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Was John Calvin a Biblicist?

Aristotle, Aquinas, and the catholicity of Calvin

Nearly half a century after R. T. Kendall published “Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649,” the debate of “Calvin versus the Calvinists” rages on. Kendall’s was not the first attempt at pointing out supposed discontinuity between Calvin and his successors, of course. Years earlier, T. F. Torrance criticized the Westminster Confession for being too scholastic in nature, overtly rationalistic in its teaching on the Ten Commandments, and “markedly less Christological” compared to Calvin and the Reformation.[1] Modern proponents might not be following Kendall in claiming that later Calvinists, like the Westminster divines, are crypto Arminians in their theology, but they are following after Torrance in driving a wedge between Calvin and his Reformed scholastic heirs. Those advocating these views are warning of the dangers of Aristotelian metaphysics and categories employed by various Reformed theologians, as well as the use of natural theology over and against the purely biblical approach of Calvin. The question before us today then, is whether this view is true? Was Calvin a “Biblicist”[2] in his methods? As we will see, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Was Calvin a “Biblicist”? The answer is a resounding “no.” Click To TweetBiblicism can be defined as a rejection of everything that is not explicitly made clear or stated in Holy Scripture. Thus, eschewing secondary authorities such as Creeds and Confessions in favor of the Bible as the only authority. This type of argumentation, which also led to a rejection of the use of Aristotelian metaphysics, the Trinity, etc. historically originated from the Socinians. Today the term has been co-opted by some in the Reformed church as a contrast to the teachings of the Great Tradition. This has led to great confusion at best, and at worst, an outright undermining of the Reformed faith.

Calvin’s Use of Aristotle

There is no doubt that Calvin’s successors took a greater interest in metaphysics and philosophy than Calvin himself did. However, this does not mean that Calvin was completely bereft of philosophical categories or usage. Perhaps the most explicit use of Aristotelian categories comes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. As he makes a case for monergistic salvation, Calvin references both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas:

The philosophers postulate four kinds of causes to be observed in the outworking of things. If we look at these, however, we will find that, as far as the establishment of our salvation is concerned, none of them has anything to do with works. For Scripture everywhere proclaims that the efficient cause of our obtaining eternal life is the mercy of the Heavenly Father and his freely given love toward us. Surely the material cause is Christ, with his obedience, through which he acquired righteousness for us. What shall we say is the formal or instrumental cause but faith? And John includes these three in one sentence when he says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16]. As for the final cause, the apostle testifies that it consists both in the proof of divine justice and in the praise of God’s goodness, and in the same place he expressly mentions three others.[3]

As he makes a case for monergistic salvation, Calvin references both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Click To TweetHere we see Calvin employing philosophy in the service to biblical truth, not as the enemy as so many seem want to do today. This is not an isolated usage either, as it is seen not just in Calvin’s theological works, but also his biblical commentaries on Romans and Ephesians. Turning to his exegesis of Ephesians 1, we find that Calvin utilizes the four-fold causality of Aristotle to explain predestination. Calvin writes:

Three causes of our salvation are here mentioned, and a fourth is shortly afterwards added. The efficient cause is the good pleasure of the will of God, the material cause is, Jesus Christ, and the final cause is, the praise of the glory of his grace. Let us now see what he says respecting each.[4]

Many later Reformed scholastic theologians would follow in Calvin’s footsteps in appropriating Aristotle’s thought and four-fold causation in service to theology.[5] For example, the Westminster Confession follows Calvin in this particular appropriation of Aristotelian causality in both the chapters on God’s eternal decree and providence. In the chapter entitled Of God’s Eternal Decree the divines state that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (WCF 3.1).[6]

Many later Reformed theologians would follow in Calvin’s footsteps in appropriating Aristotle’s thought and four-fold structure in service to theology. Click To TweetOf course, this does not mean that Calvin’s aim was to formulate an entire philosophical system or even to bring Aristotle to bear upon every text of Scripture. Rather, he recognized that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it may be found. Therefore, it was not merely Aristotle’s four-fold causality that was useful, but Calvin was willing to go deeper because Aristotle, by virtue of being an image-bearer, was able by common grace to discover various truths or bring about formulations that serviced true theology. We see Calvin’s opinion on the usefulness of Greek philosophy more fully in his commentary on Titus:

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?[7]

He then directs readers to Basil’s discourse “To Young Men,” wherein Basil encourages his readers to draw from classical Greek literature on virtue ethics.[8] Calvin is by no means alone, as later Reformed theologians, such as Samuel Rutherford, utilized Aristotle’s ethics, especially in regard to the subject of habit.[9]

Though there are various opinions on the extent to which Calvin is indebted to men like Aristotle, these brief citations show that, at the very least, Calvin did not completely reject all aspects of Aristotelian philosophy. Rather, he placed philosophy in its proper place, as the handmaiden to the divine text. As Joel Beeke rightly observes:

For Calvin, logic, philosophy, and experience all serve the role of handmaiden to Scripture, and thus their role is to assist in fleshing out and edifying doctrine within a scriptural framework. It is in this light that we must view Calvin’s occasional and non-apologetic use of Aristotelian terms, such as essential and accidental relationships, or primary and secondary causes.[10]

Calvin, like those both before and after him, sought to utilize the best of the world’s great thinkers in service to the Triune God.

John Calvin and Natural Theology

This naturally leads to the subject of natural theology. As we have seen, Calvin was not against utilizing other sources of truth, despite their proximate origin. Calvin certainly recognized that there was some value and insight to be gained by reading Greek philosophers. However, this has not always been carried over to the subject of natural theology. Some have argued that Calvin did not teach any form of natural theology. Indeed, Calvin does not handle the issue of natural theology directly. This idea has led some Reformed theologians to dismiss the usefulness of natural theology altogether, such as Karl Barth. Today, many who are heirs of Cornelius Van Til have sought to reject natural theology outright. In a letter to Francis Schaeffer, Van Til writes:

I think you will agree, then, that no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there. None of the great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, and none of the great modern philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, or Kierkegaard and others, have ever spoken of the God who is there.[11]

Though Van Til did not reject all natural theology, he did have a very nuanced view. Some have taken statements like this much farther than perhaps Van Til himself would have been comfortable with. Calvin certainly recognized that there was some value and insight to be gained by reading Greek philosophers. Click To Tweet Whereas, others have argued that natural theology has been a consistent theme from Aquinas to Calvin and through the Reformed orthodox period.[12] Each side typically appeals to Calvin, claiming to be his successor on this subject.

So, what exactly does Calvin have to say about natural theology? We turn once again to his biblical commentaries. In Acts 17 in the sermon on Mars Hill, Paul encounters Athenians who worship the “unknown god.” Paul’s strategy is to first appeal to nature and universal reason. Commenting on Paul’s apologetic method, Calvin says:

Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited testimonies of Scripture. I said that this was the holy man’s purpose, to bring the men of Athens unto the true God. For they were persuaded that there was some divinity; only their preposterous religion was to be reformed.[13]

Paul utilizes proofs from nature to “reform” their religion. It is as if their vision of God was blurred by sin and Paul by appealing to nature gives them glasses to see God clearly. Only appealing to Scripture would have been a “vain” attempt, rather Paul utilizes common ground, namely the sensus divinitatis and the light of nature in order to point the Athenians to a true knowledge of God.[14]

Calvin's sensus divinitatis bears great similarity with the cosmological proof of Thomas Aquinas. Click To TweetCalvin’s recognition of both the sensus divinitatis and the works of creation itself bears great similarity with the cosmological proof of Thomas Aquinas, though Calvin argues in a rhetorical manner instead of syllogistic.[15] Here, Calvin and his successors agree. Note Francis Turretin who writes that “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).[16]

Paul continues further by quoting a pagan poet in verse 28. Calvin writes,

He citeth half a verse out of Aratus, not so much for authority’s sake, as that he may make the men of Athens ashamed; for such sayings of the poets came from no other fountain save only from nature and common reason. Neither is it any marvel if Paul, who spake unto men who were infidels and ignorant of true godliness, do use the testimony of a poet, wherein was extant a confession of that knowledge which is naturally engraven in men’s minds [17]

The men at Athens had a true, common, yet disordered knowledge of God that comes from “nature and common reason.” Paul then does appeal immediately to Scripture, but what the men knew to be true came from nature. In fact, Calvin goes so far as to say that when it comes to recognizing God’s attributes and the truth of Him as creator, the philosophers “have more penetration into those matters than most” because they “understand how the stars are arranged in such beautiful order.”[18] Calvin goes so far as to say that when it comes to recognizing God’s attributes and the truth of Him as creator, the philosophers “have more penetration into those matters than most” Click To Tweet

In his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin points to proofs found in creation, namely the design of the universe to point to God as the “supreme Architect.” In Psalm 104, Calvin argues from the effect of creation to the cause of that creation. He observes that despite the difficult arguments and language used about creation, they are not “superfluous; for it is with difficulty that they awaken and enable us to attain even a slight knowledge of God.”[19] This reflects an argument of causality, which has overlap with medieval proofs for the existence of God.[20] This type of argumentation concurs with what we find in the Institutes. Quoting positively from Virgil, he argues that tracing the effects of creation back to God is not for believers only, but “this way of seeking God is common both to strangers and to those of his household, if they trace the outlines that above and below sketch a living likeness of him.”[21] Those who ponder the origin of the universe and the beauty of creation are drawn to see God alone as the cause.

This does not mean, however, that natural theology provides a saving knowledge of God. Clearly Calvin believes that supernatural revelation must aid these proofs because of sin. Scripture, therefore, “having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.”[22] Yet, this does not rule out the usefulness of the proofs themselves. With natural theology, man knows God as creator, but he needs supernatural revelation to know God as redeemer of the elect. Both sources are useful and authoritative, and are not opposed, but work in harmony together to reveal the truth of God.

Calvin, despite not directly addressing the subject of natural theology, no doubt shows a consistent view of natural theology that mirrors Aquinas, and serves as a further foundation for the later Reformed orthodox and scholastic theologians. To deny natural theology is to deny a central tenant of the Christian faith and to join in with the Socinians “who deny the existence of any such natural theology…”[23]

The catholic Calvin

The Socinians deny the existence of any such natural theology. Click To TweetThough much more could be said, what I have provided a short account of Calvin’s appropriation and appreciation of Aristotle (and other Greek philosophers), and his usage of natural theology found in his commentaries and the Institutes. Calvin was a catholic theologian, who sought to utilize the best thinkers in history, joining them in searching for glorious truths in order to point people to the Triune God. As James Renihan has rightly stated,

The Reformers and their successors…were not biblicists who required an explicit text for every doctrine; they were churchmen who viewed themselves as part of that long line of believers stretching back through the millennia.[24]

Therefore, let us follow in the path of Calvin in carrying on the catholic faith for the next generation.


[1] T. F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, rep. 1996), xvii.

[2]  See especially Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.17.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians 1:5.

[5] See for example Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014). On the use of Aristotle in the Reformed Scholastics, see Willem J. Van Asselt et al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 26-44.

[6] Aristotle is cited (both positively and critically) seven times in the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly. See The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653, 5 vols., ed. Chad Van Dixhoorn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). John Fesko observes that the divines who were educated at Cambridge received instruction that had “intense use of Aristotle alongside Protestant authors such as Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon and Remonstrant Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 60-61.

[7] Calvin, Commentary on Titus 1:12.

[8] For more on Calvin’s view of virtue ethics, see David S. Sytsma, “John Calvin and Virtue Ethics” in Journal of Religious Ethics 48, no. 3 (2020): 519–56.

[9] Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards, 259.

[10] Joel R. Beeke, Debated Issues in Sovereign Predestination: Early Lutheran Predestination, Calvinian Reprobation, and Variations in Genevan Lapsarianism (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2017), 101.

[11] Cornelius Van Til to Francis Schaeffer, 11 March 1969, in Ordained Servant 6, no. 4 (1997): 77.

[12] For a helpful primer on the history of natural theology, see David Haines, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense (The Davenant Press, Oxfordshire, U.K., 2021).

[13] Calvin, Commentary on Acts 17:24.

[14] The sensus divinitatis is best defined as “a basic, intuitive perception of the divine existence; it is generated in all persons through their encounter with the providential ordering of the world. The sensus divinitatis is therefore the basis both of pagan religion and of natural theology. Because of the fall, the religion that arises out of this sense of the divine, or seed of religion (semen religionis, q.v.), is idolatrous and incapable of saving or of producing true obedience before God. Our sensus divinitatis, thus, is capable only of leaving us without excuse in our rejection of God’s truth.” Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 331. Calvin’s view of the sensus divinitatis was not a new invention of Calvin, but “it is well known that Calvin refers to the views of Cicero in articulating his view of the SD…” Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 231.

[15] J.V. Fesko and Guy M. Richard, “Natural Theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith into the 21st Century, Vol 3., ed. Ligon Duncan (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 232.

[16] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol.1, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing 1992), 6.

[17]  Calvin, Commentary on Acts 17:28.

[18] Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 19:2.

[19] Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 104:3.

[20] J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 63. Fesko’s treatment of Calvin’s views are particularly helpful as he shows Calvin’s commitment to both the sensus divinitatis as well as a utilization of traditional arguments that have overlap with men like Aquinas.

[21] Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.6. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 63.

[22] Calvin, Institutes, 1.6.1.

[23] Turretin, Institutes, 1:6.

[24] James Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: Baptist Symbolics, Vol. 2 (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2022), 60.

Derrick Brite

Derrick Brite is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids. In his free time, he enjoys sports, hiking, and traveling with his wife, Ashton.