Is John Calvin’s God Capable of Love?

After sitting dusty on my shelf ever since I bought it, I decided several weeks ago to crack open Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ve been questioning my Calvinist upbringing for some time, mostly because I didn’t feel like I ever owned it. I was trained Reformed: Presbyterian church (PCA of course), Presbyterian college (Reformed Presbyterian, which even the PCA thinks is too stodgy). Mom and dad had RC Sproul on the radio and Tabletalk on the bookshelf. So I was thoroughly baptized in Calvinism and had been taught it exhaustively, even though I never really studied it per se. I had read plenty of Calvinists, but never Calvin. I decided to change that.

I now believe that if more Calvinists read Calvin, and not just other Calvinists, there would be fewer Calvinists.

Before I go on I’ll say that this is not a book review, a scholarly article, or even all that well thought out. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the Institutes, so I would expect that many will read this and respond to my objections pointing out that I don’t know all the facts. You’re absolutely right – I don’t. This is more my reaction as I encounter Calvin and Calvinism directly in the moment. It’s part of the process. I’m not going to bash him as a person, but I do have serious questions about his theology and reasoning(which God foreordained me to have before the beginning of time for the purpose of manifesting His glory, hallelujah). I’ll have more of these I’m sure in the future.

Is Calvin’s God capable of love?

As I read the Institutes I encountered a discussion of God based primarily in terms of will. It is God’s will that maintains the universe, that seeks his own glory, that creates and destroys, that is providentially manifest in every action and reaction from the cosmic to the subatomic. The answer to why God governs all these things has to do with manifesting God’s own glory and purpose according to Calvin. There is, at least so far in my reading, no mention of God’s love for what he has created, though. In fact Calvin has hardly any room for any kind of emotional response from God.

“Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible. And the mode of lowering is to represent him not as he really is, but as conceive of him. Though he is incapable of every feeling of perturbation, he declares that he is angry with the wicked. Wherefore, as when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him, but ought rather to consider the mode of speech accommodated to our sense…” Institutes book I, ch. XVII, 13

Calvin is writing this regarding our understanding of God “repenting” or being angry in scripture. I think Calvin is fearful of attributing emotion to God because he sees emotion and passion as transient and changeable, which goes against one of his core beliefs, that God is unchangeable and immutable. But if we take this reading to the whole bible, when we read of God’s love for us (“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God…” 1Jn 3:1) we cannot mean that God loves us as we know and experience love. God’s love, according to Calvin, seems to be God’s preference which is based solely on will. There is no fatherly love, only preference based on will and authority that appears to us to be “love” but is devoid of any kind of emotional attachment or response on God’s part.

This strikes me as painful. It is a very cold image of a father to be sure, one that is hard to love. So far I’m sot sure if Calvin would say that our response to God should be “loving” either – defining love as an emotional response. He often calls us to fear, revere and worship God, but these are not necessarily emotional responses either. To Calvin the relationship between humanity and God is grounded on authority and power, much like a king and his subjects: God exhibits his power and we obey it. One need not feel affection toward the king, but one must obey him.

Perhaps this is why, growing up Calvinist, emotions and affections were seen as untrustworthy. Everything needed to be tempered: love, anger, happiness, hope, and on down the line. This made it hard for me to express these emotions or even to recognize them. Some emotions weren’t allowed at all, while others were allowed in moderation.

Another huge problem I see in Calvin is the hermeneutic at work in the passage above. When Calvin reads of God’s anger in the bible, his own theology gets in the way of his interpretation. When the bible says God is “angry”, it doesn’t really mean it, thinks Calvin, because anger is a passion and passion is transient and changeable. Because God cannot change, he can’t have any emotional component. Therefore, Calvin reasons, any reference to God being “angry” (and we could extend the argument to all emotions) is done figuratively rather than literally.

However in other cases he reads poetic material such as the Psalms he takes it very literally. To me he falls into the trap of giving some passages far too much strength than they were intended to have, while not giving enough authority to passages that contradict his theological interpretations. He does this a great deal in his discussion of providence and God’s will, which is too big to discuss now but I will do so later to be sure.

Given all this, I can see that Calvin’s focus on God’s majesty and authority can be an important corrective to any image of God that minimizes these aspects in favor of God’s love. When Christian worship is centered on God’s love for us, we can easily begin to focus on the “for us” part rather than on God. Calvin is totally against any image of God as a “cosmic buddy”, who gives us advice which we can choose to follow or ignore if we like. After all, he’ll always be our buddy. The Calvinist’s call to a deeper faith and theological rigor than one founded on cheap grace and personal well-being is an important one. However just as faith can be over-emotionalized, Calvinism seems to over-intellectualize faith, as we’ve seen above.

I’m just beginning to explore these ideas.


5 thoughts on “Is John Calvin’s God Capable of Love?

  1. I think that one problem is the fact that we call it “Calvinism.” Calvin did not come up with these ideas. In fact they were in place centuries prior to Calvin’s birth. I think a lot of people put to much faith in Calvin and not faith in the actual Bible which, in my opinion, does teach the TULIP perspective.

    The fact that God saves anyone and chooses anyone shows that He has love and compassion. We all deserve eternal punishment and He gave us grace. Just my thoughts.

    • Not to argue the point too much but Calvin did come up with these ideas. That’s the surprising thing that I’m finding: that some of the things associated with “extreme Calvinism” are things that Calvin actually taught. Such as the idea that God causes sin, even though man is culpable for that sin that God causes them to do (more on that next time). That’s why I’m trying to quote the things that Calvin said that I find rather shocking.

      I agree with you totally when you say that people do put too much faith in Calvinism as if it were the only true and best model of theology out there.

      The fact that God saves anyone and chooses anyone shows that He has love and compassion.

      I agree, but again I’m finding that those two words are sorely lacking in Calvin’s vocabulary so far. He strongly emphasizes our wrechedness and our deserving of condemnation, but the choice is made for his own glory, not necessarily out of compassion. Hopefully more on that as I go through. I’m not really on that section yet!

      • Calvin actually got it from early church fathers. I’ll have to look up some specifics for you, but yes it goes deeper in as you go along. Thanks for the reply.

      • Thanks – this is a good article I found summarizes some of the issues apparent in Calvinism without rejecting TULIP.

        Regarding the church fathers, I think his theology follows a direct line from them (he refers to Augustine a lot as well as others) but also diverges from them. I can’t say much more than that as I’m not an expert in the early church writers, but it would be interesting to see those lines drawn. He certainly didn’t develop his ideas in a vacuum, but I think that he was able to systematize and propagate them to a much greater degree than others had previously. Hence the emphasis on his work to the detriment of the early church.

  2. Calvin… a man of his age, immersed in enlightenment and rationalism…

    While courageously immersing yourself in Calvin’s Institutes, I would like to recommend an occasional foray into The Prophets by J. Heschel. Or to the 4 gospel accounts of Jesus unhinged and raging in the Temple courtyards. Just to keep yourself off balance in the other direction.

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