Volume 42 - Issue 2

The Preeminence of Knowledge in John Calvin’s Doctrine of Conversion and Its Influence Upon His Ministry in Geneva

By Obbie Tyler Todd


John Calvin believed that the mind served as the “citadel” to the soul, commanding the seat of conversion whereby God first remedied the noetic effects of sin before liberating the bound will. Therefore the Reformer consigned particular importance to human knowledge in the process of conversion that reverberated throughout his entire Genevan ministry. It is the aim of this article to examine Calvin’s developed hierarchy of faculties, particularly the chief functional status ascribed to the mind, and how this preeminence of knowledge influenced his view of sin, salvation, and Christian homiletics respectively.

There is perhaps no greater polarity of persons to illustrate the breadth and diversity of the Reformation than the flamboyance of Martin Luther and the reservation of John Calvin. Juxtaposed with the likes of a German Reformer who proudly narrated his own flatulence and drinking, Calvin’s reticence to discuss his own personal affairs can border on the seemingly misanthropic. As a result, we know remarkably little of the personal life of John Calvin, the man who insisted upon being buried in an unmarked Genevan grave. Even more astounding in light of Calvin’s vast corpus of writings is the fact that only once did he ever care to share his own conversion narrative.1 Yet, despite his sustained silence on such an important personal experience, Calvin wrote prolifically on the subject in general. In fact, subsequent generations of Calvinists have been molded around his clear, concise teachings concerning the doctrines of sin, Christ, and the corollary doctrine of conversion.

Interestingly, Calvin never articulated his theology of conversion without careful attention to the human faculties. His emphasis upon the sinfulness of the human will, for example, has become so well known in modern theological circles that, for better or for worse, the doctrine of “total depravity” occupies the first letter in the famous acronym “TULIP” now synonymous with the name of Calvin.2 This attention given to the will, however, does not indicate any voluntarism on Calvin’s part. On the contrary, Calvin consigned particular importance to knowledge in the process of conversion. While no less marred by the Fall, in Calvinistic soteriology the mind commands the seat of conversion by which God first remedies the noetic effects of sin and then penetrates his illuminating grace into the deepest recesses of the soul. It is the aim of this article to examine Calvin’s developed hierarchy of faculties, particularly the chief functional status ascribed to the mind, and how this preeminence of knowledge influenced his view of sin, salvation, and Christian homiletics respectively.

Before dissecting Calvin’s psychology of conversion, however, it is first necessary to define terms, especially as the French Reformer defined them. After all, Calvin’s conception of conversion is not seamlessly congruent with the seventeenth century scholastic notion of an ordo saludis by which so many contemporary Calvinists have been educated.3 For example, his doctrine of union with Christ and its “double grace” prevented him from making hard and fast boundaries between justification and sanctification that many (including Luther) are prone to accept. Moreover, for Calvin, regeneration and conversion were not synonyms. The latter he identified more with the idea of repentance, which he defines as a “real conversion of our life unto God, proceeding from sincere and serious fear of God; and consisting in the mortification of our flesh and the old man, and the quickening of the Spirit.”4 Therefore, as opposed to the unilateral, initiating nature of regeneration, conversion for Calvin denoted the sinner’s response to regenerating grace, though no less monergistic. In some sense, for Calvin, regeneration and conversion were two sides of the same soteriological coin, regeneration designating the exclusively divine aspect of grace, and conversion denoting the human dimension.5 Like regeneration, conversion is both an event and a process.6

Due to this durative view of salvation, Calvin’s doctrine of conversion is perhaps not as punctiliar as that of a twenty-first century evangelical. This seeming paradox has prompted many modern scholars to doubt whether John Calvin held a formulated doctrine of conversion in the way that most conceive of it today.7 What is often lacking is not an explicit doctrine of conversion from Calvin, but a proper understanding of Reformed epistemology on the part of the reader. Sixteenth century Geneva was, in so many ways, a far theological and social cry from the decisionistic American pulpit. Calvin defined faith in gradual terms, as a “special gift of God in both ways – in purifying the mind so as to give it a relish for divine truth, and afterward in establishing it therein. For the Spirit does not merely originate faith, but gradually increases it, until by its means he conducts us into the heavenly kingdom.”8 Due to the preeminence of knowledge in Calvin’s doctrine of conversion, the imagery of light is consistently employed to depict the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. According to Calvin, this illumination was a process. In his interpretation of Colossians 1:8–9, Calvin maintains that “the mental eye remains shut, until it is opened by the Lord. Nor does Scripture say that our minds are illuminated in a single day, so as afterward to see of themselves. The passage, which I lately quoted from the Apostle Paul, refers to continual progress and increase.”9 Therefore one cannot begin to distill Calvin’s epistemology without a closer look at his pneumatology as well.

Lastly, it will prove fruitful for the reader to also understand how Calvin defined our redemptive task: knowledge lay at the very foundation and aim of Christianity. Ever the humanist, Calvin defined wisdom exclusively in terms of knowledge. In the very first sentence of the very first chapter of the Institutes, wisdom is described as binary: knowledge of God and knowledge of self.10 This is, in many regards, the overarching goal of the Institutes: an apologetic and catechetical attempt to inculcate the principles of the Christian faith and restore knowledge of God and self. However, for so much emphasis upon gnosis, Calvin’s sapiential knowledge is far from Gnostic. Both kinds of knowledge have been clouded and perverted by sin. By God’s grace, only a “remnant” of the imago dei is residual in fallen man. Therefore, in order to correct our idolatry and ignorance, God graciously discloses Himself to sinners in the Holy Scriptures.

Interestingly, Calvin’s famous metaphor likening the Bible to spectacles is derived primarily in his cerebral view of wisdom and salvation. According to Calvin, sinners, “when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.”11 In the ancient sense, Calvin was very much a philosopher: a lover of wisdom. However, unlike the pagan philosophers and humanists of his day, Calvin held to an acute view of human sin, and this carried profound effects upon his doctrine of conversion. His view of the human faculties, while reflective of Greek philosophy, was not altogether continuous with it. It is to this subject that we now turn.

1. The Image of God

In order to demonstrate John Calvin’s elevation of the role of the mind in conversion and its place among the human faculties, one must look both to history as well as theology. We begin with theology. In the Institutes, before addressing sin or salvation or the church, Calvin first examines the doctrine of creation, which informed almost every aspect of his theology. According to Emil Brunner, “The concept of the imago dei is fundamental to Calvinistic anthropology.”12 The image of God, which Calvin also equated with the Hebrew word “likeness,” was for him far less concerned with the outward appearance of man than with his soul, “the proper seat of the image.”13 Calvin explicitly identified the “primary seat of the divine image” as the human mind and heart.14 However, when describing the imago dei functionally, Calvin clearly favored its rational, cognitive dimension. In describing the image of God before the Fall, Calvin maintains the ruling authority of human reason: “Man excelled in these noble endowments in his primitive condition, when reason, intelligence, prudence, and judgment not only sufficed for the government of his earthly life, but also enabled him to rise up to God and eternal happiness … the will being thus perfectly submissive to the authority of reason. In this upright state, man possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life.”15 From the beginning, the mind was supreme.

True to his clear style, Calvin never equivocated when charting the hierarchy of faculties and the chief place allotted to the mind. He describes the intellect as “the guide and ruler of the soul” and human reason as “one of the essential properties of our nature” and the authority to which the will was “perfectly submissive.” For Calvin, the will “always follows its beck, and waits for its decisions, in matters of desire.”16 While the entrance of sin into the cosmos perverted man’s desire and corrupted his reason, it did not alter the mind’s preeminent position over the will. In John Calvin’s Ideas, Paul Helm explains, “Thus the understanding leads and governs the soul, with the will following its judgment.… Sense is included in understanding. Does understanding include reason, for Calvin? Understanding ‘in intent and quiet study contemplates what reason discursively ponders’. Reason denotes the faculty which ‘embraces universal judgment’, as well as the capacity to distinguish between good and evil.”17 While remaining conceptually distinct, intellect and reason are often for Calvin near-synonyms in his examination of human psychology.

The “remnant” of the imago dei in fallen humanity still contains a capacity for reason. In fact, Calvin defines this iconic remnant as “nothing less than the entire human, rational nature, the immortal soul, the capacity for culture, the conscience, responsibility, the relation with God, which – though not redemptive – exists even in sin, language, the whole of cultural life. And upon it he bases considerable portions of his ethics.”18 These sin-stained faculties, especially the human conscience, are perhaps our best indications of human immortality. The imago dei is that which distinguishes us from irrational brutes, and the mind’s command of the appetite (what Calvin equated with the will) is unique to humanity and angels alone. Therefore, according to Calvin, the human will’s primary role is to “choose whatever reason and intellect propound.”19

Calvin also remained conversant with ancient thinkers with whom he found both continuity and discontinuity. For this reason, Calvin’s psychology of conversion must be contextualized against the historical backdrop of Greek philosophy and patristic Christianity. As John Ball observes, “From his intellectual heritage, Calvin inherited the conception of the human being as a hierarchy of faculties, with the mind as the chief commander.”20 Calvin’s humanism ensured that he was familiar with the writings of Plato, in whom he found the most agreement among the ancient philosophers. He insists, “It were vain to seek a definition of the soul from philosophers, not one of whom, with the exception of Plato, distinctly maintained its immortality.… Plato, however, advanced still further, and regarded the soul as an image of God.”21 Calvin finds a measure of validity in Plato’s five “organs” or senses (sense, imagination, reason, judgment, intellect), his three cognitive faculties of the soul (intellect, fancy, and reason), and his three appetite faculties (will, irascibility, concupiscence). Still, despite giving these categories his approbation, Calvin dispenses with them in order to offer his own version of the human faculties. Instead of dividing the human soul into appetite and intellect, as Calvin observed most philosophers to do, and rather than subdividing each respectively, the French Reformer contended that “the soul consists of two parts, the intellect and the will – the office of the intellect being to distinguish between objects, according as they seem deserving of being approved or disapproved; and the office of the will, to choose and follow what the intellect declares to be good, to reject and shun what it declares to be bad.”22 It was Calvin’s belief that, due to their ignorance of sin, philosophers confounded two states of man that are in fact very different from one another. In turn, Calvin’s bipartite view of the soul also compelled him to reject Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity that featured a tripartite soul of intellect, will, and memory.23

Therefore, while Calvin certainly inherited an elevated view of reason and the mental faculties from the likes of Plato and Augustine, his view of the soul was his own. His view of human sin, however, while forging his greatest departure from classical philosophy, also became the bond that united him with Augustine. According to Calvin, “the doctrine which I deliver is not new, but the doctrine which of old Augustine delivered with the consent of all the godly, and which was afterward shut up in the cloisters of monks for almost a thousand years.”24 Calvin’s facultative doctrine of conversion thus had a profound influence upon the way he interpreted hamartiology and its effects upon the human psyche.

2. The Want of Faculties

In a fallen cosmos, sin has vitiated the use of man’s faculties, and for Calvin, this severely complicated the task of self-knowledge. What ensues is something he compares to wandering in a labyrinth, searching for God. Calvin makes explicit that part of the initial step in conversion is the acknowledgement of one’s compromised faculties. A sinner ought “to consider his faculties, or rather want of faculties, a want which, when perceived, will annihilate all his confidence, and cover him with confusion.”25 Calvin thus took exception with Peter Lombard (a common target of his) who taught that only a part of the soul was opposed to grace, as opposed to the whole man. Sin was all-encompassing, and this included the mind. Therefore humanity was plunged into utter darkness and death, completely unable to save themselves or to come to God of their own power. When theologians contended for humanity’s free will, Calvin saw their empty claims as “delusions of the devil, by which he bewitches the minds of men, so that they come not to God, but, on the contrary, precipitate themselves into the lowest deep, where they seek to exalt themselves beyond measure.”26 Conversely, when the Spirit declared that all sinners were under “darkness,” Calvin interpreted this to mean that God “declares them void of all power of spiritual intelligence.”27 This of course does not connote the complete loss of all human faculties, only the proper and righteous use of them.

Calvin affirmed Augustine’s teaching that humanity’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin but only their supernatural gifts altogether removed. Therefore the French Reformer balanced a high view of the imago dei with an especially high view of sin. According to the former law student, “although there is still some residue of intelligence and judgment as well as will, we cannot call a mind sound and entire which is both weak and immersed in darkness.”28 This particular hamartiology forms the backdrop for Paul Helm’s disagreement with Thomas Pink over the nature of Calvin’s natural theology. According to Pink, Calvin did not necessarily claim that practical reason vanished from humanity, however, he did teach that practical reason was rendered completely ineffective, or “eclipsed.” Pink basically contends for the “outright denial” of practical rationality in Calvin’s facultative psychology.29 Helm, on the other hand, rejects this view when he asserts, “Reason was not completely wiped out but it was partly weakened and partly corrupted, so that its misshapen ruins appear…. We shall see that while Pink’s view of Calvin may be plausible in the case of heavenly things, it is less plausible in the case of the earthly.”30

The “darkness” of sin imprisoned both the intellect and the will in rebellion against God. Yet, in discussing sin’s damaging effects upon the soul, Calvin maintains the priority of the mind. “For not only did the inferior appetites entice him, but abominable impiety seized upon the very citadel of the mind, and pride penetrated to his inmost heart.”31 When discussing the nature of sin and its damaging effects upon humanity, Calvin consistently accentuates its noetic effects. In his chapter on the bondage of the will, Calvin also explores the bondage of the human mind: “But such is the proneness of the human mind to go astray, that it will more quickly draw error from one little word, than truth from a lengthened discourse.”32

Interestingly, however, while Calvin’s anthropology and theology of conversion feature the preeminence of human knowledge, his hamartiology places the will as the primary vessel for sin:

We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains. And indeed, if divine grace were preceded by any will of ours, Paul could have said that “it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do” (Phil. 2:13).33

For Calvin, the mind was the “citadel” to the soul, however the will, as the lower faculty, was the entrance of sin into the human heart. This helped him to reconcile the question of original sin in the Garden. In Genesis 3, the original source of Adam’s rebellion was his own free will, not his mind.34

This explanation for original sin accords well with Calvin’s view of the effaced imago dei as well as his elevated view of the mind in conversion. According to Calvin, human reason became a “shapeless ruin” in light of sin. However, it was not annihilated after the Fall. Calvin insists, “in the perverted and degenerate nature of man there are still some sparks which show that he is a rational animal, and differs from the brutes, inasmuch as he is endued with intelligence, and yet, that this light is so smothered by clouds of darkness that it cannot shine forth to any good effect.”35 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. For this reason, Calvin’s view of natural law as defined in Romans 1 in addition to his belief in a rational “remnant” of the divine image bring him to reject Plato’s claim that wrongs are committed only through ignorance.36 While Calvin’s aim for godliness comes through knowledge, a purely intellectualist ethic does not account for a thoroughly Reformed doctrine of sin. After all, the human will is “so enslaved by depraved lusts as to be incapable of one righteous desire,” including the desire to learn righteousness.37

3. Renewing of the Mind

The preeminence that John Calvin afforded the mind is perhaps never more evident than in his doctrine of conversion. By preeminence what is meant is that, for Calvin, the intellect is functionally superior to the will in the process of conversion. In other words, Calvin believed that no sinner could be moved volitionally to desire and seek after Christ unless his mind was first illumined by the Holy Spirit to see and contemplate the glory of God in Christ Jesus. He explains,

The next thing necessary is, that what the mind has imbibed be transferred into the heart. The word is not received in faith when it merely flutters in the brain, but when it has taken deep root in the heart, and become an invincible bulwark to withstand and repel all the assaults of temptation.… Hence the Spirit performs the part of a seal, sealing upon our hearts the very promises, the certainty of which was previously impressed upon our minds.38

As will be shown, John Calvin believed that the gateway into the soul of the unbeliever was through the mind.

Calvin’s balance of human dignity and depravity demanded that the mind remain the “citadel” of the soul, especially in conversion. Reason is the commander of the will. However, since the mind is no less marred by sin, the Spirit must work to enlighten the intellect to the same degree that it straightens the will (Eph 4:23; Phil 2:13). For this reason, Calvin is particularly fond of comparing the Spirit’s illumination of human reason to that of the sun and the human eye. His theology of creation provides the foundation for this epistemology. The human faculties are part of the imago Dei, and as so, are extant in all human beings, saved and unregenerate alike. Therefore Calvin can claim that “in conversion everything essential to our original nature remains: I also say, that it is created anew, not because the will then begins to exist, but because it turns from evil to good.”39 Calvinistic soteriology was about renewal. Echoing Paul’s theology in Romans 12, Calvin believed that this renewal began with the mind: “it is only when the human intellect is irradiated by the light of the Holy Spirit that it begins to have a taste … previously it was too stupid and senseless to have any relish for them.”40 Calvin believed there to be more distrust in the heart than blindness in the mind, indicating his noetically inclined soteriology.41 By faith, sinners were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of their own will, but of a God who opens the eyes of the spiritually blind (John 1:5; Eph 1:18).

God accomplished this through the unilateral work of regeneration. Just as man had no choice in his own birth, so God alone dictated the time and terms of one’s rebirth (John 15:16). God’s providential control over his own creation was something that Calvin not only felt was lucid in Scripture; it was a self-evident truth to any sentient being. “That your mind depends more on the agency of God than the freedom of your own choice, daily experience teaches,” Calvin opined.42 Calvin never found his particularly high natural theology to be at odds with a high view of God. In fact, as Calvin saw them, the intelligence and power of the human mind only exalted the majesty of its benevolent Creator.

Still, Calvin was especially careful to distinguish his noetic view of conversion from the bare intellectual faith of Christian rationalism. He warned, “The knowledge of God which we are invited to cultivate is not that which, resting satisfied with empty speculation, only flutters in the brain, but a knowledge which will prove substantial and fruitful wherever it is duly perceived, and rooted in the heart.”43 For Calvin, faith went beyond apprehension or mere speculation. It was certitude, or as Calvin explained, “a sure and certain knowledge of God’s good will towards us which, being founded upon the promise freely given in Jesus Christ, is revealed to our understanding and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Francois Wendel, in his historical and systematic theology of Calvin, avers, “This did not represent any falling-back upon a more intellectualist position. The knowledge of faith is not directed to any given doctrinal truth, but to God’s good will. Nor is this a matter of rationally understanding God’s attitude towards us, but of having a full and certain certitude about him.”44 Calvin meant to distance himself from the implicit faith of the scholastics, meanwhile retaining a noetic view of conversion. In his chapter “Of Faith,” Calvin takes note of faith’s many names in Scripture, namely understanding (Col. 2:2) and knowledge (1 John 3:2).45 Through the enlightening of the Spirit, the eyes of the mind could be opened and the sinner could find knowledge of God in the glory of Christ. Without this particular Spirit-imparted knowledge, the future of the church was no more. Speaking of the doctrine of justification by faith, Calvin warns, “Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly unknown.” Calvin’s noetic view of conversion dictated that he sees the work of the Spirit as spiritual illumination first and foremost. As Calvin reminds his readers, “we are all naturally blind; and hence the word cannot penetrate our minds unless the Spirit, that internal teacher, by his enlightening power make an entrance for it.”46

4. Calvinistic Homiletics

John Calvin considered the human intellect “the guide and ruler of the soul.”47 As the noblest of faculties and that which separates man from beast, it serves as the “authority” to which the will is “perfectly submissive.”48 For Calvin, this order of faculties had significant theological and practical implications, beginning with the natural human longing to learn with the mind. Calvin believed that the human mind, though subjected to a sinful fog, was not robbed of its propensity for truth:

We see that there has been implanted in the human mind a certain desire of investigating truth, to which it never would aspire unless some relish for truth antecedently existed. There is, therefore, now, in the human mind, discernment to this extent, that it is naturally influenced by the love of truth.49

As image bearers of God, the saints and the unregenerate alike are gifted with a profound epistemic desire, and this had discernible effects upon Calvin’s approach to his Genevan ministry. When he ascended the pulpit at St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin believed that his sermons should meet the necessary human longing for truth. This was part of the essence of preaching: a proclamation of the truth. Sinners were, to one degree or another, rational sinners, and “the more a man studies to approach to God, the more he proves himself to be endued with reason.”50

Due to this elevated view of the human mind, Calvin placed a theological premium on brainpower in the process of conversion. In order to find salvation in Christ, Calvin expected a sinner to use his or her head. There was no room for dumb faith or fideism in Calvin’s catechized Geneva. His noetic view of conversion influenced Calvin’s own homiletics to the point that his sermons at St. Pierre Cathedral were extremely didactic. According to Herman Selderhuis,

Calvin’s preaching had a strong teaching element, and he frequently spoke of the church as the school of God (l’escole de Dieu). God was the pedagogue or teacher, the Bible was ‘the school of the Holy Spirit,’ and the believer was a ‘student in God’s church.’ As mother the church not only gave birth but also nourished and educated her children. Instruction was a life-long affair, and even at the edge of the grave ‘God calls us to his school.’ Human beings, after all, have a short memory, forget quickly and have a constant tendency to seek out all kinds of new things. Frequent repetition of the curriculum was best.51

For Calvin the pastor, preaching and teaching were inextricable, precisely due to the didactic nature of Gospel ministry. After all, pastors are called to teach their disciples all that the Lord has commanded them. For this reason, Calvin’s preaching was also expository. If the Scriptures were graciously given to the church to be studied and absorbed, it was incumbent upon the preacher to ensure that they were properly managed and taught. After three years exiled in Strasbourg, and true to his practice of lectio continua, it is little wonder that Calvin returned to the following text in Romans without skipping a beat!52

Calvin believed that conversion came principally through the seat of the mind. Therefore he preached relentlessly to the mind. This was Calvin’s psychology of conversion at work in his homiletics. Because salvation came through knowledge of God and of self, sinners needed to be educated and not simply exhorted. Faith was a certainty of the promises of God built upon proper knowledge, not feelings or sentiment. However, before a sinner can properly exercise his or her mental capacity, the Spirit must first act upon the mind in order to allow sinners to receive a knowledge of the truth. Of the preacher Calvin boldly insists that “nothing is accomplished by his preaching unless the inner teacher, the Spirit, open the way into our minds.”53 In order for the biblical teacher to fulfill his task to inculcate the truth of the Scriptures to his disciples, the Spirit must prepare minds for learning. This is why Calvin called the Scriptures the “school of the Holy Spirit.”54 Education meant illumination.

Calvin’s psychology not only buttressed his doctrine of conversion; it cemented his ecclesiology as well. For example, in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Calvin outlines his four offices for the church: pastor, doctor, elder, and deacon. The role of doctor, an office perhaps unfamiliar to most contemporary evangelicals, was “the instruction of the faithful in true doctrine.”55 The Ordinances also stipulate that there was to be at least one lecturer in theology in Geneva. In fact, the Ordinances themselves stand as a grand testament not only to Calvin’s penchant for order but also for systematic education. Williston Walker explains that Calvin viewed the office of teacher as of divine appointment, having as its highest duty that of educating “the faithful in sound doctrine” from the Old and New Testaments. But he felt no less strongly that before the learner “can profit by such lessons he must first be instructed in the languages and worldly sciences.” Calvin therefore sought to develop the Genevan school system under this ecclesiastical conception of the teachership.56

Calvin prized education of all kinds, and each area of study was under the umbrella of the church. Sinners needed more than encouragement or admonishment. They needed learning, and that by the Spirit of Christ.

Due to his esteem for education and the exercise of the Christian mind, Calvin also founded his famous Academy, an institution of theological learning that would greatly influence Reformed Christianity on the continent as well as Scottish Presbyterians and Elizabethan Puritans alike. If nothing else, John Calvin was a teacher. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Calvin, a committed Christian humanist, viewed the mind as preeminent in the learning of eternal things. Remarkably, when John Calvin became pastor in Geneva in 1536, he still lacked an official degree in theology from an academic institution. Neither had he submitted to any kind of ecclesiastical examination. Nevertheless, in addition to his studies in logic, languages, and civic law, the French Reformer was a man fixed with educating the world in the Christian faith. Therefore Calvin’s psychology of conversion is but an outworking of the preeminence he ascribed to the mind in all areas of learning.

Calvin engineered Geneva to suit his particularly noetic view of Christianity and conversion. What remains to be seen, however, is exactly how he wielded this unique faculty psychology in the classroom and behind the pulpit. How did Calvin’s homiletic correlate with his cerebral approach to ministry?

Fortunately, thanks to the litany of John Calvin’s writings available to us, the modern reader is able to encounter multiple evidences of Calvin’s didactic strategy. For example, in his commentary on Habakkuk 2:4 (“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith”), Calvin takes note of the antithetic parallelism and insists that “this truth will with more force penetrate into our minds; for we know how much such comparisons illustrate a subject which would be otherwise obscure or less evident.”57 From this brief word the reader can deduce two helpful hints about Calvin’s delivery of the Gospel. First, Calvin’s homiletic is founded in his hermeneutic. In other words, because the Scriptures are God-breathed and Spirit-authored, the believer has confidence and license to absorb its theology as well as its methodology.58

Secondly, Calvin regards verbal devices such as contrast and illustrations as potent tools in the task of inculcating biblical truth to the mind. According to Calvin, “The unerring standard both of thinking and speaking must be derived from the Scriptures: by it all the thoughts of our minds, and the words of our mouths, should be tested.”59 His high view of Scripture led Calvin to treat them as the ultimate source of truth, and his humanism urged him to scrupulously examine them as the basis for his ministry. Therefore Calvin not only exegeted the Scriptures faithfully; he also employed strong contrasts and illustrations in his own writing and preaching—akin to those he found in the Bible itself. For instance, Calvin was particularly fond of using the imagery of a “labyrinth” or an “abyss” to describe the hopeless wandering and confusion of a life without Christ. Calvin was also prone to dichotomize the “pollution” or “contagion of sin” endemic to the seed of Adam with the righteousness freely offered to those in Christ, the better Adam.60 For Calvin, proper delivery of biblical truth meant that a Gospel message must be packaged in such a way as to capture and draw the intellect. His conversionism dictated his unique homiletic.

Calvin’s rhetorical skill also extended to the very words he used and how he used them. His style of writing was so fluid that many scholars have even identified him as the inventor of modern French sentence structure. For Calvin, brevity and clarity were the two premiere attributes of a good communicator who desired to connect with the mind of his readers. He believed that the “chief virtue of an interpreter lies in clear brevity.”61 Calvin once wrote to Heinrich Bullinger, “I have always loved simplicity; and never cared much for cleverness.”62 It was not Calvin’s tendency nor his personality to engage in ostentatious wordiness. According to T. H. L. Parker, his “greatest quality as a commentator was his self-disciplined subordination to the text.”63 Calvin’s reticence to discuss personal matters was a perfectly complement to his indefatigable biblicism. In order for sinners to absorb and comprehend the Word of God, it was the expositor’s task not to obscure its meaning with recondite language.

In a letter to William Farel, Calvin discusses his writing and reveals his opinion of the modern reader:

I am afraid that the involved style and tedious discussion will obscure the light truly contained therein. I know with delight that nothing other than excellence is expected of you. I do not flatter. Your book seems to me to deserve a place among works of that rank, but because readers today are so fastidious and do not possess great acuteness, I believe the language needs to be crafted so as to attract them by fluency of expression.…This is my candid judgment.64

Here is Calvin’s ministerial modus operandi laid out explicitly. His belief in the noetic effects of sin brought him to adjust his language and syntax in order to accommodate the acute mental blindness of his hearers or readers. Moreover, Calvin’s pneumatology and his belief in the sovereignty of God were never compromised, even when he labored strenuously to capture the intellect of his audience. Calvin’s particularly noetic view of conversion and the strategy he implemented in recognizing the preeminence of the mind should not be confused with, for example, the prop-laden tactics of many modern preachers who empty the Word of its power by assuming sinners come to faith by human craftiness or creativity. Calvin was never so shrewd as to negate the sovereignty of God in conversion, nor too high in his doctrine of providence to forget the responsibility of the pastor to stimulate the minds of the converted and unconverted alike. In a letter to Martin Bucer, Calvin stated plainly, “Openness is of more use than craftiness, and so I prefer simply to say what I mean.”65 There was no room for verbal prolixity in the task of the preacher.

Lastly, for all his robust insights into the doctrine of human depravity, Calvin still remained strangely optimistic when it came to human common sense. Therefore, like his Renaissance and later Enlightenment counterparts, his natural theology helped him to esteem the capacity for logic and reason inside each sinner. According to Bruce Gordon, “One of Calvin’s principal strategies was to appeal to his readers’ common sense. Idolatry need not be proved wrong, for that is self-evident. What is required is for readers to be called to their senses, to be reminded of what they already know to be right.”66 Calvin consistently navigated his view of natural and special revelation between the Scylla of human indignity and the Charybdis of deified humanity. Dignity and depravity were carried hand in hand, and Calvin used his hierarchy of faculties to balance them theologically. The mind, as the noblest of faculties, still reflected the glimmer of Psalm 8 majesty for which we were created. However, without the work of Christ through His Spirit, the human intellect is nothing more than a vessel for sin. Critiquing his favorite scholastic target yet again, Calvin asserts, “It is less strange that Lombard was blind to the light of Scripture, in which it is obvious that he had not been a very successful student.”67 It was Calvin’s belief that every sinner is a student of something; it is the goal of the teacher to excite his or her God-given mind to the things of God, namely the Scriptures.

As Calvin’s elevated view of the mind in conversion has been adequately demonstrated, what remains is a test case of sorts. In short, did Calvin’s perspective of his personal conversion align with his own psychological and soteriological principles? Is the preeminence of Calvin’s mind in his own salvation ostensible from the account he gives us in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557)? Not surprisingly, Calvin’s brief account of his own conversion verifies his faculty psychology. After describing the act of God’s regenerating grace, Calvin recounts,

Having consequently received some taste and knowledge of true piety, I was forthwith inflamed with so great a desire to reap benefit from it that, although I did not at all abandon other studies, I yet devoted myself to them more indifferently.68

From this autobiographical excerpt, the reader is able to view the dynamics of Calvin’s conversionism in a unique way. In his own “sudden conversion” as well as in his doctrine of conversion, knowledge of the mind clearly preceded the desire of the will, effectively reversing the predominantly voluntarist Fall of Adam. According to Helm,

the basic question is not one of the subordination or superordination of each of a pair of faculties but of the respective roles played by faculties with inherently differently capacities. For Calvin, the will was subordinate to the understanding as mankind was created, but it was, unlike the understanding, inherently unstable if left to itself. It was left to itself, and perversely and irrationally turned aside from its subordinate position.69

In this sense, Calvin viewed conversion—including his own—as a restorative ordering of the faculties to their originally good hierarchy.

5. Conclusion

While John Calvin refused to operate under identical psychological categories as his classical and patristic predecessors, he was no less structured in his view of the human faculties. The French Reformer from Geneva simply found a simpler view of the soul that accommodated his Reformed view of sin and his equally robust doctrine of conversion. Calvin was unequivocal in the preeminence he ascribed in conversion to human knowledge when he described the intellect as “the guide and ruler of the soul” and human reason the “authority” to which the will was “perfectly submissive.”70 For Calvin this preeminence, as indicated by his own brief conversion narrative, was not necessarily essential but functional. The will was not an inherently inferior human faculty. However, Calvin believed that no sinner could be moved volitionally to desire and seek after Christ unless his mind was first illumined by the Holy Spirit to see and contemplate the glory of God in Christ Jesus. The effort with which Calvin balanced his severe definition of sin with his high natural theology indicates his commitment to a soteriological framework that never compromised human agency nor the dignity of the effaced imago dei. Therefore, when God saved man, He saved man in a particular way. This included the human mind, something Calvin valued very highly.

In turn, Calvin’s particularly noetic doctrine of conversion had significant implications for his Christian homiletic. His preaching at St. Pierre Cathedral exhibited a heavy didactic and cerebral element precisely because, in Calvin’s view, conversion and sanctification both came through sapiential knowledge of God and self, and these preeminently through the mind. Likewise, Calvin’s writings indicate that he employed linguistic devices in order to capture and stimulate the intellect. Salvation was, in a very real sense, biblical education. Therefore the fingerprint of Calvin’s theology of conversion could be found in his Academy as well as in his own ecclesiology with its heavy emphasis upon the teachership.

Nearly two hundred years after Calvin’s conversion, Jonathan Edwards published his Freedom of the Will (1754), a title that seemingly belies its congruity with the theology of Calvin. Nevertheless, in the famous work the Northampton theologian also advocated two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of God and knowledge of self. According to Edwards, “The knowledge of ourselves consists chiefly in right apprehensions concerning those two chief faculties of our nature, the understanding and will.”71 With acute undertones of Calvin, Edwards insists, “The will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.”72 Two centuries after Calvin developed his simplified faculty psychology, the premiere Reformed theologian of the American Enlightenment was carrying the same epistemological tune, with a similar preeminence ascribed to knowledge. While it would be difficult to trace an immediate link to Calvin, the French Reformer’s cerebral legacy no doubt lived on in the endemic intellectualism of his scholastic forbears and in the broader movement that today bears his name. Calvinists, for better or worse, have maintained an emphasis upon rational religion as the theological scions of a Reformer who believed that the power of the Word came first through the mind.

[1] This occurs in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557).

[2] Ironically, the doctrines formulated in TULIP are derived from those codified at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), held 54 years after Calvin’s death.

[3] William Ames, who Perry Miller called “the father of New England church polity” (Errand into the Wilderness [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956], 58), advocated a staunchly voluntarist view of conversion inside of an explicitly covenantal framework. His textbooks Medulla Sacrae Theologiae (1623) and De Conscientia (1630) became standard theological textbooks both in England and in the colonies. Ames was the most famous disciple of William Perkins, who developed the Puritanical theme of the ordo saludis as outlined in his A Golden Chaine (1591).

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 3.3.5.

[5] For this reason, Calvin often speaks of regeneration, repentance, and conversion as if they are synonymous. Yet, at other times, they are distinct. Pete Wilcox, “Conversion in the Thought and Experience of John Calvin,” Anvil 14.2 (1997): 113–28.

[6] Calvin defines the “sole end” of regeneration as being “to reform in us the image of God, which was sullied and almost obliterated through the transgression of Adam.” This restoration “does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples, renewing their minds to true purity that they might practice repentance throughout their lives and know that this warfare will end only at death” (Institutes, 3.3.9).

[7] >A. N. S. Lane, “Conversion: A Comparison of Calvin and Spener,” Them 18 (1987): 20. Lane understands Calvin to define conversion as a process that leads to regeneration, rather than one concomitant with it; D. C. Steinmetz, “Reformation and Conversion,” ThTo 35 (1978–1979): 30. Making reference to Pilgrim’s Progress, Steinmetz suggests that Calvin’s view of conversion is nothing like passing through the little wicket gate but rather is similar to that of the pilgrimage.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.33.

[9] Ibid., 2.2.25.

[10] Ibid., 1.1.1.

[11] Ibid., 1.6.1.

[12] Emil Brunner, “Nature and Grace,” in Natural Theology, ed.  John Baillie, trans. Peter Fraenkel, reprint ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 40. Brunner’s assertion is juxtaposed with a Barthian assault on natural theology. Brunner himself wished not to dispense with the orthodox notion of natural theology altogether, even if abused by many. His appeal to Calvin is a counter to Barth’s particular brand of Neo-Orthodoxy and an attempt to call upon a figure both men (he and Barth) claimed in their tradition.

[13] Institutes, 1.15.3.

[14] Ibid., 1.15.3.

[15] Ibid., 1.15.8.

[16] Ibid., 1.15.8.

[17] Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 135.

[18] Brunner, “Nature and Grace,” 41.

[19] Institutes, 1.15.7.

[20] John H. Ball III, Chronicling the Soul’s Windings: Thomas Hooker and His Morphology of Conversion (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), 88.

[21] Institutes, 1.15.7.

[22] Ibid., 1.15.7.

[23] Ibid., 1.15.4.

[24] Ibid., 2.3.5.

[25] Ibid., 2.1.3.

[26] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, trans. John Owen, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 78.

[27] Ibid., 2.2.19.

[28] Ibid., 2.2.12.

[29] Thomas Pink, “Reason and Agency,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 97 (1997): 276.

[30] Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, 139.

[31] Institutes, 2.1.9.

[32] Ibid., 2.2.7.

[33] Ibid., 2.2.27.

[34] Ibid., 2.3.10. For many, this would seem to indicate the will’s control over the mind in Adam’s pre-Fall state (cf. Dewey Hoitenga, John Calvin and the Will [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997]). However, Calvin did not appear to see the incongruity. While he never rejects the influence of the will upon the mind (e.g. we think what we want to think), never does this influence indicate the mind’s general subordination to the will.

[35] Institutes, 2.2.12.

[36] Ibid., 2.2.22.

[37] Ibid., 2.2.12.

[38] Ibid., 3.2.36.

[39] Ibid., 2.3.6.

[40] Ibid., 3.2.34.

[41] Ibid., 3.2.36.

[42] Ibid., 2.4.7.

[43] Ibid., 1.5.9.

[44] Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 241.

[45] Institutes, 3.2.14.

[46] Ibid., 3.2.34.

[47] Ibid., 1.15.7.

[48] Ibid., 1.15.8.

[49] Ibid., 2.2.12.

[50] Ibid., 1.15.6.

[51] Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life ((Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 115.

[52] In a letter to William Farel, Calvin wrote, “When I preached to the people, everyone was very alert and expectant. But entirely omitting any mention of those matters which they all expected with certainty to hear … I took up the exposition where I had stopped—by which I indicated that I had interrupted my office of preaching for the time rather than that I had given it up entirely.” Cited in T. H. L. Parker, The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 1947), 34.

[53] Institutes, 2.2.20.

[54] Ibid., 3.21.3.

[55] John Calvin, The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1953), 2.

[56] Williston Walker, John Calvin: Revolutionary, Theologian, Pastor (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005), 213.

[57] Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, 74.

[58] For further study of Calvin’s homiletics see Ralph Cunnington, Preaching with Spiritual Power: Calvin’s Understanding of Word and Spirit in Preaching (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2015).

[59] Institutes, 1.13.3.

[60] Ibid., 2.1.5.

[61] Calvin to Simon Grynaeus, 18 October 1539 (CO 10.403).

[62] Selderhuis, John Calvin, 32.

[63] T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 101.

[64] Calvin to Farel (1 September 1549) in Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 152.

[65] Calvin to Bucer, in Selderhuis, John Calvin, 32.

[66] Gordon, Calvin, 188.

[67] Institutes, 3.15.7.

[68] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 1:xl–xli.

[69] Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, 146.

[70] Institutes, 1.15.8.

[71] Jonathan Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1957), 133.

[72] Ibid., 148.

Obbie Tyler Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, and is an adjunct professor of theology at Luther Rice College and Seminary.

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