Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life Part I: Original Corruption, Natural Law, and the Order of the Soul -- By: Peter J. Leithart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 55:1 (Spring 1993)
Article: Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life Part I: Original Corruption, Natural Law, and the Order of the Soul
Author: Peter J. Leithart


Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life
Part I: Original Corruption, Natural Law, and the Order of the Soul*

Peter J. Leithart

* This article is taken, with revisions, from my Th.M. thesis, “The Iron Philosophy: Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of Mortification” (Westminster Theological Seminary, 1987).

Few of Calvin’s writings have had as decisive an impact on generations of Calvinists as chapters 6–10 of book 3 of the Institutes. Known as the “little book on the Christian life,” these chapters grew from a few lines in the 1536 edition and were published separately in 1550.1 Albert-Marie Schmidt commented that “these chapters have had an influence on men of the reformed faith more living, direct and lasting than any other part of Calvin’s writings. They have determined for Western Protestantism, down to the least detail, its attitude toward the business of living.”2

A detailed examination of these chapters is thus of more than merely historical interest. If certain elements in Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life are alien to his general biblical framework, those influences have been communicated to generations of his followers through these sections of the Institutes. Weber, Troeltsch, and other sociologists of religion of the last two centuries produced a portrait of the Puritan Calvinist that now occupies a firm place in popular culture: the Calvinist as prudish, passionless, consummate premodern rationalist—in short, the Calvinist as Stoic. If this assessment of the type of character that Calvinism tends to produce has any validity, unquestionably Calvin’s “little book” bears much of the responsibility. Rather than examining the fruit, however, we shall turn to a close reading of the root. This is the first in a three-part series of articles whose purpose is to determine whether or not Calvin’s “little book” betrays Stoic influence.3

Stoicism, like other influential cultural forces, is difficult to define precisely.4 To assess Calvin’s debt to Stoicism accurately, it is necessary to distinguish some of the various cultural and intellectual currents that have been identified as “Stoic.” First, there is the coherent philosophical system first articulated by Zeno of Citium, which culminated several centuries later in such Latin writers as Seneca and Epictetus. Even here, however, scholars of ancient philosophy find it necessary to distinguish three phases of development: Early Stoicism (Zeno, Cleant...

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