Thursday, February 24, 2011

“Calvin’s Legacy in Philosophy” by William Davis (Ch. 6)

This review, written by Bill DeJong, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

One of the rich ironies of history is that the theology of John Calvin, the sixteenth-century Genevan reformer, has attained a level of recognition, if not prominence, within the guild of contemporary North-American Christian philosophers. What is so staggering about this phenomenon is that in his writings Calvin often spoke critically of the enterprise of philosophy and never, throughout the entirety of his life, developed anything that approaches a philosophical system. In this chapter William C. Davis, professor of philosophy at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, shows us with acumen and clarity the surprising legacy that Calvin has in the realm of philosophy, especially in the areas of epistemology and metaphysics.

In his assertions about human knowledge of God and human self-knowledge, Calvin “opens a new chapter in Western epistemology” (117). The first hallmark of this new chapter is the place Scripture should occupy in the acquisition of knowledge. That the Word of God is the authority by which all knowledge claims are to be judged is attested, Calvin alleged, by the Word of God itself. Though philosophers sometimes balk at the circularity of the argument, Davis rightly regards it as “philosophically tight” (119). No other authority could authorize the Word of God but God himself. Calvin’s view of Scripture as self-authenticating has been acknowledged and embraced not only by Cornelius Van Til and John Frame in their constructions of a presuppositional apologetic, but also by Alvin Plantinga is his philosophizing about the warrant for belief.

The second hallmark is the inevitability of human belief in God or what Calvin called the sensus divinitatus. Though some theologians and philosophers insist that knowledge of God’s existence is attainable only through demonstration and proof (e.g., Charles Hodge, R.C. Sproul), others with more indebtedness to Calvin allege that demonstrative proof is unnecessary to justify belief in God. Among the latter, Alvin Plantinga is especially prominent for his position that the sensus divinitatus is analogous to the otherwise reliable faculties of sight and hearing. Also in line with Calvin, Plantinga posits that faith is a God-given module by which certain truths beyond the knowledge of God’s existence can be apprehended and believed.

The third hallmark is the noetic effects of the fall whereby human powers are now not only inept, but distorted and liable to lead us astray. In line with Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd argued that sin’s influence on our noetic equipment is most disruptive in religious affairs and therefore especially in academic disciplines such as economics and ethics where religious dispositions are at the forefront, and less so in, for example, math and physics, which tend not to be as influenced by religious convictions.

In the area of metaphysics, John Calvin’s theology is far less appreciated, especially in view of the widening embrace of open theism. Few tolerate Calvin’s compatibilist position of affirming both meticulous providence and morally responsible human behaviour. Davis thoughtfully interacts with the most commonly raised problems with Calvin’s compatibilism — namely, how humans can be responsible for acts decreed by God and why meticulous providence is not fatalism. These problems are addressed wisely and biblically by Davis who encourages, as Calvin did, a humble embrace of the teachings of God’s Word, especially in areas where human comprehension is transcended.

The only shortcoming in this chapter is Davis’s neglect to direct readers to debates regarding some of the issues he raises. Whether Plantinga has correctly understood Calvin on the sensus divinitatus, for example, is disputed by, inter alia, James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). The extent to which Calvin was a compatibilist (an anachronistic term) is debated in Willem J. van Asselt, ed., Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

This demurral notwithstanding, Davis’s chapter on Calvin’s legacy in philosophy is erudite and judicious and a wonderful sample of Christian scholarship. Those in the Reformed tradition will be reaffirmed in their views about the central place of Scripture in the enterprise of philosophy, about the role of faith in apprehending truth, and about the devastating influences of the fall on human reasoning. What is especially exciting is that each of these affirmations, some more than others, is more palatable to postmoderns than they ever were to moderns. Lastly, Davis provides Reformed believers some philosophical and biblical ammunition to defend classic theism in view of the surging popularity of open theism.

With an M.Div. from Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Bill DeJong is pastor of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON and a Ph.D. student in Christian theology at McMaster Divinity College.

1 comment:

Bill Davis said...

Dear Mr. DeJong,

(In lieu of tone: imagine a quietly gurgling brook, birds calling cheerfully, and a warm mid-afternoon sun. Does that make up some of the 38% percent lost by mere words? The video was quite helpful; but it made me wonder if I should ever send another e-mail!)

Here I only want to register my appreciation for your thoughtful review of my chapter in David Hall's anthology. I willing accept your "demur" about the scarcity of information about the on-going debates on the topics I discussed. Working with a word limit (which turned out to be quite serious) meant chopping a longer discussion roughly in half. Michael Sudduth and others on the sensus divinitatus, the interesting discussions about Calvin's compatibilism, and entire sections on other topics (body and soul, social theory, architecture, even John Piper) ended up on the cutting room floor. So your misgiving was entirely correct. I will look for a future opportunity to fill in the holes to which you allude.

Thanks for taking my chapter so seriously. As you will probably some day discover, writing book chapters often leads to sterile musings about whether anyone is reading them. It is encouraging to know that reformed folk still read!

Bill Davis
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, Georgia USA