The Reviewer Review'd or John Calvin--setting the record straight

Article by   April 2006

Paul Helm responds to Scott Oliphint's review of his work, John Calvin's Ideas.

Professor Scott Oliphint has recently reviewed my book John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 - a paperback reprint is due out in September 2006) and I wish to thank him for it, particularly, naturally enough, for the kind things he says about the book. His review largely consists of sympathetic summaries of several of the book's Chapters. However, towards the end he makes three serious critical comments on what he alleges are my interpretations of Calvin. These are somewhat unusual, because in each case what claims to be a criticism of the author of John Calvin's Ideas turns out to a criticism of the subject of the book, John Calvin himself. Oliphint thinks that these errors of interpretation arise 'when a philosopher attempts to subsume theology or a theologian under his own discipline'. It seems a good thing that Calvinistic thinkers (to look no further) should as far as possible agree on what Calvin actually says. So in the interests of factual accuracy regarding Calvin's ideas, in what follows I attempt to put the record straight on the three issues concerned.

Calvin on Atonement and time. In the course of discussing Calvin's views on the atonement I say this

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace. (JCI p. 395)

The reviewer thinks that I misinterpret Calvin by 'locating the notions of wrath and grace within our own doxastic structure' and that I do this because I see a paramount need to uphold the immutability of God. But this is what Calvin, not Helm, says:

Expressions of this sort have been accommodated to our capacity that we may better understand how miserable and ruinous our condition is apart from Christ. For if it had not been clearly stated that the wrath and vengeance of God and eternal death rested upon us, we would scarcely have recognised how miserable we would have been without God's mercy, and we would have underestimated the benefit of liberation (Inst. II.16.2. JCI pp. 393-4)

Expressions of what sort? Of this sort,

But, before we go any farther, we must see in passing how fitting it was that God, who anticipates us by his mercy, should have been our enemy until he was reconciled to us through Christ. For how could he have given in his only-begotten Son a singular pledge of his love to us if he had not already embraced us with his free favor? Since, therefore, some sort of contradiction arises here, I shall dispose of this difficulty. (Inst. II.16.2. JCI p.392)

For Calvin the contradiction between 'God is our enemy' and 'God is our friend' is disposed of by noting that his people are eternally loved by God in Christ, who eternally contemplates the elect as redeemed in time in Christ. As he puts it later

The explanation of this mystery is to be sought in the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. There, after Paul has taught us that we were chosen in Christ, he adds at the same time that we acquired favor in the same Christ (Eph.1.4-5). How did God begin to embrace with his favor those whom he had loved before the creation of the world? Only in that he revealed his love when he was reconciled to us by Christ's blood. God is the fountainhead of all righteousness. Hence man, so long as he remains a sinner, must consider him an enemy and a judge. (Inst. II.17.2. JCI p 398)

God, though loving the elect in Christ before the foundation of the world, is considered by each of them an enemy and judge until (by faith) each is personally reconciled to God. Who changes?

The Incarnation. In discussing Calvin's views on the Incarnation I say

Perhaps Calvin's view amounts to this: in the Incarnation there is uniquely powerful and loving and gracious focusing of the divine nature upon human nature, rather than a transfer of the Son of God to a spatio-temporal location. This focusing makes it possible for us to say that God the Son is so present with human nature that there is a union of natures in Jesus Christ. God in the person of the Son, through whom all things are created, focuses upon one unique aspect of his creation in uniting to human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Son was not simply present by being active, he was present by being in union. The character of this divine presence sanctions the language of substance with respect to the result. (JCI p.64)

The reviewer says that one is hard pressed to find such language in any of the Reformed orthodox, and certainly in Calvin. Moreover, he thinks that such language is inconsistent with the historic, biblical notion of Incarnation because that notion includes the fact that the second person of the Trinity did not become another a person. But where in that quotation (or anywhere else in the book) do I claim this, and not rather that the second person of the Trinity remained what he was. 'God the Son is present by being in union' with human nature, echoing Calvin's 'two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man'. (Comm. John 1:14.) and much more besides. (See JCI pp. 60-71) What could the reviewer be thinking of?

3. Finally, divine accommodation. The reviewer thinks that I am mistaken in thinking that much, and not all 'of our knowledge of God is due to God's gracious accommodation of himself to our straitened epistemic circumstances' (JCI p. 184). For, Professor Oliphint notes, Calvin points out that all our knowledge of God is ectypal, and not archetypal. In the book I clearly note this as well. (JCI p.13) Nonetheless, in his famous paragraph on divine repentance Calvin clearly distinguishes between accommodated and unaccommodated language.

What, therefore, does the word 'repentance' mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God to us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity (ad captum) so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry towards sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word 'repentance' than change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word 'repentance' is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions. Meanwhile neither God's plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men's eyes. (Inst. I.17.13 JCI p.187-8)

So God accommodates himself sometimes, by using expressions such as 'repent' of himself, even while wishing us to understand that (in unaccommodated fashion), 'what he had from eternity foreseen, approved and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men's eyes'.

Ectypal knowledge? Yes. Unaccommodated ectypal knowledge? Yes again.

I cannot readily account for the reviewer's misunderstandings of Calvin. But perhaps they have arisen because Professor Oliphint has from the start missed the point of John Calvin's Ideas. The purpose of the book is not, as he avers, to subsume Calvin's theology under philosophy. This is the very reverse of the aim. At all points Calvin's view of philosophy is shown to be an eclectic one, and that at all points he strives - successfully or otherwise - to subordinate the philosophical ideas he uses to his theological doctrines and aims. Approached with these points in mind, the ideas of the great Reformer may speak to us in fresh tones.



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