When you start reading a new theologian, it’s important to try and suss out some of their basic presuppositions. It’s this weird little two-step where you’re reading their work, but also kinda trying to scope out their motivation for saying what they’re saying. If you miss that motivation, and go on to talk shit about someone without understanding their basic worldview, you can end up looking like a bit of a tit.
So early on in the Institutes (Book 1, Ch 8), Calvin has this thing about the Bible. It’s his thirteen proofs about why the Bible is definitely the Word of God – except they’re all really stupid reasons. For instance, reason #13 is that a bunch of people have died for the Gospel. If all these people went out and died, it must be true, because otherwise their actions don’t make any sense. That’s obviously a terrible argument – how many people have died for the Quran? How many people have died for all the weird little sects that you’ve never heard of? It’s just a bad argument. Reason #11 is that in the New Testament, Matthew, Peter, and John say a bunch of stuff that’s way too smart and spiritual for fishermen and tax collectors to come up with on their own. Reason #3 is that the religion of Moses is older than any other religion in the world, and therefore it must be the first and truest. Reason #1 is that the New Testament isn’t written in fancy language, but in Koine Greek, a sort of low common version: “When an unpolished simplicity, almost bordering on rudeness, makes a deeper impression than the loftiest flights of oratory, what does it indicate if not that the holy Scriptures are too mighty in the power of truth to need the rhetorician’s art?” Ugh.
So if we’re coming in, you and me, and we’ve just been reading Aquinas, we might say, you know, these reasons are all awful. Calvin obviously doesn’t understand how to make a logical argument, he’s not offering any substantial proofs – it’s just these weak little assumptions that are really easily refutable. And we might conclude that Calvin is bad at theology. That conclusion is the sort of problem I identified at the outset, around misunderstanding a theologian’s kinda basic assumptions. Calvin doesn’t give a shit about these proofs. He doesn’t give a shit about any proofs. At base, he doesn’t consider ‘proving shit’ to be a valid approach to theology. Saying that he’s bad at theology is really accidentally ignoring the point that he doesn’t care about the theological criteria that you’re putting forward. At the start of this chapter, he opens by saying that there’s no point validating the authority of Scripture “by argument, or … the common consent of the church, … if [it is] unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgement can give.” These proofs in themselves are not “so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds.” Well, okay – so how’re you supposed to know that the Bible is the Word of God then? That’s a more interesting starting place.
Let’s step back into Chapter 7. I’m not sure if this is a standard thing, but in my version there’s section divisions within each chapter – so this is from Section 4. “Our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgements, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit.” This is something we’ve touched on in like the one other article on Calvin I wrote from ages back. It links this stuff into all the predestination consequences – like, ah, if you only come to believe that the Bible is the Word of God because of the testimony of the Spirit, the only people who don’t believe are people who haven’t received the testimony of the Spirit, and they’re never going to receive it and they can’t do anything to receive it and they’re basically just going to hell and that was the plan all along.
So for Calvin, we derive our knowledge about God from the secret testimony of the Spirit, which is greater than mere human reason. It sounds pretty isolating – if it’s only through revelation, then it’s an experience we’re not really able to communicate to other people. It’s something other people have suggested too – for instance, Max Weber argues that Calvin’s theology is remarkably lonely, because it’s so psychological and internal. Here’s a big quote chunk from Calvin in Chapter 7:
“…we have a thorough conviction that, in holding [the testimony of the Spirit], we hold unassailable truth; not like miserable men, whose minds are enslaved by superstition, but because we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it – an energy by which we are drawn and animated to obey it, willingly indeed, and knowingly, but more vividly and effectually than could be done by human will or knowledge.”
You can see that internal dimension shine through here really clearly. As Christians, we know we’re Christians because we’re convinced that we’re Christians. We just have the conviction. We’re drawn to obey. You can see how logical or rational proof would become kinda secondary here: it’s not really at the core of the theological process. There’s also a weird relationship to doubt: if you doubt that you’re actually hearing from the Spirit, you’re not saved. The testimony of the Spirit is unassailable truth – if it’s assailable by doubt, it’s not the testimony of the Spirit. In that sense, doubt for Calvin is actually a spiritual threat. You need this core inner self-regulation in order to survive in this system: you cannot doubt, because doubt is proof that you’re not hearing from the Spirit, so you must believe, and only believe, with unshaken conviction, with no proof except for your conviction, which is itself the only valid form of proof. Not a lot of room for bad days in there.