Some Calvinist Reflections


Over the past week I read two books on Calvin’s Institutes and listened to a course taught by Christopher Morse on the Institutes at Union. Charles Partee’s The Theology of John Calvin was excellent. He reads the Institutes and pays special attention to an idea he finds central to Calvin: union with Christ. The other book by Parker was less more just a straightforward exposition of Calvin’s Institutes. The class was an amazing resource led by Morse and other seminarians. I especially appreciated the approach Morse took in leading the seminar. The primary objective was to let Calvin speak for himself. We all know what Calvinists in America believe Calvin to have taught, but many of us have not read Calvin himself. I want to address a couple of salient points.

Biblical Inerrancy – Partee surveys the wide range of opinions amongst Calvin interpreters on his view of scripture. In the Institutes Calvin has little to say on the doctrine of Scripture but interprets it rather straightforwardly. Although many are quick to assume Calvin was an inerrantist, Partee does note some challenges to this view. For one, in Calvin’s commentaries on the Psalms, he points out that David did not write some of the Psalms. Likewise, Calvin remains unconvinced that Paul wrote 2 Peter. Of course, on a practical level Calvin did treat the Bible as holy writ, although to be fair, he always emphasized the need to not divorce the Word of God from the Spirit of God. Hence, from Calvin’s perspective it would be inappropriate to treat the Bible as an encyclopedia without likewise attending to the Spirit’s involvement when interpreting.

Fall of the Devil – Calvin like Barth refused to try and interpret the fall of Lucifer and the fellow angels from Heaven in a systematic manner. Much like Barth, he recognized the scriptural foundation for such a narrative was too scant to justify any developed doctrine.

Providence and Predestination – Partee argues that for Calvin “providence is the doctrine of predestination applied universally to the world, and predestination is the doctrine of particular providence applied directly to individuals” (The Theology of John Calvin, 116). As distressing as Calvin’s view of double predestination might be, I found myself more frustrated with the doctrine of providence. During the course on Calvin, Morse said his teaching on the problem of evil often disappoints his students in his systematic theology class. Essentially, he believes that the problem is insoluble. This was perhaps my greatest frustration with Calvin. The doctrine of providence simply offers no hope to those in suffering other than to the chalk it up to the mystery of God’s will. Those under the enchantment of Calvin’s doctrine of providence are unable to protest against suffering. That possibility has been foreclosed because they are forced to accept that everything happens according to God’s inscrutable good will. Another thing about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination that struck me as odd was its placement in the Institutes. Unlike Barth, who put election at the center of his Doctrine of God, Calvin relegates predestination to the end of Book III of the Institutes. It is almost as if he was embarrassed by the horrible nature of it and tried to hide it away at the end of his Institutes. It does raise the question why have people so often associated Calvin with his view of predestination when it appears to simply be a repetition of Augustine’s view. In fact, considering Calvin does not place it front and center in his dogmatics seems to suggest that he did not think it was central or by any means foundational to his theology. In fact, God’s revelation in Christ was central not this doctrine of election.

Total Depravity – Many of Calvin’s critics often fault him for emphasizing the wretchedness of man. However, as Morse continued to emphasize in the course, God’s No to creation is always overwhelmed by his Yes to creation in form of God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ (God for us).

Atonement – Many theologians often attribute to Calvin the penal substitution view of atonement. In fact, many Reformed evangelicals believe that this specific reading of Christ’s atoning death is an indispensable doctrine (despite the fact that the church fathers never settled on a single interpretation of the atonement theory). Contra those who believe Calvin’s view of the atonement was strictly forensic and objective in character, Partee points out that Calvin “does not have a single, unified doctrine or theory of atonement” (159). Partee argues that if the union of Christ is foundational for Calvin than the charge that his idea of the atonement is too objective “is called into serious question” (161). Emil Brunner emphasizes that there are different pictures of the atonement but not a unified theory. According to Partee “Calvin is clear that salvation is found in Christ, emphasized in the blood of atonement and the flesh of Eucharist. But this is finally a confession, not an explanation” (188).

OK now it’s time to go back to some good old heterodox queer theology.


2 Responses to “Some Calvinist Reflections”

  1. Stephen Says:

    I’m going to be reading some queer theology for the first time this fall and get to pick my reading list. I put together a list, but i would appreciate any suggestions you have. Cheers

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I’ve posted my list here. I’m combining queer theology and feminist theology. There are other works on body theology and other collected volumes but I’m sticking to monographs mostly.

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