Archive E.J. Hutchinson Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

“The Spirit of God upon the Face of the Waters”: Calvin and the Catholicity of Truth

In a puzzling string of assertions comprising part of a recent online article, the claim was made that the principle that “all truth is God’s truth” is “distinctively Dutch Reformed.” (Curiously, as a superior alternative there was offered the perspective of a theologian who was…Dutch…and Reformed.) 

The claim that the aforementioned principle is as Netherlandish as Hollandaise sauce is quite remarkable in its lack of truthiness. For the idea goes back to antiquity (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine) and is a staple of Christian thinking throughout the history of the church. 

It is particularly foregrounded by, among others, John Calvin. Thus in his commentary on Titus 1.12, he enunciates the principle and claims that those who refuse to borrow from “heathen authors” are superstitious, imparting a sacred aura of the forbidden to something that has actually come from God. In discussing Paul’s use of Epimenides of Crete, Calvin writes:

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?

He then directs his reader’s attention to Basil’s Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.

Calvin makes the same point in Institutes 2.2, where he ties the knowledge of pagans directly to the work of the Spirit of God. In 2.2.15, Calvin reminds us that the source of every good gift and “the only fountain of truth” is God’s Spirit, so that to reject these gifts–to reject “profane authors”–is an “insult” to God and a clear mark of ingratitude.

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.

One objection that might quickly be raised is: how could the unregenerate have the Spirit of God? The answer is straightforward. The Spirit works in more than one way; it is a mistake to think of him as operating only among Christians, even if he works redemptively only among Christians. Calvin anticipates the objection and disposes of it with ease:

[I]t is not strange that the knowledge of those things which are of the highest excellence in human life is said to be communicated to us by the Spirit. Nor is there any ground for asking what concourse the Spirit can have with the ungodly, who are altogether alienated from God? For what is said as to the Spirit dwelling in believers only, is to be understood of the Spirit of holiness by which we are consecrated to God as temples. Notwithstanding of this, He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (2.2.16)

Calvin hastens to point out that such knowledge is not the same as “true blessedness,” which comes only with the saving knowledge of God as Redeemer and Heavenly Father. But it is nevertheless a true good, and one that it would be churlish to reject from a misguided reflex of distaste in a spurious display of piety.

In sum, what Calvin expresses in these passages represents a convenient summary of the mainstream of Christian thought, including among the Reformed. It is not an idiosyncrasy of the Dutch (an accusation much more justly tossed in the general direction of Vantillianism), but rather a heritage of the catholic church. We would do well to attend to it.1 

  1. Both of these texts are conveniently collected in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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