A Paper Presented to Dr. Michael Whitlock The College at Southwestern


In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for THE3203-B


by Wes Terry March 23 2009

JOHN CALVIN ON THE DOCTRINE OF MAN Systematic theology is a beneficial discipline for those who wish to summarize the major teachings of Scripture into succinct descriptive statements. Systematic theologies are often broken down into various types of doctrines. These doctrines address specific biblical themes and one of the themes that is clearly addressed in Scripture is the doctrine of man. Questions such as, “what is man?” or “how should man live?” or “what is man’s relationship to his surroundings and linear history?” have been explored and written on by many theologians throughout history. Anthony Hoekema summarizes some of the historical attempts at the doctrine of man in chapter four of his book “Created in God’s Image.” One of the theologians that he summarizes is the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Summary In order to represent Calvin’s teaching, Hoekema asks six questions of Calvin’s theology. The first question he answers is where the image of God is to be found in Calvin’s doctrine of man. For Calvin the image of God was to be found primarily in man’s soul. It was located in the immaterial inner man.1 Although Calvin maintained that the soul was the proper seat of God’s image, Calvin also submitted that sparks of the divine image were present in other aspects of man (such as his body) as well. In essence, man in his totality is created in the image of God. If one were to cease bearing the image Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 42-48. 1

2 of God that person would cease to be fully human. The next question Hoekema asks Calvin is what did the original image of God consist of? Calvin basically communicates that man, prior to the fall, excelled in everything good. He exercised his relationships with God and other human beings properly. Prior to the fall, man possessed the image of God in a perfected state. However, after the fall, that state of perfection was jeopardized. Hoekema explains the extent of that damage with his next two questions to Calvin. These questions address whether or not man kept the image of God after the fall and, if so, to what degree sin has damaged that image? Calvin is shown to be somewhat inconsistent at times over whether or not he believes the image of God was kept after the fall. However, Hoekema submits that Calvin does believe that fallen man still bears the image of God. This emphasis is especially seen in Calvin’s remarks over how one should treat other human beings. Calvin behooves his readers to treat other human beings with kindness and love because all men, even the most contemptible, bear God’s image.2 So, if the image is maintained after the fall, to what degree has sin marred it? Calvin responds that the image has been frightfully deformed and no part of it is free from the infection of sin.3 Because Calvin saw no distinction between the terms likeness and image that are presented in Genesis 1:26, he proposed that all of man’s faculties were vitiated. “The fact that men live and breathe and are endowed with sense, understanding

John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, ed. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 165. John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 1:26 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948); quoted in Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 45.


3 and will tends to their destruction.” In sum, Calvin may have believed that the image

was maintained after the fall, however the state of that condition was irreparable without God regenerating the human heart. Moving on to life after regeneration, Hoekema asks Calvin how the image of God in man is renewed and when that renewal process will be complete. Calvin believed that the image of God was progressively renewed in man after salvation. This renewal was both a work of the Holy Spirit and man’s responsibility. It is precisely because man has the imago dei that he can respond to God’s grace in the sanctification process. Additionally, because this process included man’s responsibility, it was viewed by Calvin as dynamic and not static. Speaking to the complete restoration of the image of God in man, Calvin taught that such perfection would not be available until the last day. Critical Evaluation In response to Calvin’s doctrine of man a few things can be said. Calvin can be appreciated for his Scriptural integrity. Not only does he let the Scripture inform his theology but he allows Scripture to move his doctrine past paper and into action when it comes to Christian ethics and interpersonal relationships with other human beings. However, in criticism to Calvin, his lack of substance when it comes to the image of God in relation to nature is unfortunate. Man’s relationship to nature, while not as important as his relationship to God and other human beings, is still an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Because Calvin does not include this aspect of the image before the fall, it is also absent in the progressive renewal process and in what the image John Calvin, Commentary on John 11:25 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979); quoted in Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 46.

4 looks like upon complete restoration. While the relationship to nature may not have been a focus point for Calvin due to his historical context, it is still a biblical theme and his insights would have benefited his modern day readers as they answer some of the challenges regarding Christian faith and the environment. It might also be pointed out that although Calvin supported the idea that the image of God was kept after the fall, his inconsistent rhetoric could be troublesome for many who read him today. It is very common for readers to represent only part of an author’s intent in order to borrow his authority. Subsequently, the author’s authority may be used to validate a claim that the author never would have supported if he were alive today. Calvin’s authority is often used today and his inconsistency on the image of God after the fall may lead one to represent Calvin incorrectly. It is possible to say that man is in utter need of repair because of his depraved nature without making the whole of humanity less than human. Calvin, according to Hoekema, would agree with such a statement, but the reformer’s descriptive language could be nuanced to tell a different story. Lastly, and in appreciation, Calvin did not just leave his doctrine of man to be read and appreciated. He presented doctrine that required action. The doctrine of man is more than just a matter of talk because the doctrine is judging the very nature of he who reads it. The image of God in man requires one to love humanity despite his fallen condition. The marred image moves one to share the gospel with zeal and urgency due to the gravity of man’s condition. The restoration of the image gives one the hope that, though man may be imperfect, he is being perfected by the grace of God. Calvin’s doctrine of man does not lend itself to theological discussion absent of orthopraxy.

5 Man is responsible to God’s grace and such responsibility requires action. He is responsible for how he will respond to the sanctification process; he is responsible for how he treats his fellow neighbor (despite the spiritual condition); he is responsible to share the news that the only solution to man’s sin problem is in the person and work of Jesus Christ; and he is responsible to remain steadfast as he looks forward in hope to the complete restoration at the last day. Conclusion Whether one agrees with Calvin or not, all are indebted to his scholarship and faithfulness to Scripture. He may not have esteemed man has highly as some would have liked him to; however his view of humanity cannot be considered unorthodox. He may have failed to practice what he preached throughout various seasons of his life; however his doctrine of man never advocated perfection on earth. In summary, Calvin’s doctrine of man is neither the best nor is it the worst. All theologies fall short of what may be the true nature of reality. One can only know that which has been revealed. One may only trust as true that which God himself has spoken by his Word. Given these premises, Calvin has given all of Christendom a decent model of how to go about searching the Scriptures in the pursuit of the question, “What then, is man?”


BIBLIOGRAPHY Calvin, John. The Institutes of Christian Religion. Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God's Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

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