Calvin on faith and assurance

In an interesting post on his blog Mirifica Commutatio Bobby Grow writes about Randall Zachman’s book: The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in het Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Zachman claims that Luther and Calvin intended to ground the assurance of faith in Christ, but that they not completely succeeded in doing that. The problem is, according to Zachman, that both Luther and Calvin operate with a doctrine of limited election. If that is true, than the real question with regard to assurance cannot be answered in christological terms in the end, but only in terms of God’s election and (secret) counsel. The lamentable result of this: endless efforts (for example by applying the syllogismus practicus) to make this uncertainty undone. Bobby Grow adds to this an advice to ‘move out of the voluntaristic theology of both Calvin and Luther’ and to bridge the gap between God’s inner life and outer life with the help of the theologies of Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth.

I’m, however, not fully convinced. Let me try to explain why with the help of Calvin’s sermons and an article of Thomas Torrance. One of the topics Calvin frequently mentions in his sermons is the question of the certainty of our faith. Let me give just one example. In his sermon on Is. 31,1-3 (Supplementa Calviniana III (ed. by F.M. Higman, T.H.L. Parker, L. Thorpe), p.85) Calvin speaks to the Genevan congregation of assurance.

First, he sums up what God has said and done on our behalf. He says that He rescues us, that He is close to all who ask Him for help, that He has shown us that He is God with us in Jesus Christ, that He never forgets us, that He hears all our prayers. If we are not by now assured, says Calvin, than we are most ungrateful. So, the first step to assurance is looking around and seeing the work God does, every day, in our lives.

However, he continues by saying that, if God was promising so much in the time of the Law (the Old Testament), we have even more reason to be assured:

“Car nous avons l’asseurance de nostre adoption, d’autant que nous sommes membres de son Filz unicque, qui est le chef de toute l’Eglise. La porte de paradis nous est ouverte, d’autant que nostre Seigneur Jesus Christ est entré au Sanctuaire non point fait de mains d’hommes, mais eternel, afin d’estre nostre advocat et intercesseur.”

So, for us, who may share in the Gospel, there is a more direct and secure route to assurance. We may know that we are adopted as children of God, that the paradise has been opened for us, and that we have free entrance into God’s presence, thanks to our High-Priest, Jesus Christ. Note that Calvin does not separate here between believers and non-believers, elected and non-elected. This is what he says to the congregation in Geneva: you may be sure of God’s grace, by looking to Christ and what He has done for us all.

But there is one step further to go. This is where Torrance comes in. In a Festschrift for Peter De Klerk (Calvin’s Books, ed. by W.H. Neuser, H.J. Selderhuis, W. van ‘t Spijker) he wrote an essay titled ‘Legal and Evangelical Priests: the Holy Ministry as Reflected in Calvin’s Prayers’. It’s pretty short, but rich and instructive. In this essay he points out that for Calvin ministry involves executing a priestly office, including offering and mediating. In fact, he claims (p.74):

“[W]e can understand in this light how he [Calvin, AT] could regard the sermon not only as a proclamation of the Gospel from the mouth of God but as an offering made to God, assimilated to Christ’s one self-offering as the Word become flesh now ascended to the Father.”

Let me put it my way. The statement of Torrance implies that for Calvin assurance is not something to figure out in private. No, in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, God descends to us in his offering of grace. But, at the same time, these events are invitations to us to ascend, to lift up our hearts to God. To put it differently, assurance of faith is not a private enterprise, but part of the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. At that moment God Himself is at work, and it is our responsibility to accept that. And, of course, to thank God for it.

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3 thoughts on “Calvin on faith and assurance

  1. Arjen,

    I don’t disagree with how you have pressed this with Calvin. But I think what Zachman, and then what I was getting at, was that within the broader theological schema, Calvin could be very affirmative (in the ways you have highlighted here), while at the same time certain things in his corpus (like on the limiting nature of the efficacy of the atonement), at least, causes some dissonance between the positive/affirming side that you highlight here; and then the negative delimiting side that his view on election could have.

  2. Bobby,

    Thanks for your reply here. What I did in my post is using your story as a stepstone for some reflections about faith and assurance in Calvin. Moreover, I wanted to show that Calvin’s way of thinking – as displayed in his pastoral practice – didn’t function in a problematic way. On the contrary, this seems to me a very healthy way of approaching the theme of faith and assurance.

    Nevertheless, you certainly do highlight an important point. I locate the problem in Calvin’s theology a bit different, however, than you do. I think that on a conceptual level Calvin’s theology is indeed problematic in some ways. The problem in my point of view is not the limited election in itself. It becomes problematic in combination with his deterministic account of freedom. That causes a real threat for maintaing God’s goodness and love. So, according to me, the problem is not his ‘voluntarism’, nor a kind of ‘scotistic legacy’. In fact, Duns Scotus’ notion of ‘synchronic contingency’ can help us further here. That makes reality open.

    But that is another discussion.

  3. Arjen,

    No, I appreciate how you’ve highlighted the positive and pastoral side of Calvin’s method here. I agree with you on that, and it is something that we have also highlighted in our forthcoming book (we use Calvin’s notion of assurance as a positive).

    I also don’t want to sound like I despise Scotism, I don’t. Another aspect of Scotism, besides what you highlight with synchronic contingency, is the sine qua non of Scotism, relative to a doctrine of God, and that is love. It is this aspect of Scotism that I find most pleasing with Scotus’ approach, and one that helps to magnify the triune relational mode that inheres in a proper understanding of a life of God.

    I appreciate your post, and I’m glad you sought to clarify what I said. Of course since I don’t know French I missed out on part of your point 😉 .

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