rom.9:13). This is in order to prove that the foundation of divine predestination is not in works(Inst. III, 23, 11). Calvin also reminds us that the apostle Paul writes that God "has mercy upon whomever He wills, and He hardens the heart of whomever He wills"(Rom.9:18). "Has not the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for dishonour?"(Rom.9:21). God is free to determine a purpose for election, but that purpose has nothing to do with man's desire or effort. Nothing is more clear in Romans nine, "it does not therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy"(Rom.9:16).
To comprehend that God chooses us not because of what he finds in us, but according to his own good pleasure, gives rise to the charge that God is arbitrary(Sproul 156). Arminius, when citing the difference between his predestination and that of Calvin, declares that he did not base predestination on a "divine arbitrary decree"(Bettenson 268). This is an erroneous evaluation of Calvin's doctrine because it suggests that God makes his selection in a whimsical or capricious manner. Calvin's argument is only that there is no reason found in us, but that is not to say that God has no reason in Himself. This is precisely what Calvin is trying to communicate when he reasons that we are saved by "God's eternal decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man"(Inst. III, 21, 5).
It should now be apparent that while most bible-believing Christians do in fact acquiesce to some form of predestination they depart on the issue of the basis of this election. Arminians will contend that we are chosen according to foreknowledge of merit(Bettenson 268), while a Calvinist theology maintains that we are chosen "because He has willed it"(Inst. III, 23, 2). Calvin believes that if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, "you are seeking something greater and higher than God's will, which cannot be found"(Inst. III, 23, 2).
3.The Role of Redemption in
Skeptics of this type of predestination often ask if God has predetermined salvation and reprobation from all eternity "where is the need for any intervention by the Christ, either to communicate their salvation, or still less to obtain it for them?"(Wendel 229). Though Wendel concedes that it might at "first sight" appear that election must exclude the need for redemption, he reminds us that this is certainly not the opinion of John Calvin and is therefore not an appropriate charge against him(Wendel 229). Calvin affirms the necessity of Christ's redemption by reminding us that "God was at enmity with men until they were brought back into grace by the death of Christ"(Inst. II, 16, 2). For Calvin, Christ is the "indispensable instrument that God uses to attract his elect to him"(Wendel 230). Calvin also reminds us that Paul states that the love God had for us before the creation of the world had always been founded in Christ(Eph.1:4, Inst. II, 16,). Christ's work of salvation thus appears as the necessary consequence of the eternal decree of election(Wendel 231). God is only capable of adopting us into his holy presence in so far as Christ removes the stain of our sin. Therefore, Christ is the means chosen from all eternity, without which there would be no basis for election and no solution to the problem of enmity between God and man(Wendel 231).
4.Adam's Sin and its
John Calvin contends that the divine image "has not been completely eliminated"(Niesel 81). Man has not become a "beast", but remains a being gifted in contradistinction to the beasts because of our will-power and ability to reason(Niesel 81). It is true, however, that the divine similitude in man and his original uprightness no longer exist(Inst. I, 15, 4). This change away from the original orientation towards God is rooted in the fall of Adam(Niesel 81). The first man created by God fell away from his creator and thus decided the fate of the whole human race(Inst. II, 1).
It is now necessary to consider the question how is it possible that the sin of the first man should be our sin, that is to say, the sin of the whole human race. The usual answer given is that we inherited sin from our first ancestor(Niesel 83). Calvin recognizes that this answer is not quite correct(Inst. II, 1, 7). Adam was the embodiment of the whole human race and Calvin believed it was by the will of God that we should be represented in him(Niesel 84). His behaviour was treated as our behaviour, "Hence, it is not so much that each one of us has inherited vice and corruption from his parents but rather that we have all been at the same time corrupted in the one Adam"(Niesel 84). We should not view Adam therefore, as a carrier of a contagious disease, called sin. More appropriately, Adam should be seen as our chosen representative by God to act on our behalf. Since Adam failed and was punished, so too are we punished and tainted with original sin.
Calvin reminds us that man, as he was corrupted by the Fall, "sinned willingly, not unwillingly or by compulsion; by the most eager inclination of his heart"(Inst. II, 3, 5). The term used by contemporary theologians to describe John Calvin's theology of the sinfulness of fallen man is total depravity. When describing man's depraved state, Calvin quotes the apostle Paul, "no one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God . . . not even one"(Rom.3:11,12). R.C. Sproul recognizes the natural response to this passage,
No one does good? How can that be? Every day we see rank pagans doing some good. We see them performing heroic acts of sacrifice, works of industry, prudence, and honesty. We see unbelievers scrupulously obeying the speed limits while cars whiz by them bearing bumper stickers that read "Honk if you love Jesus" . . . Surely there are people who do good. No! The sober judgement of God is that no one does good, no, not one(Sproul 106).
Calvinism assumes that without the intervention of God no one will ever want Christ. Left to themselves no one will ever choose Christ(Sproul 34). Fallen man is described in the New Testament as being "dead in sin". Dead men cannot make themselves come alive, they cannot create spiritual life within themselves(Sproul 114). Calvin writes that "Man cannot ascribe to himself even one single good work apart from God's grace"(Inst. II, 3, 12), and this inability to do good manifests itself "in the work of redemption, which God does quite alone"(Inst. II, 3, 6).
5.The Implications of Election
From the preceding paragraphs we have learned that Calvin affirms that "eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others"(Inst. III, 21, 5). The reason for this ordination is rooted in "God's good pleasure" as opposed to foreknowledge of merit, and in fact, we are incapable of merit since Adam's fall, and only through Christ's redemption is the salvation of the elect even possible. There are some very obvious implications and difficult questions raised in light of these assertions. If God foreordains according to His will who goes to heaven, and the means to this salvation lies in Christ's payment of sin then does it not logically follow that Christ's death was intended only for the elect?
This question has been commonly rephrased to ask whether the atonement provided by Christ is "unlimited" or "limited". If Christ's atonement is unlimited, it is sufficient and intended to save every person without exception. If it is limited, it is sufficient and intended for the elect only(Pink 59). This is often the point of departure where many reformed theologians claim that by ascribing this "limited atonement" to Calvinism, Calvin ceases to be a Calvinist. This essay agrees with that notion and purports that of the five modern-day terms used to summarize Calvinism, "limited atonement" is the most abused and misunderstood.
The only interpretation of "limited atonement" that is faithful to Calvin's beliefs is that God does not will everyone to be saved. This is not to say, however, that the means to salvation(Christ's expiation of sin resulting in propitiation) is not accessible to all. The command to proclaim the gospel to every person would be cruel and hypocritical if Christ did not die for all sinners. Against those who make a travesty of Calvin's doctrine, he writes that "there is ready pardon for all sinners, provided they turn back to seek it"(Inst. III, 24, 16). The problem is that "no one seeks God", therefore Christ's sacrifice for all only becomes effectual in those God has elected from all eternity.
Christ's sacrifice is certainly sufficient for all, but as Calvin argues, it is not intended for all. Though the Scripture says that God "wants all men to be saved"(1Tim.2:4), Calvin maintains that the wicked perish by God's ordination(Inst. III, 24, 15). In response to the above verse, Calvin insists that Paul surely means that "God has not closed the way to salvation to any order of men"(Inst. III, 24, 16). Calvin argues that in this passage Paul was making it clear that it was no longer true that only Jewish people could appeal to God for salvation. Calvin challenges his opponents by quoting Ezekiel, "when he promises that he will give a certain few a heart of flesh but leave the rest with a heart of stone(Ezek.36:26), let him be asked whether he wills to convert all"(Inst. III, 24, 16). To say otherwise, that God has purposed the salvation of all mankind when it is apparent that the great majority of our fellow men are dying in sin is to say that God is disappointed and defeated(Pink 21). This is how we must interpret Calvin's understanding of "limited atonement": Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for all, "mercy is extended to all", and salvation is announced "to all men indiscriminately"(Inst. III, 24, 17), but for all men(without exception) to be saved, all must implore this blessing or have it given by God. Since "no one seeks God" Calvin asserts that "only those whom He has illumed do this"(Inst. III, 24, 17), and that God "does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others"(Inst. III, 21, 1).
Many have argued against limited atonement by postulating that God wills all people(without exception) to be saved and that He provides the grace necessary for salvation. Those who are damned are justly condemned for persistent resistance against God's grace(Arminius 653). By arguing against limited atonement, opponents of Calvin are forced subsequently to disagree with what we know as "irresistible grace". The opponents of Calvinist predestination must say that grace is resistible because by contending that it is extended to every man, and cognizant of the fact that most are perishing they can only deduce that man can and does resist the grace of God.
There are many representations of grace in the Scriptures that describe it capable of "being resisted"(Acts 7:51), and "received in vain"(2Cor.6:1), and that it is possible for man to avoid yielding his assent to it; and to refuse all cooperation with it(Heb.12:15). On the contrary, Calvin argues that it is an irresistible force(Inst. III, 22, 7). How does Calvin deal with the Scriptures that seem to illuminate the resistibility of the Holy Spirit? Calvin acknowledges that grace is resistible in the sense that people can and do resist it, but this is the grace of the "general call" where God invites all equally to himself by the outward preaching of the word(Inst. III, 24, 8). The grace that is irresistible is "saving grace" which is the "special call" given only to the elect(Inst. III, 24, 8). This "saving grace" is irresistible in the sense that it will certainly achieve its desired effect, the salvation of the elect(Sproul 121). The idea of "irresistible grace" is a logical deduction from the premises that an all-powerful God chooses from all eternity a people, who are consistently antagonistic towards Him, which results in their salvation. How else could an unwilling and morally depraved human being gain salvation except by God taking out their "heart of stone" and replacing it with a "heart of flesh"?(Ezek.36:26).
Opponents of Calvin contend that it would be unfair for God to withhold from man the necessary grace to obtain salvation(Arminius 630), but Calvin conversely argues that an "equal apportionment of grace is not required of Him"(Inst. III, 21, 6).
Let us imagine for a minute that sufficient grace is extended to every person without exception. If there is sufficient grace given to every man, what distinguishes the man who answers the divine call from the one who does not? If it is something of grace, then the man who does not answer cannot answer as Calvin asserts. If it is something on the part of man, then man determines his own salvation and has something to boast about(Bangs 324). What in man causes him to determine salvation for himself? Is it superior intellect? If so, man would have plenty to boast about, unless it was due to divine appointment. If intellect is apportioned according to divine appointment, God obviously was not fair in apportioning intellect. What deters man from cooperating? Is it pride? If so, why is one man prouder than another? If pride is apportioned according to divine appointment then God does not treat men equally as Calvin already suggests. If pride isn't divinely apportioned, man has contributed to his salvation with an act of humility. One can only feasibly argue against "irresistible grace" by denying that we are totally depraved--but to do so would be to dispute the myriad of Scripture that teaches otherwise(Isa.64:6, Rom.3:11,12).
One last notable implication of this doctrine of election is the notion of the "perseverance of the saints". Calvin writes that it is impossible for those "who truly believe" to completely "fall away"(Inst. III, 24, 7). R.C. Sproul suitably prefers to call this the "preservation of the saints"--attributing the completion of our salvation to God's preservation as opposed to some effort of our own(Sproul 175). Calvin agrees when he states that salvation is "founded upon the election of God, and could never fail unless his eternal providence were dispelled"(Inst. IV, 1, 3). The elect can no doubt sway and fluctuate, and even fall; but they will not eternally perish because the Lord will always stretch out His arm to save them(Niesel 169).
For those who hold that God only acts when we begin to act, or that He continues to act only if we fulfill certain conditions, Calvin warns that those people's real dependence is upon themselves, not God(Gerrish 57). If God's sovereignty is dependent on man's freedom, then God is not sovereign; man is sovereign(Sproul 43). Calvin was thoroughly convinced that any faith that does not rely wholly upon God lives in anxiety about their spiritual condition, and there can be no certainty that they will not totally and finally fall away(Gerrish 57).
There is no doctrine of the bible more despised than reprobation. It is the most hated doctrine, and the most misunderstood. Calvin even sympathetically declares "I confess that this decree ought to appal us", specifically, when we think of reprobation according to human reason alone(Wendel 281). Reprobation is the flipside of election. It refers to those whom God passes over and condemns. Calvin claims that election would be inconsistent and incomplete "if it were not placed in opposition to reprobation"(Inst. III, 23, 1). While fully maintaining the incomprehensibility of the decree, Calvin is led to affirm that reprobation occurs "for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children"(Inst. III, 23, 1). Calvin anticipates those who would object to God choosing some and passing over other, but asks them to answer why they are men rather than "oxen or asses"--"although it was in God's power to make them dogs, He formed them in his own image"(Inst. III, 22, 1).
The term reprobation has often been mentioned alongside the term "double predestination" in contemporary circles. The problem with this juxtaposition is the ambiguity of term double predestination. There are many varying views, but only a couple are suitable for this discussion. One view of double predestination has been called the "equal ultimacy" view. This view states that just as God intervenes in the lives of the elect to create faith in their hearts, so God equally intervenes in the lives of the reprobate to create or work unbelief in their hearts(Sproul 142). In ascribing this view to Calvin, many have protested that "Calvin is not a Calvinist", and rightly so. This is not Calvin's approach to the doctrine of reprobation.
Jerome Bolsec's charge against Calvin was that his doctrine of reprobation made God the author of evil. Whether this charge is appropriate depends on what is meant by "author". If by author of evil Bolsec meant that God creates unbelief in the reprobate's heart and coerces them to sin; nothing is further from Calvin's theology. However, if by "author of evil" Bolsec meant God, who is the Creator of all things and who has the power to prevent sin, but chooses not to; then he is correct. Calvin is clear on the fact that it is not by outward compulsion that we are caused us to sin, but instead "we freely choose evil" and cannot depart from this path(Niesel 87). The reprobate resists grace because they are not chosen. The wording here is crucial; the reprobate resists not because they are forced to, but because they aren't forced not to. Calvinism sees man sinning by his own free will, not by divine coercion(Sproul 97).
God ordains the entrance of sin by His infinite and incomprehensible wisdom which sees something better arising from it. This does not tarnish the holiness of God in anyway because God does not commit a sin. Calvin reminds us that "God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the virtue that he wills it, must be considered righteous"(Inst. III, 23, 2). We must conclude then, that God's decision to allow sin into the world was a good one(Sproul 31). God is responsible for man's ability(free will) to choose sin, but the act of committing sin comes solely from man's free will. If we were coerced into sinning, this would be incompatible with our responsibility and would make guilt impossible(Niesel 87). Calvin, however, is certain that we freely choose sin. This makes man responsible for committing sin and for his own damnation, and it makes God responsible for all that is good, and the salvation of the elect.
There are those in opposition to Calvin who "wickedly accuse" God of biased justice because in his predestination He does not maintain the same attitude toward all(Inst. III, 23, 11). They ask, "If we all deserve hell, why don't we all end up there? If God is willing to pardon some, why is He unwilling to pardon all?"(Inst. III, 23, 11). We are not all condemned because God wishes "to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy"(Rom.9:23). God saves some because He is merciful, and condemns the rest because He is just. These opponents either wish to "deprive God of His capacity to show mercy" or they insist that God should "give up his judgement completely"(Inst. III, 23, 11). Is there any reason that a righteous God must be obligated toward a creature who hates him and rebels constantly against his divine authority?(Sproul 33). God is debtor to no one, for "no one has first given to him, that he should demand something back"(Rom.11:35). If God were to save us all He would abrogate His justice because justice would not be served. Justice must and will be served because God is a just God. This essay realizes that it is limited in its clarity by having to argue anthropomorphically, but is constrained to do so because this is how God accommodates us in Scripture. Calvin reconciles God's mercy and justice according to the words of Augustine,
The Lord can therefore also give grace . . . to whom He will . . . because He is merciful, and not give to all because He is a just judge. For by giving to some what they do not deserve, . . . He can show His free grace . . . By not giving to all, He can manifest what all deserve"(Inst. III, 23, 11).
Calvin concludes that this is just because "none undeservedly perish, and that it is God's freely given kindness that some are released"(Inst. III, 24, 12).
Calvin observes that the separation of the elect from the reprobate is effected by God, but we cannot always clearly distinguish between them. Calvin asserts therefore, that we should exercise a "judgement of charity", and count as elect all those who by their words and conduct "profess one and the same God and Christ with us"(Wendel 266).
This essay earlier asserted that the doctrine of predestination is the most hated doctrine, but that is only how it is commonly understood. It is in fact, the most blessed doctrine in all of Scripture. That God would choose from all eternity a people that are consistently antagonistic towards Him, and in order to effect this foreordination of salvation, becomes incarnate in Christ and dies for the sins of men to restore fellowship. Wilhem Niesel believes that "Calvin's doctrine of election is intended to be nothing more than an expression of glad tidings: in Christ, God has elected us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless"(Niesel 169).
This doctrine is also the most God glorifying doctrine. It gives God all the glory. God elects us, sends Christ to pay for our sin, sends the necessary faith and grace to save us, and sustains us until the end. Man does absolutely nothing. Calvin's doctrine of election magnifies the glory of God and reduces us to true humility, "neither will anything else suffice to make us humble as we ought to be nor shall we otherwise sincerely feel how much we are obliged to God"(Inst. III, 21, 1). Calvin developed the doctrine of election because he felt constrained to do so obediently to the Word of Scripture. This essay concurs with John Calvin, that his doctrine of predestination, has been completely faithful to the Holy Scriptures, and in doing so, he has given the Church a coherent and invaluable doctrine to motivate us to glorify God's name.
Bibliography: To be completed shortly