The Reformation

Calvinism's conception of God

by Mark Bonocore

1)   The fact that Protestantism was formed in a northern European, Germanic mindset. While the Germanic peoples (the English included) have always been faithful and dynamic Catholics when completely in-tune with the Catholic Faith (e.g. the Bavarians), they also (in my opinion, and seen from my cultural Greco-Latin perspective) suffer from an over simplistic mentality when it comes to things theological or philosophical. For example, unlike the Hebrew mind, which tends to weight both sides of an issue (e.g., "On one hand, X is true, but on the other, Y is also true"), and unlike the Greek and Latin mentality, which tends to view things (and perhaps too much so) in "gray area", the Germanic mentality tends to see everything in a "black-or-white", "good-or-bad", "right-or-wrong", "German-or-foreign" context (e.g. "Scripture-or-Tradition"; "faith-or-works," etc.).  This is the first aspect that leads us to the Calvinist conception of God.

2)   The second aspect is a lingering remnant of Arianism in the Germanic mentality.  Here, one must remember that, with the exception of the Franks and, later, the Anglo-Saxons, all the ancient Germanic nations (e.g. the Visigoths, Orstrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Sueves, Alamanni, etc.) had originally embraced the Arian form of Christianity, and not the orthodox Catholic form.   Only through centuries of assimilation (and intermarriage) did these Germanic peoples (in particular, the Alamanni, from whom Luther and most of his fellow Germans are descended) arrive at the Catholic Faith. Now, the reason that Arian Christianity, as opposed to Catholic Christianity, was so attractive to these early Germanic peoples was because it was closer to their own native paganism, in which the chief god (Odin / Wodin) interacted with his son, and lesser god, Thor.  The 4th Century Greco-Roman pagans had originally favored Arianism for the very same reason --because it mirrored their own Zeus-Hercules paradigm (and, indeed, in formulating his theology, Arius was actually playing off the modified state religion proposed by the Emperor Diocletian a generation earlier, which sought to reconcile the Father-Son relationship of Christianity with the Zeus-Hercules relationship of the Empire's own religious tradition).   Yet, for the German pagans, it was very easy to understand the Trinity in this Arian mode --a mode in which "God the Father" (i.e., Odin / Wodin) was taken to be some kind of wrathful sky god, and "God the Son" (i.e., Thor) was our heroic savior sent to satisfy the demands of that wrathful sky god.  And, this cultural impression seems to haunt the Germanic peoples all through the medieval period and up to the age of Luther.   Indeed, this kind of mentality pervades the writings of both Luther and Calvin ...and even Calvin, who was nominally French (and so might be classified as a cultural Latin), was actually from the north-eastern Picardy region of France ...which is why he attended the "College de la Marche" ("College of the Border).   In other words, he was ethnically and culturally Germanic (as are most people of the Lorraine region).   

3)   The third aspect that leads us to the classical Protestant notion of God, and the one that affected Calvin most conspicuously, is an overly-simplistic ("black-and-white" Germanic) approach to the Old Testament literary style, especially when comparing it to New Testament literary style.  Interestingly enough, Arius himself (like several Gnostics before him), made exactly the same presumptuous mistake; and argued that the God of the Old Testament (the Father) could not possibly be the same God as the Christ of the New Testament because their natures are so different. And, indeed, if you're going to read these Scriptures (as Gnostics, Arians, and Protestants all do) independently of any living cultural or liturgical understanding of the Church (i.e. a living Covenant people with living Traditional insights into both these works and the nature of the God they worship ), then it's quite understandable why an Arius, or a John Calvin, might arrive at their respective conclusions.  For example, given Calvin's point of view (i.e. the one he formulated via sola Scriptura), the God of the Old Testament is clearly depicted as the cause of both good and evil.   Indeed, in the Jewish literary Tradition, He is depicted as so transcendent that it is He (and no one else) who "hardens Pharaoh's heart," thus originating the very obstacle that His miracles must overcome in order to free the Chosen People from Egyptian slavery.  

Now, is it true that God Himself "hardened Pharaoh's heart"?  Does God operate in such ways?   Not according to either the Jewish or the Catholic tradition, both of which (unlike Lutheranism or Calvinism) recognize the existence of human free will.  So, what is the author of Exodus trying to do when he records God saying, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart." Or what is the author of the Psalm saying, when he tells us that God is the originator of both good and evil???  Well, for a 16th Century German with a black-and-white mentality and a sola Scriptura perspective, this can only mean what it says thus giving us a god who can, because he's so transcendent, predestine people to hell.  Yet, for a Catholic or an ancient Jew, who reads these Scriptures with an eye to our Traditional understanding, it is quite easy for us to say, with St. Augustine, "God does not cause evil, but causes evil not to be the worst."  Yet, "How," asks the Calvinist, "can that be possible?! You Catholics are clearly ignoring the plain teaching of Scripture!" Ah!  But, we are not.   Rather, we are appreciating Scripture in context because our Traditional, cultural understanding goes back to when those Scriptures were written; and we understand them according to their original intent.

For example, when, in Exodus, God says, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart", what needs to be appreciated here is the ancient Jewish agenda.  At this time, the Jews were lone monotheists in a sea of pagans --all of whom saw the dynamics of the universe originating from the tension between different groups of gods.   Thus, in order to establish Yahweh as the One and only God (even in the minds of their own Israelite people, who were semi-pagans themselves at this point), it was necessary for Moses and his successors to depict God as the singular, ultimate cause of all things.  In other words, nothing occurs independently of His will.  

Now the Calvinists (like the Arians before them) would certainly agree with us this far.   Yet, what they would still fail to appreciate (due to their face-value, sola Scriptura perspective) is the Traditional / cultural sensibilities of ancient Semites, who did not necessarily equate "God as the ultimate Source of all things" with "God as the willing initiator of  all things."   There is a HUGE difference between causing evil to happen and allowing evil to happen.   If we look at the Book of Job, God allows "ha-satan" (the Enemy / the Devil) to torment Job.  Yet, God does not cause or initiate these trials Himself.    

So, THIS is the sense in which Exodus is speaking, when it depicts God saying, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart."  The author of Exodus is pushing an extreme monotheist agenda at this time. And he is doing this to present God as the ONLY God --the true and ultimate sovereign over all earthly activity.   Indeed, given the mentality of the people of the day, if the author of Exodus put it in any other way (e.g. "I will allow satan to harden Pharaoh's heart"), then the Israelites (who were so easily distracted by that Golden Calf, remember, and would have yet another "god" to turn to (Satan) --another "divine personality" in their spiritual pantheon.    And this is precisely the reason why the literary style of Exodus never mentions any other angels, but speaks only of "the Lord" in the course of what Jewish tradition would later characterize as angelic activity (e.g. Exodus 4:24-26, Exodus 13:21-22).  

Mark Bonocore
The Catholic Legate
June 11, 2004