Reflections on Calvin, part 5

(Note: I had to do a more elaborate reflection for a project, so this is a bit longer than usual)

Chapter 4: On Faith, Where the Apostles’ Creed is Explained

Part 1: Faith and the Trinity (176-215)
Faith (176-196)
Definition of Faith (176-190)
Objections (190-196)
Trinity (196-215)
Part 2: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (215-270)
First Part (215-218)
I believe in God the Father almighty
Creator of Heaven and Earth
Second Part (218-240)
And in Jesus Christ, His sole Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified
Dead and buried
He descended into hell
The third day He rose from the dead
He ascended into the heavens and is seated at the right of God the Father almighty
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead
Third Part- I believe in the Holy Spirit (240-241)
Fourth Part
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh; life eternal

As in his 1536 Institutes, this chapter follows the one on Law and the outline remains the same: a definition of faith followed by an explanation of the Apostles’ Creed. However, by the time of the final 1559 edition, many of the parts have been scattered according to their loci communes. For instance, his discussion on Faith appears in book three, chapter two, is considerably expanded, and is not immediately followed by a discussion of the Trinity. Instead, the Trinity is discussed in book 1 (Of the Knowledge of God the Creator), chapter 13. His discussion on the Incarnation and the two natures of Christ appear in book two (Of the Knowledge of God the Redeemer), chapters 13-14. As for the Apostle’s Creed, Calvin has reworked his entire project around the Creed, dividing his book into four parts corresponding to the four sections of the Creed.

In regards to Faith, Calvin spends a considerable amount of time determining the nature of true faith and it’s object (i.e., the Trinity). He notes at the beginning that faith must be specific for it to effect salvation, since “it is well known that some kind of idea or persuasion that one has about God is not enough to bring about such a great good” (176). While this critique can easily apply to the inclusivists of today, it was specifically directed against the Sobornnists who distinguished between a “formed” and “unformed” faith (cf. 193). In opposition to this, Calvin defines faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s good will toward us which, being founded on the promise freely given in Jesus Christ, is revealed to our understanding and sealed in our heart by the Holy Spirit” (179), and which must “be planted in the heart” (190). While this definition is a pithy summary of the Gospel, his understanding of the certainty associated with faith lacks the pastoral understanding of his predecessor, Luther. Indeed, his definition of a true faith as one who, “being reassured by certain persuasion that God is a favorable Father and has good will toward him, expects all things from His kindness; the one who, being supported on the promises of God’s good will, conceives an undoubted expectation of his salvation” (181, emphasis mine). He does attempt to pastorally explain how a Christian may struggle with doubt, but his tone throughout appears to militate against any form of uncertainty and label it, ultimately, as a false faith. Since such a definition of faith seems antithetical to experience; is his definition sufficient or should it be modified?

Once the nature of faith has been elucidated, the object of faith must then be explained. This object is the Trinity, which today is often relegated to the back of introductory doctrine as being too difficult for new believers. Interestingly, Calvin differs little from Roman Catholics in his understanding of the Trinity, yet he spills much ink in order to explain his understanding. His superfluity can be accounted for in two ways.[1] First, the original Institutes was essentially a catechism and this edition retains that purpose, so a discussion on the Trinity would be natural. Second, in 1537, Caroli calumniated Calvin and his associates of Arianism and it would behoove Calvin in his 1539 edition to elaborate his Trinitarian theology to prove his orthodoxy (cf. Gordon, 73). Has the fear of prying to deep into the nature of God harmed the contemporary layman’s understanding of the Trinity? Should the Trinity be the beginning point of catechetical instruction or even evangelism?

While Calvin may be called the theologian of the Spirit, he does not spend a lot of time dwelling specifically on the Spirit when compared with the Son or the Father. Yet, when he does speak about the Spirit, his comments are sometimes unclear. Specifically, on page 210, when he discusses how the Spirit is distinguished from the Son and Father, he rightly notes that, “The distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Father is indicated to us when it is said that He proceeds from the Father; the distinction between the Spirit and the Son is indicated when He is called something different, as when Jesus Christ declares that another Comforter will come.” This would please even the most Slavophilic Eastern Orthodox. However, the confusion arises shortly after when he says, “the Father is called the First, then the Son as coming form Him, then the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the two,” and again, “for that reason the Son is said to be produced by the Father; the Spirit by both Father and Son, something often repeated in scripture” (cf. his commentary on Rom. 8:9-11). Here Calvin shows his Catholic heritage by confessing the filioque. If the distinction between the Father and the Spirit is that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, and that there is a different distinction (or signified by a different term) between the Spirit and the Son, then it seems contradictory to say that the Spirit proceeds from both. While the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of both, as his comment on Rom. 8:9 shows, he should choose better vocabulary so as not to confuse the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity. If the object of our faith is the Trinity, how “much” does one need to know or understand to be saved?

On page 211, Calvin oddly refers to the Persons of the Trinity as “qualities or characteristics.” By his following discussion, it looks as though he is avoiding what had become to some contentious terms, as they are “un-biblical.” He rightly critiques the view that all our language must be found in Scripture (212) and goes to show that inventing new terms (such as hypostasis) is necessary in order to adequately signify what is trying to be represented. As he says on 213-14, “I would rather they were buried, provided that throughout the world this faith were held: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are only one God and nevertheless the Son is not the Father and the Spirit is not the Son, but there is a distinction of characteristics.” How do modern Evangelicals approach this issue? Do we agree with Calvin?

In regards to the Apostles’ Creed, Calvin must first defend his use of the Creed from those who refuse to use it on the basis that it is not in Scripture. His argument is simply that “the whole history of our faith is comprised here and in fine order, and there is nothing contained in it which is not proved by sure testimonies of scripture” (198). Thus, those who are heirs of the Reformation (whether they admit it or not) should cease to claim no creed but Christ (or any similar mantra), and embrace the Creed as a useful tool. Are you willing to use creeds for education or Christian worship?

Finally, Calvin’s understanding of the Church deserves attention. First, he cautions his readers that it is “not necessary that we see one church with our eyes or be able to touch it with our hands”(245, contra Roman Catholicism). Instead, he identifies what has become the two standard Protestant criteria for recognizing a true Church: the right preaching of the word and right administration of the sacraments (246). He struggles with how to understand this ideal with the present reality of some churches and concludes that “they are churches inasmuch as our Lord preserves there the remains of His people (who are wretchedly scattered there), and also there remain still some signs of the church, chiefly those which cannot have their efficaciousness destroyed either by the tricks of the devil or by human wickedness” (256). Overall, Calvin does a judicious job of trying to balance the ideals of ecclesiology with the moral ineptitude that may be present in individual congregations. Each congregation, Calvin declares, must be judged on an individual basis to see if it is participating in the ideal of Church. In this sense, Calvin’s doctrine of the church verges on a Platonic form (cf. 247) where individual congregation can only be recognized as such when they fully participate in the form, and can lose their status the further they move away from the form. If the true Church is merely a form, then it appears that, for Calvin, the true Church is not a place on earth. How does our ecclesiology differ from Calvin’s and does it need to change?

[1] The conflict with Servetus began around 1546, so whether Calvin knew of other anti-Trinitarian teachers is unclear. Cf. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 218.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on Calvin, part 5

  1. 1. We should not always worry if our definitions are antithetical to experience, as sometimes that is perfectly fine. However, since faith is itself to a large extent a matter of experience we should, in this instance, be concerned if a definition of the matter strays off the path of experience. Calvin’s definition of faith is naively misguided and truncated.

    2. The Trinity must be the beginning of catechetical instruction as the beginning of any such instruction (and, I am here assuming that there IS such instruction; sadly there often is not) is necessarily God. God, however, is necessarily Trinitarian (try telling that to our Muslim friends). Thus, I would like to see someone who claims that Trinitarian theology is too difficult for the average lay person to understand actually try sometime to give instruction in it. (And the reformed accuse the Catholics of keeping the lay-people in ignorance and only educating the clergy? please). Although, one man’s contemporary lay-person is another man’s theologian; not all ecclesial bodies are as negligent as others.

    3. As to the Slavophiles and the Filioque, and Calvin’s contradictions, see the translation of Zernikav that I am working on (to be finished soon hopefully!). As to how much knowledge of the Trinity one needs to be saved, that question is a non sequitur. Christianity is not a merely intellectual religion; if one is looking for that then one would be better off as a Buddhist. It is and has always been, for the Christian, a matter of orthodoxy: right worship and right practice. Right worship implies having right faith, and right practice implies that it is not simply a head game. We always say that faith is not a matter of believing certain propositions but for some reason cannot ever seem to be genuinely truthful with ourselves. Faith is a holy and pleasing life that leads to salvation, not a holy and pleasing belief.

    4. As far as how modern Evangelicals (is that redundant?) approach the issue of the persons in the Trinity, I am unclear. It would seem to me that, to some degree, they inherit the Roman understanding (stemming from Aquinas) that the persons ARE the relations in the Trinity and nothing more. That is, that to be a person is to be a relation. That seems to miss much of the point however, and it also seems to be slightly heretical (although, far be it from me to accuse Aquinas of heresy, I would never desire to do that). It would seem, although I may be quite mistaken, to return the persons of the Trinity to a type of early Modalism.

    5. As far as the Apostle’s Creed is concerned, bravo. However, it is not The Creed; that would be the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Creeds are a necessary and, indeed, unavoidable feature of any ecclesial body. “No creed but Christ” is a blatant logical contradiction (as it is, itself, a creed; albeit a brief, aberrant, and austere). Then again, most Evangelicals (just to name one group) have never been too concerned, over their brief history, with logic. This is highly telling.

    6. The Church; Lord have mercy. It is interesting to think of the Church, as opposed to ecclesial bodies, as being something Platonic (i.e. the invisible church). One could never really be certain, on that account, of being IN the Church. Of course, this has had the effect that there is given little importance on being in the Church or not. This, of all things, is sad. Sad, because our Lord said “on this rock I will build my Church” not “I will build my invisible, aqueous, slippery, non-tactile, entirely interior belief structure. If one does not need to be in the Church then one is entirely free, strictly and logically speaking, to exercise one’s life and beliefs as one sees fit. Being outside of the Church is license to a radical freedom, but a freedom that leads away from genuine freedom. That is, a freedom to fall into heresy. The Church is the body of Christ, it is the only place (and it is a PLACE) where we are certain of not falling into heresy. Indeed, how could there be any conception of what is heresy and what is orthodoxy without the Church? And hence, how can any conception of a merely invisible, merely Platonic, merely instantiating some of the vague criteria of “signs of the church” (chiefly, right preaching and right sacraments) bar us from the pitfalls of heresy? Who’s preaching? Which sacraments? Who decides? What if the Methodists down the road disagree with the Baptists on the SACRAMENT of baptism? Heaven forbid that we should exclude either one from “the church”. The only thing we can say, on such a view, is that “we don’t know, the church is invisible and only God knows. The church is in heaven.” So, why does the Lord teach us to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? The Church is both on earth and in heaven, as the saints, the body of Christ, are both on earth and in heaven. And we see the church here and now; we touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it too. We don’t simply have some vague beliefs about it, what nonsense. Unfortunately, such nonsense and vague beliefs have been spreading in the Protestant world (since Calvin?) and have done irreparable damage. If there is no Church there is no Christianity; if you are not in the Church how can you know if you are a Christian? If you cannot see, touch, hear, taste, smell the church then how can you know that you are in it or not? Extra Ecclesiam non salus.

    • Okay, I shall respond. I’m not in a super critical mood, so it may only be a so-so response.

      1) My class discussed Calvin’s definition of faith and did agree that it is lacking. The Professor mentioned that Calvin’s definition may be controlled in some ways by his opponents (Roman Catholics) who allowed some form of faith to exists sans objective content (=knowledge).

      2) I wasn’t referring to Reformed Christians thinking the Trinity “too difficult,” but my own background and this question comes out of that frustration. We were taught the Trinity, but beyond affirming the proposition “one God, three persons,” all further inquiry ceased. At least Augustine struggled through it. We just skipped to the end.

      3) As to how much one must know about the Trinity, I asked it to see what kind of responses I could get. Unfortunately, the conversation did focus on this question. However, as to your affirmation that “faith is a holy and pleasing life that leads to salvation, not a holy and pleasing belief,” there still must be some amount of objective knowledge with which to conform our lives. I think you would agree that faith can never be separated from objective knowledge but that faith is not merely objective knowledge.

      4) Evangelical-ism is a movement that began with people like the Wesleys, Whitfield, and Edwards, so yes they can be “modern” Evangelicals. As for what you are saying about persons, I am unclear. I don’t remember everything that I wrote (since this response is rather late) and I don’t feel like trying to find it. 🙂 I do not think, however, that an emphasis on the inter-personal relationship between the persons leads to Modalism because there would still be a inner distinction. However, if it was the relationship between God and the world, then maybe since Modalism would have one God interacting in three different ways to the world. That, at least, would be my guess.

      5) I left my language about “the Creed” purposefully vague since Calvin is dealing with the Apostle’s Creed and my point was for non-confessional Christians. I just wanted to break the ice on the concept of creeds. Also, be careful about claiming that Evangelicals are not concerned with logic. I know what you are saying, but this is a small and (even more) recent section within Evangelicalism. Edwards was not opponent of logic and Wesley taught it at Oxford.

      6) We discussed this issue someone in class. My Professor suggested that instead of being a Platonic form (as I read Calvin), the True Church is a subset of the “visible” church. He admits that the Church is a mixed body of both true Christians (i.e., those who will be “saved” in the end) and non-true Christians (i.e., those who will not be “saved” in the end). The question is how they relate. We see the church visibly, but we are unable to penetrate into the hearts of man or the mind of God to know who is a “true Christian.” That group is only known to God. However, Calvin will not separate it from the visible church as if the true church could exist without a visible form (hence his two criteria). Now, I’m not defending his specific understanding as I myself am having difficulty seeing how everything comes together. But, I will add in one final note, that your critique of an invisible Church applies to this unerring and perfect Church which you have proposed at other times which cannot be identified with the visible erring individuals (I explained my critique in another response to another post so I wont repeat it here). I think the problem is similar, the question is, how much tension can we live with. I at least want to stretch the idea to see what it can do before giving up.

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