Calvin's Doctrine of Predestination

By Richard A. Muller

John Calvin was part of a long line of thinkers who based their doctrine of predestination on the Augustinian interpretation of St. Paul.[34] Rather than call predestination the central dogma of Calvin’s system, we recognize its importance within a larger complex of soteriological motifs. Within that complex it functioned as the keystone of a doctrinal arch,[35] having a unitive significance within the structure of Calvin’s thought.[36] The concept of an eternal predestination of the elect functions as a corollary of Calvin’s emphasis on God’s free and sovereign grace in salvation: the problems of human inability and man’s reliance for salvation upon the sovereign grace of God as mediated by Christ are the two grounds of Calvin’s predestinarian conceptuality.[37]

The central definition of the double decree around which subsequent discussion revolves is as follows:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree (aeternum Dei decretum), by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition, rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.[38]

And at somewhat greater length,

As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable counsel (immutabile consilio) those whom he had determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this counsel was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgement he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation. Now among the elect we regard the call as a testimony of election. Then we hold justification another sign of its manifestation, until they come into the glory in which the fulfillment of election lies. But as the Lord seals his elect by call and justification, so, by shutting off the reprobate from knowledge of his name or from the sanctification of his Spirit, he, as it were, reveals by these marks what sort of judgment awaits them.[39]

Predestination, Providence, and the Divine Will

Apart from the tentative ecclesiological location of predestination in the 1536 Institutio and in the catechism of 1542 (which was not without its influence on writers like Ursinus, Danaeus, Perkins and perhaps even Melanchthon in the final edition of his Loci communes), Calvin gravitated toward an understanding of predestination as the focal point of soteriology. This, according to Barth, was the result of Calvin’s need for a “more comprehensive consideration of the question” of the systematic significance of the decree and, in a sense, the ground for the “more radical turn” given to the issue of predestination by later Reformed writers.[40] The order that Calvin adopted made “the doctrine of election in some degree the consummation of that of reconciliation, introducing it not in the middle or at the beginning, but as the ultimate and decisive word which sheds additional light upon all that has gone before.”[41]

Barth’s argument serves to underline the point that the 1559 Institutes does not represent a movement of predestination out of the doctrine of God but a clarification of the place given to predestination already in 1539 and 1554, effected chiefly by the removal of providence to the doctrine of God. Despite the logical association of predestination with assertions regarding the character of the divine will, Calvin chose against any systematic attempt to “deduce” other doctrine from that of the decrees.[42] The solidification of this placement of doctrine in 1559 and the similarity of placement in the catechism of 1537 and the Confessio Gallicana may be seen as a centralization of predestination in a physical sense so that, like the doctrines of God and providence in Book I and the doctrine of Christ in Book II of the Institutes, it can provide an explanation in terms of the divine sovereignty and grace for all that precedes and follows it.[43]

When Calvin wrote of providence and predestination, he did not adopt the scholastic determination of predestination as a special category of providence. Both in his 1539 edition of the Institutes and in the treatise, De aeterna praedestinatione dei (1552), Calvin set providence below predestination in his order of discussion, implying that the work of providence lies under and serves predestination. Predestination occupies much the same position in Book III of the Institutes (1559) that providence occupies in Book I. Even as providence represents the power of God maintaining and nourishing the world so does predestination show forth God’s gracious will in calling and preserving the body of the church.[44] But the salvation of man is the great purpose of the entirety of God’s work: “God has destined all things for our good and salvation.”[45] Predestination attains a logical priority over providence since predestination more than providence tends toward this end.

The result of this particular implication for the systematic relationship of predestination to providence—and perhaps to all other doctrine—is to create a tension within the structure of the Institutes itself. The traditional relation of the doctrines seems to be denied as well as omitted, leaving room for a variety of formulations in the thought of Calvin’s followers. Wendel suggests that this conditioning or determining of providence by the eternal decrees of predestination might lead one to expect that Calvin would have “put predestination immediately after the exposition on providence—even, indeed, before the chapters on creation. . . .”[46] Wendel does not, however, carry his argument to its logical conclusion. If predestination does indeed become determinative of providence in the logic of Calvin’s system, might not the positions of predestination and providence be reversed? Predestination, as Otten hypothesized, can be set first as the general principle followed by providence, the means of execution.[47]

Calvin’s use of the language of necessity and of fourfold causality in discussing these doctrines relates his thought not only to the formulation of Augustine but also to the tradition of medieval Augustinianism.[48] We note the relationship particularly in the Aristotelian causal structure utilized by Calvin in his interpretation of Ephesians 1:5-8: predestination described according to its first, formal, material, and final causes. This passage and its exegesis, moreover, are crucial to Calvin’s doctrine insofar as they stress the relationship of Christ as mediator to the decree.[49] Calvin comes to terms with the scholastic Augustinianism of primary and secondary causes and of the necessary ordering of events and things at the level of primary causality without a disruption at the level of secondary or inferior causality of the contingent character of things or of the responsibility of human beings for all acts of will.[50] “Here,” comments Mozley, “is the doctrine of the schools. . . .”[51] Here also is Calvin’s defense against the charge of Bolsec that he had followed Lorenzo Valla in the development of an utterly deterministic system: this is not a thoroughgoing necessitarianism insofar as it respects contingency and real possibility at the level of secondary causes. Calvin could state categorically that God had not “necessitated the sin of men.”[52]

Election, Reprobation, and the Causal Order

The epistemological order of the 1559 Institutes does not represent a categorical rejection of other orderings of loci. Although he placed faith prior to predestination in the Institutes, Calvin never ceased to emphasize the causal priority of God’s elective decree. “Election . . . is the mother of faith.”[53] Faith leads the Christian reverently to examine the decree: “we must climb higher, lest the effect overwhelm the cause.”[54] In order to understand the merit of Christ, a Christian needs “go back to God’s ordinance, which is the first cause” (quae prima causa est).[55] While Calvin preferred to follow the inductive order of faith in search of assurance, he made full use of the language of Aristotelian causality to demonstrate the synthetic and a priori structure of the ordo salutis. We have already noted Calvin’s commentary on the first chapter of Ephesians. A similar interest in the causal order appears in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 8:28: “It is certain that Paul notes the order, so that we may know that the fact that everything happens to the saints for their salvation depends on the free adoption of God as the first cause” (prima causa).[56]

In Calvin’s formulation both election and reprobation rest on the sovereign will of God and are to be equally considered as results of a single divine counsel.[57] Unlike many of his contemporaries and successors, Calvin did not shrink from the conclusion that permission and volition are one in the mind of an eternal and utterly sovereign God: reprobation could not be viewed simply as a passive act of God.[58] This teaching represents the more fully deterministic side of Calvin’s doctrine—a point at which the early orthodox would modify formulae and seek other models. Nevertheless, in view of Calvin’s emphasis on knowledge of God, reprobation does not appear the exact coordinate of election. It occurs apart from Christ and therefore apart from any mediated knowledge of God.[59] If those men who remain in the mass of perdition inquire into themselves they can only know their own sin and infer its penalty of damnation. They cannot know of the decree of reprobation as a cause of their condition.[60] As Jacobs comments, reprobation is set in stark isolation from other doctrine.[61]

There is no particular attempt to emphasize the trinitarian aspect of the doctrine at this stage of the exposition. Nevertheless Calvin does not project here an image of the Father as deus nudus absconditus.[62] Calvin insists that the Son is more than a means to the end set forth by the Father. Christ elects in common with the Father and may be considered as the “author” of the decree.[63] This formulation points toward a distinction between the second person of the trinity considered as God and the person of the Son in his mediatorial office, in union with the flesh: “. . . although Christ interposes himself as mediator, he claims for himself, in common with the Father, the jus eligendi, the right to choose.”[64] The certainty of Christ’s mediation and the certainty of his promise are grounded in his divinity, since the promise he conveys in his incarnation sub forma servi is the same promise which he decreed in his eternal divinity.[65]

Election is preeminently a demonstration of God’s gracious will in Christ shown forth in calling, justification, and sanctification. It is a doctrine that naturally comes into relation with the doctrines of faith and church, of word and sacrament and, in view of Calvin’s placement of the doctrinal topics in the last edition of the Institutes, with the doctrine of the last things as well.[66] It provides a causal focus for soteriology and, as such, is a doctrine of central importance—but only in relation to its temporal anchor, the work of Christ. We know of our election as it is manifested and confirmed in Christ. Election is not to be inferred from works.[67] Assurance ultimately rests on Christ who is the “mirror” of election.[68]

Assurance of Salvation: The Problem of the “Practical Syllogism”

Wilhelm Niesel has emphatically denied that Calvin’s thought includes the so-called syllogismus practicus of later Calvinism which, in its consideration of signs of election apart from Christ, seems to depart from the sola gratia that characterized early Reformed theology.[69] Yet Calvin does point to an assurance that comes not directly from Christ and the Gospel but from the effects of the application of Christ’s work and from the effects of the hearing of the Gospel.[70] Calvin offers not a denial of the syllogismus practicus but a warning against its misuse and misinterpretation.[71] Christ is the foundation of election and assurance, but there is an assurance also to be gained from the spiritual benefits conferred upon the elect by God.

In presenting his arguments on effectual calling,[72] Calvin notes that whereas the preaching of the Gospel finds its source in the election of God (Evangelii praedicatio ex fonte electionis scaturit), preaching itself cannot be a ground of assurance, since preaching addresses both the elect and the reprobate.[73] The effectiveness of the divine call, then, is not immediately obvious from the fact of Christian preaching. This problem, in turn, raises the problem of assurance: for there is truly a call and the call does rest upon the free election of God. “If indeed we ask whom he calls, and according to what reason: he answers, those whom he has elected.”[74] The call of the Gospel makes God’s eternal election manifest: thus it is faith that confirms election, verifies it, seals it upon the heart.[75] Assurance begins with this result, with faith, not with the decree itself. The theological principle operative here is, of course, the distinction between the decree and its execution: assurance derives from faith, “since if we try to penetrate to the eternal ordination of God, that profound abyss shall swallow us.”[76] The doctrine of election, as it is preached, derives, however, from revelation in which the ordination of God is made plain.[77]

This remaining separation of the objective declaration of God’s electing will from the subjective apprehension of election by faith leads Calvin to approach the formulation of the syllogismus practicus.

Therefore, as it is wrong to make the force of election contingent upon faith in the gospel, by which we feel that it appertains to us, so we shall be following the best order if, in seeking the certitude of our election, we cling to those latter signs which are sure attestations of it.[78]

Faith recognizes that the objective preaching of election in the Word of God has its subjective reference, but final confirmation of personal salvation derives from the “latter signs,” the signa posteriora, of election. Calvin fully recognizes the danger in this thought and strives to avoid reducing the quest for assurance to empiricism: there can be no movement from personal righteousness upward to the eternal counsel apart from the Word in Scripture or apart from Christ in whom we are adopted.[79] “Still,” and here Calvin introduces briefly the confirmatory latter signs, “this does not prevent believers from feeling that the benefits they receive daily from God’s hand are derived from that secret adoption.”[80]

If Niesel overstates his case in claiming “Nowhere does Calvin teach the Syllogismus practicus,” he is nevertheless quite correct in separating Calvin from all teaching which infers election from outward activity and from any formal, logical solution to the problem of assurance. In addition, Niesel has a very clear sense of the relationship of an empirical syllogismus practicus to the problem of predestination as a “central dogma.”

The position which Calvin thus takes up makes it clear that his theology is something very different from a predestination system of thought concerning the relation of God and man, in which the Syllogismus practicus is assigned an important place. It becomes clear that Calvin is strictly concerned with the theology of revelation and that his teaching is wholly centered on Jesus Christ.[81]

If the system of doctrine is to remain christocentric, Christ and the Word of God which calls man to Christ must remain the center and focus of assurance. Any other focus—particularly an empirical focus upon outward signs of election—creates an alternative structure of assurance, indeed an alternative structure of redemption according to which Christ’s objective satisfaction for sin hardly touches the life of the believer and the whole of piety looks to the decree, to the promulgation of the deus nudus absconditus. This possible function of a highly developed, empirical form of the syllogismus practicus makes the problem of assurance and its formal solution an index of the relation of predestination and Christology within the Reformed system, for it is here in particular that the decree, the vertical causal axis of the soteriological structure can begin to overshadow or exclude the horizontal or temporal axis of salvation denoted by the work of Christ and its application by the Spirit.

From Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins Richard A. Muller



[34]. Cf. A. M. Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin (London, 1950), pp. 96-99; also Luchesius Smits, Saint Augustine dans l'oeuvre de Jean Calvin, 2 vols. (Assen, 1957-58), vol. I, pp. 96-110; and J. B. Mozley, A Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination, 2nd edition (N.Y., 1878), pp. 267; 393-409. Wendel and Niesel should be consulted on this as on all problems concerning Calvin’s theology. The fourth volume of Emile Doumergue, Jean Calvin, les hommes et les choses de son temps, is still a useful survey of Calvin’s thought. The epoch-making work in the field is Paul Jacobs’ Prädestination und Verantwortlichkeit bei Calvin which documented carefully the soteriological intention of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Hans Otten, Calvins theologische Anschauung von der Prädestination (Munich, 1938) adopts a more traditional approach to the subject but, in its basic argument, tends to support Jacobs’ thesis. Among the works available in English, Fred H. Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids, 1961) presents a well-balanced account.

[35]. Doumergue, IV, 357.

[36]. Hermann Bauke, Die Probleme der Theologie Calvins (Leipzig, 1922), pp. 84-85. Bauke views Calvin’s theology as a complexio oppositorum which has no single dogmatic center (ibid., pp. 16-19).

[37]. Cf. Wendel, p. 269.

[38]. Inst., III.xxi.5.

[39]. Inst., III.xxi.7.

[40]. CD, II/2, p. 85.

[41]. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

[42]. Cf. Barth, CD II/2, p. 86. Note his categorical denial of the idea of a ‘predestinarian system’ not only for Calvin but also for Calvin’s successors.

[43]. Ibid., p. 86.

[44]. Inst., I.xvi; III.xxi.7; cf. Wendel, p. 268.

[45]. Inst., I.xvi.22; cf. I.xvi.6.

[46]. Wendel, p. 268.

[47]. Cf. Otten, p. 99 where he reflects on the priority of predestination over providence in the 1539 edition. Barth disagrees (II/2, p. 46).

[48]. Cf. Inst., I.xvi.9: “Unde iterum videmus non temere in scholis inventas fuisse distinctiones de necessitate secundum quid, et absoluta: item consequentis et consequentiae: quando ossa Filii sui Deus, quae a fractura exemerat, fragilitati subiecit, atque ita restrinxit ad consilii sua necessitatem quod naturaliter contingere potuit.” Calvin here clearly accepts and utilizes the language of necessity as found in, for example, Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 19, art. 3 and Duns Scotus, In quatuor libros sententiarum, ed. Gratianus Brixianus (Venice, 1490), I, dist. 39, q. 35. Cf. Mozley, pp. 399-401.

[49]. CO, LI, 148-150; cf. Barth, CD II/2, p. 88; note also Calvin’s reference to Eph. 1:3 in Inst., III.xxii.10: “Nam a serie causarum et effectuum facile colligitur, ubi dicit Paulus nos esse refertos omni benedictione spirituali, sicut nos elegerat Deus arte mundi creationem . . . quia elegit Deus tantum quos voluit.” The fourfold Aristotelian structure of causality appears also in Inst., III. xiv.21.

[50]. Inst., I.xvi.8-9, on providence; II.xii.7 on the birth of Christ and cf. De aeterna praedestinatione dei, CO VIII, 354-355, 360, also on providence.

[51]. Mozley, p. 396.

[52]. Reply to Bolsec, CO, VIII, 182. And compare the distinction made between predestinarianism and determinism by J.K.S. Reid in his introduction to John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London, 1961) pp. 25-27. Also see the discussion of the controversy in Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin (N.Y., 1851-52), vol. II, pp. 130-137.

[53]. Inst., III.xxii.10.

[54]. Inst., III.xxiv.3: Calvin here argues that assurance begins with the Word and that believers must therefore seek assurance of salvation from the Gospel rather than from an attempt to penetrate the eternal ordination of God. On the other hand, God has revealed in the Gospel his eternal election as the cause of salvation: “Sed ubi earn nobis patefecit Deus, altius conscendere oportet, ne effectus causam obruat. Quid enim magis absurdum et indignem, quum Scriptura doceat nos esse illuminatos, sicuti nos Deus elegit, lucis huius fulgore oculos nostras perstringi, ut attendere ad electionem recusent?”

[55]. Inst., II.xvii.1.

[56]. CO, XLIX, 158: “Certum est enim ideo notari ordinem, ut sciamus a gratuita Dei adoptione tanquam a prima causa pendere, quod sanctis omnia in salutem succedunt.”

[57]. Inst., III.xxi.5-7; xxii.6. If Augustine does not draw out a causal pattern of the decrees, he does provide Calvin with a model for the doctrine of praedestinatio gemina: see De civ. Dei, XV. 1 (PL.41.437)—on the two cities: “Quas etiam mystice appellamus civitates duas, hoc est duas societates hominum: quarum est una quae praedestinata est in aetemum regnare cum Deo; altera, aetemum supplicium subire cum diabolo.” Cf. XXI.xxiv (PL.41.736-741); De perfectione justiciae hominis, cap. xiii.31 (PL.44.308), “. . . in eo genere hominum, quod praedestinatum est ad interitum”; and De anima et eius origine, IV.xi.16 (PL.44.533): “. . . quos praedestinavit ad aeternam vitam misericordissimus gratiae largitor: qui est et illis quos praedestinavit ad aeternam mortem, justissimus supplicii retributor. . . .” The causal argument most certainly derives from the medieval scholastic development of the doctrine of predestination.

[58]. Inst., III.xxiii.8; cf. Otten, pp. 66-67. Otten argues that this concept of reprobation is a corollary of the doctrine of particular rather than general predestination. It is part of Calvin’s particularistic soteriology and not an overly speculative concept.

[59]. Dowey, pp. 213-216; Jacobs, pp. 147-148.

[60]. Inst., III.xxiii, 3-4, 8.

[61]. Jacobs, pp. 145-146.

[62]. Barth (CD, II/2, p. 111) has not fully discerned the relation of Christ to the decrees in Calvin’s theology, but he does see more clearly than any historian of Reformed orthodoxy the scope of this doctrinal problem as it developed after Calvin (cf. ibid., pp. 111-115).

[63]. Inst., III.xxii.7: “Christus electionis facit authorem.” Also note II.xiii.3: “Christus author salutis” and the commentaries on John 13:18 and 17:8-10 in CO, XLVII, 310-312, 379-381. Cf. Klooster, p. 20.

[64]. Inst., III.xxii.7: “Interea quanvis se medium Christus inserat, sibi tamen ius eligendi communiter vendicat cum Patre. Non de omnibus, inquit, loquor: scio quos elegerim Iohan. 13.6.18” This argument is overlooked by J. K. S. Reid, “The Office of Christ in Predestination,” in Scottish Journal of Theology, I (1948), pp. 5-19; 166-183; cf. Wiley, p. 164.

[65]. Commentary on John 13:18, loc. cit. Note how the structure of this doctrine reflects the extra calvinisticum.

[66]. The chapter entitled “The Final Resurrection” (III, xxv) follows directly upon Calvin’s discussion of the confirmation of election in calling (III, xxiv); cf. Klooster, p. 29.

[67]. Cf. Niesel, pp. 169-181 and Klooster, pp. 34-36. Niesel, against the arguments of Barth in CD, II, 2, pp. 335-336, denies that the syllogismus practicus occurs in Calvin’s thought; Klooster follows Niesel to a limited extent, acknowledging that Calvin treads a fine line: “he does not urge men to look at their own good works. Rather, his repeated emphasis is upon the work of Christ, which is performed in them” (p. 34).

[68]. Inst., III.xxiv.5.

[69]. Niesel, pp. 178-179.

[70]. Inst., III.xxiv.1-6.

[71]. Barth, CD, II/2, pp. 333-340 and Berkouwer, Divine Election, pp. 279-306 where there is a detailed analysis of the Barth-Niesel debate over the syllogismus practicus.

[72]. Inst., III.xxiv.1-5.

[73]. Inst., III.xxiv.1.

[74]. Inst., III.xxiv.1.

[75]. Inst., III.xxiv.3.

[76]. Inst., III.xxiv.3.

[77]. Inst., III.xxiv.3.

[78]. Inst., III.xxiv.4.

[79]. Inst., III.xxiv.5.

[80]. Inst., III.xxiv.4. Cf. the commentary on II Peter 1:1-12 in CO, LXXXIII, 449-450 and the analysis in Berkouwer, Divine Election, pp. 302-303 and in Klooster, p. 34.

[81]. Niesel, pp. 180-181.

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