Discovering Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Last Christmas, I received a couple of books of theology: For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson. I had asked for them; they had come highly recommended. I had never given Calvinism a fair shake, I felt. Every time I had tried to approach it through personal study in the past, it had left me feeling hopeless and despondent; it seemed to undermine the essential dignity of man. But I had a feeling that I probably wasn’t comprehending it fully. Other people I had talked to spoke of the hope and assurance it brought them; but I couldn’t see that at all. What was I missing? These books, I was told, were written by well-known academic theologians who presented their arguments well, so I hoped it might help me properly put the pieces together in my mind. And I was curious.

I’ve never had much of a mind for theology, especially not to discern between all the competing arguments that each seemed to have weight. Having no real foundation of my own, I had no point of reference from which to judge ideas; so more often than not, the entire discipline left me feeling frustrated and lost. But in coming to the Church, I had found my bedrock of truth, the faith passed down from the Apostles and confirmed by the generations. For the first time in my life, I knew what I believed. I was ready to tackle this.

For Calvinism

For Calvinism. See the pretty TULIPs?

Almost from the start, Horton’s For Calvinism charmed me. The picture Horton painted was not the bleak, harsh world that I had encountered before. The ideas he presented were surprisingly moderate, and seemed to follow logically. It was not a worldview at odds with the rest of Christianity (for I have met too many combative, polemic Calvinists), but a system of interpretations that sought to recover biblical truths. These interpretations, Horton claimed, were not new. They had been passed down from the Church Fathers and councils, most notably St. Augustine, but passing through a long list of great men, including my beloved St. Bernard of Clairvaux — until finally they were returned to light by Calvin. This seemed, at once, too good to be true.

To my immense surprise, I found Calvin himself, from the many quotes Horton shared from the Institutes and other writings, to be compassionate and amiable — not the cold, stern voice I was expecting. He was erudite, thoughtful, and reasonable, yielding points where I did not expect him to yield; I was expecting rigid, dogmatic pronouncements. I had to admit, I liked Calvin. One passage in particular, Horton quoted at length. Of my beloved ancients, Calvin wrote:

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture, calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled if its true good (Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.15, quoted at Horton, For Calvinism, 42).

The more I read, the more I was taken aback. As Horton laid out the doctrines of the TULIP (the terms of which he slightly modified), the “five points” of Calvinism, the idea began to crystallize: This is not that different than what we believe. Though Horton made fairly frequent references to what “Roman Catholics believe” — very often misunderstanding or misrepresenting what we in fact believe — his descriptions of Calvinist doctrine seemed to agree in many aspects with Catholic understandings. Total depravity — our total inability, in mankind’s fallen state, to reach to God in any way apart from His grace: certainly, the Church has always believed that. Unconditional election — without a doubt, Scripture teaches God’s election; and the way Horton presented it, it made perfect sense; when it didn’t, he appealed to mystery. I was impressed and relieved that Horton vehemently rejected double predestination. No, Horton said, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that God simply passes over those he does not choose, leaving them to the wages of their sins. I began to write extensively in the margins.

The chapter on atonement fascinated me. Horton went down a list of theories of the atonement, none of which I had studied before. But each of the ones Calvinism affirmed were consistent with the Church’s teachings; most of them, Horton admitted, were proposed by Church Fathers or even medieval theologians. In fact, Horton very frequently cited Church Fathers or church councils to illustrate or support his arguments. I met the doctrine of particular redemption (Horton’s preferred term for what is often called “limited atonement”) with considerably more resistance, but Horton explained it very well; it seemed to be logically necessary.

The way Horton presented effectual grace (or “irresistible grace”) didn’t immediately conflict with Catholic teaching. Catholics affirm that it is only by God’s grace that we are called. Though we believe that we have to assent to that grace, how do we know it wasn’t irresistible, since we who are Christians didn’t resist it? It was certainly effectual in us. Horton explained that after that initial, saving grace, Calvinists believe that in their continuing conversion, they have to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” cooperating with God’s grace to move toward their sanctification — an idea completely consistent with Catholic teaching.

At the very beginning of his argument for perseverance of the saints, Horton gave a hefty quote from St. Augustine. In the margin I wrote, “HA!” Following from Augustine, Horton went on to describe the “visible church” that contained both the elect and the nonelect — both those who would be saved and those who would be lost — in the same terms Catholics use. People fall away, he affirmed; people apostasize; it happens. But God never loses those whom He chose, whom He effectually called. If we do not fall away, if we do not deny Him, we will be saved.

Horton went on to relate Calvinism and the Christian life. His descriptions of a piety that emphasized public, communal means of grace over private relationships with God could be easily applied to Catholic piety. The remainder of the book, with chapters on Calvinism and missions, and a hasty summation rounded out with rude, unsupported jabs at Roman Catholicism, was unsatisfying. Horton should stick to what he does best, theology.

In the end, I was thoroughly enchanted by Horton’s book. He had sanded off the hard edges of Calvinism, and presented what on its face seemed moderate and logical and well supported. I went off jabbering about all the things it had in common with Catholicism, wondering why in the world we had been unable to resolve our differences for the past five hundred years. I didn’t realize until later — until after I’d read Olson’s Against Calvinism — where I had gone wrong. In my thinking, I mistook unconditional election for foreknowledge: since we have to assent to God’s call, how do we know he didn’t elect from the beginning those whom he foreknew would assent? But then, this election wouldn’t have been unconditional. Remove that brick, and the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Ultimately, in his efforts to be reasonable and moderate, Horton had nearly completely downplayed the absolute, meticulous sovereignty of God that Calvinists affirm. I had to go back through to look for affirmations that this is what he believes; and they were there, but subtle. All of the points of Calvinism that seemed acceptable to me had only been acceptable without the idea that God was decreeing absolutely everything. Adding this back to the mix, and following it to its logical conclusion — as Olson does in Against Calvinism — results in some truly disturbing contradictions.

But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow (or later; I can’t promise) to hear about that. Of For Calvinism, I can say that it was well written and well presented, and I enjoyed it a lot. Horton is a good theologian and a good writer and I hope to read some more from him in the future. He dispelled many of the caricatures I had of Calvinism; he puffed away even some of the bad experiences I have had with Calvinists. Above all, and most important, he brought me to an understanding of the harmony and consistency of Calvinist thought. I can at last see why my friends find it so assuring. I have a newfound respect for Calvinist theology, and for Calvin himself, and I intend to continue my study.

Postscript: For what it’s worth, I am not alone in my feeble attempt to reconcile Calvinist theology to Catholic theology. Jimmy Akin did the same thing a number of years ago, with much better results: A Tiptoe through TULIP.

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