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John Calvin and the Early Church Fathers

July 13, 2016

I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, now in book 2 (text available online here), the section on the issue of supposed “free will” and the true nature of the will.  The following observation from Calvin reminded me of a topic I have addressed before, such as in this post about Steve Lawson’s book concerning the history of the “doctrines of grace”  and this later post on historical theology:

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.

Throughout this chapter Calvin considers, at some length, what previous scholars believed concerning the human will, even addressing their sub-categories of different parts of what makes up the human will and mind.  After observing that the Greek (pagan) philosophers all held a high view of the human will and human reason, Calvin noted that the Greek early church fathers in particular held a high regard for Greek philosophy.  This agrees with what was brought out in an early church history (Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes University) lectures series, as summarized in this previous post:

Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.

Yet, as another response to those who would project the extreme Pelagian view onto the early Church pre-Augustine, to those who bring forth Calvin’s quote about how they were all confused on the subject, later in this chapter Calvin does point out the positive contributions and overall understanding of the early church writers:

The language of the ancient writers on the subject of Free Will is, with the exception of that of Augustine, almost unintelligible. Still they set little or no value on human virtue, and ascribe the praise of all goodness to the Holy Spirit.


At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armour of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding of the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.


This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.

For this topic, I still consider Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” as the main “go-to” book, one with great detail concerning the natural human will as not free (Erasmus’ view) but in bondage.  Calvin’s Institutes is another lengthy study of its own, regarding many doctrinal points, and this section contributes good information to the topic, including summary of the views of unbelieving philosophers as well as Christian teaching up to Calvin’s time.

  1. johntjeffery
    July 13, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Certainly In the history the Church, and especially in historical theology, Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” must be seen (IMHO) as the penultimate work on the subject following the Scriptures. Many reasons may be cited for valuing what Luther wrote in this volume, and encouraging others to digest it. However, the primary focus of the subject matter remains the foremost factor which elevates Luther’s work to that of an essential and classic contribution in historical theology.

    On another note: Calvin’s take on the falsely so-called “fathers” on this and other issues should resonate with us as we observe similar confusion from our current “guild of scribes.”

  2. Neil Schoch
    July 13, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Thanks for the article Lynda.
    John 16:13:- “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth –.” The Lord Jesus promised it, and all believers are indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God, so why is there so much disagreement amongst scholars of all ages, and it seems on nearly all matters?
    I don’t claim to have the answer, except I need to be more careful to be willing to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
    I know from my own life experiences, and by watching my children and grandchildren, that there is free will. There is so often a struggle not to yield to the temptations of Satan to sin, but so often we yield to that temptation, thereby clearly exercising our free will to choose. It was no different in the garden of Eden. There was a simple choice – obey God, not the tempting of Satan.
    I don’t claim to be a scholar, but I know from my own experience, the reality of free will. How it can be denied baffles me.

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