Blog 153: 3.21.2 - 3.21.5

Iain D Campbell

From prayer Calvin has turned his attention to predestination, a subject which many naively assume to be the cornerstone of Calvin's theology, if not the sum of it. It is interesting that he should raise the subject at this point; in the first edition of the Institutes he refers to it briefly, simply referring to the church as the whole number of the elect. In the final edition, however, he has placed it in discussion of the means of grace as a reason - the supreme reason - why some believe and some do not.

Calvin treads cautiously; one of the great notes of this discussion is that of restraint, and he cautions us to remember that we are 'penetrating the secret precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit' (3.21.1).

There is only one place where we can keep ourselves from this danger: by a simple acceptance of the teaching of the Bible on the subject. 'The moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway' (3.21.2). By confining ourselves to the bounds of the Word, we acknowledge our own ignorance.

There is, however, another danger: that of saying nothing. We could simply ignore the doctrine of election, but that would be to do a disservice both to the Word of God and the God of the Word. Calvin states the principle magnificently: 'Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know' (3.21.3). Both the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture are set before us here: we cannot understand divine election without it, and we dare not ignore what the Spirit, in the Scriptures, teach us concerning it.

Nor should we be deterred by those who mock the doctrine, or who suggest that it will disturb the peace of men's souls. Calvin refers again to Augustine's metaphor of a mother 'stooping' to her child, and speaking in a way that accommodates the child's ignorance. God does that to us.

Consequently, we must accept what he says: that God foreknows all things (that is, that everything remains under his eyes, since for him there is no past, present nor future), and that God predestined men to life or to death: 'he compacted with himself what we willed to become of each man' (3.21.5). He illustrates this latter point in respect of God's gracious election of Israel, not because of Isarel's strength or numerical supremacy, but simply because of his free delighting in the sons of Abraham. The blessings they obtained they neither purchased nor deserved - they received them from his free grace.