Calvin: What’s The Value of Doubt?

Oh okay, here’s an interesting one. Maybe we started off on the wrong foot with Calvin – a bunch of his big ideas are really awful, and those are sort of the ones I’ve focused on – there’s the most to say about them. Today, ah – well, let me pose a question. There’s a certain type of person who is very certain that they know what God is like. They’ve read the Bible, and they believe they have a relationship with God, and they’re maybe kinda shitty, but they’re determined and they’re focused and they’re absolutely never gonna budge or significantly question any of the things they believe. They are the quintessential unwavering believer. Here’s the question: if such a person turns out to be right on all counts, was their way of thinking justified? That is, what’s the value of doubt?

Because we all know those kinda people, right. They’re annoying, they’re fixated on their dumb little positions, and they’re kinda too shitty and close-minded to change. But if they turn out to be right, then theoretically they never needed to be open-minded enough to change, because there was nothing they needed to change to. They were right. In those instances, what would have been the value of doubt? Let’s check in with Calvin, anyway, see what he might have to say.

“Faith is the knowledge of the divine will in regard to us, as ascertained from His Word. And the foundation of it is a previous persuasion of the truth of God. So long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the Word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds from Him is sacred, inviolable truth.”

That’s 3.2.6, in Calvin’s Institutes. We haven’t jumped straight to ‘Calvin thinks you have to be a hard-ass’ though – so far, he’s just saying that you have to believe firmly in the Bible as God’s sacred revelation. Faith is the knowledge of the divine will, and we get that knowledge from the Bible, and so you have to believe in the authority of the Bible or you can’t get the knowledge out. So – hang on, sorry, does that mean that we kinda need like a pre-faith or something? Well, yeah. As we’ve discussed before, for Calvin there’s a first link, where God kinda reaches down and connects you in through the Holy Spirit, and then once you’ve got that there’s this faith stuff where you learn explicitly about God’s will through the Bible, which you’re already convinced is true. And we can be totally convinced that the Bible is the Word of God without necessarily being convinced that we know what that Word means, right – those are two separate things. So the more precise question is about how we should hold our understanding of God’s will as gleaned from the Bible. Should we be unwavering about that?

Well, let’s skip ahead a bit with Calvin. He’s got a few different points about faith in here, but a bunch of them are relatively minor. For instance, in 3.2.7, he argues that faith is specifically the knowledge of God’s favour towards us, rather than knowledge of God’s anger or whatever else. And then, in 3.2.14, he says this:

“By knowledge we do not mean comprehension, such as that which we have of things falling under human sense. For that knowledge is so much superior that the human mind must far surpass and go beyond itself in order to reach it. Nor even when it has reached it does it comprehend what it feels, but persuaded of what it comprehends not, it understands more from mere certainty of persuasion than it could discern of any human matter by its own capacity.”

This is where things maybe start to get a little more complex. Because Calvin has hooked knowledge to divine revelation, which is something put into us rather than something that we ferret out on our own, maybe it’s not possible to talk about doubt. Maybe doubt just isn’t an appropriate concept for this type of knowledge. Or if it is, it’s doubt about the things that we’ve been persuaded of, rather than doubt about things that we know and comprehend in any other more typical circumstance. It feels like, in that scenario, doubt is doing something quite different to what we normally want it to do. Oh – and by the way, when Calvin refers to ‘knowledge’ in that extract above, he’s not necessarily just talking about the more generic knowledge of God’s favour. Faith, in his view, “is often equivalent in meaning to sound doctrine” (3.2.13). So now the knowledge that we have through faith, including broader matters of doctrine, “consists more of certainty than discernment” (3.2.14). There’s not really room for doubt in there. It’s not about weighing up different options, discerning between the best understandings, questioning your own positions and maybe coming to different conclusions – it’s not about any of that. It’s about certainty.

To return to our question from the start, if the unwavering asshole turns out to be right, Calvin would say that they were entirely justified in their belief, and that was absolutely the way faith was supposed to function. Faith is primarily about certainty. He even says that “the goodness of God is not properly comprehended when security does not follow as its fruit” – so if you’re experiencing doubt, and you don’t have that security and certainty in your belief, you’ve actually failed to faith properly (3.2.16). At the same time, Calvin says, he recognises that his claims “differ widely from the experience of believers.” People are always getting assailed with doubts: Calvin’s argument is therefore that “whatever be the mode in which they are assailed, we deny that they fall off and abandon that sure confidence which they have formed in the mercy of God” (3.2.17). Doubt is part of our condition as humans, he says, but it’s something to be resisted. It is an enemy, rather than a method. We are shaken, but not moved:

“But if in the believer’s mind certainty is mingled with doubt, must we not always be carried back to the conclusion, that faith consists not of a sure and clear, but only of an obscure and confused, understanding of the divine will in regard to us? By no means. Though we are distracted by various thoughts, it does not follow that we are immediately divested of faith. Though we are agitated and carried to and fro by distrust, we are not immediately plunged into the abyss; though we are shaken, we are not therefore driven from our place” (3.2.18).

In other words, we might say that for Calvin, doubt is a bug rather than a feature. We see God, we know God, and we’re set. No need to change a thing. Change is weakness. We already know what’s right. Do not be driven from your place. Yeah, if you want to talk about the theological value of doubt, Calvin’s not your guy. I think there are some interesting little nuggets in there – for instance, the distinction between believing absolutely in the authority of the Bible and believing absolutely that you know what the Bible says. Those are two different things. We’re more scraping this kinda stuff from Calvin’s broader thinking though – his arguments in themselves aren’t really doing much for us.

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