Rob Sturdy: Calvin’s Christology and the Doctrine of Accommodation

19 12 2011

This essay principally deals wiht the Christological implications of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation, which is essentially the “shrinking” of God so that the human intellect can grasp him.  

Dowey writes “Calvin’s theology exalts the category of knowledge.”[1] Dowey’s assertion is easily defensible considering Calvin’s opening statement of his famous Institutes on the Christian Religion concerns the nature of true wisdom as resting upon the double knowledge of God and ourselves (Inst 1.1.1).  And though Calvin’s theology placed enormous emphasis on the category of knowledge, this category nevertheless faced profound difficulties.  Calvin was an inheritor of a medieval epistemology that having departed from the more present epistemology of the early medieval period[2] refused a natural, unmediated knowledge of God.[3]  It was crucial therefore, for the knowledge of God to be mediated to humans through the material creation as well as through the special revelation of God’s spoken word.  The later Reformed maxim finitum no capax infiniti (“the finite is not capable of the infinite) came to articulate this important principle of late medieval and Reformed epistemology.[4] Because the finite is not capable of the infinite, it was necessary for God to reduce himself in order that he might in some small way be grasped by his creation.  For Calvin, as for many of the church’s theologians before him this process of reduction was known as accommodation.[5]

Though accommodation was used before Calvin, many Calvin scholars note that for Calvin accommodation is less peripheral and more central to the theological development of the reformer.  For example, Battles writes “Calvin makes this principle (accommodation) a consistent basis for his handling not only of Scripture but of every avenue of relationship between God and man.”[6]  Similarly, Paul Helm regards accommodation as the “central idea” of Calvin’s religious epistemology.[7]  If accommodation is at the center of Calvin’s epistemological program, what then might be at the center of accommodation?  Battles writes that the incarnation of the eternal Word in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is for Calvin the “accommodating act par excellence of our divine father, teacher, physician, judge and king.”[8]  So too does Dowey write that the “final accommodation to human sinfulness” was in the person of Christ.[9]  Though Balserak comes to the conclusion cautiously, he nevertheless also writes “the incarnation still seems to be…the unquestioned highpoint of his (Calvin’s) sphere of accommodating activity.”[10]

Whether accommodation is the epistemological principle of Calvin’s theology or that Christology ought to find itself at the center of Calvin’s theology of accommodation is debatable and beyond the scope of this paper.  What is clearly evident within Calvin’s corpus is that both accommodation and Christology hold privileged positions within the theological agenda of the reformer.  The question is thus prompted, how do Calvin’s thoughts on accommodation and his Christology interact with one another?  The organizing argument of this paper is that the doctrine of accommodation as employed by Calvin has significant influence on his Christology.  Calvin’s employment of the doctrine of accommodation determines his precise and innovative articulation of the incarnation, the atonement, redemption and the offices and actions of the mediator.  It will further be shown that in the incarnation, Calvin has articulated an accommodation that threatens neither God’s essence nor man’s nature in the condescension of the Word.  A serious treatment of one of these theological categories and their relationship to accommodation could fill twenty pages (and more!) of research.  Therefore these will be treated after an introductory fashion only, hoping to relate the parts to the whole to give a bird’s eye view of the effect Calvin’s epistemological concerns in accommodation have on his Christology.

Calvin’s construction of a Christology must necessarily begin with a theology of the eternal Word as the eternal Word precedes the incarnation.  Calvin’s Trinitarian theology is essentially catholic in spirit.[11]  Though Calvin does have an essentially catholic approach to his Trinitarian thought, one must be aware that it was a cautious appropriation.  He writes “We have professed faith in god alone, not in Athanasius, whose Creed has not been approved by any properly constituted church.”[12]  Calvin’s reasons for this can be plainly inferred from certain passages in his corpus.  For example, Calvin writes:

“We ought to be sober in thinking, and modest in speaking, about such high mysteries.  And yet the ancient writers of the Church were excusable, when, finding that they could not in any other way maintain sound and pure doctrine in opposition to the perplexed and ambiguous phraseology of the heretics, they were compelled to invent some words, which after all had no other meaning than what is taught in Scripture.”[13]

Calvin’s strategy for theological discourse is here clearly outlined.  What has not beenclearly revealed in Scripture must be approached with extreme caution.  Nevertheless, when theologies are expressed that are superstitious, contentious, harsh, or detract from the simplicity of God’s word one must resort to the use of complex theological/ philosophical language to defend the faith.  In the use of such language however, one must make sure that the thoughts expressed and the words spoken are conformed to the rules of Scripture (InstI.13.3).  Calvin even goes so far as to say that even if one confessed an orthodox Trinitarianism, the confession is nevertheless insufficient if the one confessing cannot support the confession with Scripture.[14]  Even so, Calvin though quite comfortable engaging in such discourse nevertheless finds it unpalatable.[15]

Though Calvin’s stated preference is for Scripture to speak for itself, his interpretation of Scripture concerning the nature of the Godhead is not formed in a vacuum but as has been noted already is essentially a faithful articulation of the catholic doctrine. Of the Patristic resources Calvin draws on, one can be confident from the Institutes that he had a working knowledge of the Trinitarian thought of Tertullian, Hillary, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus.[16]  Furthermore, Oberman has argued that Calvin was influenced by the Trinitarian theology of the Scholastics.[17]  It would be profitable at this time to see how and where Calvin employs this tradition in his own writings.  Two uses of Patristic resources that are telling are Gregory of Nazianzus’s On Holy Baptism and Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms.  The excerpt from Gregory reads:  “I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightaway carried back to the one.”[18]  Calvin employs this quote for the same purpose as Gregory, namely to safeguard the distinctions of persons within the Trinity from becoming a distinctions of essence thus resulting in “tritheism”.[19]  The argument eventually leads Calvin to employ a quote from Augustine, not only stressing the unity of essence or substance which the three persons of the Trinity share but also to stress that each person of the Trinity shares the title of the deity.  He writes:

“Christ with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Father, Son.  Again, the Father with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Son, Father.  In so far as he is called Father with respect to the Son, he is not the Son; in so far as he is called the Son with respect to the Father, he is not the Father; in so far as he is called both Father with respect to himself, and Son with respect to himself he is the same God”[20]

In these two examples one becomes aware of the manner in which Calvin wants to articulate the Trinity, especially the rights and status of the Second Person of the Trinity.  Calvin wants to affirm that each member of the Trinity is to be called God.  Therefore, as Calvin has already pointed out, the eternal Word is God and shares properties that are common to the substance of the divinity.  Concerning one essential property of divinity expressed in terms of the incarnate Word Calvin writes:

“Here’s something marvelous:  the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven,  he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!” (Inst II.13.4)

The Christological implications of this statement will be explored later, for now it is enough to state that the Second Person of the Trinity clearly shares properties common to God’s essence in this case concerning his omniscience and omnipresence.  The implications thereof are that Calvin will not tolerate a subordinationalist view of the Second Person of the Trinity.  He writes:

“Even though we admit that in respect to order and degree the beginning of divinity is in the Father, yet we say that it is a detestable invention that essence is proper to the Father alone, as if he were the deifier of the Son.  For in this way either essence would be manifold or they call Christ ‘God’ in title and imagination only.” (InstI.13.24)

Though the three person’s share properties common to God’s essence, Calvin is also keen to express that the persons of the Trinity are clearly distinguished by certain incommunicable properties.  “Person,’ therefore, I call a ‘subsistence’ in God’s essence, which, while related to the others, is distinguished by an incommunicable quality” (Inst I.13.6).  Calvin formally distinguishes the persons of the Trinity through incommunicable properties such as the beginning of activity for the Father, wisdom, counsel and the proper ordering of all things for the Son, and power to the Spirit (Inst 1.13.18).

So far this essay has been limited to God as he is within his intra-Trinitarian life. This intra-Trinitarian life is both hidden and incomprehensible.  Therefore the hidden life must be revealed and accommodated in order for it to be known.  The process of how the hidden life of the Trinity is accommodated and made known to man is also an important piece in how Calvin assigns incommunicable distinguishing properties to the Second Person of the Trinity. For Calvin, all knowledge of God is necessarily an accommodated knowledge. This conclusion has staggering implications not only for Calvin’s epistemology but his Christology as well. Calvin’s use of accommodation is heavily dependent upon the distinction of God’s self knowledge contrasted with the human knowledge of God accommodated to the human captus.  Helm therefore concludes “Calvin draws a fundamental distinction between God as he is in himself and God as he has revealed himself.”[21]  This distinction is articulated in theological parlance as theologia in se as God’s self knowledge or his theology of himself.  Theologia nostra is a knowledge dependent upon both our capacity to receive (captus) as well as God’s willingness to reveal.[22]  The process by which this knowledge is gained is essentially a process of accommodation.

To speak first of Calvin’s understanding of the theologia in se, one must conclude that to speculate on this matter is not only pointless because it is inaccessible, but it is also dangerous.  He writes “his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divinity far escapes all human perception” (Inst I.V.1).  Because God’s divinity is incomprehensible, God’s divinity or his essence is revealed only in the most general of ways through inference by contemplating God in his works.  For example “He (the psalmist) does not speak of the hidden and mysterious essence of God which fills heaven and earth, but of the manifestations of his power, wisdom, goodness, and righteousness, which are clearly exhibited, although they are two vast for our limited understandings to comprehend.”[23]  As has been shown in these two brief quotes, God’s essence is not only hidden from us but even if revealed would be incomprehensible.

How then is it possible to speak of God’s essential nature?  Calvin infers generalizations about God’s essence through the manifestations of this essence in his works.[24]  For example, commenting on Rom 3.4 Calvin articulates how two aspects of his essence, that is his truth and justice are communicated to human knowledge.  He writes “God is just…God is true, not only because he is prepared to stand faithfully to his promises, but because he also really fulfils whatever he declares; for he so speaks, that his command becomes reality.”[25]  God’s truth and justice as part of his essence can be generally inferred therefore through his actions.  In these actions Calvin urges his readers to consider “of what sort he is and what is consistent with his nature” in order to prompt fear and reverence as well as piety (Inst I.2.2).[26]  Nature for Calvin in this section of the Institutes is essentially “what is to our advantage to know him” (Inst I.2.1) and what “is his will towards us” (Inst III.2.6).

For Calvin, God’s “will toward us” is discovered through his actions.  He writes: “We know God, who is himself invisible, only through his works…This is the reason why the Lord, that he may invite us to the knowledge of himself, places the fabric of heaven and earth before our eyes, rendering himself, in a certain manner, manifest in them.”[27]  He goes on to say:

“We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we touch kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits; but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness and wisdom as absorbs all our senses.”[28]

Writing on the foundational importance of accommodation in creation Calvin says “if Adam, hitherto innocent, and of an upright nature, had need of monitory signs to lead him to the knowledge of divine grace, how much more necessary are signs now, in this great imbecility of our nature, since we have fallen from the true light?”[29]  Calvin musters all parts of man to work cooperatively with all parts of creation to accomplish his accommodating purposes.  He writes that “God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these works to acknowledge him for they clearly set forth their maker.”[30]  Central then to the theological commitments of Calvin in his articulation of divine accommodation is that God’s actions in creation offer an accommodated knowledge by which one can infer certain things about God and know him.

One discovers God’s “will toward us” through his actions.  But how does God act? The answer to this question is also crucial to Calvin’s method of assigning the incommunicable distinguishing marks of Second Person of the Trinity.  Aside from properties, it is clear in the Institutes as well as in other sources that Calvin distinguishes the persons of the Trinity not only in incommunicable properties but also incommunicable offices.  Responding to the Christological crisis of the Polish brethren prompted by Stancaro in 1560, Calvin articulates the office of mediator as an office distinct to the Second Person of the Trinity.  Stancaro wrongly asserted that the office of mediator was subordinate to the Father because the mediator must stand between the Father and that which needs mediation.[31]  Therefore the office of Mediator was an office common only to Christ’s humanity, not an office common to his divinity.[32]  Once again, the Christological implications of this will be taken up later, for now the implications for Calvin’s understanding of the Second Person of the Trinity will be kept in view.  Calvin opens his argument against Stancaro by proclaiming the mediation of the Second Person of the Trinity before the incarnation.  He writes “From the beginning of creation he already truly was Mediator, for he always was head of the Church, had primacy over the angels, and was firstborn of every creature.”[33]  Two examples from the commentaries may be sufficient to prove this point.  The first example comes from Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel.  Concerning the first chapter and the heavenly vision Calvin writes:

“But with reference to this passage, it ought to suffice us, that the Prophet saw God only in the person of Christ, because what is said of the likeness of a man cannot be transferred to either the Father or the Spirit:  for neither the Father nor the Spirit was ever manifested in the flesh, but God manifested to us in the flesh when Christ appeared, in whom resides the fullness of the deity.”[34]

Before the incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity is acting in the office of the mediator, accommodating the incomprehensible Father and Spirit before the eyes of the Prophet.  It is also important to notice that this form of mediation, namely the taking on the “likeness of man” is an office that cannot be transferred to either the Father or the Spirit.  Mediation is therefore an incommunicable property that Calvin uses to distinguish the persons of the Trinity.  Since the persons of the Trinity are eternally distinguished by incommunicable properties, it therefore stands that mediation is an incommunicable property of the Second Person of the Trinity.  The second example comes from Calvin’s commentary on John’s Gospel at 1.3.  He writes:

“Having affirmed that the Speech is God, and having asserted his eternal essence, he now proves his Divinity from his works…Sometimes indeed, Paul simply declares that all things are by God, (Rom xi.36;) but whenever the Son is compared with the Father, he is usually distinguished by this mark…Now the design of the Evangelist is, as I have already said, to show that no sooner was the world created than the Speech of God came forth into external operation; for having formerly been incomprehensible in his essence, he then became publicly known by the effect of his power.”[35]

Two things may be known from these examples.  The Son, who shares divinity with the Father and the Spirit is nevertheless distinguished by an incommunicable quality or office of mediation.  Secondly the mediatorial work of the Son is the action of God wherein the knowledge of God is accommodated to the human captus thus making it known.  To summarize, God’s essence can be generally known through inference of God’s actions.  The action of God thus an accommodated knowledge of his essence.   God acts in an accommodated way that benefits us through the mediatorial work of the Second Person of the Trinity. This work produces an accommodated knowledge of God fit for the human captus.

As has been noted, the Second Person of the Trinity’s mediatorial work was extensive. In order to assess the implications of accommodation for Christology the focus must be shifted to the nature of the eternal Word’s incarnation in flesh.  The incarnation must be understood first and foremost as an act of accommodation on two fronts.  The first front concerns the freedom of God. By the time of Calvin the freedom of God and his free exercise of power was typically expressed in the distinctions between God’s potentia absoluta and hispotentia ordinata.  The potentia ordinata and the potentia absoluta had a long history of development beginning in the eleventh century and was intended to settle questions of divine inability.[36]  By the time of the reformation the distinction had come to describe everything God could do in his freedom (potentia absoluta) contrasted with everything God has done in creation (potentia ordinate).  There are various levels of nuance in these doctrines by the time of the high medieval period.  For example, Aquinas took a narrow view of the potentia absoluta which described everything God could do according to the attributes of his character contrasted with the potentia ordinate expressing everything God has done according to his character.  A wider view of the two powers comes from Duns Scotus, who articulated the potentia absoluta as everything God could do in his freedom coupling this with everything God might still do in creation.[37]  Calvin is no doubt a complex thinker, and to pin him down to the traditional Aquinian or revised Scotistic understanding of the distinction of the potentias is perhaps naïve.  Balserak therefore argues that both are present in the thought of Calvin, affecting his views on creation, the ordo saludis, the law, God’s providential care and the incarnation and atonement.[38]

Calvin is clear that within God’s potentia absoluta God is not bound to redeem man. To redeem man or to leave him lost in sin are two options open to God.  Neither option is imposed upon him by necessity.  He is free to pursue either.  Calvin writes “If someone asks why this is necessary, there has been no simple…or absolute necessity.  Rather it has stemmed from a heavenly decree, on which men’s salvation depended.  Our most merciful Father decreed what was best for us” (Inst II.12.1).  Therefore the redemption of men, according to Calvin, is a free decision made by God that rests upon his heavenly decree. Much like Calvin’s medieval forerunners, the potentia absoluta is exercised in the material world through a heavenly decree or covenant whereby it becomes to us God’s potentia ordinata.

“Now we can clearly see what has already been said that all men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine as obtains among us…in the same inheritance and hoped for a common salvation with us by the grace of the same mediator” (Inst II.10.1).

God’s free decision, expressed in an intra-Trinitarian decree is expressed in the language of a “covenant.”[39]  The language of covenant is the language of accommodation.  In the language of covenant God accommodates both his freedom and his self knowledge to have dealings with men.[40]

Not only is this a free decision made by God, but how this redemption will be wrought is also freely decided by God.  He writes “God might have redeemed us by a single word, or by a mere act of his will, if he had not thought it better to do otherwise for our own benefit, that, by not sparing his own well-beloved Son, he might testify in his person how much he cares for our salvation.”[41]  Therefore, God in his freedom has decreed that redemption both (1) will be rendered and (2) that it will be rendered through the incarnation of the Word in the person of Christ and his death on the cross.

Having established that the Second Person of the Trinity bears an incommunicable office of mediation, that the mediation of Word in flesh was brought about not by necessity but free covenantal accommodation, it now remains to establish in what manner Calvin understood the Word to have taken on flesh.  Or to pose the question in a different why, in what way has God so accommodated his incomprehensible essence that God might be known to human beings?  A useful entry point into this discussion is taken from a commentary on Ezekiel.  Though the text itself bears no direct relationship to the incarnation (except taken as prophesy) Calvin nevertheless establishes an interesting principle.  He writes:

“Familiar knowledge then, is the meaning of seeing face to face.  At the same time, as I have said, God never gave the Fathers a sight of himself except according to their capacity.  He always had respect to their faculties and this is the meaning of the phrase, this was a vision of the spelndour of Jehovah’s glory.[42]

How can God and man see “face to face”?  For Calvin the answer is both extremely limited as well as extremely extensive in scope.  The reformed maxim finitum non capax finitum is equivalent to a mathematizing of ontological differences.[43]  As Calvin notes, “God never gave the Fathers a sight of himself except according to their capacity.”  For Calvin, God is incomprehensible largely because the human captus is not a fit receptacle for beatific knowledge of Deity.  “You cannot get a quart of water into a pint pot.  If you attempt to do so, and succeed in filling the pint pot, then necessarily some of the water will fail to get into the pot.   If you look at a building, then necessarily the building will be seen from one particular vantage point.”[44]  The burden on this understanding of the “face to face” encounter is a burden taken from the perspective of man.  His inability and weaknesses prevents him from the encounter taking place on a grander scale.  However, as Oberman observes thoughfinitum non capax finitum, nevertheless infinitum capax finiti.[45] Oberman’s emphasis focuses on God’s ability rather than man’s therefore the extent of the encounter is greatly amplified.  Here the stress is on God’s condescension or accommodation.  Commenting on the hopelessness of the situation of man in his natural ability Calvin writes

“The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him.  Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is God with us” (Isa 7.14; Matt 1.23) and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together.” (Inst II.12.1)

That God accommodated himself in the incarnation of the Son means that a more extensive knowledge of God is given to man than before, but this knowledge is given without changing either the nature of man or the nature of God.  For Calvin much is at stake in the proper articulation of God’s accommodation both the condescension of the Word as well as the unity of Christ.  Consider this quote from Bernard of Clairvaux: “But perhaps you fear also in him (Christ) the divine majesty, because though he became man, he remained, nevertheless God.”[46]  He resolves his dilemma by searching for a purus homo who has been resurrected from the dead.  By purus homo Bernard means a human whose nature is purely human.  He settles upon Mary, who having been assumed and being composed of one nature fulfills both criteria.  Therefore she is purus homo.  Because she has been assumed into heaven, we therefore have confidence that purus homo like ourselves might also attain to heavenly glory.[47]  Thus Bernard writes “If you want someone who pleads for you with him, then turn to Mary.  After all, in Mary is pure humanity, not just ‘pure’ as ‘free from all stains’ but also ‘pure’ in the sense of a person with only one nature.”[48]  Bernard’s concern is founded upon a Christological error that emphasizes the divinity of Christ above the humanity to the exclusion of the unity.  This concern is addressed by Calvin in the so calledextra Calvinisticum.

The extra Calvinisticum is a way of maintaining the essential unity of the person of Christ while at the same time distinguishing the purity of his divinity and humanity giving certain parameters to God’s accommodation in Christ.  Calvin’s articulation of his Christology is essentially Chalcedonian thus once again displaying Calvin’s catholic allegiance.[49]  Concerning Chalcedon and the development of Christology in the Patristic period Pelikan writes “the early Christian picture of god was controlled by the self-evident axiom, accepted by all, of the absoluteness and the impassability of the divine nature. Nowhere in all of Christian doctrine was that axiom more influential than in Christology.”[50]  An example of this comes from Cyril of Alexandria, one of the chief protagonists of Chalcedon.  He writes ““It would not do to speak of his ‘being transformed into the nature of flesh’  in such a way that his divine immutability was impaired” and elsewhere  “He was logos also in the beginning, and proceeding from the eternal and immutable God and Father, he also had in his own nature eternity and immutability.”[51] Cyril takes caution here to maintain the distinctiveness of the Word even as it is incarnated. The distinction of the divinity necessarily implies a distinction of the humanity.  More clearly stated is Augustine who writes:

“This word took on human nature, and thereby became the one Jesus Christ, Mediator between God and men, equal to the Father in His divnity, less than the Father according to the flesh…He did this in such manner that the whole of man was thus joined to Him, as the soul is to the body, but without changeableness.”[52]

This is a staggering thought and absolutely crucial to the development of Calvin’s Christology.  Commenting on 1 Tim 3.16 Calvin writes:

“First we have here an express testimony of both natures; for he declares at the same time that Christ is true God and true man.  Secondly, he points out the distinction between the two natures, when, on the one hand, he calls him God, and, on the other, expresses his ‘manifestation in the flesh.’  Thirdly, he asserts the unity of the person when he declares, that it is one and the same who was God, and who has been manifested in the flesh.”[53]

Calvin accentuated the distinction of the two natures in the one person to the extent that he could make such bold statements as “the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way,without leaving heaven, he willed…to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning! (Inst II.13.4 Emphasis mine).  So too, explaining his understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist he writes: “Therefore, since the whole Christ is everywhere, our Mediator is ever present with his own people…but not in his wholeness.  For as has been said, in his flesh he is contained in heaven until he appears in judgment (Inst IV.17.30 Emphasis mine).  Calvin’s commitment to God’s accommodation in the incarnation is a commitment to honor both the divine and human natures, not confusing or comingling them.

In fact maintaining the distinction between the two natures becomes for Calvin a critical piece of how theologia in se is accommodated for theologia nostra.  This distinction and thus the accommodating purpose of God is placed in danger according to Calvin, in misunderstanding the communicatio idiomatum.  This particular danger was introduced through Luther’s Eucharistic theology, which argued that the communication of properties was so extensive that the omnipresence of the deity was communicated to the humanity of the Christ.[54]  Just as overemphasizing one of the natures of Christ to the extent of the other defeated God’s accommodating purposes, so too, argued Calvin does a misunderstanding of the communicatio negate God’s accommodating.  He writes “But if to fill all things in an invisible manner is numbered among the gifts of the glorified body, it is plain that the substance of the body is wiped out, and that no difference between deity and human nature is left” (Inst 4.17.29).  How does this misunderstanding then negate God’s accommodating purposes in Christ?  For Calvin, God’s self knowledge contained within the mind of the deity is united with a human captus who can contain knowledge of God to the full extent with which a human could possible contain.  The benefit here is that “Christ has knowledge or wisdom, then according to two modes, the divine and the human, the former being essential and incommunicable, the latter being habitual and communicable.”[55]   It is the communicable nature of the perfect human knowledge of God, with all its limitations that makes the accommodating project successful. Christ can therefore communicate the perfect theologia nostra as he carries the perfect knowledge of God in accordance with his natural human captus.

The severity with which Calvin distinguishes between the two natures has been criticized by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran[56] and more recently from certain theologians within the Anglican churches.[57]  The main thrust behind these accusations is that Calvin exhibits a blatant Nestorianism.  If one takes Luther’s understanding of the Nestorian heresy, Calvin is most certainly guilty.[58]  But Luther’s understanding of the communicatio is no doubt a novel interpretation of the Chalcedonian definition.[59]  So how then does Calvin speak of the unity of the person of Christ in such a way as to exempt himself from the Nestorian heresy?  Calvin distinguishes between some idiomata that are exclusively human (being tired, hungry, shedding blood, dying etc), some that are exclusively divine (omniscience, omnipotence, immortal, etc) and some that are common to the work of the mediator.  Commenting on the work of the Mediator common to the two natures Calvin writes:

“For one reads there neither of deity nor of humanity alone, but of both at once …For the Son of God had been endowed with such prerogatives when he was manifested in the flesh.  Even though along with the Father he held them before the creation of the world, it had not been in the same manner or respect, and they could not have been given to a man who was nothing but a man” (Inst II.14.3).

But the powers were given to a man just like us.  At the same time however, Jesus is of course in the unity of the mediator more than a man.  The unity of the two natures of mediator are the context within which the Son of God is given certain prerogatives and also the context within which a man is able to exercise such prerogatives.  Therefore this work is common to the Mediator.  How then would Calvin understand a work that is described as common to the Mediator but clearly violates one of the properties such as the statement from Acts 20.28 “God purchased the church with his blood?”  Calvin responds

“Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched with hands. But since Christ, who was true God and also true man, was crucified and shed his blood for us, the things that he carried out in his human nature are transferred improperly, although not without reason, to his divinity” (Inst II.14.3).

Helm describes this hermeneutical tool as essentially a rhetorical device.  He writes “these expressions, although strictly speaking are ‘improper’, that is false, are rhetorical expressions whose economical form is warranted by the unity of Christ’s person.”[60] Therefore it is false to say that God “shed his blood” because blood, pain or suffering are not properties common to God.  However as a rhetorical device the unity of the person of the Mediator permits this language even though the nature of the divinity does not permit the verse to be literally true.  As a helpful guideline to navigate these difficult hermeneutical principles Helm writes “Getting clear on this requires, consequently, distinguishing between language that accounts for the unity of Christ’s person and other language that is warranted by that unity but is not strictly speaking true.”  Thus even the way the Mediator is spoken of in Scripture is an accommodated language to simplify the complex nature of his union.

So the discussion ends where it began.  All knowledge of God is accommodated knowledge.  God’s incomprehensible essence is accommodated through the mediation of the eternal word.  This takes on new meaning at the incarnation.  But God’s accommodation in the incarnation does not affect God’s essence nor does it change man’s nature.  Rather, honoring both, Calvin’s complex Christology shows how God’s essence remains intact as he “condescends” to accommodate himself to the human captus.


Primary Sources Patristic:

Augustine On the Holy Trinity in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 3:  Augustin:  On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises First Series ed by Philip Schaff (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody 2004)

Augustine Letters in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 1: Prolegomena, Confessions, Letters First Series ed by Philip Schaff (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody 2004)

Cyril of Alexandria, Letter XVII, 12 in The Christian Theology Reader 2nd ed. A. McGrath edt. (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford 2001)

Cyril of Alexandria’s “Second Letter to Nestorius” in The Christological Controversy trans. and edt. by Richard A. Norris, Jr. (Fortress Press:  Philadelphia 1980)

Gregory of Nazianzus “Oration on Holy Baptism” Ora XL in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 7: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen Second Seriesed by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody 2004)

Primary Sources Reformation:

Calvin, John. Institutes on the Christian Religion. Ed. J.T. Mcneill (Westminster John Knox Press, 1980)

Calvin, John. Commentaries trans by William Pringle (Baker Books:  Grand Rapids 2005)

Luther, Martin. On the Councils of the Church in The Christian Theology Reader 2nd ed. A. McGrath edt. (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford 2001)

Secondary Sources:

Balserak, Jon. Divinity Compromised; A Study of Divine Accommodation in the

Thought of John Calvin (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2006).

Battles, Ford Lewis. ‘God was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity,’  in: Interpreting John Calvin, ed. Robert Benedetto (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997)

Bouwsma, William. ‘Calvin and the Renaissance Crisis of Knowing’ in: Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, vol VII, The Organizational Structure of Calvin’s Theology,ed. Richard Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992)

Bouwsma, William. John Calvin; A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York and

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

Dowey, Edward J., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (New York:

Columbia University Press, 1952)

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis Vol 1:  The Four Senses of Scripture trans by Mark Sebanc (William B. Eerdmans Publishing:  Grand Rapids 1998)

Edmondson, Stephen.  Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2004)

Fee, Gordon. Pauline Christology (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody 2007)

Haas, Guenther H.  The Concept of Equity in Calvin’s Ethics (Paternoster Press: Carlisle, Cumbria 1997)

Hardy, Edward R. edt. Christology of the Later Fathers (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London 2006)

Helm, Paul. ‘Divine Accommodation’ in John Calvin’s Ideas (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Gonzales, J.L. a history o fChristian Thought Vol. I:  From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Abingdon Press: Nashville 1970)

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines 5th Ed. (Continuum: London, New York: 2004)

Lillback, Peter A. The Binding of God:  Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology(Baker Academic: Grand Rapids 2001)

McGrath, Alister E. Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Blackwells: Oxford 1990)

Milbank, J “Alternative Protestantism” in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant, and Participatio. James K.A. Smith and James H. Olthuis, eds., (BakerAcademic, 2005)

Muller, Richard A.  The Unaccommodated Calvin:  Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford University Press:  Oxford, New York 2000)

Muller, Richard.  Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Vol I:  Prolegomena to Theology 2nded. (Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids 2006)

Muller, Richard.  Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Vol II:  Holy Scripture the Cognitive Foundation of Theology 2nd ed. (Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids 2006)

Oberman, Heiko. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation

Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986)

Pelikan, J. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978)

Pelikan, J. Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1984)

[1] Dowey, Edward J., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1952)  pg 3

[2] For a clear discussion of early medieval epistemology see Bouwsma, William. ‘Calvin and the Renaissance Crisis of Knowing’ in: Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, vol VII, The Organizational Structure of Calvin’s Theology, ed. Richard Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 191

[3]Muller, Richard.  Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Vol I:  Prolegomena to Theology 2nd ed. (Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids 2006) pg 227

[4] Ibid 250

[5] For a treatment of the theology of accommodation as employed in the church seeBalserak, Jon. Divinity Compromised; A Study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2006). pg 13-19

[6] Battles, Ford Lewis.  Interpreting John Calvin edt. By Robert Benedetto (Baker Books:  Grand Rapids 1996) pg 118

[7] Helm, Paul. John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford University Press:  Oxford 2006) pg 184

[8] Battles,  pg 135

[9] Dowey, pg 17

[10] Balserak pg 66

[11] Helm, pg 41

[12] Quoted in Helm, pg 42

[13] Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel of John 1.1 pg 28.  For a similar argument with almost the exact same wording see Inst1.13.3: “What wickedness, then, it is to disapprove of words that explain nothing else than what is attested and sealed in Scripture!”

[14] Commenting on Erasmus Calvin writes: “He acknowledges, indeed, everywhere that Christ is God; but what am I the better for his orthodox confession, if my faith is not supported by any Scripture authority?” Calvin’s Commentary on Philipians 2.7 pg 57

[15] “Indeed I wish they (“invented” theological terms) were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on:  that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.” (InstI.13.5)

[16] For Tertullian, Hillary, Jerome, and Augustine see Inst I.13.5 for Gregory of Nazianzus see Inst I.13.17

[17] Oberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids 1992) pg 252

[18] The reference in Calvin’s Institutes can be located in I.13.17, in Gregory On Holy Baptism, Oration XL.41

[19] “For in the Consubstantial Persons there is nothing greater or less in point of Substance.  I would honour the Son as Son before the Spirit, but Baptism consecrating me through the Spirit does not allow of this.  But are you afraid of being reproached with Tritheism?  Do you take possession of this good thing, the Unity of the Three, and leave me to fight the battle.” – Gregory Nazianzus, Orations on Holy Baptism, Oration XL.41 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 7 ed by Phiip Schaff and Henry Wace (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody 2004)

[20] The reference in Calvin’s Institutes can be found in 1.13.19, in Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 109.13

[21] Helm, pg 11

[22] Muller vol I pg 227

[23] Calvin, Commentary on Psalms LXXVII.14

[24] Helm pg 15

[25] Calvin, Commentary on Romans pg 116

[26] Piety was a product of proper knowledge of God.  Calvin defines piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” Inst I.II.1

[27] Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis vol. I (Baker Books, 2005)., 59

[28]Calvin., Commentary on Genesis 57

[29] Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis 117

[30] Calvin, John. Commentary on Romans 1.20

[31] Edmondson, Stephen Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge 2004) pg 17

[32] Edmondson 17

[33] Edmondson 29

[34] Commentary on Ezekiel 1.26 pg 99

[35] Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel According to John 1.3 pg 30

[36] Balserak pg 138

[37] See Helm pg 316-324

[38] Balserak pg 151-162

[39] “Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so…let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us…When creatures see that the living God humbles himself  to that extent, that he wills to enter into covenant that he might say… ‘behold I set aside my right.  I come here to present myself to you as your guide and savior.  I want to govern you.  You are like my little family.” Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments quoted in Lillback pg 138

[40] Lillback, Peter A. The Binding of God:  Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids 2001)  Pg 137

[41] Calvin Commentary on John Book II pg 116

[42] Commentary on Ezekiel 1.27 pg 106

[43] Oberman 253

[44] Helm pg 65

[45] Oberman 254

[46] Bernard of Clairvaux quoted in Oberman pg 250

[47] For an extended discussion on the development of the Assumption of Mary and the guarantee of her ascent to heaven read Pelikan, J. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978) pg 161-174

[48] Bernard of Clairvaux quoted in Oberman pg 250

[49]The principle defense of this can be found in Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics i/2, trans. G.T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1956), pg 170.  However the distilled argument can be found in Helm pg 63 or Oberman pg 252

[50] Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978)  pg 229

[51] Cyril of Alexandria quoted in Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1978)  pg 231

[52] Augustine, Letter 137, 27-28 in

[53] Calvin, Commentary on 1 Timothy 3.16 pg 92

[54] Pelikan, J.  Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1984) pg 160

[55] Muller pg 250

[56] ibid pg 252

[57] Milbank argues that Calvin’s Christology suggests a “quasipersonality” in the humanity of the man Jesus.  See Milbank, J “Alternative Protestantism” in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant, and Participatio. James K.A. Smith and James H. Olthuis, eds., (Baker Academic, 2005) pg 33

[58] On the Nestorian heresy Luther writes: “Fetching water, buying bread, having a mother, and eating and drinking with her, are idiomata of a human, not a divine, nature.’  So if I were to say: ‘Jesus the carpenter was crucified by the Jews.  And this same Jesus is really God,’ Nestorius would say to me that this is true.  But if I were to say:  ‘God was crucified by the Jews,’ he wouls say: ‘No!  For to suffer the cross and to die are not divine, but human idiomata or attributes.” Quoted in The Christian Theology Reader edt by A. McGath (Blackwell Publishing: Oxford 2001)

[59] In fact, Calvin seems to be keeping closer ties to one of the main protagonists of Chalcedon, Cyril of Alexandria who writes: “We assert that this is the way in which he suffered and rose from the dead.  It is not that the Logos of God suffered in his own nature, being overcome by stripes or nail-piercing or any of the other injuries; for the divine, since it is incorporeal, is impassible.” Cyril of Alexandria’s “Second Letter to Nestorius” in The Christological Controversy trans. and edt. by Richard A. Norris, Jr. (Fortress Press: Philadelphia 1980)

[60] Helm pg 78



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