12 October, 2016

Calvin’s Theory of “Semen Religionis” (Seed of Religion)

Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema
[Originally published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, May 1975] 

In Book I of his Institutes, Calvin treats the subject of the knowledge of God; and it is in this section of the Institutes that the subject of a semen religionis finds its place. We can do no better, therefore, with a view to understanding the context of this theory of Calvin than to quote from the General Syllabus of the Institutes, Vol. I, pp. 41, 42:

So the first book is on the knowledge of God, considered as the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of the universe at large, and of everything contained in it. It shows both the nature and tendency of the true knowledge of the CreatorThat this is not learned in the schools, but that every man from his birth is self-taught itYet that the depravity of men is so great as to corrupt and extinguish this knowledge, partly by ignorance, partly by wickedness; so that it neither leads him to glorify God as he ought, nor conducts him to the attainment of happinessAnd though this internal knowledge is assisted by all the creatures around, which serve as a mirror to display the Divine perfections, yet that man does not profit by itTherefore, that to those, whom it is God’s will to bring to an intimate and saving knowledge of Himself, He gives His written word; which introduces observations on the sacred ScriptureThat He has therein revealed Himself; that not the Father only, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit united, is the Creator of heaven and earth; whom neither the knowledge innate, by nature, nor the very beautiful mirror displayed to us in the world, can, in consequence of our depravity, teach us to know so as to glorify Him. This gives occasion for treating of the revelation of God in the Scripture, of the unity of the Divine Essence, and the trinity of Persons.To prevent man from attributing to God the blame of his own voluntary blindness, the Author shows the state of man at his creation, and treats of the image of God, freewill, and the primitive integrity of natureHaving finished the subject of creation, he proceeds to the conservation and government of all things, concluding the first book with a full discussion of the doctrine of divine providence.

It is in connection with this general subject that Calvin refers to what he calls the semen religionis, or seed of religion, and also speaks of the sensus divinitatis, sense of the divine, or sense of Deity.

That this subject is of importance in connection with the whole subject of revelation and the knowledge of God will be evident as we proceed to discuss it and come to an understanding of Calvin’s view. It is also evident from the fact that various Reformed theologians have referred to this idea of Calvin. And inevitably they do so in connection with the whole subject of the knowledge of God, as well as in connection with the subject of so-called common grace. Thus, Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr. speaks of it in his Dictaten Dogmatiek, I, Locus de Deo, Chapter 1, a chapter on the subject, “Mogelijkheid Om Kennis Van Het Eeuwige Wezen te Verkrijgen” (Possibility of Obtaining Knowledge of the Eternal Being). And he speaks of it in connection with his distinction between a cognitio Dei insita and a cognitio Dei acquisita. He identifies the cognitio Dei insita with Calvin’s semen religionis, claiming that the semen religionis of Calvin constitutes a starting point for theology. To this we shall refer subsequently.

Dr. H. Bavinck refers to Calvin’s theory of a semen religionis in Vol. I of his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek under Principia der Dogmatiek. In Chapter 2, where he treats the Principium Externum, he deals with the subject of Algemeene Openbaring. He claims, p. 330, that it is exactly general revelation which puts us in a position and gives us the right to acknowledge all the elements of truth which are present in heathen religions. He claims that earlier the study of religions stood exclusively in the service of dogmatics and apologetics, and that originators of religions, such as Mohammed, were simply held to be deceivers, enemies of God, and instruments of the devil. But since these religions came to be more thoroughly and more precisely known, this explanation, according to Bavinck, has appeared untenable, as being in conflict with history and with psychology. According to Holy Scripture, Bavinck claims, there is also among the heathen a revelation of God, an illumination of the Logos, and an operation of God’s Spirit. And he claims that Reformed theology is in a proper position to explain this. He writes (I translate):

The Reformed were better off through their doctrine of common grace. By it they were, on the one hand, protected against the error of Pelagianism, which taught the sufficiency of natural theology and connected salvation with the keeping of the law of nature; but, on the other hand, they could nevertheless acknowledge all the true and the beautiful and the good which was also present in the world of heathendom. Science, art, ethical, family, social life, etc., were derived from that common grace, and were with thankfulness acknowledged and extolled. Usually this operation of common grace was seen in the ethical and intellectual, the social and political life, but less frequently in the religions of the heathen. Then there was mention only of a certain religio naturalis, insita and acquisita, but the connection between this and the religions was not demonstrated. The religions were derived from deceit or demonic influences. However, not only in science and art, in ethics and justice, but also in the religions there is an operation of God’s Spirit and of His common grace to be observed. Calvin spoke correctly of a semen religionis, a sensus divinitatis. Surely, the originators of religions were not deceivers and instruments of Satan, but men who, being religiously inclined, had a calling to fulfill for their time and for their people, and who often exercised a favorable influence upon the life of the peoples. The various religions, however much error there is also mixed in them, have to a certain degree satisfied the religious needs and supplied comfort amid the sorrow of life. Not only cries of despair, but also notes of confidence, hope, acquiescence, peace, submission, patience, etc., meet us from the world of heathendom. All the elements and forms which are essential to religion, an idea of God, consciousness of guilt, need of deliverance, offering, priesthood, temple, worship, prayer, etc., appear distorted, but nevertheless appear also in the heathen religions, There are even here and there unconscious predictions and striking expectations of a better and purer religion. Christendom, therefore, does not stand exclusively antithetically over against heathendom; it is also fulfillment of it. Christianity is the true, but therefore also the highest and purest religion, it is the truth of all religions. (H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, I, 330-332)

Also G. C. Berkouwer in his Dogmatische Studien, in the volume on De Algemeene Openbaring refers to Calvin’s conception in the chapter on Openbaring en Kennis, p. 125. In the American Edition, entitled General Revelation, this section is translated as follows on pp. 152, 153:

… Yet, life is not left undisturbed by the power of divine revelation. The sensus divinitatis is not an organ of the knowledge of God which transcends the corruption of human nature; it is an unavoidable impression left on man by the prevailing power of God. It is especially Calvin who translated the language of Scripture accurately on this point. He said that the human mind possesses some sense of a Deity, so that “no man might shelter himself under the pretext of ignorance” (Calvin, Institutes, I, iii, 1). All men have a sense of religion, and there is “no nation so barbarous, no race so savage as not to be firmly persuaded of the being of a God” (Calvin, Institutes, I. iii, 1). But Calvin is far from going on from here to construct a natural theology. He goes on rather to say that the idolatry of the heathen is an excellent proof of the universality of the religious sense. The “representations” God gives of Himself are clear enough, but “their conceptions of Him are formed, not according to the representations He gives of Himself, but by the inventions of their own presumptuous imaginations” (Calvin, Institutes, I, iv, 1).

Calvin makes bold, as does Paul, to speak of blindness and vanity. The fruits of their foolishness lead to a worship of “the creature of their own distempered imaginations, wherefore the apostle pronounces a vague and unsettled notion concerning the Deity to be ignorance of God” (Calvin, Institutes, I, iv, 3). The kernel of religion bears sour fruit. And thus Calvin concludes that, though the prayer of despair shows that heathen are not altogether ignorant of God, “what ought to have appeared before had been suppressed by obstinacy” (Calvin, Institutes, I, iv, 4). He uses the illustration of a man in sleep. A thousand things can occur round about a man in sleep, but he is oblivious of all of them. In this way Calvin can reject a natural theology and still confess the reality of general revelation. Only by distinguishing between general revelation and natural theology can we do justice to the message of Scripture.

Without entering into Dr. Berkouwer’s treatment of “General Revelation” we may note here that he refers to Calvin’s idea of a semen religionis with approval, even though in connection with a somewhat different subject, namely, that of the possibility of a natural theology.

But from the above it is clearly evident that Calvin’s theory of a semen religionis has had an influential place in Reformed theology.

It is the purpose of this paper, therefore: 1) To examine the teachings of John Calvin on this subject in the Institutes and to inquire into his meaning. 2) To evaluate these teachings both negatively and positively.

In Book I of the Institutes, after an introductory chapter on the connection between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves, Calvin in Chapter ii approaches the subject of the nature and tendency of the knowledge of God. A correct understanding of Calvin on this score is essential to a proper understanding of Calvin’s teaching concerning religion and concerning the seed of religion. The question is: what does Calvin mean by religion when he speaks of the semen religionis? And then we may answer, in the first place, that Calvin tends to speak of religion and of the knowledge of God as an abstraction. He does not mean the fear of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nor does he teach that the true knowledge of God and religion are possible or conceivable for fallen man simply from the manifestation of God as Creator. But he seems to speak of religion and of the knowledge of God as such. The term religio here means, therefore, the true knowledge and fear of God and the service of love. That this is Calvin’s presentation is evident from the Institutes, I, ii, 1:

By the knowledge of God I intend not merely a notion that there is such a Being, but also an acquaintance with whatever we ought to know concerning Him, conducing to His glory and our benefit. For we cannot with propriety say, that there is any knowledge of God where there is no religion or piety. I have no reference here to that species of knowledge by which men, lost and condemned in themselves, apprehend God the Redeemer in Christ the Mediator; but only to that first and simple knowledge, to which the genuine order of nature would lead us, if Adam had retained his innocence … Therefore, since God is first manifested, both in the structure of the world and in the general tenor of Scripture, simply as the Creator, and afterwards reveals Himself in the Person of Christ as a Redeemer, hence arises a twofold knowledge of Him; of which the former is first to be considered, and the other will follow in its proper place … For this sense of the divine perfections is calculated to teach us piety, which produces religion. By piety, I mean a reverence and love of God arising from a knowledge of His benefits.

Here already Calvin is vague. He seems to refer here to a religion apart from Christ which would have developed had Adam retained his innocence. And it is very evident that when Calvin speaks here of knowledge of God and of religion and piety, he does not only speak of an objective knowledge and an objective religion, but includes the subjective response to that knowledge in the fear and love of God. But let us notice that this kind of knowledge of God and religion is simply speculative and abstract. Calvin speaks of “that first and simple knowledge to which the genuine order of nature would lead us, if Adam had retained his innocence.” The fact of the matter is, however, that Adam did not retain his innocence: and therefore this kind of knowledge and religion is nowhere to be found. Besides, also Calvin himself teaches emphatically that in reality there is no true knowledge of God and religion possible outside of Christ Jesus and by grace in Him. In Institutes, I, ii, 2, Calvin distinguishes this knowledge from a mere speculative knowledge which he calls “cold and frivolous.” He writes:

Cold and frivolous, then, are the speculations of those who employ themselves in disquisitions on the essence of God, when it would be more interesting to us to become acquainted with his character, and to know what is agreeable to his nature. For what end is answered by professing, with Epicurus, that there is a God, who, discarding all concern about the world, indulges himself in a perpetual inactivity? What benefit arises from the knowledge of a God with whom we have no concern? Our knowledge of God should rather tend, first, to teach us fear and reverence, and, secondly, to instruct us to implore all good at his hand, and to render him the praise of all that we receive. For how can you entertain a thought of God without immediately reflecting, that, being a creature of his formation, you must, by right of creation, be subject to his authority? that you are indebted to him for your life, and that all your actions should be done with reference to him? If this be true, it certainly follows that your life is miserably corrupt, unless it be regulated by a desire of obeying him, since his will ought to be the rule of our conduct. Nor can you have a clear view of him without discovering him to be the fountain and origin of all good.

At the end of this paragraph he describes religion as follows:

See, then, the nature of pure and genuine religion. It consists in faith, united with a serious fear of God, comprehending a voluntary reverence, and producing legitimate worship agreeable to the injunctions of the law. And this requires to be the more carefully remarked, because men in general render to God a formal worship, but very few truly reverence him; while great ostentation in ceremonies is universally displayed, but sincerity of heart is rarely to be found.

We must remember that Calvin is still speaking of knowledge of God as such, in the abstractin the same sense in which he spoke of it in I, ii, 1. And he is here describing the nature of that knowledge. He here describes it from the subjective point of view. From this same paragraph we learn that this religio subjective implies, according to Calvin, the following elements:

1) Confidence and complete surrender to God;

2) Seeking of refuge in Him and expecting all good from Him;

3) Acknowledgment of His majesty and seeking of His glory;

4) Fear of sinning against Him and incurring His wrath;

5) Loving Him even in His righteous wrath;

6) Loving God as a Father and revering Him, and honoring and worshipping Him as Lord;

7) Abhorrence of offending Him even though there were no hell.

From all this it is evident that Calvin is not speaking of the knowledge and fear of God as actually existing, as it becomes a reality through Christ and by grace; but he is discussing the quality, or the nature, of the knowledge and fear of God as such, apart from Christ and apart from the reality of sin. He speaksin the abstract, of course,of the knowledge and fear of God as it would have been if Adam had not fallen.

Book I, Chapter iii is on the subject, “The Human Mind Naturally Endued with the Knowledge of God.” And in I, iii, 1 we read the following:

We lay it down as a position not to be controverted, that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity. For that no man might shelter himself under the pretext of ignorance God hath given to all some apprehension of his existence, the memory of which he frequently and insensibly renews; so that, as men universally know that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, they must be condemned by their own testimony for not having worshipped him and consecrated their lives to his service. If we seek for ignorance of a Deity, it is nowhere more likely to be found, than among tribes the most stupid and furthest from civilization. But, as the celebrated Cicero observes, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so savage, as not to be firmly persuaded of the being of a God. Even those who in other respects appear to differ but little from brutes, always retain some sense of religion; so fully are the minds of men possessed with this common principle, which is closely interwoven with their original composition. (Note: The expression “sense of religion” could more correctly be rendered “seed of religion,” as is evident from the Latin, which reads: “Et qui in allis vitae partibus minimum videntur a belluis differre, quoddam tamen perpetuo religionis semen retinent …”)

In I, iii, 1 we also read this statement:

Now, since there has never been a country or family, from the beginning of the world, totally destitute of religion, it is a tacit confession, that some sense of the Divinity is inscribed on every heart.

Here again, as in the opening sentence of this paragraph, above, you find the expression sensus divinitatis, which is variously rendered either “sense of the divinity” or “sense of the Deity.”

In I, iii, 3 we read:

It will always be evident to persons of correct judgment that the idea of a Deity impressed on the mind of man is indelible. That all have by nature an innate persuasion of the Divine existence, a persuasion inseparable from their very constitution, we have abundant evidence in the contumacy of the wicked, whose furious struggles to extricate themselves from the fear of God are unavailing.

In the same paragraph we read:

For the world, as will shortly be observed, uses its utmost endeavours to banish all knowledge of God, and tries every method of corrupting His worship. I only maintain, that while the stupid insensibility which the wicked wish to acquire, to promote their contempt of God, preys upon their minds, yet the sense of a Deity, which they ardently desire to extinguish is still strong, and frequently discovers itself. Whence we infer, that this is a doctrine, not first to be learned in the schools, but which every man from his birth is self-taught, and which, though many strain every nerve to banish it from them, yet nature itself permits none to forget.

While the above certainly is lacking in clarity and sharp definition, the following statement, though perhaps also lacking in the desired clarity, nevertheless is worthy of note in as far as it sheds light on Calvin’s meaning. This is from I, iv, 1:

While experience testifies that the seeds of religion (This is the same term, semen religionis.  HCH) are sown by God in every heart, we scarcely find one man in a hundred who cherishes what he has received, and not one in whom they grow to maturity, much less bear fruit in due season.

It is to be noted here that Calvin says, “We scarcely find one man in a hundred who cherishes what he has received.” But this certainly implies that there are those who cherish this knowledge in their heart, be it only a few, and even though this seed of religion does not grow to maturity in them or bear fruit in due season.

From this point on, Calvin proceeds to show that all men corrupt this knowledge of God, so that there is no true fear of God left in the world. Moreover, according to Calvin, this semen religionis only serves to leave men without excuse.

It is this theory of a semen religionis that has been taken up by various Reformed theologians and has been developed in connection with the subject of so-called general revelation and so-called common grace to a point to which Calvin himself evidently did not develop it, and apparently did not want to develop it. For strange as it may seem, both in view of Calvin’s statements about this semen religionis and in view of Calvin’s acknowledged teaching of a certain common grace, if there is one thing which Calvin emphasizes without compromise, it is the truth that there is no good left in the natural man, the truth that the natural man is wholly corrupt, incapable of any good, prone to all evil, and always corrupt in all his deeds. In this respect Calvin differs radically in his teachings about a “common grace” from present day theologians. Dr. Bavinck certainly draws consequences from this semen religionis which Calvin himself does not draw and would not draw. But also Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr., seems to appeal to Calvin justifiably when he compares the cognitio Dei insita (innate knowledge of God) with the semen religionis of Calvin. We find the following on p. 43 of the Dictaten Dogmatiek, Vol. I:

Calvin not unhappily stamped that cognitio Dei insita with the name of semen religionis, such a happy term because exactly in semen the potential character of that knowledge is expressed. For the seed has in it the possibility of sprouting forth, bearing blossoms, and bringing forth fruit. Nevertheless in itself the seed has neither blossom nor fruit. If I shut up the kokkos in a box, then nothing happens. But if I permit that kokkos to acquire all the elements which lie in terra, in aere, in sole, in pluvio then the fruit ripens. Thus also he who only would have the semen of religion would have no thought concerning God, much less be able to express that thought in words. Only if there is first added from without the cognitio acquisita, can the cognitio Dei insita ripen to a notio Dei clara ac distincta.

Whether or not Kuyper correctly and fairly applies the notion of cognitio Dei insita to Calvin’s notion of semen religionis is beside the point in this discussion. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Kuyper’s explanation of the idea of semen as expressing the potential character of the knowledge of God in man is a fair conclusion, an idea which lies in the very idea of seed. And when he goes on to apply the figure of a seed, to explain that it has the possibility in it to spring up and to blossom and to bring forth fruit, he also draws a fair conclusion from the terminology of Calvin. This at the same time points up the danger of this expression, namely, that it seems to teach that there is something in man, something in every man, some principle of the knowledge of God and of religion in the true sense of the word that is still present in the natural man. This seed is in itself good and in itself capable of springing forth and blossoming and bearing fruit. It may be true that Calvin nevertheless teaches that this semen religionis never does thus spring forth and blossom and bear fruit, and that he emphasizes that this knowledge is corrupted, so that there is no true fear of God left in the world; nevertheless, the fact remains that the seed, the principle, is there. And this idea is both incorrect and dangerous. Dr. Bavinck evidently seizes on this notion, adds to it a goodly measure of common grace, broadens out on it, and ends by denying that the Christian religion stands exclusively in a relation of antithesis to the heathen religions.

From all of the above we may conclude the following as far as Calvin’s meaning is concerned:

1) What Calvin teaches here is at best rather vague and general. He draws no definite lines and develops no concepts. The religion of which he speaks is an abstraction which never has existed and never shall exist. For it is a religion which would have developed IF Adam had not sinned. In connection with the semen of which Calvin speaks, he makes no distinction between natural light and spiritual light, nor any distinction between a mere awareness of God and the true knowledge of God, nor any distinction between religion in the true sense of the word and religion in the false sense.

2) By religio Calvin refers to the objective knowledge of God as well as to the subjective response to that knowledge in the fear and love of God and in the service of God, and that, too, in its original form, apart from the fall and apart from Christ.

3) By semen religionis he refers to a positive principle of true religion in this original sense, which, if it were only properly cultivated, would develop and bring forth positive fruit. Such a semen religionis, Calvin maintains, is present in every man from birth. However, according to Calvin, in no man is that semen properly cultivated, so that it develops into positively good fruit, the fruit of the love of God and the fear of God; but in all men it is so corruptedor rather, men so corrupt itthat there is no true piety.

By way of criticism, we may say, negatively, that if this interpretation of the expression as it occurs in Calvin is correct, we object:

1) That there is indeed in all men the awareness that God is and that He must be feared and glorified.

2) That man as a rational, moral being, who is adapted in his very nature to be the bearer of the image of God, surely responds to that awareness of God with all his heart and mind and soul and will and strength. It is a matter of his very nature that he does so and that he reacts. This belongs to his being a rational, moral being. In this sense he is responsible; he is a being who must and who does give an answer to God and concerning God. And, in this sense, therefore, man is also accountable.

3) This habitus, or disposition, of man, however, cannot be called a semen religionis (speaking now of “religion” in the true sense of the term): for the natural man is wholly corrupt, and that corruption is a matter of his very nature. His reaction to this awareness of God, therefore, is always the reaction of enmity against God. There is nothing left in fallen man that can be properly cultivated and that could produce positive fruit. The natural, fallen man, acting from his natural habitus, always reveals himself in the very antithesis of religioni.e., idolatry.

From a positive point of view, we submit:

1) That religio from its subjective side is the positive reaction of the whole man, with heart and mind and soul and strength, with all the emotions and desires, to the knowledge of the true God, that is, it is the response in love to the knowledge of God in Christ. Thus it is presented in Scripture. Scripture speaks of it as: ה֮וָהיְ תאַ֣רְיִֽ, the fear of Jehovah. Thus in Prov. 8:12, 13, “I wisdom dwell with prudence and find out knowledge of witty inventions. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy and the evil way, and the froward mouth do I hate.” Thus also Prov. 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”

Θεοσέβεια (theosebeia), godliness. Thus in I Tim. 2:10, “But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”

εὐσεβείας (eusebeias), also rendered “godliness.” Thus in I Tim. 3:16, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”

φόβον τοῦ Κυρίου (phobon tou Kyriou), the fear of the Lord. Thus in II Cor. 5:11: “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord (should be: the fear of the Lord) we persuade men: but we are made manifest
unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.”

Λατρεία (latreia), service. Thus in Rom. 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

θρησκεία (thrēskeia), rendered “religion.” Thus in James 1:27. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

2) The semen, or seed, or principle, of this religion is the seed of regeneration. It is found in those who are ναγεγεννημένο οκ κ σπορ φθαρτς λλ φθάρτου δι λόγου ζντος Θεο κα μένοντος (born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever)I Peter 1:23. Or, the principle of such religion is the principle of the ἀγάπη τοῦ Θεο, the love of God. And the habitus, or disposition, of that true religion is πίστις, faith.


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