Thoughts on Calvin

Speaking of Christianity–not to mention Dustin's post–I often listen to the BBC''s podcasts and happened the other day upon a wonderfully intelligent discussion on the British channel's "Beyond Belief" program of the rich thought and legacy of the 16th century Protestant theologian John Calvin

The occasion was the great theologian's recent 500th birthday. Here's the description from the "Beyond Belief" website:

To mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, Ernie Rea and guests discuss why this major Protestant reformer altered the shape and changed the thinking of Western Europe.

What is the legacy of Calvin and why do his ideas still influence churches in Britain and around the world today?

Calvin's grim and uncompromising perspective on sin, predestination and grace obviously rubs many contemporary sensibilities the wrong way, but that unpopularity doesn't make his insights any less profound or essential to serious theological undertakings. Still, as if often the case in intra-Christian debates, I find myself agreeing more with the Catholic discussant, who defended the idea of good works playing a real (if indirect) role in one's salvation against the Protestant principle of Sola Fide.

As much as I respect Calvin and appreciate the sophistication of his reasoning, I arrive at drastically opposing conclusions. I also respectfully disagree with many Christians' (especially contemporary evangelical Protestants') notions of grace, as I find them to implicitly devalue a moral dimension to existence that to my mind is absolutely fundamental to the relationship of a just and moral Supreme Being to his creation. 

I see nothing deficient in works-based theology, assuming works encompass more than just utilitarian human-to-human interactions. Thus, "righteousness by works" is anything but paradoxical in my view. To the contrary, I feel it is for many intents and purposes the only kind there is in a world of such suffering, and I find it to solve more philosophical problems than the alternative. Faith remains central, but I see it as impossible to separate it from resulting deed.

Of course, it must be noted that most orthodox Muslims subscribe to a kindred notion whereby even the most upright person in terms of behavior who never gets around to making the Shahadahincluding, according to many traditions, the Prophet Muhammad's own uncle, who courageously and at great personal cost protected Muhammad (peace be upon him) from his many enemies during the early years of his mission in Mecca, when the latter was most vulnerable–is lost for all eternity. (There has always been a minority that disagrees. Interestingly, Ibn Taymiyya–who is often invoked by Wahhabi Muslims–was one of the dissenters.) 

I don't accept that  position for a variety of reasons, the foremost among them being the fact that the Quran constantly and unambiguously associates faith in God to good works, often employing phrases that semanticly link them in the very same breath, such as "those who believe and do good"). A god that does not reward good deeds independently of faith–which can come and go, unless one defines it so metaphysically as to remove one's mind and heart entirely from the equation–is not a god I myself could have faith in.

Of course, there are no simple answers to these nagging questions, as each solution is accompanied by its own set of paradoxes. As is usually the case in age-old philosophical debates.

Many people would probably be quite surprised to know that there are striking parallels between Calvinist beliefs about predestination and core doctrines about sainthood in some major strains of Sufism. Studying this facinating pair of books by the unjustly neglected Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. ca. 910 CE) for my Masters thesis a few years ago, for example, I was constantly struck by all the deep similiarities on the matter of divine election.

Getting back to the BBC recording, it's well worth the time, as the discussants are all very articulate and thoughtful.

  • Dustin

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on John Calvin.
    When we speak of salvation by grace alone we are trying to communicate the idea that at the end of the day God gets all of the credit for our salvation. We can’t say we’ve accomplished anything. It removes all boasting. No one can stand next to another and say God saved me because I was better than you. Or God saved me because I was smarter than you. Or God saved me because I am part of a particular people or race.
    Calvin’s doctrine of grace (which I think is the biblical doctrine of grace) removes our boasting so that God alone is glorified on the last day.
    Also, this notion of grace doesn’t remove the moral dimension of God in any sense and it certainly doesn’t remove our moral responsibility before him. While Calvin taught that we are saved by faith alone (rightly in my view) he nevertheless insisted that the faith that saves is never void of good works. Such faith is dead faith. It is no faith at all.
    I checked out the book you recommended above. It looks like if I want to read it I will be getting it from the library!

  • Devin

    I very much enjoy your blog and posts like this. It was very thought provoking. I think what is interesting in Islam is that there are hadith that seem to (or explicitly) support the idea of salvation by faith alone and through works and I think the reason is what Dustin mentioned in his comment. That is, true faith is never devoid of good works; one cannot be separate from the other. Works are often a good indicator and warning sign about the state of our faith.
    It is interesting to me as well that there are reports that the Prophet mentioned that certain people who actively and vehemently opposed him and Islam would have their punishment lessened because of certain acts of theirs. However I also believe that there needs to be a comprehensive rethink amongst muslims about the status of non-muslims taking into account the difference between those who are, as G.A. Saanei calls them, obstinate unbelievers (that is those who antagonistically deny what they know to be true) and others who do not believe basically because of ignorance of what is true. I think it is important to examine what the term kufr actually means and who it should actually apply to and that may add us out of this particular cul-de-sac. And as a side note, the Shi’a believe that Abu Talib accepted Islam and that it was only Ummayid propaganda that asserted otherwise.
    And yes, predestination is a doozy. I think two sayings of the Imams apply here. The first is Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq who said that the reality is: “neither compulsion nor complete freedom; rather it is something between the two”. And Imam Ali warned, “this (doctrine of predestination) is a dark path – do not traverse it; a deep ocean – do not enter it; and a divine mystery – do not try to unveil it”. He went deeply into it himself, but the warning is for those who do not have the capacity to deal with such issues.

  • Dave

    Thanks for your thoughts Svend.
    Islamic and Christian theology has developed in their own silos for so many centuries it is a valuable to see someone from outside the discussion offer their perspective.
    One thing Calvin’s sole fide put faith before (as a source) of good works i can’t help but to think that this make some of Western Christians, (or Protestants particularly) extremely motive conscious; because the protestant belief is that if good works does not stem from faith, it is not pleasing to God. Maybe attributing Western brand of introspection to Calvin is giving him too much credit.
    What’s your perspective on the motives in the whole faith and works question? Has anything similar to this been debated in Islam?

  • svend

    First, my abject apologies for the delay in replying to these very stimulating and thougtful comments.
    Thanks for the kind words.
    I’m sure you understand all this very well, but just to be clear I don’t think any idea of Islam supporting the stance of “Sola fide” stands up to examination. To the contrary, a Muslim who follows the example of St. Paul or Martin Luther and repudiates the oligatory nature[*] of say, fasting or the 5 daily prayers leaves the pale of Islam by any traditional or intellectually consistent standard. Also, the Quran’s emphasis on good works (not unlike the Epistle of James, which Luther despised) causes some evangelical critics of Islam to mistakenly reduce Islamic faith exclusively to religious practice.
    It’s customary in the media to compare Sunnis to Protestants, but I find those comparisons misleading on the big issues. I think the similarities betweem Sunnis and Protestants are mostly to be found in the political and institutional realm. When it comes to vital issues of epistemology, dogma and religious authority, we’re far more “Catholic” than “Protestant”.
    I like that distinction by Imam Saanei that you cite. I find it very, very irritating how free some Muslims feel to lob about the weighty label “kufr”, as it if were some simple demographic characteristic as opposed to the complex spiritual category that it is.
    [* Which isn't the same as being lax in the Law's observance. The Muslim world has large numbers of unobservant people, who are not excommunicated as a result (in fact, such overreactions are a hallmark of modern extremist movements).]
    Thanks for the clarification. I’m not sure how to express this, but while I find the moral sentiments you mention beautiful, I don’t see a irreconcilable contradiction between conceding some human agency in salvation with a full and grateful awareness of our dependence on God’s grace.
    Your observation reminds me of the Sufi ideal of simply becoming an extension of God’s will. The famous, striking image (often used in the context of the master/student relationship) is being “like a corpse in the washer’s hands”.
    Regarding the book in question, it’s wonderfully rich, but it might not be the most accessible introduction. If you don’t have a background in Sufism already, you might get more out of Tirmidhi after reading a modern overview (e.g., Anne Marie Schimmel’s MYSTICAL DIMENSIONS OF ISLAM, or Carl Ernst’s sHAMBHALA GUIDE TO SUFISM) or a traditional medieval text with a broader focus (e.g., like Al-Hujwiri’s famed and comprehensive Kash al-Mahjub
    That’s an intriguing point about motives.
    This is, incidentally, a very prominent feature of Sufi spirituality. Perhaps the most famous exemplar is Rabia of Basrah, known for praying that God damn her if she prayed to him to avoid hellfire or to obtain paradise, the idea being that she should be exclusively motivated by love.
    In a similar vein, here is one of my favorite hadiths, about the first three inhabitants of Hell (available at
    “It has been narrated on the authority of Sulaiman b. Yasar who said: People dispersed from around Abu Huraira, and Natil, who was from the Syrians. said to him: O Shaikh, relate (to us) a tradition you have heard from the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He said: Yes. I heard the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: The first of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgment will be a man who died as a martyr. He shall be brought (before the Judgment Seat). Allah will make him recount His blessings (i. e. the blessings which He had bestowed upon him) and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his life). (Then) will Allah say: What did you do (to requite these blessings)? He will say: I fought for Thee until I died as a martyr. Allah will say: You have told a lie. You fought that you might be called a” brave warrior”. And you were called so. (Then) orders will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into Hell. Then will be brought forward a man who acquired knowledge and imparted it (to others) and recited the Qur’an. He will be brought And Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Then will Allah ask: What did you do (to requite these blessings)? He will say: I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Qur’an seeking Thy pleasure. Allah will say: You have told a lie. You acquired knowledge so that you might be called” a scholar,” and you recited the Qur’an so that it might be said:” He is a Qari” and such has been said. Then orders will be passed against him and he shall be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire. Then will be brought a man whom Allah had made abundantly rich and had granted every kind of wealth. He will be brought and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them and (admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Allah will (then) ask: What have you done (to requite these blessings)? He will say: I spent money in every cause in which Thou wished that it should be spent. Allah will say: You are lying. You did (so) that it might be said about (You):” He is a generous fellow” and so it was said. Then will Allah pass orders and he will be dragged with his face downward and thrown into Hell.”
    If only would-be suicide bombers considered this hadith.

  • svend

    This is so vague a response as to be near useless, but there are many strikingly parallel theological and philosophical debates and controversies, but Islam of course never experienced so a schism over these questions comparable to the Reformation. I don’t know a heck of a lot about these early debates over Greek philosophy, to be honest, but they certainly are closely related. Here are some useful entries:
    “Causality and necessity in Islamic thought”
    Ash’ariyya and Mu’tazila
    See also this interesting article by a Christian working in Senegal that touches on some of these topics.

  • Dave

    Nice! Though I have read only a handful of hadiths that one would be one of my favorites as well.