Tuesday, September 18, 2007

John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm

John Calvin's Ideas by Paul Helm, Oxford, 2006 paperback
This book is an attempt to set important aspects of Calvin's teaching against the background of the reformer's interaction with medieval scholastic theology. It is often assumed that Calvin was a pure biblical theologian who rejected the overly speculative and philosophical scholastic tradition. Helm argues that Calvin's relationship with the tradition was a little more nuanced. He often appropriated scholastic methods, concepts and distinctions in formulating some of his key theological ideas. Later Reformed theology is sometimes accused of compromising on Calvin's anti-medieval stance by reverting to scholastic ways of thinking. But as Helm shows, Calvin gave his successors something of a precedent for plundering the best of the scholastic tradition in the service of Reformation theology. This does not mean that Calvin was uncritical of the wilder, speculative excesses of scholasticism. But he was not one to throw out the scholastic baby with the bathwater.
One of the valuable gains of setting Calvin in his historical context is that we are made more sensitive of the distance that separates the reformer from the preoccupations of our own time. He is often made a conversation partner in contemporary theological discussion without the realisation that Calvin's concerns are sometimes quite different from our own. It is anachronistic to make use of Calvin's ideas as if he were addressing our present post-Enlightenment world. The "Reformed Epistemology" movement associated with Alvin Plantinga is possibly guilty of this. Calvin's teaching on the sensus divinum (our innate sense of God) is used by Plantinga as the basis for "warranted belief" in God as a fundamental presupposition. But Calvin's concerns were not primarily epistemological - what we may warrantably believe, but soteriological, how sinners may have a saving knowledge of God. Throughout the book, Helm interacts not only with the primary Calvin literature, but with other interpreters of the Reformer such as Plantinga, Alister McGrath, and David Steinmetz.
Fundamental to Calvin's theology is the distinction between God as he is in himself (in se) and God as he is revealed to us (quoad nos). Such is God's stunning majesty, we cannot know his divine essence. But God is revealed to us truly and faithfully in his acts and in his Word. Calvin was against speculation about the divine essence because only God can know God as he is in himself. It is for us to be content with his gracious self-revelation. The distinction between God in se and God quoad nos is not original to Calvin. It is also found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics. Helm often draws attention to Calvin's use of Aquinas' theological concepts. The Reformer made use of his insights when he regarded them as helpful in understanding Scripture. At other times Calvin was critical of Aquinas' somewhat speculative theologising.
A chapter is devoted to Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity. Helm discusses Calvin's rejection of the traditional teaching on the eternal generation of the Son. Calvin taught that as God, the Son is autotheos. He did not derive his deity from the Father because deity is by definition underivable. But concerning his person, the Son is of the Father. Father is not, contra Augustine the fountainhead of the deity. Father, Son and Spirit are all autotheos. Helm wonders if the begotteness of the Son's person is any less problematic that the begottenness of his deity. But the genius of Calvin's formulation is that he strips begotteness of all causal connotations. The Son is the person of the Son in relation to the Father. While Calvin asserted that the Son (and the Spirit) are homoousion with the Father, he still wished to maintain an order of Persons within the one God. It was appropriate to who God is in himself that the Father sent the Son into the world and that the Father and Son sent the Spirit. Next, Helm turns his attention to The Extra - Calvin's teaching that when the Son became man he did not cease to be God. Helm clarifies exactly what Calvin meant by this in relation to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and then proceeds to examine the Reformer's teaching on the communication of attributes within the person of the incarnate Son.
It is sometimes suggested that predestination was the axiom from which Calvin drew his theological system. Precisely to avoid such misunderstanding, Helm does not give a chapter to this theme. This is a bit of a shame, but in Providence and Evil, we are given an account of Calvin's understanding of the will of God in relation to sin and suffering. For God, providence is not "risky" because everything that happens is in accordance with his sovereign, yet secret will. In his providential dealings with creation, God respects the reality of secondary causes and is not the author of sin. We cannot fully understand why God allowed sin and suffering, for we cannot know as God knows. The "free will defence" is not an adequate response to the problem of evil because God could have endued Adam with the ability to resist temptation. The subjects of human personality and free will are considered in the following two chapters.
If the first six chapters have to do with Calvin's metaphysics, the next three deal with his epistemology. Divine accommodation, natural theology and revelation are all discussed. As we cannot know God in se, he must accommodate himself to our capacities. This especially involves God's relationship to time. God may threaten to bring death and destruction to sinners and then appear to change his mind when human beings turn from their sin. Calvin's concept of divine accommodation comes into its own as an attempt to account for this apparent change of mind on God's part. When it comes to natural theology, Calvin argued that all human beings have an innate sense of God. This sense may be corrupted by sin so that human beings worship idols instead of the true God. But the sensus divinitas, backed up by the testimony of creation speaks to all men of God's existence, goodness and power. In the chapter on revelation, Helm notes that Calvin was willing to appeal to "external proofs" that the Bible is the Word of God such as the fulfillment of prophecy and the testimony of the church. But the believer comes to accept the Bible as God's self-revelation, not primarily because of these external proofs, but on the basis of the witness of the Spirit. We are given Holy Spirit certainty that the Bible is God's Word.
The next three chapters focus on Calvin's ethical theology. In a fascinating chapter on Angels, we are led through a discussion of whether God, in his hidden, absolute righteousness would be justified in condemning unfallen angels. Helm draws on Calvin's sermons on Job as well as the Institutes to show that although we cannot understand God's righteousness in se, we can can trust him not to act arbitrarily. As the author shows in The Power Dialectic, for Calvin, God's will must never be reduced to absolute power as if might were right. God's will is conditioned by his righteous character. Calvin was no "divine command theorist" who believed that something was right just because God commanded it at the time, although God could impose a contradictory command at a later date. God's commandments are an expression of his infinitely righteous being. In Equity, Natural Law, and Common Grace, Helm considers the relationship between Calvin's teaching on equity - our natural sense of right and wrong and the law. There has been a tendency among some Reformed scholars to pit the scholastic teaching on natural law against Calvin's concept of common grace. However, Helm shows that Calvin had a lot in common with Aquinas on the subject of natural law, although the Reformer was less optimistic than the Schoolman about fallen man's ability to follow the dictates of equity. Both natural law and common grace have a place in Calvin's theology.
In the final chapter on Faith, Atonement, and Time, attention is given to Calvin's attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction between what the Bible says about God's love for his elect, the atonement and the wrath of God. Why does the Bible say that God is angry with elect sinners until they believe in Christ? If God has atoned for the sins of his people in Christ, why does he threaten them with wrath and judgement? For Calvin this is resolved by appealing to the notion of divine accommodation. God appears to be angry with his eternally loved people to awaken them to embrace salvation in Christ. But would it not be better to say that God can be angry with those whom he loves and that his anger is only turned away when sinners trust in the propitiatory work of Christ? Next, Helm discusses Calvin's teaching that faith is the condition for salvation in relation to Barth's view that conditionality compromises grace. For Barth, faith is simply the recognition that the sinner is saved in Christ. Faith itself does not save. But in Calvin, faith (itself a gift of God) is the instrumental cause of a salvation that rests on the finished work of Christ.
If, like me you are not used to philosophical reasoning, then it may take a chapter or so before you get "up to speed" with this book. But it is well worth persevering because Helm throws some important light on the teaching of Calvin, which, in turn enables the reader to have a deeper grasp of Scriptural theology. Calvin was a master theologian and Helm is an attentive interpreter of his work. Some of the big themes in theology are tackled in this book - the doctrine of God, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, Providence, the doctrine of man and so on. Throughout, Helm appeals directly to Calvin's teaching and the text of Scripture. Calvin's complex relationship with scholasticism is handled well. As Helm shows, the Reformer could sometimes speculate. He wondered whether Christ might have become incarnate even if man did not fall into sin. His doctrine of the soul drew to some extent on Greek philosophy. Later Reformed theology followed Calvin in making selective use of the best insights of scholastic teaching. I suppose that if anything I have tended to see Calvin as a "pure biblical theologian" who was preceded and followed by speculative scholastics. Reading this book has helped to correct this and hopefully enabled me to read Calvin with greater historical sensitivity. For a work of philosophical theology, the text is packed with homely illustrations of blind ferrets and highly desirable cream cakes. At one point Helm tells us that he was wearing trousers when writing this book and that in his opinion he is a good looking, jolly good fellow!
John Calvin's Ideas is a must for serious Calvin scholars. Pastors will also find much that is helpful and enlightening here. Often we need to face theological issues like, how will we handle Scriptures that teach that God "repents" from punishing sinners when they repent? Is God inconsistent? Does he really change his mind? Calvin via Helm will help us to find our bearings on such matters. It is good for us to read works such as this that stretch our minds and stir our souls. On finishing this book I was left with a renewed appreciation of Calvin's theological genius. But more than that, I was moved to worship Calvin's great God, whose glory is beyond comprehension and whose love for us in Christ passes knowledge. This infinite God, whose essence is concealed has condescended to reveal himself to sinners such as us,
"For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." (Inst I:13:1, cited on p. 20).


Taylor Marshall said...

A Catholic and Thomist perspective on predestination:


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