03 October, 2016

The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza: Chapter Two: The Problem as it Arises From Calvin’s Writings

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

While, as we stated in the Introduction, many are convinced that Theodore Beza significantly altered Calvin’s views on Predestination, and by doing so steered subsequent Calvinism along different roads than Calvin himself would have wanted, there is no agreement at all as to the nature of these alterations. Many different ideas have been proposed and many different approaches have been taken to this problem.

Just as, until fifty or so years ago, most students of church history agreed that Beza (and subsequent Calvinistic theologians) stood squarely in the line of Calvin and were faithful to Calvin’s thought, so in more recent times this is also true. Not all agree with the assessments of modern scholarship that important changes were made in Calvin’s thought by those who followed him.

Moore,3 no friend of Calvin, writes:

But though we have no right to assume it a priori, I believe there is but little difficulty in proving it as a fact. We often hear it said the Calvinists went far beyond Calvin. My own study of the question leads to a diametrically opposite conclusion. I doubt whether any of Calvin’s followers went as far as Calvin himself. The most profoundly immoral and revolting tenets of Calvinism are to be found in the "Institutes," and Calvin himself never receded from, but advanced upon the position he originally took up.

Cunningham4 writes approximately the same:

The fuller discussion which this important subject (predestination) underwent after Calvin’s death, led, as controversy usually does when conducted by men of ability, to a more minute and precise exposition of some of the topics involved in it. And it has been often alleged that Beza, in his very able discussions of this subject, carried his views upon some points farther than Calvin himself did, so that he has been described as being Calvino Calvinior. We are not prepared to deny altogether the truth of this allegation; but we are persuaded that there is less ground for it than is sometimes supposed, and that the points of alleged difference between them in matters of doctrine, respect chiefly topics on which Calvin was not led to give any very formal or explicit deliverance, because they were not at the time subjects of discussion, or indeed ever present to his thoughts.

… We think it will appear ... that there is really no very material difference between the theology of Calvin and of Beza, any apparent discrepancy arising chiefly from the usual tendency of enlarged controversial discussion to produce a greater amount of exactness and precision in details ...

With these assessments many agree.

However, among those who dissent from this positon unanimity of opinion by no means exists. What precisely was the difference between Calvin and Beza? How did Beza modify, alter, redirect, restate, amend (or whatever) Calvin’s views? In what areas and in what way did Beza move Calvinistic thought from Calvin’s original intention to new paths with which Calvin himself might or might not have agreed? The answers to these questions are by no means the same.

The question is, however, a complicated one. And in an effort to sort out the tangled threads of the matter it is important to point out first of all that a prior disagreement among students of Calvin exists, which disagreement forms the background for the further question of the alleged differences between Calvin and Beza. This question has to do with Calvin’s own theological position in general, and Calvin’s own views on predestination in particular.5 Many argue that it can be shown from Calvin’s own writings that he changed his own views on this subject. While the changes may not have been fundamental, they nevertheless must be taken into account if one is to assess properly the further question of the relation between Calvin’s and Beza’s theological position.

The argument, generally speaking, follows two different lines. One line of argumentation rests its case on different editions of the Institutes and the different place which predestination occupied in different editions. The other line of thought appeals to the fact that Calvin modified his views in connection with controversies which arose towards the end of his life over this doctrine, controversies with Pighius, Castellio, Bolsec, and Georgias. In other words, in his polemical writings, a different Calvin surfaces than in his Institutes; a Calvin who either was much stronger in his statements on predestination, or a Calvin who gave to predestination a much more prominent place in the organic unity of his theological system.

We turn first of all to the question of the various places which the truth of predestination occupied in his Institutes.

The facts are these.

Two Catechisms came from Calvin’s pen. One was drawn up in 1537 and contains a paragraph in which mention is made of predestination. The other, composed in 1541, makes no explicit mention at all of the truth. Four Confessions are attributed to Calvin, of which three make mention of this doctrine, but then only of the truth of election: The Confession for the French King of 1557, the Confession for Scholars in Geneva of 1559, and the Confession for the Emperor and the States of 1562.6

Calvin’s first edition of the Institutes appeared in 1536, of which Hunter7 says: “even there it gets no special prominence.” It was treated in connection either with the doctrine of the church, under the doctrine of providence,8 or under the work of the Holy Spirit.9 In an essay by Basil Hall entitled, “Calvin Against the Calvinists,” he writes: “It is important to note that in this final edition (of the Institutes, H.H.) Calvin places the doctrine of predestination at this stage (under the work of the Holy Spirit, H.H.) and not under the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence where it had been for twenty years in the previous editions of the Institutio.” In an interesting observation in this connection, Parker10 says that in this edition, the truth of predestination was “presupposed.”11 McKim12 considers it doubtful that in this edition Calvin taught reprobation as a result of God’s decree.

In subsequent editions, while the doctrine was considerably expanded (as the Institutes itself grew), the doctrine was treated in a soteriological context.13

The discussion on this matter has swirled around the question: Why did Calvin place his treatment of predestination under the doctrine of God and discuss it either in connection with providence or God’s decrees in earlier editions of the Institutes? What is the reason why it is given, especially in later editions of the Institutes, a soteriological emphasis? And is this not indicative of an alteration in Calvin’s own thought?

Those who deal with this problem are not completely agreed among themselves on the exact reason why Calvin placed his treatment of the doctrine where he did in different editions of his major work, although most agree that Calvin was fearful of the consequences of connecting it too closely with the truth of God’s decrees, and wanted the doctrine to have an evangelical context in which it would serve a more practical purpose. Parker,14 in an essay entitled, “Calvin the Theologian” writes:

Why in the Institutio did Calvin treat of predestination and election, not in Book I, where he handled divine sovereignty in creation and providence, but later on in Book III, after dealing with the Gospel and the Christian life? The reason seems to be that he wanted the theme to appear in the same evangelical context in which it appears in Romans. There it first enters in 8:29ff., not for any controversial purpose, but to encourage the people of God by assuring them that as their justification and calling sprang from free grace, so God’s gracious purpose will stand, and they will be preserved to the end. If God resolved to save them, and gave His Son to that end, before ever they turned to Him, He will certainly not abandon them now that they have turned to Him. This is the “unspeakable comfort” which the doctrine of election brings in Romans 8:29-38; and it was in order that it might bring the same comfort to his readers that Calvin held it back till he could set it in an equivalent context in the Institutio.

McKim15 says that he developed the doctrine and gave a greater importance to it under the influence of Augustine and Bucer and “under the sway of ecclesiological and pastoral preoccupations rather than in order to make it a main foundation to his theology.” A bit later16 he says that the reason is twofold: 1) To stress that election is in Christ; and 2) It thus leads to assurance and piety for we know our election by knowing Christ.

Steinmetz17 writes:

In 1559, in his last and definitive edition of the Institutes, Calvin takes the doctrine of predestination out of the context of providence, where it has traditionally been discussed, and moves it to a new location. In this edition of the Institutes, predestination follows justification and precedes the doctrine of the church. This is evidence that Calvin does not view the doctrine speculatively, but confessionally. It springs out of the surprise of the elect that they believe when many fine people do not. The context of the church, furthermore, establishes the priority of election over reprobation. Calvin is interested in explaining the mystery of faith, not of unbelief. He has no intention of speculating about the fate of the reprobate.

While these differences in viewpoint are not fundamental they do illustrate the divergence in thought among those who make a point of this issue.

Of more importance is the question of whether Calvin’s controversies with those who denied the doctrine of predestination forced him to alter his views. It is not surprising that within his own lifetime this doctrine came under fierce attack. Especially towards the end of his life he had to do battle with opponents who wanted no part of it.

Especially four men engaged Calvin’s attention on this point. Castellio, for a while a teacher in the academy in Geneva; Pighius, a monk who died before Calvin finished his answer to Pighius’ charges; Georgias, against whom, at least in part, was written the Consensus Genevensis; and Bolsec. While all of these opponents figure in the question, the issues come most sharply to the fore in the controversy with Bolsecand it is with this controversy that we deal in more detail.

The controversy started during a sermon of Calvin on Philippians 2:12, 13. Bolsec, a converted Carmelite monk, interrupted the sermon and insisted that man possessed a free will. While Calvin took the time to explain the teaching of Scripture on this point, Bolsec continued to maintain his view for eight months. In October of 1552 Bolsec again interrupted a sermon, this one by Jean de Saint Andre, a minister in the Genevan Church who was preaching on John 8:47. He claimed that God was not the cause of disobedience and warned the people not to listen to ministers who were preaching false doctrine. While he was speaking, Calvin entered and listened unobserved. At the conclusion of Bolsec’s tirade, Calvin mounted the pulpit and spoke for two hours on the question.

Bolsec was subsequently arrested to be tried before the Council of Geneva. The Council decided to seek the opinions of the other Protestant cantons in Switzerland on this matter, but the replies which they received were not altogether to Calvin’s liking. Berne considered the whole question to be a mystery and urged Geneva to leave the question there and not condemn Bolsec on grounds which were beyond the understanding of man. Basel and Zurich gave qualified support to Calvin’s position, but were hesitant to support Calvin’s position entirely. Especially Zurich was critical of the way the case was handled. Only Neuchatel (and Farel) were wholly in support of Calvin’s position. In general, as Walker18 notes, the other Swiss theologians did not consider the question as weighty as Calvin did. Schaff19 writes that this controversy, especially when Bullinger warned Calvin about going too far with the doctrine of reprobation, resulted in alienation between Calvin and Bullinger, an alienation which was later healed when Bullinger adopted Calvin’s views.20

It might be well to enter into a bit more detail on this question of the views of the other theologians because it figures rather strongly in the larger problem of the significance of Calvin’s views.21 Basel wrote as their opinion that God wishes all to be saved. While they were strong on the doctrine of election, they seemed to favor some kind of conditional reprobation. Zurich too was strong on election, but preferred that rather than defend a sovereign reprobation it would be better to ascribe sin to man’s fault, simply to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over sin, and thus to deal carefully with Bolsec.

Ultimately the Council judged Bolsec wrong and Calvin correct and Bolsec was banished from the city for “false opinions, contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and pure evangelical religion.”22 He later re-joined the Romish Church and wrote a bitter and slanderous biography of Calvin in which he charged Calvin with many sins which he could not prove.

Although it is evident from this that the problems which arose in connection with the Bolsec controversy centered generally in the doctrine of predestination, and more particularly in the doctrine of reprobation, nevertheless other issues were involved.23 Although the controversy centered in the doctrine of reprobation, it is very likely that Bolsec taught a conditional election as well because he based God’s determination in both election and reprobation on foresight. Both Beza24 and the record of the Company of Pastors indicate this. Bolsec denied that election and reprobation “were ab aeterno and said with emphatic protestations and exhortations that no other election or reprobation should be recognized than that which is seen in the believer or unbeliever.”25 Chadwick, a man with a strong dislike for Calvin’s views,26 agrees with this. In addition to this, Bolsec insisted on the free will of man and really charged Calvin with denying any activity on the part of man’s will. He held to a universal atonement and rejected Calvin’s view that the atonement was particular.27 He wanted a gospel which freely offered salvation and election to all and again was at variance with the views propounded and defended by Calvin. So much is all this true that Parker,28 though he disagrees with Calvin’s views, nevertheless accuses Bolsec of attempting to Pelagianize the Church.

The final answer of Calvin to the Bolsec controversy was his Treatise Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, sometimes known as the Consensus Genevensis.29

Although not of a great deal of importance in itself, we may mention briefly the so-called Trolliet affair. It is often cited to demonstrate that the views of Calvin were by no means generally acceptedeither by the other theologians of Switzerland, by the Council in Geneva, or by the citizens of that city. Jean Trolliet wanted to be a minister, but his request was opposed by Calvin who claimed that he was unfit for this calling. He took it upon himself to attack the doctrine of predestination, claiming that it made God the author of sin. The Council was called upon to judge in the matter, but found itself in a dilemma: on the one hand, it tended to side with Trolliet and feared his many friends, for he was a respected citizen in Geneva; but on the other hand, Calvin threatened to resign if Trolliet’s views were upheld. The result was that the Council condemned Trolliet’s views, bur declared him to be a good citizen.

On the basis of this history, two related conclusions are drawn. The first is that Calvin had ulterior motives in his defense of the doctrine of predestination. Harkness, e.g.,30 claims that to attack Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was “to attack Calvin’s own standing as a religious teacher.” The obvious point of this remark is that Harkness is of the opinion that Calvin considered any attack against this doctrine to be an attack against him personally and the position he occupied as theological leader in the churches of the Reformation. Hunt31 says that the Bolsec controversy made predestination a burning issue in Geneva and in the Council with many opposed. He adds that the result was that Calvin’s position was in jeopardy and that Calvin defended his views to maintain his position in the city. With this assessment, many agree.

The second conclusion is that Calvin’s views, in connection with these controversies, underwent subtle alterations. Either because his own position and standing were threatened, or because in polemical writings he was more severe, his emphasis on predestination now became much sharper than in his Institutes. While in his Institutes he was careful to express himself and was moderate in his presentation of this doctrine, in his polemical writings he set forth the doctrine of predestination in sharp, often unBiblical, and immoderate statements.32 In defense of himself and his personal position of leadership in the churches, he raised predestination to a position of primacy in his theological system and made it the “Shibboleth” of orthodoxy. While it had always occupied a subordinate place in his thinking previous to this time, it now became the central doctrine of his system. H. Daniel-Rops33 writes, in connection with the Bolsec affair: “Any toleration of anti-Predestination on his part would surely result in the demolition of the whole basis of his theological structure.” And because it became the central doctrine of his system, it was sharply redefined, especially in its relationships to other doctrines.34

To conclude, the argument that is raised is this. In the course of Calvin’s own lifetime noticeable and important differences were made in his writings. While some maintain that this took place already in successive editions of the Institutes, others maintain that the change is most apparent when Calvin was called to defend the doctrine of predestination against those who attacked it.

(Note: An examination of the legitimacy of these claims will be presented in a later chapter. H.H.)


3. Aubrey Lackington Moore, Lectures and Papers on the History of the Reformation in England and on the Continent (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1890), p. 506.

4. William Cunningham. The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), pp. 349, 350.

5. We do not intend at this point to enter into an analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, something reserved for Chapter V. The question is of importance here only insofar as it directly relates to the matter before us: Did Calvin himself alter his position on this subject?

6. For details, see A. Mitchell Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, a Modern Interpretation (Glasgow: Macklehose, Jackson & Co., 1920), pp. 89-91.

7. Ibid., p. 90.

8. G.E. Duffield, ed., John Calvin, A Collection of Essays (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966.) In an essay entitled: “The History and Development of the Institutes: How Calvin Worked,” Jean-Daniel Benoit says that before 1559 providence and predestination were treated together. In the 1559 edition providence was treated under God and predestination under salvation. The difference of opinion is probably because Calvin treated the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in different connections.

9. Ibid., p. 24.

10. T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 112.

11. We find this significant because, if true, this means that already at this point Calvin considered the doctrine to be of great importance for his entire system of theology.

12. Donald K. McKim, ed., Readings in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), p. 162.

13. “Calvin, however, had stated the doctrine of predestination in the context of faith and justification.” Richard A. Muller, Christ and the
Decree (Durham: Labyrinth Press. 1986), p. 6.

14. Duffield, op. cit., pp. 161, 162.

15. Op. cit., p. 161.

16. Pp. 164, 170.

17. David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 168, 169.

18. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 398.

19. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 618.

20. It is not clear whether Berkouwer takes this alleged alienation into account when he claims that very little difference existed between Calvin and Bullinger on the question of predestination. G. Berkouwer, Divine Election, tr. by Hugo Bekker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), p. 193.

21. For copies of the letters see Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The Register of the C0mpany of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 172-186. One may consult this same book for a detailed description of Bolsec’s views as recorded in the minutes, pp. 142-149, 150-167. Included also is the letter which the Council of Geneva sent to the Swiss churches concerning the matter.

22. Georgia Harkness, John Calvin, The Man and his Ethics (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1931), pp. 38, 39.

23. Beza himself tells us that Bolsec taught many false and related views in secret before his case ever became public. Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1932), p. 36.

24. Ibid., p. 37.

25. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 137, 138.

26. Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 95, 96.

27. This is particularly interesting in the light of the fact that once again controversy rages over whether Calvin actually taught a particular redemption. Bolsec believed that he did.

28. T.H.L. Parker, op. cit., p. 112ff.

29. Some disagreement is apparent concerning the precise reason why Calvin wrote this treatise. McKim, op. cit., p. 161, speaks of the fact that the Congregation sur l’election eternelle of 1551 (published in 1562) was written against Bolsec, while The Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God was written in 1552 against Pighius. Schaff, op. cit., writes that the latter was written against both Bolsec and Pighius and does not mention the treatise of which McKim speaks. The answer to the attack of Pighius which Calvin was preparing was abandoned when Pighius died. We may probably conclude that the Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God was written on the occasion of Bolsec’s attacks, but was intended to be an answer to all who attacked this doctrine, including Georgias.

30. Op. cit., p. 38.

31. R.N. Carew Hunt, Calvin (London: The Centenary Press, 1933), pp. 194, 195.

32. On comments on a paper prepared for Dr. Plantinga, Dr. Plantinga observes that. Calvin’s doctrine of cause is much more strongly presented in his polemical writings than in his Institutes.

33. H. Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961), p. 419.

34. We shall examine this question more closely in a later chapter.

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