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).

Calvin on the Two Natures of Christ Applied to His Role as Mediator

Recently I spent a fair amount of time researching theologies of the beatific vision among Reformation theologians. In the course of that research, I came across this excellent reflection on the two nature of Christ from John Calvin. In this section of Institutes of The Christian Religion, he applies the doctrine of the two natures of Christ to His role as Mediator in the life to come. Calvin writes:

…because he was hid under a humble clothing of flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and humbled himself (Phil. ii. 8), and laying aside the insignia of majesty, became obedient to the Father; and after undergoing this subjection was at length crowned with glory and honour (Heb. ii. 7), and exalted to supreme authority, that at his name every knee should bow (Phil. ii. 10); so at the end he will subject to the Father both the name and the crown of glory, and whatever he received of the Father, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. xv. 28). For what end were that power and authority given to him, save that the Father might govern us by his hand? In the same sense, also, he is said to sit at the right hand of the Father. But this is only for a time, until we enjoy the immediate presence of his Godhead.

Some may take issue with Calvin’s argument that Christ’s place at the right hand of the Father has a terminal point. His point is that this is Christ’s place by virtue of his role as mediator. His role as mediator is not eternal. Certainly Christ subjects himself to God. But even this is only for a time. Calvin claims that tremendous damage has been done to the doctrine of Christ by not paying appropriate attention to Christ’s role as Mediator and the telos of that role in balance with his fundamental identity as the Son. He continues:

Christ, therefore, shall reign until he appear to judge the world, inasmuch as, according to the measure of our feeble capacity, he now connects us with the Father. But when, as partakers of the heavenly glory, we shall see God as he is, then Christ, having accomplished the office of Mediator, shall cease to be the vicegerent of the Father, and will be content with the glory which he possessed before the world was… His giving up of the kingdom to the Father, so far from impairing his majesty, will give a brighter manifestation of it. God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.

As Mediator, Christ brings us to the Father. But there, joining Christ in our glorified state, we see God. We see him not as Mediator, but we see him in His glory–“Christ’s own Godhead”.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to know what Calvin means by this phrase. In his commentary on 1 John 3:2, Calvin says, “…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.” What is this majesty? Do we see God’s per essentiam– which is to say “as He is” in his essence? His glory? The relations between the persons? Calvin isn’t clear, and even warns against wrangling with such questions. What is he certain of, however, is that when we see God there will be a shared glory between the persons without exclusion to one or the other. Christ is not eternally the Mediator. Calvin is re-centering our knowledge of God in the age to come on the Son’s eternal generation. He will be known to us as the Son in the glory he had with the Father before he world began. This glory is not to the exclusion of his incarnation. It’s important not to confuse Christ’s laying aside his role as mediator with his laying aside his body. He does no such thing. As the incarnate Lord, his glory will shine forth before his people with greater effect when he sets aside his mediatorial office.

Some claim that Christ gives the Kingdom to the Father as an act of special glory reserved for the Father (to whom the Son is then eternally subordinate). Instead, Calvin’s claim is that the Son gives the Kingdom to the Father. In doing so, his own glory shines forth. More can be said, but for now this is a beautiful reflection to sit with. It will be a lovely thing to see the Son in his glory.

For more, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), II.14.iii.