Reflections on Calvin, part 13

The last chapter in the 1541 institutes could act as a stand-alone treatise on Christian ethics–or, a synthesis of various and scattered comments already made by Calvin in the preceding 16 chapters. It would be an interesting study to see how Calvin’s view of Christian ethics fits into the broader historical context of Late Medieval and Early Reformation periods. Specifically, to what extent did Aquinas’ virtue ethic still play a role in the discussion (or had nominalism attacked it as well) and was Calvin just a representative of Reformed ethic that was already established.

While Calvin does give credit to the Philosophers for their works on ethics, he criticizes them on one main point: their foundation reliance on reason alone. Instead, Calvin argues that the foundation for a Christian ethic should be the revelation of God. He thinks that by determining ethics through reason, one cannot escape pride and self-love. For the Christian, the first step to any ethic is the renewal of the mind. Calvin claims that “none of the philosophers knew of this transformation (686).” Just to be scrupulous, it should be pointed out that Iamblichus’ doctrine of theurgy is probably an exception to this statement. While this fact does not undercut Calvin’s point, it reveals the danger of basing a system on the foundation of uniqueness. Scripture does not have to be unique to be true.

Another difficulty with this chapter is Calvin’s statement that the Christian is morally responsible to show love/charity to all because all bear the image of God (689-690). Now, I may be wrong, but I thought that Calvin taught the image of God was lost at the fall and is only restored through regeneration (notably different from the Early Church which saw the image of God as rationality which is never lost, only depreciated). If Calvin did say this, then either Christians are not responsible to love all, or Calvin’s system needs to be changed.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Calvin, part 13

  1. Need I say that I think he completely misunderstands many of the Philosophers? Granted, yes, that many built their ethics as rational systems alone (BUT! try using scripture as a foundation without using reason!). Certainly Aquinas nor Abelard nor Anselm nor Maimonides nor Duns Scotus nor any of the other great Medieval thinkers built systems on reason alone, how foolish to think so. My guess is that Calvin is reflecting on the late Medieval tradition. Even the nominalists did not have a foundation of reason alone (indeed, they almost denied it!). See William of Ockham.

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