Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas, part 5

by | Nov 19, 2019 | Apologetics


Calvin and Aquinas Contrasted

Richard Muller is well-known for books like Unaccommodated Calvin.  I had to read that book back in the days when I was studying for my PhD.  Muller’s point (or at least one of his main points) was that the contrast between Calvin and the Reformed Scholastics who followed him in the next century had been overdrawn by many scholars in the 20th Century who had bought in to the Calvin versus the Calvinists movement. Muller showed (I think successfully.) that there were clear indications of a scholastic methodology in Calvin that showed much more continuity with his Calvinistic successors and his Medieval predecessors.

But now we are confronted with a much more specific claim.  It is that Calvin was controlled not only by a methodology common to the Medieval scholastics, but that he adopted the Thomist views of natural theology and apologetics.  Cf. J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics.

Sorry, folks, as they say here in the South, That dog won’t hunt!

As I said previously in this blog series, I recently read up on and then lectured on Thomas Aquinas for my class in apologetics.  I immediately followed that with a lecture on Calvin’s masterful treatment of the knowledge of God in Book 1, Chapters 1-9 of the Institutes.  I think even a novice cannot fail to notice a massive difference in the ethos of Thomas opening chapters in Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles.  But this is not a superficial impression without a substantial basis.  In this case the accessibility and biblicity of Calvin manifests a much different approach to the subject of the knowledge of God than that of Thomas Aquinas.  Let me lay out the theological contrasts between Thomas and Calvin.

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.”[1] He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.” [2]    

Calvin, on the other hand, declares explicitly and repeatedly that men have a natural knowledge of God which they cannot evade or erase. He has much more in common with the Christian Platonist tradition embodied in Augustine, Anselm, the Damascene, and Bonaventura which affirmed that the knowledge of the existence of God was innate or at least naturally implanted in men.  Listen to Calvin’s statements on this subject. Calvin’s language here is absolutely incapable of misunderstanding.

We lay it down as a position not to be controverted that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity.  For that no man might shelter himself under the pretext of ignorance, God hath given to all some apprehension of his existence, the memory of which he frequently and insensibly renews; so that, as men universally know that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, they must be condemned by their own testimony, for not having worshipped him and consecrated their lives to his service.  If we seek for ignorance of a Deity, it is nowhere more likely to be found, than among the tribes the most stupid and furthest from civilization.  But, as the celebrated Cicero observes, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so savage; as not to be firmly persuaded of the being of a God. [3]

We read of none guilty of more audacious or unbridled contempt of the Deity than Caligula; yet no man ever trembled with greater distress at any instance of Divine wrath, so that he was constrained to dread the Divinity whom he professed to despise.  This you may always see exemplified in persons of a similar character …. The impious themselves, therefore, exemplify the observation, that the idea of a God is never lost in the human mind. [4]

It will always be evident to persons of correct judgment, that the idea of a Deity impressed on the mind of man is indelible. That all have by nature an innate persuasion of the Divine existence, a persuasion inseparable from their very constitution, we have abundant evidence in the contumacy of the wicked, whose furious struggles to extricate themselves from the fear of God are unavailing. [5]

The contrast between Thomas and Calvin on this matter is clear.          

More to come…


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1)

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 1, Chapters 10-12).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1)

[4] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2)

[5] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 3)

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