Authors Calvin E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Sacred Doctrine

Calvin’s Socratic Sanctification

Plato, in the Phaedo, had Socrates claim that philosophy was “practice for dying and death.” It was a sentiment that was to exercise great influence down through the centuries, all the way to Heidegger’s “Being-toward-death” and beyond. (That last part works better if you say it in the voice of Buzz Lightyear.) 

John Calvin agreed with Plato–sort of. But he thought Plato’s sentiment was in need of a spiritual modification. That is, the true (Christian) philosophy is practice in dying to the self, or the mortification of the flesh. For Calvin, the Christian life (may we gloss it as “philosophy,” the love of wisdom?) is a way of dying every day. He puts it this way in Institutes 3.3.20:

Plato sometimes says, that the life of the philosopher is to meditate on death. More truly may we say, that the life of a Christian man is constant study and exercise in mortifying the flesh, until it is certainly slain, and the Spirit of God obtains dominion in us. Wherefore, he seems to me to have made most progress who has learned to be most dissatisfied with himself. He does not, however, remain in the miry clay without going forward; but rather hastens and sighs after God, that, ingrafted both into the death and the life of Christ, he may constantly meditate on repentance.

As one can see here, moreover, mortification goes together with vivification, so that as one dies to self, he is made alive by the Spirit. As Calvin puts it, the Christian is grafted in not only to Christ’s death, but also to his life, the life by which God is supremely alive. An awareness of this fact–and, more significantly, this fact itself–leads to a “constant meditation on repentance” so that one may continue to grow in grace, a point that was of such great moment in the Reformational or Protestant way of thinking that it formed the first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite [‘Repent’], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

Calvin, then, does Plato one better, for the Christian “philosophy,” precisely because it is a practice for dying, is at the same time a practice for being truly alive.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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