All truth is God’s truth: Calvin on philosophy and theology

Calvin wrote a letter to his mentor, Martin Bucer, that seems to date from early 1549. Bucer had been displaced from Strasburg by the Interim - the Schmalkald League having been defeated by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1547 – at which point he travelled to England and became Regius professor at Cambridge. These circumstances provide the backdrop for Calvin’s musing about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, 5.212-13. As usual, bold comes from me:
As truth is most precious, so all men confess it to be so. And yet, since God alone is the source of all good . . . whatever truth you anywhere meet with, proceeds from him. . . . For it is sinful to treat God’s gifts with contempt; and to ascribe to man what is peculiarly God’s is a still greater impiety. Philosophy is, consequently, the noble gift of God, and those learned men who have striven hard after it in all ages have been incited thereto by God himself, that they might enlighten the world in the knowledge of the truth. But there is a wide difference between the writings of these men and those truths which God, of his own pleasure, delivered to guilty men for their sanctification. In the former, you may fall in with a small particle of truth, of which you can get only a taste, sufficient to make you feel how pleasant and sweet it is; but in the latter, you may obtain in rich abundance that which can refresh the soul to the full. In the one, a shadow and an image is places before the eyes which can only excite in you a love of the object, without admitting you to familiar intercourse with it; in the other, the solid substance stands before you, with which you may not only become intimately acquainted, but may also, in some measure, handle it. In that, the seed is in a manner choked; in this, you may possess the fruit in its very maturity. There, in short, only a few small sparks break forth, which so point out the path that they fail in the middle of the journey, - or rather, which fail in indicating the path at all, - and can only restrain the traveller from going farther astray; but here, the Spirit of God, like a most brilliant torch, or rather like the sun itself, shines in full splendour, not only to guide the course of your life, even to its final goal, but also to conduct you to a blessed immortality.
I think Calvin’s comments here raise a number of questions, chief among them is this: Granted that all truth is God’s truth, are there perhaps different kinds of truth? Might not theological truth and philosophical truth refer to (potentially) overlapping but fundamentally different alethic spheres? Furthermore, what exactly is the relationship between God as the source of all truth and those truths themselves? Is this a logically necessary relation, or is it contingently so?

Calvin never fails to provide good food for thought.



Would you please expand upon and clarify your final two questions?

"Furthermore, what exactly is the relationship between God as the source of all truth and those truths themselves? Is this a logically necessary relation, or is it contingently so?"
If all truth is God's truth, i.e., belongs to and comes from God, is it or is it not the case that in knowing any truth (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4) we know some facet of God?
I suppose that depends on how you define "proceeds from" in your first highlight above, doesn't it?
Yep, which is why I highlighted this as a good question raised by Calvin's comments. ;-P

Want to take a stab at it?
Or maybe the proceeding from is irreversible -- maybe it's a one-way street. But then again, "I am the Way, the Truth..."
But that's "big T" not "little t" truth. And the question seems to be about "little t" truths.

Okay. How about this. I think this is, basically, Augustinian-Neoplatonist: It's midnight. The moon is full. I "see" the sunlight reflected from the moon's surface but, of course, I don't "see" the sun. Is Calvin going to be comfortable with that analogy. Does this make the moon any less creaturely. "The heavens declare..." but is "declaring" something different from "reflecting"?
Now I'm remembering why I didn't go into philosophy.
I think Calvin may be alright with that, although he might quibble that you have to put on your glasses before you realize that the moon is reflecting the sun's light.

The more interesting question is whether we're alright with that...
"We" meaning people who read Barth? But I don't want to bring in Barth as some kind of trump card and conversation stopper on this one. Not too quickly, at least.

I wonder what would happen if we set philosophy alongside the technical arts that Calvin lists among the good gifts God has provided to preserve human life under the conditions of the fall (that's in Book I, correct?). That might help put this endeavor in its proper perspective, more as a phronetic discipline than a speculative one. But now maybe I'm veering too close to pragmatism. (Not that there's anything wrong with it.)

It seems to me that the critical question is whether reason qua reason, i.e., philosophical reason, is limited by creation's boundaries or not. Or, to put it another way, whether creation has clearly delineated boundaries or porous ones. Calvin seems to me to ultimately be of two minds about this, but that would get us into a technical discussion.

By "we" I mean you and I. :-)

Kudos for the Seinfeld-ism.
I think you and I agree that reason is bounded by creaturely finitude. Even Kant thought so too -- and he was a Lutheran (sort of). If you're right that Calvin was of two minds -- and I trust your judgment on this -- I don't find that too worrisome, as it's pretty clear to me where the center of gravity for him lies (and this is amply illustrated in the letter you quote). But then God, according to the Bible and pre-modern Christian thought, has this funny way of mucking around in creaturely realities -- possibly even human reason. Witness St. Paul: "Gosh, I'm not one of those smartypants types but simply a preacher of the cross. (And I can prove that to you by employing a battery of arguments framed by the subtleties of Hellenistic rhetoric.)"

(BTW - I survived divinity school by watching reruns of the Simpsons and Seinfeld every day. Because of my housemates' preferences, I also had to endure reruns of Home Improvement. But thankfully I've managed to block most of those out.)


Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

Brief Reflection on the Suicide of a Pastor

Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Does God "Exist"? Meh. (With Apologies to my Atheist Friends)

Jürgen Moltmann on lecturing at the beginning of his career