English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Excerpts from John Calvin's
Institutes of the Christian Religion
(first edition 1536)


on original sin and divine will:  grace, salvation and reprobation;
on the sacraments in general;
and on the Lord's Supper in particular


[On original sin and divine will:  grace, salvation and reprobation]

. . . Original sin, therefore, appears to be an hereditary pravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul. . . .

Wherefore those who have defined original sin as a privation of the original righteousness, which we ought to possess, though they comprise the whole of the subject, yet have not used language sufficiently expressive of its operation and influence.  For our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive.  Those who have called it concupiscence have used an expression not improper, if it were only added, which is far from being conceded by most persons, that every thing in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence. . . .

The fathers are sometimes too scrupulous on this subject, and afraid of a simple confession of the truth, lest they should afford an occasion to impiety to speak irreverently and reproachfully of the works of God.  Though I highly approve this sobriety, yet I think we are in no danger, if we simply maintain what the Scripture delivers.  Even Augustine at one time was not free from this scrupulosity; as when he says that hardening and blinding belong not to the operation, but to the prescience of God.  But these subtleties are inconsistent with numerous expressions of the Scripture, which evidently import some intervention of God beyond mere foreknowledge. . . .

So also what they advance concerning permission is too weak to be supported.  God is very frequently said to blind and harden the reprobate, and to turn, incline, and influence their hearts, as I have elsewhere more fully stated.  But it affords not explication of the nature of this influence to resort to prescience or permission.  We answer, therefore, that it operates in two ways.  For, since, when His light is removed, nothing remains but darkness and blindness; since, when His Spirit is withdrawn, our hearts harden into stones; since, when His direction ceases, they are warped into obliquity; He is properly said to blind, harden, and incline those whom He deprives of the power of seeing, obeying, and acting aright.  The second way, which is much more consistent with strict propriety of language, is, when, for the execution of His judgments, He, by means of Satan, the minister of His wrath, directs their counsels to what He pleases, and excites their wills and strengthens their efforts. . . .

Predestination, by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no one, desirous of the credit of piety, dares absolutely to deny.  But it is involved in many cavils, especially by those who make foreknowledge the cause of it.  We maintain, that both belong to God; but it is preposterous to represent one as dependent on the other.

When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before His eyes, so that to His knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present; and present in such a manner, that He does not merely conceive of them from ideas formed in His mind, as things remembered by us appear present to our minds, but really beholds and sees them as if actually placed before Him.  And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world, and to all the creatures.  Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He has determined in himself, what He would have to become of every individual of mankind.  For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.  Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestinated either to life or to death.

[On sacraments in general.]

. . . In the first place, it is necessary to consider what a sacrament is.  Now I think it will be a simple and appropriate definition, if we say that it is an outward sign, by which the Lord seals in our consciences the promises of His good-will toward us, to support the weakness of our faith; and we on our part testify our piety toward Him, in His presence and that of angels, as well as before men.  It may, however, be more briefly defined, in other words, by calling it a testimony of the grace of God toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with a reciprocal attestation of our piety toward Him.

[On the Lord's Supper.]

. . . Now, that holy participation of His flesh and blood, by which Christ communicates His life to us, just as if He actually penetrated every part of our frame, in the sacred supper He also testifies and seal; and that not by the exhibition of a vain or ineffectual sign, but by the exertion of the energy of His Spirit, by which He accomplishes that which He promises.  And the thing signified He exhibits and offers to all who come to that spiritual banquet; though it is advantageously enjoyed by believers alone, who receive such great goodness with true faith and gratitude of mind. . . .  If it be true that the visible sign is given to us to seal the donation of the invisible substance, we ought to entertain a confident assurance, that in receiving the symbol of His body, we at the same time truly receive the body itself.


The excerpts are taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, Translated from the Latin and Collated with the Author's Last Edition in French, ed. John Allen.  Philadelphia, 7th American Edition, 1936.  I, 274-75, 336-37; II, 175-76, 555, 651.   Return.

pravity:  depravity, wickedness.  The term derives from the Latin word pravus, meaning "crooked," and (by extension) "wrong" (this English word itself is related to "wring," in the sense of "twist"), "bad."  (Interestingly, this root is the same as what appears in the English word prairie!)   Return.

privation:  the condition of lacking something previously possessed. The term comes from past participle privatus of the Latin verb privare, meaning "to deprive."  In order to avoid the Manichean doctrine that God's antagonist embodies a positive force (which would entail a limitation on the power of God), Saint Augustine elaborated a theory of "evil as privation," according to which evil is to be understood not as "something in itself," but as a defect wrought in a creature originally (i.e., in its created condition) good.  Standard analogies are to darkness, blindness, and lameness, which are not positive conditions themselves, but privations of, respectively, light, sight, and wholeness or health.  Return.

concupiscence: inordinate desire of the soul for what is delightful, especially to the senses (a pre-eminent example being sexual lust), but also for pleasures of this world (wealth, social standing, political power, fame).  The term derives from Latin concupiscere, a special form of the verb concupere, meaning "to long for." (The English verb to covet comes from the same root, cupere.)  This is a key term in the Augustinian conception of fallen personhood, according to which the soul, as a result of Original Sin, is in a state of internal insurrection, the properly lower faculties (sensual desires) having subjected the will to the end of their satisfaction, the will having thus turned from God to created things and having in turn subverted the intellect into serving its now perverted purposes (rather than submitting to the guidance of uncorrupted reason).  Return.

prescience:..foreknowledge.  Return.

reprobate:..one who is rejected by God, who is forordained to divine condemnation; a lost soul.  The opposite of "reprobate" is "one of the elect."  Return.

cavils:..quibbles; attempts, by resort to overly subtle distinctions, to avoid committing oneself to a position that one is reluctant to affirm, even though persuasive considerations appear to force one to do so.  Return.

preposterous:..absurd.  Calvin is using the word in full awareness of its original meaning:  "backwards" - literally, "putting the after-part (post) first (pre)."  The idea is the same one as found in the folk expression "putting the cart before the horse."  Return.

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