Christian History Home > Issue 12 > It Was Both A Horrible Decree and Very Sweet Fruit
It Was Both A Horrible Decree and Very Sweet Fruit
Calvin on Predestination
What was running through John Calvin’s mind as he contemplated the doctrine of predestination? Was he locked in a trance, eyes rolled back, imagining a somber God lurking in the mists of eternity, arbitrarily picking and choosing who would be saved and who would be damned?
No, Calvin’s thoughts about predestination did not originate with morbid and abstract speculations, as some might suppose, but with a pastor’s concern for the people who filled the pews of his church every Sunday. As a pastor, Calvin noticed that people responded differently to the preaching of the gospel. “If the same sermon is preached, say, to a hundred people,” he observed, “twenty receive it with the ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it.”
What Calvin saw troubled him. Why did some men fervently embrace Christ, while others firmly rejected him? He searched the Scriptures and there he found the doctrine of predestination.
Calvin was not the first to treat the doctrine of predestination, but it is the name of John Calvin with which this doctrine has become inseparably linked. This is due in part to Calvin’s detailed exposition of predestination and partly because he, more than anyone else since Augustine, was called upon to defend it. Past interpreters of Calvin often fell victim to the misconception that predestination resided at the center of his theology. However, today most acknowledge that he never discussed predestination as his most basic presupposition.
Admittedly, he did accord a growing importance to predestination in succeeding editions of the Institutes. In the first edition of 1536, it did not warrant special discussion. But later, when Augustine’s doctrine came under assault, Calvin felt obliged to meet the challenge. “Even a dog barks,” he wrote to a friend, “when his master is attacked: how could I be silent when the honor of my Lord is assailed?”
Attacks on predestination came from two directions. The Roman Catholic Archdeacon of Utrecht, Albert Pighius, mounted the first assault. In his book On the Freedom of the Will, he challenged both predestination and Calvin’s concept of free will. Pighius portrayed Calvin’s doctrine as destroying the basis for morality and making God the author of sin.
Calvin first responded to the question of free will with his own book in 1543. He planned to address the matter of predestination in another work. But Pighius died suddenly, and Calvin turned to more pressing matters.
Controversy about predestination broke out again in 1550, after Jerome Bolsec arrived as a refugee in Geneva. A former Carmelite monk, Bolsec had left the Roman church and become a Protestant. He took up the medical profession, but his interest in theological questions remained intact.
Shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Bolsec began to publicly denounce the doctrine of predestination. Such a doctrine, he said, made God a patron of criminals, and worse than Satan. At first he was dealt with rather gently. He was admonished by the Church authorities and told to cease from such activities. Calvin even met privately with Bolsec in an effort to resolve differences. Bolsec, however, remained unconvinced.
After other reprimands, Bolsec finally let fly his most blatant attack. During a church meeting in October, 1551, he suddenly erupted in a vigorous renunciation of predestination and the Genevan clergy. Just about that time, Calvin happened to enter the church. Verbal sparks flew. Afterwards, Bolsec was arrested and put in prison.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources