Faith is not a virtue (Calvin)

Calvin window at Rundle United Church, Canada

Barth generally likes to treat the “subjective side” at the end of his volumes in the Church Dogmatics, after rightly hammering us over the head, for hundreds of pages, with the objective side: Jesus Christ. These evaluations of the subjective “correspondence” to God are some of my favorite parts. For example, in IV.2 he closes his doctrine of sanctification, which is definitive in Christ, by (finally!) looking at “The Act of Love” (783-824), which is a beautiful and devotional study of our graced capacity to love.

In IV.1, which I have been reading through, he treats justification by faith alone toward the end of his multi-layered account of “the Lord as servant,” which includes such marvelous moments as “The Judge Judged in Our Place” (§59.2) much earlier in the volume. He begins his treatment of faith as the “human work” acceptable to God, not because of any “intrinsic value” to our act of faith but only because God has chosen to accept it as the “counterpart and analogy to God’s own action” (615-616). Man’s faith as such does not justify him: “He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. In relation to it, considering himself as a believer, he cannot see himself as justified….” (616). He follows this paragraph with a short excursus on John Calvin’s own clarification that faith is not a virtue, as in his exegesis of Abraham’s faith. I thought it was worth posting as a whole. I have provided the translations from the study edition of the CD (in italics below), assuming that most of my readers do not read Latin and French:

Of the Reformers Calvin made this distinction with particular sharpness. Faith as such cannot contribute anything to our justification: bringing nothing of our own to procure the grace of God (Inst. III, 13, 5). It is not a habitus [disposition]. It is not a quality of grace which is infused into man (on Gal. 3.6; C.R. 50, 205). Faith does not justify by virtue of being a work which we do. If we believe, we come to God quite empty, not bringing to God any dignity or merit. God has to close his eyes to the feebleness of our faith, as indeed He does. He does not justify us on account of some excellence which it has in itself; only in virtue of what it lacks as a human work does He justify man (Serm. on Gen. 15; C.R. 23, 722 f.). For that reason there is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith. Exegetes who understand the reckoned of Gen 15.6 as follows: Abraham has been reckoned righteous, and that belief in God was a virtue which he possessed are condemned by Calvin quite freely and frankly: those dogs must be an absolute abomination to us, for these are the most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth (ib. 688). As if there were nothing worse than this confusion! And, indeed, according to the fresh Reformation understanding of the Pauline justification by faith there could not be anything worse than this confusion. It is clear that if faith was to be a virtue, a power and an achievement of man, and if as such it was to be called a way of salvation, then the way was opened up for the antinomian and libertarian misunderstanding, the belief that a dispensation from all other works was both permitted and commanded. And the objection of Roman critics was only too easy, that in the Reformation sola fide this one human virtue, power and achievement was wildly over-estimated at the expense of all others. Even at the present day there is still cause most definitely to repudiate this misinterpretation, for which the Pauline text is not in any sense responsible. [CD IV.1, 617]

The “most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth” are the attempts to qualify faith as a virtue or disposition acceptable to God. Nothing worse than this confusion! And the upshot, of not making this confusion, has significant practical consequence: “There is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith.” Amen. The “experimental” Puritans, and their heirs today, could benefit from that. Edwards could have kept his job at Northampton!

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Image: Calvin window at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, Alberta

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5 comments

  1. Barth rightly reaps the benefits sown by Calvin’s controversy with Osiander, which clarified much that remained murky in Luther.

    • Yes, in fact, Dr. Merwyn Johnson (one of our adjuncts from Erskine) made the same observation a couple weeks ago when he taught Calvin’s doctrine of justification to one our classes. He then went on to say that pietism threatens to repeat Osiander’s mistakes.

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