John Calvin contra ‘two wills in God’ Methodology

Here is J.K.S. Reid in his Introduction to his translation of John Calvin’s Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God. He is concerned with underscoring Calvin’s procedure of thought and method per his “system” of things. Calvin’s appropriation by the post-Reformed (those who followed Calvin, through Beza, Zanchi, Perkins, Ames, and others) is a very “logic” driven system of coherence; i.e. they “finish off” where Calvin supposedly “left off.” Certainly they could’ve, but then again they “could’ve not.” This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories — thus the existence of “Evangelical Calvinism” in Scotland, and what Janice Knight has called The Spiritual Brethren in Old England (where they predominated for a time), and New America (where they were overshadowed by The Intellectual Fathers, or Federal/Classic Calvinists). Here is Reid:

. . . A good deal of nonsense is talked about Calvin, as though his system were logical in the sense of being rounded off and complete; and the statement by frequent repetition has become almost a commonplace. In fact his system has not this character at all. It is certainly logical in the sense that the argument moves carefully step by step from one point to the next. But, to do it justice, it must be recognized as including elements not easily (or at all) capable of being harmonised — a complexio oppositorum, as H. Bauke says of it (see J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, p. 202). Of special relevance to the purpose here is the following example. Pighius objects to Calvin that the dominical command to preach the Gospel universally conflicts with the doctrine of special eleciton (§VIII. I). Calvin’s brief answer to this conundrum is that Christ was ordained for the salvation of the whole world in such a way that only those who hear are saved. The universality of the grace of Christ is symbolised by a promiscuous preaching of the Gospel; the universality of the Mediator is paralleled by the universality of the call to penitence and faith. But at this point the harmony ends; the offer of salvation is made equally to all, but salvation itself is for those who are elect. It is the bare bones of the argument, then, that are exposed, even if the result manifests a certain awkward untidiness. There is no attempt to compel harmony or to systematise by force. That there is a consequent practical difficulty is obvious; and it is one which, whatever Calvin thought of it, was compelling enough to drive his opponents into another camp. The situation for Calvin is not really significantly relieved by what he adds to the argument. The universal offer of the Gospel does indeed have a meaning for those in whose case it is not effective. Quoting St Paul, Calvin says that for them it can only be a “savour of death unto death.” The logicality of the exposition is so far preserved that the universal offer of salvation has at least some effective consequence in all cases. But the parallelism on analysis is found to be specious; the awkward untidiness reappears at a different point. It does not now consist in the fact that the same offer of the Gospel sometimes has and sometimes has an effect commensurable with its nature and with the purpose with which God designed it, and that sometimes, on the other hand, it has a quite opposite effect, incommensurable with its nature and the saving purpose of God — it precipitates death instead of life, destruction in place of salvation. This goes to show that Calvin’s first loyalty is directed, not to formal adherence to abstract logicality, but to the facts of the case and situation as he conceived them, or rather as he conceived the Scriptures to depict them. The logicality of his thought is dedicated not to the formation of a system, but rather to the eliciting of the meaning and the implications of those facts which, as it seemed to him, belong the body of Christian truth. (John Calvin, trans., J.K.S. Reid, “Concerning The Eternal Predestination Of God,” 13-14)

This fits well with Charles Partee’s point on Calvin as a “confessor,” more than a dogmatician; Calvin certainly had a logic and method to his theologising, but it was driven by his ineluctable commitment to say what scripture says — even if coherence remains tenuous. Richard Muller and his followers, and those he follows in the history of post-Reformed orthodoxy, have sought to provide, by and large, the “rounded-offness,” or logical coherence to Calvin’s enthymemic (unstated premises) articulation. It is this crux upon which this school claims to be orthodox, its orthodoxy is proximate to its genealogical lineage to Calvin himself (and of course, Muller and co. also claim that the lineage that ‘orthodoxy’ stems from is broader than Calvin himself, nevertheless, Calvin plays a significant role in this regard, definitionally); or so goes the thinking. Of course this claim remains questionable at best, since enthymeme is by definition “unstated;” the danger with discerning the unstated is that we might “state” where or what Calvin, in this instance, never intended.

Since, if as Reid has stated, the “lack of logicality” is real in Calvin; the door is open for, as stated before, multiform appropriation of Calvin. My contention is not that the “orthodox” don’t have a credible claim on Calvin, instead that their’s is not to be understood as exclusive. The history of “Calvinism” bears witness to this, amen, amen!

P.S. The theology that Reid brings up in the quote will have to be addressed at a later date, it is substantial.

*Repost: There has been some concern with my post on Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s ‘two wills in god’ theology. The concern has been driven by a commenter named “Bri,” and another named “Jeremy” (whose comment I deleted, and whom I have banned for the moment from commenting at the blog given his assertions about my status of acting like a believer or not relative to how I responded to Bri … I found his comment to be unnecessary and ad hominen, and not something I am willing to allow at the blog; but he too, like Bri, have argued (rather pragmatically) for a two wills theology. I say pragmatically because both of their rationale is driven by the kind of rationale that John Calvin (according to Reid’s account and Partee’s) bucked in his own approach. In other words, when there is tension in the teaching of Scripture then it is best, by way of method, not to abstract a methodology from that tension and then impose that back upon God; that’s not following a scientific method of theology that takes its cues from what has been Revealed, but instead it is to shape God into our image answering our questions the way we have constructed them. This is why I am reposting this, because it illustrates, at least for Calvin (if Reid and Partee are right, which I think they are) how we just need to live with confessional tension versus scholastic math. **Jeremy, if you’re reading this, reconsider how you want to interact on the blog, and I might reconsider letting you interact here at the blog.

4 thoughts on “John Calvin contra ‘two wills in God’ Methodology

  1. “This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories….This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories.”


    This is ably demonstrated by Kenneth J. Stewart in his book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (IVP 2011). It takes the wind out of the sails of some restrictive Calvinists that contend theirs is the only true Calvinism.


  2. @Ian,

    Yes, I am aware of Kenneth’s book—still haven’t read it—but have interacted with him a wee bit over at another friend’s blog (when my friend featured Kenneth’s book). And yes, the wind ought to be taken out 😉 .


    Thanks, brother. Yes, all the lectures are insightful into McCormack’s reading of Barth and things 🙂 . (as usual)


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