That Eminent Pagan: Calvin’s Use of Cicero in “Institutes” 1.1-5 -- By: Peter J. Leithart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 52:1 (Spring 1990)
Article: That Eminent Pagan: Calvin’s Use of Cicero in “Institutes” 1.1-5
Author: Peter J. Leithart

That Eminent Pagan: Calvin’s Use of Cicero in “Institutes” 1.1-5

Peter J. Leithart

Calvin’s debt to humanism in general and to Stoicism in particular has been the subject of several studies.1 There is little doubt of the influence of Renaissance humanism on the young Frenchman, but there is considerable debate about the significance of Calvin’s conversion. Did he thereafter repudiate his early humanism? Or, did he attempt a synthesis of classical and biblical thought? Was he unconsciously dependent on classical and humanistic methods and concepts? Narrowing the issue to the topic at hand, what part did Calvin’s exposure to Cicero play in his mature theology?

Scholars have given various answers to these questions. In a study of Calvin’s use of Cicero in the Institutes, Egil Grislis enumerates a significant number of linguistic and conceptual parallels between Calvin and Cicero, and concludes that there is both literary dependence and “a basic general agreement.” It is a case of “genuine dependence.”2 Charles Partee, on the other hand, while acknowledging the parallels, concludes that the evidence does not support Grislis’s conclusions. The parallels are evident, but the dependence is not.3 Victor Nuovo concludes that Calvin’s relationship to

classical antiquity as a whole is one of “repudiation and dependence.” Calvin’s emphasis on immortality and providence as “the theological questions,” and the relationship of these doctrines to true piety, can be explained as Calvin’s response to Plato and the Stoics. Nuovo also claims that Calvin’s rhetorical style depends on the popular moral philosophers of antiquity, especially Cicero and Seneca.4

All of these scholars share the peculiarly modern obsession with method. They seek to demonstrate either that Calvin’s method is dependent on classical models, or that his method involves some kind of synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian doctrine. They have not, however, determined whether the content of Calvin’s thought is affected by his exposure to classical and Renaissance paganism. That is, they do not ask whether Calvin’s use of classical and humanistic sources causes him to depart from biblical truth. The purpose of this essay is to address that substantial question.

The following analysis of Calvin’s references to Cicero is arranged in order of increasing dependence. No attempt has been made to provide an exhaustive list of Calvin’s allusions and ...

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