As I mentioned in a previous post, a number of us had the great joy of attending the award ceremony hosted by the Centre for Mentorship and Theological Reflection where Dr. Haykin received the senior scholar award. The key note speaker was John Webster, while Victor Shepherd concluded the evening with a sermon on the centrality of the cross. I’ve been thinking on an illustration that was used in that sermon that I briefly highlighted in my afore-mentioned post. It has to do with Calvin’s understanding of the sovereignty of God.
Before I begin, however, I do want to make a couple of remarks about Dr. Shepherd. I first heard him speak two years ago when the Centre awarded him with the senior scholar award. I was deeply impressed with the lecture he gave on Calvin’s preaching. I really enjoyed listening to him and thought that he had a tremendous handle on Calvin. Since then I have heard much about Victor Shepherd and his influence in the liberal United Church denomination here in Canada. He is an evangelical light in that denomination and I have a great amount of respect for his accomplishments. Dr. Shepherd is a respected scholar who has done extensive work on Calvin, Luther and Wesley, and in many ways I aspire to be a scholar like him. One who is obviously concerned for the church, for the gospel and for Christian living. So when I make this critique, it is with meekness and respect. I would hope that were he to read this, he would not in any way feel provoked by my words. Rather, I would pray that the Lord would use it as both a point of clarification for Dr. Shepherd and myself.
In what was otherwise a very thoughtful and poignant sermon on the cross, I did take issue with the portion on the sovereignty of God. The point that he made was biblical and I agree with him that all Christians do and should believe in the soveregnty of God. It was in his illustration on God’s sovereignty that he managed to direct his sights at those Calvinists who speak as though they were the only ones who believed in this great doctrine. Apparently he has had some altercations with an ungracious Calvinist or two in his teaching/preaching experience and this spurred his sentiments. My hope is that a few bad apples wouldn’t spoil the barrel for him.
It would appear, at least from his remarks, that Dr. Shepherd follows a view in recent Calvin scholarship known as the “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” view. In his rebuke to the Calvinists, he argued that nowhere in Calvin’s Institutes did the word “sovereignty” appear, though later Calvinists couldn’t stop speaking about it. He implied that there was a discontinuity between Calvin and his later followers on this issue. Many scholars who hold to this view argue that Calvin and the later Calvinists differ on the issue of the atonement. Although this goes beyond the scope of my post, I do want to highlight that men like Richard Muller, Paul Helm, Roger Nicole and other such scholars have soundly defeated this view in their writings. I would direct you to them if you want more information on Calvin and the atonement.
While I won’t make an argument over a word in a secondary translation (my French and Latin is not too great!), I will comment on certain passages that bear words with similar meaning to “sovereign,” or imply the sovereignty of God. I’m sure that this is a lesson in futility as Dr. Shepherd is likely more than aware of these sections and would gladly concur. He would likely say that he was just making a point about later Calvinists who treat the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as exlusively their own. But my efforts here are for the benefit of my own-self as well as any who may read with interest. I also believe that the illustration was misleading and I would like to provide clarity.
I am using the Ford Lewis Battles edition of the Institutes edited by John T. McNeill in the Loeb Classics Series in two volumes. The words or phrases that deal with God’s sovereignty have been boldened.
Institutes 2.8.45 – Speaking of the Eighth Commandment – “We must consider that what every man possesses has not come to him by mere chance buy by the distribution of the supreme Lord of all.”
Institutes 3.20.1 – On prayer – “But after we have been instructed by faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father willed all the fullness of his bounty to abide (cf. Col. 1:19; John 1:16) so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing spring, it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what we have learned to be in him. Otherwise, to know God as the master and bestower of all good things, who invites us to request them of him, and still not to go to him and not ask of him — this would be of as little profit as for a man to neglect a treasure…”
Institutes 3.22.6 – “And he, willing to make himself the free dispenser and judge of this matter, summarily declares that only as it so pleases him will he be merciful to one rather than to another. For when mercy comes to him who seeks it, though he does not indeed suffer refusal, yet he either anticipates or in part acquires for himself the favour for which God claims the praise unto himself.”
Institutes 3.23.1 – “Let readers note that Paul, to cut off occasion for whispering and disparagement, gives the ultimate sovereignty to God’s wrath and might, for it is wicked to subject to our determination those deep judgments which swallow up all our powers of mind.”
I hope that these brief examples from Calvin are sufficient to prove the point that Calvin surely believed in and wrote about the sovereinty of God. There are so many more quotations that could be given from the Institutes, in fact I would argue that the whole work presupposes God’s sovereignty. It would take a whole dissertation to go through all of Calvin’s Commentaries and sermons, but I don’t doubt for a second that God’s sovereignty would be a common theme.
In conclusion, I would like to publish the thoughts A. Mitchell Hunter in his work The Teaching of Calvin (James Clarke & Co., 1950).
“He (Calvin) held that the sovereign will of God was governed by no considerations but its own good pleasure. He found refuge in these principles from difficulties which frequently confronted him in his exposition of Scripture. If it plainly laid the responsibility upon God for acts that were offensive to our moral sense, he fell back upon the postulate that that is good which God wills to be so” (p. 55).