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Calvin’s Humanism and His Knowledge of God

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Like all great thinkers, Calvin has been the object of inexhaustible scholarship, producing almost as many opinions about the reformer. In some ways, Calvin is easy to read and therefore categorize Christian, Protestant reformer, Frenchman, preacher, etc. But Richard Muller recently described the challenge of modern Calvin scholarship, noting that Calvin consistently bears an uncanny resemblance with his reader. Platonists see a platonic Calvin, liberals, a liberal Calvin, Barth, a Barthian Calvin—all with seemingly relevant proof texts. Thus he is pulled into service for everyone’s mission—and becomes almost meaningless. These readings often sprout up from reading Calvin apart from his times, fertilized by personal hermeneutics and biases. And they often shade the true reformer. Rather than leave Calvin in a meaningless abyss, Muller recommends better reading: “The study of Calvin, in other words, must take into consideration developments in the analysis of scholasticism and humanism, in the study of the progress of rhetoric in the sixteenth century and in the broader field of the history of biblical interpretation.” In that spirit, this paper will examine humanism’s effect on Calvin, particularly his knowledge of God in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s primary theological and intellectual goal was to know the God of Scripture. Humanism provided Calvin the tools and categories for novel methods of reading Scripture and knowing God.



When we begin to consider Calvin’s Institutes, humanism leaps to the fore. But it is not clear his posture toward it, along with the ideological currents of medieval Europe because the Institutes has vehement polemics, sometimes against scholastics and then against humanists. But then again, Calvin emphasizes the humanist endeavor but also modifies it considerably. What is happening? Sixteenth-century Europe was in the throes of great intellectual change. The 13th-15th centuries’ rediscovery of Aristotle, traveling up from North Africa, through the Iberian Peninsula, and into Europe’s intellectual centers is well documented. Aristotle and his logical methods shook the core of the dusty European minds. Initially, his works were banned. But slowly, scholars read and grew receptive. Like Augustine to Plato, Aquinas baptized Aristotle, aligning Christian religion with causation, logical method, and other categories. This alignment led to scholasticism. Scholasticism, especially the French strain, was distinctively zealous for innovative thought, to the neglect of prior thought. This new scholasticism offered the fullest possible rational comprehension of the structure of the universe. Thomist scholasticism would lead to counter traditions (Scotus and Ockham), and humanism was one such reaction. But up from Italy came a new method and new discoveries. With the rise of the early Renaissance came a revival of learning from antique Latin classics, the discovery of Greek and Latin culture, and rediscovery of the Greek language. These brought new confidence, methods, and aesthetics. This is humanism. Williams provides a helpful narrowed definition of humanism when he says 16th century humanism “denotes a concern for the study of Greek and Roman antiquity from the standpoint of philology and rhetoric.” All scholars are unanimous that the single dominate feature of humanism in the 16th century was rediscovery, utilization, and application of the intellectual legacy of Rome and Greece.



It is critical to nuance this definition of humanism more to understand Calvin. Donald Williams follows other scholars in distinguishing between “particular” and “general” humanism, and then carefully limits Calvin to the former. General humanism would be more familiar to contemporary audiences (though it was not unheard of in the 16th century). General humanism is a complete worldview of philosophical assumptions and answers to the whole human experience, placing man in the universe with a “coherent body of doctrine.” Contrast with particular humanism, which limits itself to a specific set of intellectual practices and a renewed concern for ancient sources. Vos finalizes 16th century humanism: “’Humanist,’ then, indicates not a philosophical but an educational program centered about literary studies.” Calvin fits within this particular humanism.



What was Calvin’s exposure to this particular humanism? First, it is necessary to examine Calvin’s education, then examine his pre-conversion intellectual endeavor De Clementia, and finally the Institutes of the Christian Religion.



First for Calvin’s education. The whole French intelligentsia was growing in humanism. While John was a boy, Francis I founded the Lecteurs Royaux with Bude, who along with Erasmus, was a leading humanist. International wars helped establish a French national identity while simultaneously introducing the French aristocracy to a wealth of especially Italian learning. Francis and Marguerite de Navarre both patronized the arts and sciences, creating a milieu of reform, education, and humanism. The young Calvin joined this larger movement when he started school at the University of Paris at 14, entering a world of developing method and mindset, criticizing both the older medieval worldview and its appropriation of Aristotle. When the scholastics ascended to intellectual power, especially in France, the Italians and Protestants generally responded with criticism, both intellectual and religious. All of the colleges that Calvin attended either had embraced or were thoroughly embracing the humanistic zeitgeist. Not a few of them were anti-scholastic and trained students in Ockham’s philosophy, broader nominalism, or Italian humanism. “It is worthy of remark that among the men with whom Calvin formed social connections there appears to be nothing that, at his time, can have been called a reactionary. They are of the progressive type. They are scientists and men of letters. The humanist in him had every early advantage.” Alexandre Ganoczy, who specializes in Calvin’s youth, concurs.



Space restricts a full examination of the humanism in the Calvin’s whole corpus, but it is helpful to look briefly at his first independent intellectual work, his commentary on Seneca, De Clementia. According to Breen, this work is the “culmination of Calvin’s youthful humanism.” Marie explains in great detail how Calvin learned and employed the particular humanist method in De Clementia. From Bude, he learned text criticism. A law student, Calvin employs many of the Roman legal theories to his contemporary legal situations. He quotes classical authors who agree with him from a variety of philosophic traditions. He defines his position against others, often antagonistic to Aristotelian scholastics. He relies on natural laws to define legal terms and usage. For us today, all of these maneuvers seem common sense, good reading, exegesis, and rhetoric, but for the 16th century, this was novel scholarship and techniques he would employ later. Marie and Wendel note that his method of using ancient sources for present problems would become Calvin’s primary method of theological writing after his conversion. Overall, De Clementia is the epitome of humanist study of an ancient document. Key to all of this was the primacy of exegesis. For the young Calvin, the end of intellectual endeavors was to most fully discern the meaning of a text, bringing as few philosophical assumptions to the text as possible, and only those hermeneutical tools and assumptions that would aid in the discovery of the text. When combined with Protestantism’s reliance on Scripture alone, these exegetical skills and assumptions would become Calvin’s greatest tool in his commentaries and Institutes. Marie writes that the post-conversion Calvin “penetrates to the world of the author and the meaning that the text had in its original setting far better than his medieval predecessors did.” This skill and method starts with his commentary on De Clementia.



Then in 1533, Calvin, the young humanist, converted to Christianity. From this point on, his entire intellectual mindset underwent a seismic shift from humanism to Protestant Christianity. Every word Calvin wrote from then on would be devoted to the Protestant cause. But he would continue to utilize the humanist methods he learned well, appropriating them to his commentaries and treatises.



First, Calvin continued to highly value the humanist and secular intellectual endeavor. In the Institutes, he praises the liberal arts and secular studies as competent to know both God and his world. Famously, he attributes this to common grace from God. Throughout the Institutes, Calvin continues to rely heavily on secular classical sources to prove his theological points, staying in the humanist tradition of ancient sources demonstrating a contemporary position. But Williams notes a significant deviation: while Calvin still freely quotes Plato, Seneca, and others positively, he uses them in a tertiary way, far below the authority of Scripture, and also below the established traditions of the ancient church, Augustine and Chrysostom being his favorites. “[Calvin] does not really use the classical authors to support his conclusion—often he brings them in after having already decided the issue” with the authority of Scripture.



More than just sources, the Institutes also has elegant Latin, fully within the humanist style. Calvin was one of the greatest Latinists in Europe. Vos makes the significant point that the genre of the Institutes is even humanist. Calvin’s goal throughout the work is to use various sources to develop the human moral life. For humanists, this meant moral stoicism. But for Calvin, this meant Christian piety and reliance on divine grace for obedience to God’s law. To summarize, after considering Calvin’s education background, his pre-Christian studies, and the Institutes themselves, it is fair to say that Calvin almost certainly, perhaps with varying degrees of awareness, appropriated many Renaissance humanist techniques for his Reformation project.



With this base, it is helpful to consider the other major intellectual force at the time, scholasticism, and to see if and how it may have affected Calvin’s work. It is tempting to force Calvin completely into one or the other category, all humanist, or all scholastic. Muller points out that this is unfair to Calvin and his world because of the “plasticity” of terms like “humanism” or “scholasticism.” Attempting to define scholasticism is a slippery project. Generalized, scholasticism represented an intellectual movement that sought to seek a “systematized form of belief of the Christian consciousness of their times,” girded by two primary convictions: confidence in the human intellect to understand the purpose and structure of the created order, and that even post-Fall, able scholars could access that purpose and structure. Aquinas is clearly the high point. There are several reasons why Calvin would have pushed against this. First, historically, because of Aquinas’ influence, scholastics represented the Roman Catholic theological and philosophical hegemony, and especially in the 16th century, it was almost impossible to distinguish the scholastic from the Roman Catholic. Second, scholasticism tended to ivory tower “angels-on-pinheads” speculation. It was this extreme form that Calvin targeted mercilessly: “Calvin’s generalized polemic against scholasticism and the ‘scholastics,’ therefore, frequently points in two directions—toward a strong distaste for specific scholastic formulae and also toward an appropriation of other elements of medieval scholastic theology.” Calvin, always the pietist, drove his theological ends toward Christian salvation and piety, always through careful exegesis of Scripture, not systematized metaphysics. He had no tolerance for abstract knowledge. Where Aquinas and the scholastics worked independently from (though sometimes in line with) Scripture, Calvin dared not leave the biblical text and content. Finally, if Muller is correct that we must consider Calvin’s context, and Gordon and Ganoczy both note Calvin’s education was more humanistic that Scholastic (especially with less scholastic theology), then it is safe to say that scholasticism had little constructive effect on Calvin. Thus, “In short, Calvin’s overtly negative reaction to the “scholastici” conveys only a small part of his relationship to medieval scholastic theology, its methods, themes, and distinctions,” but it is safer to say that Calvin aligned with humanism (in general) more than scholasticism.



With this foundation, it is possible to begin to examine how John Calvin used humanism within his schema for the knowledge of God. This is a hotly debated topic among scholars. Some argue that Calvin the humanist was more confident in human knowledge of God, others contend that Calvin the Protestant limits man’s knowledge of God because of the noetic effects of the Fall. Both sides have strong arguments.



It is crucial to note from the start that for Calvin the Protestant Christian, Scripture alone was the final authority, far outweighing any secular source, whether classical, humanist, or scholastic. The Institutes themselves are rife with scripture. This was a theological point against the Roman Catholic Church, but also a hermeneutical and epistemological one.



That said, humanism still played a significant role in the Institutes’ epistemology of God. Most significant was a method to exegete Scripture. Scripture is the final authority, but humanism offers the tools to best understand the authoritative statements of Scripture. We have already seen how Calvin learned exegetical techniques from his humanist project. These he applied to the Bible. Muller argues that Calvin saw his life as a totally “single-minded” task where everything—commentaries, letters, Institutes—subsumed under one vision: expositing the whole of Scripture, the whole historical-redemptive arc. Thus, the Institutes was not a systematized theology, but a contribution to the whole project of understanding God’s Word. Vos agrees, saying “[Calvin] adopts and uses the tools of humanism. Humanist learning provided Calvin with a greater capacity to interpret Scripture…” The goal was neither systematized thought (against the Scholastics) nor moral and intellectual freedom (against the humanists); the goal was knowledge of God through Scripture. Vos, among others, notes that the Institutes is not a systematic theology by either 16th century or 21st century standards. Rather it was meant to be a companion to his other work, mainly commentary on Scripture, to bring out the practical and ethical implications of his exegetical-commentary work.



Muller has been the vanguard in this. “The exegetical work was primary, while the Institutes arose out of the further discussion of exegetical results, and in some sense, ‘remained subordinate’ to the work of biblical interpretation,” Muller notes that statistically, each new edition of the Institutes had more and more scripture quotations and citations, meaning that as Calvin wrote commentaries, his understanding of scripture increased, along with his exegetical skill. Scripture too was the fountain of the topics of the Institutes. This is unique from scholastic treatises, in which topics were derived from logical categories. Clearly, Calvin understood his work to be commentary, not speculation. Muller argues that this project was a “confluence” of humanist and nominally scholastic patterns, all characteristic of Protestant humanism in the 15th century.



Aside from exegetical techniques, the analysis should be pushed further. For Calvin, did the humanist intellectual endeavor offer fruit for the knowledge of God? Yes and no. Famously, the Institutes posits two types of knowledge of God, God as creator, and God as redeemer. Calvin is clear that knowledge of God as redeemer is impossible outside of the special revelation of Scripture. Throughout Book 2, Chapter 2 of the Institutes, Calvin maintains that both the natural will and the reason bend toward sin, away from God. He is especially emphatic that man’s will is bound toward sin, and so man is neither capable nor inclined to know God as redeemer. Any knowledge of God must proceed from special movement by the Holy Spirit. His conclusion is that knowledge of God as redeemer (and thus salvation), must be from the Holy Spirit, only by grace through faith. But he is more open to God as creator. He speaks famously of the “seed of religion” and “sense of divinity” in all humans which illumines the reality of a creator. He goes on to praise all the secular intellectual endeavors as means to know both creation and creator, including the natural sciences and liberal arts. In the locus classicus of Calvin’s praise for the humanities, he writes:



Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit?…No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration…Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was spoiled of its true good.



This paragraph has all the signs of a good humanist: praise for the “ancients” (in context, Greek, and Roman rhetoricians), appreciation for rhetoric and budding natural sciences, and imitation and reclamation of their methods. Calvin believes that the exegetical methods, the budding Renaissance, scientific revolution—almost completely dominated by humanists in the 15th century—can lead to a better, fuller knowledge of God as the creator and supreme agent of providence. He includes man’s rational capacity in this, along with a very real bondage of the will. Calvin uses vivid images of the limits of man’s knowledge as “a momentary lighting flash” in a country plain that illuminates enough to know that we do not know as much as we wish and that we know there is more to know. Sin, the post-lightning darkness, obscures further knowledge. Common grace and the imago Dei leave memories of the landscape to explore.



Thus, Calvin seems to appropriate significant elements of humanism in his knowledge of God as creator. But he does not show the least sign of humanist presumption of over-confidence in the knowledge of God. Calvin was a humanist who criticized humanists. All knowledge of God was revelatory, at the end of the day, dependent on scripture and the Holy Spirit’s illumination of it. Calvin diverged from humanists with his emphasis on the majesty and holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the gulf between God in his holiness and man in his sinful state. Humanists were arrogant in denying the effects of sin on their methods and minds and had little sense of their creatureliness before their creator. Here, Calvin could not disagree more; a humanist remains a creature. Without divine revelation, natural revelation (both scholastic and humanist) only serves “negatively to leave [man] without excuse for his ignorance and sin, and positively to lead him into servile fear of God and brazen idolatry.”



T.H.L. Parker, a great Calvin scholar, seems to disagree with this knowledge of God through humanistic method. He argues that within Calvin’s world, “Properly speaking, there is only one revelation of God; that is the Word of God.” For Parker, Calvin sees God as too transcendent and man’s mind too sinful to know God at all independent of special revelation via scripture. Calvin does indicate this, and Parker has a solid body of “proof texts” in his arsenal. Two responses are in order. First, there is an equal reserve of counter proof-texts that show man, as an image-bearing creation through common grace, may know God as creator apart from special revelation, as a product of the “seed of religion.” Second, if Muller’s method of examining Calvin’s context and placing Calvin in his historical situation is the best way to understand him, and then after recognizing that Calvin was tremendously influenced by 15th-century humanism, Parker’s theory has less weight. Parker correctly says that knowledge of God as redeemer is impossible for Calvin save from scripture. But when he contends that Calvin sees any knowledge of God outside of God’s self-revelation as impossible, he seems to undermine both the common graces of method and content within creation that Calvin notices. The image of God in man and religion’s seed (both gifts of grace) seek, even stutteringly, to ascend to know God, and seem to arrive at an undeniable knowledge of God.



Parker is on a slightly different plane of conversation. Parker concerns primarily with the final product of Calvin’s epistemology of God: can man know God by “reaching up” via the whole humanist endeavor, or does knowledge depend completely on God descending to man in revelation? There is evidence on both sides and in the end, Calvin seems to say yes to both, as the first pages of the Institutes famously describe. But the question beneath this, is “How did Calvin arrive at this?” To that question, the historical answer seems to be that Calvin relied heavily on humanist method to the exegesis of Scripture. Parker does not interact with the history of Calvin’s epistemology but only interacts with the final product.



Stephen Grabill argues the opposite from Parker when he writes that Calvin “leaves open the formal possibility of developing a systematic doctrine of natural law founded on the natural knowledge of God the Creator, even though that possibility remains materially unfulfilled in his mature statement of doctrine.” For Grabill, Calvin and the Geneva political system both attest of a nascent moral order that can be deduced from natural law conclusions about God. Grabill places fewer qualifiers and restrictions on Calvin’s knowledge of God than Calvin himself (and far less than Parker!) would have on the limits of natural law, especially in the realms of moral law for civil society. While Grabill seems to overextend Calvin, he helpfully notes that on the one hand, Calvin affirms unequivocally a universal natural knowledge of God implanted in all. Yet on the other, he also insists that this natural knowledge has been irrevocably distorted and abused by sinful humanity. For Calvin, it seems that natural revelation (of which humanism is a participant) can only be drawn on reliably by the regenerate for knowledge of the natural world via arts and sciences and the formation of moral civil society, and never salvifically. Grabill concludes that despite the effects of sin, man retains, for Calvin, the natural rational capacity to competently consider the matters of the “human earthly sphere,” like politics, ethics, and moral society.



Heiko Oberman adds a final piece which best summarized Calvin’s approach to humanism and the knowledge of God. Standing on Breen and other historians’ work of Calvin’s humanist background, Oberman agrees that Calvin was clearly a “humanist,” though he is loathed to use the term because of the anti-supernatural and skepticism of sin tendencies nascent in 15th-century humanism. But Oberman attempts to push the analysis a bit further by showing that while Calvin relied heavily on the classical traditions, his greatest and authoritative source of knowledge was Scripture:
Calvin first wants to listen so closely to Scripture that both the reality of the world and God’s will are understood. Then, only a posteriori, does he assess how far the classical tradition has succeeded in its efforts to solve the basic mysteries of the world. And finally, in the Institutes, Calvin tried to order ‘the data of Revelation,’ constantly warning that he does so only ‘for the purposes of teaching.



Calvin felt the freedom to pick and choose philosophical assumptions and conclusions from whatever tradition he could find, even disparate traditions like Plato and Aristotle, Scotus and Aquinas, Luther and even early Roman Catholicism, because if they aligned with scripture, they were only joining general revelation; if they deviated, they are rebelling and suppressing true knowledge.



Oberman makes the very helpful point that clears the air between the various readings of Calvin, some seeing him as confident of natural reason (Grabill), some as less confident (Parker). He says that theologically and scripturally, Calvin “knew a lot” about divine secrets, the revealed will of God. But then Calvin knew “considerably less” about the “cohesion and ultimate harmony” between the great tensions of the human intellectual projects, like human responsibility and divine will, voluntarism and intellectualism, God’s justice and love, etc. He concludes that for Calvin, the Bible presents a “stuttering God,” (in the most pious sense), where God gives what he intends, and what he does give is sufficient. But he does not give total knowledge. Calvin, clinging to the text, dares not speculate on what God has not given and thus responds with mimicked “stuttering”—the Institutes. This explains why Calvin does not attempt to systematize.



If humanism is the limited project of a series of techniques for recapturing the ancient world’s thought, language, and values, then Calvin was a humanist. But when we move beyond technique to the assumptions undergirding them, the answers become more hazy, from Grabill’s theory that Calvin was attempting to lay a foundation for a Protestant Neo-scholasticism, to Parker’s more cautious view that Calvin knew little to nothing beyond scripture, and the whole spectrum between. Oberman places Calvin at the fount of the behemoth Western intellectual tradition that would develop into the Enlightenment, though by no means Calvin’s intent. Calvin surely meant only to know more fully the God of the Bible through the methods of his schooling, his cultural forces, and his incredible genius. This knowledge was directed toward the piety and benefit of the Church Universal and more specifically, the Protestant cause.



In the end, Muller seems correct when he says that John Calvin does not fit into any of our 21st-century categories. He is clearly not Roman Catholic. He is not a scholastic, but he has elements of scholasticism. He is not a “humanist” per se, though of all the intellectual systems in 15th century Europe, it is safe to say that humanism most shaped Calvin. But Muller is most correct when he says that Calvin’s project was completely new and unique. Unlike both scholastics and humanists, Calvin did not want to create a water-tight, logical and epistemological system; John Calvin wanted to exegete Scripture for Christian piety. Thus, every word of the Institutes was in service toward the exegesis of scripture, where truest (and salvific) knowledge of God could come, along with the pastoral goal of Christian holy life and piety. Calvin’s humanism contributed to this work by providing a methodology which allowed him to approach ancient writings, including scripture, with a sound hermeneutic. Thus, Calvin was a faint-hearted humanist, following his creator’s lips to the best of his ability for God’s glory and the church’s holiness.





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Parker, T.H.L. Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub Co., 1959.

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Vos, Arvin. “Calvin: The Theology of a Christian Humanist” in Christianity and the Classics: The Acceptance of a Heritage, 109-118. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

Williams, Donald T. “John Calvin: humanist and reformer: the influence of Calvin’s early humanism on his work as a Christian theologian.” Trinity Journal 5 (Spring 1976): 67-78.

AUTHOR - Jonathan Clark

Jonathan is a campus pastor at New Mexico State University.