Steinmetz: Calvin in Context

Calvin and the Natural Knowledge of God

Calvin is somewhat unique in focusing on the noetic effects in Romans 1 (Steinmetz 29).  The natural order does not reveal God’s essence, but “knowledge accomodated to the limited capacity of human beings to comprehend God” (29).

Calvin and the Absolute Power of God

Calvin attacked the medieval distinction between potentia dei absoluta and potentia dei ordinata.  But maybe Calvin overshot his mark.  The goal of the distinction wasn’t to speculate “What could God really do?”  Rather, it clarifies what is logically possible and logically coherent, and what God has covenanted to do for his people.

Calvin on Isaiah 6

The problem:  Is God’s message to Isaiah negating human responsibility?  Calvin responds by several points: 1) God wills that Isaiah speak his word.  It is accidental to the nature of the Word that it blinds people (104).  But when it meets an adamant heart, it hardens it.  2) God foretells a state of affairs in which unbelievers are responsible.

Calvin and the Divided Self of Romans 7

Problem: Is Paul speaking of fallen or unfallen man?  For Calvin, as Steinmetz notes, “sinners are not divided against themselves.  Believers are” (111). Roman Catholics got around Calvin’s exegesis by positing 3 alternatives:

  1. Distinction between higher and lower faculties.
  2. Concupiscence is a punishment for sin rather than sinful.
  3. Difference between perfection possible in this life and in the eschaton.

Calvin among the Thomists

Given that Calvin praised Bucer as the near standard, and given that Bucer was a Thomist, are there Thomist leanings in Calvin?  Not really, but Steinmetz compares and contrasts Calvin’s reading of Romans 9 with Bucer’s and Thomas’s.

Thomas is quite clear that Jacob’s election isn’t based in any foreknowledge or anything Jacob had done (“Expositio in Omnes Sancti Pauli Epistolas,” in Sancti Thomae Aquinatis Doctoris Angelici Ordinis Praedicatorum Opera Omnia 13 (Parma 1872), 95, quoted in Steinmetz 144).  Bucer and Calvin clearly agree. Bucer develops Thomas in that “God works in such a way as to make human beings the agents of their own acts” (149).

Calvin doesn’t specifically draw from Thomas.  Rather, as Steinmetz concludes, all three draw from Augustine.

Calvin and His Lutheran Critics

Luther’s ubiquity:

Definitive presence–an object’s dimensions (Christ’s person) do not correspond to the container.

Local presence–its dimensions correspond exactly to the container.

Repletive presence–what God’s presence in the universe is.

The risen Christ is present in the unconsecrated bread but inaccessible until the word of promise.

According to Steinmetz, Calvin’s Lutheran critic, Tilemann Hesshusen, rejected that element of Luther’s theology.  The debate doesn’t get much further than that, though.  Hesshusen thinks Calvin is a Zwinglian.

Steinmetz’s thesis is that one can’t abstract Calvin’s Institutes from his larger body of exegesis. We move from the Bible to the Institutes and then to the Commentaries.



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