Review – John Calvin and the Will by Dewey Hoitenga

Dewey Hoitenga’s John Calvin and the Will: A Critique and Corrective is an ambitious project, especially for a Reformed philosopher. Hoitenga believes that Calvin’s view of the will suffers from two internal inconsistencies which have handicapped the Reformed churches from responding intelligibly to their critics. Criticism of Calvin is nothing new, but Hoitenga is unusual in that he wishes to correct aspects of Calvin’s teaching while remaining within the distinctive scope of Reformed theology. Like a doctor transplanting a patient’s own blood vessels to repair a problem in the heart, Hoitenga remedies the defects in Calvin’s theology by applying concepts from elsewhere in Calvin’s writings. He undertakes this risky surgery in order to strengthen and refine contemporary “Reformed epistemology.”

Before launching into a discussion of Calvin, Hoitenga briefly reviews the secondary literature on Calvin’s account of the will and outlines the historical development of philosophical attitudes at the time of Calvin. All strains of thought in medieval philosophy recognized the distinction between the intellect and will as powers of the soul. The will was generally defined (following Aristotle) as a “rational appetite,” and was supposed to have two functions: “As inclination, will is the power that moves us to seek some object we do not at present possess or some end we have not attained, and to do either of these by way of some appropriate means. As the ability to choose, will enables us to select either the means by which to attain the end, and even the end itself in cases where the end is one of several competing ends.”

The medieval tradition breaks into two streams of interpretation, intellectualist and voluntarist. The intellectualists hold with varying consistency that the intellect governs the will, that is, the will is bound to follow whatever highest good the intellect presents to it. Intellectualists such as Thomas Aquinas struggle on the basis of their intellectualism to give a cogent account of the fall. Voluntarists propose that the essence of the will is freedom, not merely action; thus, they allow for various scenarios in which the will may rebel against the leading of the intellect. Intellectualists usually give a more minimalist account of the freedom of the will, in which the will is free if it is not under external compulsion.

Hoitenga asserts that Calvin is inconsistent regarding the relationship between the will and the intellect. When describing man in the created state, Calvin gives an almost stock intellectualist definition. However, whenever he speaks of man in his fallen and redeemed states, he clearly argues within a voluntarist framework. Moreover, he locates the responsibility for the fall in man’s will, which would seem to imply that the will was not altogether under the control of the intellect. Against R. T. Kendall, Hoitenga offers a voluntarist account of Calvin’s doctrine of faith. Hoitenga’s remedy for this inconsistency is simple: embrace consistent voluntarism of a Scotist sort. An emphasis on the “Augustinian principle,” that in the Fall man lost supernatural gifts while retaining to some degree his natural powers, safeguards voluntarism from inconsistency.

Hoitenga’s second charge of inconsistency will likely strike Reformed readers as much more significant. “Calvin affirms that the will was created with two main components, inclination and choice…. He denies, for the most part, that the will as so created persists into the fallen state…. Calvin retains inclination, but it it is no longer an inclination to goodness, only to evil” (69). Here Hoitenga leverages the Augustinian principle against Calvin. If “inclination to good” is really essential to the definition of the will, then Calvin’s doctrine that the will inclines only to evil means that the will as created has not been merely deformed, but actually destroyed.

Why does Calvin take such a strong stance on the depravity of the will? Hoitenga answers that most of Calvin’s discussions of the depravity of the will are polemically aimed against human pride. Calvin assumes that any ascription of good to the unregenerate will is arrogance. Hoitenga interprets this as derogating nature to laud grace. Furthermore, he charges that Calvin’s view makes it impossible to understand those moral choices that make up human existence, even unregenerate human existence.

To remedy this second defect, Hoitenga suggests that Reformed theologians apply Calvin’s analysis of the fallen intellect to the fallen will. Calvin often praises the fallen intellect, taking pains to express the ways in which it is still admirable and functions. In fact, it functions well enough that man is inexcusable before God for failing to recognize and worship him. Calvin employs the Augustinian principle to distinguish between “heavenly” and “earthly” goods; the fallen intellect barely recognizes the former, but can often serve quite well for the latter. The supernatural gifts of the knowledge of God and holiness are lost, but the natural powers of the intellect persist, albeit not fully. Hoitenga suggests that Calvin should have distinguished likewise between “heavenly” and “earthly” virtue; the will can still operate to make moral choices about earthly things, but does not by itself have the ability to convert itself back into favor with God. For that, supernatural grace is required.

So, Hoitenga counsels that by embracing Scotist voluntarism and the Augustinian principle, Reformed theology can maintain its traditional emphasis on the inability of man to come to saving faith of his own resources while simultaneously offering a robust explanation of the functioning of the fallen intellect. One doctrine which would be affected is “common grace,” which Reformed theologians generally employ to explain the seeming virtue in pagans. According to traditional Reformed theology, common grace merely curbs the evil in man’s will. Hoitenga argues that instead Reformed theology should explain unregenerate goodness by the natural functions of the will. Some such explanation is unavoidable unless by common grace theologians insist that the Holy Spirit suspends the soul’s normal operations.

The epilogue to John Calvin and the Will is a pleasant surprise. Rather than blandly summarizing the argument of the book, it incorporates the critique to chart a forward path for Reformed epistemology. Hoitenga explains how the immediacy and vitality of the sensus divinitas can, when explained along the lines of this refurbished Calvin, meet the challenges of Catholic voluntarists against Alvin Plantinga. He suggests that Plantinga distinguish more sharply between belief in God – basic and thus involuntary – and beliefs of the Christian faith – not basic and thus voluntary.

Hoitenga’s analysis of Calvin is fresh and compelling. It may prove less useful, though, when applied to Reformed theology as a whole. Richard Muller mentions in the preface that alternative analyses of the will were offered both by Calvin’s Reformed contemporaries and by his heirs. One might argue that the Scottish branch of the Reformed church has been operating with a more robust view of the Augustinian principle than has the Dutch, though neither has embraced voluntarism along Scotist lines. It remains to be seen whether Reformed theology will incorporate Hoitenga’s suggestions or find their own.  John Calvin and the Will is an exciting book (as exciting as any book which mentions Duns Scotus can be) for anyone interested in Reformed epistemology or Calvin. Those with little interest in those subjects may pass it by without regret.

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Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 3:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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