6. Some theological trends

Calvin’s theology is many-faceted and thorough. Calvin’s Institutes (the final version of which comes from the year 1559) was the first comprehensive Protestant dogmatics. In it, the Reformational innovations are penetrated in dispute with the Scholastic tradition and in constant dialogue with the whole of Scripture, Old and New Testament. Two connected poles characterise Calvin’s thought, as becomes clear in the Institutes. First there is the emphasis on glory, the greatness and omnipotence of God, which give themselves to be known in Jesus Christ. And the second emphasis, subordinated to the first, is the theme of the salvation of humankind. In this, Calvin proves to be a (nonetheless independent) disciple of Martin Luther. Both – God’s glory and the salvation of humankind – belong together, God’s glory appearing precisely in his activity for humanity, in his incarnation and his redemption of humankind.

“ Knowledge of God and Self-Knowledge.” (Passage from ibid. Institutes I: I, 1-2)

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, but these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God. The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility. … Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and – what is more – depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. For what man is all the world would not gladly remain as he is – what man does not remain as he is – so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery? Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy – this pride is innate in all of us – unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgement must be measured. For, because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us.”


Questions for further Work

1. What does Calvin understand by wisdom?

2. What does self-knowledge consist in, according to Calvin?

3. What does the knowledge of God consist in, according to Calvin?

4. How are knowledge of God and of self connected? Which stands at the beginning and which comes second?


Calvin’s so-called doctrine of double predestination, which is rightly problematic for us today, is to be understood in the context of his interest in redemption and the certainty of redemption. It is not human trust that is decisive for salvation, because then the human being would continually look to his faith and be preoccupied about its quality. God alone is the one who elects and rejects. The doctrine of predestination preserves the sole effectiveness of God in the matters of salvation and of faith.
It is the same God who is attested in the Old and New Testament. There is thus no distinction in principle to be made between both parts of the bible. Rather, what is promised in the Old Testament is already reality in the New. In the Old Testament, the gospel is there dimly, and in the New, the light is itself present. So far go the similarities, without the differences being denied. For it is the one covenant of God with humanity that is attested in the whole bible.
Also for this reason, the law, for Calvin, is not there in the first place for the knowledge of sin (as for Luther), but the actual point of the law is to orientate one’s life according to the commands of God. And that applies in the Old as in the New. It is true that we also perceive in the commands our sinfulness, but that does not cancel their actual aim to show to us the good will of God.

The Understanding of the Law. (Passage from ibid. Institutes II, 7, 12.)

The third and principal use [of the law], which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [Jer. 31:33; Heb. 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.
Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master, must search out and observe his master’s ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will.
Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on; for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness.


Questions for further Work

1.Who does the law apply to in its principle use?

2. What is the proper purpose of the law?

3. What does the instruction of the law consist in?

4. What does the instruction of the law consist in?


At the centre of Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments stands the concept of promise. It is not the elements as such that bring salvation with them. Thus, for instance, the Word of promise is made known during the Lord’s Supper with the elements. In this way, the celebration serves the growth of the certainty of faith and thereby the strengthening of the believers. In the celebration, the Holy Spirit, who “seals” the promises of God in the hearts of men, is promised. In the Geneva Catechism, which is constructed in the form of question and answer, Calvin formulates, “According to your conviction, then, the power and the effectiveness of the sacraments is not enclosed in an external element, but goes out entirely from the Holy Spirit? Certainly. God wants to reveal his power through his means of salvation, which he has determined for this purpose. He does this in such a way that he does not deprive his Spirit of any of its significance.”