How Did Martin Luther Influence John Calvin’s Philosophy On October 31, A nervous young man named Martin Luther climbed up the cathedral’s stairs and nailed his ninety-five grievances against a corrupt church. Martin Luther’s defiance sparked off the Protestant Reformation, an event that forever turned the world upside down and changed the landscape of religion. At the same time, a bright eight-year-old child began his studies in classical philosophy; a study that involved in-depth studies in Plato and Aristotle.
This child, John Calvin, became simply known as “the theologian” by many reformers including Martin Luther; used his background in philosophy to help explain the depths of biblical truths and, refine the reformer’s beliefs. John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was born on July 10, 1509 in Nonyon near Picardy in Northern France. Calvin was a middle child out of three brothers and two sisters. While Calvin was still young his mother passed away leaving him in care of his father, Gerard Cauvin. Due to Gerard’s friendship with Louis De Hangest, Lord of Montmor, young Calvin was trained in many subjects at an early age.
Calvin was encouraged to read most subjects; especially classical philosophy including, Cicero, Seneca, Plato, and Aristotle. The only area Calvin was prohibited from studying was from classic reformers such As Luther, Wycliffe, and Huss. After showing a passion for learning Calvin’s father sent young John Calvin to study to be a priest on August 1523. Calvin started his studies in grammar, rhetoric, and logic, called the trivium. He later went on to study in the Quadrivium which includes Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music.
It was at this moment in time that major developments occurred in Calvin’s life, Calvin’s teacher, Orieventanus, introduced Calvin to the reformed movement, and helped him consider scripture without all the Catholic superstition attached. It was also at this precise moment that Calvin began to delve deeply into Platonic thought and Aristotelian thought. While his studies into classical philosophical thought and protestant theology started about the same time, his passion for biblical truth surpassed his love for philosophy. Several philosophers and theologians argue, Is Calvin a philosopher?
Calvin himself answered this statement by saying I am not a philosopher; I am a biblical theologian bound by scripture. This does not refrain Calvin from using philosophy to illustrate a biblical truth. Calvin argues this point in his commentary in the book of Titus stating, “It is superstitious to refuse to make any use of secular authors, since all truth is of God, if any ungodly men had said anything true, we should not reject it, for it also comes from God”. In simpler terms, Calvin is suggesting that all truths originate from the source of truth, God.
Calvin exemplifies this point when he using the philosophers he believes had some insight on truth to explain a difficult bible passage, notably Plato and Aristotle. It is hard to pinpoint the complete impact Plato and Aristotle has had on John Calvin, but it is fair to suggest both philosophers had a major influence on his ideology one way or the other, especially Plato. The young man who would eventually be called Plato, by his gymnasium classmates due to his muscular build, started off as a student of the gadfly of Athens, Socrates.
Plato was deeply devoted to his master Socrates, even attending the event of his death, drinking the poison hemlock After his master’s death, Plato went on to build upon his masters teaching to the point, where both philosopher’s teaching is undistinguishable. Plato’s influence on early Christians fathers is undeniable. Charles Partree in his book, Calvin and Classical Philosophy, states that the “philosophy of Plato is often thought to occupy, a kind of middle ground between Christianity and pagan antiquity… arious aspects of his thought are considered congenial by many Christian thinkers” Partree’s point is that Platonism was agreeable with Christianity in several key points unlike many other philosophies of the time.
Partree goes on to give several examples of common grounds between Platonic thought and Christianity such as, “Plato believes in the existence of God, man’s duty to imitate God, God’s role in creation, affirmed the providence of God, he criticized the pagan myths, and had such a passion for truth. It is no wonder that Platonism became an important factor in early Christianity, causing many early Christian thinkers to be considered Platonic such as Origen and Augustine. While many people want to label John Calvin a Platonist, Calvin himself did not like the label and preferred to be called only Christian. This eventually became an issue between Calvin and his favorite early church father, Augustine Calvin believed that Augustine was overtly more Platonic than Christian.
This did not stop Calvin from borrowing from Augustine, or Plato. Calvin denied that Plato was the source of his theology, but he admits that Plato’s understanding on certain aspects were in line with biblical truth. Calvin states in his commentary on the book of Psalms: We continue to live, so long as God by his power; but no sooner does he withdraw his life-giving spirit than we die, Even Plato knew this, who often teaches that, properly speaking, there is but one God and that all things subsist, or have their being only in Him.
Nor do | doubt, that it is the will of God, by means of that heathen writer, to awaken all men to the knowledge that they derive their life from another source than themselves. Even though Calvin did not like the mantle of Platonist, it is clear Calvin has been impacted by certain teachings of Plato directly or indirectly by platonic church fathers such as Augustine. The next philosopher that had a deep impression on John Calvin is Aristotle. The man simply known as “the theologian”, Aristotle, is the epitome of what a philosopher strives to be.
It is hard to find one area where Aristotle has not influenced in philosophy or science. Aristotle started his life as a fanciful dressed student of Plato, known by his teacher simply as “the brain”. Plato picked out this nickname due to his students amazing ability capacity for knowledge. Eventually Plato had to retire and needed to pick a successor for his school, he bypassed Aristotle and picked someone else. Aristotle was crushed by Plato’s rejection, decided to move away, and start his own school and branch away from his old masters teaching.
He eventually became the teacher of a young Macedonian, Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s influence on Calvin is a complicated area, since Calvin is more Platonic most of his interaction with Aristotle’s assertions is to dispute them. Aristotle identified the supreme being as God, but that is only one of the few areas where the two would agree on anything. Aristotle believed in a mechanical impersonal deity, the unmoved mover, who did not create the universe. Aristotle argues the universe is eternal and not created for God.
Calvin disagrees with every bit of Aristotle’s view on the Supreme being. Calvin’s stance is of a personal, eternal, God who created all things, for his own purposes. These differences cause Calvin to use Aristotle as an example in his commentary in the book of Psalms, stating: We find that some of the greatest of philosophers were so mischievous as to devote their talents to obscure and conceal the providence of God; and entirely overlooking his agency, ascribed all to secondary causes.
At the head of this is Aristotle, a man of genius and learning; but being a heathen, whose heart was perverse and depraved, it was his constant aim to entangle and perplex God’s overruling Providence by a variety of wild speculation; so much so, that he employed his naturally acute powers of mind to extinguish all light Calvin who had been impressed by both Plato and Aristotle, was impressed in radically different ways; Plato’s views empowered and bolstered Calvin’s theology, while Aristotle sharpened Calvin’s argument against ideas that went against the biblical view of God.
One major area of contention between Calvin and the classical philosophers Aristotle and Plato, is Ethics or moral philosophy. John Calvin view on Ethics is purely theological at its core. Calvin starts off with the biblical account of the Fall. Calvin argues that since the fall of Man, sin has crept in all aspects of life, especially Man’s thoughts. This causes all humankind’s actions to be corrupt, contorted, and unpleasing to God.
Man, cannot and will not do what is pleasing to God; it is not within his power, he is a slave to sin. Calvin then claims that only by the Holy Spirit indwelling in a man conforming him to Christ, can a Man do what is pleasing to God. This view puts him at odds with both philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato argues that happiness and the “highest good” (Sunnum Bonnom) is achieved when one is in union to God, or likeness to God.
While Calvin agrees with this view to a certain extent, Calvin believes that Plato misses a major point, that Mankind alone cannot conform himself to the likeness of God, nor does mankind have the will to do so. Calvin stands by his earlier statement, only by the indwellment of the Holy Spirit can a person be in “union” with God. The other philosophical giant, Aristotle, starts off his view of ethics in his work, the Nichomachean Ethics, a book for his son Nichomauchus.
Aristotle argues that the “highest good” is achieved when we strive for “Eudaimonia” or life well lived, or life flourishing. Eudaimonia, per Aristotle is achieved only after a lifetime, Aristotle further explains, “for one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day” Eudaimonia takes serious amount of time, that combines our action with virtue, consistently improving ourselves and sharpening our natural skills.
Aristotle goes on to state, ‘We become builders, by building, we become harpist by playing harps, similarly we become just by doing just actions”. Aristotle is basically stating that virtues and morals are achieved through habit. John Calvin’s critique of Plato’s view would also apply to Aristotle, that without the Holy Spirit conforming, humans cannot do what is pleasing to God, it is outside our corrupted human “reasoning”. Another area of contention between John Calvin, Aristotle and Plato is on Epistemology, the study of knowledge.