Calvinism and the Glory of God
The central doctrine of the Institutes was the glory of God. It is possible today, as it was 500 years ago, to be evangelical in name but have a theology which is centred in me and my need for salvation. In a letter to an Italian Cardinal, Sadolet, who was trying to broker a peace between Rome and the Reformers in the 1530s Calvin stated explicitly that his chief goal was “To sanctify the name of God” and that his life personally had, as its prime motive “zeal to illustrate the glory of God.” Even truths as central to the Reformation as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone were rooted in the primacy of the glory of God. Scripture is not understood primarily as an historical or theological record, but as a revelation of the pre-eminence of God’s glory in the universe. The power of Scripture does not lie, for Calvin, in the text alone. The Holy Spirit is essential in our reading and understanding of Scripture, not to give us added revelation, but to awaken us to taste God Himself in the reading of His word. On the subject of justification, his reply to Sadolet is illuminating:
You… touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us… Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.
For Calvin, the fundamental error of Rome was the destruction of the glory of Christ:
Rome has destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways – by calling upon the saints to intercede, when Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and man; by adoring the Blessed Virgin, when Christ alone shall be adored; by offering a continual sacrifice in the Mass, when the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross is complete and sufficient, by elevating tradition to the level of Scripture and even making the word of Christ dependent for its authority on the word of man.
In both his writing and his preaching, Calvin was, as John Piper puts it “unrelenting in his exposition of the Word of God”. As well as the Institutes, Calvin wrote letters and tracts, commentaries on the whole of the New Testament except Revelation plus the Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah & Joshua and he preached 10 sermons every 2 weeks! His whole and only theological labour was the exposition of Scripture. Because the Institutes is better known than Calvin’s preaching or his commentaries, modern readers are tempted to think of Calvin, first and foremost as a systematic theologian. This is unhelpful. He was, above everything, a Biblical theologian (and, of course, this is reflected in the Institutes). Virtually the only preaching he ever did was expositional, with the New Testament on Sundays and the Old Testament midweek. He preached through Corinthians in a series, for example, that comprised 186 sermons and Deuteronomy in a series of 353!
Calvin was adamant about the purpose of preaching. It was to preach the Word – what God wanted to say – and nothing else. Calvin had a horror, as Piper says, of those who preached their own ideas in the pulpit. Nowhere do we see this more clearly illustrated in Calvin’s teaching of the doctrines of predestination and election. Too many people have made the assumption that predestination was the lynch pin of Calvin’s theology. We have already seen, however, that Calvin’s central theme was the glory of God. Double predestination – the belief that God decrees who will be saved (the elect) and who will be damned (the reprobate) – is certainly part and parcel of Calvin’s theology. He stood in a tradition, in this respect, where Augustine, Luther and Zwingli had gone before. However, it is important that we see predestination and election as part of a coherent theological framework and not as a “stand alone” doctrine. It occupies only 4 chapters of the 1559 Institutes and is more or less unmentioned elsewhere. It is dealt with in Book 3, on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and not, as you and I might expect in Book 1 which dealt with the doctrine of God. This says a great deal about Calvin’s understanding of the purpose of the doctrine – it is to assure the believer and to humble the proud. It is certainly not so that we endlessly speculate about the nature of God and His decrees. This pastoral purpose is seen most clearly if we look at the doctrine as outlined by Calvin in its original form in the 1536 Institutes and not as it appeared in the 1559 edition where Calvin is more self conscious about opponents’ criticisms of this area of his theology:
Moreover, since the Church is the people of God’s elect [John 10:28], it cannot happen that those who are truly its members will ultimately perish [John 10:28], or come to a bad end. For their salvation rests on such a sure and solid bed, that, even if the whole fabric of the world were to fall, it itself could not tumble or fall. First, it stands with God’s election, nor can it change or fail unless, along with that, eternal wisdom. Therefore they can totter and waver, even fall, but not contend against one another for the Lord supports their hand; that is what Paul says, ‘for the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance’ [Romans 11:29]. Then those whom the Lord has chosen, have been turned over to the care and keeping of Christ His Son so that ‘He may lose none of them but may revive all on the last day’ [John 6:39f]. Under such a good watchman [2 Cor 4:9] they can wander and fall, but surely they cannot be lost.
As far as predestination was concerned (or indeed any other doctrine for that matter), Calvin was always careful not to go beyond what the Scriptures explicitly stated. At times he was deliberately vague because Scripture was not precise. After Calvin’s death in 1564, his Catholic and Lutheran opponents seized on double predestination as the weak point, the Achilles heel, of Calvinism. This led Calvin’s followers into a defence of the doctrine which went way beyond Calvin’s own position and the text of Scripture. Theodore Beza, for example, taught the doctrine of Limited Atonement (the L of TULIP!), that Christ died only for the Elect, whereas Calvin was deliberately vague on this point. Organizationally Beza also reverted to the practice of the medieval theologians in placing predestination in the “doctrine of God” section of his theology and not as Calvin had done in making it a pastorally-orientated doctrine. Thus Beza opened up the way to a reversion to a speculative type theology.
This post forms part 3 of the series Why I am a little bit Reformed.