Calvin and Augustine in the Arena?

March 22, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

When one reads a great deal, one can sometimes be surprised by way the same subject, idea, or even quotation, may appear in the writings of different authors. Perhaps I ought not be surprised given the fact that there is a finite deposit of source material available in any given field of study, though that deposit may be quite vast.

My own reading has recently taken me from the Confessions of Augustine, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin. When one’s reading sets these two giants in proximity to one another there is even less reason to be surprised at the appearance of similarities since Calvin was so like Augustine in theological outlook, and in many ways, dependent upon Augustine in his theological thought. At the very least, Calvin considered Augustine to be a giant upon whose shoulders he stood.

In working through Calvin’s discussion of the marks which distinguish the true God from false gods in Book I, chapter XIV of the Institutes, I came across this:

“When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious.”

I knew immediately where I had read that before. The Confessions.

Going back to Augustine, I found the passage in Book XI, chapter xii, which reads as follows:

“This is my reply to anyone who asks: ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ My reply is not that which someone is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said: ‘He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer, ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question and to win approval for an answer which is a mistake.”

It would seem that Augustine would not have approved of the manner in which Calvin utilized his little story. Augustine presents the question itself as serious, and the questioner as sincere, while the respondent is evasive, and perhaps even dishonest. Calvin presents the question as a skeptic’s form of ridicule, and the respondent as pious and clever. But before we set these two great minds against one another in the arena, (which would be fine. Men will not always agree), we ought to consider that these differences themselves point to the possibility that though both men utilize the same story, they do so for different purposes, and in different contexts.

Augustine sets forth the story in the context of a deeply philosophical discussion of time and eternity, particularly as it impacts God’s immutability. In that context, Augustine sees no ridicule or skepticism at all. It is a serious question with serious implications for the person and nature of God.

Calvin, on the other hand, is using the story in a very different way. Calvin presents the question as a form of ridicule because he himself is, in part, utilizing ridicule in his argument. But it is not the same argument. Calvin and Augustine are not addressing the same issue. Whereas Augustine is addressing the philosophical issue of time and eternity in the context of God’s immutability, Calvin is addressing the issue of revelation, and he is making the assertion that we know God only through His self-revelation in Scripture. Let me repeat Calvin’s form, but include the statements which follow:

“When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious. Let this admonition, no less grave than severe, restrain the wantonness that tickles many and even drives them to wicked and hurtful speculations. In short, let us remember that that invisible God, whose wisdom, power, and righteousness are incomprehensible, sets before us Moses’ history as a mirror in which his living likeness glows.”

Calvin’s purpose is not to plumb the depths of time and eternity, and the immutable nature of God. It is to issue a warning against speculation unmoored to the anchor of God’s word. This is a theme, I should add, which is recurring in Calvin’s writings. And it is a warning which all should heed. It is the warning issued by Paul who exhorted us not to go beyond what was written (1 Cor. 4:6), nor to engage in those things which give rise to “mere speculation” (1 Tim. 1:4).

Beyond that, this comparison of Calvin and Augustine should provide for us another warning. Let the context control! The use of the same word, phrase, or story does not necessitate the same use in both places. Paul and James both speak of justification, for instance. But they do not use the term in the same way.

In regard to this story, Calvin and Augustine ought not be set against one another. Context ensures that Scripture will not be set against itself.

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