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The Importance of the Holy Spirit and Its Role in Salvation

The question of the Holy Spirit occupied a central place in Calvin’s thought. In fact, it is not too much to say that half of the Institutions was dedicated to the workings of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is indeed a focus of books III and IV, in which Calvin expounded on the benefit that believers draw from the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. After addressing this benefit itself (book III), he went on to discuss it in the context of the external means that serve as its vectors, i.e. the Church and its sacraments (book IV). Nobody, however, can benefit from the Christ’s work unless he is united with him. And the concrete link of this union is none other than the Holy Spirit. Or to put it more precisely, it is because the Spirit operates on believers that they are truly involved in the saving work of the mediator.

The main work of the Spirit – which Calvin referred to as its “chef d’oeuvre” – is nothing less than faith, the concrete modality of our communion with Christ. This communion results in a double state of grace: the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification. As each is the object of a separate entry, they will not be dealt with in the present paper. The following focuses instead on one particular aspect of faith: the placement of faith in Scripture by believers who recognize God’s own word in it. In other words: what we intend to analyse is nothing else than the relation between Scripture and Spirit.

Calvin begins by emphasizing that it is impossible to play the two off against each other, as those of a certain persuasion would like to do, and, by basking in an intimate communication of the Spirit, to obviate the need for Scripture. In Calvin’s view, however, it is both presumptuous and vain to claim to receive particular revelations without any link to biblical revelation. As “God does not speak from heaven every day,” the question of the authenticity of these revelations is instantly raised. Spiritualists ascribe it to the Spirit. Yes, but what kind of Spirit is it? How can we tell the difference between pure subjectivity and being moved by God’s Spirit? Moreover, disavowing Scripture because one benefits from direct inspiration leads to the absurd conclusion that God’s Spirit is not a single, cohesive Spirit – as if God could disregard or even disown today what his Spirit inspired in the biblical writers in the past.

Scripture and Spirit should never be thought of as opposites, but should instead be viewed together. This is, in fact, Calvin’s central thesis on the subject: Spirit alone brings about the certainty of scriptural inspiration and its divine authority; God alone bears direct witness to God, and he alone can authenticate his own presence in Scripture in the hearts of believers. Calvin calls this the secret (or internal) testimony of the Holy Spirit.

These considerations disqualify the validity of two claims. The first of these is the claim of the Church. Following the Augustinian dictum, “I would not believe in the Gospel if the Church did not move me to do so,” Catholic theologians claimed that the Church alone (i.e. what would be called its magisterium in later years) was entitled to authenticate holy books, just as it had been entitled to establish the canon in the past. Calvin’s response to this was, in essence, that the establishment of the Church as the guarantor of Scripture was no more and no less than the derivation of the authority of God’s Word from human judgement. (This is not what his opponents wanted to say, but we are now referring to the way in which Calvin argued, and not the correctness of his arguments.) The second claim that Calvin disqualified for the same reasons concerns human reason, pointing out that it would be absurd to derive divine authority from human judgements.

In conclusion, let us quote from a famous passage: “Such, then, is a conviction which asks not for reasons; such, a knowledge which accords with the highest reason, namely knowledge in which the mind rests more firmly and securely than in any reasons; such in fine, the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality. I do not dwell on this subject at present, because we will return to it again: only let us now understand that the only true faith is that which the Spirit of God seals on our hearts.” As one can see, Calvin resorted to wordplay in his assertion that any reason to be certain that God is the one who speaks to us through Scripture is above and beyond all reason. And it appears that it was for this very reason that Calvin resorted to the vocabulary of feelings, not of the sort of feeling that leads to intellectual thought, but feelings that exceed all such thought. The confidence that we place in Scripture is “existential” in nature, in the sense that it engages the whole person and does not rely on an intellectual certainty to permit us to give our approval to certain propositions. And, to reiterate, this most certainly does not follow from its demonstration, but from God’s action: the action through which he guarantees the authority of his word in the hearts of believers by testifying to himself, thus converting the subject into a believing subject. In this manner, the event that allows me to recognize God’s word in Scripture is the very same event through which God addresses me to turn me into a believing subject; I give my faith to Scripture at the very moment that the Holy Spirit creates faith in me.

1. Holy Spirit and Justification


Articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae, “the article whereby the Church stands or falls.” Luther used these words to describe the question of justification by faith. One may well say that he conceived this as a fundamental article of faith in the literal sense of the word, i.e. that of a foundation, with justification by faith lending meaning to all other articles of faith. Of course Calvin’s perspective does not entirely correspond with Luther’s. With Calvin, in fact, the believers’ spiritual grasp of Christ or, if one prefers, the actions of the Holy Spirit that enable believers to benefit from the work accomplished by Christ, far from being limited to justification, extend to sanctification and regeneration as well. Calvin does, nevertheless, mention justification by faith as being a “main article of the Christian religion.”

Calvin understands “justification”, once again just like Luther, to mean that God considers his elected to be righteous, even as they remain sinners. This thesis is only outwardly paradoxical; it actually means that the righteousness of a subject is not at all ascribed to the subject himself, and is not the result of any particular merit, but of God’s grace alone. We are just as righteous as we are deemed to be: justice does not come from us; it comes to us. This righteousness results from the work of the Holy Spirit which extends to us the righteousness of Christ. Calvin thus recaptures the Lutheran expression iustitia aliena or “foreign justice”, i.e. far from attesting to the existence of an intrinsic quality in the subject, God grants this righteousness from without. Yet, this gift in no way entails a substantial modification in the being of those justified; in other words, justification is not expressed by a change of substance or essence, as if the divine essence were to modify the human essence. He dedicates pages of the Institutions to this particular issue to the extent that Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran who, as it so happened, did not agree with Luther on this point, aptly spoke of “essential righteousness.” In opposition to this thesis, Calvin repeatedly stated that the believer’s righteousness is in fact a “quality” innate to Christ that is imputed to believers.

Viewing this as a gift of imputed righteousness allows us to see it not as an ontological change in the believer or, for that matter, as a mixture of the human and the divine in a human being. Calvin was much too focused on God’s transcendence to adopt such a thesis. This was also his reason for insisting that justification is the work of the Spirit; far from being the substantial communication of righteousness, justification is much more a spiritual communication. This thus shows that the theology of the Holy Spirit is a theology of transcendence.

With regard to justification, one often raises the question of how “faith” is to be understood in the expression “justification by faith.” Calvin provided the following definition: “We shall now have a full definition of if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.” The Calvinist faith cannot be reduced to what we would term a simple belief comparable to a simple awareness of the state of matter outside ourselves. As a gift of the Holy Spirit, faith is instead our real relation with God, i.e. the very condition of our justification and our knowledge of being justified.

Up to this point, there is no true difference between Calvin’s and Luther’s doctrines. One point in which the teaching of the reformer of Geneva cannot be equated with that of his predecessor in Wittenberg concerns the justification of works. Calvin clearly does not speak of justification by works; for him, the point in question is instead the justification of works. This doctrine is outlined in the following lines: “Just as we appear righteous before God after we have been made members of Christ’s Body with our faults concealed by virtue of his innocence, our works are deemed righteous with all evils therein not imputed to us because we are clothed with the purity of Christ. This gives us the right to say that by faith alone not only the man, but also his works are justified.” Here again we come across the notion of imputation in the context of non-imputation. For just as the justification of man consists in the imputation of a righteousness that is not actually his own, so does the justification of his works consist in the non-imputation of faults that are his own. We thus see that this justification is complete, that it embraces each person in all his or her aspects, and that it is free as there is nothing within us to deserve it, but neither is there anything standing in our way.

Marc Vial, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Theology, Geneva

Translation of the original text in French