John Calvin: An erudite and astute theologian

JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564)

AMONG THE GREAT second-generation theologians of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, John Calvin is arguably the greatest. Like the other reformers, he had a traditional upbringing and was steeped in the humanist tradition of his time. Although many scholars described his “conversion” to Protestant faith as “sudden” (conversio subtia), it was no doubt preceded by struggle and doubt.

We can be fairly certain that Calvin read the French translations of Luther’s writings and was in some ways shaped by them. But Calvin did not immediately embrace the teachings of the reformer. In one of his tracts he wrote: “Offended by the novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted.” After he had finally left Roman Catholicism and joined in the work of reformation, he wrote: “So obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy did I remain that it would be hard indeed to have pulled me out of so deep a quagmire. I did nothing, the Word did it all.”

Calvin became one of the most prolific writers among the second-generation Reformers. He applied himself wholeheartedly to the study of Scripture and wrote commentaries on almost every book of the New Testament (with the exception of 2 and 3 John and Revelation). His commentaries and sermon-lectures on the Old Testament filled 45 volumes in the 19th century edition.

With his superb knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and training in humanist philosophy, Calvin was, in the words of Jacob Arminius, “incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture”. Calvin also wrote numerous treatises and tracts on a wide range of topics. Together with his letters and liturgical and catechetical writings, his output as an exegete and theologian is phenomenal. But it was his masterful work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that distinguishes him as an erudite and astute theologian.

Calvin’s contributions to theology are many, but one of his more important insights is arguably concerning the nature of our knowledge of God. Calvin’s ideas have become the foundation of Reformed epistemology that is developed very differently by contemporary philosophers like Paul Helm, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, and by theologians like Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til. Calvin begins by maintaining that every human being, created in the image and likeness of God, has a natural awareness of God. He uses the term “sense of the divine” (sensus divinitatis) to describe this innate awareness of God. us, Calvin writes: “To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretence of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”

This sensus divinitatis is for Calvin a vague and inarticulate awareness of the transcendental reality of God. By itself it is not enough to bring about a more concrete knowledge of God, for example, that He is the Creator of the world. us for Calvin, the general awareness of the divine must be supplemented with God’s revelation in the created order. Put differently, God has not only given to human beings an awareness of Him, He has also provided evidences of His existence in the creation. us Calvin writes: “Not only has God sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the workmanship of the universe.”

To properly understand what Calvin had to say about our knowledge of God, therefore, we must not only take seriously his idea of the implanted knowledge of God (cognito Dei insita) but also his concept of the acquired knowledge of God (cognito Dei acquisita). For the Reformer, both the internal awareness of God in the human soul and the external evidence of His existence in creation can never be separated: together they make the knowledge of God possible. To emphasise one to the neglect of the other – as some modern Reformed philosophers have done – is simply to misunderstand Calvin. Calvin further spoke of the importance of Scripture. He famously used the analogy of spectacles to describe the function of Scripture. He wrote: “For as the aged or those with sore eyes or those whose sight has by any means become darkened, if you show them the most beautiful book, though they perceive something written, they can scarcely read two words together; however, by assistance of spectacles, they will begin to read distinctly.” Scripture functions in a similar way, Calvin explained, “collecting the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, dispels the dimness and shows us clearly the true God”.

BUT CALVIN did not stop here. He spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit, which helps with our knowledge of God in two ways. e Spirit testifies to the inner recesses of our spirits concerning the reality of God (testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti). And the Spirit illumines our minds as we read the Scriptures (Spiritus sancti illuminatione). us, Calvin’s teaching concerning the knowledge of God includes the subjective as well as the objective aspects of human knowing. e sensus divnitatis and the work of the Spirit point to the subjective aspects, while the evidential power of God’s revelation in creation and in Scripture point to the objective aspects.

Calvin’s theology became the basis and inspiration of a branch of Western theology called Calvinism, which is appropriated and instantiated in various ways by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. As a system of thought, Calvin’s theology is beautiful and compelling.

After he had encountered Calvin, the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth wrote thus about his experience: “Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means … even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.

I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life with Calvin.”

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.