384. We Are Not Our Own: John Calvin

Posted on 21 November 2021

John Calvin's views on predestination and the limits of human reason.

Further Reading

• J.T. McNeill (ed.), Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols (Philadelphia: 2016).

• J.K.S. Reid, Concerning the Eternal Predestination (London: 1961).


• A. Biéler, Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought (Geneva: 2006).

• W.J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: a Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York: 1988);

• P. Helm, Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: 2004).

• P. Helm, Calvin at the Centre (Oxford: 2009).

• H. Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: 1982).

• A. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: a Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Oxford: 1990).

• D.K. McKim (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge: 2004).

• C. Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (Leiden: 1977).

• D.C. Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (New York: 1995).

• W.R. Stevenson, Sovereign Grace: the Place and Significance of Christian Freedom in John Calvin’s Political Thought (New York: 1999).

F. Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (Durham: 1963).


Rick Visser 22 November 2021

As a child, and even as a young person, Calvinism was all I knew of life. I attended a Calvinist church, Calvinist elementary school, Calvinist boy's club, Calvinist catechism, and Calvinist high school. It was total immersion, and I took it seriously—even as a young boy, I took it seriously. But as I grew older, something else 'kicked in.' I went for a long, long—life-long—walk. And over time I came to think of Calvinism as nothing less than child abuse.

The older I got, the more strongly I felt this was so. I did not do this, nor do I say this, in a rebellious spirit. Rather, it was a total dedication to follow the truth where ever it led. It has taken me a lifetime to free myself from it, from what Emerson referred to as “that grim system.” The silver lining is that my life-long 'walk about' has been filled with such grace, and beauty, and inexplicable joy. 

Indeed, I've come to the same conclusion as Sir Isaiah Berlin, when, in a note to a friend, he said: “Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be and do--and that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked and mad: and need retraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree.”

I cooked dinner this evening while listening to your podcast, and was reminded of some of the places my journey has carried me, and I was filled with gratitude.

Thank you for this, and all your podcasts.

Wow, that is an amazing response! Thank you so much for sharing that. It's a reminder that as with so many of the things I am covering on the podcast, these are not all just abstract ideas but have played a fundamental role in people's lives, in history and still today.

Daniel Seggie 27 November 2021

Great stuff, as usual. You really have a knack for publishing stuff precisely at the time I happen to be writing about similar material. You've also picked out some great passages from Calvin's work that I've missed when I've been going through the Institutes.

There’s one area, however, where I’d like to push back on your interpretation a little. In the last seven or so minutes, I’m worried that you’re making Calvin out to be more of a fideist than he actually is.

I know that Calvin is a controversial figure—perhaps the ‘pineapple on pizza’ of reformation thought. His thought has, for instance, animated heated disputes between followers of Karl Barth and others around the possibility of natural theology and the ‘noetic consequences of sin’ (that’s Paul Helm’s phrase, I believe).

Coming to Calvin’s work as I have done in the past year, as a know-nothing graduate student with little-to-no experience in the history of the reformation, I’ve allowed myself to entertain the thought that I’m beyond being influenced by such squabbles. That being said, approaching Calvin in this way, from a background in the history of philosophy, makes it very easy—perhaps natural—to understand Calvin as some form of fideist. I have, myself, been tempted by this kind of interpretation on numerous occasions. Indeed, when you read what he has to say about philosophy and the philosophers, the way he treats curiosity as a sort of vice, and the emphasis he places on, as the tradition says, the idea of “total depravity”, such a conclusion seems downright unavoidable.

For example, here as some of the passages I’ve been collecting from the Institutes:

[T]he knowledge of God does not rest in cold speculation, but carries with it the honoring of him” (I.12.1)

“From those matters so far discussed, we clearly see how destitute and devoid of all good things man is, and how he lacks all aids to salvation. Therefore, if he seeks resources to succor him in his need, he must go outside himself and get them elsewhere. It was afterward explained to us that the Lord willingly and freely reveals himself in his Christ. For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our that out whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend on him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him. This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be wrested from syllogisms. (III.20.1)

“For, of those things which it is neither given nor lawful to know, ignorance is learned; the craving to know, a kind of madness.” (III.23.8)

Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it  back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. Since we see so many on all sides rushing into this audacity and impudence, among them certain men not otherwise bad, they should in due season be reminded of the measure of their duty in this regard.” (III.22.1)

Now, even given all of that, I’d like to put forward the idea that Calvin’s relationship to philosophy is more ambiguous than these passages and this episode suggest. Specifically, I have in mind the comments that Calvin makes about natural law and the sufficiency of even ‘unregenerate’ human reason to guide us in certain domains. Sections 12-17 of the 2nd chapter of the second book of the Institutes are instructive in this regard. Check out some of the following passages:

“Yet its [‘the power of human understanding’] efforts do no always become so worthless as to have no effect, especially when it turns its attention to things below. On the contrary, it is intelligent enough to taste something of things above, although it is more careless about investigating these.” (II.2.13)

Calvin here seems to be suggesting that reason and human understanding may be said to have some application to “things above”! This passage stands out as particularly troublesome for those more conventional readings that what to insist that human rational capacities have no application in theological matters or matters concerning salvation and eternal life.

“For, while men dispute among themselves about individual sections of the law, they agree on the general conception of equity. In this respect the frailty of the human mind is surely proved: even when it seems to follow the way, it limps and staggers. Yet the fact remains that some seed of political order has been implanted in all men. And this is ample proof that in the arrangement of this life no man is without the light of reason.” (II.2.13)

Here’s another quote from a Calvin scholar that I’ve been working with:

“[H]e [Calvin] believed that within this divinely preserved sphere men and women are able to conduct their temporal affairs without falling into a “bestial confusion.” Calvin did not emphasize the external restrain of God only; he also assumed that the ordered civilized life in society flourished because of natural instincts, perceptions, dictates, and abilities still present within he fallen soul. The remaining ability of human beings to recognize the “dictates of nature” or the truths of natural law provided a means whereby they may participate in the formation of government and civil life.”

That’s from p. 87 of Susan Schreiner’s 1991 The Theatre of His Glory. These passages—and there are more—demonstrate, at the very least, that Calvin’s relationship to philosophy is more ambiguous than is suggested by those who read him as trying to drive a wedge between philosophy and religion. Its this ambiguity, I’m trying to argue, which makes it difficult to claim him as a sort of fideist tout court. It may be natural for us philosophers to read him in this way, but I think there’s a little more going on here. Yes, human reason may, at the end of the day, be insufficient with respect to our salvation in several important respects, and there are certain subject matters beyond our comprehension which Calvin understands as being unlawful to probe into. Nonetheless, it’s also the case that human reason certainly seems to have a certain application with respect to temporal things, including important social and political matters that other more secular thinkers would see as fundamental to the good life!

Thanks, that is a really interesting comment. Obviously this is a very complex topic and it sounds like you have been working on this more than I have.

But I would point out that this idea that human reason might suffice for political purposes is pretty familiar Reformation fare: we've seen it in Luther and Melanchthon already, with their idea that you need natural ethics and secular political rule to keep the vast majority of people (= sinners) in line. So I would suggest that that second passage may be (almost literally) damning reason with faint praise; it is useful in this civic context but that is understood to be outside the realm of faith which is what actually matters.

The first one is more difficult for the fideist reading but remember that, as I said in the episode, he also e.g. accepts that there could be persuasive rational proofs of God's existence. Although reason cannot really do anything valuable for us, it can do enough that the godless are condemned for not even using natural reason properly to recognize His existence and providence. So that could be the idea behind your first passage. Anyway that passage is, however we read it, pretty far from a ringing endorsement of reason!

Zachary 10 December 2021

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised hearing about Calvin's theology, though I am not in sympathy with Calvinist theology at all. It actually came off as more moderate than Luther's views on free will, which I couldn't help but feel were completely alien to Christianity. While Luther almost completely eliminated the will so that only remained were sinful feelings in predestined sinful acts, Calvin sounded more like Al-Ashari leaving a place for the will within divinely predestined acts. I also liked how Calvin's views on grace are rooted in the Augustinian tradition, seemingly unlike Luther, and seems to take the more hardline version of Augustinianism (exemplified by Thomas Bradwardine) to its logical conclusion. 

J Dawes 23 December 2021

As a Calvinist, I was fairly happy with the episode. With Daniel Seggie, I also didn't quite recognise the fideism as it was presented in the episode, though I'm fully on board with how you spoke of his critique of human reason. One gap(!) in the episode might have been a discussion of how he sought to put church discipline in the hands of the church rather than the state. This contributed, I believe, to the later separations of church and state.

I thought you represented fairly the way he deals with objections to his approach to God's sovereignty. I figure his caustic attitude there is partly due to his being fully convinced that there's no other way to interpret the Bible on the matter and partly due to the strong consensus around him at the time. Modern Calvinists, if they're aware of the world around them, know they can't dismiss the objections so easily.

I especially appreciated the discussion of Augustine's theory of grace and this statement: 'Arguably, then, the question is not why Calvin says these things, but why it has taken us so long to get to a thinker who says them so boldly and forthrightly.' Your answer is that the position is very unappealing, and that's true. I would also point out that early Christianity had an anti-deterministic slant, developed in conflict with Greco-Roman ideas about destiny and with Gnostic doctrines of necessity. (My source on that is Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 279-283.)

Thanks for the podcast! Keep it up!

Thanks for the comments! That's a good point about taking control of the church away from the state; it's a theme we've been following for some time, as far back as the episodes on medieval political philosophy. I guess I didn't see too much in Calvin that was not familiar from Luther though? Do you see a difference there?

I would slightly disagree on the point about scriptural interpretation: if anything was not a matter of consensus at the outbreak of the Reformation it was how to interpret Scripture! A lot of the Institutes consists of him quoting Scripture against his opponents (and Luther does this ad nauseam also) but isn't the point of this that the opponents were, perversely, reading it wrong? So I would put the weight on the "there is no other way to read it" and not on "strong consensus."

Dan Kunkle 25 December 2021

Many thanks for your entire series- History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps--- so very helpful, particularly in light of the tendency in Intro to Philosophy books to make huge jumps from philosopher to philosopher when dealing with the branches of philosophy topically. I was especially pleased to hear you reference Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology. I would like to make a few comments about epistemology in the Reformed tradition more generally. In the Reformed tradition reason [rationality] is regarded as a necessary tool, not only in terms of the interpretation of Scripture, but in life in general. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, speaks of those things that by  ".... good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture...." Deduction, induction and especially abduction are frequent tools in Reformed interpretation of the Bible and thinking in general. The Reformed embracing of the necessity of rationality, even when dialoguing with the non-Christian, can be seen in the long tradition of Classical Apologetics promoted by R.C. Sproul-- following in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Rightly understood the Presuppositional Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til also has a place for rationality as a human faculty. What the Reformed deny is the Enlightenment notion of the sufficiency of reason. The Reformed embrace rationality but eschew rationalism. So, when it comes to the matter of the eternal destiny of human souls [predestination], the Reformed believe that reason alone is utterly insufficient to deal with the question. Only revelation embodied in Scripture can provide the epistemological tool for addressing that issue and with "special prudence and care." [WCF III,8]. Predestination then really ceases to be a philosophical question and becomes an exegetical one. Does the Bible really teach the Reformed doctrine of predestination or perhaps an Arminian version of it? hen dealing with matters of Faith and Reason, I think it is important to make that distinction between necessity and sufficiency.

Thanks again for your work!

Thanks much for your remarks. They raised some questions that I am slowly thinking through:

Doesn't every branch of Christianity, every world religion, and every manifestation of spirituality, deny "the Enlightenment notion of the sufficiency of reason?" And isn't some form of rationalism a necessary part of every spiritual perspective? How else could we read the scriptures, any scriptures. How could we read anything at all? For even a "literal" interpretation requires logic, "deduction, induction and especially abduction."

It seems to me that rationality is ubiquitous in all the major religious traditions; so much so that strong efforts are made to undermine the inveterate tendency of their practitioners and devotees to take shelter at that level of mental activity; strong efforts are made to free the mind from rationality's tenacious grip, to open it to higher levels of experience, as in prayer and meditation--to resist and undermine any and every possibility of rational sufficiency. Zen koans come to mind. As I think about it, even many atheists "embrace rationality but eschew rationalism," if not by way of religious faith, by way of an honest and uncompromising search for truth, beyond knowledge and conscious reason.

My ruminations and uncertainties on these questions brought to mind something Gilbert Murray said: "As far as knowledge and conscious reason go, we should follow resolutely their austere guidance. When they cease, as cease they must, we must use as best we can those fainter powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness by which, after all, most high truth has been reached as well as most art and poetry: careful always really to seek for truth and not for our own emotional satisfaction, careful not to neglect the real needs of men and women through basing our life on dreams; and remembering above all to walk gently in the world where the lights are dim and the very stars wander." --Gilbert Murray, "The Five Stages of Greek Religion," 164

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them very much.




Andrew Maclaren 24 June 2022

So much for "every man by nature desires to know", it seems like some men just want to marvel, not know

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