John Calvin On ‘Before All Ages’ -- By: Paul Helm

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 53:1 (NA 2002)
Article: John Calvin On ‘Before All Ages’
Author: Paul Helm

John Calvin On ‘Before All Ages’

Paul Helm


This brief paper argues that John Calvin’s exegesis of πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων in 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2 provides no reason for thinking that he rejected the Augustinian account of God’s timeless eternity. On the contrary, there is clear evidence in the Institutes that he took Augustine’s view. His exegesis concerns whether the phrase means ‘before time’ (as he thinks is the case in 2 Tim. 1:9) or ‘a very long time ago’ (its meaning in Tit. 1:2).

I. Introduction

The opening words of Professor Henri Blocher’s paper ‘Yesterday, Today, Forever: Time, Times, Eternity in Biblical Perspective’ are

Calvin, St. Augustine’s devotee and putative heir, dared to disapprove of his Master’s endeavours on time and eternity; the bishop of Hippo wasted his energy in a ‘subtle dispute’ that ‘does not fit St. Paul’s intention’.1

By this Blocher evidently means us to understand that Calvin took a different view of God’s relation to time than Augustine’s conviction that God is ‘outside’ time, or that he exists timelessly. For evidence in support of this claim, Blocher refers to Calvin’s commentaries on 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2. He adds in a footnote, paraphrasing Calvin (as he believes), that Augustine ‘inflicts upon himself extraordinary torments’ when he tries to understand the phrase ‘eternal times’. I shall try to show that the evidence in fact goes the other way, that Calvin definitively endorsed Augustine’s view on God’s relation to time (namely that God is timeless, or that he exists outside time) in the Institutes, and that the passages in the Pastoral Epistles to which Blocher refers are concerned with different issues.

Time And Eternity In The Institutes

Calvin makes it clear in the Institutes that he is committed to the view that God is simple (‘a simple, single essence’). But he not only adheres to a version of the idea of divine simplicity, he is an eternalist; that is, he holds that God exists beyond or outside time. The two views go nicely together; perhaps divine simplicity entails timeless eternity, though Calvin does not argue this. Nonetheless, he clearly affirms both positions. Here is a clear statement from Calvin of the Aug...

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