(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)
Definition of Faith (176-190)
Part 2: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (215-270)
First Part (215-218)
I believe in God the Father almighty (215-216)
Creator of Heaven and Earth (216-218)
Second Part (218-240)
And in Jesus Christ, His sole Son, our Lord (218-222)
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary (222-229)
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified (230-231)
Dead and buried (231-232)
He descended into hell (232-235)
The third day He rose from the dead (235-236)
He ascended into the heavens and is seated at the right of God the Father almighty (236-238)
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead (238-240)
Third Part- I believe in the Holy Spirit (240-241)
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints (241-256)
The remission of sins (256-265)
The resurrection of the flesh; life eternal (265-270)
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. 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?