Catholic Faith and Calvin's Faith


I’m continuing to wallow through Calvin’s Institutes. I’m on Book III, Chapter II at present. M. Calvin starts off with an attack on faith as understood by the scholastics. This presents several problems.

  1. Did Calvin adequately understand what the scholastics were talking about?

  2. Is the scholastic definition of faith identical to faith as accepted by the Catholic Church?

  3. Are there real and significant differences in faith as Calvin understood it and as Catholicism understands it?

  4. Does anyone know of a decent Catholic critique of this chapter?

  5. Did Calvin’s errors concerning the nature of the fall of man factor into his understanding of faith?

I am not convinced that his understanding of faith was adopted by later Calvinists. But then I do not yet understand his understanding of faith.


Can anyone help Truthstalker? Are Calvinists really Calvinists? What did Calvin have to say about faith? What did Catholic theologians have to say in response?


Most people who now claim to be “Calvinists” know little of Calvin’s actual teachings (few have ever even heard of Institutes of the Christian Religion). The label “Calvinist” mainly refers to the “Five Points of Calvinism”

T - Total Depravity
U - Undeserved Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

These five points are a summary of the decrees of the Synod of Dort, where Jacobus Arminius and his Remonstrants (former students of Calvin and his teachings), presented and began teaching their view of predestination now known as “Arminianism.” The elders of the Reformed Church issued these decrees as a clarification of the ideas of Predestination, as Arminius thought that Calvin’s teachings made man too much of a robot.

When one says “I am a Calvinist” he does not (usually) mean “I subscribe to all the beliefs of John Calvin of Geneva,” he means “I understand Predestination the way Calvin did”

hope that helps.


These are fantastic questions. I’m going to carve out some time this weekend to see if I can find anything that would help to answer them more definitively than I could.


Well, I am a little more educated now than when I wrote that.

First off, there was not one scholastic position on faith. And there were numerous interpretations of Augustine and Aquinas running around.

Secondly, I am not sure anyone “adequately” understands the scholastics. Whatever that means.

Thirdly, his “errors” may be subjective, as he can be difficult to read. It may be that his view of the fall of man actually falls within the envelope of what is acceptable Catholic belief - which can also be difficult to read.

Fourthly, the word “Calvinist”, which originated as a pejorative term and was hated by Calvin, but now is sort of a term of pride, like 'yankee" to some, has practically lost all meaning. Almost any Protestant can call himself a Calvinist and get away with it.
That flowerbed has many plants besides tulips.


Hi, Truthstalker. This one is the only one I feel I can jump into at this point: I’d say no. Calvin (and especially Luther, and the Reformers in general) seemed to know scholastic philosophy through the Catholic writers AFTER Aquinas, when scholasticism began to go a little wonky. One proof of this is that both Calvin and Luther attack Aquinas quite bitterly and savagely for what they think he wrote and taught; then, later in their lives, both of them moderated considerably and actually came around to some positions rather similar to those of Aquinas (not that they would ever admit it). I think in their studies they actually began to understand and appreciate some of the things Aquinas taught that those who came after him veered away from. (A really good example of someone who “veered” would be Hugo Grotius, but I can’t use him as an example because I think he lived after Calvin.)


Actually, in the case of Calvin it may be the other way round. The Catholic scholar Alexandre Ganoczy concluded that prior to 1536 (when Calvin’s serious career as a theologian began with his publication of the first edition of the Institutes–he was 27!) Calvin shows no sign of knowing any of the scholastics after the 12th century–his account of the “Sophists” seems to be taken only from Peter Lombard and Gratian (i.e., from commonly used compendia of theology and canon law on which later scholasticism built). Of course, Calvin may have read Aquinas or Scotus or any number of other writers in the remaining 28 years of his life. He was very busy, but it’s amazing how much reading busy people get done! (Sometimes a lot more than us lazy folk:( ) Or Ganoczy could be wrong. But as far as I know Ganoczy’s work has remained the most thorough and reliable study of the subject.

Many scholars have claimed that Calvin studied Duns Scotus, because he attended a college of the University of Paris that was dominated by Scotism. However, Ganoczy pointed out that these scholars have overlooked the huge difference between the arts and theology faculties. Calvin was in the arts faculty, and there’s no evidence that he took classes in the theology faculty. There was no reason for a young arts student (an undergard, essentially) to read Scotus just because the folks in the theology faculty were into Scotus.

Either way, you’re right that there’s no evidence Calvin (or Luther, for that matter) read Aquinas. Other Reformers–Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, Jerome Zanchi–definitely did.

As for the OP’s question: I think Calvin’s criticism of scholastic “faith” for referring to God rather than to Christ is unfair, since the scholastics (certainly Aquinas) thought that faith pertained to those things known through revelation, and this came only in Christ. But the Protestant view (particularly Luther’s) of faith was more explicitly and resolutely Christocentric, I think. Similarly, his criticism of implicit faith certainly doesn’t apply to Aquinas, since Aquinas thinks that some things have to be believed with explicit faith. However, the basic criticism of unformed faith (whether theologically correct or not) does seem to be directed against the position actually taught by the scholastics. Calvin is still a bit unfair (again, I have Aquinas in mind here, though he’s probably not the best comparison) in saying that unformed faith doesn’t include the “fear of God” or any kind of piety. Aquinas taught that the jump from opinion to the certainty of faith (besides being a gift of God, of course) was made by the will, and this involved a love for the thing believed (although not necessarily supernatural charity). A person who felt no glimmerings of piety would not have unformed faith, I think. That is why Aquinas (and I believe Catholic theology generally), unlike Protestantism, does not equate loveless, non-salvific human faith with the faith of demons (a fact that I believe blunts the common Catholic argument from James, since we all agree that the “faith” demons have is very different from the faith that is a gift of God).

It’s been a while since I have read Scotus, and I don’t think I’ve ever read him on this subject. Probably the best comparison would be to look at Peter Lombard, who seems to have given Calvin many of his ideas about what the “schoolmen” taught (though he recognized that Lombard was closer to what Calvin considered the orthodox view than some of the later scholastics).



Dear Contarini: Thanks very much; I will check into Ganoczy’s work. He is new to me. Best, cpayne


TS, why are you diving into Calvin? I have an aversion to it. I feel poisoned by what I have managed to read on him and cannot bring myself to read more. This disturbs me because I usually read just about everything – as you well know.

  1. I am, or have been, or whatever, Presbyterian. My explorations of Catholicism have, among other things, demonstrated to me that I am a lot more ignorant of my own faith than I thought. Having absorbed it "through the skin, " I am now looking at Calvin’s Institutes to see what they actually say - as opposed to what those around me, both Catholic and Presbyterian, say they say. His presuppositions and view of the world are something I need to closely examine, and either affirm or refute.

  2. Probably every anti-Catholic argument imaginable and then some that possibly could have any intellectual credibility, plus a few more, can be found in his pages. If there is a “for real” argument against Catholicism, he should have it. All who followed him believed what he wrote about the Catholic Church. Why bother asking a Catholic what he believes when Calvin authoritatively told you what they believe?

  3. I am checking his sources, which is exposing me to many theologians and writers I never heard of. His habit of taking quotes out of context may have been due to a habit of using collections of sentences rather than reading the original works, which was a typical practice at the end of the Middle Ages.

  4. Calvin is one of those authors used by nmany to bolster their own case, often without reading him, and sometimes with proof-texts that look like they may be out of the context of his entire theology.

Some on CAF assert things about him that are simply not true, probably because they have believed other posters instead of hunting down the truth of the matter. In rejecting scholasticism he rejected nominalism in favor of an early Augustinianism. Calvin viewed Augustine through a lens of sentences; the Catholic Church seems to have viewed A. through a scholastic one. Calvin viewed God as good and loving, not as some mysterious Will that is remote and arbitrary. Chapters in his Institutes that are goldern are those on providence and carrying your cross. His attacks on the Eucharist, however, based on misinformation, are embarrasing. He came from a humanist, not a scholastic, background, in contrast to the German reformation.

  1. As the most highly developed theologicial system apart from Catholicism, I can use it in contrast to understand Catholicism. Calvin, in attacking Catholic theological abuses, often took positions that are actually Catholic teaching. It is curious sometimes to read on the forums of some “Calvinist” who is attacking a position that the Catholic Church and Calvin agree on.
    When not attacking Catholics he does a good job, at times, of defending Catholicism. His view was not to start a new faith but restore what had been corrupted. He saw himself as a catholic.

  2. Should I convert to Catholicism, the last thing I want to do is to say “I’m glad I got away from mean old Calvin. Why, they believe X, that contemptible and damnable heresy. I never want to have anything to do with X again,” and then hear, “but we believe X also.” Oops. I want to know what I would be giving up and what I would be getting instead.


Thanks, TS! I really just wanted to know. :slight_smile:


This, I think, is the most insightful of all your points! As I think we’ve discussed before, for a contemporary Calvinist to actually read Calvin, and not a commentary or some exerpted collection, it might require a spoonful of sugar or some heavy sedation! In any case, it would be interesting to pick up the Institutes again with a Catechism by my side. . .but, I’m getting tired and my natives are all too often restless!

Keep it up, good brother.


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