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.

Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency

Recently, I read Barbara Pitkin’s essay ‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’ (published in The Journal of Religion 2004; 347-378; online available on Academia.eu). She shows how Melanchthon and Calvin differ on important issues concerning divine action and human liberty. Yes, they agree on the basic intent, namely that human beings are not capable to will the good on their own, but in the way they articulate this basic insight they differ considerably. Calvin, on the one hand, tends to downplay the ability of the human will in favour of the determing role of God’s willing and acting. Melanchthon, on the other hand, seeks to explore the way in which human willing is involved in and – in some sense – cooperates with God’s willing and acting. Pitkin shows how the interaction between the two men developped. Melanchton was concerned about Calvin’s views on predestination, deeply aware of the threat of determinism in Calvin’s theology.

This reminded me of an article in the Dutch journal Kerk en Theologie (2011; p.138-159) from Antonie Vos about the Freedom of the Will according to Melanchthon. Vos shows how Melanchthon changed his opinions about determinism and contingency between the first edition of his Loci Communes in 1521 and the second, revised edition of 1535. Vos uses the edition from the Utrecht University library, instead of the text from the Corpus Reformatorum (XXI), which is an amalgam of different editions. The textual history of the Loci is indeed quite complex (compare the ‘Introduction to the second edition’, p.xiii-xv from Benjamin T.G. Mayes in the English translation from Melanchthon’s Loci Praecipui Theologici from 1559): The Chief Theological Topics, translated by J.A.O. Preus (Concordia Publishing House 2011)). After some research I found a copy of this second 1535-edition on the internet, digitalized by the Herzog August Biblithek Wolfenbüttel. The quotes I checked, show that it is the same edition as the Utrecht-copy. The relevant texts are to be found under the title ‘De causa peccati & de contingentia’ (in PDF-reader, p.92).

On an earlier occasion I wrote about Antonie Vos and the rediscovery of synchronic contingency. Vos and his Research group published about the synchronic contingency in the theology and philosophy Duns Scotus on the one hand, and some important reformed theologians, like Voetius and Turretini, on the other hand. However, this seemed to presuppose a certain gap between medieval theology and the emergence of reformed scholasticism. And indeed, the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin show certainly deterministic traits, to say the least. Moreover, both Luther and Calvin fulminated against scholastic distinctions in this regard. The more surprising it is to discover Melanchton’s ‘conversion’ from determinism to contingency. “The freedom of the will is the cause of our action’s contingency”, he writes (Est autem libertas voluntatis causa contingentiae nostrarum actionum). The contrast with the 1521-edition is immense. There he asks rhetorically: “‘What then?’, you will ask, ‘isn’t there – to use a phrase of those – no contingency in reality, no chance, no fortune?'” (Quid igitur, inguies, nullane est in rebus, ut istorum vocabulo utar, contingentia, nihil casus, nihil fortuna).

So, between 1521 and 1535 Melanchthon changed his mind in this regard. The question is: can we trace this change more precisely? Vos mentions in his article a remark of Bernard Lohse, who suggests ‘after 1527’. Barbara Pitkin, following Timothy J. Wengert, mentions also 1527-1528, more specifically, his edition of the commentary on Colossians (‘The Protestant Zeno’, p.359). It certainly is worth further study to trace backhis notion of contingency. Moreover, it seems probable that Melanchthon wasn’t the only one who rediscovered the notion of (synchronic) contingency in the turmoil of the Reformation era. There must have been others as well, I expect. On top of my list of other ‘suspects’ is the name of Peter Martyr Vermigli