I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (a translation of the 1541 French edition) in order to understand his own perspective on what we know as the Calvinism vs Arminianism debate. I knew that Arminius actually came later, but I wanted to see what undergirded Calvin’s theology and how he reasoned against those who would have, in his time, shared similar views to Arminius. What I found surprised me, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Calvin was not arguing against some precursor to Arminianism. In reality, he was arguing against the Papists, whom he considered to have returned to the heresy of Pelegianism.
Calvin was among the second generation of those living during the time of the Protestant Reformation (assuming we start counting in 1517, when Luther nails his 95 Theses to the doors of the church in Wittenburg, Germany). The bitter tension between the Catholic Church and the Reformers was seen everywhere throughout Europe. Scholars on both sides were trying to demonstrate their comprehension of the truth, and their opponents lack thereof. Yet, while the Reformation had caused an explosion in religious independence which would not be slowed, the Catholic Church was still the religious authority which must be contended with by all who held that there was any authority higher than the Church.
For the Reformers, that authority was the Holy Scriptures. Reformers like Luther and Calvin would point to the Scriptures when they wanted to demonstrate the errors of their opponents. This can be seen throughout Calvin’s Institutes, where he set out to describe those basic things that he felt every Christian should know, as he saw them laid out by Scripture. He repeatedly warned against making assertions that could not be upheld by Scripture, or which made assumptions on the “secret will of God”.
The bitter confrontations between the Papists and the Reformers seep from the pages of Calvin’s Prefatory Letter to Francis 1, which opens the Institutes. In it he writes,
“Why do they fight so stubbornly and fiercely for the Mass, purgatory, pilgrimages and similar trumpery, protesting that real piety cannot exist unless all these things are believed and held by a most explicit faith, although they cite no proof of this from the word of God? Why, if not because their belly is their god and the kitchen their religion (Phil. 3:19)!” (Institutes, xxii).
In almost every chapter of the Institutes, you can find examples of Calvin framing his views with Scripture and against the Papists. The three instances that stood out most to me were within his discussions on Auricular Confession, Intercession of the Saints in Prayer, and Predestination. For the sake of brevity, and because it relates most closely to my interest in the Calvinism/Arminianism discussion, I will share only a little of what he wrote on the latter.
For Calvin, and many other Reformers, Predestination was a doctrine that short-circuited the Papists insistence that works performed by the free will of man could obtain some merit before God. If, as Calvin argued, Predestination was an unconditional choice of God given by grace, then it would be ludicrous to consider that the supposed merit of man had anything to do with his salvation. Calvin argues
“It is clear that God’s grace alone deserves to be exalted in our election only if that election is free. However it cannot possibly be free if, when he chooses his own, he calculates what each one’s works will be” (Institutes, 469).
Calvin applies the same principle against works in his discussion of God’s reprobation when he says a few pages later
“For just as Jacob, who deserved nothing for his good works, was received into grace, so Esau, who committed no offense, is rejected by God. If we concentrate our thoughts on works we wrong the apostle, as if he had failed to see what is obvious to us. That he did not see it is clear, since he expressly insists that although they had done neither good nor evil, one was chosen and the other cast aside. Thus he concludes that the basis of predestination does not lie in works” (Institutes, 473).
For Calvin, predestination was at the core of the Gospel, precisely because it was a definite rejection to the idea of human merit.
Calvin and those other Reformers who put their time, energy, and blood into digesting and systematizing scripture, so that it could be defended against the Papists, established a foundational approach to interpretation which did not take long to become the standard in places that were unsympathetic to the Catholic Church. It is from within that environment that Arminius enters the scene, motivated like the earlier Reformers to stick to Scripture rather than the traditions of the Church. From that perspective, Arminius felt that certain doctrines such as double predestination, which had been promoted over the prior 50 years by those who adhered to scripture over tradition, had inadvertently become unquestionable traditions among Protestants. He felt that those doctrines, as held by his fellow Reformers, went further than Scripture called for. That is, however, a discussion I will wait to elaborate on until a future post.
Calvin, J. (2014). Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 ed.) (R. White, Trans.). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
The Protestant Reformers [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_and_Reformers_ES_LET_34x88.jpg