Rolston’s little book

Today I was rereading a slim volume I first picked up years ago during my London studies. Holmes Rolston’s John Calvin versus the Westminster Confession offers a surprising challenge to those who believe the 1646 Confession of Faith reflects what Calvin taught a century earlier.

Rolston is a scholar raised in the Reformed tradition yet whose research caused him to sound an alarm: Calvin wasn’t really a Calvinist!

Rolston’s summary will ring true to readers not already predisposed to affirm the Westminster tradition but for the most part he’s been ignored. That’s not to say that some in the Reformed crowd haven’t tried to dismiss him, yet most Reformed students today seem not to have read his lively work. They’re missing something important.

Let me add that the strategy of ignoring unwelcome research is all too common in academic circles. It may be effective in the short term but sooner or later some bold students will be curious enough to do more thorough work and then some correctives will follow. It’s an effort especially needed in Puritan studies.

Here is one snippet of Rolston’s work—in case one of these bold students happens to read this post—among many worth chasing.

Calvin’s view of sin was aligned with Augustine of Hippo’s reading: sin is self-love. The term for sin shared by both men is concupiscence—from the Latin term for coveting or lust—“which is the fountain of all evil affections” [p. 51, citing Calvin, Commentary on James, 1:15; C.R. 55.390].

But, as Rolston correctly notices, in the Westminster Confession we find “a much smaller world” (53). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 14, the answer to the question about sin is law-based: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Calvin certainly recognized that sin involved the breach of God’s laws but he understood that the deeper problem is one of orientation and not merely one of behaviors that are linked to law-breaking or law-keeping. Let me cite Rolston here:

“Here Calvin and the Calvinists come at length to a parting of the ways. When Calvin describes sin as that faithlessness which cuts off God’s grace, he has gone where none of the Westminster divines can follow. They can only go further along their own way of describing sin as lawlessness, because, with the intervention of the covenant of works, they know nothing about man’s first duty as that of faithfulness to depend on divine goodness” [56].

The underlying premise for Calvin is that God’s love is what we have before us at all times, and our self-love is what violates and denies that love. How? As we gaze at our own performance—even as a law-keeper—rather than at the God who loves us.

The ironic result of this errant Calvinist moral scheme is a gaze in the wrong direction. A gaze opposite to what God invites and to what Calvin affirmed. A major spokesmen for Calvinism, Herman Witsius (d. 1708), displayed this moral confusion by suggesting that there is room for human glory in law-keeping by man: “he may glory, as a faithful servant may do, upon the right discharge of his duty, and may claim the reward promised in his working” [57, citing Witsius I.i.15].

Rolston’s response to Witsius as an exemplar of a tradition gone wrong is important: “Here, at the end of the way, Reformed confessional orthodoxy is walking a path alien to Calvin. It does not know that in the very positing of such a boasting for man, integral man or not, sin is latent: indeed, here is the chief sin of man.”

Amen. Humanity loves self and many will work with a passion to draw God’s approval. But it’s all as useless as carving a broken cistern that will never hold water. The real secret of faith is to recognize and enjoy God’s faithfulness and then to respond in love. But we need to be gazing in the proper direction—towards Christ and not at ourselves. Calvin got that part right.


1 Comment

  1. Gretchen

    Good stuff, as always, Ron. Thanks. The thing that’s foggy inside the church, and no doubt to those looking from the outside in, is that even those of us who would say that we don’t gain any self-glory from law keeping weave in and out of that kind of approach in the way we speak of our relationship with Christ and in the way we live. That’s why the beauty of Christ and His Gospel must be our constant meditation. It is, as you point out, what draws our gaze to Him instead of ourselves.

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