Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Did John Calvin Believe Faith is a Gift given From God?

Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ. And so he adds, not of yourselves; that claiming nothing for themselves, they may acknowledge God alone as the author of their salvation…”
-John Calvin


I once talked with a pastor who dismissed the Calvinist assertion that faith is a gift of God. An important facet of his argument was that even John Calvin did not teach this, and his commentary on Ephesians 2:8-9 proves it. He based his opinion on the work of two recent anti-Reformed writers: Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1999) and C. Gordon Olson’s Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation (New Jersey: Global Gospel Publishers, 2002). These authors hold that modern-day Calvinists who hold faith is a gift of God are “extreme Calvinists”, because not even John Calvin believed this.

Geisler says of Ephesians 2:8-9, “But even John Calvin said of this text that "he does not mean that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”(CBF, 182).

Gordon Olson comments similarly:

Calvinists have a ready arsenal of proof-texts for the idea that faith is the direct, immediate gift of God. By far the most frequently referred to is Ephesians 2:8-9 (need I quote it?). The exegetical flimsiness of using this passage in this way should be common knowledge. Apparently it is not……Calvin… [is] among the host who reject such isogesis since they recognized that the relative pronoun touto (this) is neuter and pistis (faith) is feminine and cannot serve as its antecedent. Although Calvin doesn't explain the grammar, he is very explicit about this error: “And here we must advert to a very common error in the interpretation of this passage. Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”… Is there any question that all those who continue to ignore the unambiguous grammar and scholarly opinion of even Calvin himself are rightly called extreme or hyper-Calvinists.” (p.221)

Both Geisler and Olson believe Calvin explicitly denied Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches faith to be the gift of the God. Putting the Ephesians passage aside for a moment, what they do not point out is that Calvin did teach faith is a gift from God, given only to certain people. Calvin said this numerous times throughout his writings:

“[Paul] exhorts the Ephesians to remember (Ephesians 2) that they were saved by grace, not by themselves nor by their own works.... Faith, moreover, precedes justification, but in such a sense, that in respect of God, it follows. What they [Roman Catholics] say of faith might perhaps hold true, were faith itself, which puts us in possession of righteousness, our own. But seeing that it too is the free gift of God, the exception which they introduce is superfluous. Scripture, indeed, removes all doubt on another ground, when it opposes faith to works, to prevent its being classed among merits. Faith brings nothing of our own to God, but receives what God spontaneously offers us. Hence it is that faith, however imperfect, nevertheless possesses a perfect righteousness, because it has respect to nothing but the gratuitous goodness of God.” (John Calvin Acts of the Council of Trent With its Antidote, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 110) .

Now we understand that we are made partakers of all his blessings by means of faith; for this it is which brings us into communication with Christ, in order that he may dwell in us, that we may be ingrafted into him as our root, that we may be members of his body, that we may live in him, and he in us, and possess him, with all his benefits. And that it may not be thought strange that we attribute such virtue to faith, we do not take it fox a fleeting opinion, but for a certainty which we have of the promises of God, in which all these blessings are contained, and by which we embrace our Lord Jesus Christ as the surety of all our salvation, and apply to our own use what he has received of God his Father to impart unto us. This faith we likewise know that we cannot have if it be not given us from above, and as Scripture declares, (Ephesians 2:9; 1:18,) till the Holy Spirit enlightens us to comprehend what is beyond all human sense, and seals in our hearts what we ought to believe.”[John Calvin, Selected Works of Calvin Volume 2, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 138].

"Since, therefore, Abraham is at this time the father of all the faithful, it, follows that our safety is not to be thought otherwise than in that covenant which God established with Abraham; but afterwards the same covenant was ratified by the hand of Moses. A difference must now be briefly remarked from a passage in Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 31:32,) namely, because the ancient covenant was abolished through the fault of man, there was reed of a better remedy, which is there shown to be twofold, namely, that God should bury men’s sins, and inscribe his law on their hearts: that also was done in Abraham’s time. Abraham believed in God: faith was always the gift of the Holy Spirit; therefore God inscribed his covenant in Abraham’s heart. (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Ephesians 2:8.)”[ John Calvin, Commentary on Ezekiel, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 574]).

Dearly beloved brethren we must not be amazed if the article of the everlasting predestination to God, be so assaulted and fought against by Satan’s maintainers, seeing it is the foundation of our salvation, and also serveth for the better magnifying of the free goodness of God towards us. On the other side those Dogs which bark against it thinking to have a good and favorable cause are therein more hardy: as in very truth there is nothing more contrary to man’s understanding, than to place the cause of our salvation in the good will of God, in saying, that it belongeth to him alone to choose us: without finding of anything in us wherefore he should choose us: and after he hath chosen us, to give us faith through which we should be justified.”[ John Calvin, Sermon on Election and Reprobation, in The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 225.]

Thus, Calvinists cannot be said to be “extreme” for holding that faith is the gift of God. It should be obvious that Geisler and Olson are in error if they are intending to assert that modern day Calvinists have gone beyond Calvin in believing faith to be a gift from God. In fairness, neither of these men explicitly asserts this, but the logical deduction is inherent in their comments, and the pastor I spoke with made the deduction. Neither Olson nor Geisler provide any positive statements like the above quotes. The pastor I spoke to seemed quite confident Calvin never believed faith to be a gift from God. When I brought these other Calvin passages to his attention, he had to agree that Calvin did in fact teach this doctrine. He then simply asserted that Calvin contradicted himself with comments on Ephesians 2:8-9, and this contradiction is a clear example of why Christians should never follow a fallible man.

As to Calvin’s comments on Ephesians 2:8-9, Calvin did not contradict himself with his comments on these verses.
First, let's do a little "alternate reality" type of analysis: it would not be a contradiction for Calvin to hold that faith was a gift from God, and that Ephesians 2:8-9 did not explicitly teach this truth.

Second, back to reality, I do think Calvin held Ephesians 2:8-9 implicitly taught that faith was the gift of God for the following reasons:

(a) In other quotes as shown above, Calvin includes Ephesians 2 when discussing faith being a gift from God.

(b) The immediate context of his comments show that Calvin believed free will (in regards to salvation) was a theological error- Salvation is obtained by faith alone, and that salvation is entirely the work of God. Calvin does not hold that depraved man has the ability to exercise saving faith without God’s gift of faith. As James White has pointed out,

“…[M]ake special note of two of the phrases provided by Calvin in response to Rome's claims: "nay, the whole man, and everything that he can call his own, is set aside. We must attend to the contrast between God and Man, between grace and works;" and "since Paul excludes man and his utmost ability, — not only from the commencement, but throughout, — from the whole work of obtaining salvation." We suggest that the person who honestly wishes to know where Calvin would stand on the debate today would find these to be the key affirmations, for if Geisler's position is correct, and "anyone can believe," then Calvin's entire position is overthrown. Would not such a faith be something the man could "call his own"? Calvin says it is set aside. Would this not be part of man's "utmost ability" especially at the very "commencement" of salvation"? Paul excludes it from the whole work of obtaining salvation, Calvin teaches.” (James White, The Potter’s Freedom (New York: Calvary Press, 2000), 318-319)

(c) Olson is correct when he asserts that “Calvin doesn’t explain the grammar.” However, Calvin does say that the error is restricting the word “gift” to faith alone. One must remember Calvin wrote in response to the errors of medieval Catholic theology, that posited a synergism in salvation, in which initial “faith” (or grace) was bestowed on a person and then one kept oneself saved by allowing grace to be infused in their works. Hence, the explanation that faith, grace, and salvation are all the gift of God harmonizes Calvin’s point that the word "gift" should not be restricted to faith.

The primary source that Olson and Geisler for this stuff is from R.T. Kendall’s book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (No time to get into this now- maybe another time!) . While Geisler and Olson continue to use the phrase “extreme Calvinists” in a somewhat less-than-charitable fashion, perhaps designating both these authors “extreme-Kendall-ists” is appropriate. They have gone beyond their own source for Calvin research by attributing a position to Calvin that he did not hold. Kendall explains Calvin: “…we cannot turn to God or do anything that pertains to obedience until first we have been given faith.”(Kendall, p. 26) For these writers to use any comment from Calvin to prove that faith is not the gift of God is simply historical slight-of-hand.

5 comments:

Ellen said...

I know that Calvin believed it.

I'm also reading "Paedofaith" by Rich Lusk, which begs the question:

If faith is a gift from God, how old do you have to be before you can receive the gift?

(more at my blog)

James Swan said...

Stay tuned.

James

FM483 said...

James, could you provide me your definition of "faith", theologically? Unless I am mistaken, the Lutheran definition and Calvinist definition are different. These differences become gigantic when considering the different beliefs of the doctrine of Justification.

Thanks - Frank

Ray said...

I'm not sure you'll see my comments below at the other site where you responded to my earlier comments, but this location seems appropriate to post my response. Enjoy.

Well, it sounds like we’ve hit a sensitive nerve. Mr. Swan (or is it Dr. Swan?) had a ready answer for my objections to his article. He suggests that I’m the worst of readers of Calvin since I believe Calvin contradicts himself on important issues. Notice how I was misquoted by Dr. Swan at this point. Hopefully, he wasn’t angry. Since he’s a new creation in Christ and no doubt abiding in Him, he can’t sin according to 1 Jn 3:6. I guess this was a simple oversight.

But Dr. Swan brings up a good point. Did Calvin believe that faith is a gift from God or is it as I believe, a response to the offer of a gift by God? Dr. Swan showed examples in Calvin's writings other than Eph 2:8-9 that show Calvin believes faith to be a gift. But wait a minute! Did Olson or Geisler claim that Calvin didn't believe faith was a gift or is it their claim that Eph 2:8-9 cannot be used as proof texts? I think Dr. Swan is guilty of going beyond what Olson and Geisler have said. Notice Dr. Swan's comment, "Both Geisler and Olson assert that Calvin did not believe faith was the gift of God, and his commentary on Ephesians 2:8-9 proves this." What kind of error would you call this Dr. Swan? Neither Olson nor Geisler ever claim that Calvin didn't believe faith is a gift of God. Did you really read them? What they are claiming is that extreme Calvinists have an arsenal of proof texts to show that faith is the gift of God, and that Eph 2:8-9, as one, doesn't hold water. Olson and Geisler both go on to show that the remaining purported proof texts are equally weak. Indeed, their point is that Extreme Calvinism is an egregious example of a system of theology that is quick to read into texts of scripture what they want to hear rather than what it says. Interestingly, you have helped them prove their point with your examples of misquotes, going beyond what writers have said, misunderstanding what they have said, and then trashing them with flawed deduction and your own eisegesis.

Let's look closer at Dr. Swan's review of my comments to his blog. Even though it's obvious that Calvin believes faith is a gift, he clearly does not believe that Eph 2:8-9 show that it's a gift. Amazingly, given the grammar, Calvin, Olson, Geisler and Ray to the contrary, Dr. Swan believes that Eph 2:8-9 does teach that faith is a gift. Let's look at his quote. He says, “Thus, grace, salvation, and faith are all the “gift of God.” It isn’t simply faith. It is the entire phrase. It is spurious logic to suggest that grace and salvation are gifts, but faith isn’t.” Dr. Swan also says, " Note Calvin’s point: many people “restrict the word gift to faith alone.” But Calvin says that the entirety of salvation is the gift of God: that is, grace, salvation, and faith.." This is amazing. Calvin absolutely does not say that faith is included in the entirety of salvation. You are the only who says that. (Is this not eisegesis?) In fact Calvin goes out of his way to point out that to find faith as a gift in Eph 2:8-9 is an error. If what Dr. Swan says is true then I believe I can rest my case on Calvin being hard to pin down since he clearly contradicts himself. In fact, it's so confusing that even Dr. Swan got it wrong, and even suggests that Calvin is confused since he says one thing (Eph 2:8-9 is not teaching faith to be a gift) and believing another (Swan: "Calvin's point is…." and "Thus, grace, salvation, and faith are all the “gift of God.” It isn’t simply faith. It is the entire phrase. It is spurious logic to suggest that grace and salvation are gifts, but faith isn’t." I think Dr. Swan has been reading too much Calvin, White, and Sproul and not enough Olson and Geisler.

But let's look at the what Eph 2:8-9 really says . Reading the passage without straining, I would say that the grammar is saying that “salvation” is the gift, not grace, not faith, and its unlikely the whole phrase. Grace is the means from God’s side (instrumental dative –te chariti), and faith is the meritless mechanism (dia + genitive) by which man appropriates the gift of salvation. (Though meritless we are held accountable for the choice.) That faith is meritless and the means by which anyone can appropriate the gift is well illustrated by John 3:14-15 and the Israelite being immediately healed by simply looking at the brazen serpent. Would anyone consider this “look” a gift? I would say that the healing is the gift? The gift is offered, and the Israelite can either accept it or reject it. The provision of the brazen serpent and all of God’s power to effect the outcome could also be considered the gift, but God does require a volitional response, and that is provided by simply looking.

Bottom line: Olson and Geisler are solid in their exegesis. You Dr. Swan, however,………well the above discussion says it all.

FM483 said...

Ray - reading your post prompted a response. Your position is that man must do something in order to be saved - is that correct? You seem to be stating that a man's hearing and believing the message of the Gospel is his part in salvation? This, of course, means that man cooperates with God in his salvation - that the atonement of Christ on the cross was somehow deficient without man's contribution. This is synergism at it's worst. You bring up the subject of the brazen serpent on the pole and the requirement of man to gaze upon it in order to be saved. Don't you realize that every breath you take is a gift from God? It is God Who works in you to know and to do of His good pleasure - He even gives you the idea to look to Christ and not to your sinful with it's often faulty human reason and logic. For example, consider the altar calls in a Billy Graham crusade. Those people responding are already Christians - unbelievers could never do such a foolish thing. These people somehow, someday in the past or present, heard the Word of God and supernaturally faith was created within them by the Holy Spirit(Romans 10:17). These people are merely working out their faith which already comforts their troubled consciences. God does it all - from start to completion. Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith(Hebrews 12:2). Salvation is strictly monogistic - by the Grace of God alone. He is the Good Shepherd Who came to save sinners. Mankind never believed the sacrifice of Christ was necessary for his salvation because he always considers himself basically good! Hence, when Christ appeared in the flesh, He was not recognized - except when the Father allowed Christ to be recognized(e.g. Matthew 16:17). Man is a passive recipient of the Grace of God. Otherwise I would always be uncertain whether I responded enough or was in the faith. Since it is God Who does both the Justification and Sanctification of the believer, I can rest in Him, not myself to any extent whatsoever.