Sunday, April 5, 2009

John Calvin and the Subject of Common Grace (4)

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Dear Forum Members,
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In our last installment, we discussed Augustine’s repudiation of ideas, which have, since the Reformation, become known as the well-meant gospel offer. I included three decisive quotes from Augustine’s writings to show that he did not hold to the ideas expressed by this doctrine. I used quotes that refer to texts to which defenders of the well-meant offer appeal to support of their view; the same passages to which the Semi-pelagians appealed in support of their heresies. In condemning the interpretation of these passages given by the Semi-pelagians, Augustine condemned the interpretation of the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer as well.
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One would think that the church of Augustine’s day would have accepted his views, but such was not the case. There is a kind of irony in the fact that Rome bestowed on Augustine sainthood and gave him the name, Doctor of Grace, but repudiated his views of grace. Rome condemned blatant Pelagianism, but adopted a Semi-pelagian position. Rome became Semi-pelagian in all its teachings, and particularly in its doctrine of justification. Rome taught justification by faith and works, a Semi-pelagian heresy.
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There was something inevitable about this rejection by Rome of Augustine’s position. Early in the history of the new dispensational church, monasticism arose and soon began to flourish. But monasticism was based on a two-tiered morality – one level for the common members of the church and another level for the monks and nuns. The latter level was a higher level, because those who lived on this level lived more holy lives than the ordinary people of God: they repudiated, as part of their monastic vows, marriage in order to live celibate lives, possession of earthly goods to live in poverty, and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts in the creation. Because, repudiating these things, they lived a more perfect life; they also merited with God and earned a higher place in heaven by their extraordinary good works – so the church taught.
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This idea of merit, as tacitly approved by Rome’s encouragement of monasticism even before the Pelagian controversies, committed Rome to a Semi-pelagian position. If a man’s good works truly merit with God, it can only be because he originates these good works; they are not gifts of grace, sovereignly worked in man’s heart. Having committed itself to the doctrine of the merit of good works, it was impossible for Rome to adopt Augustine’s position, and Rome became completely Semi-pelagian. Not only did Rome deny sovereign grace, but it began, in its determination to hold to its heretical position on grace, to persecute those who taught and believed in sovereign and irresistible grace. In the Ninth century, Gottschalk rotted in prison after severe torture because he insisted on teaching the views of Augustine. And the people who came out from Rome under the leadership of the reformers were in constant danger of becoming the objects of Rome’s fury.
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It was not till the time of the Reformation that God delivered His people from Rome’s bondage.

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In giving the history of the idea of common grace, we must remember that the term itself, whether as referring to a general and well-meant offer or God’s attitude of favor toward all men, was unknown prior to the Reformation, and was even unknown at the time of the Reformation. Nor were the concepts generally discussed and debated. The reformers hated Rome’s Semi-pelagianism, but Rome had made no dogma that was called “common grace.” The reformers without exception, therefore, restored to the church the truths of sovereign and particular grace without any specific reference to a grace common to all men.
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Because the term common grace was unknown in the century of the Reformation, we would look in vain for some reference to it. Luther does not, so far as I know, use the term, not even in his development of justification by faith alone through grace against Rome’s teachings of justification by faith and works. This does not mean, however, that Luther is of no value to us in our discussion of the issues of common grace. It is especially in his major work, The Bondage of the Will, written against the humanist Erasmus and his detestable doctrine of free will, that Luther developed the truths of sovereign and particular grace. The book is almost “must reading” for anyone who wants to know what the Reformer of Wittenburg taught on the subject of grace. And anyone who reads the book will see clearly that to try to introduce into the book any doctrine of common grace is an exercise in futility.
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Calvin, however, dealt with the concept, even though he too did not specifically refer to the term. Defenders of common grace are frequently wont to appeal to Calvin in support of their position. Nevertheless, their appeal is unwarranted and a perversion of Calvin’s teachings.
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It might be worthwhile, in passing, to point out that Calvin repeatedly used the word “offer” in his writings. And this use of the word “offer” is one reason why Calvin is said to support the idea of the gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel. I once knew a man, now in glory, who so desperately hated the word “offer” that, meaning well, he went through all Calvin’s writings and blotted out the word “offer” wherever he found it. This man made a serious mistake and should never have done this. The word is, after all, found in the Canons of Dordt, a confession of the Reformed Churches. It is a good word. But he misunderstood the Latin use of it.
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The word “offer” comes from the Latin offere, which means, “to present, set forth, and hold before someone.” And the idea of the frequently used term “offer” is, therefore, to underscore the fact that in the gospel, Christ is presented or set forth as the One whom God has ordained to be the means of salvation; and that all who hear the gospel are commanded to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. The word is used by Calvin in the sense in which Paul uses it in Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?”
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A few quotations from Calvin will lay to rest the erroneous supposition that Calvin taught a well-meant gospel offer. (This quotation and the following quotes are taken from Calvin’s Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predestination of God & the Secret Providence of God [Grand Rapids: RFPA, no date.] The book is a reprint of the edition first translated into English in 1859 by Henry Cole. The treatise, The Eternal Predestination of God was originally written and published in Geneva in 1552. It is sometimes known as the Consensus Genevensis, because it was written by Calvin when the doctrine of predestination was attacked by Pighius and Bolsec, and a consensus was sought with all the reformers in Switzerland. It makes specific mention of Pighius, a bitter opponent of Calvin, especially Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.)
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On page 50, 51 of Calvin’s Calvinism, Calvin writes: “Pighius will himself confess that there is need of illumination to bring to Christ those who were adversaries to God; but he, at the same time, holds fast the fiction that grace is offered equally to all, but that it is ultimately rendered effectual by the will of man, just as each one is willing to receive it.” And Pighius was an enemy of the gospel, against whom Calvin’s Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God was written.
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In the second document included in Calvin’s Calvinism, a document entitled A Defense of the Secret Providence of God, Calvin writes: “But with reference to His (God’s, HH) hardening of men’s hearts, that is a different way of God’s working, as I have just observed. Because God does not govern the reprobate by His regenerating Spirit (to work salvation, HH); but He gives them over to the devil, and leaves them to be his slaves; and He so overrules their depraved wills by His secret judgment and counsel, that they can do nothing but what He has decreed” (319).
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A rather lengthy quote from pages 81, 82 is important, for it refers to Scriptural passages that deal with the question brought up by the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer. “Now let us listen to the Evangelist John. He will be no ambiguous interpreter of this same passage of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:1 & 6:9, 10, HH) . ‘But (says John) Jesus had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him, that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart,’ etc. Now most certainly John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief. It perplexed, in no small degree, the ignorant and the weak, when they heard that there was no place for Christ among the people of God (for the Jews were such). John explains the reason by showing that none believe save those to whom it is given, and that there are few to whom God reveals His arm. This other prophecy concerning ‘the arm of the Lord,’ the Evangelist weaves into his argument to prove the same great truth. And his words have a momentous weight. He says, ‘Therefore they could not believe.’ Wherefore, let men torture themselves as long as they will with reasoning, the cause of the difference made – why God does not reveal His arm equally to all—lies hidden in His own eternal decree. The whole of the Evangelist’s argument amounts evidently to this: that faith is a special gift, and that the wisdom of Christ is too high and too deep to come within the compass of man’s understanding. The unbelief of the world, therefore, ought not to astonish us, if even the wisest and most acute of men fail to believe. Hence, unless we would elude the plain and confessed meaning of the Evangelists, that few receive the Gospel, we must fully conclude that the cause is the will of God; and that the outward sound of the Gospel strikes the ear in vain until God is pleased to touch by it the heart within.” (The reference to John’s gospel is to John 12:37-41.)
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These passages could be multiplied from this important book as well as from other writings of the reformer of Geneva. But the interested reader may, with profit, read more of the same teachings in these treatises of Calvin as well as his Institutes of the Christian Religion. If Calvin found the final cause of men’s rejection of the gospel in God’s will, then it is impossible to conceive of the fact that God wills the salvation of these men.
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The other aspect of common grace, God’s attitude of favor towards all men, is also said to be a doctrine taught by Calvin. It is not necessary to go into this aspect of the question. We submit five reasons for this. 1) It is admitted by all students of Calvin that passages can be found in his writings, especially his Institutes, which suggest this. But to understand properly these writings of Calvin, we must not forget that Calvin was writing in a time when the issue of God’s favor towards all men was not a topic of debate and was not even consciously thought of as an important doctrine. We must not become guilty of the sin of anachronism (putting back into Calvin’s time our own debates and teachings), and appeal to Calvin on questions, of which he was not even aware, as proof for our position. 2) When Calvin repudiated the idea of an attitude of favor toward all men as it was expressed in the preaching of the gospel (as the above quotes show) he basically repudiated also the idea of an attitude of favor on God’s part towards all men, manifested in the good things of God’s creation. The well-meant gospel offer is said, by its defenders, to be one evidence among others that God has an attitude of favor towards all men. His attitude of favor is show in His expressed desire to save them. 3) Calvin’s repudiation of the well-meant gospel offer is rooted in God’s sovereign decree of election and reprobation, and reprobation means that God hates the wicked, a doctrine emphatically taught by Calvin. 4) Calvin spoke frequently of the fact that God reveals His goodness in all the gifts He bestows on man; but Calvin held to Asaph’s position in Psalm 73:18, that God puts the wicked on slippery places by means of these good gifts. 5) Finally, although Calvin may have made some statements that in the light of later controversies are not totally satisfactory, when Calvin came to the heart of this theology, the core of all he taught, the center of the truths of sovereign and particular grace, he was Biblical and beyond criticism.
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We may safely conclude that, whether we hold to a general, gracious, well-meant offer or repudiate it, Calvin did not teach it. We ought not to be surprised by the fact that Calvin sometimes said things that, in later years and in the light of later controversies, proved to be unfortunate statements. We ought rather to be surprised that Calvin, so recently escaped from Rome, was as solidly Biblical as he was. This is amazing and reason for gratitude to God.
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Greetings and blessings,
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Prof. H. Hanko

1 comment:

  1. Have you seen the new Calvin resources at calvin500.com? Logos Bible Software has begun a massive digitization project of almost 100 books by and about Calvin—46 volumes of commentaries, 5 editions of the Institutes, 4 volumes of letters, dozens of tracts and treatises, 10 biographies, and 20 volumes on the history of Calvinism. I thought you might be interested!

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