Five hundred years after the Protestant leader’s birth John Haldane asks whether his central doctrines are misunderstood by Catholics On July 10 1509, in the town of Noyon, some 60 miles north of Paris, a lay lawyer of the Cathedral of Our Lady, named Gérard Cauvin, fathered a second son. Although already a family of some achievement, this boy – Jean – would shake the world of Catholic Christianity and give his name to a set of ideas that continues to be both celebrated and denounced, namely Calvinism. The transition from “Cauvin” was effected by his later adoption of the Latinisation of his name to Ioannis Calvinus and then from the translation of this into the French.
Calvin’s education was a good one, being trained in Paris first at the Collège de la Marche and then at the Collège de Montaigu. The second of these was famed as a centre of philosophical and theological studies and was noted for its Catholic orthodoxy; yet it proved a home to radical Protestants as well as to counter-reformers. Calvin was a student there between 1523 and 1527 and the year after his departure Ignatius Loyola came to study at the college.
It seems almost certain that both men attended the lectures of the Scots philosopher and theologian John Mair. At that point Mair was spending a second period of his life in Paris, having previously established there a noted group of Scots and Spanish scholars, before returning home to teach at Glasgow and then at St Andrews. Back in Paris he was one of the stars of the university, something of a conciliarist (arguing the case of the authority of Church councils in the face of strong papalism) but also an opponent of Protestant reformers. Ironically, when he later returned to teach again at St Andrews, one of those who attended his lectures was John Knox, who would subsequently serve in Calvin’s Geneva and secure the banning of the Catholic faith in Scotland in 1560.
This background serves to indicate something of how intellectual and international was the environment in which Calvinism came to be developed. Indeed, one can argue that it is best understood as a development of two ideas: one philosophical, the other theological. The philosophical notion is that of an absolute divinity, perfect in every respect and wholly unconstrained by any other principle. This was familiar from earlier Catholic philosophers such as William of Ockham and it tended toward the same conclusion – namely that it is a denial of God’s unconditional absolute power to see Him as answerable to any independent standard. God is beyond measure; but is the source of measure: of truth, of reality, of justice.
The second idea is a development of St Paul’s theology of sin and salvation. Paul writes of the “death” of man through Adam’s sin: “It was through one man that sin came into the world, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (Romans 5:12). Paul takes the effects of this fall from a prior supernatural condition to be one of disorder and alienation from God. Augustine then further elaborated those effects in terms of defects of knowledge, weakness of will, and conflictedness of desire.
The upshot is that it is vanity to suppose that by human efforts we can restore ourselves to any kind of state of wholeness. Only Christ’s atoning sacrifice saves us from the fate we deserve: abandonment to eternal separation from God. But those whom God chooses to save he does without regard to their merit (for they have none), and in saving one He is under no requirement of justice to save another even though their conditions might be identical.
Again, the philosopher’s conception of God as beyond measure reinforces the biblical image of an all-powerful sovereign. Developing these lines of thought, Calvin came to think of the presumption of the medieval Church as a medium of divine grace as itself an expression of sinful human vanity. There is only God, creator, arbiter and judge: and man, sinner and reprobate. Out of his glory, however, God chooses to predestine the few to unmerited salvation, just as He predestines the many to their deserved damnation.
Earlier generations of Catholics more familiar with religious apologetics and inter-denominational debates would sometimes say that Calvinism was cruel in holding to predestination whereas Catholicism maintained the less severe and more generous view that God accorded salvation in response to good works and was not given to pre-determining the fate of human beings.
In fact, however, the Catholic Church has always taught (and still teaches) a doctrine of predestination so far as the “elect” are concerned: those upon whom God has chosen to bestow grace to an extent that guarantees their salvation. Where it differs is in rejecting the idea of pre-reprobation: the counterpart doctrine that some are guaranteed damnation. Instead it teaches that through grace even those whose salvation is not already assured can co-operate and thereby receive further graces, and by responding to God be lifted up into company with him.
But just as it is a error to say that Catholicism recognises no element of predestined salvation, so it is a mistake to suggest against Calvin that human efforts demand divine response. Again Catholicism teaches that our salvation depends entirely on the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By identifying with it through faith, and associating with it through prayers and works, our efforts are thereby granted merit in the sight of God the Father.
Of late it has become fashionable among theologians of different denominations to play down the presumed historical differences between their positions. Someone might suggest that this is a defensive response to the threat of secular atheism, or a mark of indifference to theological truth. Such motives may sometimes be present, but more creditably we are beginning to learn more about the thought of the great figures of the late medieval and Reformation periods, and in doing so coming to see why they held their positions in sincerity, and also what might be learned from them.
Catholics have no reason to abandon the view that Calvinism is a distortion of the Christian idea of God, of the extent of human woundedness, and of the scope for works, liturgies and sacraments in the scheme of salvation. Five hundred years on from Calvin’s birth in the shadow of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Noyon, however, they also have an opportunity to understand his ideas better. In doing so they can also learn how popular Catholic understandings have themselves sometimes drifted in the direction of the sort of presumption and vanity that Calvin condemned. Unquestionably he was one of the most important theologians in the history of western Christianity and his challenges still deserve to be taken seriously.
John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. His next book is Reasonable Faith