Friday, June 19, 2009

Paul Helm and Calvin's Definitions

Philosopher Paul Helm has provided a nice summary of Calvin's definitions of important terms as found in the Institutes. He offers first a complete survey of the definitions and then takes a "closer look" at a few of them. True to Calvin, Helm is careful not to leave the discussion as one more thing to "flit in the brain." He concludes his discussion with these two paragraphs:

"There is one final characteristic of definitions that is surprising but which ought not to be. The prominence given to definitions in the Institutes is not merely testimony to the Calvinian love of order. Calvin shows that he thinks we ought to be moved by these definitions, not moved to admiration for the cleverness of the definer, but moved by the divine reality defined. For he notes more than once that an apt definition reveals the ‘force’ of an idea. These realities, once defined, are not meant to be filed away, or argued over – they are not to ‘flit in the brain’ but to move us."

"There is one more thing. A survey of these discussions is in fact a run-down of the main themes of the Reformation – original sin, free will, faith, repentance, justification. For Calvin the Reformation was about the recovering of biblical realities, or their rediscovery, and one main way in which this recovering takes place is in the defining of those realities. It is additionally interesting that the emphasis falls upon anthropological themes rather than the doctrine of God, theology in a narrower sense. In fact apart from the definition given in the course of his discussion of the Trinity, Calvin does not, as far as I can discover, ever approach the reality of God by first searching for a definition of God. (And even his Trinitarian discussion is about the meaning of ‘person’, though here again there might be a definition without using the word, as when he states ‘Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality’ (Inst. I.13.5) No doubt this disinclination to define ‘God’ is fully consistent with Calvin’s restrained approach to the being of God, testimony to the importance for him of the contrast he draws throughout the Institutes and elsewhere between God ‘as he is in himself’ and God ‘as he is towards us’. He repeatedly disdains the search for what God is as against what he is to us. " (emphasis mine)

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