Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
VAN DER WALT, BJ. John Calvin's view of the human being: A Christian philosophical appraisal. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.3, pp.410-433. ISSN 2224-7912.
This investigation is focused on an important aspect of Calvin's teachings, viz. his anthropology according to the final edition of his main systematic work, his Institutes (1559). This contribution (to commemorate his birthday 500 years ago) is developed through the following main sections: The introduction briefly indicates the contemporary interest and continued relevance of Calvin - also for South Africans - even half a millennium after his birth. It further indicates the need to reflect anew on Calvin's anthropology. Then it draws attention to the fact that Calvin's intention was to be obedient to God and his Word alone (the religious direction of his thought), but that he did not always succeed in applying this intention in his structural analysis of the human being. He often employed pre-Christian philosophical ideas to explain his view of being human. Two different "lines" can therefore be detected in his anthropology. Lastly, the introduction explains the problem-historical method according to which Calvin's view of the human being will be analysed. The rest of the essay focuses on the following aspects of Calvin's anthropology: (1) being human as being religious; (2) Calvin's structural analysis of the human being consisting of body and soul or spirit; (3) his idea of an immortal soul; (4) his view of man as the image of God; (5) his distinction in man/woman between a natural and supernatural image. These various aspects of Calvin's viewpoint should be understood in the light of the following. Calvin's anthropology is determined by his dualistic ontology or view of reality, in which he distinguishes between God (the Transcendent) and creation (the non-transcendent part). He proposes a clearly dichotomist anthropology of body and soul/spirit as separate entities. According to him the soul is of divine origin. He can therefore be called a creatianist - God creates a soul for every new human person, and after death the soul returns to its Origin. Amongst the great variety of dichotomist anthropologies, Calvin's viewpoint can be characterised as semi-mystical. Semi-mysticism teaches that human beings are not completely non-transcendent (earthly) creatures, but also have a transcendent (divine) part, viz. their souls. Thus the borderline between the transcendent God and man is not perceived to be above but inside human beings. Amongst the different types of semi-mysticism, Calvin accepted a Platonising type - certain themes from Plato's philosophy are included and combined with other pre-Christian philosophical and biblical ideas in his view of the human person. Concerning the different aspects of being human distinguished above (1 to 5), the results of this investigation can be summarised as follows: • Calvin was not primarily interested in the human being himself/herself, independent from his/her relationship with God. Right at the beginning of his Institutes he emphasised the inseparable relationship between knowledge of God and the self. Religio or cultus Dei to him was also not confined to private devotional life or church attendance, but understood as all-encompassing service of God in all domains of life. The question, however, remains whether other aspects of his anthropology did not prevent him from working out this basic biblical idea consistently. • According to Calvin it is a fact not to be debated that man/woman consists of two separate entities, viz. body and soul. The soul is an incorporeal substance which has been placed by God in the body in which it lives as if in a house which it manages. The body is also regarded as a prison of the soul resulting in contempt for earthly life and a longing for heaven. Death is regarded as a friend instead of as God's punishment. Such a viewpoint leads to many unsolvable problems, apart from the fact that it is to the author's mind in total disagreement with what the Word of God really reveals about the human being according to contemporary interpretations. • Calvin furthermore regarded the soul as immortal and he provided a whole list of arguments (derived from both reason and the Bible) to prove this belief. What exactly he had in mind is not very clear. If he was saying that the soul is immortal in and of itself, he would have contradicted the biblical message that only God is by nature immortal and that the human being (not only the soul) will only receive immortality as a gift from God after his/her resurrection. Even if he (as some interpreters of his ideas like to argue) accepted this biblical viewpoint, the question remains why he spoke about the immortality of the soul only and not that of the human being. • In line with his dualist ontology and dichotomist anthropology Calvin explained the biblical message that man is the image of God in an ontological instead of a relational way. Because of his divine part (the soul), the human being to a certain degree is similar to God. According to a (modified) macrocosmos-microcosmos theory human beings are "smaller gods". However, the Bible clearly teaches that not something in man (only the soul), but man was created in God's image. After the fall the integral human being has to be renewed according to Christ, the perfect image of God the Father. Human beings can again reflect His image when they obey his commandments. • Calvin's idea of the imago Dei is complicated by his distinction between a natural and a supernatural image. The natural image consists of the faculties of the soul, borrowed from Plato's and Aristotle's philosophy. The supernatural image is understood in biblical terms as righteousness and holiness. According to Calvin the supernatural image was lost at the fall, but the natural was merely corrupted because without reason and a will the human being would lose its human nature. This dichotomy in Calvin's doctrine of God's image cannot be accepted in the light of Scripture. It is, furthermore, closely connected with his distinction between earthly and heavenly affairs and could, therefore, cancel his basic religious motivation to live to the honour and glory of God in everything we do. However, it enabled Calvin to show his appreciation of all the natural gifts of non-Christians, including their philosophies. As a summa summarum the following can be said: Calvin's thought once again clearly illustrated that no discipline - not even a biblical theology - can be practised without starting (deliberately or unintentionally) from deep philosophical presuppositions. We therefore do not blame Calvin because he employed philosophical ideas in constructing his anthropology. Philosophy as such is not dangerous to a Christian. This article argued against Calvin's use of pre-Christian ideas and, objected to the fact that he, furthermore, often did so in a much too uncritical way. But because in his time no integral Christian philosophy was available - as is the case today - our criticism should not be too harsh and one-sided. We should rather look for Calvin's own, unique contributions. A contemporary Reformational philosopher advised that the "real Calvin" is not met within the reiterations he made of views current amongst his contemporaries, but rather the new and non-conformist insights by which on crucial points he turned against the prevalent notions of the day.
Keywords : Reformation (16th century); John Calvin (1509-1564); the Institutes (1559); Calvin research; Calvinism (in South Africa); Greek-Roman philosophy; Platonism; Augustinianism; partial universalism; knowledge of God; religion; soul and body; immortality (of soul); creatianism; world-flight; natural and supernatural image of God.