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
“ 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
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.”