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.

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Published in: on November 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – The Providence of God by Paul Helm

The Providence of God is the third installment in the Contours of Christian Theology series, which provides “concise introductory textbooks focused on the main themes of Christian theology.” Providence fits this description well; in it Helm outlines historical and contemporary approaches to providence, argues for his model, and reflects on its significance for Christian life and thought.

A short first chapter offers some introductory definitions about providence and details Helm’s theological method. The Christian doctrine of providence must be drawn from Scripture by human reason, utilizing both inductive and deductive methods. Holding a conservative evangelical view of Scripture, Helm asserts that there can be no ultimate contradictions in Scripture’s teaching. The result of Helm’s method is not a theory in the sense employed by natural science, that is, it is not tested by empirical data and used for predicting future outcomes. Rather, Helm seeks to construct a model that serves a twofold purpose: 1) “drawing together the relevant data in as consistent and coherent a fashion as possible” and 2) “prevent  or discourage false inferences being drawn.”

Helm begins his analysis by describing the broad approaches possible: “risky” vs. “no-risk.” Risky models assert that God in some way is not in control of all of the details of the cosmos; either voluntarily or involuntary, some aspects of existence (usually human acts) are outside his province. Normally, the proponents of risky models argue that only a risky model sufficiently safeguards human freedom. On the other hand, “no-risk” approaches affirm that God’s providence extends without exception to the created realm. Every being, deed, and thought is within God’s scope and plan. Helm explores the ramifications of these approaches, weighs the gains and losses, and upholds one of the no-risk approaches, compatibilism. Furthermore, he offers a critique of “Middle Knowledge,” an attempt to combine libertarian freedom with a no-risk view of providence.

Having announced his approach, Helm examines the theological foundations of his model. Of prime importance is the nature of the relationship between God and his creatures. After dispatching pantheism, panentheism, and deism, Helm lays out the classical theistic understanding of God. God is the creator and upholder of the universe, all things being dependent upon him. Upholding, though, is distinct (contra Edwards) from creation. He is transcendent, immanent, and eternal (timeless). Divine causality is non-physical and thus not scientifically observable.

According to Helm, who is leaning on Calvin, providence has three contexts: the creation, humanity, and the church. These contexts are obviously interrelated, inseparable from each other. Yet, providence functions in all these contexts especially for the good of the church. Thus, providence must be discussed within the framework of creation, fall, and redemption. Miracles and redemptive acts function within providence, not against it.

The rest of the book (about half the text) investigates certain areas in which Christians acutely feel the mystery of providence. Helm explores the consequences of his compatibilist view of providence for personal guidance, petitionary prayer, human accountability, and the existence of evil. The final chapter offers advice for Christians reckoning with the book’s contents.

Paul Helm’s greatest strength as an author is his ability to lucidly frame an issue and drive relentlessly to a conclusion. Often tangles arise in difficult problems, but Helm handles them without pursuing tangents. Even after announcing his position, Helm writes in a way that includes and encourages readers of other persuasion. He frequently comments about how someone using a different model of providence might adjust the discussion at a crucial point to suit their view. His use of analytic language (Suppose a subject A in circumstance C…) usually elucidates rather than obscures, and he avoids overly subtle symbolic logic.

On the other hand, Helm’s analytic approach may be off-putting to readers used to more direct theological methods. Many chapters begin with a list of options, and although Helm uses Scripture throughout Providence, he tends to eliminate options by adducing their incongruity with other theological concepts. There are no lists of relevant Scripture passages nor lengthy expositions of key texts. To some extent, this is because Helm assumes his readers are already familiar with the biblical data. In any case, I believe that Helm’s theological method is sound and profoundly helpful for helping people think clearly about the issues; the drawback is that readers grappling with difficult passages or attempting to move from a particular passage to theological reflection will not find much explicit assistance. I do think that his omission of any discussion of biblical wisdom literature is unfortunate, as that genre reflects on providence most explicitly and provocatively.

The Providence of God is a very enjoyable read which will doubtless stimulate hours of careful reflection in its readers. It is appropriate both for a determined layperson and for the inquisitive theologian. Its primary strength is its engagement with contemporary thinking.

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Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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