Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin

This is the third article in a series on Calvin and Nominalism. To read the earlier articles in the series, click on the following links:

The first half of this article consists in laying out the background to medieval Nominalism, expanding on the historical material presented in Part 1. To skip ahead to the section where I begin discussing Calvin specifically, click here.

I ended my previous article, ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship’ by suggesting that there were three separate ways in which a person might talk about John Calvin being a Nominalist. (If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by Nominalism and why this question is important, then I recommend the first article in the present series as well as the series I wrote for the Colson Center.) Firstly, a person might argue that Calvin was influenced by reading of nominalist sources, perhaps during his theological training in Paris. Second, a person might argue that Calvin’s theology bears the marks of the more general nominalist milieu of the time, including ubiquitous plausibility structures that hinged on an implicitly nominalist way of viewing the world. Thirdly, a person might argue that Calvin’s theology shows evidence of correlations with nominalist and voluntarist ways of perceiving things, even aside from questions of historical causation.

A problem occurs when scholars argue against the third of these senses by presenting arguments against the second, or when they argue against the second or third by presenting arguments against the first. For my part, I am comfortable being neutral on the first question, while presenting a tentative argument for the second and a strong argument for the third.

But what do I mean by “plausibility structures” within the context of the second of these options?

Plausibility Structures and Implicit Theology

The phrase “plausibility structures” was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger to refer to the conditions in a society that make certain beliefs appear reasonable or unreasonable. Why is it that a proposition which, in one time and place, might seem completely self-evident and requiring little or no argument, will seem totally absurd in another era? Questions like this force us to be attentive to more than merely what people believe, but why certain beliefs might feel normal. To focus on plausibility structures is to be attentive to the broader sociocultural context in which our understandings of the world (including understandings which may be unconscious) make sense to us in the first place.

This is related to concepts such as the “social imaginary” and “implicit theology” which I discussed in my earlier article ‘Do Ideas Have Historical Consequences? A Defense of The Benedict Option Chapter 2.’ In that article I pointed out the “social imaginary” is a way of talking about the network of background understandings by which people perceive the world; the unconscious lens by which they interpret life and their experiences. While the social imaginary may exist in a symbiotic relationship with the explicit tenets of a person’s belief system, the former is not ultimately dependent on the latter, though dependence in the other direction is inescapable given that, to cite Charles Taylor, “all beliefs are held within a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated.” The social imaginary, like plausibility structures, is the type of lived condition which exists prior to explicit theological or philosophical reflection.

If we are to understand the potency that the philosophy of Nominalism had on the eve of the Reformation, we have to understand it in these terms: as part of the taken-for-granted background to how many Europeans perceived the world, often without even realizing it. This is central to understanding Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism. Contemporary scholarship has made significant strides in understanding Calvin’s relationship to medieval theology, yet it has tended to revolve around narrow analyses of the specific influences on his thought, together with particular tenets within his theological system that reflect a nominalist dependence. A neglected aspect in the debate is whether Calvin was influenced by the more ubiquitous nominalist concerns that contributed to plausibility structures affecting how sixteenth-century Europeans perceived the world and their place in it. If it was the case that Calvin worked within the broad plausibility structures bequeathed by theological Nominalism, then it becomes possible that nominalist concerns may have been seminal to his thought even when a more direct dependence may not be detectable and even if, in some cases, explicit doctrines of his theology veer in a more realist direction.

The Nominalist Revolution

Long before Nominalism had influenced the taken-for-granted background of how many Europeans perceived the world, it had been a minority philosophical movement. The movement is usually associated with the English Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, who was born in England sometime in the early to mid-1280’s. In point of fact, however, Ockham represented only one very radical strand of philosophical and theological Nominalism. (For a discussion of the differences between nominalism per se and Ockhamism, see Heiko A. Oberman, “Some Notes on the Theology of Nominalism: With Attention to Its Relation to the Renaissance,” from The Harvard Theological Review 53, no. 1.) Ockham’s Nominalism is often treated as an adjunct to the doctrine of univocity associated with Duns Scotus (1265–1308), although Scotus had actually been a moderate philosophical realist. (On the Realism of Duns Scotus, see Martin M Tweedale, “Duns Scotus’s Doctrine on Universals and the Aphrodisian Tradition,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (1993): 77–93.)

The real significance of Ockham’s system was that it posed a formidable challenge to the type of scholasticism that reached its pinnacle in Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who synthesized Christian theology with the insights of Aristotelianism.

A key aspect of Aquinas’ thought had been the understanding that created things have an inherent purpose or end according to their nature. Using Aristotle’s nomenclature of causality, he argued that the end for which a thing exists (its telos) is the final cause of that thing, or that for the sake of which it exists. For instance, with respect to creative ends we might say that the end or purpose of a hammer is to bang nails into wood, while with respect to natural ends, the purpose of a seed is to be an adult plant. In her essay contained in the volume Humanism and Early Modern Philosophy, Margaret Osler explained that depending on the nature of a thing, “the end may be the actualization of a form, or it may be the deliberate goal of an intelligent agent, in which case it is imposed on something from outside.” On this understanding, in order to fully understand the world, the thinker must penetrate to the why-ness of things.

Within the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthesis, a teleological understanding of the world was necessary for perceiving God’s design of, and relationship to, the natural and anthropological realms, since God’s will for a thing corresponds to what the nature of that thing already is. Thus, those within this tradition were able to assert a rational and ordered universe in which everything had its own natural perfection. It was what Alasdair Macintyre called a “view of the world as an integrated order, in which the temporal mirrors the eternal. Every particular item has its due place in the order of things.” In an important sense, this limited the range of options available to omnipotence, since God’s will was seen as conforming to a thing’s natural perfection. As Charles Taylor remarked in A Secular Age, “The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that he it is who has created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for the thing.”

The idea that God cannot redefine the nature of things was central to the realism of the Thomistic approach and had profound implications in the field of ethics. Just as God cannot redefine a thing’s natural perfection, neither is He able to change the continuum of virtues and vices. Indeed, when God wills something or issues a command, He is not arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations to particular actions or states of being that might equally have been given an alternative valuation. Rather, the divine will is an expression of the divine intellect, while both the divine intellect and the divine will are expressions of God’s perfectly good nature. (That said, Aquinas taught that the divine intellect and the divine will are two different powers only in a virtual and not an actual sense. According to our complex way of understanding we must speak of God knowing through His intellect and acting through His will, and we must refer to the former being prior to the latter. However, because God is absolutely simple, there is no fundamental difference between His essence and His existence. However, Aquinas’ teaching on the divine simplicity was not without a number of inconsistencies, which David Bradshaw has discussed in his penetrating critique, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, pp. 243–257.)

In the third article of his treatise on the will of God, Aquinas discussed the context of God’s will-acts as follows. Again, the context of the divine will is the goodness of God’s nature:

“…the divine will has a necessary relation to the divine goodness, since that is its proper object. …God wills things apart from Himself in so far as they are ordered to His own goodness as their end. …He wills all things in His goodness.”

It follows that God cannot act contrary to His perfect nature. Significantly, Aquinas devoted a section of the first part of the Summa to discussing that which God cannot do. He acknowledged that “when one says that God can do all things, there can be uncertainty about what is included under that distribution…” and he catalogues various things which “God is said to be unable to do even though he is omnipotent…” That which God cannot do includes any type of imperfection or logical contradiction. As Hans Boersma observed,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.” (Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, p. 76)

There were a variety of reasons behind the gradual rejection of Aquinas’s teleological vision, but these can be broadly distinguished by three stages. The first was the conservative resistance to Aristotelian intellectualism, aimed primarily at the Latin Averroists and to a lesser degree at Aquinas himself. This rejection culminated in the Condemnations of 1277. The second factor was the moderate voluntarism of Scotus, combined with his moderate realism about universals. Thirdly, there was the influence of the more radical voluntarism-cum-nominalism of Ockham which directly challenged the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis. It is this third point that requires further attention.

To William of Ockham, the world was void of imminent rationality and existed as a collection of disconnected particulars. For him, even final causality was, as Stanley Grenz put it, “simply a metaphorical way of speaking about things that are acting uniformly by natural necessity.”

“If I accepted no authority,” Ockham once declared, “I would claim that it cannot be proved either from statements known in themselves or from experience that every effect has a final cause…. Someone who is just following natural reason would claim that the question ‘why?’ is inappropriate in the case of natural actions. For he would maintain that it is no real question to ask something like, ‘For what reason is fire generated?’” Behind Ockham’s drive to divest the world of imminent rationality was the theological concern that if everything in the world possesses an inherent telos detectable to reason, and if God created the world to function according to this rational ecosystem of natures, then the natural realm possesses an autonomy that seems to push God to the margins. The Thomistic position was actually immune to this objection since it affirmed that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. For Aquinas, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth. The reason God did not, and could not, make adultery virtuous is because God’s will determines reality itself, flows from His ineffably pure and perfectly ordered nature. The divine nature, in turn, expresses itself in the order of how the world is. Within the nominalist calculus, however, God could not be completely ultimate if there are inbuilt limits to what His will is able to declare good. Thus, for nominalists like Ockham, to assert that God’s will for a thing necessarily corresponds to what the thing’s nature already defines as its good, is to place a limit on the divine sovereignty. As Charles Taylor expressed it, “Late medieval nominalism defended the sovereignty of God as incompatible with there being an order in nature which by itself defined good and bad. For that would be to tie God’s hands, to infringe on his sovereign right of decision about what was good.”

For the nominalists, God’s absolute power must always be free to determine what is good unconstrained by all other factors, including the divine nature. This led to a voluntarism that sought to ground the meritorious value of an act in the extrinsic dimension of God’s will. Accordingly, many nominalists held that the proper distinction between God and the world could only be preserved through a God that possessed an unchecked voluntarism and what Blumenberg called a “groundless will.” For Ockham, actions are not good or bad in themselves, but become good or bad only by a lawgiver. Driven by a desire to purge Christian theology from all traces of Greek necessitarianism, God’s freedom became an autonomous freedom, no longer anchored in nature (including His own). This effectively reduced the divine commandments to arbitrary edicts requiring a nonrational obedience.

This conception of the divine freedom entailed numerous consequences. One result was that grace would come to eclipse nature when Ockham’s extreme notions about God’s sovereign will led to a near denial of secondary or instrumental causation. Ockham was at pains to let everyone know that in order for God to be truly sovereign, He must be able to work independent of all means. As Ockham wrote. “Whatever God produces by means of secondary causes, he can immediately produce and conserve without them.”

Behind Ockham’s concern to preserve the divine freedom was a particular way of understanding God’s relationship to the world in which nature existed in an inverse relationship with God’s sovereignty, so that whatever fixity or autonomy is granted to the former results in that much less left for the latter. This “zero-sum” dialectic between God and the world drove Ockham to deny that things in the world shared a universal nature. Under his principle of parsimony, intermediate ideas needed to be shaved off, leading to the denial of universals. (The denial of the objective basis for universals was not unique to Ockham, even though it is most commonly associated with him. On Ockahm’s “nominalist” predecessors, see Grenz, The Named God and the Question of Being, p. 60; on the philosophy of universals prior to Ockham, see Timothy B. Noone’s entry “William of Ockham” in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.)

For Ockham, the assertion of universal realities (res universales) over individual things was the worst mistake philosophy had ever made. All things that exist are disconnected individual things: praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est (“outside of those absolute parts, there is not anything”). As Amos Funkenstein summarized this outlook in Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, “Only discrete entities, singulars, exist and they do not need the mediation of universals either for their existence or for their immediate, ‘intuitive’ cognition.” In rejecting universals, Ockham asserted that objects that look alike, and therefore appear to share a common nature, do so by virtue of the mental concepts we impose on those objects and not because of any intrinsic property within the things themselves. The reality of universals is limited to a merely conceptual existence. Universals were thus reduced to mere constructs the human mind creates to make sense of reality even though such constructs are without any real basis in the things themselves. Since there are no universals, it followed that there was no way to speak of a certain class of things having an inherent telos or goal which defines the natural perfection of that thing. Instead, the perfection of a thing came to be defined externally by God’s will, without reference to inherent nature as the context for the divine will.

Michael Gillespie explained how this led to a world that was radically contingent to the core:

“The world to its very core is contingent and governed only by the necessity that God momentarily imparts to it. There thus are no universals, no species or genera. There are likewise no intrinsic ends for individuals that arise out of and correspond to the essence of their species. Indeed, there is no difference between essence and existence…. Everything is therefore radically individual… God thus cannot create universals without contradicting himself, that is, without limiting himself in a way incompatible with his omnipotence… Divine omnipotence, properly understood, thus entails radical individualism. …Ockham, however, goes beyond Scotus in opening up this realm of freedom not merely by rejecting the scholastic notion of final causes, but also by rejecting the application of efficient causality to men. For Ockham, man in principle is thus free from nature itself. (Nihilism Before Nietzsche, p. 17 & 21.)

Two other related notions must be discussed to complete the picture I am trying to paint regarding the background to the Reformation: theological Voluntarism and univocity of being.

Theological Voluntarism

Divesting the world of universals and teleological purpose enabled Ockham to amplify divine sovereignty, while his radical views on divine freedom allowed him to avoid the specter of a God characterized by sterile changelessness. For the divine will to be truly sovereign and free, God’s Absolute Power must be autonomous, unaffected by any criteria whatsoever, saving only the law of non-contradiction. But Ockham also taught that God had an Ordained Power, by which, once He had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He would continue to act consistently in that way. God’s Ordained Power was a mechanism that enabled the nominalists to assert a static moral order, however arbitrary the basis of that order might ultimately be. (On the background to God’s two powers, and how they functioned in Ockham’s thought, see Maurer’s The Philosophy of William of Ockham, 254 ff.)

In Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, Janine Marie Idziak cites Duns Scotus commenting that killing could become meritorious “if God should revoke this precept, do not kill’.” Ockham followed this line of thought to produce an elaborate proof to demonstrate that, if God had so desired, He could reward murderers with heaven and reward charity with hell. As he put it in his commentary on The Sentences, “the hatred of God, theft, adultery, and actions similar to these…can even be performed meritoriously by an earthly pilgrim if they should come under a divine precept, just as now the opposite of these in fact fall under a divine command.” Or again, with respect to God’s absolute power, Ockham contended that God could have created the moral law to require rather than forbid murder; He even could have made it virtuous for men and women to hate Him. Some nominalists were so keen to preserve the divine freedom that they saw it as an act of piety to point out that with regard to His absolute power, God could have become incarnate as a donkey, but with respect to His ordained power He simply chose to incarnate Himself as a man.

Contemporary philosophers working in the divine command theory of ethics and/or theological voluntarism have generally tended to repudiate the disassociation of the divine will from the divine nature, emphasizing instead that because divine agency flows from the divine nature, the commands uttered by God are consequently necessary conditions of moral obligation but not sufficient conditions; the remaining sufficient conditions involve certain attributes of God’s nature. Thus, for these philosophers the meaning of “good” is grounded in God’s nature. (This was discussed in Jeremy Evans’ PhD dissertation.) It would be a mistake, however, to associate Ockham with this more nuanced school of thought: for him, even the notion that God’s will conforms to His own nature was deeply problematic and forced him to highly qualify the sense in which God is love:

“Omnipotence also means that everything is or occurs only as the result of God’s disposing will and that there is no reason for creation except his will. What is, is only because he wills it…. Omnipotence means an utterly unconditioned will. Indeed, while [Ockham] does not deny that God is a God of love, he does assert that God’s love for man is only a passage back to his love for himself, that ultimately God’s love is only self-love.… Every order is simply the result of God’s absolute will and can be disrupted or reconstituted at any moment. Indeed, Ockham even maintains that God can change the past if he so desires.” . (Nihilism Before Nietzsche, p. 16–17.)

This distinction between God’s Absolute Power and Ordained Power was not unique to Ockham and goes back to the eleventh century. The distinction also features in Aquinas’ thought. However, the concept remained marginal to theological debate until Scotus and Ockham widened the range of options available to God’s absolute power. In Aquinas’ intellectualist framework, the divine will was firmly situated within the context of divine intellect, as Francisco J. Contreras Peláez showed in The Threads of Natural Law: Unravelling a Philosophical Tradition. In Ockham’s theology, by contrast, the dissolution of the divine will from the divine intellect meant that God had no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Under this voluntarist scheme, raw omnipotence was decontextualized from its moorings in the divine nature. This led Ockham to insist that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, though he never went so far as some medieval thinkers (e.g. John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, Peter of Ailly, Thomas Bradwardine and Lorenzo Valla) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past. Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet the result was that God’s behavior became arbitrary. As Timothy Noone observed in his entry “William of Ockham” in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under His ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions was that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Univocity of Being

Historians often associate Medieval Nominalism with the notion of univocity of being, a metaphysical concept which arose in the thirteenth-century as an alternative to the metaphysical ontology espoused by Aquinas. Drawing on Aristotle’s claim that being is not a univocal predicate, Aquinas had asserted that God’s being is not simply different to the being of created things in degree, but also in essence. Because the being of God is qualitatively different from the being of humankind, God is fundamentally mysterious and the only way to talk about Him is by way of analogy. Consequently, “to-be,” in reference to God and creatures, must be analogical, with God as primary analogue and created things as secondary. Precisely because God’s being is qualitatively more real than the being of created things, the latter must participate in the former in order to achieve its full realization. (With regard to his doctrine of participation at least, Aquinas remained a committed Platonist, as has been demonstrated here and here.) Aquinas’ young contemporary, Duns Scotus challenged this when he reacted to the views of Henry of Ghent (1240-1293) by asserting that there is only one order of being shared by both God and His creation.

Scotus’s metaphysical ontology echoed theories going back to the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; 980-1037), who had taught that the category of being precedes both God and creatures. By simply existing, Scotus contended, God necessarily belongs to an order of reality that encompasses both Himself and the creatures He has made. On this account, being was reduced to a neutral, objective and univocal category, one which overarches both the human and the divine. As Robert Barron put it, “Though God is infinite and therefore quantitatively superior to any creature or collectivity of creatures, there is nevertheless no qualitative difference, in the metaphysical sense, between the supreme being, God, and finite beings.” For Scotus, this point was fundamental if science and metaphysics were even to be intelligible; unless the most basic principle to all reality (esse) was unambiguous, the scientific endeavor was doomed. Scotus thus hoped that univocity would help sustain the possibility of natural knowledge of God.

Even though Scotus was a philosophical realist, notions of univocity are often associated with nominalism because of their appropriation by William of Ockham, who insisted on unequivocal terminology even more strongly than Scotus.

The common thread between Ockham’s Nominalism and his insistence on Univocity was a dialectic between God and the world in which the two were related like different sides of a zero-sum transaction. In a sense, God and creation became rivals. To quote again from Barron,

“…God and creatures are set side by side, joined only through a convention of logic that assigns them to the category of ‘beings.’ A consequence of this conception is that God and finite things have to be rivals, since their individualities are contrastive and mutually exclusive. Just as a chair is itself precisely in the measure that it is no other creature thing, so God is himself only inasmuch as he stands over and against the world he has made, and vice versa. Whereas in Aquinas’s participation metaphysics the created universe is constituted by its rapport with God, on Occam’s reading it must realize itself through disassociation from a competitive supreme being.” (Barron, The Priority of Christ, p. 14.)

Nominalism and Desacralization

Nominalism came to fruition in a world rich with sacramental significance and symbolic meaning. Carlos Eire summarized the medieval vision when he noted that, “The sacred was diffused in the profane, the spiritual in the material. Divine power, embodied in the Church and its sacraments, reached down through innumerable points of contact to make itself felt.” Andrew Greeley captured this same sacramental vision when he spoke of “an enchanted world” in which “we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace…. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality.” According to this vision, the physical and the spiritual were seen to intersect mysteriously, as under the right conditions the earthly can participate in the heavenly.

Nominalism did not directly challenge this sacramental tapestry, although it did destabilize the basis for it. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that the nominalist dialectic between God and the world created the conditions for a desacralizing tendency since it reduced any properties intrinsic within the natural world to mere names or conceptual impositions. “If creation depends on the inscrutable decision of a God who totally surpasses the law of human reason,” wrote Dupré in Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture, then “nature loses its intrinsic intelligibility. Grace also becomes a blind result of a divine decree, randomly dispensed to an unprepared human nature. The stress upon a divine omnipotence unrestricted by rationality results in a ‘supernatural order’ separated from nature’s immanent rationality.”

Nominalism entailed a new way of imagining the world and navigating the relationship between the human and the divine, and by extension between the spiritual and the material. Those things which are sacred achieve that status purely by the divine will, while the divine will itself is guided by no antecedent principles, including the divine nature. As C. Scott Pryor put it in a 2006 journal article,

“…nominalism broke the connection of intellectual participation between human beings and God…. Voluntarism emphasized the independence of God’s will from any cause, including his being, nature, or knowledge. The nominalists did not deny that there was a natural law; however, the natural law bound as law only because God’s will imposed it on a created humanity. The intrinsic correlation of the orders of the divine mind, nature, and the human mind was severed.’ C. Scott Pryor, “God’s Bridle: John Calvin’s Application of Natural Law,” Journal of Law and Religion 22, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 236.

Under Nominalism, the overlapping of heaven and earth that lay at the heart of the sacramental vision ceased to be a consequence of how the world is (or can be under the right conditions) according to the nature of things, since nature had been evacuated of intrinsic ordering. An example of this was how Gabriel Biel labored in his work Exposition of the Canon of the Mass to show that there was nothing sacred and good in created things themselves; rather, things only become sacred and good in so far as God imputed goodness to things through an arbitrary will-act. Goodness, rationality and spiritual potency creased to have an organic relationship to how the world is, but retained coherence only in reference to God’s external will and arbitrary naming activity. Robert Barron captured the nature of this dynamic when he observed that under the voluntarism wrought by Ockhamist Nominalism, “God’s relation with his rational creatures has been attenuated, any connection between the divine and the nondivine has to be through will. God’s relation with his rational creatures is therefore primarily legalistic and arbitrary.”

Crucially, under this more legalistic and arbitrary understanding of will, sacramentalism lost an element of mystery while becoming increasingly mechanistic. In its most perverse form, new emphases came to rest on the actions humans can perform to manipulate the divine fiat. (Diarmaid MacCulloch gives some examples in The Reformation: A history). The ecosystem of superstitious rituals that would attract so much censure from the renaissance humanists, and later the sixteenth-century reformers, arose partly as a result of this new emphasis on grace detached from nature. The indulgence controversy was the most startling example of this radically nominalist posturing: given the right conditions, God can declare a sinner forgiven through a sheer volitional fiat independent of an actual change of nature. Grace came to often be perceived as a created thing, even as a buffer between God and humankind that could be conjured up with the right formula. What was lost was the more natural and organic integration of the earthly with the heavenly that had been characteristic of Western theology roughly from the time of the Cappadocian Fathers through to the thirteenth-century. The type of participatory ontology that had previously arisen as the corollary to a sacramental way of ordering the world began to be eclipsed by the via moderna of the nominalist revolution. Even where the integration of the physical and the spiritual seemed to be preserved—for example, in the obsession with relics and places of pilgrimage—we begin to glimpse a gnostic-like inability to value the things of material creation for their own sake.

Similar observations can be made concerning Univocity of Being. Various authors have recently been focusing on how notions of univocity contributed towards the domestication of God’s transcendence. We might say that ideas of univocity, in concert with the natural trajectory of Ockhamist Nominalism, worked to flatten out the cosmos, divesting it of spiritual potency. At first the doctrine of univocity seems to elevate the material creation since it means that the universe has the same type of being as God Himself. Within the older tradition stretching back to the Cappadocian fathers, however, there had been a constant need for the being of humans and the world to participate in the greater and more substantial being of God. (See David Bradshaw’s discussion of participation in the thought of St. Basil in Aristotle East and West, 172 ff.) The template for this participation had been the Eucharist. This participatory ontology upgraded the importance that the earthly and the heavenly constantly interconnect; creation was seen to be an icon of the transcendent, one that achieved its full realization only through participation. By contrast, under the lens of theological univocity, earthly participation in the heavenly was no longer crucial for the former to realize its full potential. As Robert Barron observed,

“…creatures are no longer seen as participating in the divine to-be; instead, God and creatures are appreciated as existing side by side, as being of varying types and degrees of intensity. Furthermore, unanchored from their shared participation in God, no longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another.”

Univocity, in concert with Nominalism, bequeathed to Europeans the possibility that the material realm could unfold autonomously, while the separation of the physical from the spiritual became possible, at least in principle. Hans Boersma at Regent College has done a lot of work to explore the anti-sacramental implications of these developments. In his book Heavenly Participation he wrote that

‘With Scotus, we might say, it became possible to deny the sacramentality of the relationship between earthly objects and the Logos as their eternal archetype. No longer did earthly objects (as sacramenta) receive the reality (res) of their being from God’s own being. Rather, earthly objects possessed their own being. No longer was there a mysterious reality hiding within what could be observed by the senses. The full reality of created objects could be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. The loss of analogy meant the loss of sacramentality.”

Introductory Remarks on Calvin and Nominalism

Having sketched this historical background, I am now ready to look more closely at Calvin. My argument will run something like this. In the metaphysical dialectic of the late medieval nominalists, God must be protected from creation through ensuring that both moral rationality and teleology derive entirely from God’s arbitrary will and not from structures implanted within the economy of creation, nor from verities intrinsic to the divine nature. To oversimplify the matter, but only slightly, we might say that whatever is evacuated from creation is all the more left over to be available for God, as if a pie of fixed size were being divided out between the creation and the creator. I will be suggesting that in the theological imagination of Calvin, the dialectic between God and humanity maps over to an increasing range of concerns, from agency to sacred space. The dread fear of idolatry that would compel Calvin to strip spaces of worship of material accoutrements in order for God’s glory to fully shine, together with the dread fear of autonomy that would compel him to strip human nature of meaningful agency in order for God’s providence to fully operate, both hinge on an impulse he held in common with early modern Nominalism. The impulse was to conceive the relationship between creation and creator as essentially a zero-sum game where the gains of one side are correlated to losses of the other side. This impulse was sometimes explicit, but usually functioned as a background understanding. On this scheme of things, Providence competes with nature for the same ontological space, so that whatever is granted to the latter is that much less left over for the former. In the case of his doctrine of salvation, this meant that freedom and nature must negotiate with Providence for the same space, requiring that any synergy between these realms must either be highly qualified or non-existent.

Cleaning Up the World

Through a long-term and variegated process that worked in concert with numerous other developments, Nominalism played a role in priming Europeans for the kind of thinking popularized by the reform movements of Geneva and Zurich. It did so by introducing a certain mythos into late medieval Europe. (I am using “myth” in the sense articulated by Allen Verhey as being those inescapable networks of meaning which help us to map our world and our place in it. “They serve to orient us, to locate us; they enable us to interpret and to see the significance of the things and events around us.”) What Nominalism had brought to Europeans was a new world-picture in which meaning no longer resided in things themselves but was imposed from outside, principally through will-acts. This type of nominalist logic was at work in the sixteenth-century in the reformed tendency to expel the sacred from particular spaces and times and to relocate it in states of consciousness. The connection between desacralization and Nominalism will become clear if we consider some of the reforms John Calvin brought to Geneva and what he wrote in defense of those reforms.

Under the impulse of Calvin’s hyper-spiritualized liturgical schema, he set about trying to purify worship through emptying it of any and all concessions to materiality. In Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church he continually contrasted spiritual worship with “external forms”, the latter being mere “subterfuges.” The context to this was Calvin’s commitment to preserve the reality of God’s supreme otherness—a reality threatened by the inappropriate mixing of the divine and the human, the spiritual and the material, the inner and the outer. Only after the church was evacuated and whitewashed could it be properly filled with the Word of God. Thus, St. Peter’s in Geneva was emptied of everything except the pulpit and the table, while the latter was set up only on communion Sundays. Bruce Gordon gives us a glimpse into just how revolutionary these transformations were:

“In 1543 Saint-Pierre had a new pulpit built in the body of the church as the walls were whitewashed, covering all remaining images…. Adults in Geneva in the 1540s would have had memories of a very different world of worship…. During the celebration of the mass the people would have heard the bells, smelt the candles and incense, and responded to the familiar chants of the priests…. The churches were filled with art, their walls painted with scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints and side altars would have been used for intercessory masses…. It was a religion that engaged the senses. The whitewashed churches of the Reformed churches offered an arresting contrast…. The simplicity of the churches was designed to concentrate the eye and mind of worshippers on the service. The whitewashed walls rejected any material mediation of the divine and emphasized its immanence.”

William Dyrness, professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, discussed how Calvin’s emphasis on the event of worship involved a corresponding de-emphasis on the place of worship. In his book Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, Dyrness made the follow observation:

“These reforms made possible a new way of experiencing both worship and the broader world. In Calvin’s Geneva the instruction in the catechism, the prayers even the singing, all were a dramatic elaboration of the preached word (which itself rested on the structure outlined in the Institutes)…. While there is great beauty in St. Peter’s church [where Calvin preached], which is visible to this day, the space and environment of worship did not play a major role in the thinking of Calvin.”

No longer considered sacred space, the church building and its furnishings were reduced to a purely functional capacity, even as the pragmatic Calvin allowed only ceremonies that “display manifest usefulness…” As Calvin himself wrote in his Institutes, “Further, we must strive with the greatest diligence to prevent error from creeping in, either to corrupt or to obscure this pure use. This end will be attained if all observances, whatever they shall be, display manifest usefulness, and if very few are allowed…”

The empty spaces of worship that emerged in Calvin’s wake hinged upon a nominalist dialectic in which transcendence and imminence were inversely related. God’s majesty was guarded precisely by evacuating the created sphere of any particularized sacredness. This move towards desacralization echoed the same concern that lay behind the nominalist discomfort with universals, namely the perception that God and the world exist in an inverse relationship, so that whatever fixity or inherent ordering is acknowledged to exist in the latter must necessarily come out of the portion allowed for the former.

Recall that a theological corollary of Ockhamist metaphysics had been that God and the world compete for the same ontological space. In what we might call a “zero-sum theology,” God’s absolute freedom came to depend on Him not being controlled by the stuff of the natural world; the tendency was, as Oakley put it, “to set God over against the world.” When this implicit dialectic entered into the theological imaginations of the reformers, it found expression in the notion that the problem with objects, places and feast days being “charged” with an extraordinary spiritual potency is that they seem to bind God, to contain His sovereignty within the stuff of materiality. As Charles Taylor observed, summarizing the thinking o the time,

“Treating anything as a charged object, even the sacrament, and even if its purpose is to make me more holy, and not to protect against disease or crop failure, is in principle wrong. God’s power can’t be contained like this, controlled as it were, through its confinement in things, and thus ‘aimed’ by us in one direction or another.”

The concern behind this desacralization was the preservation of God’s ultimate sovereignty and His transcendence from the natural world, yet the operative presupposition was the nominalist antinomy between grace and nature, between Providence and creation.

As the sanctuary came to lack a sense of intrinsic spiritual worth or significance, its value for the life of the worshiping community became entirely instrumentalized rooted in its functional value as a place where people could be protected from the elements. Consistent with this new drive, Calvin urged that places of worship be locked during the week to prevent them being used as places of prayer. As he stipulated, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished; if it appears to be a superstition which he will not amend, he is to be chastised.” Commenting on this stipulation, Dyrness remarked that for Calvin, the church

“was the stage on which the performance of worship was played out, and when that was finished, the place had no further role to play…. Worship was everywhere, but it was nowhere in particular. The space of worship was in practice abolished. …This emptiness is the reverse side of the positive impetus to see one’s Christian vocation, and the glory of God, diffused throughout all of life, as Calvin liked to say….


“Objects and actions inevitably did come to fill Protestant spaces. Pews, pulpits, and tables—all these could become beautiful objects, but they had no intrinsic religious significance and the space they occupied had a strictly utilitarian function….”

The implicit theology here is one that can be called “univocity of glory” since it hinged on the assumption that God and creation must negotiate for the same glory; whatever is granted to the one will be less available for the other. Calvin had reflected this univocal concept of glory when he objected to the cult of saints on the grounds that it divided up God’s power, allowing saints to “claim some part of it for themselves.” God and creation thus came to be related like two sides in a zero-sum economic transaction.

In Calvin’s systematic theology, the same zero-sum impulse manifested itself in the notion that God’s majesty is correlative to man’s misery, leading Calvin to argue in Book III of The Institutes that God had to orchestrate the damnation of large numbers of humankind so that “the glory of his name is duly revealed.” (sec. 3.23.8.) In Calvin’s liturgics, the same dialectic manifested itself in the notion that material elements must be removed in order to create space for God’s greatness. In this zero-sum theological game, God and creation compete for the same space, and it seems axiomatic that God must always win.

This zero-sum impulse has a clear ideological correlation with Nominalism. Behind the nominalist discomfort with universals was the perception that God and the world exist in an inverse relationship, so that whatever fixity or inherent order is acknowledged to exist in the latter, must necessarily come directly out of God’s portion of glory. Nowhere is this false dilemma more evident than in Calvin’s tendency to pit the material and the spiritual against each other. By drawing on a wide range of primary sources from the reformation, Carlos Eire has convincingly demonstrated that an antithesis between the spiritual and the material was the central focus of reformed theology in the sixteenth-century. Moreover, he has shown that this dualism between the spiritual and the material allows us to appreciate the interdependence of principles that scholars have most frequently posited as being the foundational first principles of Calvin’s theory of worship, namely Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone be the glory”) and finitum non est capax infiniti (“the finite cannot contain the infinite”). Although the latter phrase does not actually appear within Calvin’s work, the idea is prevalent throughout; moreover, in Calvin’s mind, the latter principle was dependent on the former, since any attempt to encapsulate God’s majesty within material creation inevitable steals from Him the glory to which He is entitled and is a species of inappropriate “mixing.” For example, Calvin’s contention with late medieval piety was not simply that it allegedly institutionalized systematic transgressions of the Second Commandment, but that it attempted to give immanent realization to what is necessarily transcendent and wholly beyond the reaches of the terrestrial realm. The important qualifier in Soli Deo Gloria thus takes on a double meaning: it means not merely that there are no other proper recipients of that glory, but that God’s glory is truly alone in the sense of not being mediated through material existence.

“Calvin’s primary concern in his struggle against catholic piety was to defend the glory of the God who is ‘entirely other,’ who transcends all materiality, who is ‘as different from flesh as fire is from water,’ and whose reality is inaccessible…. Calvin forcefully asserted God’s transcendence through the principle and finitum not est capax infiniti and His omnipotence through soli Deo Gloria. To make others aware of this dual realization, Calvin systematically juxtaposed the divine and the human, contrasted the spiritual and the material, and placed the transcendent and omnipotent solus of God above the contingent multiple of man and the created world. Calvin’s attack on Roman catholic ‘idolatry’ is a condemnation of the improper mixing of spiritual and material worship – an affirmation of the principle finitum not est capax infiniti. It is also an indictment of man’s attempt to domesticate God and to rob him of his glory—an affirmation of the principle soli Deo Gloria.” (Eire, War Against the Idols, 197–198.)

The sense in which God and the world compete for the same space entailed Calvin to continually situate his theology within a series of dualisms: God vs. world, spiritual vs. material, inner vs. outer. I have suggested that this correlated with the underlying impulse of Nominalism, namely the assumption that God and the world compete for the same space in a type of zero-sum relationship. The specific contours of Calvin’s relationship to medieval Nominalism can be characterized along the same lines that Muller identifies regarding Calvin’s dependence on scholastic discussions of intellect and will: while receiving “little explicit attention in Calvin’s theology”, these categories “[hover] in the background of Calvin’s thought as a necessary presupposition of major doctrinal formulations.” This will become even clearer as we explore the key differences between Calvin’s theology and that of Luther.

God and Creation in Competition

Theology is never disembodied but inevitably affects what we conceive piety to be. Calvin’s antithesis between the material and the spiritual, together with his restless attempts to sweep the world clean of sacred particularity, resulted in an antithesis between God and creation that began to change the shape of piety. This becomes clear when we contrast the practical realities of worship in Lutheran lands vs. those lands that fell under Calvin’s sway. Luther’s own crisis of faith had led to an experience of divine favor that would propel him to always emphasize the immediacy of God’s supernatural grace. For Luther, God’s presence could be mediated in physical objects used in religious piety no less than the natural world, while the keen interest he took in music meant that art would always retain a special place in mediating to man something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe. By contrast, Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed Lutheran physicality, avoided creativity wherever possible, and denied the mediating function of material objects. As François Wendel observed,

“From the beginning of his work [the Institutes], Calvin places all his theology under the sign of what was one of the essential principles of the Reform: the absolute transcendence of God and his total ‘otherness’ in relation to man. No theology is Christian and in conformity with the Scriptures but in the degree to which it respects the infinite distance separating God from his creature and gives up all confusion, all ‘mixing’, that might tend to efface the radical distinction between the Divine and the human.”

Though Calvin did not go as far as Zwingli in banning all music from the church service, he allowed only unaccompanied Psalm singing and simple melodies sung in unison and developed theological arguments to try to prove that musical instruments in worship were among the shadows that were dispelled “when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated.” Richard Arnold noted that even “Calvin’s enthusiasm for singing was subject to a crucial qualification: he restricted what was to be sung exclusively to the Psalms – these were, he writes in 1543, the songs provided by God and dictated by His Holy Spirit, and it would be presumptuous and sacrilegious for humankind to sing any words or arrangements of his or her own devising.” Calvin’s hostility to using objects of human creation in worship led to stunted creativity in the lands that fell under Calvin’s sway, especially with regard to music, as has been observed by Paul Lang and Evelyn Underhill and Richard Arnold and William Dyrness.

Behind this liturgical minimalism seems to have been a discomfort with mediation and an attempt to realize spiritual immediacy. The evacuation of inherent meaning and order from the realm of things gave rise to an almost gnostic-like discomfort in worshiping God through the stuff of creation. For Luther, finding God’s presence through physical objects used in religious piety was at least adiaphora, while the keen interest he took in music meant that art would always retain a special place in mediating to humans something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe. By contrast, the dispassionate and logical Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed physical gestures such as kneeling (see Gordon’s Calvin, p. 136), avoided creativity wherever possible, denied the mediating function of material objects (see Dyrness, pp. 192-196), and strove to tether both belief and piety to those things which could be formulated in purely didactic terms. Consistent with this urge, he insisted that ceremonies must decrease so that doctrines can increase, declaring that “Since Jesus Christ has been manifested in the flesh, doctrine having been much more clearly delivered, ceremonies (figures) have diminished.” Calvin did, however, permit what he called “some outward exercises of godliness” because “our weakness renders [it] necessary”.

If for Luther the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of reality is that between faith and works, and if for Zwingli it was the dualism between the visible and the invisible, for Calvin the fundamental tension was between the material and the immaterial. This dichotomy was correlative to an implicit anthropology in which the body is not only subservient to the mind, but exists as its natural competitor. Calvin showed no hesitation invoking the distinctly Platonic idea that the body is a prison, writing that “when Christ commended his spirit to the Father and Stephen his to Christ they meant only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian.” In the same section he wrote, “It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull…” This devaluing of earthly experience is likely what lay behind Calvin’s insistence that it is the invisible soul, not the physical body, in which the image of God properly resides.

Calvin’s ecclesiology likewise veered toward a preference for the invisible body of Christ over the visible, as evidenced by the fact that he was very willing to acknowledge that for whole periods of history the church had existed without any visible manifestation at all. Calvin believed that the Catholic church of his day was not only lacking in the essential marks of the church, but represented Babylon and the system of the anti-Christ. Thus, when his friend Gérard Roussel chose to serve as a Catholic bishop despite being convinced of evangelical theology, Calvin wrote to him, “you are a soldier in the army of the antichrist….Think what you want about yourself: I, at the very least, will never consider you a Christian, or a good man.” But while Calvin believed that God’s church could not be identified with the Roman communion, he denied that prior to the Reformation the church had ceased existing, although he did urge that the church had ceased existing in its visible manifestation. As he wrote in the introduction to the Institutes, “We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire.” (Preface, Section 6.) But if the Church can exist without any visible appearance, then where is it? In his essay ‘Revising the Reform: What Calvin Learned from Dialogue with the Roman Catholic’ in the volume John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now, Randall Zachman showed that Calvin’s answer to the question “Where is the church?” is that the church consists as the aggregate of individuals who, by virtue of the pure preaching of the Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments, comprise the true remnant of the church, even if it remains hidden from view. Thus, while Calvin believed that the Roman communion could not be considered a legitimate church, he taught that it contained within itself the true church hidden from view. Similar notions can be found in both Luther and Zwingli, as well as the second generation Protestant reformers. The basic idea was that while it is preferable for the church to have a visible and institutional grounding, the predicate of visibility is not strictly necessary for the church to be the church. Calvin was quite comfortable saying that the material aspect of Christ’s body, the church, could completely disappear from history since the church is not a visible institution to begin with. As Bruce Gordon observed,

“The true Church is not the visible institution… This Church, according to Calvin, can at times be invisible, hence its apparent disappearance from history, but it is never entirely lost. God knows the chosen: ‘let us therefore leave to him the fact that he sometimes removes from men’s sight the external notion of his Church.’”

In his ecclesiology, as in his liturgics, it was the abstract and invisible that chiefly mattered to the rationalistic Calvin. Consistent with the nominalist concern not to mix God’s glory with the stuff of creation, Calvin’s theology tended to eclipse both instrumental and final causality with a primary causation resting solely on God’s direct volition. Sometimes he did this by trivializing the true causative nature of the instruments God employs: for example, in his discussion of salvation in Book II of the Institutes, Calvin was at pains to make clear that the sacrifice of Christ had no intrinsic efficacy, but was meritorious only because the First Cause had decreed that Christ’s mediatory work would be effective (Institutes, 2.17.1.) Having been pressed by Laelius Socinus on the relation between salvation as literally merited vs. salvation as graciously bestowed, Calvin responded that Christ’s merit procured salvation only through God’s ordination. Christ’s righteousness is wholly dependent on the Father’s decree and does not relate to anything within Christ Himself. In this regard, Calvin echoed the moderate voluntarism of Scotus, who had argued that the merits of Christ’s passion had their value conferred extrinsically by God, in much the same way that God could transform an act of attrition into an act of contrition under the circumstances of confession. (On Scotus’ doctrine of attrition, see Richard Cross, Duns Scotus.) It is true that, in theory, Calvin had no difficulty acknowledging that God worked through means, acknowledging that His providence “sometimes…works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary.” (Institutes, 2.17.1) Yet in practice Calvin’s preference seems to have always been towards primary causality: it was better for God to always act directly rather than through things. As William Bouwsma writes,

“A major consequence of Calvin’s concern to protect God’s power was his tendency to minimize ‘secondary causes.’ He did not reject the fact that God works through them, but, again less concerned with truth than consequences, he discouraged attention to the regularities of nature as likely to reduce the sense of God’s power…. Calvin attacked natural philosophy, therefore, for its preoccupation with secondary causes. His attack on secondary causes was paralleled by his tendency to minimize uniformities and continuities in both nature and human affairs; he was uneasy that human beings might try to subordinate the infinite possibilities latent in God’s will to human expectations based on generalizations about the nature of things. The notion of dependable regularity in nature seemed to him to imply some limit on the inventiveness of the Deity.”

Other scholars who have echoes Bouwsma’s observations include:

The exception to the general hesitancy about secondary causation that these scholars have observed in Calvin’s corpus, was Calvin’s approach to theodicy. Within the context of theodicy, the category of secondary causation would be a convenient mechanism for asserting that God is the cause of evil without being the author of evil. (See Mary Potter Engel’s discussion of this in John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology, p. 135.) The operational eclipse of instrumentation within Calvin’s theological schema fed on the implicit (and often merely operational) idea that Providence competes with nature for the same ontological space. As in early modern Nominalism, God’s otherness became correlative to rigid qualifications of divine immanence that aimed to assure us that God is not bound by creation. As Jeremy Begbie observed, “Calvin seems especially anxious about anything that might compromise God’s utter otherness. He is certainly very wary about granting any human activity too great a role, anything that would diminish God’s lordship or suggest that God is not free, that he is somehow at our beck and call.” In one sense, Calvin’s stress on God’s otherness seems to increase the divine transcendence since, to quote again from McDonnell, “The flight from secondary causality is seen as a return to transcendence.” At the same time, however, the emphasis on God’s otherness increased the need for new models of understanding divine immanence. A fresh sense of God’s active power was unleashed upon the world; God’s providence was seen to be what Calvin himself described as “a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity.” (Institutes, 1.16.3.) Leif Dixon’s scholarship has shown that this fresh sense of God’s power was necessary in order to reinvest the natural world with meaning following the desacralizing trajectory that arose from the Reformation’s appropriation of Nominalism. Such an appropriation entailed new ways of navigating the matrix of transcendence and immanence, leaving Europeans with a further bifurcation between grace and nature, while continuing to expel the more organic sacramental ontology that had been the chief casualty of early modern Nominalism.

Calvin’s Dismembered Sacramentalism

Calvin was born into a world characterized by a sacramental integration of the spiritual and the material, the human and the divine. However, Nominalism and Voluntarism had rendered the basis for this sacramental integration less clear.

Calvin is sometimes said to have instituted a sacramental recovery, while his thought is increasingly being pointed to as offering what Alister-McGrath described as a “strongly world-affirming theology.” Calvin’s constricted and dismembered sacramentalism has provided a rich oasis to modern evangelicals whose anti-sacramental backgrounds have left them starved for catholicity and Eucharistic order. Not familiar with anything else, they will frequently make herculean efforts to represent Calvin as a genuinely sacramental thinker. However, the process of representing Calvin as the great defender of incarnational religion, theologians and historians can easily overlooked those aspects of Calvin’s approach to the physical realm that was suffused by a Nominalist, and even a quasi-gnostic, orientation towards the material world.

It is true that Calvin defended the instrumentality of the sacraments, in addition to advocating a type of Real Presence. Indeed, Calvin’s views on Real Presence led Bullinger to claim that Calvin’s sacramental teaching differed little from the teaching of the papists, and led Charles Hodge to claim that Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was a perilous intrusion into Reformed theology. Nevertheless, to the extent that Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist was not situated within the architecture of a more general sacramental ordering of things, it could never rise above the status of being God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write, “since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.” (Institutes, IV.XIV.III) Philip Lee, who tried his best to separate Calvin from the individualistic and gnostic approaches that would follow in his wake, was forced to admit that Calvin’s word-centred approach “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.” Lee was echoed by Dyrness who noted that “The objects of the sacraments have no intrinsic importance, either aesthetically or theologically – these aspects have been stripped away. Rather the performance of the preached word enacted in the sacraments becomes a unique mediation of grace, and it is the theological center of Calvin’s cultural-aesthetic identity.” Though there remain a variety of views concerning Calvin’s doctrine of the supper, it seems hard to deny that the communion elements become simply adjuncts to the word, a necessity given the inability of physical beings to “conceive of anything spiritual.” “…throughout [Calvin’s] teaching he insisted upon the secondary and supplementary character of the sacraments, whereas the Gospel could be sufficient of itself in case of need, and ought normally to be so, were it not for our weakness which makes us dependent upon cruder kinds of assistance.” (Wendel, Calvin: the Origins and Development of his Religious Thought, p. 312.)

Even Calvin’s notion that the world is a theatre of God’s glory eventually collapsed under the weight of his hyper-spiritualized approach to liturgics. Throughout his commentaries Calvin was always quick to remind his reader that the reason images of God are inadmissible is because they were made out of what he called “dead material’ like trees, silver, gold and stone.” Things made from these “dead materials” could never approach the infinite, incomprehensible majesty of God. Yet when Calvin moved from the realm of sub-creation to creation, he was quite willing to concede that physical materials like trees could convey something of God’s character and that such objects, like the universe itself, could be living images of the goodness and liberality of the Creator. In fact, Calvin’s notion of the world as a theatre of God’s glory served as a platform from which he argued that creating images is futile. Similarly, when Calvin emptied the church of all concessions to materiality, he was keen to emphasize that this is because human beings themselves, not inanimate objects, are the ultimate image of the Creator. However, to the extent that these living icons are visible, a consistent application of Calvin’s argument against inanimate images would exclude even human beings from being able to represent God in any meaningful way. For example, Calvin’s statement in his Exodus commentary that “It is wrong for men to seek the presence of God in any visible image, because he cannot be represented to our eyes”, seems to dampen the prospect of the congregation of living saints being able to image God in any meaningful way. This problem is partially resolved by Calvin’s insistence that it is the invisible soul, not the visible body, in which the image of God properly resides. By thus qualifying the doctrine of the image of God in this way, Calvin was able to bracket off the material body from playing any significant role in imaging the creator, and to preserve God’s essential invisibility and incomprehensibility in the process.

Randall Zachman suggested that one of the reasons why the theme of manifestation has been neglected in Calvin scholarship is precisely because it has been overshadowed by the reformer’s repeated appeal to the incomprehensible essence of God. Zachman tried to resolve this tension by suggesting that Calvin had been attempting “to maintain the dialectical relationship between the visibility and invisibility of God.” A more likely explanation is that Calvin’s inconsistency resulted from the polemical and historical context of his theology, as well as from the operational Nominalism that colored his philosophy of the world. With regard to the former, it should not be overlooked that a web of political priorities lay behind the theoretical constructions of reformation theology, chief of which was the concern to avoid the alleged errors of Roman Catholic idolatry and the network of superstitions that had developed in the world of late medieval piety. This concern seems to have driven Calvin to develop an approach to worship that existed in tension to the broader outlines of his systematic thought.

The polemical and political context of Calvin’s ideas about worship may also account for why the reformer never felt inclined to offer a serious attempt at repairing the sacramental tapestry that had begun to be ripped apart by developments in the late Middle Ages. The participation of the earthly in the divine lost something of its organic character, becoming increasingly a matter of manipulating spiritual forces through the right formulae. Calvin could have attacked this system by appealing to an older and more organic sacramentalism. He had a wealth of sacramental theology available to him from Augustine, whom he quotes in the Institutes more than any other non-scriptural authority. Yet Calvin tended to focus on Augustine’s commentaries and his theology of grace, stripped from the metaphysics of participation in which Augustine’s views were originally situated. Calvin’s concern for idolatry, together with the momentum generated by the politics of the reform movement, ensured that he would neglect this aspect of Augustine’s thought. Instead Calvin assumed the world-picture of Nominalism in which things themselves were divested of inherent order, meaning and purpose. The result was that Calvin’s sacramental theology, though strong in itself, remained isolated from his larger theological project.

Even within his own theology Calvin had the resources for a more integrated sacramental understanding. For example, at the center of Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharistic was his teaching about union with Christ: by participating in the body and blood of Christ men and women come to share in the divine life that is communicated to Christ’s human nature. This theology could have provided a template for recovering a non-nominalist, integralist doctrine of grace and nature as applied to the entire world. Yet Calvin never pushed his sacramentalism that far: his sacramentalism is not integral to his theory of nature, and indeed the latter can stand without any support from the former. Had he advocated a Zwinglian memorial view of the Supper, it is hard to envision what adjustment would have been required to his teaching that the universe is a theatre of the divine glory. Indeed, as Hans Boersma observed, Calvin’s theory of manifestation “doesn’t require participation or sacramentality” and can easily be sustained without any theory of presence. Calvin could hold the natural world in high regard, but only as an important pedagogical tool. The foundation of Calvin’s sacramentalism is the concept of manifestation rather than participation, and significantly, the former is driven by the doctrine of creation rather than the doctrine of incarnation. Ultimately, this is why attempts to show that Calvin was a sacramental thinker must concern themselves merely with a narrow analysis of his doctrine of the Eucharist itself while ignoring the broader scope of his theological corpus.

Despite his qualified doctrine of Real Presence, Calvin’s theology of manifestation acted as a substitute for the theology of presence, so that the physical became merely a signpost for the heavenly realm instead of sacramentally participating in it. (On the difference between signs and sacraments, see the helpful discussion, in Boersma’s Heavenly Participation, 22–24.) For Calvin, the universe spoke to humankind of the divine, but it was not suffused with supernatural presence; it was a theatre of a higher reality, but fell short of being sacramentally charged in the way we find in Augustine. Because the kind of sacramentalism that Calvin did offer was anchored in the doctrine of creation rather than the doctrine of incarnation, the result was a loss in the organic interdependence between the material and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly.

Whether or not it can be established that Calvin’s thought was explicitly motivated by his reading of nominalist sources, his approach to the sacred clearly worked within the template of the nominalist assumptions that permeated the intellectual plausibility structures of his time. Behind the explicit doctrines formulated by Calvin lay an implicit way of re-imagining the world, one which hinged on the nominalist tendency to inversely relate grace and nature. Seen as such, the division between the material and the spiritual that remained a key feature of Calvin’s operational theology emerged as merely one dualism within a wider matrix of competing disjunctions bequeathed to him from his nominalist predecessors.

His failure to recover an earlier sacramentalism had enormous implications in his understanding of time and place. A desacralizing tendency was let loose in the world as the sacred became ubiquitous. The church became locked, not because the building was no longer considered a sacred location for prayer, but because everywhere was seen to be a location for devotional piety. However, what was ostensibly a quantitative enlargement of the sacred was also a qualitative transformation of it. Indeed, the move from sacred particularity became a move towards disenchantment, as definite times and places could no longer function as avenues for a more specific integration of the physical and the spiritual.

If conflating the distinction between the sacred and the profane meant that everything could become sacred, in another sense it meant that nothing could any longer be considered sacred. This resulted in two instincts that seem mutually exclusive but which both emerged organically from the narrative of Sola Dei Gloria. One instinct was to glorify God by seeing the finite charged with the infinite, while the other was to preserve God’s glory by making sure the infinite and the finite are never mixed. If the former seemed to result in a new valuation of the world and humankind’s experience living within the theatre of God’s glory, the latter involved a principled commitment to the non-integration of the physical with the spiritual.

At the heart of this new world-picture is not so much Calvin’s teaching as a theological system, but his way of imagining the world as we see it expressed in the social realities of Calvinist piety. Calvin never explicitly stated that grace and nature are inversely related, yet the idea runs like a subterranean stream throughout the Institutes in general and his discussion of images in particular. This may go a long way towards explaining the curious absence of the doctrine of incarnation from Calvin’s discussion of images in Book 1, chapter 11 of the Institutes. Here Calvin itemizes the various times that God appeared in material form: he reflected on the time He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove. Rather curiously, however, Calvin omitted to mention the incarnation among these examples, though he does say that some of these events were anticipations of the revelation of God in Christ. The crucial question he overlooked is whether the Second Person of the Trinity counts as one of these instances of God appearing in visible form; for if a divine person did assume human nature, then it becomes impossible to sustain Calvin’s oft-repeated claim that “God…is incomprehensible, to our sense perceptions,” (Institutes) and that “it is inconsistent with the nature of God to be represented… by any kind of likeness” (Commentary on 1st Corinthians), and that “God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him”, (Institutes) and that “He cannot be represented to our eyes…His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form….” (Commentary on Exodus). If taken literally, all such statements force us to downgrade the significance of the incarnation; after all, if a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would have been insulting since Christ was a visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6-7). Significantly, Colossians 1:15 only appears twice in the Institutes, and both appearances are in Book 2 rather than in the discussion of the knowledge of God in Book 1. James Payton has drawn attention to this in his fascinating critique of Calvin’s deficient treatment of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Payton shows that by choosing to situate his lengthy discussion of the second commandment in Book 1 instead of in his discussion of the Decalogue in Book 2 (where it had been placed in the 1536 edition), Calvin was able to completely bypass the Christological focus that lay behind the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s vindication of icons.

“Since idols convey false information about the divine – God cannot be visibly portrayed – it is possible that rhetorical considerations regarding the treatment of the knowledge of God might well have warranted dealing with the second commandment in Book 1. As just noted, though, the fathers of Nicea II rejected with as much vehemence as Calvin both idolatry and the notion that the invisible God could be visibly portrayed. Nevertheless, they also argued for the legitimacy of icons of Christ who is, according to St. Paul, ‘the image of the invisible God.’ From their perspective it was possible to reject idolatry connected with images and on the basis of the incarnation affirm a proper understanding of images and their use. Therefore to deal fairly with their presentations would have required Calvin to interact with both positions. With the treatment of the second commandment firmly anchored in Book 1, however, any consideration of the incarnation of Christ would have been logically and rhetorically out of place – and, indeed, none is to be found. St. Paul’s statement is found only twice in the 1559 Institutes, and both times appear in Book 2; neither citation occurs in the discussion of the person of Christ or addresses the possible relationship of that doctrine to the question if icons. Indeed, it is startling to realize that neither in Book 1 (the discussion of the second commandment) nor in Book 2 (the treatment of the person of Christ) did Calvin deal with the question if icons of Christ, or the specific question of their legitimacy. In any event, it is undeniable that Calvin’s location of the discussion of the second commandment in Book 1 ends up being prejudicial against the decision of Nicea II, and that his treatment of the person of Christ in Book 2 bypasses the issue. Calvin’s definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes, thus, allowed early Reformed iconoclasm to go unchallenged by the seventh ecumenical council.” James Payton R., ‘Calvin and the Legitimation of Icons: His Treatment of the Seventh Ecumenical Council,’ Archiv Für Reformationsgeschichte 84 (1993): 239–240.)

By ignoring the full ramifications of the incarnation, Calvin was able to construct a minimalist liturgical scheme which betrays his preference for incorporeality. This was part of a new way of navigating the spiritual and the physical in which these realms became quantitatively divisible rather than merely qualitatively distinguishable. The corollary to this seems to be a tacit assumption that if too much is afforded to the material realm then there is that much less left over to give the spiritual, as if the two exist in an inverse relationship to each other. It is as if what belongs to God and what belongs to creation must be rationed out of the same “univocal” category, as we might divide up the pieces of a pie.

The twentieth-century Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrance, saw Calvin’s anti-sacramental and desacralizing tendencies as wonderful developments, since the Reformation’s separation of grace and nature was supposedly a necessary move to “guard the Godness of God” and preserve “the naturalness of nature.” Significantly, Torrance acknowledged that in order to achieve this, the reformers needed to first overthrow the Augustinian understanding of the universe “as a sacramental macrocosm in which the physical and visible were held to be the counterpart in time to eternal and heavenly patterns.” In Torrance’s mind, this “new outlook involving the primacy of grace’ released Europeans from the shackles of needing ‘to find [the world’s] meaning in its participation in the divine.” This non-participatory way of relating grace and nature “bore immense fruit, for it at once disenchanted the world”, a process Torrance saw as reaching its pinnacle in Francis Bacon’s separation of grace and nature and his elimination of all final causation from the world. Torrance rightly situated this shift in Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s challenge to the Christian-Platonic synthesis that had dominated “for more than a thousand years…” The corollary of this older outlook, Torrance contended, had been “the notion of a sacramental universe…” Since Torrance considered the idea of a sacramental universe to be appalling, his heroes were Scotus and Ockham. By undermining the foundation of a sacralised world, these heroes of modernity created the context in which Calvin could finish the process of worldly disenchantment, at the same time as modifying Ockhamist epistemology (at least, according to Torrance). The basic assumption behind the disenchantment Torrance praised is that nature is a competitor from which God must be guarded. Only by overthrowing Augustine’s sacramental universe, and only by separating grace and nature, was Torrance satisfied that the reformers had succeeded in “guard[ing] the Godness of God.”

Calvin and the Hidden God of Voluntarism

By the late Middle Ages, the philosophy of Nominalism had achieved a measure of dominance. It was actually the counter-reformation that assured Aquinas the prominent place he came to enjoy in Roman Catholic theology ever since. Despite the strong influence of Aquinas on the medieval schoolmen, by the mid fourteenth-century, many of Europe’s top universities were using Nominalism, not Thomism, as the principal framework for teaching natural and moral philosophy. This was partly propelled by Renaissance humanism, with which had many points of affinity with Nominalism. Some authors who have discussed this include:

William of Ockham’s fifteenth-century disciple, Gabriel Biel (1420-1495), expressed the nominalist groundswell that was engulfing Europe when he declared that the divine will was purely arbitrary, ungrounded in any context of order:

“God can do something which is not just for God to do; yet if he were to do it, it would be just that this be done. Wherefore the divine will alone is the first rule of all justice, and because he wills something to be done, it is just that it be done, and because he wills something not to be done, it is not just that it be done. …the will of God is the rule of its own self; and therefore it cannot fail to be righteous. …it is not the case that God wills it because it is right; on the contrary, because He wills it, it is therefore right.”

By the time of the sixteenth-century, the real significance of Nominalism was not merely that it was the reigning orthodoxy in most of the schools, but that it had created a substratum of assumptions which tinctured how Europeans ‘imagined’ their place in the world. The theology articulated by many of the reformers worked within the general template of the nominalist via moderna. For many of them, God’s will-acts took on a new importance as the connecting link within the ecosystem of meaning. Grace became exclusively the domain of God’s will-acts without such acts having any organic connection to prior occurrences in the realm of nature. The Reformation would thus see the emergence of new juridical models of soteriology that hinged on the nominalist antinomy between grace and nature. Perhaps the clearest example of the new juridical soteriology is the way reformers like Calvin and Luther would painstakingly work to keep the nominal or federal aspects of justification separate from the ontological or actual aspects. I discussed this in ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background’, so I will not repeat myself here; however, it will be worthwhile to look closer at Calvin’s contributions to Protestant Voluntarism.

Calvin does not seem to have been a Voluntarist in a self-conscious and explicit sense; however, there are clear ideological correlations with Voluntarism that function as a point of integration for much of his system. Calvin was especially concerned to protect God’s freedom from the perceived threat of man’s will through grounding both ethics and salvation in the extrinsic dimension of raw will. His assumption that nature is a competitor from which God must be guarded was concomitant with the type of monergistic soteriological models that dominated Book III of the Institutes and which achieved even greater primacy in the writings of his successors.

Within the context of Calvin’s monergistic soteriology, freedom and nature must negotiate with Providence for the same space, and because it is the latter that must always win out, any synergy between the two must be left to die the death of a thousand qualifications. By setting the ‘Godness’ of God up at the expense of creation, monergistic soteriology becomes not merely true, but true necessarily, for on this scheme of things it is no more possible for God to create a non-monergistic universe while remaining fully sovereign than it is possible for Him to cease being God. As such, Calvin’s monergistic soteriology followed the theological deposit left by Augustine who, wanting to liberate the divine will from all bondage to a priori necessity, ended up merely substituting another form of necessitarianism. As David Bradshaw explained,

“…the Augustinian interpretation of predestination is not only true but is necessarily true, since God could not create creatures who are capable in any way of affecting His judgments regarding salvation and damnation….Yet the Augustinian position began precisely as the attempt to exalt the divine will over all necessity.” David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies,” Philosophy and Theology 18, no. 1 (2006): 117–18.

Within Calvin’s theological metaphysics, God’s sovereignty becomes acutely fragile, threatened by anything that might undermine the creational and soteriological monergism on which it precariously hinged. The result is that instead of God and nature being related analogically, there is a univocal freedom and a univocal glory that must be partitioned out between God and creatures. A concomitant of this nominalist dialectic is that meaning and teleology no longer reside in things themselves but are imposed from outside in ways that involve explicit incongruities. The incongruities arise at the point in which the divine will-acts, now broken down into separate modes, offer a competing teleology to the same object simultaneously. For example, the distinction between God’s revealed will and His hidden will forced Calvin to set in opposition the teleology that is normative for an object with the teleology that God ultimately wills for the same object. With respect to God’s revealed will, the telos of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to God’s hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. (And by the way, this dual-telos is a necessary consequence of Calvin’s system regardless of whether one maintains he was a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian, and regardless of whether one holds that Calvin believed in single predestination or double predestination.) However, since God reveals Himself to humankind in terms of the first mode while relating to humankind in terms of the second, a radical discontinuity is set up between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him, between appearance and reality. Accordingly, the telos that is universally normative for all persons (i.e., that the final end of all men is to be united with Him) achieves its normativity purely through God naming it to be such, even though this naming-activity remains dislocated from the actual telos of God’s hidden will (i.e. that it is not the final end of all persons, but only some, to be united with Him). However, since Calvin could not completely abandon the quest for teleological unity, the hidden generally takes precedent over the revealed will, with the latter being reduced to mere accommodatio. (I have discussed the existential and devotional problems that this dual teleology creates in my article ‘Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him.’)

It is undisputed that for men like Theodore Beza God’s hidden will takes precedent over His revealed will. However, Hans Boersma convincingly demonstrated that even in Calvin, the overarching emphasis remains fixed on God’s hidden will, with His revealed will being in some sense subordinate. The reduction of revealed truths to divine accommodation creates more than merely a quantitative distinction between appearance and reality, but throws into question any qualitative connection between divine revelation and ultimate reality. Any qualitative connection between grace and nature is also severed: divine grace proceeds out of the hidden will (the perspective of God), which remains distinct from, and in some cases at complete odds with, the revealed will by which God accommodates Himself to humankind in the realm of nature (the perspective of humankind). Further information about this dual-perspective can be found in Mary P. Engel’s John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology. The end result of dislocating God as He is with God as He is revealed to us, is essentially a hidden God. Under the influence of what Susan Schreiner identified as “Scotist-nominalist categories”, Calvin essentially “posits a God hidden outside of nature, history, and Christ.” Boersma summarizes the basic problem that emerged:

“Whereas God’s revealed will is communal (with God wanting everyone to follow his law), his hidden will concerns the outcomes of the lives of specific individuals. Whereas the external preaching of the Word extends to many (though not all), the inward working of the Spirit is limited to those who have been chosen from eternity. Whereas the outward call merely leads to a general adoption and thus remains impersonal, adopting through the gift of faith means an intimate and mystical union with Christ. Finally, whereas the preaching of God’s revealed will is always accompanied by the demand of faith, God’s electing will is unconditional and absolutely certain, so that all who have been granted the special grace of God’s Spirit will persevere till the end.”

Calvin’s constant dichotomizing between the hidden will and the revealed will, between the outward and the inward, between the external and the internal, between the visible and the invisible, between the communal and the individual, between appearance and reality, left him without the categories for an organic integration between grace and nature, and rendered him unable to affirm any qualitative connection between God as He is versus God as men and women experience Him. A consistent corollary to Calvin’s dislocation of reality and appearance is that the world yields no insight into God as He really is; as such, the world becomes fundamentally mysterious. All that human beings have access to is the results of God’s will, which often disguises rather than reveals the true contours of divine intentionality.

By ordering the world according to a web of rigid dichotomies, Calvin was forced to deny that God’s interactions with the world actually yielded significant insight into His nature. The Ockhamists had been committed to a similar denial as a result of a voluntarism which objected to God’s will-acts having any antecedents; for Calvin, this denial arose as a corollary to the opposition he set up between God’s revealed will and His hidden will. In both cases there is a particular dialectic between God and creation in which the latter becomes detached from any intrinsic ordering. Order is derived from isolated will acts which themselves suggest no antecedent normative structures. Calvin made this explicit in his Institutes, where he reserved some of his harshest language for those who would suggest causes to the will of God. Indeed, the only way Calvin could be assured that God’s sovereignty remained intact was by removing the divine will from the province of rationality and appealing to a raw fideism. As Calvin wrote,

“…it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are…. For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.” (Institutes, 3.32.2).

In making God’s will-acts the final standard of justice, Calvin severely limited any sense in which one may speak of God’s choices flowing out of His nature. God’s will, not God’s nature, is what Calvin called “the necessity of all things.” But if the divine nature does not create the context for the divine will, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that God’s will is purely arbitrary. Hans Boersma suggested that nominalist moves like this were made necessary once Calvin moved divine violence out of the realm of history and located it in the heart of God’s character. The concept of hidden justice, which is closely situated within the nominalist dialectic, functioned as a mechanism for precluding objections among those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. This contrasts sharply with Calvin’s arch-nemesis, Aquinas, who had posited a congruence between human and divine understandings of ethics. By recognizing no standard outside the divine will, Calvin precludes objections from those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. “God appears to will things not because they are just,” observed Boersma about Calvin’s God, “but they are just because God wills them. It is difficult to escape the idea that god stands outside the law (ex lex).” As grace comes to be associated with God’s hidden will, while nature remains the province of the divine accommodatio, there ceases to be the categories for any organic integration between grace and nature, or between appearance and existence.

In Book III of The Institutes Calvin used the concept of hidden justice as a moral antiseptic to clean up any ethical contamination that might have been left by his teaching on double predestination. Having argued that “eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others” and “as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death” and “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision”, and “the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction…because he so willed”, Calvin then proceeded to argue that the justice of this plan is completely secret:

“we must always at last return to the sole decision of God”s will, the cause of which is hidden in him…. For if predestination is nothing but the meting out of divine justice—secret, indeed, but blameless—because it is certain that they were not unworthy to be predestined to this condition, it is equally certain that the destruction they undergo by predestination is also most just…. The reprobate wish to be considered excusable in sinning, on the ground that they cannot avoid the necessity of sinning, especially since this sort of necessity is cast upon them by God’s ordaining. But we deny that they are duly excused, because the ordinance of God, by which they complain that they are destined to destruction, has its own equity—unknown, indeed, to us but very sure.” Institutes 3.21.5–3.23.9.

Calvin did not go to the same lengths as his medieval predecessors in itemizing all the horrendous actions God might have performed while still remaining good, but he did argue, in his sermons on Job, that God might have condemned even the unfallen angels and this would be just purely because He is God. In suggesting that it would be just for God to give the unfallen angels a share of common creaturely justice, Calvin appealed to the great gulf between the finite and the infinite. In Calvin’s thinking, the fact that angels are not God was itself sufficient grounds for their just condemnation. In the process of developing this argument, Calvin made the secret justice of God so far above human conceptions of justice that its coherence is ultimately hidden from view. As Susan Schreiner observed,

“In Job’s story, Calvin sees a God who holds sovereign sway over nature, history, and Satan. He revels in descriptions of creation and exhorts his congregation to contemplate the divine glory evident everywhere in the cosmos. But he also finds confessions that the wisdom, providence, goodness, and justice of God are often inscrutable and far beyond the distorted perception of fallen human beings. In Job’s story, Calvin finds a God who ‘hides his face.’ …Calvin is speaking…of a hiddenness that darkens history, threatens faith, and tempts one to despair. As he progresses through his line-by-line exposition of the text, Calvin struggles more and more intensely with the hidden and darker side of the divine nature.”

Calvin buffered himself against the startling implications of this position (namely, that God might be unpredictable, unreliable, untrustworthy and unknowable) by appealing to a pact between God and creation by which God agreed to bring His hidden justice into alignment with the creaturely justice revealed in the law. But Calvin left his followers with no guarantee of any ultimate congruence between God’s revelation in the law, on the one hand, and God’s hidden justice, on the other. As Calvin explained, in an insight he attributed to Job:

“The Law is not so perfect or exquisite as is that infinite justice [iustice infinie] of God…according to which he could find iniquity in his angels and the sun would be unclean before him. See, then, how there is a justice more perfect than the Law. If one accomplished everything in the Law, he could still be condemned if God wanted to use this justice. True, the Lord does not wish to use it since he accommodates himself to us and receives and accepts that justice which he has commanded.”

It is true that Calvin repudiated the idea of “absolute might”, adding shortly after the passage already quoted from Institutes 3.32.2 that “we do not advocate the fiction of ‘absolute might’; because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless God who is a law unto himself. …the will of God is not only free of all fault but is the highest rule of perfection, and even the law of all laws.” (3.23.3.) Calvin seemed to have been concerned that affirming God’s “absolute power” would render Him unreliable in His relation to the world, while undermining the pact between God and creation. However, this concern simply shows that Calvin misunderstood the medieval distinction between absolute power and ordained power, since the latter functioned precisely as a mechanism for preserving consistency in God’s relation to the world. Some scholars who argue that Calvin misunderstood the scholastic distinction between the two powers, include:

David Steinmetz summarizes the matter succinctly:

“in treating the scholastic distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, Calvin misstated what the scholastics meant by the use of this distinction, restated what he regarded as the correct answer (which was, more or less, what the scholastics taught when they drew the distinction), and concluded, quite wrongly, that he and the scholastics were worlds apart.”

One of the reasons Calvin may have tried to distance himself from scholastic Nominalism is because of his aversion to the hypothetical questions associated with the “absolute power” school of thought. The scholastic notion that God’s omnipotence included the ability to do all things that are logically possible had led to a series of speculations on what was logically possible for God to do (e.g. was it logically possible for God to incarnate Himself as a woman or a donkey but not logically possible for Him to undo the past?). Calvin’s horror of metaphysical speculation together with his deep distaste for too much creaturely inquisitiveness meant that such abstractions could only be “profane” and “hateful” to him. In his sermons on Job, Calvin used even stronger language when speaking against absolute power, in the context of warning against those who would separate God’s power from His attributes: ‘What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in Hell.” Given what Calvin took to be the absolute power position, for God to use “absolute power” would be to act in a disordered fashion as an arbitrary tyrant, thus violating the lower justice by which Calvin’s God accommodated Himself to the world. But this lower justice was still conceived in essentially voluntarist terms, as Anna Case-Winters explained:

“It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessitates. Calvin was unwilling to admit metaphysical limitations to divine power. God’s personal will defines God’s power… He rejected the idea of “absolute power” because it was an abstraction. One could not speak of divine power apart from divine willing. For Calvin, God’s power is coterminous with God’s will…. It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessities. Calvin is unwilling to admit any metaphysical limitation to the exercise of divine power.”

Calvin replaced the network of metaphysical abstractions associated with the absolute power position with a personalism that liberated God from all necessity, locating the divine sovereignty entirely in the divine will. As Calvin put it, citing Augustine, “the will of God is the necessity of things”. (sec. 3.23.8.) This voluntarist understanding is essentially what Scotus had also espoused. (On the similarities between Duns Scotus and John Calvin, see HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.) In urging that “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness” so that “whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous” (Institutes, 3.32.2) Calvin could almost be said to be quoting Scotus, who had also asserted that

“The divine will…is the first rule of all works and of all acts, and the activity of the divine will, of which the first rule consists, is the first principle of righteousness. For from the fact that something is suitable to the divine will, it is right, and whatever action God could perform, is right absolutely.”

For Calvin, this voluntarist posture seemed to amplify God’s freedom and sovereignty precisely by unloosing Him from the physical world, thus preserving His supreme otherness. God became so far removed from the world that the integration of the physical and the spiritual became highly qualified if not completely untenable. The partition Calvin drew between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him left God hidden from view, thus raising questions about the ultimate reliability of God’s revelation to humankind. When Calvin’s God revealed Himself to mankind, His self-descriptions were true only in a nominal sense, since predicates such as “good” and “loving” were mere names through which the Almighty chose to reveal himself and not necessarily substantive descriptions of His actual nature.

Final Thoughts

Ockham’s elimination of universals had been birthed out of a desire to prop up the divine sovereignty, but this occurred at the expense of nature’s inherent ordering. The highest reality, Ockham taught, are God’s arbitrary will-acts, and it is from these that nature derives her meaning. Calvin echoed these same concerns, for we have seen that his system unfolded on the axis of an inverse relationship between nature and God’s glory, as if these are two sides of a zero-sum transaction. The univocity of glory that must be rationed out between God and creation led to a quest for unmediated piety that found expression in Calvin’s discomfort with sacred space. If this created an empty church, it also created an empty world: God’s majesty had to be guarded precisely by evacuating nature of any particularized sacredness and organizing schema that might be prior to, or the reason for, God’s will-acts.

Similarly, in his views on freedom, holiness, salvation and the glory of God, we have seen that Calvin worked within the context of this same nominalist dialectic. In the world-picture that pervaded the Institutes, the freedom of God requires the extrusion of teleology from key areas of the created realm lest God’s ability to define and redefine the world be marginalized. This entailed a kind of moral order that emerged entirely from the divine fiat which itself can no longer be contextualized in terms of how the world is. Indeed, when Calvin reworked the Euthyphro dilemma by declaring that we cannot proceed further than God’s will in discovering the source of an action’s goodness, since “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it,” he was working within a context of understanding that had resonance precisely because of the pervasive influence of philosophical nominalism in sixteenth-century thought. The influence was so pervasive that, ironically, it was often when Calvin tried to distance himself from the scholastic Nominalists (i.e., Institutes 3.32) that he was most indebted to their ubiquitous plausibility structures. Nominalism was part of the very air Calvin breathed, without him even realizing it.

We recall that Ockham’s elimination of universals was birthed out of a desire to prop up the divine sovereignty, but this occurred at the expense of any inherent ordering in nature. The highest reality, he taught, are God’s will-acts, and it is from these acts that nature derives her order, not vice versa. Calvin echoed these same concerns. His system unfolded on the axis of an inverse relationship between nature and God’s glory, as if they are two sides of a zero-sum transaction. This led to a quest for unmediated piety that found expression in Calvin’s discomfort with sacred space. God’s majesty is guarded precisely by evacuating nature of any particularized sacredness as well as any organizing schema that might be prior to, or the reason for, God’s will-acts. For Calvin and his followers, this promises to amplify God’s freedom and sovereignty precisely by unloosing Him from the physical world, thus preserving His supreme otherness within the matrix of the zero-sum dialectic. In one sense, this move seemed to increase God’s transcendence since, as McDonnel perceptively observed, “The flight from secondary causality is seen as a return to transcendence.” At the same time, however, it seems to also increase the sense of divine imminence. Calvin, for example, could speak of God being “vigilant, efficacious, busy, engaged in constant activity…” This sense of divine busyness is necessary in order to reinvest the natural world with holiness after it has been evacuated of the sacred. However, this new way of navigating the matrix of transcendence and imminence left Europeans with a further bifurcation between grace and nature as well as the continued loss of the organic sacramental ordering that had been the chief casualty of Nominalism.

Further Reading