Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life: Part III: Christian Moderation -- By: Peter J. Leithart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:1 (Spring 1994)
Article: Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life: Part III: Christian Moderation
Author: Peter J. Leithart


Stoic Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life:
Part III: Christian Moderation

Peter J. Leithart

In Part II of this series of articles, I reviewed Calvin’s doctrine of mortification. Mortification is the utter elimination of the sinful flesh, accomplished by the power of the Spirit. There are two parts to mortification, self-denial and cross-bearing. Self-denial, or “inner mortification,” means submitting all our desires, plans, and reasonings to God and to the purposes of his kingdom. Cross-bearing, or “outward mortification,” refers to the Christian’s suffering, which breaks our inordinate attachment to this world, undermines our confidence in our own strength, and forces us to flee to God for mercy and relief.

VII. Moderation

Moderation, the goal of the two parts of mortification, also has two parts, an inner moderation of the passions and an outer aspect that consists of the moderate use of “external things.” These do not, however, correspond to the inner and outer aspects of mortification. That is, cross-bearing, which Calvin called outer mortification, aids in the achievement of inner moderation. Calvin’s doctrine unveils a complex relationship between the inner and the outer aspects of the Christian life. In this essay, I will examine Calvin’s teaching to determine whether or not Calvin’s doctrine of moderation is indebted to Stoicism.

Before examining Calvin’s teaching, some effort must be made to determine if “moderation” is in fact a Stoic ideal. The notion that emotions and actions should observe a mean between the extremes of excess and defect is, of course, Aristotelian.1 Some statements of Stoic philosophers suggest that the Stoic goal is not “moderation” of emotion but complete suppression.2 For the Stoic authors with whom Calvin was

familiar, however, “moderation” or “measure” was classified among the virtues.3 It is true to say that the Stoics strove to eliminate all passion only if “passion” is understood in a more restricted sense than “emotion.” In fact, the Stoics taught that a rational impulse (εὐπάθεια) corresponded to each of the four irrational passions.4

1. Inner Moderation

In his discussion in the Institutes, Calvin explicitly contrasted the Christian struggle “for patience and moderation” with Stoic ἀπάθεια. After quoting You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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