by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.
When I first began to wonder how the Calvinists might interpret the Johannine declaration that God is love (see 1 John 4:8 and 16), I turned immediately to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, large portions of which I had already read—had indeed examined line by line and with great intensity—during my own seminary days. But to my surprise, I discovered that Calvin evidently did not regard either of these texts as important enough even to mention in this his most systematic and exhaustive exposition of Christian doctrine and practice. I found this especially surprising because I could not think of any other ethically or theologically significant New Testament text that he ignored altogether in this massive work. So, to satisfy my own curiosity, I then turned to his commentary on First John, where I knew that he would have no choice but to comment on these particular texts. What I found in the commentary, however, befuddled me even further because his remarks there appeared to be flatly self-contradictory, at least to me.
Now I made similar remarks in a personal letter to Jerry Walls who had called my attention to James A. Gibson’s critique of Walls’ own book Does God Love Everyone? and I subsequently published that letter here on my Timeline in a post entitled “A Case of Theological Obfuscation?” Accordingly, having made that letter public myself, it is no surprise, perhaps, and certainly fair that Gibson should reply to it, which he does in this blog article: “A Rejoinder to Thomas Talbott on Calvin.”
As I have reflected on both Gibson’s original critique of Walls and his rejoinder to my letter that I made public, two issues, which I shall deal with in two separate posts, seem to me worthy of further comment. One of them, which will be the subject of a subsequent post, concerns the deeply flawed nature, as I see it, of Gibson’s historical survey. But first—and this may be a more technical philosophical issue—I want to explain again the apparently self-contradictory nature of Calvin’s remarks on 1 John 4:8.
According to Gibson, the “contradiction [that I attribute to Calvin] 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 P that has as its obvious entailment Q, but he then applies P such that ~Q [i.e., not-Q]. And then he skips away from the scene without resolving the contradiction.”
But that, I think it fair to say, misconstrues entirely the apparent contradiction I had in mind. For the record, I do believe that
(a) God is love
attributes an essential property to the individual who is God, the Father, and hence that (a) entails
(b) God wills or desires that “every person be saved.”
But why on earth would I attribute that deduction to a man, such as Calvin, who quite obviously rejects it? If I wanted to persuade a Christian of the truth of (b), moreover, I would simply point out that 1 Timothy 2:4 explicitly states that (b) is true, and I would then examine some of the absurd ways, as I see them, in which Augustine and Calvin both try to explain this text away. I would have no need, in other words, to rely on the more complicated and controversial claim that (a) entails (b). In any case, the contradiction I had in mind arises directly from Calvin’s own words and not from some deduction that I have imposed upon him. For within the context of two or three sentences, he appears to embrace a proposition of the form p and not-p. Right after telling us that 1 John 4:8 expresses “a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature is to love men,” Calvin appears immediately to take it back, telling us that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” after all. 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.
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.
So why is this important? Because it simply cannot be true that the same verse both expresses a truth about the nature of God and says nothing about the essence of God. And furthermore, if lovingkindness is indeed one of God’s essential perfections and therefore part of his very essence, then it is logically impossible that God should fail to love someone in the sense of willing the very best for that person. This follows from the very nature of an essential property. If omniscience is one of God’s essential perfections, for example, then it is logically impossible that he should ever believe a false proposition; if justice is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible that he should ever treat someone unjustly; and similarly, if lovingkindness is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible, contrary to what Jonathan Edwards once wrote, that in “hell God manifests his being and perfections only in hatred and wrath, and hatred without love.”
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. If we do that—if (in philosophical parlance) we treat lovingkindness as at most an accidental property of God—then we can consistently hold that God freely chooses to withhold his elective love from some people, such as the non-elect and those destined for hell. But even if we adopt such a move as that, we must still do justice to the way in which love ties the interests of people together. If in obedience to the command of Jesus, for example, I should successfully love both of my children even as I love myself, then any evil that befalls one of them is an evil that likewise befalls me; as Jesus himself put it, “just as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren [i.e., to one of those I love] you did it to me” (Matt 25:40—RSV). Hence God cannot will the best for me unless he also wills the best for both of my children. That is but the first step in an argument that will finally lead, I believe, to this inescapable conclusion: either God wills the very best for all of us, or he does not will the best for any of us (see The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 126-129, for the full argument). Or, to put it in a slightly different way, a doctrine of limited election is a logical (or metaphysical) impossibility.
In his book Does God Love Everyone? Jerry Walls comments, “Unfortunately, Calvinists sometimes [my emphasis] seem to have a blind spot for the love of God” (p.4). And he provides several illustrations of his point, the first of which is the following quotation from Arthur W. Pink: “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom he chooses. He does not love everybody” (quoted on p. 3). But of course Walls could have chosen from any number of similar examples, such as the declaration of Jonathan Edwards and Hermann Hoeksema that from the beginning the non-elect are an object of “God’s eternal hatred.” Or, he could also have quoted Calvin himself: “If God wills that all be saved, how does it come to pass that he does not open the door of repentance to the miserable men who would be better prepared to receive grace [than some who do receive it]? . . . But experience teaches that God wills the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, in such a way that he does not touch the hearts of all” (Institutes, bk. 3, ch. 24, sec. 15—my emphasis). Here one wonders how, according to Calvin, our limited and impoverished experience of such matters is even relevant to what God will do in the end? How is it even relevant to the interpretation of any given text in the Bible?
As a further illustration of the point, Walls also observes that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin never once cited 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 and never once considered the Johannine declaration that God is love important enough even to discuss. Although Walls presents this as but one illustration among several of his point about blindness and rests no argument of substance upon it, James A. Gibson evidently felt compelled to defend Calvin with an historical survey, which in a subsequent reply to me he summarized this way:
“In response [to Walls], 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.” [But see “Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John” for the full explanation of his survey.]
Personally, I would never claim that Calvin “goofed in not citing these verses”; I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing. In any case, 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. But perhaps we can here let that pass and focus on three fatal flaws, as I view them, in Gibson’s historical survey.
First, Gibson seems utterly oblivious of the major impact that Augustine had on the Western theological tradition and the changes he introduced into it. Gibson therefore writes, as if he were scoring a point: “Striking, isn’t it, that Augustine does not take the fact that ‘God is love’ to imply that God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person?” But that, of course, is just what one would expect. Was not Augustine (the later Augustine, at least) the very first “Calvinist,” so to speak, the first Christian to invent the idea of a limited elect drawn from all classes of people? And was not Calvin a follower of Augustine in this regard, even to the point of using Augustine’s own phraseology to explain away a text such as 1 Timothy 2:4? The index of references to Augustine in my copy of the Institutes is seven pages of small print with two columns per page, and it is simply inconceivable that Calvin might have interpreted the Johannine declaration that God is love any differently than Augustine did. So why treat this similarity between two proponents of limited election as if it were some kind of important discovery in the present context? 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.”
Second, Gibson systematically confuses the belief that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person,” which Walls accepts, with a belief that Walls and many others reject: the belief that God will successfully win over every single person. Concerning Clement of Alexandria, for example, Gibson writes: “What Clement declares is that love is an excellence of God’s. From this, we see that God makes men righteous. Every man? That’s not in the text” (i.e., not in Clement’s brief comment on 1 John 1:5). 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. Another example: Gibson quotes Cyprian to the effect that liars, murderers, and those filled with hatred for others do not have the love of God abiding in them. He then comments, “How strange it should be that not everyone has this love when it is thought that 1 John 4:8 has the implication that God loves and aims to convert every person.” But good heavens, why should anyone think that strange at all? When Saul of Tarsus was dragging Christians from their homes and consenting to the murder of Stephen, would Gibson think it strange that he was motivated by something other than a perfect love for these Christians? And would Gibson draw the further inference that God was not, therefore, “actively aiming at the salvation” of Saul? I certainly hope not.
Finally, Gibson’s survey of pre-Augustine Christian writers, using the search terms “1 John 4” and “God is love,” results in little more than an unfortunate argument from silence. Take a look at his list of ten for whom his search turned up nothing. Ignatius, who was (apparently) martyred in Rome sometime around the year 110, wrote seven known letters (possibly before 1 John was even composed), and Polycarp, who was burned at the stake sometime around the year 156, wrote one epistle, which was to the Philippians. Unlike Calvin, neither of these martyrs was a scholar aiming to interpret an existing New Testament canon; in fact, the church had not yet settled upon one at the time of their deaths. Or consider John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) who wrote commentaries on all of the Pauline epistles. Although he reportedly had written commentaries on the whole Bible, we have none on Mark, Luke, or any of the Catholic Epistles including 1 John. So the absence of a specific comment on 1 John 4:8 in the available literature is no more surprising than the absence of one on 2 Peter 3:9. It is important to see, moreover, that the pre-Augustine theological milieu was very different from what we find after Augustine in effect endorsed the idea of limited election. Prior to Augustine, there were Christological controversies aplenty and growing divisions between Arians and Trinitarians. 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. Indeed, most thoughtful Christians had far more immediate controversies on their minds—concerning, for example, the nature of the Incarnation.
In conclusion, Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of over 1500 pages; in it he sought to provide a comprehensive summary of Christian doctrine, as he understood it, along with an exhaustive examination of the biblical support for it. And for that reason alone, what we find (or do not find) in far less comprehensive works, written before Augustine radically altered the Western theological tradition, has no power at all to dissuade me of this: Calvin’s failure even to mention the Johannine declaration that God is love is indeed a glaring omission.
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Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon