Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
VAN DER WALT, BJ. The worldview of John Calvin (1509-1564): A Christian-philosophical appraisal. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.3, pp.365-396. ISSN 2224-7912.
This Christian philosophical investigation of his worldview according to the final edition of his Institutes (1559) is presented in commemoration of the birth of the Reformer of Geneva 500 years ago. The essay develops through the following stages. The introductory part firstly settles the debate on whether Calvin was primarily a Christian theologian or a philosopher. Calvin himself called his Institutes a "Christian philosophy" (philosophia Christiana) which, in contemporary terminology could be described as a (pre-scientific) Christian worldview. Secondly, the introduction indicates the method according to which Calvin's worldview will be analysed. It is done according to the only existing Christian philosophical historiographical method, viz. the problem-historical method, developed by the Dutch philosopher, prof. D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (2005a & 2005b) and afterwards further explained by his followers (cf. Bril, 2005 and Bril & Boonstra, 2000). The first main section indicates the failures of different efforts (mainly by theologians) to find a central idea governing Calvin's "system". Calvin research provides enough evidence today that there is no single "key" to unlock the door to Calvin's thinking. Not only one central dogma or principle, but many "keys" or biblical themes can be regarded as cornerstones of his so-called theology. This fact underlines the need for a broader Christian philosophical approach. The rest of the essay first investigates Calvin's view of reality (or his ontology) and briefly summarises his view on the human being. Next, the implications of his dichotomist anthropology and his distinction between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom for his view on societal life are explained. The following section discusses his epistemology and his view on the relationship between reason and faith, philosophy and theology. The results of this article can briefly be summarised as follows: The religious direction (or trend) of Calvin's worldview was his sincere desire to obey only God, his Word and his will. He therefore rejected the synthetic mentality of the early Church Fathers and Medieval thinkers who tried to achieve a compromise between the Bible and pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophies. However, in his analysis of the structures of creation (his type of philosophy) Calvin did not succeed in fully realising his biblical normative approach. According to the problem-historical method, his type of worldview or "Christian philosophy" can be characterised in the following way: • Calvin was not a mythologising or cosmogono-cosmological thinker. To the degree that he was still thinking synthetically, he can be called a purely cosmological thinker. However, as a biblical thinker he did not exclude God from his thinking, and also disliked any speculation about God which pretends to know more about God than Scripture reveals. • Calvin rejected individualism as well as universalism and accepted a partially universalistic viewpoint, probably combined with a modified macro-microcosmos theory. (I indicate it as "modified", because the macro-microcosmos theory usually does not appear among purely cosmological partially universalistic thinkers like Calvin, but with cosmogono-cosmological thinkers adhering to a horizontal type of partial universalism.) • Calvin rejected monism (the idea that reality was an original unity) and adhered to a dualistic ontology. According to him reality consists of a transcendent part, viz. God and a non-transcendent part, viz. creation. Neither monism nor dualism is, however, in harmony with the Scriptures. Monism can only be true if we erase the distinction between God and creation. Dualism proposes two ultimate sources of reality, whereas the Bible teaches God as the one Origin of everything that exists. • Calvin's view of the human being follows his ontological dualism: he proposed a clearly dichotomist anthropology of body and soul/spirit as two separate entities. • As a consequence of his anthropological dualism, Calvin distinguished between two worlds, governments or kingdoms in created reality (the non-transcendant world): an earthly and a heavenly. Sometimes it seems as if Calvin reverted to the Medieval scholastic dualism of nature and supernatural grace or perhaps Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms. In other instances, however, Calvin succeeded in freeing his thinking from this unbiblical idea, enabling him to proclaim the biblical view that God should be served in all domains of life and not only in the spiritual realm. • In the light of the fact that Calvin emphasised illumination together with other Platonic ideas, he probably favoured an inconsistent empiristic epistemology which does not limit the acquisition of knowledge (as was the case with consistent empirists) to the visible world. • While, according to the Thomistic tradition, reason should precede faith (intellego ut credam), Calvin clearly followed the Augustinian option according to which reason should follow faith (credo ut intellegam) and can therefore only confirm what has already been accepted in faith. • Calvin did not provide a systematic technical description of and division between theology and philosophy. He himself calls his Institutes a Christian doctrine of faith or a Christian philosophy. The requirements for his philosophia Christiana - still valid today - are the following: (1) It should reject the idea of an autonomous reason. (2) It should be obedient to the will of God, revealed in his natural laws and in the Scriptures. (3) It requires a total renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23), guided by the Holy Spirit. (4) It should be practised in deep humility. This humilitas is firstly a radical humility before God, far more radical than ordinary humbleness. It is the opposite of human pride and self-conceit, relinquishing all presumption and self-importance. Secondly, such humility also includes the willingness to learn - without becoming a captive of their ideas - from pre-Christian philosophies. As a summa summarum I agree with the remark of a contemporary Reformational philosopher. He writes that, in spite of Calvin's entanglement with pre-Christian philosophies, the advances he made in comparison with both predecessors and contemporaries have to be admired. We could not expect more from a fallible human being. But at the same time it would be a serious indictment on us, his successors, if we did not learn from him to develop a radically critical attitude and method in our philosophy and scholarship in general.
Keywords : Reformation (16th century,) John Calvin (1509-1564); Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559); Philosophy (Christian); theology; view of reality (ontology); dualism; idea of God; creational ordinances; natural law; partial universalism; macro-microcosmos theory; dichotomy (anthropological); semi-mysticism; two realm doctrine (nature and grace); inconsistent empirism; autonomy (of reason); faith and reason (relationship); Platonism; Stoicism.