Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Definition of Faith in Luther and Calvin

How faith should be defined is an important theological question, and it is interesting in this regard to compare Martin Luther’s view of faith with traditional Reformed views of faith such as John Calvin’s.

Luther’s concept of faith is based on his dualistic anthropology. Just as the human person can be divided into body and soul, God’s word should be divided into commands and promises (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther: With Introduction and Notes [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982], 2:317). According to Luther, God’s commands demand works, which can only be performed by the outer man or flesh. Contrasting with God’s commands are the promises of God, which demand faith. For Luther, faith is an action of the inner man or soul; therefore faith cannot be a work (Luther, Works, 2:318). Faith operates only in relation to the promises, and consists of trust in the promises of God (Luther, Works, 2:417). This command/flesh/works versus promise/spirit/faith dichotomy is the basic hermeneutical axiom in Lutheran theology. But in terms of faith, the significant thing is that, in Luther’s opinion, the object of faith is the promises of God.

On the Reformed side, the object of faith has traditionally not been limited solely to God’s promises. Faith for Calvin is primarily the knowledge of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, but it also includes an acceptance of the other parts of God’s word. Summarizing Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes 3.2.1-43, faith is defined as “a knowledge of God’s will towards us, perceived from his Word” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [LCC 20-21; ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960], 1:549 [3.2.6]). In particular, Calvin identifies God’s “benevolence or … mercy” as being the core epistemological component of faith (Calvin, Institutes, 1:550 [3.2.7]). Faith is ultimately “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:551 [3.2.7]).

But even though the knowledge of God’s mercy or “the freely given promise of God” is the core or “the foundation of faith,” Calvin denies that the knowledge of God’s mercy is the only component of faith (Calvin, Institutes, 1:575 [3.2.29]). “Faith is [also being] certain that God is true in all things whether he command or forbid, whether he promise or threaten; and it also obediently receives his commandments, observes his prohibitions, heeds his threats. Nevertheless, faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:575 [3.2.29]). Thus, for Calvin, the object of faith is the whole word of God (not merely the promises), although the knowledge of God’s mercy in Christ as revealed through the promises is the focal point of the whole word of God, and hence the focal point of faith.


sujomo said...


You might be interested to know that Bullinger wrote the following about faith: "Faith is a gift of God, poured into man from heaven, whereby he is taught with an undoubted persuasion wholly to lean to God and his word; in which word God doth freely promise life and all good things in Christ, and wherein all truth necessary to be believed is plainly declared .... the cause or beginning of faith cometh not of any man, or any strength of man, but of God himself, who by his Holy Spirit inspireth faith into our hearts." (Decades 1.4 p84)

cheers, sujomo

John Thomson said...


A helpful blog. Thanks.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Sujomo,

Thanks for that quote from Bullinger.

It sounds like Bullinger (like Calvin) also views the object of faith as God and his word considered as a whole, but with promise being the prominent aspect in the word of God.

Is that a fair assessment in your understanding of Bullinger?

sujomo said...

Hi Steven,

Here is another quote from Bullinger (Decades 1.4 p97): Faith is a gift of God, poured into man from heaven, whereby he is taught with an undoubted persuasion wholly to lean on God and his word; in which word God in Christ doth freely promise life and every good thing, and wherein all truth necessary to be believed is plainly declared”.

Yes, Bullinger considers the word of God as a whole – the whole canon of Scripture and promise is prominent in his writings, especially the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15. The quote above shows Bullinger’s emphasis that faith is a gift from God. This is underscored by one of his favourite phrases of God ‘pouring’ himself (in this case faith) into the believer. There is also a frequent reference to “undoubted persuasion” which underlies a life of faithfulness.

Another quote to show that Bullinger often has in mind the whole of Scripture is: “The second principal point of God’s word and faith is, that in the word of God there that there is set down all truth necessary to be believed; and that true faith doth believe all that is declared in the scriptures” (Decades 1.4 p96).

Cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Sujomo has drawn my attention to ch. 16 of the Second Helvetic Confession, which was penned by Bullinger in 1562, and published in 1566.

"Christian faith is not an opinion or human conviction, but a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles' Creed, and thus also of God himself, the greatest good, and especially of God's promise and of Christ who is the fulfilment of all promises."

According to Bullinger here, the object of faith is God and his truth (which is revealed primarily in the Scriptures but also in the Apostles' Creed) with an especial focus on God's promise and Christ as the one who fulfills God's promise.

Thanks, Sujomo, for pointing this out.

Jeff Miller said...

A definition for "faith" is in each case being built to fit theological and philosophical needs rather than the usage of the word in its environment.

Some would have Hebrews 11:1 and following, read as a definition of the word "faith" rather than a description of the role "loyalty" or "loyal-acknowledgment" plays for a people who must press through resistance and obstacles and a lack of supportive idols, to maintain their personal identification with a person who has made them promises of a great future. What gets them through? "loyalty".

One mistake made when transferring Biblical "faith" to modern thought is to conflate loyalty/loyal-acknowledgment with trust or even certitude, but the translators of the Septuigent maintained a clear distinction between these word groups in their translation and I think it would help if the distinction between faith and trust was maintained. Also, faith (loyalty/loyal-acknowledgement) in Scripture is overwhelmingly personal but the usage as far back as the Nicene Creed is more propositional and thus strange to the New Testament.

Does anything in all of that sound right?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for your comment.

I’ll endeavor to do a post soon on the Old Testament Hebrew idiom when it comes to the logic of faith, but it is correct in my opinion to say that loyalty is often in focus, and where it isn’t in focus, it is usually implied.

The way I view it is like this: faith in the Hebrew idiom is saying amen to God’s revelation, i.e., faith is an acceptance of God’s word. This implies trust in that there needs to be an acknowledgment of God as being a reliable source of revelation. But the focus is on acceptance rather than trust per se. In addition, this acceptance in orthodox Old Testament Hebrew thinking is not merely a mental act. In particular, because God’s revelation commands certain things, saying yes to these commands actually ends up being obedience. Likewise, because God’s revelation speaks of a covenant relationship and calls Israel to keep that covenant, faith with respect to such revelation actually ends up being covenant loyalty. Hence, the Old Testament Hebrew idiom where faith is typically used to mean covenant loyalty or faithfulness.

Sam M. said...


Elmer said...

Thanks for defining the true content of faith. It is important to know how to have a good faith in god because we as individual needs to have a solid faith which will be applied to our own beliefs.

Define Grace | Faith Defined

andama joseph said...

Ahh thanks for this forum that discusses fountain issues like Faith..from Hebrews 11:1 ..Faith is a substantiated hope..Just like the medical condition called hysteria.