Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
C. Gordon Olson on John Calvin and the Gift of Faith
04/17/2007 - James SwanC. Gordon Olson presents a fair amount of historical analysis in Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism. Coming under scrutiny is none other than John Calvin. One curious historical tidbit by Olson is the implication Calvin did not believe faith is the gift of God given to a specific chosen people. Of Calvinists believing faith is a gift from God, Olson says, "Contemporary Calvinists have gone far beyond Calvin in this area and show a serious lapse into a scholastic deductionism rather than giving preference to direct Scriptural inductive study" (p. 228).
Olson notes inductive Biblical study proves faith is not "...the immediate, direct gift of God..." (p.228). Olson says, "...God is never represented in Scripture as striking people with faith as a direct gift...". He then offers a number of proofs. A subcategory in this section is entitled, Faith is always ascribed to man, not God. Olson then quotes Calvin for support:
"The next question is, in what way do men receive that salvation which is offered to them by the hand of God? The answer is, by faith; and hence he concludes that nothing connected with it is our own. If, on the part of God, it is grace alone, and if we bring nothing but faith, which strips us of all commendation, it follows that salvation does not come from us.... When, on the part of man, the act of receiving salvation is made to consist in faith alone, all other means, on which men are accustomed to rely, are discarded. Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ" [Calvin's Commentary on Ephesians 2:8, bolded text by Olson).
From Olson's quote, it would appear Calvin is right with him. Olson is intent on showing faith is something man has the ability to muster up without it being given by God. He molds Calvin's quote to say this. But notice the "..." (indicating he left some of Calvin's words out). The section missing is pertinent. Calvin says,
"Ought we not then to be silent about free-will, and good intentions, and fancied preparations, and merits, and satisfactions? There is none of these which does not claim a share of praise in the salvation of men; so that the praise of grace would not, as Paul shews, remain undiminished."
The act of faith would be the direct consequence of free will, and it would indeed be something man could contribute to his salvation. But even more troubling with Olson's interpretation of Calvin is his lack of research into Calvin's view of the gift of faith throughout his writings. If Olson is correct, I shouldn't be able to find clear affirmations Calvin believed faith is the gift of God, statements from Calvin like these:
"[Paul] exhorts the Ephesians to remember (Ephesians 2) that they were saved by grace, not by themselves nor by their own works.... Faith, moreover, precedes justification, but in such a sense, that in respect of God, it follows. What they [Roman Catholics] say of faith might perhaps hold true, were faith itself, which puts us in possession of righteousness, our own. But seeing that it too is the free gift of God, the exception which they introduce is superfluous. Scripture, indeed, removes all doubt on another ground, when it opposes faith to works, to prevent its being classed among merits. Faith brings nothing of our own to God, but receives what God spontaneously offers us. Hence it is that faith, however imperfect, nevertheless possesses a perfect righteousness, because it has respect to nothing but the gratuitous goodness of God" [John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent With its Antidote, (The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection, Ages Digital Library, 1998), 110].
"Now we understand that we are made partakers of all his blessings by means of faith; for this it is which brings us into communication with Christ, in order that he may dwell in us, that we may be ingrafted into him as our root, that we may be members of his body, that we may live in him, and he in us, and possess him, with all his benefits. And that it may not be thought strange that we attribute such virtue to faith, we do not take it fox a fleeting opinion, but for a certainty which we have of the promises of God, in which all these blessings are contained, and by which we embrace our Lord Jesus Christ as the surety of all our salvation, and apply to our own use what he has received of God his Father to impart unto us. This faith we likewise know that we cannot have if it be not given us from above, and as Scripture declares, (Ephesians 2:9; 1:18) till the Holy Spirit enlightens us to comprehend what is beyond all human sense, and seals in our hearts what we ought to believe" [John Calvin, Selected Works of Calvin Volume 2 (The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection, Ages Digital Library, 1998), 138].
"Since, therefore, Abraham is at this time the father of all the faithful, it, follows that our safety is not to be thought otherwise than in that covenant which God established with Abraham; but afterwards the same covenant was ratified by the hand of Moses. A difference must now be briefly remarked from a passage in Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 31:32) namely, because the ancient covenant was abolished through the fault of man, there was reed of a better remedy, which is there shown to be twofold, namely, that God should bury mens sins, and inscribe his law on their hearts: that also was done in Abraham's time. Abraham believed in God: faith was always the gift of the Holy Spirit; therefore God inscribed his covenant in Abraham's heart. (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Ephesians 2:8)" [John Calvin, Commentary on Ezekiel (The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection, Ages Digital Library, 1998), 574].
"Dearly beloved brethren we must not be amazed if the article of the everlasting predestination to God, be so assaulted and fought against by Satan's maintainers, seeing it is the foundation of our salvation, and also serveth for the better magnifying of the free goodness of God towards us. On the other side those Dogs which bark against it thinking to have a good and favorable cause are therein more hardy: as in very truth there is nothing more contrary to man's understanding, than to place the cause of our salvation in the good will of God, in saying, that it belongeth to him alone to choose us: without finding of anything in us wherefore he should choose us: and after he hath chosen us, to give us faith through which we should be justified" [ John Calvin, Sermon on Election and Reprobation, (The Comprehensive John Calvin Collection, Ages Digital Library, 1998), 225].
One of the primary sources Olson used for his Calvin reseach was R.T. Kendall's book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. Like Norman Geisler, Olson uses the phrase extreme Calvinists in a less-than-charitable fashion. Perhaps designating Olson an extreme-Kendall-ist is appropriate. He has gone beyond one of his sources for Calvin research by attributing a position to Calvin that he did not hold. Kendall explains Calvin: ..."We cannot turn to God or do anything that pertains to obedience until first we have been given faith" (Kendall, p. 26). For C. Gordon Olson to use any comment from Calvin to prove faith is not the gift of God is simply historical sleight-of-hand.