Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Belloc on Calvin

Sometimes Hilaire Belloc writes about John Calvin. When he does, it is entertaining to watch, but only in the way in which Godfather III is entertaining to watch.

One particularly egregious example comes in his book The Great Heresies. He writes:

Though the iron Calvinist affirmations (the core of which was an admission of evil into the Divine nature by the permission of but One Will in the universe) have rusted away, yet his vision of a Moloch God remains; and the coincident Calvinist devotion to material success, the Calvinist antagonism to poverty and humility, survive in full strength. Usury would not be eating up the modern world but for Calvin nor, but for Calvin, would men debase themselves to accept inevitable doom; nor, but for Calvin, would Communism be with us as it is today, nor, but for Calvin, would Scientific Monism dominate as it (till recently) did the modern world, killing the doctrine of miracle and paralysing Free Will.

This paragraph is like the gift that keeps on giving, but for the moment I, in a spirit of Calvinist asceticism, shall limit myself to the “admission of evil into the Divine nature.”

I suppose that this should be easy enough to substantiate. We could, for instance, look for Calvin to distance himself from James in the first chapter of his letter, where James writes: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

What does Calvin have to say about this? Certainly, it should have made him uncomfortable, yes? More’s the pity, since he was already in such a foul mood to begin with. Still, let us see for ourselves:

Argumentum est a repugnantibus. Nam quum Deus omnis boni autor sit, absurdum est censeri malorum autorem. Proprium, inquam, et natural illi est benefacere, a quo bona omnia nobis proveniunt: ergo quidquam mali agere, in eius naturam non cadit. Sed quia interdum accidit ut qui praeclare alias se gerit tota via, simul labatur aliqua in parte: huic dubitationi occurrit, dum negat Deum instar hominum esse mutabilem. Quod si in omnibus et semper sui similis est, ex hac constantia sequitur, perpetuum in eo benefaciendi tenorem esse.

I shall translate the passage here, because it is mistranslated in the version available at CCEL.1

The argument is from opposites. For since God is the author of every good, it is absurd that he be reckoned the author of evils. To do good is proper, I say, and natural to him from whom all good things come to us: therefore, to do anything evil is not in accordance with his nature. But since it sometimes happens that one who conducts himself in his whole life illustriously in other respects at the same time slips in some part, [James] replies to this doubt when he denies that God is mutable like men. But if he is like unto himself in all things and always, it follows from this steadfastness that the continuance of doing good is in him perpetual.

Tut, tut; that wasn’t so very difficult, was it? One wonders where Belloc’s misunderstanding might have come from–surely not, I daresay, from prejudice or ignorance, or some infelicitous cocktail of the two!

  1. You can find the original in vol. 55 of the Opera Calvini, available here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.