Monday, January 11, 2010

Calvin and Predestination

I have been reading through Acts as one of of my McCheyne 4-a-day. I have seen grace anew but a couple of verses have stuck with me and made me ponder.

'..all who were appointed to eternal life believed' Acts 13 v 48

'On arriving he was a great help to those who by grace had believed' Acts 18 v 27

I have been asked about predestination a lot recently-not sure why- just have. So perhaps it is spending a week in Geneva with friends that has turned my mind to Calvin once again on this issue?

So, in response, I have dug out an essay I wrote at Vicar Factory on the subject for your perusal. This is what one might therefore call 'a long post' but as I wrote so many blooming essays that are now destined to remain collecting dust unread I thought I might share it on this vexing question.

I hope it is a help to some and comments welcome! A link also to Pastor D answering a Q&A on predestination and the full text of this can be found in Religion Saves and Nine other misconceptions.

Outline Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and assess its importance in his theology?

Concerning the eternal election of God by which He has ordained some to be blessed and some to be damned’ (Institutes III,21)


The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a diamond of combined simplicity and complexity that is unchanging, yet is able to be viewed in unfathomably different lights. If there is any doctrine that causes this to be the case it is that of predestination. If the Gospel is thought about to any level of depth then its implications cause a furrowed brow that sets out in search of answers. If what Jesus says is the truth, then all is potentially not well with, in Calvin’s view, ‘…some to be blessed and some to be damned’ or to use Calvin’s later terminology, predestined. There are things to be explained as to the fate of those to whom the Good News has not been preached. What about those to whom it has been, but they have not accepted? Calvin rises above all others in theological history in his courage to explore what he sees as radical implications of the words of scripture on this issue and takes them to a logical conclusion; a ‘double’ one with implications for the lost and the saved, both at God’s initiation.

To mention Calvin’s name is in the modern world is to hear this doctrine spoken of in almost the following breath. Is this a fair reflection of one of the great towers of human history and the work that he has left behind? Was this his only contribution to theological thought or was it simply a single brick in a far larger building? Have his followers done Calvin a disservice or sustained his fame longer than is rightly due? These questions desperately in need an answer and this survey will attempt to provide a framework for a balanced understanding of Calvin and his theology. He is, in truth, very much more than this single doctrine and it will be argued that this is deservedly so.

Setting the scene

Calvin is one of the giants of Christian history and his influence still pulses its theological shockwave across history. He was born in Noyon in 1509 and lived a generation later than Luther. If Luther had been concerned with the overthrow of the papacy then Calvin’s challenge was new modes of power . He was unique in being both a churchman and a theologian and it is as the former that history has primarily documented his activities. However, the two are intimately related. His challenge was how, in a newly reformed world, were things to be organised, prioritized and overseen? The church needed to agree and implement alternative modes of authority and structure if a vision of a new, purified and moral ecclesiology were to be achieved.

It is fair to say that history has not been kind to Calvin and if his actions are taken out of the context they seem draconian and harsh. Legislation on everything from wearing slashes in breeches, annual home visits to assess parishioners morality and the banning of non-biblical names seem a great distance from the modern articulation and understanding of reformed Christianity. But where did he get the basis for this re-ordering of things? For Calvin, this could come from one source and one source only, the Bible. His understanding of what it said and how it should be applied are outlined in his magnum opus, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’. As Packer observes, ‘..the Institutes transcends any supposed dichotomy between the intellectual and moral aspects of Christianity, and stands as a classic of both orthodoxy(right faith) and orthopraxy(right living)’

The Institutes of the Christian Religion

It is not possible to explore the doctrine of predestination without first seeing it as part of the Institutes of Christian Religion, particularly in this exploration critiquing it within the wider theology of Calvin. The Institutes began life as a pocket book for Protestants on biblical Christianity and were originally about three-quarters the length of the New Testament. They grew over time into a technical polemic on Reformation questions for Christian leaders . By the time the fifth edition was published in 1559, twenty three years after the original, they were as long as the Old Testament and the Gospels together, arranged differently with eighty chapters instead of six. They had become an integrated whole of Christian doctrine, experience and behaviour- the knowledge of God- and encompassed knowing about God (theology) and knowing God relationally (religion) . It is therefore clear to see that the theology of Calvin and his vision for the church were encapsulated in this work.

If we are to evaluate Calvin’s theology, it is important at the outset to be clear on what version of his thinking we are to assume. Any academic or theologian would acknowledge that their thinking is transitional, in the sense that a view espoused in the early part of a career may well be different at the end of a lifetime of reading and new experiences. For Calvin, his initial ideas on predestination were not even called that, instead, he opted for the lighter term ‘providence’. Only later, as the doctrine grew in infamy and controversy, did he add to his terminology predestination (in 1539 retaining the word ‘providence’ in Book I) and lengthen it with his arguments in favour of it and strong rebuttals to his critics. We must therefore take the Institutes in the 1559 fifth edition form as Calvin’s final word on the matter and the ultimate resting place of his theology.

The Doctrine of Predestination

Calvin is best known by Christians for his doctrine of predestination. It is understandable that the thinking Christian, who understands the gospel, is lead on to explore the implications of a theology that so clearly divides the believer from the unbeliever with seemingly dramatic consequences. As Calvin observed in his introduction in the Institutes, ‘a baffling question it seems to many’ .In reality, few ever look to Calvin’s source arguments laid out logically in the Institutes and even fewer have the time or inclination to set the doctrine in the wider theology of the bible and the Institutes. It has to be said, they are the poorer for this lack of additional enquiry.

The first thing that becomes apparent on reading the original is Calvin’s sense of perspective and the caution he gives to the reader. He warns that you are ‘penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom’ and as such there is mystery and unknown in such an exploration. However, for Calvin, it was the pre-eminence of Scripture that seems to have driven his mind to explore these questions and he argues coherently from this position. Above all else, the Bible moulds his writing and without it, by his own admission, he would have no basis at all. He states this profoundly and movingly in Book I of the Institutes:

‘Scripture carrying its own evidence along with it ….owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him we…feel perfectly assured-as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it-that it came to us, by instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God…we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it…I say nothing more that every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of reality’

Calvin had an awesome knowledge of the scriptures, particularly if you consider he did not have recourse to a concordance as we would have today. His scriptural foundation meant that he was not a man who could easily overlook the bible’s claims and certain verses seem to have propelled him into a desire to try to fully explain their meaning. As Neisel rightly observes, ‘He develops the doctrine of election because he feels constrained to do so obediently to the word of Scripture’ Key texts for him were those from Romans (Chapters 9-11), Ephesians and, in the Old Testament, the fact that God in his providence had revealed himself to a chosen people and to chosen individuals. This, and Calvin states this strongly, was not on the basis of merit but somehow on the basis of ‘choice’ (he cites particularly the anomaly of the choice of Jacob over Esau). For the purpose of this exploration we can narrow the texts, as Calvin does in his introductory argument, to Ephesians 1:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ , in accordance with his pleasure and will’…
Ephesians 1:5-6

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with his will, in order that we , who were the first hope in Christ , might be for the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:11

We are quick to think that predestination was a revelation of Calvin alone but he had, as we do today, his own mentors from whose wisdom and work he was able to draw; Augustine, Luther and Bucer would be the obvious three. However, what he did was start with their arguments and then he extends them, coherently and courageously, to their logical and, for some an unpalatable conclusion. His doctrine can be summarized in three words, according to Timothy George: absolute, particular and double. Absolute in that predestination rests solely with the immutable God, particular in referring to individuals and double in God’s justice ordaining both eternity and damnation . A classic summary text from the Institutes is:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he determined 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. Therefore, as any man has been created for one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death’

Augustine had used the term predestination to refer to the availability of grace as the mean of redemption. After the fall, human kind was corrupted and needed God’s grace in order to be restored. He used the term ‘predestination’ as the action of God giving grace to some . But what happens to everybody else? Augustine omits to give a view on this and as such implies passivity on God’s part or, at very least, leaves it as a theological ‘I don’t know’. In contrast, Calvin applies a more activist and logical approach in believing that God must choose either to save or to damn. Luther also looked to Augustine and Calvin had his thinking on predestination also available to him. McGrath is helpful on where they differ in their understanding on this issue and he distils it down to the difference of one word. For Luther, God saves despite the sinners demerits whereas, for Calvin, God saves irrespective of their merits .

The brilliance of Calvin’s thinking on predestination is that he explores a timeless question asked by all Christians. Why are some saved and some not? He does not however sensationalize it but he suggests it is part of the fabric of human experience. Life shows you some are rich and some are poor; some intelligent and some not. Why can one child find the breast milk from its mother and another fail to do so and therefore perish, comments McGrath, concluding that on predestination that, ‘It raises no difficulties which are not already presented by other areas of human existence.’ Calvin’s specific question was why, when the gospel is preached, do some accept it and some seemingly not?

‘ that the covenant of life is not preached to all men in the same way and that even among those to whom it is preached it does not in all cases fall on the same ground nor always retains the same hold’

Are we to conclude that the gospel is in some way inadequate or to be found wanting. A theology that includes acknowledgement of ‘election’ is simply, in Calvin’s eyes, consistent with both the truth of scripture and that of the Gospel. Yet, it remains a mystery and we must ultimately leave it in the hands of God, as he ably states in his own words:

Predestination rests in the inscrutable judgements of God

‘God’s decisions reflect God’s wisdom and justice, which are upheld, rather than contradicted, by the fact of predestination’

The Doctrine’s Opponents

Calvin’s theology went where other’s had feared to go and forced people to ask “For whom then did Christ die”? The traditional view is that Christ died that all would have the potential to be redeemed but it is only effective for those who choose to allow it to have an effect . The thought of God premeditating an elect to be damned was horrifying to many-then as it is now. Calvin himself had coined the term dercretum horribile which is best translated as ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘terrifying’ decree . In the ninth century, a monk called Godescalc had caused controversy saying it was, ‘quite improper to speak of Christ dying for the eternally damned, for if he had, he would have died in vain, since their fate would have been unaffected’. He said Christ had died only for the elect. In his own time, Melanchton objected strongly fearing that it might lead Christian to despair. The debate broadened into one over the fundamentals of the Gospel. Pighius argued that if there were to be an elect and a non-elect then God must have a foreknowledge of our merits and decide accordingly. This struck at heart of the Gospel for Calvin who would never allow it to be seen as calculated on the basis of works. As he did so often, he concluded that the answer lay in the sovereignty of God. Why were some damned? Because …’ it pleased him to do so’. He would no doubt point the scandalized detractors to Ephesians 1:6; for Calvin scripture would always have the last word.

Predestination’s Theological Context

Whilst predestination is the marker by which Calvin has come to be remembered, it does him an injustice to see this as the central part of theological framework. Francois Wendel’s comprehensive survey of Calvin’s theology draws some perceptive and interesting conclusions. He observes that there is, as with any theologian, a desire to look for the central point for their ideas. However, Calvin offers us a plurality of themes each of which has taken differing primacy over the centuries. You could identify the themes of the glory of God, the sovereignty of God, eschatology, the church and, the most popular focus in recent years, the divinity of Christ. Simply analysing the 1559 edition shows you both in order (predestination comes last after faith, regeneration, the Christian life and justification) and also in quantity of writing (Calvin allocates it only four chapters). It cannot objectively warrant its preoccupation in importance given to it by some .

It may be argued that its attention is deserved because of the paradox election seemingly holds together, thereby unduly heightening interest in this doctrine specifically. Wendel rightly states that this is not a unique tension in the Institutes or in theology more generally: God combines love for his creation with wrath for fallen man, offers justification but leaves man a sinner, imputes immediate righteousness yet regeneration is slow and always incomplete . He concludes, ‘it cannot be over-emphasised: faith on predestination is a long way from being the centre of Calvinism; much rather it is the last consequence of faith in the grace of Christ in the presence of the enigmas of experience.’ It is to Jesus that Calvin unswervingly points:

‘ In the person of Jesus Christ we have a mirror which represents for us the universal providence of God which extends through the whole world, unyet shines especially in ourselves’


The starting point for Calvin’s theology was always Jesus Christ. His followers wanted general principles, not a specific historic event . The attempts of Calvinist’s to distil his work into one theme of predestination ignore the role of reason, logic, coherence and method in his theology and in the Institutes themselves. They are a work of extreme complexity, profound genius and timeless relevance. We will be tempted to perplexity when, as Calvin said, ‘the sky is overcast by dense cloud’ when thinking about predestination .

Are we left any clearer in our own day on the issue and the doctrine means for the preaching of the gospel? Ronald Wallace is helpful in his assertion that with regard to the Gospel, Calvin speaks with two voices and offers us a hidden secret . As Calvin says:

‘ Because we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined or does not belong, our desire ought to be that all men be saved’

This is the double will of God. On the one hand his Word tells us that the Gospel should be universally preached and that all should be saved. On the other, this does not prevent God decreeing before the foundation of the world what he will do with every individual . He concludes, ‘ If anyone objects that it is absurd to split God’s will, I answer that is exactly our belief, that his will is one and undivided- but because our minds cannot plumb the profound depths of his secret election, to suit our infirmity the will of God is set before us double’ …..’we see through the glass darkly and must be content with the measure of our own intelligence.’

Calvin is vastly bigger than the doctrine of predestination, important though it is both in its brilliance and in sustaining on-going interest in him and his work. The last word and a wonderful captured summary of the answer to the question must go to J I Packer, possibly Calvin’s most ardent living fan. His wonderful essay entitled, ’Fan mail to Calvin’, is a letter of praise to John Calvin and separates the man from his followers and offers us the happiest of conclusions:

The way you dealt with predestination, in particular, strike me as an all-time brilliancy. Like Paul in Romans, you separated it from the doctrine of providence and postponed it till you had spelled out the gospel, with it’s bona fide, whosoever will promises; then you brought in the truth of election and reprobation, just as in Romans 8 and 9, not to frighten anyone, but to give believers reassurance, hope and strength. It’s a beautifully biblical and powerfully pastoral treatment.

The irony is, as I expect you know, that in the…[nineteenth] century the idea spread that all serious theologians arrange everything round a single focal thought, and yours was predestination, so they lost sight of your biblical breadth and balance and pictured you as a speculative monomaniac who pulled Scripture out of shape to make it fit a scheme of your own devising. That’s still your public image, and Biblicists like you are still called Calvinists in a way that implies they have lost their biblical footing. Such is life! I expect you are glad to be out of it.


J. Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion Edt John T Mc Neill Translated by Ford Lewis Battles, (SCM 1960)

H.Chadwick Reformation (Penguin 1972)

T. George Theology of the Reformers (Broadman 1988)

S. Larson Indelible Ink: Chapter 10 ‘ Calvin, The Institutes and Me’ J.I Packer (Waterbrook 2003)

A. McGrath Reformation thought: An Introduction, 3rd Edition, (1988 Blackwell)
W. Neisel The Theology of Calvin (Clownes 1956)

B. Rearden Religious Thought in the Reformations (Longman 1982)

R. S Wallace Calvin: Geneva, and the Reformation (SAP 1988)

F. Wendel Calvin: Origins and Developments of His Religious Thought (Baker 1997)

No comments: