Calvin’s No! to the Thomists and Scholastics Among Us: Grace is Jesus

I was reminded recently, as a result of interaction with an ardent Thomist/Scholastic theologian, how entrenched that approach is still perkinspresent within the lives of many Christian thinkers even of today. Well, John Calvin would have none of that!

In the following I will be engaging with research my former professor from seminary, and mentor, Ron Frost did for his PhD dissertation on Richard Sibbes and William Perkins with reference to the ‘divided house’ present within English Puritanism, particularly as that revolved around disparate definitions of ‘grace.’

In a very oversimplified description of things, within English Puritanism (and this stain continues into the present within certain sectors of Reformed theology, i.e. the reference to that Thomist theologian I spoke of to open this post), there were at least two camps. There were those who indeed followed the Thomist synthesis of things and held to a created conception of grace (vis-à-vis the Aristotelian habitus) wherein (as the story goes) the elect could cooperate with God in a quid-pro-quo arrangement of salvation (e.g. Federal or Covenant theology) [William Perkins would be a prime example of this style of things]; and then there were those who actually held to the idea that nature did not need to be aided or perfected by grace, but instead they understood that nature was subordinate to God’s grace, and thus a relational focus on grace and salvation was emphasized [Richard Sibbes would be an excellent example of this among the English Puritans]. Well, it is this latter group that someone like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli et al. would fit into. We will focus on John Calvin.

John Calvin, ever before the English Puritans, laid groundwork through a neo-Patristic retrieval of seeing salvation as a personal and ontological reality by his emphases upon unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’) and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) prongs within the salvation complex. It was his focus on Christ as the ground of salvation, indeed the ground of humanity as the imago Dei and ‘mirror of election’ that he trumpeted the need to see salvation from within a christocentric and Trinitarian frame; in other words, from within a personal and relational frame. Rather than seeing it through a Thomist frame of things where grace is understood as a created quality through which the elect habitually cooperate with God by ‘proving’ their election through perseverance in good works etc. John Calvin rejected such conceptions of things. Here is Ron Frost’s insight:

Calvin’s rejection of habitus. Calvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes, Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection”.[1]

If we are going to engage with Calvin, let’s not collapse him into a mode that he rejected. Calvin would never fit in with the post-Reformed scholastic theology of ‘Calvinism’ or Reformed theology post him.

But beyond that, at an application level, what is most important here is to recognize, with Calvin (among others), that salvation is something fully realized in Christ for us and with us. Richard Sibbes (against Perkins) picked up on this kind of Calvinian conception of things; and similarly critiqued folks like Perkins on the same grounds that Calvin critiqued the ‘half-papists’ and scholastics. Jesus Christ has bridged the gap for us, by the Holy Spirit, in His vicarious humanity. He is the bridge, not a created quality of grace or habitus. Sorry Thomists!

[1] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

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