Home » Evangelical Calvinism » Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2

I think I am going to start doing some posts that refer to our just released book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion; in other words, I will share particular quotes from particular chapters, and do what I do as a blogger: reflect and
engage with that material. In this post I will briefly engage with something I wrote in my personal chapter for the book entitled: “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ.’ In my chapter I offer a constructive critique of Calvin’s doctrine of assurance of salvation, while also constructively picking up on the themes within it that indeed fit well with the type of Christ concentrated/conditioned understanding of all things that Evangelical Calvinism is becoming known;  particularly, of course, as we rely on Barth and Torrance for much of our theological impulses. In our volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book Myk Habets and I co-wrote a chapter wherein we offered 15 theological thesis that he and I see as the kind of touchstone contours of thought that we see as definitive for our style of EC thinking. One of those was that we believe, along with John Calvin, that assurance of salvation is of the essence of faith. My chapter in this new volume 2 actually takes a critical look at that through critique offered by the theological soundings present in Barth’s and Torrance’s theological offerings.

That said, part of the critique I made of Calvin on this front gets into Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation, and how he deploys the absolutum decretum. This doctrine, and the way Calvin’s kind of asymmetrical understanding of election and reprobation functions is the point at which I conclude that Calvin’s theological superstructure can’t really support his laudable thesis that assurance is the essence of saving faith. So I critique him on that front, and then contructively help him along through the theological categories of Barth and Torrance; with particular focus on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. But in critique of Calvin I actually appeal to a critique that Steve Holmes made of Calvin on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and reprobation and temporary faith. Here’s the quote I quoted from Holmes on this in my chapter:

The weakness in Calvin’s account of predestination, I suggest, is that the doctrine of reprobation is detached, Christless and hidden in the unsearchable purposes of God. As such it bears no comparison with the doctrine of election, but remains something less than a Christian doctrine. There is, in Calvin’s account, a fundamental difference between election and reprobation. Contra Barth, Calvin’s failure is not that he teaches a symmetrical double decree (Barth speaks of ‘the classical doctrine with its opposing categories of “elect” and “reprobate”’), but that he has almost no room for the doctrine of reprobation in his account.

This difference, this asymmetry, is ‘a very amiable fault’; it gives insight into Calvin the pastor, whose heart and mind were full of the glories of God’s gift of salvation in Christ—so different from the caricature so often painted. Calvin’s doctrine fails not because of a double decree, because the ‘No’ is equal to the ‘Yes’, but because the ‘No’ does not really enter his thinking. It is a logical result of the ‘Yes’, and necessary for the ‘Yes’ truly to be ‘Yes’, but, whereas election is bound up in his theology, it is the very fact that he is seemingly not interested in reprobation, that he has not brought it within the Trinitarian scope of his system, that makes it such a weak point. That is to say, Calvin’s doctrine fails to be gospel, is not ‘of all words . . . the best’, because he gives no doctrinal content to his account of reprobation and hence has no meaningful symmetry between the two decrees.[1]

And I write, just following this quote from Holmes in my chapter:

For Holmes, Calvin is so enamored with the positive aspect of election for the elect of God in Christ, that reprobation, as a doctrine, really has little or no place in the theology of Calvin.20 Holmes believes this is further exacerbated when attempting to provide assurance for weary souls, because, as Holmes writes, “the point at which Calvin appears to engage in special pleading in his attempt to give assurance to believers is when he speaks of ‘temporary faith’ (III.24.7–9)….”[2]

In brief, the problem for Calvin, and for anyone who holds to a classical doctrine of double predestination, is that assurance of salvation will indeed be elusive for the weary soul. If Christ only reveals the positive side of predestination, election, and not the negative side, reprobation, then we end up with some serious issues in regard to giving an account for assurance of salvation. In Calvin’s mind the elect could look to the decree, to Christ, and see him as the mirror of election for them; but of course, as we leave off with reference to Holmes’ critique of Calvin, Calvin also had the concept of ‘temporary faith’ operative in his theology, coupled with the idea that reprobation was hidden back in the secret decree of God (unlike his doctrine of election which was revealed, according to Calvin, in Christ). If someone could “look” elect, but only have a temporary ineffectual faith, and if reprobation was not accounted for positively in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, then it becomes clear how anxiety for folks could remain; and it did.

These are the areas I critique Calvin of; I use Holmes and Barth. But I don’t leave off there, and of course I offer more development and substantiation for my critique of Calvin on this front in the chapter. After a description of Calvin’s understanding of reprobation/election and its implications towards assurance of salvation, I get into Barth’s and Torrance’s theology as a helper and constructive course correction for Calvin. I point up Barth’s reification of the classical doctrine of election/reprobation, and then how Torrance also develops that; I show, in contrast to Calvin’s doctrine here, how they have the resources to actually offer a real doctrine of assurance precisely at the point where Calvin’s doctrine is less than laudable: i.e. when we start talking about election and reprobation.

I don’t leave off with a negative note in regard to Calvin though; I show how he offered a properly Christ concentrated mode of theology in other areas of his theology, particularly when that came to his double grace and union with Christ conceptions of salvation and Christology.

Anyway, maybe this will whet your appetite enough to go and buy our book. If not I’ll share stuff from other chapters in order to give you all a feel for what to expect. Our authors really did bring a set of stellar contributions to make this volume 2 the outstanding work that I think it is.

[1] Holmes, Listening To The Past, 129–30 in Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 39.

[2] Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith,” 39-40.

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  1. Pingback: Providing Some Theological Correction for John Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance: From Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2 – via @BobbyGrow1 | Talmidimblogging

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