Review – The Bondage and Liberation of the Will by John Calvin

The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (BLW) is the English name of John Calvin’s Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de servitute et liberatione humani arbitrii adversus calumnias Alberti Pighii Campensis. I am thankful for the English title, as well as for this edition by A. N. S. Lane and translation by G. I. Davies. Calvin’s 1539 edition of Institutes had attracted the attention of the Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius, who proceeded to attack it in Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace. “The first six respond to Calvin’s second chapter, the remaining four to chapter 8” (xiv). Calvin responded at first only to Pighius’ first six books, that response being BLW.

BLW is not the easiest of Calvin’s works to read. It is something of a line by line refutation of Pighius’ works. Since Pighius himself tended to wander a bit and repeat himself, the train of thought in BLW could be graphed as a distorted spiral. Furthermore, much of the argument is about how to interpret numerous church Fathers correctly, so there are some dull paragraphs haggling over the exact wording of a quote or whether a certain sentence has been placed in correct context.

Yet, BLW is far from dull. A careful reader will discover that Calvin’s responses to the six books constitute swelling variations on a theme, not banal repetition. Many gems lie concealed in circuitous tunnels. Part of Book One affords insight into Calvin’s claim to catholicity while justifying the “schism” of the Reformed churches. Book Two reveals Calvin’s knowledge and use of the Church Fathers, and Book 3 provides perhaps the most sustained appeal to Augustine all of Calvin’s writings. Books 4-6 build on the previous ones, introducing finer distinctions and more elaborate explanations of Calvin’s doctrine.

Calvin addresses one major theological issue in BLW: the nature of free will. Along the way, many other points of doctrine are brought to bear on the discussion. Pighius defines free will as the power of contrary choice, that is, the power of the individual to choose rightly or wrongly in any given moral crisis. Calvin denies this power, yet insists that the will is free in the sense that the will’s acts derive from its own soul; its actions are internally bound but not externally coerced. Thus, Calvin does not like the term “free will,” because most people associate it with Pighius’ concept, but he is not opposed to it as long as his definition is used.

Pighius accuses Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity as being Manichaeism. Calvin responds that he distinguishes between human nature as created and human nature as fallen. Adam indeed had the power of contrary choice, but through his sin he forfeited it for himself and all his descendents. Pighius’ refusal to admit this joins him with the Pelagians. This distinction is interesting, because Calvin describes the faculty and purpose of the will (and the other faculties) as substantially good and unchanged but accidentally corrupted. Here we see Calvin employing Aristotelian terminology to make a distinction. This very doctrine later formed the basis for the Kuyperian notion of common grace.

Pighius errs when he thinks that he can deduce man’s ability from man’s responsibility given in the Law. Although that may have been true for Adam, Calvin argues to the contrary that the law serves to demonstrate our lack of ability, impelling us to run to Christ for mercy. The arguments in Romans 3 and 5 refute Pighius. Because Pighius underestimates the effects of the Fall and the severity of the Law, he imagines that man can prepare to receive grace through prayer and humility. Here, Pighius is condemned not only by Scripture, but also by Augustine and by the Council of Orange.

Against Pighius’ charge that Calvin’s doctrine of total providence leaves no space for human activity, Calvin affirms the employment of secondary causes. The farmer sows, knowing that the crop must come from the Lord. Yet, it would be lunacy for him not to sow. God’s necessity does not negate human responsibility. God ordains all events for his own ends; even when he ordains a sinful action, it is not the sin itself that God authors. God is accomplishing his own good work while the creature works evil. At times, though, Calvin’s language implies that God himself coerces wicked behavior (38-40). Although the thrust of his doctrine affirms two levels of causality, occasionally Calvin leaves himself open to the charge of divine omnicausality.

This particular edition of BLW is skillfully crafted. The translation is smooth, clearing up ambiguous phrases while artfully rendering key technical terms. Lane’s introduction is fantastic, providing all the necessary critical information and a summary of the contents. Marginal notes track the argument by paragraph and summarize key points. The page numbers and divisions of the Corpus Reformatorum are noted, so the reader can easily compare this translation with the Latin. [Lane has since produced a new critical edition of the Latin text, which can be found in the series Ioannis Calvini opera omnia denuo recognita et adnotatione critica instructa notisque illustrata.]

Since BLW is one of Calvin’s most significant polemical works, no student of Calvin or the Calvinist doctrine of providence can ignore this work. Thankfully, Lane, Davies, and Baker Books have done a fantastic job producing BLW’s first appearance in English.

To Reading and Reviews

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Published in: on November 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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