Calvin’s Institutes & God’s Sovereignty

Calvin’s book, Institutes of the Christian Faith, is one of the most influential theological books ever written. Calvin wrote the first edition of this book in 1536, approximately three years after he came to faith in Jesus Christ. The original book was six chapters long and printed in such a way that it could be carried in a person’s pocket. Its purpose was to summarize the basic teachings of the Bible and Protestantism in a format that people could understand.

Calvin constantly revised and added to this book and, by the time of his death in 1564, it was eighty chapters long and close to 1000 pages. The book’s impact on the Reformation, and subsequent Protestant theology, is practically unparalleled.

I confess that I have not read the whole book. A lot of it is hard to read and tied to Calvin’s times. I have scanned large portions of it and read a Reader’s Digest version of it produced by Hugh Kerr (Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend).

Much of what I have read I have liked and been impressed with. Calvin was an incredible thinker and theologian. Here are some of the quotes that I highlighted and starred:

…We cannot have a clear and complete knowledge of God unless it is accompanied by a corresponding knowledge of ourselves (I.xv.1).

Here, then, is what God’s truth requires us to seek in examining ourselves: it requires the kind of knowledge that will strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission (II.i.2).

For God’s mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the severe judge of evil deeds. But in Christ His face shines, full of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners (II.vii.8).

We have in his death the complete fulfillment of salvation, for through it we are reconciled to God, his righteous judgment is satisfied, the curse is removed, and the penalty paid in full (II.xvi.13).

While we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt or any assurance that is not assailed by anxiety. …Believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief. …He who, struggling with his own weakness, presses toward faith in his moments of anxiety, is already in large part victorious (III.ii.7).

You will never attain true gentleness except by one path: a heart imbued with lowliness and with reverence for others (III.vii.4).

Faith righteousness so differs from works righteousness that when one is established the other has to be overthrown. …So long as any particle of works righteousness remains some occasion for boasting remains with us. Now, if faith excludes all boasting, works righteousness can in no way be associated with faith righteousness (III.xi.13).

Good stuff. And here is another quote I highlighted before Calvin enters into his discussion of predestination and election.

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. …Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance (III.xxi.1-2).

I think Calvin’s words are right on target in this regard. And essentially that is all I am arguing in the debate between Calvinism-Arminianism. Let’s not be ashamed to admit our ignorance in some areas and let’s not try to unravel every tension between God’s sovereignty and His incomprehensible love toward humanity.

Notice I didn’t put the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. I don’t think the tension lies here. There is only one free will in the universe and that is God. Our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). God is absolutely sovereign. No question. He can do whatever He wants. I think that is Paul’s primary message in Romans 9. Who are we to tell God how He is supposed to do things?

In that sense, today’s resurgence of Calvinism is a good thing, a good corrective. In a humanistic society, like the Renaissance age (and our own), a good dose of God’s sovereignty has a way of humbling us and reminding us that we are not God, we are not immortal, we are not omniscient, and we can’t even control our own bodies much less the universe.

But I believe that Calvin’s Institutes is deficient in at least one area…God’s love. Yes, Calvin does talk about God’s love. It’s impossible not to. But it is not a predominant theme in his book.

I did a little word study using a pdf of Calvin’s Institutes. The term “righteous” is used 1081x in his book. The term “holy” is used 720x. The term “power” is used 844x. Most of the time in reference to God. The term “love,” however, is used 369x and the majority of those times are in reference to our command to love God and our neighbor not to God’s love toward us. 1 John 4:7-8, Beloved, let us love another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love, is not referenced or quoted one time in his 1000 pages of theology. Not one time. Thus, the simple concept that “God is love” doesn’t get mentioned. Doesn’t that seem just a little unbalanced?

Calvin seems to focus more on God’s power, righteousness, and holiness than His love. And I think that reflects Calvin’s personality to some degree (see my post on Calvin’s Love Life)…and his times.

I read a biography about Calvin by T.H.L. Parker. It is considered one of the more scholarly accounts of Calvin’s life. Parker summed up Calvin’s life in one sentence: Calvin was a man of order and peace who was born into a world of conflict (345).

The 16th century was a tumultuous time in world history (very much like our own). Almost every category of life was being challenged and changed. And in the midst of this upheaval and uncertainty, Calvin clung to the power and sovereignty of God. Amen and amen! But at the same time, by over-emphasizing one aspect of God’s character, we tend to lessen another aspect of God’s character. And in the case of Calvin, I think he limited and over-rationalized the incomprehensible passion and love of God. ..not just for believers but for all of humanity.

Bottom line, Calvin tried to unravel and explain what he should have left in the realm of mystery and wonder.

In my next post, I plan to look at the doctrine of limited atonement which I believe is at the crux of the discussion of Calvinism.

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