Book 2 - Chapter 2 (Parts 1-2)
MAN HAS NOW BEEN DEPRIVED OF FREEDOM OF CHOICE AND BOUND OVER TO MISERABLE SERVITUDE
In this chapter Calvin will take up the debate about free will. He will argue that there is no such thing as free will and that we are totally unable to do anything good without God directing it.
Summary: Calvin, having in a previous chapter described the depths of sin to which humanity had fallen, writes, “It remains for us to investigate more closely whether we have been deprived of all freedom since we have been reduced to this servitude; and if any particle of it (freedom) still survives, how far its power extends.” (pg. 255) Regardless of the outcome of the discussion Calvin knows that there are disadvantages with whichever answer is selected (do we or do we not have free-will). If it is agreed that there is no free will then individuals will not try to do good. On the other hand if there is free will it will lead human beings “into ruin through brazen confidence.” (pg. 255)
Calvin begins by asserting that “the philosophers hold as certain that virtues and vices are in our power….now we seem to do what we do, and to shun what we shun by free choice…if we do any evil we can shun it.” (pg. 258) He continues by looking at the writings of the early church fathers who hold to a mixture of free will and dependence on God. Chrysostom (349-407 CE) argues that “Just as we can never do anything rightly unless we are aided by God’s grace, so we cannot acquire heavenly favor unless we bring our portion.” (pg. 259) Jerome (347-420 CE) writes that “Ours is to begin, God’s to fulfill; ours to offer what we can, his to supply what we cannot.” (pg. 259)
Before he proceeds further, Calvin defines free will by using a definition offered by another early church father Origen (185-253 CE). Origen defines free will as “a faculty of the reason to distinguish between good and evil, a faculty of the will to choose one or the other.” (pg. 261) Allowing that many of the early church fathers believed that human beings, even while needing God’s help, have some ability to choose between good and evil, Calvin then asks if this is true. In other words “…whether man has been wholly deprived of all power to do good, or still has some power though meager and weak.” (pg. 263)
Calvin begins answering this question by using the writings of Augustine (354-430 CE) who believed that human beings had no ability to do the good, unless the Holy Spirit set them free. Or, as Augustine frequently quoted Cyprian, “We ought to glory in nothing, because nothing is ours.” (pg. 266)
Reflection: Calvin is dealing with a question that is still being discussed today; do we human beings have free will (the unfettered ability to choose between good/right and evil/ wrong) or are our wills/choices influenced by forces beyond our control? Theologians, as we saw above, have been split over whether sin affects our ability to freely choose, and if it does, how much it does so. The vast majority of people I know disagree with this view and claim that they do have free will. They know that they do because they make choices. However, even setting theology and sin aside, there are disciplines ranging from psychology to sociology which argue that we do not have free will because we are conditioned by any number of factors, ranging from genetics to society to family that cause us to choose as we do. The outcome of this debate is not merely academic because it affects everything from criminal culpability (My client has committed this crime because of what happened to her as a child) to public policy (those people chose to be poor so we should not help them).
In this chapter Calvin will take up the debate about free-will. He will argue that there is no such thing as free will and that we are totally unable to do anything good without God directing it.
Summary: In the first portion of this chapter Calvin examined the writings of the early church fathers on the subject of free will. He pointed out that they were not all in agreement and that there was a diversity of opinions on the subject. Some argued that there was free will. Others argued for limited free will. Others declared that there was no free will. In this portion of the chapter, Calvin offers his views.
Calvin begins with a reminder that “whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness and disgrace has thus advanced highest in knowledge of himself.” (pg. 267) In other words if we are wise then we will see that sin has left us bereft of any hope of choosing the good and avoiding the evil.
Even so Calvin argues that while sin destroyed all spiritual gifts (faith, love of God, charity toward neighbor, zeal for holiness and righteousness) and corrupted our natural gifts (the reason by which we can distinguish between good and evil) there is still a glimmer of our reason remaining. Even though, as Calvin puts it “…this light choked with dense ignorance…cannot come forth effectively” (pg. 270) he argues human beings can still explore, learn and discover. He writes, “There are at hand energy and ability not only to learn but also to devise something new in each art or to perfect and polish what one has learned from a predecessor.” (pg. 273) And “…we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects (mathematics, medicine, rhetoric, etc.) without great admiration.” (pg. 274)
Unfortunately, as Calvin sees the world, these scientific abilities do not extend to “knowing God; knowing his fatherly favor in our behalf, in which our salvation exists; knowing how to frame our life according to his law.” (pg. 277) Instead people are spiritually blind and because of that people cannot live rightly or make appropriate choices. This spiritual blindness leads to people always choosing the wrong over the right. “It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 279) And “Man is so indulgent toward himself that when he commits evil he readily averts his mind, as much as he can from the feeling of sin.” (pg. 282) Thus because human beings cannot know God on their own, they will always make the wrong choices.
Reflection: For those of us who grew up in the south (or for me in Texas), some of this theology strikes a familiar chord. I say this because many evangelical churches make it clear that we are all sinners, not only incapable of saving ourselves, but of even doing what is right and good. Our only hope comes through confessing Jesus, being forgiven and then becoming a new person capable of choosing the right. I would offer however that experience teaches us that, at least in terms of doing the good, this is not necessarily so. In my own life I have known many people of other/no faith that not only choose the good over the evil, but are able to do the good better than many Christians. While I believe that sin (the misshapenness of our hearts) often causes us to make death dealing rather than life giving choices, I also believe that human beings, as those made in the image of God, still possess great ability to choose the good and reject the evil.