John Calvin on Sinful Theological Disagreement

Recently I wrote a paper for a Ph.D. seminar about the contrast between Bavinck and Berkouwer’s view of the tension between beatific vision and divine invisibility. One small thing I found in the course of my research is that Herman Bavinck claims1 Calvin has no contribution on the subject. I began to track down this claim and I found a really interesting comment from Calvin on the necessity of guarding against sin in theological disagreement.

Bavinck is partially right. Calvin does refer to such issues (debates about seeing God’s essence, etc.) as the “thorny questions” of revelation. Where Bavinck is wrong is that he claims this is proof that Calvin merely bypasses the question and has no position. Calvin’s theology and exegesis give clues that he is more open to the idea than described here. In his Institutes (II.14.iii.), Calvin describes a future time in which Christ will set aside his mediatorial office and his “middle place between God and us” and “his divine majesty shall be beheld face to face…God will cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.” In his exegetical commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin concludes, “…when the Apostle says, we shall see him as he is, he intimates a new and ineffable manner of seeing him, which we enjoy not now…hence the majesty of God, now hid, will then only be in itself seen, when the veil of this mortal and corruptible nature shall be removed.”2

These are interesting points, but Calvin’s introductory comments on the matter are instructive for all of us in the midst of theological disagreements over the “thorny issues”. Whether we can see God in his divine essence in some meaningful way or not, Calvin warns about “wrangling” on this issue so much that “we lose the peace without which no one will see him…”

Does this complex theological issue matter? Is it worth debating or worth even forming opinions on? Yes. Clearly. Calvin does so, as well as Bavinck. But there is something more important. No matter how we will see God, we will not see him at all if we do not do so in a way that reflects Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Was Calvin perfect at this? It’s doesn’t take much more than a quick google search of Calvin’s faults to know that he was not. A better question is this: How are we doing? How are you doing? May it never be said of us that we debate the finer points of theology in a way that disgraces the Theos or use words that bring scorn upon the Logos.

May it be said of us that when we say our piece, we keep our peace.


1. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, 190.

2. John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Epistle of John, trans. John Owen, vol. 22, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).

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