John Calvin is often one of the most misrepresented theologians in Church history. If you walk into most evangelical churches today bring him up you will receive an earful. J.I. Packer writes, "It is really staggering to observe how persistently, from his day to ours, Calvin and his teaching have been misrepresented and traduced" (Packer). This is all the more true when considering Calvin's doctrine of predestination. Again, walk into most evangelical churches and you will get the idea that Calvin made God into a divine chess player, destroyed human responsibility, and abolished missions of any kind. I've experienced this first hand.
This being said, upon opening Calvin's "Institutes" I was surprised to find out that much of this fear is misconceived and based on hearsay. The first thing that I noticed was that his hotly debated understanding of predestination didn't not play a central role in his theology, but was rather a piece in a puzzle, albeit a rather large piece, that helps to prove his main theological ideas. As with other reformers, the idea that God's grace plays the central role in justification by faith pushed Calvin toward the idea of predestination (Kroon 133). Calvin Says it this way:
Among those to whom it (the gospel) is preached, it does not gain the same acceptance either constantly or in equal degree. In this diversity the wonderful depth of God's judgment is made known. (920, 921 parenthesis mine).Because of this:
It comes to pass by God's bidding that salvation is freely offered to some while others are barred from access to it, at once great and difficult questions spring up, explicable only when reverent minds regard as settled what may suitably hold concerning election and predestination. (921)From here Calvin beautifully unpacks his beliefs of predestination and it is to this that we now turn.
In section one of chapter 21 of his famous "Institutes," Calvin right from the start makes it clear that his discussions concerning predestination (also called election) are a consequence of what has been revealed concerning salvation. He writes, "To make it clear that our salvation comes about solely from God's mere generosity—we must be called back to the course of election" (McNeill 921). In other words, any discussion of justification by faith will eventually point us towards God's unconditional election. Because of this, Calvin believes it is wrong to disbar any conversation on the topic and to do so is to, "Tear humility up by the very roots" and defraud believers, "of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. (921, 924). Although Calvin urges us to contemplate this doctrine, he sternly warns against useless speculation for mere curiosity. He writes, "If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit" (923). To guard from this he states that we must stay within the bounds of Scripture because, "the moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness" (923)… In other words, "God can only be known where he has made himself known" (Steinmetz 48). To try and find God where he has not revealed himself is true folly. Because of this Calvin attempts in his doctrine of predestination stay close to what is revealed in Scripture.
In section five of chapter 21 Calvin gives a simple definition of what predestination is. He writes:
We call predestination 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. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (926)With the basic definition of predestination now stated, Calvin now proceeds to move onto how this is shown in Scripture.
He begins his survey by explicating how this is shown in God's sovereign choice to bring salvation to Israel in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 32:8, 9 states:
8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. 9 But the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.Calvin believes this passage shows the separation that is apparent to all humanity (927). He writes, "One people is peculiarly chosen, while the others are rejected" (927)… This can also be seen in one of Moses declarations to the people of Israel. He exclaims, "It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you" (Deuteronomy 7:7, 8)… Because of this verse and others like it, Calvin believes that it is ludicrous to deny predestination. This is because God's free election of Israel proves that one nation is not preferred above all others because of something it inherently offers, rather it is chosen because of God's free mercy and his purpose (927).
The second stage of Calvin's argument is to show how individuals were both elected and damned within Israel. He writes, "From the same race of Abraham God rejected some but showed that he kept others among his sons" (929)… This idea is most plainly revealed to us in the narrative of Jacob and Esau where God chooses Jacob over Esau in the womb. Genesis 25:23 reads, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger." It is because of this divine election that God can speak through Malachi saying, "Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated" (1:2, 3). This illustration and others from Scripture lead Calvin to again conclude that in his mere generosity God, "has not been bound by any laws but is free, so that equal appointment of grace is not to be required of him" (929).
The argument of section six leads Calvin to state in next section that God's election is preeminently seen in his election of individual persons (Battles 258). Calvin writes:
His free election has been only half explained until we come to individual persons, to whom God not only offers salvation but so assigns it that the certainty of its effect is not in suspense or doubt. (McNeill 930)
For Calvin this can be seen in the fact that although Israel was called, few were given the "inner grace" to ascend to the head which is Christ (930). He writes, "In the members of Christ a far more excellent power of grace appears, for, engrafted to their Head, they are never cut off from salvation" (930). In other words, out of Israel whom he called, God employs a special mode of election for those who would be the Spiritual children of Abraham engrafted into the head who is Christ.
This can be seen from the fact that out of Israel God is calling and preserving a remnant for himself (931) He writes, "That adoption of Abraham's seed in common was a visible image of the greater benefit that God bestowed on some out of the many" (931). In other words, God's predestined plan was to elect not a nation, but those individuals who would be his spiritual offspring alone (931).
After this section, Calvin gives a summary and conclusion of his survey of election found in chapter 21. In this summary he concludes that through Scripture it becomes obvious that God has established by his eternal decree and unchanging plan those who he would receive salvation and those he would devote to destruction (931). He writes:
We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation. (931)Justification by faith is the sign of this eternal decree. It is by justification that God seals his elect and also shuts off the reprobate from the knowledge of his name and sanctification of his Spirit (931). Thus, through this his righteous judgment is made clear (931). Consequently by stating this, Calvin ingeniously confirms his thesis given in section one where he writes:
Among those to whom it is preached, it does not gain the same acceptance either constantly or in equal degree. In this diversity the wonderful depth of God's judgment is made known. (920, 921).How is this so? It is because Justification is the sign that God uses to seal his elect and judge the reprobate (931).
My Own Personal Views on Calvin's View
As I mentioned in previous blogs, upon beginning to work out the doctrine of justification by faith, which I feel is one of the most obvious themes found in Scripture, predestination became something I had to deal with. If we are totally depraved and are only saved by God's gracious initiative then I do not see how one cannot hold the doctrine of predestination. Anytime we bring something to the equation whether that's through God's foreknowledge that we would be righteous if given the gift of salvation or the antinomy of the divine and human will working together the doctrine of justification by faith falls apart. As Ephesians 2:8, 9 states, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Italics mine). If we add anything to the equation, these verses fall apart and if this is true nobody can be saved because we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:10, 11).
As much as I try to escape what is at times a terrifying doctrine, I am always pulled back to it by the conviction that my salvation is based on the gracious initiative of God. For this reason I am able at time to embrace the positive side of this doctrine. By positive I mean the fact that our salvation is dependent upon God's gracious initiative. When that line of conversation leads to the idea of election I will gladly go there within the bounds of Scripture. Thus, I can follow Calvin this far.
Where I cannot go yet is the negative side. Calvin writes, "Election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation" (McNeill 947). Simply put, if some are saved only by the gracious election of God, it must follow that some are created for everlasting destruction in hell. Although this is the logical outworking of the doctrine of election, I cannot go all the way. Although I believe that in not accepting this, the doctrine might fall apart, I still cannot go all the way. In his "Institutes", Calvin offers a worthy argument concerning the validity of this part of the doctrine. He writes that when we disagree with this we are judging with a human ethic which God cannot be judged by. He exclaims, "God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous" (949). In other words, if God for his good pleasure thought it was right to destine some for destruction that means it is righteous (Kroon 135). This train of thought is in accordance with parts of Scripture (Romans 9:21-23 for example). Although this is the case, I still cannot embrace it in full and/or reconcile this side of the doctrine with the full revelation of Scripture. Put Calvin's logic concerning the creation of those damned for destruction next to John 3:16 and it cannot stand no matter what hermeneutical acrobatics Calvin does. Because of this, I stand with Martin Luther who was unable to go as far as Calvin did with the doctrine because he felt that Scripture is not entirely clear on this subject (Zahl 232). In the end, I rest in the fact that God is good and also his revelation to Isaiah which reads, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher then you ways and my thoughts higher than yours" (55:8, 9). I believe that this half of the doctrine is in the realm of the hidden mysterious nature of God.
As always I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject…
Battles, Ford. "Analysis of the Inistitures of the Christian Religion of John Calvin."
Calvin, John. "Institutes of Christian Religion volumes I & II."
Klooster, Fred. Calvin's Doctrine of Predestination.
Kroon, Marijn de. The Honour of God and Human Salvation: A contribution to an understanding of Calvin's theology according to his Institutes.
Packer, J.I.. "Calvin the Theologian." Churchman 073/3 (1959). http://www.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_073_3_Packer.pdf
Zahl, Paul. "The Christianity Primer."