JOHN CALVIN (cont.)
Though exiled from his native land, Calvin continued
strongly attached to it, and laboured indefatigably for its spiritual
interests; and in his position in Geneva he was able to render manifold and
important services to the poor and persecuted professors of the Reformed
religion in France. Besides the great indirect advantage of affording to those
driven by persecution into exile a safe place of refuge, by maintaining Geneva
as an independent Protestant city, Calvin, as a teacher of theology there,
trained up a succession of well-educated ministers to supply the congregations,
which during his life at Geneva were rapidly being formed in the towns and
country districts of France. In the better times that followed, the Reformed
Church of France had colleges of her own of no mean fame; but in these early
days she could not have had an educated ministry, but for the literary and
theological teaching afforded to her sons at Geneva. Besides this, many of
Calvin's publications were designed for the instruction and guidance of the
Such was the aim of his great work, the Institution; and besides the several editions of it, he also issued other treatises intended to guard them against the errors of the Libertines, and against the timidity of the so-called Nicodemites, who would outwardly conform to the Roman Catholic religion, thinking it enough to be disciples secretly. He was also their constant counsellor in private by his letters, stimulating them to boldness in confessing their faith, encouraging them to patience in affliction, advising them in difficulties, and dissuading them from violent and dangerous courses. Further, he was ever ready to plead for them with others, and to use all his influence to get the Republic of Geneva and the Protestant princes and states of Germany and Switzerland to make representations to the kings of France, on behalf of those who were imprisoned or oppressed for conscience sake. In all these ways, though out of his country, he still laboured heart and soul for it, and did it service of the highest and most valuable kind. He worked at Geneva most immediately for the people of that city, in which he was a pastor and teacher; and he also embraced in his interest and efforts the Protestant cause throughout Europe; but he was a true patriot, and always had a special regard for his own countrymen.
His labours for the common cause of Protestantism are worthy of special notice. It was during his exile from Geneva, most of which time he spent at Strasburg, ministering to a French congregation there, that he first came into close connection with the German Reformers, and he co-operated with them in the consultations and negotiations then going on with the Emperor and States of Germany. He formed a most close and lasting friendship with many of them, especially Melanchthon, that gentle, loving, though sometimes too timid spirit, delighting to lean when wearied with labour and conflicts on the firmer, but not less loving breast of the Genevan Reformer. Calvin also took a deep interest in the Church of England. He corresponded with Edward VI., the Protector Somerset, and others in this country, and his counsel was ever remarkable for wisdom and moderation. While he urged a strict moral discipline, and the abolition of prayers for the dead and other abuses, he raised no question about Episcopacy, and disapproved of Hooper's scruples about the vestments. Indeed in all the general concerns of the Protestant Churches, Calvin's great aim was to secure their unity and peace, letting all minor differences in doctrine and practice be matters of toleration. The differences between the followers of Luther and Zwingli at this period chiefly concerned the doctrine of the sacraments. On this subject Calvin, along with the German Reformed theologians, took up a somewhat intermediate position, and after much labour, he succeeded in coming to a mutual understanding with the Zurich divines, who were followers of Zwingli. He strove also to effect a similar union with the Lutherans, but in vain; the separation widened and became permanent, and thus Protestantism received its most deadly wound.
Calvin's literary labours would alone have given him a great name. His French writings did for that language what Luther did for German; and many of his treatises are masterpieces both in substance and in style. But perhaps his greatest and most valuable work of that kind consists of his Commentaries on Scripture, in which he may be said to have originated the sound method of grammatical and historical exposition. Having been, unlike Luther, from his student years, a disciple of the new learning, he applied its principles to the sacred writings with a perspicuity and skill which have seldom been surpassed. The following words of Dean Perowne are only one of the latest of a great number of similar testimonies from the most competent and various authorities:-" Calvin may justly be styled the great master of exegesis. He is always careful to ascertain as exactly as possible the whole meaning and scope of the writer on whom he comments. In this respect his critical sagacity is marvellous, and quite unrivalled. He keeps close moreover to the sure ground of historical interpretation, and even in the Messianic Psalms, always sees a first reference to the actual circumstances of the writer. Indeed the view which he constantly takes of such Psalms would undoubtedly expose him to the charge of Rationalism, were he now alive He is the prince of commentators. He stands foremost among those who, with that true courage which fears God rather than man, has dared to leave the narrow grooves and worn ruts of a conventional theology, and to seek truth only for itself. It is well to study the writings of this great man, if only that we may learn how possible it is to combine soundness in the faith with a method of interpretation, varying even in important particulars from that commonly received."
The consideration of Calvin's exegetical works leads naturally on to some remarks on his theology; for that was essentially connected with and grew out of his study of the Word of God.
As it seems to have been by the reading of Scripture that Calvin was led to Christ, so his theology was very eminently founded on Scripture; and by far the larger part of his works consists of expositions of Scripture. He did not receive a theological system by tradition, and then seek to support it by proof from Scripture: nor did he think out a chain of logical deductions, and then seek to verify them by Scripture texts: ho sought to let the Bible speak for itself, and he brought to it the sound method of interpretation of the new learning. What he and his associates pleaded for was in the first place that the study of the Bible should be freely allowed to all, and that they should be permitted to speak and act out the convictions they learned from it, even though these should be at variance with the traditional and established religion; and then, in a community that acknowledged the gospel, he sought that everything should be arranged in accordance with Scripture. To it as the Word of God he made continual appeal, whether in pleading for toleration for the adherents of the religion in France, or for the establishment and maintenance of its ordinances at Geneva. He never appeals to any other authority, or bases his teaching on any other ground. Yet he was fully conscious of being in the line of the primitive historical faith of the Church, and of the advantage this gave him.
He planned the first edition of his Institution on the arrangement of the Apostolic Creed, to which he was inclined to attach perhaps too much importance; and he gladly welcomed testimonies from the Fathers, especially Augustine, in support of his beliefs. Sometimes indeed he strains the meaning of Augustine to harmonise with his own; but in general he frankly acknowledges where the Fathers seem to him to have erred, and his agreement with them is not due to slavish deference, but to the fact that he is explaining and defending the same Christian religion that they too had. For what gave his doctrinal system its value and success is the fact; that to him theology does not consist, as it did to the Schoolmen, in the rationalising of certain sentences revealed as abstract truths through an infallible Church; but in the description of Christian religion, as experienced in the heart of a believer. Theology, he says, consists in the knowledge of God and of ourselves, which are intimately and indissolubly connected. God is to be known as He is adored and trusted by Christians, and therefore both as Creator and as Redeemer in Christ. Man is to be known as he is in sin and misery through departure from God, and as he receives and enjoys the salvation of Christ.
Such is the practical and experimental basis on which Calvin's whole Institution of Christian religion is built up; and it was because he found an expression of the same religious experience in the Creed, that he could take it as the ground-plan of his work. This gave his whole exposition of Christian doctrine a more vital and organic unity than any preceding one had been able to show, and this formed a new epoch in the history of theology. Formerly certain great doctrines had stood forth in isolation, such as Athanasius' doctrine of the Incarnation, Augustine's of original sin and efficacious grace, Anselm's of satisfaction; but their mutual relations were little understood; and often the edge of each was blunted by association with incongruous ideas. Calvin was the first who clearly brought out the living organic connection of each with each, and of all with Christian experience. This was a most important and precious gain for the Church of Christ; and was both a fruit and vindication of the Reformation. It was Luther's doctrine of justification by free grace through faith alone that made such a construction of theology possible for Calvin; and on the other hand his Institution showed that that doctrine, so far from being alien to the general principles of Christianity, fitted naturally into an exposition of these principles, and gave a new point and intelligibleness to many other doctrines.
The theology of Augustine appeared, freed from those ecclesiastical and sacramental theories that had impaired its consistency, and in the middle ages led to great abuses; and supported by a method of Scripture interpretation sound and historical widely different from the arbitrary allegorising of Augustine. It has been sometimes thought that Calvin was unduly influenced by Augustine, and studied Scripture through Augustinian spectacles; but his exegesis was entirely different and independent; and on many points of doctrine his divergence is decided. That he owed much to Augustine, and esteemed him highly, is true; but there is no reason to doubt that he was led to adopt Augustine's doctrines of grace by an honest study of Scripture; and, we may add, by the experience of that grace itself in what he calls his sudden conversion. For as Pascal' beautifully says: "The grace of God shall never want champions, for by her own almighty energy she makes them for herself. She requires hearts pure and disengaged; and she herself purifies and disengages them from worldly interests incompatible with the truths of the gospel." Among those "intrepid disciples of the Doctor of Grace, who, strangers to the entanglements of the world, served God for His own sake," God has raised up none more disinterested than John Calvin.
The doctrines of the sovereignty of God, and the absolute predestination of all events, in particular of the final destinies of men, which are generally suggested by the term Calvinism, may be and have been reached by different ways, and maintained for different reasons, and by dissimilar arguments. They are on the one hand a logical consequence of certain facts of religious experience and feeling, which lead many minds, though not all who have felt them, to these doctrinal views; but on the other hand they are connected with certain philosophic theories of the universe, that though debatable have much show of reason, and have been advocated by some of the profoundest thinkers, apart altogether from any religious motives or considerations. The character of any predestinarian system of theology is determined by which of the two different lines of thought leading to the same result predominates in it.
Nothing is more essential to practical religion than the feeling of entire dependence on God, as our Maker and Preserver, leading as it does to the grateful recognition of His goodness in all that we enjoy, to humble submission to His will, and to firm confidence in His wise and watchful care. But these emotions seem necessarily to imply a conviction, that God is absolutely supreme, that His will has sway over all things, and that nothing can thwart His purpose. If we recognise God's hand in everything, thanking Him for all that we enjoy, and bowing to His will in all that we suffer, must we not believe that He appoints and brings about all these things? If we can trust Him with absolute confidence, must we not be assured that nothing whatever can resist His will? and is not this just the Calvinistic doctrine of the eternal providence of God, by which He orders all things that come to pass? Again, what is more essential to Christianity than the conviction that when we have destroyed ourselves by sin, in God is our help found, and that His Holy Spirit moves and enables us to turn from sin to Him, who in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself? and what feeling is more necessary than that the salvation thus received is not of ourselves, but entirely of the free grace and mercy of God? But if God thus by the inward work of His Spirit calls men out of a world lying in wickedness, not for any goodness or merit in them, but of His own free grace, does not this imply that He has chosen them to salvation by His sovereign good pleasure, out of a mass all alike sinful? Now this is just the Calvinistic doctrine of election realising itself in effectual calling. These doctrines are dear to the hearts of Christians of the Reformed Church, because they are the natural outcome and expression of the sense of moral depravity and helplessness, and of the renewing and healing power of Christ the Saviour, that find a place in every deep Christian experience. Calvinists have yielded more readily to these inferences, because this connection of thought is expressed distinctly enough in many passages of Scripture, such as Eph. i. and Rom. viii., where the gratitude of believers for blessings received, and their confidence for the future, alike lead up to the eternal purpose of God. When they are held on such grounds of Christian experience, the principles of Calvinism have a right to be called doctrines of grace: they give intellectual expression to the soul's conviction of the need and power of the gracious influences of God's Spirit.
But the same intellectual conclusions have often been reached in another way, by processes of philosophical reasoning from facts or principles of nature apart from religion entirely; and so they form part of a theory of the world that has been maintained in all ages by some of the greatest philosophers. The principle of causality has seemed to many to lead up to the belief of a great First Cause of all things, and from that it has appeared to follow, that every event is necessarily determined by the Deity as the cause of all. By others, again, the absolute perfection of the Being who sustains all things has been thought to imply, that He is the author of all that is or happens. Then, from another point of view, it has been argued, that the observed uniformity of the laws and processes of nature, and the way in which the actions and choices of man can be calculated and reduced to motives, prove that there is no freedom in the human will. This sort of system of universal necessity or determination is quite independent of religion, and has been held by many who have been ignorant or opponents of Christianity: but it has also been adopted by many Christian thinkers; and sometimes such have held the doctrines of predestination and providence, not so much for the sake of their practical religious value, as on account of the philosophical arguments for such a conception of the universe as they imply. This was the way in which they were generally held by the Schoolmen in the middle ages; when theology was treated as a speculative science, and divorced from its connection with living Christianity; and a similar scholastic spirit has been shown by some Calvinists since the Reformation. Indeed few have been able to resist the temptation to defend their theology by philosophic arguments, without always considering whether the philosophy from which these were borrowed was religious in its principles. Such arguments have generally, in the long-run, done as much harm as good; and when it is not only incidental confirmation, but the main basis of the doctrine that has been taken from philosophy, the result is, that for a reflection of religious experience and feeling, there has been substituted a speculative system, that is at bottom fatalistic or pantheistic in its character.
With Calvin it was prc-eminently a religious interest that made him so strenuous a defender of predestination and its cognate doctrines. He maintained them, because to his logical and systematic mind they appeared the necessary consequences of the fact of God's gracious work in the conversion of the soul, without which there would be no hope for sinners. In a later age, most of the Lutherans, and in England Wesley and his followers, held most earnestly the agency of the Spirit in conversion, without feeling obliged to trace this up to an absolute predestination of God. But that form of doctrine had not appeared in the sixteenth century, and Calvin was not the man to originate it. Those who ascribed conversion to a divine agency had never scrupled to recognise divine sovereignty as the source of it; while many of the Schoolmen had maintained predestination, even though they but imperfectly admitted the grace of God in the actual salvation of men. But with Calvin the doctrine of the divine purposes rests on properly religious, as distinct from metaphysical, grounds. This appears from the place it occupies in his Institution. It is not put at the outset, as a general abstract principle from which other doctrines are to be deduced, or by which they are to be restricted and limited; it does not come into consideration till after the exposition of the redemption of Christ and the way of receiving the benefits of that redemption, at the very end of the third of the four books into which the work, in its completed form, is divided. It is not a thought that rules and governs the whole system; but rather a final result, to which we arc led, after contemplating the redemption that God has wrought for us by His Son, and applies to us by His Spirit. The same thing appears from the way in which it is treated in the Geneva Catechism. It was to him, as he says in one of his controversial tracts, " the doctrine which shows the fountain of our salvation, and is the only foundation of pious and holy humility ;" and on these grounds it was dear to him.
Calvin's special characteristic as a theologian did not lie in his holding the doctrines of absolute predestination and efficacious grace, for these he had in common with all the Reformers, except Melanchthon in his later years; nor in the energy and vehemence with which he asserted them, for in these he was surpassed by Luther and Zwingli; but in the logical consistency with which he carried them out to their issues. These doctrines do undoubtedly, when pursued to their consequences, lead to conclusions that seem very hard and mysterious, and that have caused many minds to recoil from what has such results. If conversion is entirely the work of God, and effected by a power that is supernatural and divine, then it should seem that God can produce it in any case; and as experience and Scripture alike testify that all men are not converted, it follows that in the case of those who are not saved, the reason of this is that God has not seen fit to put forth that gracious power that could have saved them as well as others.
There is indeed no real ground for the charge brought against Calvinism in Calvin's own day, that it makes God the author of sin, and the way in which he treats that charge as a baseless and foolish calumny shows that he saw clearly in his own mind how to avoid any such inference. His doctrine of predestination did not rest on any general theory of the absolute causality of God in all things, but on the religious experience of the conversion of men from sin to God. The agency of the Spirit of God in this great moral change, and the exclusion of all merit or boasting on the part of man, is what Calvin is anxious to maintain. And in so far as the general providence of God is concerned, the permission and overruling of sin to good ends is all that is required in the interest of that absolute reliance on God which is the practical use of the doctrine of providence. But Calvin's system is undoubtedly exposed to difficulties on another side. It exalts the free grace and infinite love of God more than any other theology; hut it views these as having for their objects only those who are actually saved, being chosen and fore-ordained by God for that blessed end. It represents Him as withholding from others those secret influences of His grace without which they cannot be converted and saved; and though it does not deny the general love of God to all men, regards it as very inferior to the special love that He has for His own chosen people. The charges commonly made against Calvinism of representing God as unjust or cruel can be shown to be quite unfounded; since the salvation of any sinner at all is of God's free grace, and Calvinists do not regard God as doing less for all men than their opponents, hut as doing infinitely more for the elect than any other system can allow. But while the objections to this theology on the ground of the justice of God arc based on misapprehensions, it must be admitted that it is not so easy for Calvinism to do justice to those large revelations of the love of God to the whole world that are given in Scripture. This difficulty does not seem to have been much felt in Calvin's day, perhaps because in that comparatively hard and stern age the idea of love to the guilty and impenitent had not taken possession of men's minds. But this truly Christian feeling came afterwards into action, and led in the next century to modifications of Calvinism in the direction of universal redemption, and to the evangelical Arminian theology of the later Lutherans and Wesleyans. These forms of doctrine were unknown to Calvin, who was only confronted with an assertion of free-will in a Pelagian and legalistic spirit; but it is worthy of observation that he practically met the difficulty by his broad general statements of the gospel offer, and an exceedingly free and un-hampered exposition of those passages of Scripture where the universal love of God is declared. He did not, like some of his followers, try to narrow or explain them away, but gave them their natural meaning in spite of the difficulty of fitting them into his system. He always acknowledges that there are profound mysteries in God's ways, which we cannot fathom; and so far from being a daring speculator, prying into the secrets of the divine government, he frequently inculcates the duty of being content to be ignorant of what God has not been pleased to reveal.
Whether something more than this should not be done, and whether any of the later systems of theology affords a fuller exhibition of Christian trnth, especially of the love of God, than that of Calvin, is too great a question to be discussed here. Many, perhaps most modern evangelical theologians, think that a better theology is attainable, by giving up the doctrine of invincible grace; but it may be doubted whether this does really remove the difficulty, and whether it is not better to rest content with the recognition of a mystery which we cannot fathom. The theology of Calvin is encompassed with many and great difficulties: we do not deny that; but we believe that they are difficulties that press against the Bible and Christianity itself, nay, against the facts of the world's history; and that no theology that is at all biblical and true to experience can entirely escape them. We believe however also, that notwithstanding these difficulties, we can retain our faith in God as love, believing where we cannot prove. So much was Calvin of this spirit, that he regards the absence of it as something strange. In one of his letters he says of Bolsec : "Yet such is this Jerome, that he will not admit that God does anything justly, unless he has palpable evidence of it." With such a frame of mind, no man can be a Calvinist : but it was alien from Calvin's childlike trust in God's justice and love amid all the mysteries of His providence. Calvinism does not evade the dark and dreadful problem of the existence of sin and misery in the creation of Almighty God, but frankly recognises it as insoluble. It has indeed often been held by men of cold and narrow hearts, who have suffered the doctrines of their system to limit and lower- their thoughts of God; but in its genuine spirit, and as taught by Calvin himself, it is the theology of men who have such a firm faith in the love of God that they believe it, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary; and are assured that though "clouds and darkness are round about him, justice and judgment are the habitat;on of his throne, mercy and truth go before his face."
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