Making sense of antinomies
Calvin operated from four principles that address this complex issue. Each helps make sense of his apparent contradictions.
Faith and experience
First, consider Calvin’s need to distinguish between the definition of faith and the reality of the believer’s experience. After explaining faith in the Institutes as embracing “great assurance,” Calvin writes:
Still, someone will say: “Believers experience something far different: In recognizing the grace of God toward themselves they are not only tried by disquiet, which often comes upon them, but they are repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.” Accordingly, we shall have to solve this difficulty if we wish the above-stated doctrine to stand. Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed.
Later, Calvin writes: “And I have not forgotten what I have previously said, the memory of which is repeatedly renewed by experience: faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.”
Those quotations, and other writings (most notably when dealing with the sacramental strengthening of faith ), indicate that, though Calvin is anxious to define faith and assurance together, he also recognizes that the Christian gradually grows into a fuller faith in God’s promises. This recognition is implicit in Calvin’s use of expressions such as “full faith” in God’s promises, as though he is distinguishing between the exercise of faith and what he calls “full faith.” In short, Calvin distinguishes between the “ought to” of faith and the “is” of faith in daily life. He writes: “By these words Paul obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word faith is very often used for confidence…. When anything is defined we should…seek its very integrity and perfection. Now this is not to deny a place for growth.”
Calvin’s definition of faith serves as a recommendation about how his readers ought “habitually and properly to think of faith.” Faith should always aim at full assurance, even if it cannot reach perfect assurance in experience. In principle, faith gains the victory (1 John 5:4); in practice, it recognizes that it has not yet fully apprehended (Phil. 3:12-13).
Nevertheless, the practice of faith its trust in the Word. Calvin is not as interested in experiences as he is in validating Word-grounded faith. Experience confirms faith, Calvin says. Faith “requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved.” Both the object of faith and the validation of faith by experience are gifts of God that confirm His gracious character by means of His Word.
Thus, bare experience (nuda experientia) is not Calvin’s goal, but experience grounded in the Word, flowing out of the fulfillment of the Word. Experimental knowledge of the Word is essential. For Calvin, two kinds of knowledge are needed: knowledge by faith (scientia fidei) that is received from the Word, “though it is not yet fully revealed,” and the knowledge of experience (scientia experentiae) “springing from the fulfilling of the Word.” The Word of God is primary to both, for experience teaches us to know God as He declares Himself to be in His Word. Experience not consonant with Scripture is never experience of true faith. In short, though the believer’s experience of true faith is far weaker than he desires, there is an essential unity in the Word between faith’s perception (the ought-to dimension of faith) and experience (the is dimension of faith).
Flesh versus spirit
The second principle that helps us understand Calvin’s ought-to/is tension in faith is the principle of flesh versus spirit. Calvin writes:
It is necessary to return to that division of flesh and spirit which we have mentioned elsewhere. It most clearly reveals itself at this point. Therefore the godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from an awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and en¬tirely filled and possessed by faith. Hence arise those conflicts, when unbelief, which reposes in the remains of the flesh, rises up to attack the faith that has been inwardly conceived.
Like Luther, Calvin sets the ought-to/is dichotomy against the backdrop of spirit/flesh warfare. Christians experience this spirit/flesh tension acutely because it is instigated by the Holy Spirit. The paradoxes that permeate experiential faith (e.g., Romans 7:14-25 in the classical Reformed interpretation) find resolution in this tension: “So then with the mind [spirit] I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (v. 25). Hence Calvin writes: “Nothing prevents believers from being afraid and at the same time possessing the surest consolation…. Fear and faith [can] dwell in the same mind…. Surely this is so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him. Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us.
Calvin sets the sure consolation of the spirit side-by-side with the imperfection of the flesh, for these are what the believer finds within himself. Since the final victory of the spirit over the flesh will only be fulfilled in Christ, the Christian finds himself in perpetual struggle in this life. His spirit fills him “with delight in recognizing the divine goodness” even as his flesh activates his natural proneness to unbelief. He is beset with “daily struggles of conscience” as long as the vestiges of the flesh remain. The believer’s “present state is far short of the glory of God’s children,” Calvin writes. “Physically, we are dust and shadow, and death is always before our eyes. We are exposed to a thousand miseries…so that we always find a hell within us.” While still in the flesh, the believer may even be tempted to doubt the whole gospel.
The reprobate do not have these struggles for they neither love God nor hate sin. They indulge their own desires “without fear of God,” Calvin says. But the more sincerely the believer “is devoted to God, he is just so much the more severely disquieted by the sense of his wrath.” Assurance of God’s favor and a sense of His wrath only appear contrary, however. In reality, a reverential spirit of fear and trembling helps to establish faith and to prevent presumption, for fear stems from a proper sense of unworthiness while confidence arises from God’s faithfulness. This spirit/flesh tension keeps the believer from indulging in the flesh, and from yielding to despair. The believer’s spirit will never utterly despair; rather, faith grows on the very brink of despair. Strife strengthens faith. It makes the believer live circumspectly, not despondently. With the help of the Holy Spirit, heavenly faith rises above all strife, trusting that God will be faithful to His own Word.
Even as he is tormented with fleshly doubts, the believer’s spirit trusts God’s mercy by invoking Him in prayer and by resting upon Him through the sacraments. By these means, faith gains the upper hand in its struggles with unbelief. “Faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and . . . imperil it. [Faith is like] a palm tree [that] strives against every burden and raises itself upward.”
In short, Calvin teaches that from the spirit of the believer rise hope, joy, and assurance; from the flesh, fear, doubt, and disillusionment. Though spirit and flesh operate simultaneously, imperfection and doubt are integral only to the flesh, not to faith. The works of the flesh often attend faith but do not mix with it. The believer may lose spiritual battles along the pathway of life, but he will not lose the ultimate war against the flesh. Prayer and the sacraments help the spirit of faith gain the ultimate victory.
Germ of faith vs. consciousness of faith
Thirdly, despite the tensions between definition and experience, spirit and flesh, Calvin maintains that faith and assurance are not so mixed with unbelief that the believer is left with probability rather than certainty. The smallest germ of faith contains assurance in its very essence, even when the believer is not always able to grasp this assurance due to weakness. The Christian may be tossed about with doubt and perplexity, but the seed of faith, implanted by the Spirit, cannot perish. Precisely because it is the Spirit’s seed, faith retains assurance. The assurance increases and decreases in proportion to the rise and decline of faith’s exercises, but the seed of faith can never be destroyed. Calvin says: “The root of faith can never be torn from the godly breast, but clings so fast to the inmost parts that, however faith seems to be shaken or to bend this way or that, its light is never so extinguished or snuffed out that it does not at least lurk as it were beneath the ashes.”
Calvin thus explains “weak assurance in terms of weak faith without thereby weakening the link between faith and assurance.” Assurance is normative but varies in degree and constancy in the believer’s consciousness of it. Therefore, in responding to weak assurance, a pastor should not deny the organic tie between faith and assurance but should urge the pursuit of stronger faith through the use of the means of grace by the Spirit.