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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 24 — Calvin on predestination and election

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Calvin's Views on the Affirmative Side — God as the Author of all things Ordains all that is to come to pass — The Means equally with the End comprehended in the Decree — As Sovereign, God Executes all that comes to pass — Calvin's Views on the Negative Side — Man a Free Agent — Man an Accountable Being — Calvin maintained side by side God's Eternal Ordination and Man's Freedom of Action — Cannot Reconcile the Two — Liberty and Necessity — Tremendous Difficulties confessed to Attach to Both Theories — Explanations — Locke and Sir William Hamilton — Growth of the Institutes.

WE have reserved till now our brief statement of Calvin's views on the subject of predestination and election — the shroud, in the eyes of some, in which he has wrapped up his theology; the rock, in the view of others, on which he has planted it. Our business as historians is neither to impugn nor to defend, but simply to narrate; to state, with all the clearness, fairness, and brevity possible, what Calvin held and taught on this great point. The absolute sovereignty of God was Calvin's cornerstone. As the Author and Ruler of his own universe, he held that God must proceed in his government of his creatures according to a definite plan; that that plan he had formed unalterably and unchangeably from everlasting; that it embraced not merely the grander issues of Providence, but the whole array of means by which these issues are reached; that this plan God fully carries out in time; and that, though formed according to the good pleasure of his will, it is based on reasons infinitely wise and righteous, although these have not been made known to us. Such was Calvin's first and fundamental position.

This larger and wider form of the question, to which is given the name of predestination, embraces and disposes of the minor one, namely, election. If God from everlasting pre-ordained the whole history and ultimate fate of all his creatures, it follows that he pre-ordained the destiny of each individual. Calvin taught, as Augustine had done before him, that out of a race all equally guilty and condemned, God had elected some to everlasting life, and that this decree of the election of some to life, implied the reprobation of the rest to death, but that their own sin and not God's decree was the reason of their perishing. The Reformer further was careful to teach that the election of some to life did not proceed on God's fore-knowledge of their faith and good works, but that, on the contrary, their election was the efficient cause of their faith and holiness.

These doctrines the Reformer embraced because it appeared to him that they were the doctrines taught in the Scriptures on the point in question; that they were proclaimed in the facts of history; and that they were logically and inevitably deducible from the idea of the supremacy, the omnipotence, and intelligence of God. Any other scheme appeared to him inconsistent with these attributes of the Deity, and, in fact, a dethroning of God as the Sovereign of the universe which he had called into existence, and an abandonment of its affairs to blind chance.

Such was the positive or affirmative side of Calvin's views. We shall now briefly consider the negative side, in order to see his whole mind on the question. The Reformer abhorred and repudiated the idea that God was the Author of sin, and he denied that any such inference could be legitimately drawn from his doctrine of predestination. He denied, too, with the same emphasis, that any constraint or force was put by the decree upon the will of man, or any restraint upon his actions; but that, on the contrary, all men enjoyed that spontaneity of will and freedom of action which are essential to moral accountability. He repudiated, moreover, the charge of fatalism which has sometimes been brought against his doctrine, maintaining that inasmuch as the means were fore-ordained as well as the end, his teaching had just the opposite effect, and instead of relaxing it tended to brace the soul, to give it a more vigorous temper; and certainly the qualities of perseverance and indomitable energy which were so conspicuously shown in Calvin's own life, and which have generally characterised those communities who have embraced his scheme of doctrine, go far to bear out the Reformer in this particular, and to show that the belief in predestination inspires with courage, prompts to activity and effort, and mightily sustains hope.

The Reformer was of opinion that he saw in the history of the world a proof that the belief in pre-destination — that predestination, namely, which links the means with the end, and arranges that the one shall be reached only through the other — is to make the person feel that he is working alongside a Power that cannot be baffled; that he is pursuing the same ends which that Power is prosecuting, and that, therefore, he must and shall finally be crowned with victory. This had, he thought, been exemplified equally in nations and in individuals.

Calvin was by no means insensible to the tremendous difficulties that environ the whole subject. The depth as well as range of his intellectual and moral vision gave him a fuller and clearer view than perhaps the majority of his opponents have had of these great difficulties. But these attach, not to one side of the question, but to both; and Calvin judged that he could not escape them, nor even diminish them by one iota, by shifting his position. The absolute fore-knowledge of God called up all these difficulties equally with his absolute pre-ordination; nay, they beset the question of God's executing all things in time quite as much as the question of his decreeing all things from eternity. Most of all do these difficulties present themselves in connection with what

is but another form of the same question, namely, the existence of moral evil. That is all awful reality. Why should God, all-powerful and all-holy, have created man, foreseeing that he would sin and be lost? why not have created him, if he created him at all, without the possibility of sinning? or why should not God cut short in the cradle that existence which if allowed to develop will, he foresees, issue in wrong and injury to others, and in the ruin of the person himself? Is there any one, whether on the Calvinistic or on the Arminian side, who can give a satisfactory answer to these questions?

Calvin freely admitted that he could not reconcile God's absolute sovereignty with man's free will; but he felt himself obliged to admit and believe both; both accordingly he maintained; though it was not in his power, nor, he believed, in the power of any man, to establish a harmony between them. What he aimed at was to proceed in this solemn path as far as the lights of revelation and reason could conduct him; and when their guidance failed, when he came to the thick darkness, and stood in the presence of mysteries that refused to unveil themselves to him, reverently to bow down and adore. [1]

We judged it essential to give this brief account of the theology of the Institutes. The book was the chest that contained the vital forces of the Reformation. It may be likened to the living spirits that animated the wheels in the prophet's vision. The leagues, battles, and majestic movements of that age all proceeded from this center of power — these arcana of celestial forces. It is emphatically the Reformation. The book, we have said, as it first saw the light in Basle in 1536 was small (pp. 514); it consisted of but six chapters, and was a sketch in outline of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith. The work grew into unity and strength, grandeur and completeness, by the patient and persevering touches of the author, and when completed it consisted of four books and eighty-four chapters. But as in the acorn is wrapped up all that is afterwards evolved in the full-grown oak, so in the first small edition of the Institutes were contained all the great principles which we now possess, fully developed and demonstrated, in the last and completed edition of 1559.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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