No Credit Where None Is Due

Institutes 2.2.4 – 2.2.7

Whereas Calvin has been writing about secular philosophers and their beliefs about free will, he now turns to the church fathers and addresses what they believed and taught about the subject.

He begins Section 4 acknowledging that the “ecclesiastical writers” were in agreement with one another that man’s reason was “seriously injured by sin” and that the will was “greatly entangled by vicious desires.” But he also said that most of the ancient fathers stood too close to the secular thinkers in their thinking and gave too much credit to human strength when it came to man’s moral ability to exercise his will. This was, according to Calvin, because they were afraid of being ridiculed by those with whom they were disputing.

Among the church fathers mentioned by name are Chrysostom who said, “Let us bring what is our own, God will supply the rest” and Jerome who is quoted as having said, “It is ours to begin, God’s to finish; it is ours to offer what we can, his to supply what we cannot.”

Calvin also makes reference to the Greek Fathers who, with the exception of Augustine, “exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will.” This humanistic teaching continued to go “wildly astray” until it became commonly held “dogma” that man was only corrupted in the sensual part of his nature, his reasoning ability remained entire, and his will was scarcely impaired at all.

Though these church fathers often spoke about free will, Calvin claims that few of them had a “distinct idea” about what it truly is. It is therefore important “first to consider the meaning of the term, and afterwards ascertain, by a simple appeal to Scripture, what man’s natural power for good or evil is.” Let Scripture speak!

The consensus of thought about free will, among men such as Origin, Augustine, and Aquinas, was that it was, in the teaching of Origin, the power of reason to discern between good and evil; of will, to choose the one or the other. This thought was made all the more clearer with Augustine’s emphasis on grace because the will is not sufficient of itself. Free will, then, consisted of reason and will. But the question remained, “How far does the power of free will extend?” (2.2.4)

Despite this “definition”, if you will, Calvin points out that the church fathers still grappled with the activity of the will and freedom. (2.2.5)

Calvin begins Section 6 by stating that “free will does not enable any man to perform good works, unless he is assisted by grace; indeed, the special grace which the elect alone receive through regeneration.” But it still hasn’t been proven, he points out, if man is “entirely deprived of the power of well-doing, or whether he still possesses it in some, though in a very feeble and limited degree – a degree so feeble and limited, that it can do nothing of itself, but when assisted by grace, it is able to perform its part.”

He then presents and discusses Lombard’s teaching about “Operating” and “Co-operating” grace. I admit that this is first time I have read about Lombard. Lombard’s teaching is that a “twofold grace is necessary to fit for any good work.” One is “Operating” grace, the effectual willing of what is good; the second is “Co-operating” grace, that which succeeds “operating” grace and aids its. Calvin opposes this teaching on the grounds that “while it attributes the effectual desire of good to divine grace, it insinuates that man, by his own nature, desires good in some degree, though ineffectually.” Can a man who is dead in his trespasses and sins desire anything to any degree at all? (Ephesians 2:1)

So, the dispute about whether or not man has an “island of righteousness” from which he can exercise even the beginning of a virtuous will continues.

In the final section of this reading, Calvin says that,

… man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with such a proud title? An admirable freedom! that man is not forced to be a servant of sin, while he is however, “ethelodoulos,” (a voluntary slave;) his will being bound by the fetters of sin.”

Paul wrote, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one who you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Romans 6:16)

Calvin goes on,

How few are those who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil?”

When not rightly understanding that the fall has affected all of man’s ability to reason and make decisions in all areas of life, most importantly in our inclination or lack thereof toward God, all “have been led to indulge a fatal confidence” in themselves which naturally leads to ruin and destruction.


The differences of opinion and debate over the issue of original sin and free will were not settled in Calvin’s day. In fact, they continue even today. Man insists on his innate goodness and his moral ability to choose to move toward God with the view of offering his “goodness” to God for His approval and acceptance.

The Semi-Pelagianism that Calvin seems to have been referring to in Section 4 of this reading, when speaking of the early church and Greek fathers, is the dominate belief that pervades 21st Century evangelicalism. This is evidenced by contemporary decision-driven evangelism and the absence of teaching about the depravity of man and the monergistic, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in man’s salvation. To do so is to elevate man and rob God of His glory in the salvation of sinners.

Let’s be careful to not give credit where none is due, and to be faithful to give the glory to Whom all glory is due.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bible, Reformation, Reformed Theology

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