Does The Westminster Confession Contradict Calvin On Assurance And Faith?

Calvin recognized that we do not always experience the benefits of the assurance that belongs to faith.

Calvin repeatedly recognized similar problems that the divines were facing, that faith as we experience seems to fluctuate. He recognized, e.g., that all believers have implicit faith in something or someone. “We certainly admit that so long as we dwell as strangers in the world there is such a thing as implicit faith; not only because many things are as yet hidden from us, but because surrounded by many clouds of errors we do not comprehend everything” (Institutes 3.2.4). Rome’s error was in making the church the object of that faith.

 

For much of the 20th century it was a datum, a given, for many students of Calvin and the Reformed tradition that many of the English Reformed (especially the Westminster Assembly) abandoned Calvin and the Reformation doctrine of the faith and assurance. Typically the argument ran something like this:

  • For Calvin assurance is of the essence of faith.
  • The Westminster divines made assurance a second blessing
  • Ergo, the Divines abandoned Calvin on this point.

The grounds for thinking this way begin in the (1559) Institutes 3.2.7:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Battles edition).

In contrast, this reading highlights the fact that the divines confessed:

This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it…. (WCF 18.3)

This interpretation of Calvin and the Reformed tradition is wrong for three reasons.

1. Calvin did not become the sum and substance of Reformed theology until Karl Barth and his followers made him so. This required a significant overhaul of the way the Reformed understood themselves and their history. The Reformed theologians and churches in the classical period (16th and 17th centuries) did not regard him as the last word. He was an important voice in the tradition but there were, from the beginning, other tributaries into the Reformed stream of the Reformation (e.g., Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, and Vermigli). On this see Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ibid., After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

2. This contrast ignores the very contexts (times and places) in which Calvin and the Westminster Assemblies served. Calvin died in 1564. The divines largely completed their work in 1647–48 or 84 years after Calvin’s death. The divines were working in the wake of the rise of the Remonstrant (Arminian) crisis, in the midst of the English Civil War, in the midst of what they saw as an antinomian crisis, and on the edge of modernity—Descartes died in 1650. The English Protestants had 8 decades to practice the theology that had learned from Calvin and his successors. Remember that the divines were active pastors, preachers and pastoral counselors who met regularly with their parishioners to offer them comfort and encouragement. In other words, it is a poor method to set these two statements against each other without accounting for the very different settings in which they were expressed.

3. Most importantly, this contrast quite ignores what Calvin and the divines actually said about assurance. It would require a book to refute this misinterpretation fully but if we simply begin by reading in Calvin beyond Institutes 3.2.7 and if we pay closer attention to what the divines actually wrote, we will have good reason to doubt that Calvin v Calvinists thesis on assurance.

Several years back I did a 5,000 word essay on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and comfort. In it I wrote,

He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘…repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).

Many years ago, Joshua Rosenthal pointed out to me a very helpful distinction between faith considered in se (in itself) and faith as it exists in us. Calvin himself recognized this distinction. We can see it if we begin in Institutes 3.2.1 and keep reading beyond 3.2.7 to the end of the chapter in section 28. Calvin repeatedly recognized similar problems that the divines were facing, that faith as we experience seems to fluctuate. He recognized, e.g., that all believers have implicit faith in something or someone. “We certainly admit that so long as we dwell as strangers in the world there is such a thing as implicit faith; not only because many things are as yet hidden from us, but because surrounded by many clouds of errors we do not comprehend everything” (Institutes 3.2.4). Rome’s error was in making the church the object of that faith.

Calvin recognized that we do not always experience the benefits of the assurance that belongs to faith.

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