Calvin on Divine Attributes: A Question of Terminology and Method -- By: Richard A. Muller

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:2 (Fall 2018)
Article: Calvin on Divine Attributes: A Question of Terminology and Method
Author: Richard A. Muller


Calvin on Divine Attributes:
A Question of Terminology and Method

Richard A. Muller

Calvin’s approach to the issue of the divine essence and attributes has been subject to two rather divergent interpretations. On one hand, he has been viewed as holding to a fairly traditional approach, while on the other hand he has been seen as taking an alternative, anti-speculative approach. One recent study has even claimed for Calvin a rather unique anti-speculative methodology that presents the divine attributes as “powers” exerted ad extra. This article looks closely at Calvin’s vocabulary of the divine attributes, examining his usage both in the Institutes and in his exegetical works, with attention to early modern lexicography, and concludes that although Calvin does not engage in such scholastic niceties as those concerning the distinction of attributes in the simple divine essence, he is in accord with the older tradition in assuming that the divine attributes are intrinsic to the divine essence. This conclusion does not deny that Calvin’s emphasis was on the divine attributes in their ad extra acts and relations or that he often emphasized the relationship between the knowledge of divine attributes and Christian piety. Rather it argues that Calvin’s understanding of the divine essence and attributes, including the way in which they relate to soteriology and piety, was quite traditional and that to interpret Calvin’s reading of divine attributes as ad extra acts associated with his soteriology rather than as properties or perfections belonging absolutely or essentially to God as the foundation of all his acts, including but not limited to the work of salvation, is a significant error.

I. Calvin on the Divine Essence and Attributes: Varied Readings

There are two rather divergent readings of Calvin’s understanding of the divine attributes. One reading, exemplified by Benjamin Warfield’s lengthy study, views Calvin as standing largely in accord with traditional

views of the divine attributes as intrinsic to the divine essence, albeit with a certain level of distaste for highly speculative argumentation.1 In this reading, Calvin consistently grounded his approach on his understanding of Scripture and took an a posteriori approach to the knowledge of God.2 Warfield explicitly argues that the absence of a full treatment of the divine essence and attributes in the Institutes was neither the result of “any peculiarity of [Calvin’s] dogmatic standpoint or even of his theological method,” but rather a matter of literary genre.

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