The second in the series of Baker publications, “Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought,” is this defense by John Calvin of the Reformation’s doctrine of the bondage of the will against Pighius. Surprisingly, this is the first appearance of Calvin’s important work on the bound will and sovereign grace in English.
In 1542 the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius responded to the 1539 edition of Calvin’s Institutes with a violent attack on both Calvin’s doctrine of the bondage of the will and Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. The title of Pighius’ work was Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace. Whatever one may think of Pighius, he saw the issue. In 1543 Calvin responded to Pighius’ attack on the bound will with The Bondage and Liberation of the Will. Calvin did not get around to responding to Pighius’ attack on predestination until 1552. Then, aroused by Jerome Bolsec, Calvin wrote his great defense of predestination, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. In it, he refuted Pighius, by then long dead.
The manner of Calvin’s treatment of his subject in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will makes for tedious reading at times. He follows the arguments of Pighius closely, responding point by point. Since Pighius had appealed to the church fathers, Calvin on his part draws heavily from the fathers, especially Augustine, in defense of the bound will.
But the subject is fundamental to the Reformation’s confession of the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Just as Erasmus (another Dutchman!) had done earlier, against Luther, Pighius had affirmed the Roman Catholic heresy of the ability of the will of the natural man to choose the grace of God, which, according to Pighius, is offered by God to all alike. Upon this choice, for Pighius and the Roman Catholic Church, depends the salvation of the sinner.
Calvin taught a “bound will,” which he sharply distinguished from a “coerced will.” He defined the bound will as “one which because of its corruptness is held captive under the authority of evil desires, so that it can choose nothing but evil, even if it does so of its own accord and gladly, without being driven by any external impulse” (p. 69). The salvation of the sinner, therefore, is the work of God alone. Faith is a gift. Grace is not offered indiscriminately and ineffectually to all, but is the effectual power of God to the elect only. Both Pighius and Calvin knew well the intimate relation between the doctrine of the bound will and the doctrine of predestination.
The doctrine of free will, in the sense of man’s ability by nature to choose God, Calvin rightly saw as the overthrow of the biblical gospel of grace. Significantly, Calvin appealed against Pighius to Romans 9:16. This accounts for Calvin’s vehement denunciation of the false teaching. Pighius’ doctrine is “in large part an undiluted expression of Pelagian ungodliness” (p. 104). In Pighius’ teaching “giving man first place,” while yielding “God second,” we have “Pelagius … vomiting his profanities to the skies at full strength” (p. 217). Luther had passed the same judgment upon the doctrine of the free will in his Bondage of the Will.
The publication of Calvin’s fullest treatment of the bondage of the will and the related doctrines of grace serves our time well. It sets forth the basic issue between genuine Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Most “evangelicals” are exposed as lined up solidly on Rome’s side of the divide. “Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together” should surprise no one.
The book speaks powerfully to developments in the Reformed churches. Against Pighius’ argument for free will in terms of good works, Calvin responded that the “worth of good works depends not on the act itself but on perfect love for God.” Therefore, “a work will not be righteous and pure unless it proceeds from a perfect love for God” (p. 27). Being completely evil, the natural man can do nothing but evil:
I say that man thinks, chooses, wills, attempts, and does nothing except evil because of that corruption which has taken the whole of the human soul under its control. And it is in this sense that I say that whatever is from us needs to be destroyed and renewed (p. 213).
The apostasy of the Reformed churches widely from the orthodoxy of the Reformation, with fatal consequences for the truth of the bound will and sovereign grace, is glaringly evident in the insistence that the ungodly are able to perform good works.
Calvin repeatedly criticized Pighius’ doctrine that grace is “offered indiscriminately to all” (see pp. 188; 196-199; 217). Indeed, for Calvin this was the root of Pighius’ errors:
What then is the reason why he rushes headlong, as if with his eyes shut, into such great absurdity? It is of course just this, that once he has conceived the idea in his mind that the grace of God is offered equally to all, provided that they show themselves to be worthy of it, he is held prisoner by this idea, so that he is incapable of further perception or judgment (p. 198).
Today the Pighian doctrine of an indiscriminate offer of grace to all alike reigns supreme in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, advertised and defended by nearly all as impeccable Reformation orthodoxy. To maintain particular, effectual grace in the preaching of the gospel is to invite summary excommunication from the fellowship of Calvinists: “hyper-Calvinist!”
May the book have wide circulation among Protestants. May God thus still use Calvin himself—the genuine Calvin—to open the eyes especially of the Reformed.
But why did Calvin dedicate the book to Melanchthon?
The author, professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has written an important and fascinating book about the history of Baptist thought. It is divided into three sections: a history of Baptist thought in England and America; a theological section in which the chief issues that occupied Baptist theologians are discussed; and a practical section in which the author firmly admonishes his fellow Baptists to return to their roots. The first section is quite the longest of the three and filled with information.
Tracing the history of the Baptists in England first of all, and pointing out that the Baptists there did not have their origin in the Anabaptist movement on the continent, but in the independent movement that opposed Anglicanism, the author demonstrates that Baptists were throughout their history strongly Calvinistic, especially in their emphasis on the doctrines of grace. He deals with all the great Baptist preachers and theologians including Gill, Hussey, Brine, Crisp, and Fuller.
In examining their thought, the author deals with all the important issues that came up in the great Baptist controversies: supra- vs. infralapsarianism, election and reprobation, the extent of the atonement, the call of the gospel, the well-meant offer, eternal vs. temporal justification, antinomianism, duty-faith and duty-repentance, etc. He points out what each of the Baptist theologians taught and believed on these crucial issues.
Turning to American Baptists, and concentrating on the same issues, Nettles makes the point that the Baptists in this country, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention, were solid and orthodox all the way through the 19th and into the 20th century.
Departure began when various theologians in the church taught that the atonement of Christ was universal in some senses. Quickly liberalism took hold as, e.g., in the University of Chicago, a Baptist School established by John D. Rockefeller. The reaction to liberalism was fundamentalism, with its own weaknesses, not historic orthodoxy. And that is where the Baptist movement stands today.
In the second section the author discusses the theological ramifications of the doctrinal issues involved throughout Baptist history, and, generally, shows that he is solidly committed to the doctrines of sovereign grace. He firmly believes that doctrinal aberration is the death of the Baptist movement because persistence in doctrinal error is evidence of lack of true faith (p. 337).
And so, in the last section, the author calls the church to repentance. He writes:
I have affirmed historically, and I hope demonstrated, that Calvinism was the dominant theology in the most enduring areas of Baptist life for the first 275 years of modern Baptist history…. This fact raises several interesting possibilities. First, we could decide that our forefathers were right…. Or, second, if we decide that our forefathers were wrong, we must repent of our past, expose their errors, overtly reject on an institutional as well as individual basis the theological moorings established at first, and reconstitute on some other basis…. Or, third, we could conclude that no such thing as truth and error exists in theological categories.
After rejecting the last two, the author goes on:
The lesson of history then is one that screams to us, “REPENT!” We must turn from our wicked ways and recapture our vision of the glory of God before the cherubim whisk it off to another place (pp. 426, 427).
While we will disagree with some aspects of the author’s analysis of the call of the gospel, what exactly constitutes a hyper-Calvinist, is duty-faith a part of the gospel call, etc., anyone reading this book will profit greatly. The profit will come, not only through a deeper understanding of Baptist history in this country and England, but also because the issues which plagued Baptists throughout the centuries are the same issues which have torn apart Reformed churches, and continue on the church’s agenda today.
Read the book! You will enjoy it!