Did Calvin Confuse Person and Nature?

The irony is that I am now reading Calvin more carefully (and sometimes more eagerly) than the days when I was a Calvinist.  The following is from his commentary on Matthew 24:36 (good luck finding it;  “Harmonies” of the Gospels are useless and make research and cross-referencing virtually impossible.  That said, if you have the 30 odd volume Commentary set published by Baker or Hendrickson, look for volume 17, page 154.

For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially  the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator.

We can note several things here:

  • The Person of Christ as subject (per Cyril) is pushed to the background and emphasis is on the Office of Mediator.
  • We see an explicit statement that natures, not Persons, act.   This is an open confusion of person and nature.  I suppose one could reply that Calvin really meant that the person acts, and the first sentence of the quote does suggest that Calvin thought he was being faithful to the Tradition.  That said, given the later Calvinian emphasis on the extra calvinisticum, Calvin’s words here are internally consistent (if wrong).
  • Some people think that Nestorianism means “two persons of Christ.”  It does not.  It means “two subjects.”   Cyril’s theology was that the Logos is the sole subject of all Incarnate actions.  Nestorious explicitly rejected that point.  If Calvin has natures acting, then he is positing multiple sources in his Christology.  The structure of his Christology is openly Nestorian.

I will admit, though, I do not yet know what Calvin means by the divine nature is in a state of repose.

EDIT:  I actually do know what Calvin means by the “state of repose.” The extra calvinisticum is clearly wrong, but that’s not my contention here.


27 comments on “Did Calvin Confuse Person and Nature?

  1. Canadian says:

    Perry Robinson showed me to watch as the reformers often have the two natures virtually form the one person, too. Notice Calvin’s comment “two natures were united INTO one person.”
    Could be wrong, though.
    He does not follow the fathers in the sword and fire analogy where the human nature is interpenetrated by his divinity such that the humanity of Christ is deified and received capabilities not normally natural to humanity. (Hence ubiquity in Eucharist)

  2. I disagree, judging Calvin by terms and ideas he did not use himself. Calvin was a Trinitarian of more simple biblical proportions; i.e. biblicism. And his “divine nature.. in a state of repose”, would be by our definition, more “kenosis” in theory.

    • tesla1389 says:

      you are welcome to disagree, but Calvin clearly said “nature acts,” or similar language. It’s right there in the commentary. But if we say that nature acts, which Calvin clearly says, then we have multiple subjects in the Logos. The latter, as any student of the Ephesian Council knows, is simple Nestorianism. Natures do not act. Persons do.

  3. tesla1389 says:

    Further, notice how Calvin is speaking of the human nature independent of the divine. As St Cyril said, that, too, is Nestorian.

  4. I agree overall, but Calvin was never operating with the package of the creed or council. He is a simple Biblicist really, at least on the Trinity. And to attack him from our time, is unfair to my mind at least.

  5. It’s not unfair. Either his Christology lines up with Nestorious (and others) or it doesn’t. And to claim the “biblicist” model really isn’t helpful, since every heretic and Orthodox theologian claims that.

    Further, he holds to the Filioque (with really poor arguments, it must be admitted), yet the Bible NEVER says where the Holy Spirit hypostatically proceeds from the Son from all eternity, so Calvin really isn’t a biblicist on that point.

  6. It all depends on what standard we use? And yeah, a 16th century theolog is an easy target today. And Calvin had feet of clay, who doesn’t! Note Bulgakov’s Sophia stuff.

    • Sorry should have hit reply.

    • tesla1389 says:

      It is true on what standards we use. And it is entirely fair to hold Calvin up to the spotlight. Even Calvin himself would admit that his theology isn’t “off limits” for discussion. In any case, is it unfair for the leading Calvinist scholar in America–Bruce McCormack–to say that Calvin’s Christology is Antiochene and Nestorian?

      • Yes certainly Calvin would have said “fair game” I suppose? But, really only in what he brought from Scripture. This was really his ultimate argument! Yes Calvin was something of his time and the humanist scholar, and his use of method and argument, etc. See here btw, Richard Muller’s fine book: The Unaccommodated Calvin, etc. (Note the chapter on Fides and Cognito in Relation to the Problem of the Intellect and Will in the Theology of John Calvin.)

        John Calvin an Nestorian? Not in his mind certainly!

  7. Canadian says:

    The whole point is–who gave Calvin authority to operate as a biblicist without creed or council? That is exactly where theology heads south toward heresy because scholarly opinion is not divine revelation and cannot bind the conscience of believers.

    • Canadian,

      It’s not that Calvin did not read the Councils or Creed, its that he saw the Holy Scripture above that authority. Of course he was a Reformer, and saw what he believed the need to Reform the Church Catholic. The Reformation and the Reformed believe that the Scripture alone is that reforming and correcting nature within the Church itself. Though the Church is itself something of the head and guardian of that Holy Scripture, but the Scripture is still the authority over the Church. That was the view for all of the Reformers.

      • tesla1389 says:

        I don’t think you fully understand the challenge, with all due respect. The structure of Calvin’s argument is thoroughly Nestorian. Muller hints at it and McCormack clearly demonstrates it. Sure, Calvin didn’t want to be Nestorian, but want to or not, there it is. If natures “act,” which Calvin said they did in his commentary, and Christ has two natures, then Christ has two acting subjects in the Logos. This is Nestorianism, according to Theodore and Nestorius. This is classic Nestorianism, whether Calvin realized it or not. Anglican theologian John Milbank’s essay “Alternative Protestantism” meticulously documents all the problems in Calvin’s Antiochean (read: Nestorian) Christology.

        And to keep remarking that Calvin wanted to be

      • I understand the challenge, I just don’t agree with McCormack. But I have not read Milbank. I would be closer to Muller. It was never something Calvin really creedally understood.

        I would recommend Philp Walker Butin’s book: Revelation, Redemption & Response, Calvin’s Trinitarian Understanding of the Divine-Human Relationship (Oxford, 1995).

  8. Canadian says:

    I realize Calvin was far from an Evangelical biblicist but I was roughly quoting you when you said:
    “but Calvin was never operating with the package of the creed or council. He is a simple Biblicist really.”

    The Reformers did not have divine authority to interpret scripture apart from ecclesial authority and Tradition. There is also no permission in scripture endorsing schism. Appealing to scripture as the “alone” authority is of course unscriptural and the act of interpretation makes the appeal to the authority of Scripture, in reality an appeal to someone’s interpretation. Ultimately, the Reformers subjected the creeds and Council’s to their own interpretation of scripture and it gutted any real Conciliar authority.

    • Yeah, that’s the Reformation, Scripture, Council/Creed. The very Ecumenical Councils/Creeds themselves were based upon the Holy Scripture, and not the bare authority of the Church. The Holy Scripture is the authority of the Reformation and Reformed Church.

      Also for the Reformed Church is the ‘fundamentum Scripturae’ – the foundation or ground of Scripture, i.e. Christ, who as Mediator and Savior is the foundation, centre, and essential content of the whole of Scripture. Note also, the ‘unio mystica’ of the Reformed Church, which leads to the unio spiritualis/spiritual union. Which again is ‘In Christ’. See the Reformed Scholasticism, etc.

      • Canadian says:

        Of course they were not based on the “bare” authority of the church, but they were not based on sola scriptura at all.
        Nearly every Council sums up the source of its authority and dogma by saying something similar to what is said in the 5th Council:

        “Such then are the assertions we confess. We have received them from
        1. Holy Scripture
        2. the teaching of the holy fathers
        3.the definitions about the one and the same faith made by the aforesaid four holy synods.

        You can’t just gloss the interpretive act when you say scripture is the authority for the Reformed.
        This post shows how Calvin’s Christology ultimately was not submitted to the Ecumenical church’s definitions. Calvin and Luther went to the sources whether scripture or Councils or the father’s and gave personal scholarly opinion on those sources. This is not how God has ordained dogma to be defined irreformably for the whole church. The Holy Spirit leading the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church to truth raises the level of interpretation from human opinion to conscience binding, irreformable dogma. This is good, not bad!

      • Canadian,

        I am not “glossing” over anything! But we are now at the empass of the Reformation principles, verses the Catholic and Orthodox principles. I have been in both places, I was raised Roman Catholic, and even spent a few years within the Benedictine’s in my 20’s – I am a young 61 btw now. :). Later as an Anglican I was in a group of Anglican/Orthodox dialogue and fellowship. I also came close to going to Orthodoxy. But, but my heart and mind were finally convinced that my Anglican Reformed and Reformational positions were and are the only correct biblical and theological place to be “In Christ”. I don’t say this in some exclusive position, but again theologically. For I value both the Catholic and Orthodox. But like many men in the past – Peter Martyr Vermigli, for example -, who was an Italian Catholic and also a monastic, but later become a great Reformer and theolog in his own right. See, The Visible Words Of God: And Exposition of the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli, A.D. 1500-1562, by Joseph C. McLelland, Ph.D. (1957, Oliver And Boyd, etc.)

        We must respect each others Christian journey, whether we agree, or like it or not. And like Luther I seek to press both my conscience and belief over the Word of God! This is my position. 🙂

  9. Canadian,

    If your open to it? You might find I. John Hesselink’s classic book: Calvin’s Concept Of the Law of interest. Indeed Calvin is still the Reformed Man!

    Btw, I am Orthodox friendly overall (close to the EO in Christology and the Trinity), but I will not let the Reformation or the Reformed be trashed either. Just saying. Note Robert Letham’s fine book: Through Western Eyes, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective.

  10. tesla1389 says:

    Letham’s book is okay. He avoids the question of analysis at the end and he accidentally endorses the monothelite heresy without realizing it.

    The stuff I’m saying (and McCormack, and to a muted degree Muller) is simply Calvin’s words and comparing them to Nestorian Christological structures.

    I know that Calvin wanted to make breakthroughs on the Trinity and Christology–and Colin Gunton might have a point on that–but he never did. Whether he understood it or not is beside the point; his position is Nestorian.

    Scott Clark and McCormack debated this point and McCormack embarrassed. Clark didn’t realize what the Reformed tradition actually said per Christology. I think I am going to post that as my next post.

    I’m not really making arguments or insinuations on what Calvin might have believed. I’m simply stating what he said and showing that this is Nestorianism.

    • The real question here, as I see it anyway is, did Calvin teach and believe pastorally and somewhat theologically in Nestorianism? I would say no, as we can see that Calvin really does not engage this subject straightup creedally. But seeks always a more biblical Christology and Trinitarianism. And as the noted book, by Butin shows Calvin sought at least a Trinity of God that was foremost in a Divine-Human construct from the Scripture. But one certainly that had great implications on the doctrine of God’s decrees, as Calvin saw them. And again simply Calvin sought a deliberate doctrine/teaching and theology of the Trinity as the Doctrine of God!

      In my few, we can talk and chatter about the creedal doctrine of the Trinity of God, both East and West, and never effect the People of God. But then I talk and write as a Anglican priest/presbyter, and seek to help Christian souls grapple and encounter this great mystery of God Triune. Which none of us knows ourselves, but we are left with both the Holy Scripture and the Church Counsels, and too our Divine-human encounter, that only God Himself can renew, (Matt. 11: 27). 🙂

      • tesla1389 says:

        I don’ think Calvin sough to be pastorally Nestorian. I am just pointing out that the words and implications of his beliefs are Nestorian. As Richard Muller said, Calvin’s emphasis on the mediatoris persona pushed the Logos to the background. I do believe this eventually effects the people of God, but that’s a much larger argument for later.

      • I agree that Calvin did not speak well on the depth of the Trinity of God, in the council & creedal sense. He simply did not use it. But overall he sought a biblical place, rather than the use of a logical deduction creedally. Calvin really had a more “perichoretic” model of hypostatic union and relations of the Trinity. And also placed his articulation in the trinitarian “hypotaseis” in the external, economic work of God.

        To quote Philip Butin’s book: “Thus it was Calvin’s explicit concern to recover and reassert crucial patristic insights as to the interpenetration of the Father, Son, and Spirit in all God’s economic work – revelation. redemption, and the enablement of the human response..” (page 131)

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  13. Chomoski says:

    Calvin does confuse nature and person consider the the following statements from Calvin.

    From the Institutes: Inst. l. 1, c. 13, sec. 9, n. 23, 24.

    “But though I am not now treating of the office of the Mediator, having deferred it till the subject of redemption is considered, yet because it ought to be clear and incontrovertible to all, that Christ is that Word become incarnate, this seems the most appropriate place to introduce those passages which assert the Divinity of Christ.”

    “Christ is that Word.” It appears that he is implying a dual subject. According to Calvin Christ is one subject and the Word is one subject. Therefore, if Christ is the Word becomes incarnate, the structure of his sentence presumes Christ (if he is implying Christ is a person with a subject) existed prior to the Word apart from the single subject of the incarnate Word. He does confuse nature and person, because he is not rightly assigning a single subject in the incarnation.

    “They object, that if the Son is truly God, he must be deemed the Son of a person: which is absurd. I answer, that both are true; namely, that he is the Son of God, because he is the Word, begotten of the Father before all ages; (for we are not now speaking of the Person of the Mediator), and yet, that for the purpose of explanation, regard must be had to the Person, so that the name God may not be understood in its absolute sense, but as equivalent to Father. For if we hold that there is no other God than the Fathers this rank is clearly denied to the Son.”

    “For we are not speaking of the Person of the Mediator.” Notice again Calvin is confusing the subject in the Word, Person, and Mediator. He affirms the Son of God is the Logos, however, he consigns the “person” of Mediation to another person not realizing the “Logos” is the single subject person with a human nature who is the Mediator. As if the Logos incarnate assumes a “Person” in stead of assuming a human nature. Secondly, he is distinguishing between the Word (as the Son of God) and the “person” of mediation. There is one Word (Divine Person) who assumes a human nature who is the mediator (divine man) between man and God.

    “For ever since Christ was manifested in the flesh he is called the Son of God, not only because begotten of the Father before all worlds he was the Eternal Word, but because he undertook the person and office of the Mediator that he might unite us to God.”

    This is quite telling that Calvin assigns two subjects to Christ, “he undertook the person of Mediator.” True, he is the Eternal Word, but the Eternal Word, has one subject, (Divine Person), if Christ is manifested in the flesh as the Son of God, and he undertakes a “Person” this begs the question, who is the person that the Word undertakes at the incarnation? He’s confused on nature and person.

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