A Critique of John Calvin’s Philosophical Axiom “finitum non capax infiniti” -- By: David R. Andersen

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 03:2 (Nov 2002)
Article: A Critique of John Calvin’s Philosophical Axiom “finitum non capax infiniti”
Author: David R. Andersen


A Critique of John Calvin’s Philosophical Axiom “finitum non capax infiniti”

David R. Andersen, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Salt Lake City Community College

The fierce Reformation debates over the Lord’s Supper might seem odd to modern Christians, preoccupied as they often are with unity, but the Reformers recognized that a mistake on this issue indicates a deeper problem concerning the two natures of Christ. Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin all understood that one’s view of the personal union of Christ predetermines his understanding of the Communion texts. Because of this, considerable time was devoted to exposing illegitimate assumptions concerning the two natures, with the goal that a scriptural christological formulation would prevail. One such attempted formulation promoted in the Reformation period involved the reasonable sounding axiom finitum non capax infiniti. While this too might sound strange (and perhaps irrelevant) to a late twentieth century Christian, it does nevertheless have important consequences. If, for instance, one maintains the axiom as it relates to the doctrine of Christ, then his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is forced in a specific direction: namely, since the finite cannot contain the infinite, Christ’s human nature must be contained (or placed) in a particular space with the consequence that he is incapable — according to his human nature — of being materially present in the Supper.1 As theoretical as it may initially sound, the issue really is intensely practical; practical in the sense that if one embraces the axiom, then, at least from Luther’s point of view, the body and blood of Christ are eliminated and with it the concrete application of the gospel to the individual. According to the Reformers, therefore, the debate should by no means be construed as merely theoretical or as detached from a sense of practicality.

This paper will deal with the christological portion of the debate as it relates to the thought of the Geneva Reformer, John Calvin. Specifically, I will argue that Calvin’s application of the principle finitum non capax infiniti serves as a synthetic a priori within his thought that determines the limitations of Christ’s human nature. With the principle at the heart of his christology he denies the material presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and it becomes the basis of his opposition to Luther’s understanding of the words of institution. Accordingly, from Calvin’s perspective human reason can deliver substantive (non-trivial) truths of empirical reality, and his necessary limitations of human nature is one example of his trust in reason’s pronouncements. His assumptions require clarification, however, and my purpose here is to examine the foundation of his chri...

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