Vol 8, Chapter XV – Calvinism Examined

We cannot dismiss this important subject without examining the Calvinistic system of predestination in the light of Christian experience, of reason, and the teaching of the Bible.

Calvinism, as we have seen, starts from a double decree of absolute predestination, which antedates creation, and is the divine program of human history. This program includes the successive stages of the creation of man, an universal fall and condemnation of the race, a partial redemption and salvation, and a partial reprobation and perdition: all for the glory of God and the display of his  – 117)attributes of mercy and justice. History is only the execution of the original design. There can be no failure. The beginning and the end, God’s immutable plan and the issue of the world’s history, must correspond.

We should remember at the outset that we have to deal here with nothing less than a solution of the world-problem, and should approach it with reverence and an humble sense of the limitation of our mental capacities. We stand, as it were, before a mountain whose top is lost in the clouds. Many who dared to climb to the summit have lost their vision in the blinding snowdrifts. Dante, the deepest thinker among poets, deems the mystery of predestination too far removed from mortals who cannot see “the first cause in its wholeness,” and too deep even for the comprehension of the saints in Paradise, who enjoy the beatific vision, yet “do not know all the elect,” and are content “to will whatsoever God wills.” Calvin himself confesses that, the predestination of God is a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself.”

The only way out of the labyrinth is the Ariadne thread of the love of God in Christ, and this is a still greater, but more blessed mystery, which we can adore rather than comprehend.


The Facts of Experience

We find everywhere in this world the traces of a revealed God and of a hidden God; revealed enough to strengthen our faith, concealed enough to try our faith.

We are surrounded by mysteries. In the realm of nature we see the contrasts of light and darkness, day and night, heat and cold, summer and winter, life and death, blooming valleys and barren deserts, singing birds and poisonous snakes, useful animals and ravenous beasts, the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Turning to human life, we find that one man is born to prosperity, the other to misery; one a king, the other a beggar; one strong and healthy, the other a helpless cripple; one a genius, the other an idiot; one inclined to virtue, another to vice; one the son of a saint, the other of a criminal; one in the darkness of heathenism, another in the light of Christianity. The best men as well as the worst are exposed to fatal accidents, and whole nations with their innocent offspring are ravaged and decimated by war, pestilence, and famine.

Who can account for all these and a thousand other differences and perplexing problems? They are beyond the control of man’s will, and must be traced to the inscrutable will of God, whose ways are past finding out.

Here, then, is predestination, and, apparently, a double predestination to good or evil, to happiness or misery.

Sin and death are universal facts which no sane man can deny. They constitute the problem of problems. And the only practical solution of the problem is the fact of redemption. “Where sin has abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly; that as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom_5:20, Rom_5:21).

If redemption were as universal in its operation as sin, the solution would be most satisfactory and most glorious. But redemption is only partially revealed in this world, and the great question remains: What will become of the immense majority of human beings who live and die without God and without hope in this world? Is this terrible fact to be traced to the eternal counsel of God, or to the free agency of man? Here is the point where Augustinianism and Calvinism take issue with Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Synergism, and Arminianism.

The Calvinistic system involves a positive truth: the election to eternal life by free grace, and the negative inference: the reprobation to eternal death by arbitrary justice. The former is the strength, the latter is the weakness of the system. The former is practically accepted by all true believers; the latter always has been, and always will be, repelled by the great majority of Christians.

The doctrine of a gracious election is as clearly taught in the New Testament as any other doctrine. Consult such passages as Mat_25:34; Joh_6:37, Joh_6:44, Joh_6:65; Joh_10:28; Joh_15:16; Joh_17:12; Joh_18:9; Act_13:48; Rom_8:28-39; Gal_1:4; Eph_1:4-11; Eph_2:8-10; 1Th_1:4; 2Th_2:13, 2Th_2:14; 2Ti_1:9; 1Pe_1:2. The doctrine is confirmed by experience. Christians trace all their temporal and spiritual blessings, their life, health, and strength, their regeneration and conversion, every good thought and deed to the undeserved mercy of God, and hope to be saved solely by the merits of Christ, “by grace through faith,” not by works of their own. The more they advance in spiritual life, the more grateful they feel to God, and the less inclined to claim any merit. The greatest saints are also the humblest. Their theology reflects the spirit and attitude of prayer, which rests on the conviction that God is the free giver of every good and perfect gift, and that, without God, we are nothing. Before the throne of grace all Christians may be called Augustinians and Calvinists.

It is the great merit of Calvin to have brought out this doctrine of salvation by free grace more forcibly and clearly than any divine since the days of Augustin. It has been the effective theme of the great Calvinistic preachers and writers in Europe and America to this day. Howe, Owen, Baxter, Bunyan, South, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Robert Hall, Chalmers, Spurgeon, were Calvinists in their creed, though belonging to different denominations, — Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, — and had no superiors in pulpit power and influence. Spurgeon was the most popular and effective preacher of the nineteenth century, who addressed from week to week five thousand bearers in his Tabernacle, and millions of readers through his printed sermons in many tongues. Nor should we forget that some of the most devout Roman Catholics were Augustinians or Jansenists.

On the other hand, no man is saved mechanically or by force, but through faith, freely, by accepting the gift of God. This implies the contrary power of rejecting the gift. To accept is no merit, to reject is ingratitude and guilt. All Calvinistic preachers appeal to man’s responsibility. They pray as if everything depended on God; and yet they preach and work as if everything depended on man. And the Church is directed to send the gospel to every creature. We pray for the salvation of all men, but not for the loss of a single human being. Christ interceded even for his murderers on the cross.

Here, then, is a practical difficulty. The decree of reprobation cannot be made an object of prayer or preaching, and this is an argument against it. Experience confirms election, but repudiates reprobation.


The Logical Argument

The logical argument for reprobation is that there can be no positive without a negative; no election of some without a reprobation of others. This is true by deductive logic, but not by inductive logic. There are degrees and stages of election. There must be a chronological order in the history of salvation. All are called sooner or later; some in the sixth, others in the ninth, others in the eleventh, hour, according to God’s providence. Those who accept the call and persevere in faith are among the elect (1Pe_1:1; 1Pe_2:9). Those who reject it, become reprobate by their own unbelief, and against God’s wish and will. There is no antecedent decree of reprobation, but only a judicial act of reprobation in consequence of man’s sin.

Logic is a two-edged sword. It may lead from predestinarian premises to the conclusion that God is the author of sin, which Calvin himself rejects and abhors as a blasphemy. It may also lead to fatalism, pantheism, or universalism. We must stop somewhere in our process of reasoning, or sacrifice a part of the truth. Logic, it should be remembered, deals only with finite categories, and cannot grasp infinite truth. Christianity is not a logical or mathematical problem, and cannot be reduced to the limitations of a human system. It is above any particular system and comprehends the truths of all systems. It is above logic, yet not illogical; as revelation is above reason, yet not against reason.

We cannot conceive of God except as an omniscient and omnipotent being, who from eternity foreknew and, in some way, also foreordained all things that should come to pass in his universe. He foreknew what he foreordained, and he foreordained what he foreknew; his foreknowledge and foreordination, his intelligence and will are coeternal, and must harmonize. There is no succession of time, no before nor after in the eternal God. The fall of the first man, with its effects upon all future generations, cannot have been an accident which God, as a passive or neutral spectator, simply permitted to take place when he might so easily have prevented it. He must in some way have foreordained it, as a means for a higher end, as a negative condition for the greatest good. So far the force of reasoning, on the basis of belief in a personal God, goes to the full length of Calvinistic supralapsarianism, and even beyond it, to the very verge of universalism. If we give up the idea of a self-conscious, personal God, reason would force us into fatalism or pantheism.

But there is a logic of ethics as well as of metaphysics. God is holy as well as almighty and omniscient, and therefore cannot be the author of sin. Man is a moral as well as an intellectual being, and the claims of his moral constitution are equal to the claims of his intellectual constitution. Conscience is as powerful a factor as reason. The most rigid believer in divine sovereignty, if he be a Christian, cannot get rid of the sense of personal accountability, though he may be unable to reconcile the two. The harmony lies in God and in the moral constitution of man. They are the two complementary sides of one truth. Paul unites them in one sentence: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Phi_2:13). The problem, however, comes within the reach of possible solution, if we distinguish between sovereignty as an inherent power, and the exercise of sovereignty. God may limit the exercise of his sovereignty to make room for the free action of his creatures. It is by his sovereign decree that man is free. Without such self-limitation he could not admonish men to repent and believe. Here, again, the Calvinistic logic must either bend or break. Strictly carried out, it would turn the exhortations of God to the sinner into a solemn mockery and cruel irony.


The Scripture Argument

Calvin, though one of the ablest logicians, cared less for logic than for the Bible, and it is his obedience to the Word of God that induced him to accept the decretum horribile against his wish and will. His judgment is of the greatest weight, for he had no superior, and scarcely an equal, in thorough and systematic Bible knowledge and exegetical insight.

And here we must freely admit that not a few passages, especially in the Old Testament, favor a double decree to the extent of supreme supralapsarianism; yea, they go beyond the Calvinistic system, and seem to make God himself the author of sin and evil. See Exo_4:21; Exo_7:13 (repeatedly said of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart); Isa_6:9, Isa_6:10; Isa_44:18; Jer_6:21; Amo_3:6 (“Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?”); Pro_16:4; Mat_11:25; Mat_13:14, Mat_13:15; Joh_12:40; Rom_9:10-23; Rom_11:7, Rom_11:8; 1Co_14:3; 2Th_2:11; 1Pe_2:8; Jud_1:4 (“who were of old set forth unto this condemnation”).

The rock of reprobation is Rom_9:1-33. It is not accidental that Calvin elaborated and published the second edition of his Institutes simultaneously with his Commentary on the Romans, at Strassburg, in 1539.

There are especially three passages in Rom_9:1-33, which in their strict literal sense favor extreme Calvinism, and are so explained by some of the severest grammatical commentators of modern times (as Meyer and Weiss).

(a) Rom_9:13: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” quoted from Mal_1:2, Mal_1:3. This passage, whether we take it in a literal or anthropopathic sense, has no reference to the eternal destiny of Jacob and Esau, but to their representative position in the history of the theocracy. This removes the chief difficulty. Esau received a temporal blessing from his father (Gen_27:39, Gen_27:40), and behaved kindly and generously to his brother (Gen_33:4); he probably repented of the folly of his youth in selling his birthright, and may be among the saved, as well as Adam and Eve — the first among the lost and the first among the saved.

Moreover, the strict meaning of a positive hatred seems impossible in the nature of the case, since it would contradict all we know from the Bible of the attributes of God. A God of love, who commands us to love all men, even our enemies, cannot hate a child before his birth, or any of his creatures made in his own image. “Can a woman forget her sucking child,” says the Lord, “that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isa_49:15). This is the prophet’s conception of the tender mercies of God. How much more must it be the conception of the New Testament? The word hate must, therefore, be understood as a strong Hebraistic expression for loving less or putting back; as in Gen_29:31, where the original text says, “Leah was hated” by Jacob, i.e. loved less than Rachel (comp. Gen_29:30). When our Saviour says, Luk_14:26: “If any man hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” he does not mean that his disciples should break the fifth commandment, and act contrary to his direction: “Love your enemies, pray for them that persecute you” (Mat_5:44), but simply that we should prefer him above everything, even life itself, and should sacrifice whatever comes in conflict with him. This meaning is confirmed by the parallel passage, Mat_10:37: “He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

(b) Rom_9:17. Paul traces the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to the agency of God, and so far makes God responsible for sin. But this was a judicial act of punishing sin with sin; for Pharaoh had first hardened his own heart (Exo_8:15, Exo_8:32; Exo_9:34). Moreover, this passage has no reference to Pharaoh’s future fate any more than the passage about Esau, but both refer to their place in the history of Israel.

(c) In Rom_9:22 and Rom_9:23, the Apostle speaks of “vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction” κατηρτισμένα εἰς ἀπώλειαν), and “vessels of mercy which he (God) prepared unto glory” (ἃ προητοίμασεν εἰς δόξαν). But the difference of the verbs, and the difference between the passive (or middle) in the first clause and the active in the second is most significant, and shows that God has no direct agency in the destruction of the vessels of wrath, which is due to their self-destruction; the participle perfect denotes the result of a gradual process and a state of maturity for destruction, but not a divine purpose. Calvin is too good an exegete to overlook this difference, and virtually admits its force, although he tries to weaken it.

They observe,” he says of his opponents, “that it is not said without meaning, that the vessels of wrath are fitted for destruction, but that God prepared the vessels of mercy; since by this mode of expression, Paul ascribes and challenges to God the praise of salvation, and throws the blame of perdition on those who by their choice procure it to themselves. But though I concede to them that Paul softens the asperity of the former clause by the difference of phraseology; yet it is not at all consistent to transfer the preparation for destruction to any other than the secret counsel of God, which is also asserted just before in the context, ‘that God raised up Pharaoh, and whom he will he hardeneth.’ Whence it follows, that the cause of hardening is the secret counsel of God. This, however, I maintain, which is observed by Augustin, that when God turns wolves into sheep, he renovates them by more powerful grace to conquer their obstinacy; and therefore the obstinate are not converted, because God exerts not that mightier grace, of which he is not destitute if he chose to display it.”


Paul’s Teaching of the Extent of Redemption

Whatever view we may take of these hard passages, we should remember that Rom_9:1-33 is only a part of Paul’s philosophy of history, unfolded in chapters 9-11. While Rom_9:1-33 sets forth the divine sovereignty, Rom_10:1-21 asserts the human responsibility, and Rom_11:1-36 looks forward to the future solution of the dark problem, namely, the conversion of the fulness of the Gentiles and the salvation of all Israel (Rom_11:25). And he winds up the whole discussion with the glorious sentence: “God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy — upon all” (Rom_11:32). This is the key for the understanding, not only of this section, but of the whole Epistle to the Romans.

And this is in harmony with the whole spirit and aim of this Epistle. It is easier to make it prove a system of conditional universalism than a system of dualistic particularism. The very theme, Rom_1:16, declares that the gospel is a power of God for the salvation, not of a particular class, but of “every one” that believeth. In drawing a parallel between the first and the second Adam (Rom_5:12-21), he represents the effect of the latter as equal in extent, and greater in intensity than the effect of the former; while in the Calvinistic system it would be less. We have no right to limit “the many” (οἱ πολλοί) and the “all” (πάντες) in one clause, and to take it literally in the other. “If, by the trespass of the one [Adam], death reigned through the one, much more shall they that receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, even Jesus Christ. So, then, as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many [i.e. all] were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many [all] be made righteous” (Rom_5:17-19). The same parallel, without any restriction, is more briefly expressed in the passage (1Co_15:21): “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive;” and in a different form in Rom_11:32 and Gal_3:22, already quoted.

These passages contain, as in a nutshell, the theodicy of Paul. They dispel the darkness of Rom_9:1-33. They exclude all limitations of God’s plan and intention to a particular class; they teach not, indeed, that all men will be actually saved — for many reject the divine offer, and die in impenitence, — but that God sincerely desires and actually provides salvation for all. Whosoever is saved, is saved by grace; whosoever is lost, is lost by his own guilt of unbelief.


The Offer of Salvation

There remains, it is true, the great difficulty that the offer of salvation is limited in this world, as far as we know, to a part of the human race, and that the great majority pass into the other world without any knowledge of the historical Christ.

But God gave to every man the light of reason and conscience (Rom_1:19; Rom_2:14, Rom_2:15). The Divine Logos “lighteth every man” that cometh into the world (Joh_1:9). God never left himself “without witness” (Act_14:17). He deals with his creatures according to the measure of their ability and opportunity, whether they have one or five or ten talents (Mat_25:15 sqq.). He is “no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him” (Act_10:35).

May we not then cherish at least a charitable hope, if not a certain belief, that a God of infinite love and justice will receive into his heavenly kingdom all those who die innocently ignorant of the Christian revelation, but in a state of preparedness or disposition for the gospel, so that they would thankfully accept it if offered to them? Cornelius was in such a condition before Peter entered his house, and he represents a multitude which no man can number. We cannot know and measure the secret operations of the Spirit of God, who works “when, where, and how he pleases.”

Surely, here is a point where the rigor of the old orthodoxy, whether Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, or Calvinistic, must be moderated. And the Calvinistic system admits more readily of an expansion than the churchly and sacramental type of orthodoxy.


The General Love of God to All Men

This doctrine of a divine will and divine provision of a universal salvation, on the sole condition of faith, is taught in many passages which admit of no other interpretation, and which must, therefore, decide this whole question. For it is a settled rule in hermeneutics that dark passages must be explained by clear pas-sages, and not vice versa. Such passages are the following: — 

“I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord our God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live” (Eze_18:32, Eze_18:23; Eze_33:11). “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself” (Joh_12:32). “God so loved the world” (that is, all mankind) “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Joh_3:16). “God our Saviour willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti_2:4). “The grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Tit_2:11). “The Lord is long-suffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2Pe_3:9). “Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for (the sins of) the whole world” (1Jo_2:2). It is impossible to state the doctrine of a universal atonement more clearly in so few words.

To these passages should be added the divine exhortations to repentance, and the lament of Christ over the inhabitants of Jerusalem who “would not” come to him (Mat_23:37). These exhortations are insincere or unmeaning, if God does not want all men to be saved, and if men have not the ability to obey or disobey the voice. The same is implied in the command of Christ to preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mar_16:15), and to disciple all nations (Mat_28:19).

It is impossible to restrict these passages to a particular class without doing violence to the grammar and the context.

The only way of escape is by the distinction between a revealed will of God, which declares his willingness to save all men, and a secret will of God which means to save only some men. Augustin and Luther made this distinction. Calvin uses it in explaining 2Pe_3:9, and those passages of the Old Testament which ascribe repentance and changes to the immutable God.

But this distinction overthrows the system which it is intended to support. A contradiction between intention and expression is fatal to veracity, which is the foundation of human morality, and must be an essential attribute of the Deity. A man who says the reverse of what he means is called, in plain English, a hypocrite and a liar. It does not help the matter when Calvin says, repeatedly, that there are not two wills in God, but only two ways of speaking adapted to our weakness. Nor does it remove the difficulty when he warns us to rely on the revealed will of God rather than brood over his secret will.

The greatest, the deepest, the most comforting word in the Bible is the word, “God is love,” and the greatest fact in the world’s history is the manifestation of that love in the person and the work of Christ. That word and this fact are the sum and substance of the gospel, and the only solid foundation of Christian theology. The sovereignty of God is acknowledged by Jews and Mohammedans as well as by Christians, but the love of God is revealed only in the Christian religion. It is the inmost essence of God, and the key to all his ways and works. It is the central truth which sheds light upon all other truths.


115. Calvin’s Theory of the Sacraments

Inst. bk. IV. chs. XIV.-XIX.

Next to the doctrine of predestination, Calvin paid most attention to the doctrine of the sacraments. And here he was original, and occupied a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli. His sacramental theory passed into all the Reformed Confessions more than his view of predestination.

Calvin accepts Augustin’s definition that a sacrament (corresponding to the Greek “mystery”) is “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” but he improves it by emphasizing the sealing character of the sacrament, according to Rom_4:11, and the necessity of faith as the condition of receiving the benefit of the ordinance. “It is,” he says, “an outward sign by which the Lord seals in our consciences the promises of his good-will towards us, to support the weakness of our faith, or a testimony of his grace towards us, with a reciprocal attestation of our piety towards him.” It is even more expressive than the word. It is a divine seal of authentication, which sustains and strengthens our faith. “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief” (Mar_9:24). To be efficacious, the sacraments must be accompanied by the Spirit, that internal Teacher, by whose energy alone our hearts are penetrated, and our affections moved. Without the influence of the Spirit, the sacraments can produce no more effect upon our minds, than the splendor of the sun on blind eyes, or the sound of a voice upon deaf ears. If the seed falls on a desert spot, it will die; but if it be cast upon a cultivated field, it will bring forth abundant increase.

Calvin vigorously opposes, as superstitious and mischievous, the scholastic opus operatum theory that the sacraments justify and confer grace by an intrinsic virtue, provided we do not obstruct their operation by a mortal sin. A sacrament without faith misleads the mind to rest in the exhibition of a sensuous object rather than in God himself, and is ruinous to true piety.

He agrees with Augustin in the opinion that the sign and the matter of the sacrament are not inseparably connected, and that it produces its intended effect only in the elect. He quotes from him the sentence: “The morsel of bread given by the Lord to Judas was poison; not because Judas received an evil thing, but because, being a wicked man, he received a good thing in a sinful manner.” But this must not be understood to mean that the virtue and truth of the sacrament depend on the condition or choice of him who receives it. The symbol consecrated by the word of the Lord is in reality what it is declared to be, and preserves its virtue, although it confers no benefit on a wicked and impious person. Augustin happily solves this question in a few words: “If thou receive it carnally, still it ceases not to be spiritual; but it is not so to thee.” The office of the sacrament is the same as that of the word of God; both offer Christ and his heavenly grace to us, but they confer no benefit without the medium of faith.

Calvin discusses at length the seven sacraments of the Roman Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the mass. But it is sufficient here to state his views on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the only sacraments which Christ directly instituted for perpetual observance in the Church.


116. Baptism

Inst. IV. chs. XV. and XVI. Also his Brieve instruction, pour armer tous bons fideles contre les erreurs de la secte commune des Anabaptistes, Geneva, 1544, 2d ed. 1545; Latin version by Nicolas des Gallars. In Opera, VII. 45 sqq. This tract was written against the fanatical wing of the Anabaptists at the request of the pastors of Neuchâtel. His youthful treatise On the Sleep of the Soul was also directed against the Anabaptists. See above, § 77. Calvin’s wife was the widow of a converted Anabaptist.

Baptism, Calvin says, is the sacrament of ablution and regeneration; the Eucharist is the sacrament of redemption and sanctification. Christ “came by water and by blood” (1Jo_5:6); that is, to purify and to redeem. The Spirit, as the third and chief witness, confirms and secures the witness of water and blood; that is, of baptism and the eucharist (1Jo_5:8). This sublime mystery was strikingly exhibited on the cross, when blood and water issued from Christ’s side, which on this account Augustin justly called ‘the fountain of our sacraments.’ “

I. Calvin defines baptism as, a sign of initiation, by which we are admitted into the society of the Church, in order that, being incorporated into Christ, we may be numbered among the children of God.”

II. Faith derives three benefits from this sacrament.

1. It assures us, like a legal instrument properly attested, that all our sins are cancelled, and will never be imputed unto us (Eph_5:26; Tit_3:5; 1Pe_3:21). It is far more than a mark or sign by which we profess our religion before men, as soldiers wear the insignia of their sovereign. It is “for the remission of sins,” past and future. No new sacrament is necessary for sins committed after baptism. At whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified for the whole life. “Whenever we have fallen, we must recur to the remembrance of baptism, and arm our minds with the consideration of it, that we may be always certified and assured of the remission of our sins.”

2. Baptism shows us our mortification in Christ, and our new life in him. All who receive baptism with faith experience the efficacy of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection, and should therefore walk in newness of life (Rom_6:3, Rom_6:4, Rom_6:11).

3. Baptism affords us “the certain testimony that we are not only engrafted into the life and death of Christ, but are so united to him as to be partakers of all his benefits” (Gal_3:26, Gal_3:27).

But while baptism removes the guilt and punishment of hereditary and actual sin, it does not destroy our natural depravity, which is perpetually producing works of the flesh, and will not be wholly abolished till the close of this mortal life. In the mean time we must hold fast to the promise of God in baptism, fight manfully against sin and temptation, and press forward to complete victory.

III. On the question of the validity of baptism by unworthy ministers, Calvin fully agrees with Augustin against the view of the Donatists, who measured the virtue of the sacrament by the moral character of the minister. He applies the argument to the Anabaptists of his day, who denied the validity of Catholic baptism on account of the idolatry and corruption of the papal Church. “Against these follies we shall be sufficiently fortified, if we consider that we are baptized not in the name of any man, but in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and consequently that it is not the baptism of man, but of God, by whomsoever administered.” The papal priests “did not baptize us into the fellowship of their own ignorance or sacrilege, but into the faith of Jesus Christ, because they invoked, not their own name, but the name of God, and baptized in no name but his. As it was the baptism of God, it certainly contained the promise of remission of sins, mortification of the flesh, spiritual vivification, and participation of Christ. Thus it was no injury to the Jews to have been circumcised by impure and Apostate priests; nor was the sign on that account useless, so as to render it necessary to be repeated, but it was sufficient to recur to the genuine original …. When Hezekiah and Josiah assembled together out of all Israel, those who had revolted from God, they did not call any of them to a second circumcision.”

He argues against the Anabaptists from the fact also, that the apostles who had received the baptism of John, were not rebaptized. “And among us, what rivers would be sufficient for the repetition of ablutions as numerous as the errors which are daily corrected among us by the mercy of the Lord.”

IV. He pleads for the simplicity of the ordinance against the adventitious medley of incantation, wax-taper, spittle, salt, and “other fooleries,” which from an early age were publicly introduced. “Such theatrical pomps dazzle the eye and stupify the minds of the ignorant.” The simple ceremony as instituted by Christ, accompanied by a confession of faith, prayers, and thanksgivings, shines with the greater lustre, unencumbered with extraneous corruptions. He disapproves the ancient custom of baptism by laymen in cases of danger of death. God can regenerate a child without baptism.

V. The mode of baptism was not a subject of controversy at that time. Calvin recognized the force of the philological and historical argument in favor of immersion, but regarded pouring and sprinkling as equally valid, and left room for Christian liberty according to the custom in different countries. Immersion was then still the prevailing mode in England, and continued till the reign of Elizabeth, who was herself baptized by immersion.

VI. But while meeting the Baptists half-way on the question of the mode, he strenuously defends paedobaptism, and devotes a whole chapter to it. He urges, as arguments, circumcision, which was a type of baptism; the nature of the covenant, which comprehends the offspring of pious parents; Christ’s treatment of children, as belonging to the kingdom of heaven, and therefore entitled to the sign and seal of membership; the word of Peter addressed to the converts on the day of Pentecost, who were accustomed to infant circumcision, that “the promise is to you and your children” (Act_2:39); Paul’s declaration that the children are sanctified by their parents (1Co_7:14), etc. He refutes at length the objections of the Anabaptists, with special reference to Servetus, who agreed with them on that point.

He assigns to infant baptism a double benefit: it ratifies to pious parents the promise of God’s mercy to their children, and increases their sense of responsibility as to their education; it engrafts the children into the body of the Church, and afterwards acts as a powerful stimulus upon them to be true to the baptismal vow.


117. The Lord’s Supper. The Consensus of Zürich

I. Inst. IV. chs. XVII. and XVIII. Comp. the first ed., cap. IV., in Opera, I. 118 sqq. — Petit traicté de la sainte cène de nostre Seigneur Jesus-Christ. Auquel est demontré la vraye institution, profit et utilité d’icelle, Genève, 1541, 1542, 1549. Opera, V. 429-460. Latin version by Nicholas des Gallars: Libellus de Coena Domini, a Ioanne Calvino pridem Gallica lingua scriptus, nunc vero in Latinum sermonem conversus, Gen., 1545. Also translated into English. Remarkably moderate. — The two catechisms of Calvin. — Consensio mutua in re sacramentaria Tigurinae Ecclesiae et D. Calvini ministri Genevensis Ecclesiae jam nunc ab ipsis authoribus edita (usually called Consensus Tigurinus), simultaneously published at Geneva and Zürich, 1551; French ed. L’accord passé, etc., Gen., 1551. In Opera, VII. 689-748. The Latin text also in Niemeyer’s Collectio Conf, pp. 191-217. A German translation (Die Züricher Uebereinkunft) in Bickel’s Bekenntnissschriften der evang. reform. Kirche, pp. 173-181. Comp. the correspondence of Calvin with Bullinger, Farel, etc., concerning the Consensus. — Calvin’s polemical writings against Joachim Westphal, namely, Defensio sanae et orthodoxae doctrinae de sacramentis, Geneva, 1554, Zürich, 1555; Secunda Defensio … contra Westphali calumnias, Gen., 1556; and Ultima Admonitio ad Westphalum, Gen., 1557. In Opera, IX. 1-120, 137-252. Lastly, his book against Tilemann Hesshus (Hesshusen), Dilucida Explicatio sanae doctrinae de vera participatione carnis et sanguinis Christi in sacra Coena, ad discutiendas Heshusii nebulas, Gen., 1561. In Opera, IX. 457-524. (In the Amsterdam ed., Tom. IX. 648-723.) Klebiz of Heidelberg, Beza, and Pierre Boquin also took part in the controversy with Hesshus.

II. For a comparative statement of the eucharistic views of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, see this History, vol. VI. 669-682; and Creeds of Christendom, I. 455 sqq.; 471 sqq. Calvin’s doctrine has been fully set forth by Ebrard in fils Dogma v. heil. Abendmahl, II. 402-525, and by Nevin in his Mystical Presence, Philad., 1846, pp. 54-67; and in the “Mercersburg Review” for September, 1850, pp. 421-548 (against Dr. Hodge in the “Princeton Review” for 1848). Comp. also §§ 132-134 below; Henry, P. I. ch. XIII.; and Staehelin, II. 189 sqq.

In the eucharistic controversy, which raged with such fury in the age of the Reformation, and was the chief cause of separation in its ranks, Calvin consistently occupied from the beginning to the end the position of a mediator and peacemaker between the Lutherans and Zwinglians, between Wittenberg and Zürich.

The way for a middle theory was prepared by the Tetrapolitan or Swabian Confession, drawn up by Martin Bucer, a born compromiser, during the Diet of Augsburg, 1530, and by the Wittenberg Concordia, 1536, which for a while satisfied the Lutherans, but was justly rejected by the Swiss.

Calvin published his theory in its essential features in the first edition of the Institutes (1536), more fully in the second edition (1539), then in a special tract written at Strassburg. He defended it in various publications, and adhered to it with his usual firmness. It was accepted by the Reformed Churches, and never rejected by Luther; on the contrary, he is reported to have spoken highly of Calvin’s tract, — De Coena Domini, when he got hold of a Latin copy in 1545, a year before his death.

Calvin approached the subject with a strong sense of the mystery of the vital union of Christ with the believer, which is celebrated in the eucharist. “I exhort my readers,” he says, in the last edition of his Institutes, “to rise much higher than I am able to conduct them; for as to myself, whenever I handle this subject, after having endeavored to say everything, I am conscious of having said but very little in comparison with its excellence. And though the conceptions of the mind can far exceed the expressions of the tongue; yet, with the magnitude of the subject, the mind itself is oppressed and overwhelmed. Nothing remains for me, therefore, but to break forth in admiration of that mystery, which the mind is unable clearly to understand, or the tongue to express.”

He aimed to combine the spiritualism of Zwingli with the realism of Luther, and to avoid the errors of both. And he succeeded as well as the case will admit. He agreed with Zwingli in the figurative interpretation of the words of institution, which is now approved by the best Protestant exegetes, and rejected the idea of a corporal presence and oral participation in the way of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, which implies either a miracle or an omnipresence of the body of Christ. But he was not satisfied with a purely commemorative or symbolical theory, and laid the chief stress on the positive side of an actual communion with the ever-living Christ. He expressed in private letters the opinion that Zwingli had been so much absorbed with overturning the superstition of a carnal presence that he denied or obscured the true efficacy of the sacrament. He acknowledged the mystery of the real presence and real participation, but understood them spiritually and dynamically. He confined the participation of the body and blood of Christ to believers, since faith is the only means of communion with Christ; while Luther extended it to all communicants, only with opposite effects.

The following is a brief summary of his view from the last edition of the Institutes (1559): — 

After receiving us into his family by baptism, God undertakes to sustain and to nourish us as long as we live, and gives us a pledge of his gracious intention in the sacrament of the holy communion. This is a spiritual banquet, in which Christ testifies himself to be the bread of life, to feed our souls for a true and blessed immortality. The signs of bread and wine represent to us the invisible nourishment which we receive from the body and blood of Christ. They are exhibited in a figure and image, adapted to our feeble capacity, and rendered certain by visible tokens and pledges, which the dullest minds can understand. This mystical benediction, then, is designed to assure us that the body of the Lord was once offered as a sacrifice for us upon which we may now feed, and that his blood was once shed for us and is our perpetual drink. “His flesh is true meat, and his blood is true drink” (Joh_6:55). “We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph_5:30). “This is a great mystery” (Gen_5:32), which can be admired rather than expressed. Our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ, just as our corporal life is preserved and sustained by bread and wine. Otherwise there would be no propriety in the analogy of the sign. The breaking of the bread is indeed symbolical, yet significant; for God is not a deceiver who sets before us an empty sign. The symbol of the body assures us of the donation of the invisible substance, so that in receiving the sign we receive the thing itself. The thing signified is exhibited and offered to all who come to that spiritual banquet, but it is advantageously enjoyed only by those who receive it with true faith and gratitude.

Calvin lays great stress on the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit in the communion. This was ignored by Luther and Zwingli. The Spirit raises our hearts from earth to heaven, as he does in every act of devotion (sursum corda), and he brings down the life-giving power of the exalted Redeemer in heaven, and thus unites what is, according to our imperfect notions, separated by local distance. The medium of communication is faith. Calvin might have sustained his view by the old liturgies of the Oriental Church, which have a special prayer invoking the Holy Spirit at the consecration of the eucharistic elements.

He quotes several passages from Augustin in favor of the spiritual real presence. Ratramnus in the ninth, and Berengar in the eleventh, century had likewise appealed to Augustin against the advocates of a carnal presence and participation.

When Luther reopened the eucharistic controversy by a fierce attack upon the Zwinglians (1545), who defended their martyred Reformer in a sharp reply, Calvin was displeased with both parties, and labored to bring about a reconciliation. He corresponded with Bullinger (the Melanchthon of the Swiss Church), and, on his invitation, he went to Zürich with Farel (May, 1549). The delicate negotiations were carried on by both parties with admirable frankness, moderation, wisdom, and patience. The result was the “Consensus Tigurinus,” in which Calvin states his doctrine as nearly as possible in agreement with Zwingli. This document was published in 1551, and adopted by all the Reformed Cantons, except Bern, which cherished a strong dislike to Calvin’s rigorism. It was also favorably received in France, England, and in parts of Germany. Melanchthon declared to Lavater (Bullinger’s son-in-law) that he then for the first time understood the Swiss, and would never again oppose them; but he struck out the clause of the “Consensus” which confined the efficacy of the sacrament to the elect.

But while the “Consensus” brought peace to the Swiss Churches, and satisfied the Melanchthonians, it was assailed by Westphal and Hesshus, who out-luthered Luther in zeal and violence, and disturbed the last years of Melanchthon and Calvin. We shall discuss this controversy in the next chapter.

The Calvinistic theory of the Eucharist passed into all the Reformed Confessions, and is very strongly stated in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the chief symbol of the German and Dutch Reformed Churches. In practice, however, it has, among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, largely given way to the Zwinglian view, which is more plain and intelligible, but ignores the mystical element in the holy communion.