09 October, 2016

The Doctrine of Predestination in Calvin and Beza: Chapter Five: The Teachings of Calvin and Beza on Predestination

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1989] 

In earlier articles in the Journal 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 students of Calvin. We examined first of all 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 argue 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 that these arguments are without foundation. In a later article we began a discussion of the question: Did Theodore Beza modify or change Calvin’s views on predestination? We described the arguments which are raised in support of this position and we offered an analysis of the issues. In this article we compare the views of Calvin and Beza on the question of predestination and related matters. A conclusion brings this series to a close. We are persuaded that neither has Calvin himself altered his views on this subject, nor has Beza made subsequent and substantive changes. It is clear from the evidence that those who argue for such changes are really enemies of predestination and are attempting to bolster their attack against this doctrine by appealing (though without foundation) to important differences between Calvin and his successor. Those who today hold to the truth of sovereign predestination, election and reprobation, are those who are faithful to the heritage of the Reformation.

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After having examined in some detail various questions that arise in connection with our comparison of Calvin and Beza on the subject of predestination, we are now ready to compare their writings on this question and see whether a comparison of these writings actually shows that the two diverged significantly from each other.

A couple of preliminary remarks must be made before we enter into the details of this question.

In the first place, our examination will, in the nature of the case, concentrate on what Calvin wrote. Almost no disagreement arises concerning the teachings of Beza. He admittedly taught a view of predestination which includes: 1) both election and reprobation; 2) a supralapsarian view of both; 3) a view of both election and reprobation which makes God’s eternal and sovereign decree the ultimate explanation for the faith of the elect and the unbelief of the reprobate; 4) an explanation of God’s relation to sin in terms of cause. The question is whether Calvin also taught these doctrines or whether Beza’s view was a distortion of Calvin’s teachings. It is to Calvin’s writings that we must turn primarily.

In the second place, various related doctrines are involved in this question. We have had occasion to call attention to the fact that this question cannot be wholly answered unless one also considers what Calvin taught concerning justification, the extent of the atonement of Christ, the nature of the preaching of the gospel (i.e., whether it is an offer which expresses God’s intent and desire to save all), and Christ’s mediatorial work in heaven. But, although these questions are related to our general subject, we cannot enter into all these questions, as important as they are.

But some additional questions remain which are so intimately related to the question of predestination that they must be considered. We refer to such questions as: 1) the relation between God’s decree and sin; 2) the relation between God’s decree and the first sin of Adam and Eve in Paradise; 3) the relation between this first sin and subsequent sin which is everywhere present in the human race; 4) the relation between election and faith on the one hand, and the relation between reprobation and unbelief on the other hand; 5) the relation between election and reprobation as decrees in the counsel of God.

All the Reformers were agreed that the sin which is present in the human race was the result of the first transgression of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Their disobedience had consequences, not only for themselves, but also for all their descendants. The sin which merits the just wrath and punishment of God must be traced to its source: the first act of sin by the parents of the human race.

What is not always clear from the Reformers is the question of whether this original sin can be distinguished into original guilt and original pollution. That is, there was no doubt in the minds of the theologians of the sixteenth century that the pollution and corruption of Adam’s sin was transmitted to all his descendants; but did these same men also speak of a guilt of Adam’s sin which was imputed to all so that all his descendants also stand guilty for the sin which Adam committed. It seems that, while some references in the Reformers, and also in Calvin, can be construed as teaching such an original guilt, they never clearly set forth this aspect of the question and concentrated mostly on original pollution.111

Of greater importance to our subject is the question of God’s relation to sin, also the sin of our first parents. This stands directly connected to our subject because it is involved in the question of the nature and character of reprobation. The sovereignty of God in the decree of reprobation involves the question of the sovereignty of God in connection with the sin of the reprobate. Or, to put the question as succinctly as possible: Is God the cause of the sin of the reprobate?

The best way to get at these questions is to discuss them together. And so we turn first of all to the views which Beza held; and then turn to Calvin and discuss what he has to say on these matters to ascertain whether any significant difference appears in the writings of these two men.

That Beza was very strong on this question cannot be doubted; and in fact, just because he was so strong, the charge has been laid at his feet that he taught something different from Calvin. We need not be extensive in our treatment of Beza, therefore.112

Although Beza offers a definition of predestination in various places, they are all in agreement. We use the one found in his Theological Theses, set forth in the Genevan Academy by some students of sacred theology, under the professors of sacred theology, doctors Theodore Beza and Anton Faye.113

In the first place, we call predestination in general that eternal and unmoved decree of God by which, as it pleased the highest and the greatest One himself, he has decreed all things both universally and particularly, and executes them by causes created and directed by him, as it likewise has pleased him for revealing his own glory.

Secondly, when we apply this doctrine especially to mankind, we call predestination that eternal decree (of the sort we have already discussed) by which he decided immutably and from eternity to save some by his highest mercy and to damn others by his most just severity. Thus, from the effects, he demonstrated himself to be as he in fact is: the Supremely Merciful and the Supremely Just.

Because God is sovereign also in reprobation, God can be said to be the cause of sin and unbelief in the wicked and impenitent.114 Yet Beza is careful here to distinguish in his idea of causes. Although he uses different terminology, generally speaking he makes use of primary and secondary causes. While God is the primary cause of sin and unbelief, God executes His divine decree through secondary causes, the chief of which is sin, and more particularly, the fall of Adam.115 However, these secondary causes are not compelled by God’s decree.116 They are not compelled by God’s decree because man acts in them as a morally accountable and willing creature.117 Because God works through these secondary causes, God is not the Author of sin, nor can He be charged with unrighteousness.118 Man remains accountable for his own sin and is morally culpable.

Moreover, the condemnation of the reprobate is just because their perdition depends on God’s predestination in such a way that the cause of their destruction and its whole substance is nonetheless found in themselves.119

In connection with the will of God, Beza holds to the simplicity of God’s will120 to ward against the error of setting the will of God’s decree over against the will of His command. Nor is Beza satisfied with the idea of a permissive will of God to explain its relation to sin. The idea, says Beza, must be repudiated if it omits an active willing on God’s part.121

There are, Beza says in another place,122 only four views of predestination: 1) the Pelagian view which teaches that the cause of predestination lies in man and that God offers salvation to all; 2) sovereign election and conditional reprobation which teaches a reprobation on the basis of God’s foreknowledge of unbelief; 3) the Semi-Pelagian view which teaches that salvation is partly of mercy and partly of man’s will; 4) the Biblical position which teaches that election is by way of mercy and reprobation by way of man’s sin. The Biblical teaching is that God’s will lies behind the fall, that God’s grace is not offered to all, that God’s will is neither frustrated nor dependent upon man’s will.

Muller123 therefore correctly states that Beza did not teach a coordinate double decree. He writes:

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.

Muller even goes so far as to say that while Beza is supralapsarian in his explanation of the massa of Romans 9:21:124

Beza’s analysis of the problem of sin accords more with an infralapsarian than with a supralapsarian conception of the decree.

While we cannot agree with all of Muller’s conclusions, they do set the matter in its proper perspective when he writes:125

In conclusion, ... fully developed Reformed orthodoxy does not appear in Beza’s theology nor does a thoroughly rationalistic and necessitarian perspective on theology … Beza was a transition figure. He moved beyond Calvin in his use of scholastic terminology and in the precision of his doctrinal statements. But his “scholasticism” was moderate even by sixteenth century standards as set by Vermigli, Zanchi, Ursinus, and Polanus, to name only a few. The analytic Empirical method adopted by Beza in his last discussions of predestination represents his most serious departure from the spirit of early Reformed theology, but like the syllogismus practicus it produced, it did not become normative for later Reformed statements of the doctrine of predestination. This analytic-empirical tendency is, moreover, balanced out by Beza’s christological emphasis, particularly the development of the concept of Christ’s mediation, and by a consistent stress on the economy of salvation. This stress upon temporal economy is manifest in the ever-present distinction between the decree and its execution, in the strong covenant-motif of the Confessio, and in the use of the doctrine of predestination primarily as a ground for the ordo salutis in his major systematic structures. It would be a mistake to say that there were no deterministic tendencies in Beza’s thought, but these tendencies existed in tension with a christocentric piety and a very real sense of the danger of determinism. Beza did not produce a predestinarian or necessitarian system nor did he ineluctably draw Reformed theology toward formulation of a causal metaphysic. Nor did he develop one locus to the neglect, exclusion, or deemphasis of others. Beza’s role in the development of a Reformed system may better be described as a generally successful attempt to clarify and to render more precise the doctrinal definitions he had inherited from Calvin and the other Reformers of the first era of theological codification.

From this brief statement concerning Beza’s views, we turn now to the views of Calvin.

Concerning the relation between Adam’s sin and the sin which is present in all men, Calvin taught that Adam’s sin had such consequences for the human race that all men are involved in a complete corruption of their nature so that they cannot, apart from grace, do any good in the sight of God nor contribute in any way to their salvation.126 This corruption of the nature is so complete that it involves the will in such a way that no good can proceed from it; i.e., that the corrupt sinner cannot even will to do the good. Every inclination of the will is only towards evil.127

This corruption of the nature is sometimes explained in terms which seem to suggest that Calvin spoke of original guilt as well as original pollution. In the above references mention is sometimes made to the fact that man’s nature is corrupted because of his responsibility for Adam’s sin of disobedience. Yet the distinction which later Reformed theologians have made is certainly not clear in the writings of either Calvin or Beza.

Concerning the relation between God’s sovereign activity and man’s sin, the Reformer of Geneva was also strong. He discussed the question frequently and did not shrink from using language of the strongest kind. The relation between God’s will and man’s will is the same whether one is speaking of Adam’s original sin or of man’s actual sin, although, of course, Calvin recognized the fact that man’s sin is rooted in his own depraved nature. Nevertheless, he insisted that even after the fall, God’s control of sin is a reality which Scripture emphatically teaches.

Several points must be mentioned in this connection. 1) Calvin maintained that this truth was implied in God’s sovereignty as that truth is set forth in Scripture; and it is an integral part of the doctrines of providence and predestination.128 2) He did not hesitate to use such words as “cause” to define this relationship, although his use of this term was circumscribed.129 3) He firmly believed that the word “permission” did not adequately express this rclationship.130 Atkinson can therefore write (though not in a totally correct way)131

Yet Calvin sees Providence in operation not only within the activity of believers and of the elect, but in the area of the reprobate. The devil and the wicked operate only by divine permission: every creature is an instrument in the hands of God. Their wickedness lies in their being turned away from the will of God: their wickedness God uses for His providential purpose.

Bangs also emphatically states that Calvin taught a view which rooted Adam’s fall in the divine decree.132 And the Roman Catholic, Philip Hughes,133 says that Calvin taught a predestination to hell.

This truth was the undergirding of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.

Calvin’s view differs in no particulars from that of Beza. We need not quote extensively from Calvin, for this truth is writ large in many places. We consider only the following.

Now, with respect to the reprobate, whom the apostle introduces in the same place; as Jacob, without any merit yet acquired by good works, is made the object of grace, so Esau, while yet unpolluted by any crime, is accounted an object of hatred. If we turn our attention to works, we insult the apostle, as though he saw not that which is clear to us. Now, that he saw none, is evident, because he expressly asserts the one to have been elected and the other rejected while they had not done any good or evil; in order to prove the foundation of Divine predestination not to be in works. Secondly, when he raises the objection whether God is unjust, he never urges, what would have been the most absolute and obvious defence of his justice, that God rewarded Esau according to his wickedness; but contents himself with a different solution, that the reprobate are raised up for this purpose, that the glory of God may be displayed by their means. Lastly, he subjoins a concluding observation, that “God hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” You see how he attributes both to the mere will of God. If, therefore, we can assign no reason why he grants mercy to his people but because such is his pleasure, neither shall we find any other cause but his will for the reprobation of others. For when God is said to harden or show mercy to whom he pleases, men are taught by this declaration to seek no cause beside his will.134

I confess, indeed, that all the descendants of Adam fell by the Divine will into that miserable condition in which they are now involved; and this is what I asserted from the beginning, that we must always return at last to the sovereign determination of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in himself.135

Those, therefore, whom he has created to a life of shame and a death of destruction, that they might be instruments of his wrath, and examples of his severity, he causes to reach their appointed end, sometimes depriving them of the opportunity of hearing the word, sometimes, by the preaching of it, increasing their blindness and stupidity.136

All these quotations are taken from Calvin’s Institutes. In his A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God he ascribes the difference between Esau and Jacob to the hidden counsel of God.137 He emphatically repudiates the idea that reprobation is caused by works of men in any sense.138 He writes: “God, leaving Pharaoh to his own will and inclination, destined him to destruction.”139 He adds: “This fact, nevertheless, remains fixed and unaltered, that the reprobate are set apart, in the purpose of God, for the very end, that in them God might show forth his power.”140 God hardens whom He will according to His own pleasure and purpose.141 Calvin even says that to say “that they were ‘fitted to destruction’ by their own wickedness is an idea so silly that it needs no notice.”142 In his treatment of John 12:37-41 he writes:

Now most certainly John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief ... He says, “Therefore, they could not believe.” Wherefore, let men torture themselves as long as they will with reasoning, the cause of the difference madewhy God does not reveal His arm equally to alllies hidden in His own eternal decree.”143

These references are sufficient to prove conclusively that 1) Calvin roots reprobation in the decree of God; 2) that thus the decree of reprobation is, along with election, eternal and immutable; 3) that Calvin does not shrink from speaking of God’s decree as the cause of sin; 4) that therefore, emphatically, Calvin teaches reprobation in the same way as Beza later did.

With this view, the question arises: How did Calvin still maintain man’s accountability?144

Confusion on this issue seems to be fairly general among those who take the time to evaluate Calvin and Beza’s thought. Bangs,145 e.g., speaks of the fact that Calvin speaks with two voices concerning the fall. He says that Calvin taught that Adam fell by free will and divine decree, while Beza denies the former. This is, obviously, false. He then proceeds to quote Beza as insisting that the fall came about by the decree of God, while he fails to note that Beza also insisted on the activity of Adam’s will in connection with the fall. Alfred Plummer146 suggests that Calvin denied the human activity of the will and writes in a footnote (p. 150):

It is remarkable that the denial of man’s freedom to will and to act should have been held so firmly by leaders whose wills were so masterful, and whose actions were so vigorous, as in the case of all three, and especially of Luther and Calvin.

These and others seem to take the position that if God is the sovereign “cause” of sin, man cannot any longer function as a willing and moral agent. If this were true, man’s accountability would certainly be denied.

Cunningham147 points out that from a certain point of view this is not a very important question. The fact of the matter is that Scripture teaches throughout that man is accountable before God (even while it teaches God’s sovereign control over sin), and that this is the testimony of every man’s conscience. No one ever disputes his accountability, except in philosophical discussions. Every man knows he must give account before God of what he has done.

Nevertheless, several considerations enter in. 1) One difference, though not decisive, exists between Adam’s first sin and the actual sins of the descendants of Adam. Adam sinned with a free will, able to choose between good and evil. His descendants sin because of a corrupt nature which makes even the will totally in the control of sin. While, therefore, Adam’s accountability rests in his ability to choose either the evil or the good, our accountability rests in the fact that we are responsible in Adam for the corrupt nature which we possess.148 Hence, out of our accountability for our corrupt nature, arises our accountability for our actual sins. 2) Calvin especially often called attention to the difference between primary and secondary causes in his attempt to explain this; and he has been followed by many. God is the primary cause, but He makes use of secondary causes. Because these secondary causes are present, man remains accountable and God cannot be charged with sin. 3) But the chief point which Calvin made was his insistence that no man sins by compulsion.

Sometimes the point itself was emphasized in such a way that man was shown to sin willingly; sometimes man was said to have, even in a fallen state, a free will not in the sense of being able to choose between the good and evil, but in the sense of always willing in harmony with his nature and sinning always without any compulsion and coercion of any kind.149 Nor did Calvin see conflict here of the nature of a contradiction or even an apparent contradiction; although he would be the first to admit that God’s ways are inscrutable. And here Calvin was content to rest.

Thus we may conclude that in the doctrine itself, no discrepancy or alteration can be found in the teachings of Beza and Calvin.


111. Even our creeds do not speak clearly of anything but original pollution, and it remains a question whether the Westminster Confession specifically mentions original guilt.

112. All the references in what follows are to Holtrop’s translation. We have made references here only to the pages, because the titles of Beza’s works are very lengthy and are included in the Bibliography. The precise work referred to can be discovered by consulting the translations.

113. Ibid., p. 413.

114. Ibid., p. 101.

115. Ibid., p. 101.

116. Ibid., p. 111.

117. Beza often discusses the relation between God’s will and man’s will and gives clearly his ideas on this score. See, e.g., pp. 125, 130.

118. Ibid., pp. 101-108.

119. Ibid., p. 115.

120. Ibid., pp. 285-289.

121. Ibid., pp. 220, 221, 341.

122. Ibid., pp. 456, 457.

123. Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1986), p.88.

124. Ibid., p. 89.

125. Ibid., p. 96.

126. While the references are many, we can specifically refer here to Institutes, II, 1-5, particularly v, vi, ix; Calvin’s Calvinism, pp. 90ff. Throughout we make use of John Allen’s translation of the Institutes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949) and Calvin’s Calvinism, tr. by Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956). This book contains both “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” the so-called Consensus Genevensis, and “A Defense of the Secret Providence of God.”

127. Institutes, II, 2, xii; II, 3, v, viii, ix.

128. See, e.g., Calvin’s Calvinism, pp. 240, 241.

129. Institutes, I, 18, 11; II, 4, vi; Calvin’s Calvinism, pp. 81, 83,

130. Institutes, I, 18, ii; II, 4, iii. In this later reference Calvin refers to Augustine who also believed that permission did not adequately express this important relation. It is interesting to note, however, that Calvin did sometimes use the word in describing God’s sovereign control of sin.

131. James Atkinson, The Green Light (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), p. 176.

132. Carl Bangs, Arminius (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), p. 69.

133. Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation (New York: Image Books, 1960), p. 229.

134. Institutes, III, 22, xi.

135. Institutes, III, 23, iv.

136. Institutes, III, 24, xii. See also III, 21, v, vii; III, 22, vii; III, 23, ii, and many other places.

137. John Calvin, A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God, p. 58.

138. Ibid., p. 63.

139. Ibid., p. 67.

140. Ibid., p. 67.

141. Ibid., p. 68.

142. Ibid., p. 76.

143. Ibid., p. 81. See also pp. 82, 83, 91-93 for similar ideas.

144. Although theologians usually speak of the responsibility of man, we consider the term accountability the preferable one. Responsibility means only that man is able to respond, a patent fact which needs no argumentation. Accountability, on the other hand, means that man is accountable before God for what he does.

145. Bangs, op. cit., pp. 68, 69.

146. Alfred Plummer, The Continental Reformation (London: Robert Scott, Roxburghe House, 1912).

147. William Cunningham, Historical Theology, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), pp. 596ff.

148. Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 90.

149. The references are many but see especially, Institutes, I, 17, v; II, 2, vi; II, 3, v; II, 4, i; Cunningham, op. cit., p. 574.

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