05 October, 2016

The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza: Chapter Three: The Problem in a Comparison of Calvin and Beza

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1988]

In our last article, we described the problem which this series addresses: Were Calvin’s views of predestination significantly altered by Beza and subsequent Reformed and Presbyterian theologians? This point is often argued by many students of Calvin. We examined the question from the point of view of some who argue that not Beza, but Calvin himself altered his views on predestination in the course of his life. Some argued this from an analysis of the different places Calvin treats the doctrine of predestination in various editions of his Institutes. Others argue this position from a comparison of Calvin’s Institutes and his polemical writings, particularly the writings which emerged from his controversy with Bolsec, a bitter opponent of predestination. We showed in our last article that these arguments are without foundation. Now, in this present article, we turn to the real question at stage: Did Beza modify or change Calvin’s views on predestination? In this article we simply give the arguments which have been raised. In a subsequent article, we will examine this question in detail.

We are convinced that Calvin himself did not alter his views; but we are equally convinced that Beza made no substantive changes in Calvin’s position. It is clear from the evidence that those who argue for such changes are really enemies of Calvin’s views on predestination and are attempting to bolster their attack against the doctrine by appealing (though without justification) to Calvin himself.

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Whatever for the moment may be the changes in the doctrine of predestination which are found in Calvin’s own writings, the main issue of the controversy revolves around the question of whether Beza significantly altered Calvin’s views. That both taught the doctrine of predestination is agreed upon by all. That both incorporated into their writings a double predestination, election and reprobation, can hardly be denied. But at issue is another question: Did Beza make such alterations in Calvin’s views that the doctrine which Calvin taught is really lost? To this many would answer with an emphatic affirmative. And it is to a statement of this question that we turn in this chapter.

Again, agreement among those who take this position is impossible to find. Among those who agree that Beza made important changes in Calvin’s doctrine some say these changes are to be found in one area of Calvin’s thought; others look to another area; and still others to a third.35

Here too many do not find any significant differences between what Calvin taught and what Beza said concerning predestination. Moore,36 e.g., goes so far as to state that no one after Calvin went as far as Calvin himself. An Anglican, he says, in a chapter entitled, “The Influence of Calvinism on Modern Unbelief”:

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.

Nevertheless, a bit further (p. 512) he admits that perhaps Beza went a bit further.

Among those who find significant changes between the views of Calvin and Beza, three areas especially are pinpointed as areas in which Beza altered the system of the Reformer of Geneva.

Some are content merely to argue that Beza altered the emphasis of Calvin’s thought. Carl Bangs37 enters into this matter rather thoroughly. Calling Beza an “epigone” of Calvin, he says:

[Beza] tries to be faithful to his teacher by imposing a strict internal coherence on what had been a free and creative theology ... Perhaps everything that Beza says can be found in Calvin, but the emphasis is different … Beza lifts the doctrine of predestination to a prominence which it did not have for Calvin.38

Bangs claims that Beza made predestination an end in itself.

Gonzales39 says of Beza:

Claiming to be no more than an exponent and continuation of Calvin’s views, he distorted those views in subtle yet decisive ways. For instance, he too (with Zanchi, H.H.) placed the doctrine of predestination under the heading of the divine knowledge, will, and power, and thus tended to confuse it with predeterminism.

Steinmetz,40 commenting on the treatment of predestination in the locus of soteriology in the Institutes, claims that election and reprobation are not of the same weight in Calvin, while in Beza they were. He goes on to say that Beza is the father of hyper-Calvinism!

Seeburg,41 also speaking of the place which predestination occupies in Calvin’s thought and comparing that with the views of Beza, writes:

In harmony with his fundamental religious temper, and in opposition to foolish opposers, Calvin developed the doctrine of predestination with constantly increasing clearness and distinctness.

He goes on to say that the next generation of reformers (Beza, Zanchi, Musculus) gave to the doctrine a position of greater prominence and developed an extreme form in their supralapsarian views. This extreme form was adopted by the Synod of Dort.42

It is in this question of supra- vs. infralapsarianism that some find the difference between Calvin and Beza. Hunter43 says that

Calvin himself, ever imbued with practical religious aims and dogmatic only when authorized by Scripture, seems to have given the question little definite thought. His position is certainly sufficiently undefined to allow of both parties claiming him as sponsor for their view. He professed to have a hearty dislike for subtleties, as he once told Beza, and this was essentially the kind of matter over which he would be indisposed to waste time. Logical he was, but logic became an irrelevancy and irreverence when it attempted to penetrate audiciously into the realm of ultimate divine mysteries. So little importance did he appear to attach to the question that he subscribed to and indeed inspired two Confessions whose terms might bear a contrary significance in regard to this point. The Consensus Genevensis (1552) assumes the supralapsarian view, while the French Confession, of which Calvin was practically the author, is infralapsarian in affirming that God chose out of the universal corruption and damnation in which all men were submerged some to eternal life.

Cunningham,44 while finding no essential and important differences between the theologies of Calvin and Beza, nevertheless considers this matter of supra- vs. infralapsarianism a possibility. He writes:

The chief points, as we have mentioned, on which it has been alleged, that Calvin and Beza differed in their theological sentiments, and that Beza was more Calvinistic than Calvin, are the order of the divine decrees in their bearing upon the fall as controverted between the Sublapsarians and the Supralapsarians ...

We do not intend to dwell at length upon the topics usually introduced into this controversy, because they scarcely lie within the line of legitimate discussion, and because, to give them much prominence, is really to countenance the unfair use which the Arminians have commonly made of this subject …45

After a rather lengthy discussion of the issues involved, Cunningham goes on to say:46

On this unnecessary, and now obsolete subject of controversy, it has been alleged that Calvin and Beza took opposite sides, that the former was a Sublapsarian, and the latter a Supralapsarian. There is no doubt that Beza, in defending the doctrine of predestination, was led to assert Supralapsarian views; though he was not, as has been sometimes alleged, the first who broached them, for they had been held by some of the more orthodox schoolmen, as has been shown by Twisse and Davenant. But, while Beza’s opinion is clear enough, it is not by any means certain on which side Calvin is to be ranked, and this questionviz., whether Calvin is to be regarded as a Sublapsarian or a Supralapsarianhas been made the subject of formal and elaborate controversy. The Sublapsarians have endeavoured to show that they are entitled to claim Calvin’s authority in support of their views, while Supralapsarians and Arminians have generally denied this,the former of these two classes, that they might claim his testimony in their own favour; and the latter, that they might excite odium against him, by giving prominence to all the strongest and harshest statements that ever dropped from him on the subject of predestination ...

All this, of course, implies that there is real ground for doubt and for difference of opinion, as to what Calvin’s sentiments upon this subject were; and the cause of this is, that the question was not discussed in his time, that it does not seem to have been ever distinctly present to his thoughts as a point to be investigated,and that, in consequence, he has not been led to give a formal and explicit deliverance regarding it.

After a discussion of the pertinent material in Calvin, Cunningham concludes:

Beza, then, in his explicit advocacy of Supralapsarianism, went beyond his master. We do not regard this among the services which he rendered to scriptural truth; especially as we are bound in candour to admit that there is some ground to believe that his high views upon this subject exerted a repelling influence upon the mind of Arminius, who studied under him for a time in Geneva.

However these alleged differences between Calvin and Beza are analyzed, one greater difference between the two reformers is seen by several scholars to be of crucial importance. This difference has to do with what is said to be a scholasticizing of Calvin’s thought in the hands of his friend and successor. It is alleged that Beza altered Calvin’s views on predestination (and really the whole of Calvin’s theology) most significantly when he applied scholastic categories to it. It was this alteration more than any other which spoiled the genius of what Calvin taught, unmistakably altered its whole structure, and gave to subsequent continental and Presbyterian thought an emphasis and direction which was at odds with Calvin. It is in this area more than anywhere else that we must look for the shift which for subsequent times made the true Calvin almost unknown within Protestant circles.

Basil Hall,47 in an essay entitled, “The Calvin Legend,” writes:

A change of emphasis came with Beza, his successor there, who altered the balance of Calvin’s theology, saw, and in part approved, that successful repristination of Aristotle among Protestants which led to the Reformed scholasticism that distorted the Calvinist synthesis and used his contacts with Protestant leaders elsewhere in Europe and in Britain for ends more politically sophisticated than Calvin would have conceived or desired.

In another essay, entitled, “Calvin Against the Calvinists,”48 Hall writes:

Calvin’s successors nevertheless distorted the balance of doctrines which he had tried to maintain. His successor at Geneva, Beza, together with the Heidelberg theologian Zanchius, the English Puritan Perkins, and their associates and followers, bear much of the blame for this, even if we allow that theological change had to come in order to meet changing situations, yet it is not necessary to assume that only those changes that these men made were necessarily the right ones …49

The way in which the balance of Calvin’s work was altered can be seen in the writings of Beza, and in those of the English Puritan William Perkins … Without intending it Beza shifted the balance in Calvin’s work … He hardened the earlier method of scriptural exegesis, and made scripture itself into a corpus of revelation in almost propositional form with every part equal to the other parts in inspiration, thereby developing or encouraging a literalism, in the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, which encouraged Reformed theologians to go beyond the more guarded statements of Calvin. Something of scholastic formalism can be seen in Beza’s work when it is compared with the more dynamic method and vivid style of Calvin. It was Beza who reverted to the medieval scholastic device of placing predestination under the doctrines of God and providencethe position in which St. Thomas Aquinas discussed itwhereas Calvin had placed it eventually and deliberately under the doctrine of salvation. By doing so, although he was not alone in this, Beza re-opened the road to speculative determinism which Calvin had attempted to close. Beza’s writings were largely polemic in origin and contained much less creative theology than Calvin’s; it may have been the continuous polemic effort against Catholics and Lutherans that led Beza into exaggeration and distortion in doctrine. Beza taught Supralapsarianism (that is, the view that God decreed from before creation everything relating to man’s future, including his fall and total depravity, which comes near to being thoroughgoing determinism) whereas Calvin is not explicit on this pointhe would have regarded discussion of it as being impertinently precise in setting out God’s purposes …

After a discussion of other differences (including the question of the extent of the atonement) and the affect these differences had on subsequent theology, Hall says,

In fairness to Beza it should be added that his treatment of these matters, while it does not show Calvin’s careful avoiding of extreme statements, is not so pronounced as that of those seventeenth century writers who supported wholeheartedly the decrees of the Synod of Dordt, for example, the Dutchman Bogerman or the Englishman William Twisse.

In an article entitled, “Election, the Humanity of Jesus, and Possible Worlds,” Robert R. Hann50 writes:

Especially as the doctrine (of election) came to be elaborated, by successive generations of theologians, election came increasingly to be discussed in terms of God’s decrees before creation, and the fates of both the saved and the lost were thought to be equally the direct outcome of the will of God. As a result, the doctrine that Charles Williams called “comprehensible in Calvin” became, in his words, “tiresome in English Puritans, and quite horrible” in later Presbyterians. It is little wonder that for many even of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches the doctrine of election seemed more and more to be an exercise in theological abstraction and less and less an expression of grace.

While Hann does not specifically mention Beza as the culprit in this connection, he clearly states that Calvin’s views were subjected to important modification by subsequent theologians with the result that the true meaning of Calvin was lost. He argues that “later scholasticism” so modified the doctrine of election that no longer was election considered to be “in Christ.”

Proceeding from this assumption he, by means of specious argumentation and doubtful interpretation of the history of doctrine, argues: 1) That we are elect in Christ. 2) That this refers to Christ in His humanity. 3) That because this election stands connected with Christ’s humanity, it stands connected with Christ’s temptations in which it was possible for Christ, by virtue of His humanity, to sin. Hence election is based on foreknowledge. 4) By an appeal to A. Plantinga’s conception of all possible worlds51 he proceeds to argue that man possesses freedom of action, freedom being interpreted as freedom of choice; i.e., no providential determination of man’s deeds. 5) And from this he argues that this conception allows for both predestination and freedom of choice (although here the concept “freedom of choice” is used in the sense of moral choice). His contention is, finally, that this view does not conflict with the declarations of the Synod of Dordt.52

In an article entitled, “Was Calvin a Calvinist or was/is Calvinism Calvinistic?” Prof. B.J. van der Walt53 writes: “Calvinism after Calvin’s time was either Scholastic Calvinism or Reformed Scholasticisma clear deviation from the thought of the Reformer of Geneva.”54 In quoting from Brian Armstrong’s book, “Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy,” he lists six characteristics of “Protestant/Reformed/Calvinistic” Scholasticism. 1) It stresses the necessity of a logical or doctrinal system. Predestination is then regarded as the point of departure. 2) It has a strong dependence on the philosophy of Aristotle. 3) It lays great stress on reason and reason is given almost the same status as revelation. 4) The Bible is considered to be a set of propositions so that a theology may be constructed on its basis. 5) Faith is not as important and is “misshapen to the status of intellectual submission to the truth of Scripture.”55 6) It “does not only imply a different method of thinking or a different mentality. It also leads to the achievement of different results of thought from those of the Reformation.”56

Muller57 is much more careful in his analysis of the problem. He first of all gives a thorough definition of what he means by scholasticism and orthodoxy because,

Two terms that appear most frequently in the evaluation of theology after Calvin are “scholasticism” and “orthodoxy.” From the first we need to be clear that these terms are neither laudatory nor pejorative; they are only descriptive of the method and the intention of theologians in the century and a half following the demise of Calvin, Vermigli, and Musculus. In other words, characterization of post-Reformation Protestantism as “scholastic orthodoxy” denotes the historical form of that theology and in no way implies that the theology of the seventeenth century can provide either the right method or the right teaching for the present.

After discussing Brian Armstrong’s definition of scholasticism58 and dissenting in some particulars from it, at least as far as its relevance to the question at hand is concerned, he defines scholasticism as

a methodological approach to theological system which achieves precision of definition through the analysis of doctrinal loci in terms of scripture, previous definition (the tradition), and contemporary debate.59

“Orthodoxy” means, according to Muller, the following:

As applied to the theologians of the Reformed (and Lutheran) branches of the Protestant Reformation, specifically in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century, it indicates several things: first, and perhaps foremost, it indicates the desire to set forth the true faith as over against the teaching of the several adversaries confronted in polemic. Right teaching is for the edification of the church on both the positive and the polemical levels. Second, “orthodoxy” indicates also a sense of catholicity, of continuity both with the revelation contained in the scriptural deposit and with the valid teaching of the church in past centuries. Orthodox theologians of the seventeenth century felt quite at ease in their use not only of the fathers but also of medieval thinkers. Third, the term implies a strong relationship between systematic theology and church confessions. The confessions acting as a subsidiary norm in the development and exposition of doctrinal systems: even at its most rigid and extreme form, orthodoxy is theology in and for the church. Fourth, and finally, the production of an orthodoxy, so-called, relates to the conviction that true doctrine can be stated fully and finally in a series of strict doctrinal determinations. In this sense, orthodoxy involves an approach to scripture as the deposit of truth out of which correct definitions may be drawn. This assumption in itself entailed the development of a theological method more logical, more rigorous, and more rationalistic than that of the Reformation, though no less committed to the principle of sola scriptura.60

From this analysis he concludes

that the question of continuity or discontinuity of Protestant scholastic theology with the western theological tradition is highly complex and not at all to be reduced to the relationship of the doctrine of predestination developed by Beza or Zanchi to that of Calvin.61

Before we proceed to an analysis and evaluation of these various issues in the next chapter, we ought briefly to sum up what we have discovered to this point.

The basic question before us is whether the doctrine of predestination as developed subsequent to Calvin is faithful to the teachings of Calvin, or whether his views have been modified by late sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians under the influence of Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva.

We face a number of questions in that connection. The first group of questions concentrates on the problem of whether Calvin himself later in life and especially in his polemical writings altered his conception of predestination as found in his Institutes. And, in connection with that, can any changes in Calvin’s view be deduced from the change in the place in his Institutes where he treated this doctrine.

The second group of questions has to do with the problem of whether Beza significantly altered Calvin’s view. And this question, if answered in the affirmative, must include a discussion of the problem of the precise nature of that alteration. Was it a mere difference in emphasis? Was it a difference over the question of infra- and supralapsarianism? If this latter, is this difference significant? Or was the difference one of a “scholasticizing” of the doctrine? And if so, was such a scholasticizing of the doctrine a fundamental change in Calvin’s perspective and teaching?

These are the questions which require answers.


35. These differences of opinion, mentioned also in our discussion in the last chapter, provide some kind of prima facie proof that the contentions are at least suspect. If students of Calvin and Beza cannot even agree on how the two differ in their treatment of this doctrine, one has reason to suspect that the differences are questionable, to say the least. But we shall discuss this more in detail in a later chapter.

36. 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.

37. Carl Bangs, Arminius (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971).

38. Ibid., p. 66.

39. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980) p. 246.

40. David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 167-170.

41. Reinhold Seeburg, The History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 420-422.

42. It is not clear from what Seeburg writes whether he is of the opinion that Dordt adopted a supralapsarian view of predestination. We can hardly imagine that he takes such a patently false position.

43. A. Mitchell Hunter. The Teaching of Calvin, a Modern Interpretation (Glasgow: Macklehose, Jackson & Co., 1920), p. 122.

44. William Cunningham. The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979). pp. 358ff.

45. It is interesting to note here that Cunningham is of the opinion that emphasis on differences between Calvin and Beza, especially on this point, are due to Arminian influence. With this we are inclined to agree.

46. Cunningham, op. cit., pp. 363, 364.

47. G.E. Duffield, ed., John Calvin, A Collection of Essays (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), p. 2.

48. Ibid., p. 26-28.

49. Although this is the way the sentence reads in the book cited, apparently the author intended a full punctuation stop after the word “this.” Then the words, “Even if we allow that …” would begin a new sentence.

50. Journal of the Evangelical Society, Vol. 29, No. 3, Sept., 1986, pp. 295-305.

51. A. Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Claredon, 1974), esp. chaps. 4-8.

52. But rather obvious sophistry is used to maintain this contention. We mention this position in some detail because it is evidence of how the argument that Calvin’s views underwent change becomes the occasion for an attack against sovereign predestination itself.

53. Our Reformation Tradition (Potchefstroom: Institute for Reformation Studies, 1984), pp. 369-377.

54. Ibid., p. 369.

55. Ibid., p. 370.

56. Ibid.

57. Richard A. Mullcr, Christ and the Decree (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1986), p. 6.

58. See earlier for a reference to his book, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy.

59. Muller, op. cit., p. 11.

60. Ibid., p. 12.

61. Ibid., p. 13.

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