The Theology of John Calvin

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The Holy Spirit and Faith

Note C’s fullest definition of faith:

            “A firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us,
            founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ,
            both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts
            through the Holy Spirit.”  3.2.7.

While the foregoing may appear abstract, faith (which is the “putting on” of Christ or the bond that unites us with Christ) bespeaks utmost personal intimacy:

            “We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him.  Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us.”    3.2.24.

                                                                                                                                               

Faith is never a human achievement, but it is always a human event, a human affirmation, a human act.  Faith is a gift (from God) that must always be humanly exercised.  As the bond by which we are bound to Christ faith is that “fellowship” to which we must hold fast bravely with both hands. 

 I

A: Book III is the climax (in my opinion) of the Institutes; books I and II are for the sake of book III, “The Way in which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow.”

The place of faith in C’s theology cannot be overemphasised: apart from our “putting on” Christ in faith we don’t “benefit” from him.  All he has done for us is “in vain” unless it is also done in us through faith.

B: The discussion of justification (always related to faith in the Reformers) lands us in some of the most impassioned writing of the Reformation.  (Justification and the eucharist were the occasion of greater controversy than anything else.  Concerning sanctification, for instance, there was little controversy.) Unlike us modern degenerates who see theology as little more than pointless head-games, the 16th century recognised Truth to be at issue, and with Truth (i.e., reality as opposed to error, delusion or falsehood), truths as well.

What is the relation between Truth and truths?

II

Holy Spirit

  (i)               In C the HS is always conjoined to the Word, for “there is a permanent relation between faith and the Word.”  3.2.6.

(ii)              Faith is the principal work of the HS.  3.1.4.  Faith is the proper and entire work of the HS.  4.14.8.
We cannot quicken faith in ourselves or predispose ourselves for it in any way.  “There is not in us any commencement of faith or any preparation of it.”   Comm. John 6:45

  (iii)            Faith is always determined by its author and its object (the Word.)  The Word is Jesus Christ, but not this figure alone.  The Word is Jesus Christ together with the apostolic recognition of the truth concerning him.  I.e., the Christ we are to receive is always and only “as he is offered by the Father: namely, clothed with his gospel.”  3.2.6.

  (Word as subject or author)  Only Jesus Christ can direct faith to Christ; i.e., the Word alone creates access to the Word.  While Jesus Christ is the “goal” of our faith, the gospel (ultimately, JC as attested by the apostles in the power of the Spirit) must “go before us.”  3.2.6.  The gospel alone admits (and invites) people to the gospel.  “Hence we infer that faith is not in one’s power, but is divinely conferred.”  Comm. 1 Cor. 2:14

(iv)            Mercy is that aspect of the Word which quickens faith.  In fact, so thoroughly does mercy determine the Word that Calvin doesn’t hesitate to say that the Word is mercy.  (We seek God after we know ourselves to be the beneficiary of God’s mercy [salvation].  3.2.7.)  While God addresses many words to us, the Word (of mercy) gathers them up and melds them into that which subserves the one, determinative word of mercy; i.e., everything that God says and visits upon us is ultimately an expression of his mercy – even as penultimately it may be anything else at all: rebuke, warning, anger, denunciation, testing, encouragement, gentleness, severity, etc.  See Comm. Psalms  40:10; 25:10; 86:5; 103:8; 145:9; Rom. 10:8.  In Inst. 3.2.29 C maintains that mercy is the “proper” goal of faith.  The Latin text reads, fidei in proprium scopum.  Proprium means “characteristic”, “essential”, “exclusive”, all of which are stronger than Battles’ “proper.”  Mercy is that in God upon which we can “rest.”  Comm. Hebrews 11:7

(v)             Faith, while not reducible to understanding doctrinal assertions (notitia, if found alone, is what C calls “empty notions flitting in the brain”) is none the less knowledge.  Faith is a singular kind of knowing, not an alternative to knowing or a vagueness that falls short of knowing.

(vi)            Faith entails assurance.  “Where there is no assurance of faith there is no faith.”  Comm. Rom. 8:16    “As assurance of this nature is a thing that is above the capacity of the human mind, it is the part of the Holy Spirit to confirm within what God promises in his Word.”  Comm. 2 Cor. 1:22

Note:  Since faith is the entire work of the HS, then the HS imparts assurance only by imparting faith in Christ, which faith brings assurance with it.  “The Spirit of God gives us such testimony that when he is our guide and teacher our spirit is made sure of the adoption of God; for our mind, of itself, without the preceding testimony of the Spirit, could not convey to us this assurance.”  Comm. Rom. 8:16

(vii)           Faith is always to be distinguished from "implicit faith" and "unformed faith."  "Implicit faith" is lending assent to what the church (of Rome ) teaches without understanding any of it.  Something of the gospel has to be understood or faith is indistinguishable from superstition.  Calvin opposes any notion that the church can "do our thinking and believing for us."  At the same time he admits that there is a legitimate "implicit faith": even as we embrace Christ truly, we never know him exhaustively.  At every stage of our discipleship our understanding and experience of Christ now, however profound (and Calvin's point is that it's never very profound) is "implicit" compared to the vastly "more" that is to be rendered explicit.

Unformed faith, says Calvin, is no faith at all.  Roman Catholic thought maintained that faith is formed by love.  If faith is formed by love then faith requires supplementation (and our supplementation at that!) in order to be faith.  Faith that requires supplementation is not faith.  Calvin prefers to say that faith is active in love.  Yet Calvin is aware of how little love is frequently found active in faith.  Vide his Comm. John 13:17: "Since…there are many who are cold and slow in the duties of love…it shows us how far we still are from the light of faith."

(viii)         Calvin's notion of faith does not support the Weber/Tawney thesis at all.  Faith is aware that "God will never fail", even as "faith does not certainly promise itself either length of years or honour or riches in this life, since the Lord willed that none of these things be appointed for us." 3.2.28