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Final Remarks on the 1 John 4 Dispute Pertaining to Calvin and His Glaring Omission

My initial criticism of Jerry Walls’ book, Does God Love Everyone?, has generated a series of responses. Thomas Talbott, who is also a proponent of the same point that I criticized, wrote a criticism of my first post, to which I rushed a rejoinder. Talbott has written a two part-series response:

Part I
Part II

This post will correct a mistake I made in an earlier post, where I badly interpreted, or better, attributed to Talbott an argument which I did not read carefully (i.e. hardly skimmed). In addition, I will clarify how my argument is to be understood. The responses against my original argument are unsuccessful, although it is entertaining to read about how many “fatal” mistakes I have made. In any case, I do not see much benefit to continuing this. For this reason, this is my last post on the topic.

What was the topic of my initial post?

The topic was the claim that Calvin had a glaring omission by not citing 1 John 4:8 or 4:16 in the Institutes.  I refer to these verses in this post as the loving verses. Others have mistakenly thought I was discussing one or more of the following topics:

  • The nature of love according to Calvin.
  • The nature of love as an attribute of God.
  • The coherence of Calvinism.
  • That Calvinism can be traced in history back to the apostles.

As I said in my very first post: “What I’d like to ask is this: is this a stunning omission for which Calvinist should be embarrassed?” (italics from original)  The conclusion of that post, or the argument therein, is a negative answer to that question.

Why focus on Calvin and a historical survey?

According to Walls, Calvin does not cite the loving verses in the Institutes because Calvin has a warped view of the nature of God. Is that a good explanation? Are there better explanations? You would not know from Walls’ work because no alternative explanations are suggested. And yet this insubstantial point is repeated three times: that not once did Calvin cite that God is love. What is going on here?  Given the insubstantial character of the omission claim, repeating the claim has the appearance of that rhetorical tool called poisoning the well. It looks like poisoning the well because Calvin did not avoid addressing passages that his intellectual opponents raised against him.  Here are three possibilities:

  1. Calvin had the intellectual duty to engage the loving verses as counter-evidence but failed that duty through negligence.
  2. Calvin had the intellectual duty to engage the loving verses as counter-evidence but intentionally avoided his duty.
  3. Calvin did not have an intellectual duty to engage the loving verses as counter-evidence.

If Calvin had a glaring omission, then either (1) or (2) is true because one has a glaring omission (in this context) iff one flouts some intellectual duty and there are two ways to flout an intellectual duty. But if Calvin did not have an intellectual duty to address the loving verses, neither (1) nor (2) are very good explanations. It might be that Walls believes (1), although that is not clear. Talbott has given evidence that he believes (2).1 My approach is to discover whether Calvin had an intellectual duty to address the loving verses rather than assume he did or did not have that duty.

What sort of evidence might there be that Calvin did have or did not have an intellectual duty to address the loving verses? What sort of evidence should we base our belief upon in order to arrive at an answer? The evidence should be publicly accessible, and it should not bias one particular answer in a way that can be mimicked by a defense of an alternative answer.  The following would be an extremely thin justification: “it is obvious that he did (did not), because love means (does not mean)….” First, this sort of justification is not publicly accessible. To be publicly accessible means that we could look at the historical record in the 16th century or earlier and show evidence that the norm was recognized; evaluating historical works requires guarding against anachronistically projecting modern day norms and values – or norms and values held by oneself – onto past figures or into past cultures. Saying that it is obvious that there is such a norm, as a person living in the 21st century, gives us zero evidence that it would have been a recognized intellectual norm in another century.2 Second, this sort of justification is easily mimicked because it is cheap; it requires no real investigation beyond assertions.

The best way to determine whether Calvin skirted an intellectual duty, whether he had a glaring omission, is to look into the historical record regarding the interpretation of the loving verses. If it is true that Calvin should have been aware that there were authors citing the loving verses in ways incompatible with his theological views, that would provide a good reason to think that Calvin had a glaring omission. That is due diligence regarding a stance on (1), (2), or (3); taking a stance on this question requires a historical survey. Notice how this methodology leaves open the epistemic possibility that Walls is correct. Indeed, this sort of approach is not the group-think methodology that involves giving a high-five for any argument against a view one might think is false, or that one might find plausibility in because it comes out of the mouth of one’s intellectual comrade.

What is the underlying disagreement that makes or does not make Calvin’s omission a glaring omission? 

In my very first post on this topic, I make clear that Walls’ view about what is wrong with Calvinism is that Calvinism does not affirm God is loving such that God’s love entails that God desires every person to be saved. Even if Walls were right that Calvinism is incorrect for that reason, the fact is that Walls cites the loving verses in the context of Calvinism being incorrect for this reason and notes how Calvin does not cite the loving verses. Raising the omission point is reasonable provided that Calvin should have known that these verses were evidence against his view. This strongly suggests that Walls believes the loving verses have universal applicability. That is, the verses are to be interpreted in such a way that one could not affirm Calvin’s view about election or definite atonement, say, but also affirm the truth of the loving verses in their context. This is a subtle point that is overlooked by my critics.

It is one thing to believe that “God is love” is true and from that general truth one can infer other truths, perhaps even about God’s relationship to every single person. It is another thing to think that the claim “God is love” as it appears in the context of 1 John 4 can be applied to every single person. One can affirm a general truth about God’s nature being love without thinking that the loving verses themselves say anything about God’s universal and equally distributed love for every individual. Someone could hold a certain doctrine to be true but deny that some passages have anything more than superficial support for the doctrine. One might recognize that the Christian life is filled with struggles, but then deny that Romans 7 is about the struggle with sin in the Christian life (a view held by Walt Russell, for instance). One might think that the Calvinist is right about providence and election but go on to add that Romans 9-11 does not provide good evidence for that (Tom Wright might be in this camp). So again, one can affirm a general truth about God’s nature being love without thinking that the loving verses themselves say anything about God’s universal love.

The sense in which the loving verses must be thought to be universally applicable, if Calvin is to have a glaring omission, is for the verses themselves to contextually imply as much. Were one to affirm that the verses in context have nothing to do with God’s universal love for everyone, the fact that Calvin did not cite them as counter-evidence to definite atonement, say, is is almost laughable. That would amount to complaining that Calvin did not cite verses out of context against his own view. It is almost laughable because one might deny the verses have universal applicability and yet believe Calvin had an intellectual duty to engage them only because lots of people wrongly interpreted the verses to have universal applicability; that is why I put “thought to be” in italics.

We can now identify the disagreement. Walls and Talbott hold that the loving verses have universal applicability in the sense that they think these verses are to be interpreted such that God’s love is manifested universally. But because their omission complaint is about Calvin’s intellectual duties that he supposedly did not uphold, they are committed to the claim that the verses during or before the time of Calvin were interpreted in that way, such that Calvin would have had the intellectual obligation to address them. By contrast, Calvin’s view is that the verses have only particularized applicability. That is, in the context of 1 John 4, the verses are not about God’s love directed at every single person.

Looking again at the evidence of whether Calvin skirted an intellectual duty

We are investigating the question of whether Calvin skirted an intellectual duty. He skirted an intellectual duty only if he should have addressed the loving verses as counter-evidence to his views. Calvin had an intellectual duty to address these verses as counter-evidence to his views only if they were taken to be evidence of the universal applicability of the love of God, such that there was taken to be a conflict between the loving verses and any of Calvin’s controversial doctrines. The only way we can reasonably believe whether that was so is to do a historical survey of how those verses were understood. As I said in my very first post: how often were these texts cited anyway? And when cited, how were they used? 

In answering those questions I went through every possible citation I could find of the loving verses and although I asked different questions about them, the questions all centered around this question: were these verses interpreted in a particularized way or a universalized way?  Unfortunately, Thomas Talbott has examined some of the cases I brought up and he misunderstood how the argument works. His questions regarding my (rhetorical!) question about Cyprian illustrates how he missed the point. But this is my fault for not being clearer in the first post.

With the exception of Clement of Alexandria, to whom I will return, I am always aiming at whether the authors took 1 John 4 to have universal applicability or whether they treated the love of God as particular to some persons – not as a generally held theological view, but as an interpretation of 1 John 4. That is because I am clear on what the central disagreement is about in determining whether Calvin made a glaring omission. What the evidence shows is that they widely understood the loving verses in the context of the larger passage to be about the latter. That is why I raised rhetorical points about attempts to universalize (in different ways) the application of God’s love; those attempts are not plausible, as Talbott’s question about Saul illustrates. To the extent that these verses do not have universal applicability according to almost any authors given our evidence, it would not be reasonable for us to believe that Calvin had an intellectual duty to engage the verses as if they did.

One criticism worth discussing is Talbott’s remarks about Clement of Alexandria. This worth discussing because he and I apparently have different standards on what one can reasonably believe about a historical writer. Clement’s citation of 1 John 4:8 is in the context of a brief comment on 1 John 1:5, where he says that God makes men righteous. In my original post regarding this claim, I asked if this meant every man because, as I said above, the main topic regards whether the loving verses have universal applicability in the relevant sense. I then noted that there is no textual evidence that Clement takes this verse to have universal applicability. Talbott responds thus:

But does Gibson seriously doubt that, according to Clement, God’s love is all-inclusive, that it is always and everywhere active, in the next life no less than in this one, in hell no less than in heaven? Although Clement may never have explicitly endorsed Origen’s idea that God’s love will successfully win over every person, he clearly did hold that God’s love would never cease striving towards that end.

It does not follow that Clement thought that 1 John 4:8 applied universally in the way Talbott thinks it does. Talbott might think it does because he is willing to attribute interpretations of uncommented passages to authors for whom he has a general characterization of their theology. One might plausibly do that when there is a wide range of people who have both espoused the same general theology and commented on the passage in question. But as I have shown by the dearth of commentary on this passage, much less citing of it, and because what little we have is largely particularized interpretation, the evidence upon which he makes this inference is quite slim. No reliable inductive case can be made plausibly. I suspect that is why Talbott rhetorically dresses up that tool called speculation with questions about what I would seriously believe; as if this is beneath someone to reasonably challenge. No one should be impressed by this. The fact is no one knows what Clement would say specifically about 1 John 4:8, which is why my claims about him were modest. Clement provides nothing upon which to build a case that Calvin had a glaring omission. And even if Talbott were right about Clement, that would be one case in written history – hardly enough to create an intellectual norm regarding what verses 16th century theologians should have addressed.

Thus on a case by case basis of the authors I quote, I do not believe that Talbott can make a plausible case (nothing justified enough to be worth believing) that there was widespread belief that 1 John 4 had universal applicability, and thus Calvin had an intellectual duty to address the loving verses, and failing that amounted to a glaring omission.

Two more historically related attempts to defeat my argument

Talbott suggests two ways in which my historical argument is mistaken. First: he suggests that everyone held the opposite of Calvin’s view and so that is why we do not see the sort of evidence for which I was looking. Second: he makes a point that the context in which Calvin wrote was different than the context in which the ancients wrote. We’ll take these in turn.

If Everyone Believes It, No One Says It. 

Although Talbott accuses me of giving an argument from silence, even though I give positive evidence, it is interesting that he provides an explanation for why no one cites the loving verses in the same way as he does.

But no one of significance had even contemplated the idea of limited election, much less that of divine reprobation, as Chrysostom’s own comments on Romans 9 illustrate nicely. Because virtually all Christians understood St. Paul’s contention that God’s grace extends to both Jews and Gentiles alike to imply that God loves all of humanity equally, it would most likely have seemed to them utterly pointless to cite 1 John 4:8 in support of a claim that no Christian had yet disputed.

What is the argument here? Is the argument that because no one ever contemplated the idea of limited election (or “virtually all Christians” would have denied that), or because we see no one disputing 1 John 4:8, or that Chrysostom never addressed limited election in the way that Calvin had, that everyone believed the passage had universal applicability? That would be an argument from silence.3 Is the argument it that because everyone thought that God extends his grace equally to everyone and loves everyone equally, everyone thought that 1 John 4:8 would have been taken as evidence of that? That’s a non-sequitur.

Suppose Talbott states correctly that everyone thought that God’s grace extended to both Jew and Gentile alike because God loves all of humanity equally. We could still ask, is it true that no one cited 1 John 4:8 in a universal way because everyone already knew that? Why think that? Even if everyone believed that God’s nature was love, and that God loved everyone equally and wanted everyone to go to heaven, it wouldn’t follow that they thought 1 John 4 was good evidence of anything more than the first of that trio. Furthermore, here is an alternative explanation: “Indeed, most thoughtful Christians had far more immediate controversies on their minds—concerning, for example, the nature of the Incarnation.” And for those who did have time to bring it up, the reason it is cited with universal application by only one person (and not even in context) is because the contexts in which they quote 1 John 4 exclude God’s love being applied universally (recall, again, what odd consequences arise from universalizing 1 John 4 by returning to Talbott’s comments on Saul.). My explanation accommodates that Davidsonian principle of charity since it assumes the ancients understood sentences in the surrounding context of other sentences for which we attribute generally true interpretations. The problem is that Talbott, like Walls, puts forth a historical explanation without doing hardly anything to justify that explanation, such as considering alternative explanations. I suspect that is why Walls was intrigued by the criticism I raised in the first place.

Talbott goes one step further by asserting what everyone believed on incredibly thin evidence (at least if we are to believe his evidence is what he has states in the series of responses). No one believed anything like limited election or divine reprobation, he claims. In my first response to him, I cited the article by Haykin. I wrote, “Haykin goes through a list of authors and examines the extent to which they might plausibly have believed in definite atonement. This includes some of those who I said did not once ever quote “God is love”: Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, and Jerome.” To this, Talbott has nothing to say. Instead he writes, “The challenge for Gibson would be to name a single Christian before Augustine—and before Augustine perverted the early Christian understanding of divine love—who denied that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person.” (Another argument from silence?) But this is besides the point. Even if it were true that Augustine was the first, we have very little evidence to infer anything about what everyone believed about the loving verses in the context of 1 John 4. And in any case, the idea that everyone believed God loved everyone, Gentile and Jew, equally, and was actively aiming at their salvation, is not true. In Homily 6 of Against the Jews, Chrysostom writes:

(10) You did slay Christ, you did lift violent hands against the Master, you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for atonement, excuse, or defense. In the old days your reckless deeds were aimed against his servants, against Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Even if there was ungodliness in your acts then, your boldness had not yet dared the crowning crime. But now you have put all the sins of your fathers into the shade. Your mad rage against Christ, the Anointed One, left no way for anyone to surpass your sin. This is why the penalty you now pay is greater than that paid by your fathers. If tiffs is not the reason for your present disgrace, why is it that God put up with you in the old days when you sacrificed your children to idols, but turns himself away from you now when you are not so bold as to commit such a crime? Is it not clear that you dared a deed much worse and much greater than any sacrifice of children or transgression of the Law when you slew Christ?4

So Talbott tells us that everyone thought God’s grace extended equally to all humanity (translation: to every single person), and yet that is to have forgotten the lamentable anti-Semitic attitudes that existed in the early church. So Talbott’s response requires projecting interpretations onto authors for which we have little to no evidence and some evidence to the contrary. He might be making an argument from silence. And in any case he relies on historically mistaken claims about what virtually all Christians believed by limiting his evidence, as we saw in the case of Chrysostom.

Ancient and Early Modern Contexts

The second thing Talbott said as a challenge to my argument was cited in my first response to him:

That some of the ancients, particularly those who never even contemplated the doctrine of limited election, saw no point in citing these texts in a context very different from Calvin’s own context may be an interesting historical fact, if it is a fact, but it is hardly relevant to Calvin’s failure to cite them in a context that clearly demanded that he do so.

And I then wrote, “So the thought is this: Calvin has the obligation to deal with 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 because he argued for definite atonement. But the ancients who never even contemplated the doctrine saw no point in citing these texts. That’s why we can criticize Calvin for never citing these texts but it does not make as much sense to criticize the ancients. What should a Calvinist have to say in response to this?”

What this Calvinist said in response is that there was some evidence for the view that some of them did hold to definite atonement.5 I cited an article by one scholar on the topic, and then I focused on Augustine who seemed to believe that. Talbott believes that Augustine’s influence on the Western theological tradition, and perhaps on Calvin, is news to me. That’s one possibility. Here is another possibility: I studied under a famous medievalist throughout graduate school, and I was making yet another point that Talbott misunderstood . The thing is that one gets the sense from Talbott and Walls that 1 John 4 is an embarrassment to Calvinists. So what I actually say in the post is, “From the list of those who did cite 1 John 4 is Augustine, and he is the one who cited 1 John 4 most extensively.”  I was aiming at two things: I was showing that here is someone who holds Calvin’s view and yet he cites the verse more than anyone. There is nothing about being a (proto)Calvinist that should lead anyone to think a Calvinist would be embarrassed by the passage. And secondly, those a millennia earlier than Calvin who do engage the text in context particularize the passage just like Calvin did. My use of Augustine was challenging that “ancients vs moderns” narrative.

To think that Calvin had an intellectual duty to engage the loving verses given his evidence, and given what we know about anyone who ever cited the verse, is incredible. As far as we can tell, there was no reason for Calvin to cite the loving verses as counter-evidence to his view, for almost no one had cited them that way.

On whether Calvin’s contradiction is sufficient to undermine my argument 

When I wrote my initial rejoinder, I attributed an argument to Talbott that he didn’t make (in fact, he also misunderstood what I attributed to him as well). I assumed he was making some other point and I did not read him carefully, so wrongly attributed a view to him. For that I apologize.

According to Talbott, Calvin contradicts himself in the following way in his commentary: “He appears to embrace, in other words, both the proposition, 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God, and the proposition, It is not the case that 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God.”

Suppose for a moment that Talbott is right about this contradiction. He writes in his Part I response, “Gibson’s claim that ‘almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin’ seems to me altogether vacuous. For how are we to determine Calvin’s interpretation? If it is flatly self-contradictory, then it entails any interpretation you please and excludes none whatsoever.” And here one might be tempted to think that I can make no historical comparison between what Calvin believed and what anyone else believed, as my historical argument does.

In response, although it is true that my historical argument notes connections between what Calvin believed and what others believed, the comparison is specifically about particularity and universality. Even if it were true that Calvin did contradict himself, it would not be plausible to assert we could not tell whether Calvin believed 1 John was about God’s love made manifest through the saints. But doesn’t anything follow from a contradiction? I say on a rainy day: “Oh shoot. I forgot my only umbrella. It is at my mother’s house. It is a good thing I have a rain coat. I bought this coat last week. Like it? I wanted to buy an umbrella with it but I could not afford one, and so I still don’t own one. I’ll buy one tomorrow.” What is quoted is an odd thing to say, possibly contradictory. But does the fact that I may contradict myself over whether I own an umbrella exclude any interpretation whatsoever? That one could not possibly infer that I believe it is raining? Or that I believe I am wearing a coat? Of course you could attribute those beliefs to me. People say false things and yet our interpretive practices, especially when it comes to attributing beliefs or intentions, require us to attribute beliefs exactly opposite of what is said. This move concerning logical vacuity is a trick that does not pay attention to how language actually works in conversation or what we are entitled to believe based on what others say. It is a nice prop for show and tell in introductory logic classes; but it would do one well to go read somd Grice and Davidson. Had the comparison I was making between Calvin and anyone else been about the essence of God as such, then I think Talbott might have a point.

Suppose he did have a point. Suppose that we could not possibly interpret what Calvin believed 1 John 4:8 to be saying. Would it follow that Calvin had an intellectual duty to cite the loving verses in the Institutes, and not doing that would count as a glaring omission? Whether Calvin had an intellectual duty to discuss that passage does not depend on whether Calvin contradicted himself in his commentary. What determined whether Calvin had an intellectual duty to engage the loving verses as counter-evidence was how those verses were used by those who he should have known about. And on that score, Talbott’s discussion of an alleged contradiction is a lot ado about nothing.

Summing Up 

I would like to ask one last question concerning how evidence has been handled regarding whether Calvin had made a glaring omission or not. My last question is one of my first questions. Are Walls and Talbott poisoning the well? Not being either of them, it is hard to say. It is possible. But my evidence is not sufficient to actually believe the answer is yes. They might being doing that, but I don’t know that they are. Nor do I believe that they are. I am serious about that. Now imagine that I accused them of poisoning the well. So imagine that I said the following: “Personally, I would never claim that Walls and Talbott ‘goofed in thinking Calvin skirted an intellectual duty which he did not in fact have’; I suspect they knew exactly what they were doing in making that claim.” It is probably worth reflecting for a moment on what your reaction would be to that. When you are done reflecting, compare that reaction to what is in my first footnote.

Addendum: Did Calvin contradict himself in his 1 John commentary? 

I will give a more careful criticism of Talbott’s take on Calvin’s 1 John commentary. Again, the alleged contradiction is this:

  • It is true that 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God.
  • It is false that 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God.

In order to see why one might think this contraction is there in the commentary, here is the commentary on 1 John 4:8:

When he commands mutual love, he does not mean that we discharge this duty when we love our friends, because they love us; but as he addresses in common the faithful, he could not have spoken otherwise than that they were to exercise mutual love. He confirms this sentence by a reason often adduced before, even because no one can prove himself to be the son of God, except he loves his neighbors, and because the true knowledge of God necessarily produces love in us.

He also sets in opposition to this, according to his usual manner, the contrary clause, that there is no knowledge of God where there is no love. And he takes as granted a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature is to love men. I know that many reason more refinedly, and that the ancients especially have perverted this passage in order to prove the divinity of the Spirit. But the meaning of the Apostle is simply this, — that as God is the fountain of love, this effect flows from him, and is diffused wherever the knowledge of him comes, as he had at the beginning called him light, because there is nothing dark in him, but on the contrary he illuminates all things by his own brightness. Here then he does not speak of the essence of God, but only shews what he is found to be by us.

It is only this second paragraph that contains the alleged contradiction. Calvin says John takes as granted a general principle or truth that God loves men. In the very end he goes on say 1 John 4:8 does not speak about the essence of God. Contradiction! Maybe not….

Talbott considers one way in which Calvin may not have contradicted himself.

Now one way to avoid my conclusion that Calvin flatly contradicted himself here would be to insist that he had in mind a sharp distinction between God’s nature and his essence; and because I was aware of such a possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, I was careful to say that his remarks appear to be self-contradictory. But if we suppose, first, that the nature of God includes all and only those properties essential to his divinity, and second, that being divine is itself an essential property of God, the Father, then it is God’s nature to love persons only if it follows from his very essence that he loves them—in which case I see no way to avoid the conclusion that Calvin’s remarks were indeed self-contradictory.

It is worth commenting on this way of considering whether Calvin in fact contradicted himself. Talbott says it is a possibility that Calvin distinguished between God’s nature and God’s essence. And then he says this seems to be unlikely. Upon what evidence does that seem to be unlikely? (Obviously, I am not asking whether he has a phenomenal state that it seems unlikely to him.) Then he goes on to say suppose … some claims about essential properties. Is that how one should investigate what people mean by “essence”? If I were reading Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Spinoza, Locke, Plantinga, Adams, Lewis, Lowe, or Williamson, is it permissible that I just suppose that they all mean one and the same thing by “essence” or “nature”?  Or ought I to actually find out what they mean by these terms? These are technical terms and we should not assume they mean by them what anyone else means. Talbott does not give us anything like that. There is no textual discussion about what Calvin means by these terms.  Also, why does Calvin say, “but only shews what he is to be found by us” when speaking about how 1 John 4:8 is said to not be about the essence of God? Why would Calvin say a thing like that?

We can get a better idea about these issues by looking at a more scholarly presentation. In John Calvin’s Ideas, Paul Helm very early in his book (chapter 1) writes:

The Distinction in Calvin

“What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is far better for us to inquire ‘What is his nature?’ and to know what is consistent with his nature.” [Inst. 1.2.2.]

“Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory.”[Inst. 1.5.1]

Here is a somewhat nuanced distinction between God’s nature and his essence. Calvin believes that we cannot perceive God’s essence but that we can know his nature. God’s nature and essence are distinct but connected. When Calvin says that ‘God cannot be unlike himself’ or that God ‘cannot divest himself of his mercy, for he remains ever the same’ these expressions refer, I hazard, to God’s activities as they characterize his nature and partly express to us his immutable and incomprehensible essence. God’s activities, according to Calvin, partly reveal his nature and are, so to speak, endorsed or guaranteed by his immutable essence. (Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, 12).

Helm is writing this in a discussion of the distinction between God as he is in himself (a se) and God as he is revealed to us (toward us: quaod nos). Almost immediately after, Helm goes on:

Although we cannot know God’s essence, we can know that, because God is simple, his essence is immutable. God’s essence is what he is; his accidents are what he has freely chosen to do. And because the nature and the essence of God are connected insofar as the first is a partial revelation of the second we know that faithfulness is part of God’s essence (part of what God is). Even though we cannot perceive or fully comprehend that essence, we can say that it is impossible for God to fail to be faithful (to fail to be what he is). Given that God has said this or done that, we can know that his incomprehensible essence underwrites, guarantees, or endorses the immutability—that is to say, the utter trustworthiness—of what he has said and done. God freely decrees this or that, but his freedom is always a freedom exercisable only in accordance with his immutable essence.

Why, then, in addition to God’s essence, does Calvin speak of God’s nature? Perhaps because Calvin needs a substantive expression that will serve as the logical subject for and an abbreviation of the predicates that express God quoad nos. Like the essence of God itself, God’s nature is immutable because it is backed by his essence. We can know some things about the divine essence, such as that it is immutable. So God’s essence, what God is, is not a substratum or noumenon, ‘something I know not what’. We can come to know, by inference from what God has disclosed of himself, some of the positive and negative characteristics of his essence even though we cannot perceive that essence or know it comprehensively. Through God’s gracious disclosure of himself we can know his nature—what God is toward us, and, because we know that what God says and does accords with his immutable essence, we can know that what he says and does is utterly reliable. More on this later.

God’s nature, then, is expressed and summed up in what he is towards us. What God does, including what God reveals of himself, is what God has chosen to do. So we know God’s nature through those activities that God has chosen to undertake. These activities express God’s nature directly—for example, in the wisdom and righteousness that they display—but they express his essence only obliquely. Nevertheless, because what God has said and done are free, voluntary acts of condescension on his part, we must be guarded in drawing conclusions about his essence from what we know of his nature as expressed in his works lest we give ourselves the impression, an expression of hubris, that we thereby have a window into what is necessarily incomprehensible to us (God’s very essence) or contingently unknowable by us (because it is God’s secret will, or because it represents what God might have done but hasn’t done and which he hasn’t told us about). (Helm, pp. 13-14)

Now what is really interesting is that when Talbott writes about a possible way to avoid the alleged contradiction in 1 John, he goes on to conflate nature and essence in a way Calvin would find objectionable. In fact, Talbott’s second edition of The Inescapable Love of God clearly conflates these in the mouth of Calvin as well (c.f. 108).

The mistake of conflating nature and essence in Calvin results in thinking something significant is shown about Calvin’s theology. Talbott says:

What Calvin’s overall theology requires, then, is that we accept one of his two inconsistent claims—namely, that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” at all—and reject the other; it requires, in other words, that we treat lovingkindness as something other than an essential perfection of God.

But then look at what Calvin says in his commentary on Psalm 77:

He [the Psalmist] does not speak of the hidden and mysterious essence of God which fills heaven and earth, but of the manifestations of his power, wisdom, goodness, and righteousness, which are clearly exhibited, although they are too vast for our limited understandings to comprehend. [Quoted in Helm, 12; cf. n 6]

The whole reason that Calvin has said in his commentary on 1 John 4 that John takes as a general principle the truth that God is loving and then says John does not speak of the essence of God is not because Calvin’s theology implies an ambivalence about whether God is loving. It has nothing to do with love per se.  It is that he is operating with a technical concept of essence. And that’s why in the Psalms, he makes the same sort of move. If Talbott were thought to have a plausible historical interpretation of Calvin, he would also have to say that Calvin contradicts himself over whether God is powerful, wise, good, or righteous. Helm’s chapter is interesting because he shows that this distinction that Calvin makes is not new with him; it fits into the larger framework of Calvin studies to show continuity between scholasticism and the Reformation. This distinction Calvin employs did not arise in a vacuum. Going deeper into the historical sources would have helped Talbott avoid this blunder, just as we saw above regarding the glaring omission complaint. Ad fontes.


  1. Talbott, for example, writes, “Personally, I would never claim that Calvin ‘goofed in not citing these verses’; I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing.” Isn’t that conspiratorial?
  2. The unsophisticated reader might complain that this is relativism about normativity. In one sense it is, and in another sense it is not. The sense that matters as regards to intellectual duties is that if it was a norm such that not citing the loving verses counted as a glaring omission, then it must be the case that it was recognized as a norm. It can hardly be glaring if almost no one recognized it.
  3. Thanks to Steve Hays for raising this point.
  4. Thanks to Paul Manata for the reference.
  5. Note, by the way, that Talbott switched from talking about who believed definite atonement in his very first response to me to talking about how no one believed in limited election in his latest response.
2018-06-07T21:28:22+00:00 November 3rd, 2016|4 Comments


  1. Paul Dirks June 20, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    Wow- fantastic stuff James. Thanks so much. Very helpful.

  2. Jim Christian March 11, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    Several of my “Reformed” friends claim that you must read Calvin in context with an understanding of his times. ? Do we read about Jesus and what He said with that same consideration to help make some exceptions for Him. No, because there are no exceptions needed. Christ’s wisdom came from above, not from an autorney. Calvin’s did not, and his “Reformation” did not fall far from the tree. He was about creating another theocracy and exercising authority and judgement, much the same as the Jewish leaders in Christ’s day and what the Catholic Church had been doing for years. You can play the theology cards all you want, split hairs, weave them into a nice braid if you like, but knowledge puffs up, and that fact could not be more evident than in this discussion here with all of the positional justifications being expounded. Thank God that His Spirit cuts through all the nonsense and changes lives, even when there is bad theology. Calvin’s Institutes is bad theology. God loves everyone and desires all to be saved and that none perish. He also desires that everyone should walk in His ways. We know that this is not the actual outcome. So we either try to make God out to be a liar by saying He doesn’t love everyone and has pre-determined the outcome of all things (missunderstanding by thinking that foreknowledge is the same as predestination), or that God has restrained the outcome of things to something beyond Himself. For those of us who believe the latter, we understand that He did this out of love for us all. Some who are lacking wisdom call this the “myth” of man’s free will. Adam and Eve were allowed to exercise their free will, so why would God not allow us the same privilidge. God forgives and forgets your repented sin, so do you know something about your past that God doesn’t know? He obviously chooses to restrain Himself for a higher reason, and that reason is His essence, which is LOVE. Theology pales, likely becoming a mute point when confronted with the awesomeness of God’s love and in turn loving Him back. It also has the effect of us wanting to love our neighbor as ourselves 🙂 Amazing! Amazing Love!

  3. Jim Christian March 11, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    Sorry for the typo’s after reviewing.

  4. James A. Gibson March 11, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    No problem! But this is a very narrow and technical discussion, which you haven’t said anything about. It’s unclear to me why you said all that.

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