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Belloc on Calvin (2)

Taking seriously what writers like Belloc and Chesterton have to say about Protestantism is a little like pricking one’s ears up in earnest when Donald Trump begins to dilate upon immigrants and women. Still, many people do, so I return again to the quotation from Belloc’s The Great Heresies cited previously. If nothing else, it should prove instructive as to just how easily his unfinely-drawn caricatures of Calvin and Calvinism can be undone by approximately five minutes of research.

So, first, the offending paragraph again:

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.

Today we will focus on the bizarre claim that Calvinism allows “but One Will in the universe.” If this were the case, it would surely be strange to pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Father’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. If there were only “One Will” in the cosmos, that ought to be true already by definition. Thus Calvin, with his uncompromising devotion to logic-chopping and rationalist consistency, would have to demur from this petition. What does he say about it, then?

May thy will be done Although the will of God, viewed in itself, is one and simple, it is presented to us in Scripture under a twofold aspect. It is said, that the will of God is done, when he executes the secret counsels of his providence, however obstinately men may strive to oppose him. But here we are commanded to pray that, in another sense, his will may be done,that all creatures may obey him, without opposition, and without reluctance. This appears more clearly from the comparison, as in heaven For, as He has the angels constantly ready to execute his commands, (and hence they are said to do his commandments, hearkening to the voice of his word, Psalm 103:20,) so we desire that all men may have their will formed to such harmony with the righteousness of God, that they may freely bend in whatever direction he shall appoint. It is, no doubt, a holy desire, when we bow to the will of God, and acquiesce in his appointments. But this prayer implies something more. It is a prayer, that God may remove all the obstinacy of men, which rises in unceasing rebellion against him, and may render them gentle and submissive, that they may not wish or desire any thing but what pleases him, and meets his approbation.

But it may be objected: Ought we to ask from God what, he declares, will never exist to the end of the world? I reply: When we pray that the earth may become obedient to the will of God, it is not necessary that we should look particularly at every individual. It is enough for us to declare, by such a prayer as this, that we hate and regret whatever we perceive to be contrary to the will of God, and long for its utter destruction, not only that it may be the rule of all our affections, but that we may yield ourselves without reserve, and with all cheerfulness, to its fulfillment.

The highlighted words all affirm (mirabile dictu!) that men have wills; that these wills are men’s own wills; that they are free; and that they ought to be brought into conformity to the will of God. Men are agents and, as such, have responsibilities, to the discharging of which they need to frame their wishes and desires.

Again, we could look at Calvin’s position as presented in the Geneva Catechism:

Q271 M. What mean you by asking that the will of God may be done?

  1. That all creatures may be subdued into obedience to him, and so depend on his nod, that nothing may be done except at his pleasure.

 Q272 M. Do you think then that anything can be done against his will?

  1. We not only pray that what he has decreed with himself may come to pass, but also that all contumacy being tamed and subjugated, he would subject all wills to his own, and frame them in obedience to it.

 Q273 M. Do we not by thus praying surrender our own wills?

  1. Entirely: nor do we only pray that he would make void whatever desires of ours are at variance with his own will, but also that he would form in us new minds and new hearts, so that we may wish nothing of ourselves, but rather that his Spirit may preside over our wishes, and bring them into perfect unison with God.

 Q274 M. Why do you pray that this may be done on earth as it is in heaven?

  1. As the holy angels, who are his celestial creatureshave it as their only object to obey him in all things, to be always obedient to his word, and prepared voluntarily to do him service, we pray for such prompt obedience in men, that each may give himself up entirely to him in voluntary subjection.

For God to “subject all wills to his own” indicates that there are, well, other wills. Note that, even when Calvin says that we are “entirely” to “surrender our own wills,” such an admonition does not annihilate creaturely agency and volition. As he explains in the answer to the following question, our subjection to God is “voluntary,” just as the subjection of the angels is. It is a subjection born of a new creature, with a new mind and heart–but it is still the creature’s subjection.

What, then, could Belloc possibly mean? Perhaps he just means that Calvinists affirm that there is only one sovereign will in the universe? If that’s the case, then I suppose that we would have to plead guilty–but only because the alternative is Manichaeism.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

One reply on “Belloc on Calvin (2)”

When Belloc blamed all of these modern evils on the Protestant Reformation’s view of divine providence, I wonder if he ever realized that a significant sect within his own church, the Dominicans, had held precisely the same view since before Luther.

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