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Interview – Jean Calvin (1509-1564)

Born in France, studied for the Catholic priesthood then appointed to the village of Pont L'Evêque in 1929. Pursued studies in Law until his religious views were revolutionized by the Reformation. By 1533 (at age 24) he was recognized as a leader of the French Reformation. Exiled from France, he lived, wrote and taught for the rest of his life in Swiss Geneva. Calvin restored and intensified many of Augustine's most extreme doctrines.

This interview is recorded in January, 1563.

Calvin, wrapped in fur-trimmed robes, sits on a straight backed wooden chair. He is not an old man, but his health is failing. Nonetheless he remains the ruler of Geneva and the undisputed intellectual leader of the Reformation.

Q: Pastor Calvin, you wrote the first version of the Institutes of the Christian Religion when you were just 27 years old. What gave you the confidence or the authority to redefine Christian theology?

Calvin: When I first engaged in this work my intention was merely to provide a simple tool to teach true godliness. I toiled at the task chiefly for the sake of my countrymen in France, multitudes of whom were thirsting after Christ, while few had received even a slender knowledge of him. My original purpose was to write in a simple and elementary form intended for instruction.

Q: Did you intend your book as a declaration of war against religious traditions and authority?

Calvin: I quickly perceived that sound doctrine would inflame the rage of Papist madmen who attacked it with fire and sword. What I have written they clamour to punish with confiscation, exile, imprisonment, and flames as well as extermination by land and sea. The Catholic priesthood is woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and criminally indifferent that God's Holy Word is neglected, despised and dishonoured by blasphemies, so long as every man submits to the authority of the Pope with a detestable fiction they call 'implicit faith.' Faith is explicit or it is no faith at all! Yet these miscreants, whose faith is in their belly, will go to war to defend follies such as purgatory, freewill and salvation by works!

Q: You were born and raised Catholic. You are trained as a priest. How it is that you have come to denounce Catholicism as worse than Paganism?

Calvin: Daniel and Paul both foretold that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God. I regard the Roman Pontiff as the leader and standard-bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. Many churches remain under his tyranny; churches, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half buried. The Gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished. In short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God.

Q: You also accuse the Catholic Church of rejecting the teachings of Bishop Augustine and adopting the heresies of Pelagius. You take great offence at the suggestion that believers do the best they can and then trust God to supply what is lacking, even though some measure of freewill was universally accepted by the Ancient Church.

Calvin: Let me be perfectly clear, all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject of so-called freewill that their writings produce only more confusion. More modern writers, who court applause for their acuteness in the defence of human nature, have uniformly gone ever more widely astray, until the common dogma came to be that man was corrupted only in the sensual part of his nature, that his reason remained entire, and his will was scarcely impaired. The principle entertained by all, even the most vulgar, is that man is endowed with freewill.

Q: That is indeed a widely held belief. A lot of people, not just Catholics, have a very hard time understanding predestination, let alone believing it.

Calvin: The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty, is rendered very perplexed and hence perilous by human curiosity which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths and climbing to the clouds so that no secret things of God shall remain unexplored. Some of them in other respects are not bad men, but when we see them rushing into this wickedness, it is necessary to remind them of the course of duty in this matter. First, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal.

Q: What is lawful for us to understand about predestination?

Calvin: Predestination simply means that some men are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.

Q: Can you explain why this is not as unfair as many people think?

Calvin: The Bible teaches that God of his good pleasure elects some and leaves others in their sins. If the fact is certain, what can be gained by quarrelling with God?

Q: How do you prove that the fact is certain?

Calvin: The fact is proved by the hereditary corruption to which early Christian writers gave the name of original sin. The subject gave rise to much discussion, there being nothing more difficult for common folk to understand than that the fault of one should render all of Adam's children guilty. The earliest theologians of the church before Augustine could not explain inherited sin as clearly as required, which permitted the rise of Pelagius with his profane fiction that Adam's sin only hurt himself, and did not damage his children and all of their children. The truth is that all of us descend from an impure seed and come into the world with the contagion of mortal sin.

Q: Children seem innocent. It is hard for most people to believe they are evil.

Calvin: Only an impious heretic would refuse to believe what Augustine believed because it was taught by the inspired apostle Paul, who would not have written that we are all by nature the children of wrath unless everyone one of us was cursed from birth. Children bring their condemnation with them from their mother's womb. Their whole nature is a seed-bed of sin and they are entirely odious and abominable to God. Let me be clear: our human nature is utterly devoid of goodness and prolific in every kind of evil.

Q: Most people just can't believe that. Even Augustine struggled with it. You know that as a young man Augustine believed in freewill rather than original sin?

Calvin: Only when he was young and still blinded by Pagan heresies. After Augustine had made greater progress in the knowledge of Christian Scripture, he not only retracted such beliefs as evidently false, but powerfully refuted them. His mature Christian opinion remains true: The grace of God does not find the chosen, but makes persons fit to be chosen.

Q: One way of reconciling freewill and predestination is to presume that omniscient God foresees who will exercise their will to choose good or evil.

Calvin: I recognize the devious subtlety of Thomas Aquinas, who reasoned that the foreknowledge of merit is the cause of predestination. It is not difficult to refute the sophistry of Thomas. He foolishly maintained that the elect are predestined to glory on account of their merits. The truth is rather that God predestines to give them the grace by which they merit glory.

Q: A major objection to predestination is that a just God would not invite all to salvation then only elect a few. To many that seems inconsistent and unworthy of God.

Calvin: The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet. Many who profess a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but ignorantly and childishly deny that anyone is condemned by God's will. There could be no election without its opposite, which is deliberate, predestined reprobation. I agree with Augustine that when God makes sheep out of wolves, he reshapes them by the powerful influence of grace so that their hardness may thus be subdued. The grace at his command is sufficiently powerful to convert the most obstinate reprobates, but he does not desire to do it in most cases.

Q: In most cases? You believe most people are damned? Are you surprised that such a doctrine would make the human mind boil and rage?

Calvin: There are simple answers for every species of blasphemy which these virulent dogs utter against Almighty God. Such fools raise many grounds of quarrel with God, as if they held Him subject to their accusations. First, they say that if God condemns to destruction whomsoever he pleases, He more resembles the caprice of a tyrant than the legal sentence of a judge. As if Almighty God does not have the right for His mere pleasure to predestine men to eternal death through no fault of their own. The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. When it is asked why the Lord did so, we can only answer: Because he pleased. God cannot be lawless. He is a law to himself.

Q: Why would a God of love destroy men and women 'for His mere pleasure' with less cause and more cruelty than the Inquisition?

Calvin: I say with Augustine, that the Lord has created those whom he certainly foreknow were to go to destruction, and he did so because he so willed. Why he willed it is not ours to ask, because we cannot comprehend, nor dare we question the justice of God's divine will.

Q: Why would a God of love and justice will such horrifying things?

Calvin: The fall of Adam involved all nations and their infant children in eternal death. Why? Because God willed it! Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknow what the end of man was to be before He made him, and foreknew, because He had so ordained by His decree. Nor ought it seem absurd that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity, but for His own pleasure arranged it.

Q: You imagine God takes pleasure in man's destruction?

Calvin: God hates sin and takes pleasure in its destruction! The reprobate would excuse his sins by alleging that he is forced to sin since it was predestined by God. We deny that this is a valid excuse. God's predestination, by which reprobates complain they are doomed to destruction, is perfectly just. No matter that we cannot comprehend God's justice, it is most certainly just.

Q: Your system seems harsher and more difficult to understand than Augustine's. You have made it even more difficult by eliminating baptism as the visible means of salvation.

Calvin: . How much evil has been caused by the dogma that baptism is necessary to salvation. When the opinion prevails that all are lost who happen not to be dipped in water, our condition becomes worse than that of God's ancient people, as if His grace were more restrained than under the Law.

Q: A moment ago you said that Augustine was the only theologian who understood true theology. Now you say he is wrong about predestination which you have made a cornerstone of your own theology.

Calvin: God's sovereign grace alone determines salvation. God elects whom He will and reprobates whom He will.

Q: So you do not fear for your children if they die unbaptized?

Calvin: Absolutely not! God declares that He adopts our children for His own when He promises that He will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. In this promise our children's salvation is included. Who will dare to offer such an insult to God as to deny that He is able to give effect to His promise?

Q: So your children are born saved? You have truly turned Augustine on his head.

Calvin: God can elect anyone, anywhere. Many He has called and endued with the true knowledge of himself, by internal means, by the illumination of the spirit, without the intervention of preaching.

Q: So not even the gospel is necessary to salvation?

Calvin: Nothing is necessary but God's will. With it, we are saved, without it we are damned. His will alone decides. Consider that 4,000 years of human history passed before Christ came into the world, yet during all those years God hid the saving doctrine from all nations.

Q: You think all those generations before Jesus were condemned to eternal torment? But why? If God could illuminate the spirit by his will, why does it matter what they knew or didn't know if the only means of salvation is God's predestined election?

Calvin: When the wicked hear these things, they complain God abuses His inordinate power to make cruel sport with the miseries of His creatures.

Q: You must admit it is perplexing. If God elects some but not all, for no obvious reasons, how could anyone tell believers from unbelievers? How could people who think they are believers ever be sure they are saved?

Calvin: Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous than disquieting doubts as to their election. For there is scarcely a mind in which the thought does not sometimes rise: What proof do I have of my election? As surely as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to everyone who strikes upon it.

Q: It is not hard to see why Catholics and even Lutherans find your theology terrifying and confusing. It is impossible to know who is saved and who is not. The gospel is preached but is not necessary to salvation. Children are baptized but not for salvation. All are called but few are chosen. Freewill is denied because everything is predestined. Your theology can probably be interpreted in a thousand different ways. How can you prevent this protest religion from splintering into a thousand bickering factions, each denouncing the others and claiming sole possession of inerrant truth?

Calvin: God has granted a single way to salvation. If the path to damnation is multiplied by a thousand, it changes nothing.

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