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A Rejoinder to Thomas Talbott on Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John

In Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John, I examine a quote from Jerry Walls’ book, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism. Walls believes it to be a stunning omission that Calvin never cited two verses – 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16 – in the 1500 or so pages of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In response, I point out that almost no one in the ecclesiastical corpus cited those verses, and moreover, only one person among all those who cited the verses had the slightest chance of thinking the verses might mean what Walls took them to mean. Furthermore, almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin. As a result, it would be strange to think that Calvin goofed in not citing the verses as possible contrary evidence to his other views; and it is certainly not stunning that he did not cite them.

According to Thomas Talbott, my argument is an exercise is obfuscation. He claims that I have misunderstood Walls’ argument. He says that the ancients are different in that they come from a very different context than Calvin. The inference should be: so it is not surprising that they didn’t cite the verses. So the fact that almost no one cited them is irrelevant. I’ve reproduced Talbott’s response in full below to fairly represent him. But the short of it is: he did not like my response.

Why is Talbott jumping into this anyway? In The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd edition, writing about the verses in question, Talbott says,

and though John Calvin did comment upon them briefly in his commentary on 1 John, he evidently did not regard them important enough even to mention them in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. When one thinks about it, this is truly astonishing. Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of over 1500 pages; in it he sought to provide an exhaustive summary of Christian doctrine, as he understood it, along with biblical support for it. In the Westminster Press edition, the index of Bible references alone is thirty-nine pages of small print with three columns per page. And yet in this entire work, as massive and thorough as it is, Calvin never once found the Johannine that God is love important enough to discuss. How, one wonders, could this have happened? (104)

There is the connection. But hold onto that final question, because we will come back to it again and again throughout this response. What I want to ask is: what should we think of Talbott’s response? Should critics of Calvinism follow Talbott and Walls in continuing to cite these verses as evidence against Calvinism? Take a few minutes to read Talbott’s response (at the very bottom), read my original post if you have to, think about it, and come on back.

What’s the Argument Exactly?

Talbott says my original critique is an exercise in obfuscation. Why’s that? He says it is because I have misunderstood the real issue.

The issue, however, is one of relevance, not awareness. Under what conditions and in what context can one justifiably expect a Christian theologian to discuss these texts? … given that Calvin tried to present an exhaustive biblical case for his understanding of limited election, we can justifiably complain that he did not even mention 1 John 4:8 and 16 in that context. The issue, in other words, is not how often a given writer, ancient or contemporary, cites these texts; the issue is whether an author consistently ignores them in a context, such as Calvin’s systematic discussion of limited election and reprobation in Book III of his Institutes, where they are obviously relevant to the theological claims he makes there.

Talbott says that the issue is not how often a given writer cites these texts. Really? Does Walls know that? Look again at the original quote from Walls: “But here is what is truly remarkable: not one time in this book does Calvin ever quote ‘God is love.’ In his massive book that is 1,521 pages long and that discusses thousands of biblical texts and discusses God’s nature extensively, Calvin never one time cited 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16. Not even once! This is a stunning omission.” (Walls, 5, italics his).  That’s three times Walls tells us about the count of appearances of those verses, even highlighting their number. And yet Talbott says that the issue is not about counting up citations. How’s that for obfuscation!

Let’s focus for a moment on what Talbott thinks the real issue is. The real issue, he says, is given that Calvin tried to present an exhaustive biblical case for his understanding of limited election, can [Talbott and Walls] justifiably complain that he did not even mention 1 John 4:8 and 16 in that context? I agree. That is the real issue. But what I argued in my original critique is that they are not justified in complaining that Calvin did not cite these verses. Again, almost no one cited these verses, and for almost every single person who did cite them, they took the verses to mean something completely different than what Talbott and Walls take them to mean. Rather, we saw that they interpreted those verses in the same way that Calvin understood and regularly cited 1 John 4:9-10. To think that Calvin would have an intellectual duty to engage with an interpretation that only one person in written history ever held, and not as a result of reading the context of 1 John, is bizarre. That’s like saying, Calvin is being sneaky for not citing a verse out of context in consideration of an argument against his own views that no commentator had ever cited before him. If Calvin did that, his opponents might have complained he was burning down a straw man.

Perhaps Calvin was pernicious in not citing 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 – that he deeply failed some intellectual duty – because the statement “God is love” has as an obvious entailment that God desires every single person to be saved. Talbott seems to believe there is an obvious entailment. Above, we saw Talbott say that the verses are “obviously relevant to the theological claims he makes” in Book III. In his The Inescapable Love of God, page 108, which Talbott quotes in response to me, he accuses Calvin of flatly contradicting himself in his commentary on 1 John 4:8.1 What is the contradiction? The contradiction is supposed to arise from the fact that Calvin cites that God is love, but then goes on to apply the love of God specifically to the elect. Suppose you thought that the statement “God is love” obviously entails God desires every person be saved. Then you would not limit it only to the elect in the context of 1 John 4. So the contradiction is something like, Calvin affirms some statement that has as its obvious entailment Q, but he then applies P such that ~Q. And then he skips away from the scene without resolving the contradiction.

The problem is that there is no obvious entailment.  As I argued, no one in history ever took those passages to mean or entail that. Even if it were true that Calvin was the first in history to propose definite atonement, if there were that obvious entailment, you would expect to see someone cite those verses as Talbott and Walls would in, say, a context of exhorting Christians to preach to the lost. But it’s not there. That’s a surprising fact were Talbott and Walls’ interpretation of 1 John 4 correct. Although this is not proof of their being incorrect, it is disconfirming evidence against the claim that there is an obvious entailment. Even if it were an obvious entailment now, it was not an obvious entailment then.2 And insofar as it was not an obvious entailment then, Talbott’s complaint about Calvin is anachronistic at best. He needs the claim that it is an obvious entailment across all ages to criticize someone writing in the 16th century, but the empirical support that it is obvious just isn’t there, and the empirical evidence we do have (the written documents from church history) suggests the entailment is not obvious, at least not from 1 John 4.

There is one more problem worth noting about Talbot’s view that it is obvious Calvin should have dealt with those verses. Recall that he accused Calvin of citing “God is love”, applied it to the elect in his commentary on 1 John, but then moved on to not resolve a contradiction (or so Talbott claims it is a contradiction). It is worth going back through my original article. How many authors made the same connection as did Calvin and moved on without, say, resolving some flat out contradiction for the reader to ponder? I am not saying that there is a contradiction in these authors (I deny that), but Talbott’s argument suggests as much. If you are Talbott or Walls, you think the fact that God is love entails God desires to save everyone, for his nature of being love entails moving to convert everyone as much as he can (fail as he might). But then you go read the people who actually cite 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16 and they restrict the meaning. How is it that they can do this without once being disturbed by limiting the application of God’s love to a select few in 1 John? If Talbott and Walls are prepared to indict Calvin, so shall they indict the rest of the church.

The Ancients vs Calvin’s Context

You might recall that Talbott attempts to dismantle my argument by citing some relevant difference between the ancients and Calvin. As a reminder, Talbott says:

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.

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?

We can distinguish between two groups. There are those who cited 1 John 4 and those who did not. Of each group we can ask, did any of them plausibly believe in definite atonement? In “We Trust in the Saving Blood: Definite Atonement in the Ancient Church,” Michael A. G. Haykin takes up the citations of 18th century Calvinist, John Gill, from The Cause of God and Truth, and explores whether Gill plausibly cited any earlier authors as believers in definite atonement.3 From my the list of those who did cite 1 John 4 is Augustine, and he is the one who cited 1 John 4 most extensively. Here I make use of Haykin’s work.

It is useful to go back and read the citations of Augustine that I provided. Now look at how Augustine responds to Pelagius regarding the bondage of the will:

Free will is capable only of sinning, if the way of truth remains hidden. And when what we should do and the goal we should strive for begins to be clear, unless we find delight in it and love it, we do not act, do not begin, do not live good lives. But so that we may love it, “the love of God” is poured out “in our hearts,” not by free will which comes from ourselves, but “by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

If you look at this quote and contrast it with how Augustine discusses 1 John 4 (esp. in On the Trinity, Book 15, chapter 17, section 31 from the original critique), you will see striking parallels. And you will also see parallels to 1 John 4:9-10, which Calvin does cite. In any case, we know that Augustine cites 1 John 4. Here is Augustine on the Gospel of John (Tractate 48.4)

The Jews made this inquiry of Christ, chiefly in order that, should He say, I am Christ, they might, in accordance with the only sense they attached to such a name, that He was of the seed of David, calumniate Him with aiming at the kingly power. There is more than this in His answer to them: they wished to calumniate Him with claiming to be the Son of David. He replied that He was the Son of God. And how? Listen: “Jesus answered them, I tell you, and ye believe not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me: but ye believe not; because ye are not of my sheep.” Ye have already learned above (in Lecture XLV.) who the sheep are: be ye sheep. They are sheep through believing, sheep in following the Shepherd, sheep in not despising their Redeemer, sheep in entering by the door, sheep in going out and finding pasture, sheep in the enjoyment of eternal life. What did He mean, then, in saying to them, “Ye are not of my sheep”? That He saw them predestined to everlasting destruction, not won to eternal life by the price of His own blood.

And here is Augustine again on 1 John in his first homily; regarding 1 John 2:2:

Thus the apostle saith to the congregation, “Praying withal for us also.” The apostle prayeth for the people, the people prayeth for the apostle. We pray for you, brethren: but do ye also pray for us. Let all the members pray one for another let the Head intercede for all, Therefore it is no marvel that he here goes on and shuts the mouths of them that divide the Church. of God. For he that has said, “We have Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins:” having an eye to those who would divide themselves, and would say, “Lo, here is Christ, lo, there;” and would show Him in a part who bought the whole and possesses the whole, he forthwith goes on to say, “Not our sins only, but also the sins of the whole world.” What is this, brethren? Certainly “we have found it in the fields of the woods,” we have found the Church in all nations. Behold, Christ “is the propitiation for our sins; not ours only, but also the sins of the whole world.” Behold, thou hast the Church throughout the whole world; do not follow false justifiers who in truth are cutters off. Be thou in that mountain which hath filled the whole earth: because “Christ is the propitiation for our sins; not only ours, but also the sins of the whole world,” which He hath bought with His blood. (Homily 1.8)

And there we have a Calvinist interpretation of 1 John 2:2, and above that what appears to be an affirmation of definite atonement. Remember, Talbott said that for those who cited 1 John 4 were in a very different context than Calvin. And that’s what makes Talbott and Walls justified in criticizing Calvin in particular. And yet here is Augustine making all the same moves as Calvin despite having cited 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 more than anyone else.

What about those who did not cite 1 John 4? 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.  There’s also those I did not even mention. I won’t rehearse those arguments here.

Talbott might respond that many of the ancients believed in unlimited atonement. And that would be correct. But what matters is whether Talbott and Walls are justified in criticizing Calvin for not citing two verses. And it appears that they would be justified only if 1 John 4 meant what they thought it meant. For those who believed in unlimited atonement and went to 1 John 2:2 rather than 1 John 4:8, they at least appealed to a verse that has a chance of showing Calvin is wrong. And there we see the answer to Talbott’s question above: why didn’t Calvin engage with the love of God in 1 John 4? He did. But the question is about the citations of 1 John 4:8 and 4:16. The answer is that those verses have zero chance of being used in context of 1 John to mean what Talbott and Walls thinks they mean. It is one thing to cite verses, and it is another thing to provide exegesis of verses. For every author who gave exegesis of these verses, not one of them took the verses to mean what Talbott and Walls do. Even if it were true that Calvin was the first to believe in definite atonement, it wouldn’t matter. None of those who did not believe it in ever cited 1 John 4 in the way Talbott or Walls do. Why is that? Because the verses do not mean what they think the verses mean.

Concluding Remarks

In my view, the idea that Calvin was in a unique position to address an argument that no one else before him ever made is plausible given how much Talbott and Walls build Calvin up as an amazing systematizer, only to then knock him down. But we saw that had Calvin done this, that would amount to attributing a misuse of a text to almost no one (maybe Gregory being an exception) ever held. One ought not attribute bad interpretations to one’s best interlocutors when one’s interlocutors do not themselves make those bad interpretations! Furthermore, we saw that the attempt to single Calvin out over against the ancients by the fact that Calvin argued for definite atonement is an attempt not rooted in history, and in any case it was irrelevant.

I will give one concession to Talbott, however. In my original critique of Walls, I concluded by saying “What would be embarrassing, in my view, is to single out and castigate someone from an earlier century for not doing what someone today would be expected to do, when nearly the entire ecclesiastical corpus fails that norm.” And I was incorrect about something there. I should not have said it would be expected that someone today engage 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 in a discussion of, say, election or reprobation. Talbott and Walls might expect that, but both hold idiosyncratic interpretations that have exegetical defenses that run no deeper than “isn’t it obvious?” So no: a modern day defender of Calvinism, no less than Calvin himself, has no intellectual duty to engage these passages on this topic. It may be prudent for a Calvinist to engage those verses if the audience is, say, anyone taken in by Walls’ or Talbott’s assertion about what 1 John 4 means. (Isn’t that what I’ve done through the citations of those who engage the actual text?)

Finally, Talbott and Walls have raised an important issue about the nature of God’s love. Calvinists say all sorts of things about this. It would be useful for Calvinists to think through the topic of the nature of God’s love. Talbott nor Walls can think of even a coherent notion of love consistent with Calvinism. That’s too bad, and it is a topic worth pursuing. But one topic at a time.

Talbott’s Response (source): 

My initial impression of Gibson’s critique is that it is an exercise in obfuscation, and here is an example of what I mean. He wrote: “So was Calvin completely unaware of 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16? Hardly, for he wrote a commentary on the First Epistle of John.” But of course no one claims that Calvin was unaware of these texts. I doubt that he was unaware of any text in the Bible. The issue, however, is one of relevance, not awareness. Under what conditions and in what context can one justifiably expect a Christian theologian to discuss these texts? If, as a universalist, I should try to construct an exhaustive biblical case for a doctrine of universal reconciliation, one could justifiably expect that I would give at least some account of Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9; and similarly, given that Calvin tried to present an exhaustive biblical case for his understanding of limited election, we can justifiably complain that he did not even mention 1 John 4:8 and 16 in that context.

The issue, in other words, is not how often a given writer, ancient or contemporary, cites these texts; the issue is whether an author consistently ignores them in a context, such as Calvin’s systematic discussion of limited election and reprobation in Book III of his Institutes, where they are obviously relevant to the theological claims he makes there. 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.

Neither is it surprising, by the way, that Calvin would indeed discuss these texts in his commentary on 1 John. He had no choice, after all, but to discuss them there. But unfortunately, his remarks in the commentary are not only way too brief; they appear to be flatly self-contradictory as well. In a comment that Gibson himself quotes, Calvin first observed, correctly, that the author of 1 John “takes as granted a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature [my emphasis] is to love men.” He then went on to write: “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 brightness. Here then he does not speak of the essence of God, but only shows what he is found to be by us [i.e., by the elect].”

Here is my response to that comment in ILG, p. 108: “Right after telling us that the Johannine declaration is a statement about the nature of God, Calvin immediately gave some additional reasons for taking it so: just as God is light in the two-fold sense that ‘there is nothing dark in him’ and ‘he illuminates all things by his brightness,’ so God is love in the sense that he is the very source or ‘fountain of love.’ But then, by way of a conclusion that seems to come from nowhere, Calvin flatly contradicted himself and, so it seems, took it all back: in declaring that ‘God is love,’ he concluded, ‘the Apostle . . . does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God, but only shows what he is found to be by us’ [i.e., by the elect]. Nor did Calvin explain himself any further; he simply moved on to other matters.”

Note also Calvin’s own comment on the assertion in John 4:24 that God is spirit: “Christ himself calls God in his entirety ‘Spirit,’” and this implies, according to Calvin, “that the whole essence of God is spiritual, in which are comprehended Father, Son, and Spirit” (Institutes, bk. 1, ch. 13, sec. 20). But then, if the Johannine declaration, “God is spirit,” implies that “the whole essence of God is spiritual,” why deny, as Calvin does, that another Johannine declaration of similar grammatical form, namely “God is love,” likewise speaks “of the essence of God”? One final thought occurs to me at this point. When Gibson upbraids you for castigating “someone from an earlier century for not doing what someone today would be expected to do,” he seems to concede at least this much: we can properly expect a contemporary proponent of limited election to address 1 John 4:8 and 16. But Louis Berkhof, a well-known Calvinist theologian in the 20th Century, also managed to write an entire systematic theology without mentioning either of these two texts. Nor have I seen any Calvinist interpretation of them that strikes me as even remotely plausible. J.I. Packer’s interpretation in his book Knowing God, for example, is downright embarrassing in its incompetence (see ILG, pp. 105-107). But in any case, if Gibson thinks that a correct interpretation of these texts is compatible with the pernicious idea that God restricts his electing love and mercy to a chosen few, then he should, at the very least, tell us what it is.

Footnotes

  1. What could lead a person to accuse an author of contradicting himself in such a small space and not resolving it? If you think Calvin, or Spinoza, or Aristotle, or Plato, or Jesus, or Hume, or Aquinas flatly contradict themselves in a short space, you might ask yourself: “Have I really given an adequate interpretation and done justice to this author?”
  2. As Thomas Reid notes, things that once were not common sense could become pieces of common sense.
  3. In From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson. Crossway, 2013. 57-74.
2016-09-28T21:55:03+00:00 September 27th, 2016|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. David Alexander October 9, 2016 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    Hi James,

    Thanks for addressing these issues. Overall, I think your responses are great. However, I think you misrepresent the alleged contradiction Talbot brings up. I think Talbot’s point is that Calvin seems to say that God is light and God is spirit imply something about God’s nature, whereas God is love, according to Calvin does not imply something about God’s nature. So the contradiction is something like this: statements in Scripture of the form God is F imply that God’s nature is F. God is love is of the form God is F. But God is love does not imply that God’s nature is love.

    • James A. Gibson October 10, 2016 at 9:38 pm - Reply

      Hey David. You’re right. Talbott wrote a response to my rejoinder where he says what the contradiction is. When I wrote that, I was thinking along the lines of the contradiction having something to do with what Walls takes to be heart of what is wrong with Calvinism. Anyway, the way in which there is supposed to be a contradiction is different than what I said. I looked back again at Calvin’s commentary. I understand why Talbott makes that claim. It is an obscure section in Calvin’s commentary. If I respond to Talbott again, I’ll probably say something about that passage. Lately, though, I have been traveling for work and thinking about Heath’s paper. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Paul Dirks June 20, 2017 at 9:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the clarification in the comments James and David. There is something there by Talbott worth considering. However, you rightly take him to task for an expectation that is so completely rooted in his own blind presuppositions. Thanks for engaging on this as Talbott’s errors are so dangerous.

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