10 October, 2016

The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza: Chapter Six: Conclusion

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1989] 

We have come now to the conclusion of the matter, and there is little need to be lengthy. Our examination of the whole question of Beza’s significant departure from the teachings of Calvin on predestination have been looked at from many different points of view, and our conclusion is that the charge lodged against Beza is false.

This is not to say that no differences can be found between the two; we have noticed some of them. And Muller150 is correct when he says that there is no significant difference in Beza’s theology from that of Calvin. Yet, noting what differences do exist, he says:

Beza’s predestinarianism, therefore, balances the two foundational issues, the divine will and the problem of original sin, found in the medieval scholastic paradigm but moves toward integration or resolution of these themes more on the side of the divine will and the problem of necessity than did Calvin, which is to say, with a strong reliance on the scholastic paradigm than on its original Augustinian model ...

Nevertheless, subsequent to such rigidly causal argumentation Beza can, much like Calvin, argue that reprobation can never be completely coordinate with election. The decree to save the elect and the decree to damn the reprobate are manifestly distinct in their execution: the former rests upon the faithful apprehension of Christ while the latter rests upon the sin of the reprobate and its fruits. Thus, the one decree of God is known in the elect as most merciful and in the reprobate as most just.

The point Muller makes in the last paragraph quoted is important. The key words for our purposes are: “much like Calvin.” Both taught principally the same view. Both taught that election and reprobation are sovereign and rooted in “one decree.”151 Both also taught that the two decrees are not “equally ultimate.”152 But both understood that although the two are not coordinate, they are both sovereign. And, finally, both taught that election and reprobation were manifestations of God’s virtues; thus both held to what is sometimes rather scornfully called, “attribute theology."

A prima facie case against the position that Beza altered substantially Calvin’s view can be made. It would seem that such a position rests upon the assumption that either Calvin did not know what Beza’s view on predestination actually was, or that, knowing, Calvin did not care. The latter is refuted by the fact that Calvin considered the truth of predestination so important t0 the truth of God’s Word that he would, as in the Bolsec case, suffer banishment from Geneva in its defense. If it is true that Calvin attached so much importance to it, the idea that he knew of Beza’s differences, differences so great that they altered all subsequent thought on the matter, but did not care about it is false.

The former assumption, while it is sometimes argued that Beza did not really show his hand until after Calvin’s death, is refuted by a letter sent to Calvin by Beza on July 25, 1555 in which he acquaints Calvin with his views on this subject and states them in the same manner in which he stated them after Calvin’s death.153

The point surely is that Calvin would never have appointed Beza as his successor in the Academy at Geneva if what is charged against Beza is true. But the fact is that all the evidence points in a different direction.

Nor did either Calvin or Beza deny the judicial aspect of reprobation. Just as man remains accountable for his own sin and just as God can in no way be made morally culpable for man’s sin, so man goes to hell because of that sin and his unbelief. His judgment is just. His eternal condemnation is right and in keeping with God’s holiness. But no emphasis on this judicial aspect of reprobation must take away from the fact that God is also sovereign.154

Thus we may conclude that Calvin, Beza, and the whole Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, in so far as it has held to this doctrine, are one. We agree with John Murray155 who writes in a chapter entitled. “Calvin, Dordt, and Westminster on Predestination: A Comparative Study”:

On the distinction between the sovereign and judicial elements in foreordination to death Calvin is likewise cognizant. He draws the distinction in terms of the difference between “the highest cause” (suprema causa) and “the proximate cause” (propinqua causa). The highest cause is “the secret predestination of God” and the proximate cause is that “we are all cursed in Adam.” “But as the secret predestination of God is above every cause, so the corruption and wickedness of the ungodly affords a ground and provides the occasion for the judgments of God.” Thus for Calvin, as for Dordt and Westminster, the reason for discriminating is the “bare and simple good pleasure of God” (ad Rom. 9:11) and the ground of damnation is the sin of the reprobate, a damnation to which they have been destined by the will of God (cf. ad Rom. 9:20).

It will be admitted that in “the decree of reprobation” the doctrine of God’s absolute predestination comes to sharpest focus and expression. On this crucial issue, therefore, Calvin, Dordt, and Westminster are at one. The terms of expression differ, as we might expect … But the doctrine is the same and this fact demonstrates the undissenting unity of thought on a tenet of faith that is a distinguishing mark of our Reformed heritage and without which the witness to the sovereignty of God and to His revealed counsel suffers eclipse at the point where it must jealously be maintained. For the glory of God is the issue at stake.

Those who are faithful to Dordt and Westminsterand the whole line of Reformed and Presbyterian theologymay be assured that they stand also in the tradition of Calvin.


150. Muller, op. cit., pp. 86, 88.

151. Cf. also Canons I, 6 which speaks of election and reprobation as being one decree.

152. It has often been charged that the view of sovereign election and reprobation make the two decrees ultimate. See Berkouwer, Daane, et. al. The Canons are said by Daane to reject equal ultimacy by the eodum modo clause found in the Conclusion. While this is true, Daane goes on to argue that this rejection of equal ultimacy also means that the Canons reject sovereign reprobation. See my paper prepared for Dr. Plantinga, Predestination and Equal Ultimacy. Boer, while being equally opposed to reprobation, interprets the Canons correctly, but wants the entire doctrine excised from the Canons as being contrary to Scripture.

153. See material translated by Philip Holtrop, pp. 11, 12.

154. Students of Calvin may find it difficult to harmonize these two and understand how these two stand related to each other, but not only did Calvin and Beza teach this, it stands in the whole tradition of Reformed thought. I have addressed myself to this question, though briefly, in the paper referred to above and in another paper, “Is Article XIV of the Belgic Confession Deterministic?”

155. P. Y. DeJong, ed., Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1968). pp. 156. 157.

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