God or Fate: Is Calvin among the Stoics?

Currently, I’m working on three sermon outlines with respect to the 9th and 10th sunday of the Heidelberg Catechism and the 13th article of the Belgic Confession of Guido de Brès. These sermon outlines deal with God’s providence. Critics have pointed out that the theology displayed in these answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, resembles very much Calvin’s opinions (compare his Genevan Catechism, Q&A27). As a consequence, the Heidelberg Catechism shares in the suspicion of Calvin’s alleged Stoicism. In this post I aim to deal with this suspicion towards Calvin. There are, of course, other topics of interest with regard to Calvin’s alleged Stoicism, like his ethics and his view of the body. A few words about that in the end. But before we take a closer look at Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence, we need to give a little attention to biographical matters.

Calvin’s first monograph happened to be a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (1532). For sure, he felt himself somehow attracted to Stoic philosophy. But, as Bruce Gordon shows in his excellent Calvin-biography, Calvin’s relation with Stoic thought Senecadeveloped over the course of the years. While he felt attracted to some Stoic ideals, like self-reliance and self-dependence (p.30,32,248), he gradually moved away from the Stoic view of God as a distant and remote deity, towards a more biblical conception of God (p.57).

With this in mind, we return to Calvin’s doctrine of God’s providence. From the outset, it is clear that Calvin stresses God’s controlling power in his dominion over the world. Calvin abhors the sheer thought that God’s control could ever be wanting. Equally clear is his emphasis on human submission to God’s dealings with this world and our lives. No wonder then, that Calvin has been accused of confounding God and Fate. Hence, the accusation of Stoicism in Calvin’s theology. Calvin himself, however, viewed matter differently. He claimed that his view differed profoundly from the Stoic understanding of fate by arguing that God does not act according to necessity. Time and time again he claims that some of his opponents are Stoic, because their thinking is deterministic (Barbara Pitkin, What Pure Eyes Could See, p.26, 98). Calvin dissociates himself obviously from the Stoics.

So far, so good then? Not quite. The problem is that his contemporaries thought otherwise. In another article of hers, Barbara Pitkin points out how Heinrich Bullinger asked Calvin to write a book in order to make clear that God was not the author of sin, since many people had been troubled by Calvin’s rendering of the doctrine predestination in his Institutes. And Philip Melanchthon called him the ‘protestant Zeno’, which was by no means meant as a compliment (‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’, Journal of Religion 84/3 (2004), p.345-346).

What was the problem? It was not with Calvin’s intentions. Both Bullinger and Melanchthon could be called friends of Calvin, although their friendships were not without tensions. But the problem they had with Calvin was the way he defended his position on providence and predestination. In order to secure God’s control and his active involvement in matters, Calvin denied explicitly the usefullness of the traditional distinction of God’s permission. For sure, he sometimes uses the word in his writings, but conceptually it is elaborated in a different way in comparison with the traditional concept of permission. Take, for example, his Genevan catechism once again. In answer 28 Calvin speaks about God’s permission of the doings of wicked men and devils. But, as the rest of this answers makes abundantly clear, Calvin speaks about this permission in terms of absolute divine control, even coercion. “Although God does not govern them by his Spirit, he however curbs them by his power as a bridle, so that they cannot even move unless in so far as he permits them.” Even more so: “He even makes them the ministers of his will, so that unwilling and against their own intention, they are forced to execute what to him seems good.”

The Heidelberg Catechism seems, at least partly, to share this absolute conception of God’s providence. Answer 26 says for example: “whatever evil HeLogical square sends upon me…”. The Belgic Confession on the contrary, takes up the talk and underlying concept of divine permission of evil (art.13). Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism, applies the same concept of divine permission in his Schatboek, an explanation of the Catechism. That seems to me very important. Let’s take the following example: God wants a state of affairs ‘p’ (gWp). ‘Permission’ is then the conjunction of both: g-Wp & g-W-p. In terms of the logical square (see the picture), it refers to the positions I (g-W-p) and O (g-Wp) together. Talking in terms of permission enables one to explain why God doesn’t have a positive volition to evil states of affairs. So, by denying the usefullness of the concept of permission, Calvin seems to be forced to confirm God’s positive volition towards evil and sin. That is, in rather technical terms, what his friends were afraid of.

Once again the question: is Calvin among the Stoics? It might seem so, but no, I definitively don’t think so. Although influenced by Stoics like Seneca in his early career, his theology can’t be called Stoic, without doing Calvin grave injustice. In fact, as Nicholas Wolterstorff points out in Hearing the Call, Calvin’s way of dealing with grief is quite opposed to the Stoic ideal (p.118-122). And, as Thomas Torrance once showed, Calvin’s thinking of the human body wasn’t Stoic either (Kingdom and Church, p.92-93). Although Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence might seem to be Stoic, it certainly isn’t. And neither is the Heidelberg Catechism. A testcase for that verdict is the human attitude with respect to God’s providence. Fate evokes resignation, but a personal God asks for confidence. That’s precisely what Calvin calls for. So, we may safely conclude that Calvin is not among the Stoics. However, he certainly is among the determinists. But fortunately, that is atypical for Reformed theology in general.

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Triple John

The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.

But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.

Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):

“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).

And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):

“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).

The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.

Bruce Gordon and the importance of history

Today I read an interview with Bruce Gordon,  Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. Since I read an article of his hand about Zwingli’s liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, I’m very keen to follow what he is writing and doing. That article gave a totally different approach to Zwingli. I never had read that before. His Calvin-biography is equally excellent.

In this interview he claims the importance of the historical knowledge of the Reformation period. Without such knowledge we can’t really value what is going in today’s cultural change. That’s quite a claim, but, yes, I fully agree. Without history we don´t understand why we ask the questions we do.

When I tell people of my study of Calvin´s sermons on the Lord´s Supper, they often ask me: why on earth are you busy with such an old man? Here is the answer: without studying the past we don’t know what is going on today!