John Knox and the Institutes of Calvin: A few Points of Contact in their Theology

Portrait of Knox copied from the original painting in the possession of Lord Torphichen at Calder HouseI’ve been working through V.E. D’Assonville’s work John Knox and the Institutes of Calvin: A few Points of Contact in their Theology (Durban, Nadal: Drakensberg Press,1969) this week.  While the book as a whole occasionally evidences a lack of theological insight and has some questionable historiographical methodology a number of important points are raised.

The first point he makes is regarding the influence of Calvin on the early theology of Knox i.e. before his time in Geneva.  D’Assonville comments that “Knox’s first doctrinal work … A vindication of the doctrine that the sacrifice of the mass is idolatry … follows Calvin quite closely in content, as well as citations. Whole dicta from the Institutes are such clear evidence that one can even prove to a great extent, which edition he used and in which language it was written.” (p2).

The second interesting point he brings out is evidence of Knox’s esteem of Calvin from his own writings i.e. D’Assonville quotes Knox speaking of “that most faithful servant of God, John Calvin” and stating that “we dissent not from the judgement of the reverend servant of Christ Jesus, John Calvin … I will faithfully recite his words and sentences in this behalf, written thus in his Christian Institutions.” This all from Knox’s preface to his work on Predestination (Knox, Works, 5:31; D’Assonville, p34).

The third useful point (especially for me!) is that he makes a statement almost identical to one I made in my thesis regarding constructing Knox’s doctrine of the free offer from his work on Predestination: “From beginning to end it [On Predestination] is written in highly controversial language, with little thetical [positive] exposition, since the subject is brought back to the antithetical conflict each time. How different Knox’s work may not perhaps have been, had he been instructed to choose his scheme himself.”  (p43)  The point I made was that the content of highly polemic works is often determined by the opponents views so it requires a lot of care to construct what positive doctrines are held from them, as they very clearly reveal what the author does not believe but not so clearly what he does believe, and in what proportion he would stress various truths.

Fourthly he has a helpful analysis of Calvin on the difference between the covenant of grace in the Old and the New Testaments: “With this it is clear that [for Calvin] there are really not two covenants but two administrations of one and the same covenant of Mercy. It may also be called two phases. And if we see this as two administrations, or phases, it once again points to a difference. But now this difference does not lie in the substance (sub-stantia) but in the manner of administration (modus administrationis). Calvin expresses this difference in the mode of exercise in the following points: 1. In the Old Testament God manifested the celestial heritage in earthly blessings … 2. The Old Testament “exhibiting only the image of truth, while the reality was absent, the shadow of the substance …” 3. There is a difference between the Law, “calling a doctrine of the letter” and the Gospel “a doctrine of the spirit.” However, this is not a difference in substance as of the Old Testament was not also an “Evangelium”… 4. The Old Testament is a testament of bondage and the New a testament of liberty… 5. The Old Testament is a covenant with one people only, viz. Israel; the New includes all peoples whom the Gospel of Christ reaches.” (p72).

Fifthly he highlights that Calvin held membership of the external visible covenant should not be conflated with election: “It becomes clearly apparent, over and over again, both from his Institutes and, in particular, from his commentaries on the Scriptures in which he refers repeatedly to [in] the Institutes, that, in his view covenant and election do not coincide! He does not accept that a child of the covenant is ipso facto elected for salvation. (Inst. III.xxi.7)” (p79).

Sixthly he demonstrates Knox held to the general offer of the gospel, “That there is a General vocation, by which the world by some manner of means is called to the knowledge of God, and a vocation of purpose, which appertaineth to God’s children only, I find in Scriptures.” (Knox, Works, 5:117).  He also notes the connection between infant baptism and the free offer or promise of the gospel, “… Knox (just like Calvin) never contended that the Baptism is a sign and seal of the election, but of the promise of the Gospel … And if the promise of the Gospel, and not individual election, is the basis of the covenant, the concept of the church must also necessarily be determined thereby.” (p80-1).

Finally he closes his work with a statement I’m sure all those who have engaged in historical research can agree with, “…objective historical analysis is still one of the most difficult tasks of the researcher.” (p91)

I’m off to Cambridge on Tuesday for the John Owen Conference which lasts until Friday at which point I’ll be joined by Ruth (+ children!) for a long weekend in Cambridge.  Should be (DV) a nice week of recharging the batteries.


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