Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
STRAUSS, DFM. Calvin in the intellectual heritage of the West. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.3, pp.397-401. ISSN 2224-7912.
In order to assess some prominent facets of Calvin's position within the intellectual legacy of the West the Greek-Medieval background is first of all highlighted - with a focus on the idea of a cosmic (ontic) world order (logos or law). Particular attention is given to the line of development from early Greek philosophy, via Plato and Aristotle, up to Stoic philosophy, Cicero, the medieval legacy culminating in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The fundamental dualism present in Greek thought - between form and matter (the constant and the changing) - exerted a lasting influence on medieval thinking. Cicero assumed an immutable, incorruptible and non-arbitrary universal law which is valid per se. He distinguishes between being a Roman citizen on the one hand, and participating in the Roman populus (the public) on the other. When Thomas Aquinas entered the scene in the 13th century his account of medieval society was based upon an attempted synthesis between Aristotle's philosophy and biblical Christianity respectively. He accepted the dual teleological order of Aristotle with its hierarchy of substantial forms arranged in an order of lower and higher. It was designated as the lex naturalis (natural law) which is related to the transcendent lex aeterna (eternal law) as contained within the Divine intellect. By virtue of its substantial form the human being depends upon the community for the satisfaction of its needs. However, the disintegration caused by the late Scholastic movement known as nominalism (in particular Ockham) then entered the scene. Luther was influenced by this nominalism but Calvin reacted against its idea of arbitrariness. For that reason he emphasized God's law for creation and rejected the nominalistic conception of the absolute, despotic arbitrariness of God's will (the so-called potestas Dei Absoluta of God). His alternative claim is that although God is elevated above his laws for creation, He is not arbitrary (Deus legibus solutus est, sed non exlex). A brief indication is given of the relatively undifferentiated societal condition prevailing in the world in which Calvin lived - with reference to the doctrine of resistance (Beza and others). The longstanding over-estimation of human reason caused Thomas Aquinas to relativize the radical effect of the fall into sin and for that reason he held the view that human reason was only "wounded" by the fall - a view that was continued by Calvin. However, the biblical appeal of the legacy of Calvin also contains a number of positive insights that we still have to appreciate. He emphasized the constancy and steadfastness of God's law for creatures and also explicitly rejected the idea of chance and fate - dating back to the Anankè (later on known as the Moira) of ancient Greece. This emphasis is all the more remarkable in the light of the powerful nominalistic movement which denied any universality outside the human mind, thus eliminating both the (universal) law for and the (universal) orderliness or creaturely reality. This nominalistic view reached its rationalistic conclusion in the thought of Immanuel Kant (18th century) who carried it through to its ultimate consequences - by elevating human understanding to become the apriori formal law-giver of nature. The other side of the rationalistic orientation of modern nominalism is found in the irrationalistic focus both of historicism (19th century) and postmodernism (20th century). The thought of Calvin does not fit into this humanistic tradition. In respect of human society he did show an understanding of what eventually became known as the principle of sphere-sovereignty (introduced by Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper during the 19th century). Calvin substantially contributed to an enrichment of our Christian world and life view - carried through in more detail by the reformational philosophical tradition.
Keywords : World order; realism; nominalism; potestas Dei absoluta; Christian thinking.