Calvin and Frye


On the face of it, one wouldn’t think that Frye would take a very sympathetic view of Calvin, but here’s a piece he wrote on Calvin at an age when most of us were trying to stagger through an undergraduate curriculum. He was two years past his majority. Perhaps his conclusion about the interpenetration of the historical and transhistorical is relevant to the discussion of both/and.

“The Importance of Calvin for Philosophy”
by Northrop Frye

To make one’s mark in the contemporary world of scholarship one must be both erudite and eclectic: the present age has a vast number of intellectual interests, and the attainments of those who specialize in any one of them are looked upon with respect increasing in proportion as the field becomes more narrow and intense. The high priests of modern learning are expected to be able to talk unintelligibly about their particular subjects and to require a hair splitting nicety of statement from their acolytes. As a result, laymen feel a certain hesitancy in handling the really important questions of those cultural disciplines with which they are unfamiliar and prefer to have the assurance of expert opinion before canonizing any prejudice which involves them.
Why theology should be so grotesque an exception to this rule it is by no means easy to say. Perhaps the safest working assumption is that people are anxious not to concede the validity of theology’s claim to be a cultural discipline because, once theology is recognized, religion must be recognized too, and if religion be recognized, what would become of contemporary society? So the well educated, enlightened man of today grows up with a superstitious awe of science, and a certain amount of respect for philosophy and the arts, but is quite prepared to group theology with alchemy or kabbalism and to talk of religious developments in terms which, by the standards set for any other intellectual pursuit, would disgrace a six year old. Probably most of us will spend a good deal of time explaining gently to otherwise well informed people that mysticism is not the same thing as mistiness, that predestination is not fatalism, or that the ordinary priggish rule of thumb bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, according to which, if one observed the fifth and seventh commandments, one could break the other eight with impunity, is not Puritanism. After doing that, we should not be too much shocked if we find that John Calvin, who has done more to influence our conception of God than any other man, should be for many people an incarnation of the devil. For the stock caricature of Calvin as a merciless and humourless sadist who really believed only in hell would make a very fair Satan for some aspiring Milton. There may be a few even in so initiated a group as this whom it might be expedient to remind that Calvin was not a Scotchman, that he was only indirectly responsible for Calvinism, and that he was not responsible at all for degradations and perversions of his teachings made by superstitious bigots.
We are not concerned tonight with the rehabilitation of Calvin’s character, but with the investigation of a problem closely bound up with the contemporary abhorrence of him, which may prove, on analysis, to be less inexplicable than it is ignorant and ill considered. The problem may be briefly stated thus. There is no clear line between theology and philosophy: the questions they respectively deal with cannot be disentangled. Both are rationalized accounts of the interrelation of soul, external world, and God. Both rest on axioms supplied by faith. The difference between them is a difference of emphasis. At some periods the theologian and the philosopher become merged into one thinker: thus, Aquinas was the greatest philosopher of his time because he was its greatest theologian, and vice versa. Schleiermacher in modern times provides a parallel synthesis. In Calvin we have a theologian with a first class brain; posterity may prove him wrong, but it cannot prove him a fool: why, then, does he not at least touch on the problems of philosophy? A general history of philosophy is bound to mention Aquinas; it finds no occasion to mention Calvin. The questions which are implied in this include two of some importance: First, does Calvin’s theology have any integral connection with the philosophical thought of Calvin’s time, as is the case with Aquinas? Second, has Protestantism such a thing as a philosophical foundation at all? The former is the subject of our immediate enquiry.

It is admitted, of course, that to say that Calvin had a logical mind does not necessarily imply that he had a systematic one. The Institutes is not predominantly an apologetic or polemic, as the City of God is, nor is it essentially synthetic or dogmatic, as the Summa is. It is critical and analytic, systematic chiefly by implication, professedly a commentary on Scripture and, therefore, inductive in its reasoning, and an opponent of uncontrolled speculation. It is a guide to action in religion and, therefore, avoids raising the larger issues which reflection would call forth. But, nevertheless, theology is a rational approach to the problem of the relationship between God and man, and both it and philosophy, to become complete, must invade one another’s territories. We are accustomed to think of philosophy as the presentation of the facts of experience in an intellectual pattern. Science brings in data from the outer world, classifies it and sorts it out, establishes the presence of laws which work the physical machinery of the universe, and provides a barrage of objective facts against our prejudices. Philosophy works out the implications of science and presents a still more coherent view of the world, and systematic philosophy is, thus, admittedly deeper and more fundamental an intellectual activity than science. Unfortunately, however, it is less satisfactory in getting results that are tangible and irrefutable; for it reflects the state of knowledge existent at its time, and, being subject to the limitations that imposes, is essentially a historical phenomenon. The history of philosophy, therefore, underlies systematic philosophy as the latter does science. But in its turn the history of philosophy cannot be content to be a mere record of changing tastes and endlessly refuted opinions: if it does not contain a shape and significant form, everything dissolves in scepticism. That significant form, however, must lie in history itself; in other words, the most fundamental intellectual activity of the human race is a philosophy of history, an attempt to find a pattern in existence. As the only knowledge we can have is knowledge of the past, life as an object of knowledge must be history, so that a philosophy of history and a philosophy of life, popularly regarded as the only practical goal of knowledge, are the same thing.
Now Christian theology rests on the doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which it regards as a historical event, however it may interpret the doctrine of Incarnation itself. All theology is bound to be, in our tradition, a philosophy of history in essence; and one Christian sect is distinguished from another largely through the view it takes of the historical context of the coming of Christ. We have at one extreme a Catholic interest in the salvation of the world as a whole, which sees a critical and unique change in the Advent, symbolized by the establishment of an infallible Church and tradition of doctrine. At the other we have a Protestant interest in the individual, which tends to deny the historical importance of it altogether, and to regard it as an eternal relationship between God and man. But whichever side we favour, the point at the moment is that theology forms a matrix of philosophy, as well as of culture generally. In any age, the deepest intellectual problems are always theological, which means that our understanding of the cultural pattern any age presents depends on our understanding of its theology.
This implies, of course, that theology is no less dependent than any other study on the social conditions and requirements of the time. Theology is the summation of our knowledge of God; and as that can obviously never be complete, it must always be subject to human limitations, the most important and ultimate of which, when a number of the greatest geniuses of an age are working on it, is the outlook of that age. This is not to say that an agnostic historical relativism is the last retreat of wisdom, for there are permanent truths carried on and reinterpreted from one period to another. But in considering the theology of so powerful a thinker as Calvin, the point we have just made, that the understanding of it brings a quicker and more intuitive comprehension of the general intellectual pattern of his time than any other approach could do, implies the complement, that it is ultimately a part, although a central part, of that pattern. Besides, the fact that Christian theology is so closely associated with a philosophy of history makes it essential that the historical perspective of any contribution to it be taken into consideration.
What we have said, of course, implies a unity and coherence to Christian tradition; if we cannot accept the postulate that Christendom has remained an intellectual entity when it is no longer a political one, our thesis at once collapses. But once the obvious fact is recognized that Christian theology has always striven primarily to recreate a relationship with Jesus, it becomes a necessary inference that this involves the problem we are considering. For the ideal is constant and eternal, and the need for reinterpretation arises from the changes in human fortunes, so that Protestantism, like other approaches in the Christian faith, is produced by the necessity of a new historical perspective.
This new historical perspective, with its requirements, results from a general change in the cultural pattern; and if we regard the latter as an organic unit, or rather as part of one, rather than as the dustheap of a conflict of material interests, theology becomes, not a tangled skein of thin spun concepts, but a kind of nervous system which penetrates into the remotest corners of contemporary art, philosophy, politics, and economics. Calvin’s immediate historical context was such a change: a crisis in the organic growth of Western culture, an access of self consciousness, and a consequent development of individuality. The results of this are familiar to everyone: an increase in technical power resulting in the rise of the middle class, the development of credit capitalism and colonial expansion, the shift from market town to culture town and the consequent growth of nationalism, the development and specialization of the arts. Luther and Calvin represent two rhythms of this movement. The former belongs to the period of revolt, the latter to the period of consolidation. Renaissance and Reformation both were in origin a surging up of the vitality and energy of the physical against the dried up abstraction of an outmoded scholasticism, an assertion of awakened delight in the world of sense experience. The typical figures of this rebellion—Luther, Rabelais, Skelton, Titian, Paracelsus, Henry VIII—all have a Falstaffian bodily exuberance about them. At the same time there was all the disillusionment of a long, indecisive, incredibly brutal conflict, and the great men whose energies were directed toward consolidation and the establishment of order were of a very different type. A hard intellectual ruthlessness, arising from a disciplined grasp of reality and an anything but enthusiastic view of the human race, is the hallmark not only of Calvin in theology but of Machiavelli in politics, of Montaigne and Cervantes, perhaps even Shakespeare, in literature, of Galileo in science, of the devotees of form and imitation of classical models in the arts. (Machiavelli, of course, has suffered far more even than Calvin from misrepresentation and confusion with the prince of darkness, the main influence at work there being Elizabethan drama.) In spite of much scepticism and even cynicism about these men, their extraordinary clarity of perception, their completely controlled knowledge of the sin and folly of mankind, makes it difficult for the most sentimental of us to ignore them. Calvin’s intellectual environment was one of profound contempt for cloudy or prejudiced thinking and for any form of naive optimism in regard to a human society boiling over with cruelty and selfishness.
For the most general impression we have of the time is that of a tremendous centrifugal sense of dislocation. The discovery of America and the trade routes to India had brought a movement of expansion without any compensating feeling of unity. The balance of power had shifted to the oceanic countries, Rome was no longer the psychological centre of the world, and the cosmopolitan Christendom of the Middle Ages had been torn apart into national units, but the result was purely disruptive, and anything like a cooperative ideal for mankind as a whole looked impossible. The historical perspective had been dislocated by the discovery of classical culture; the Catholic theory of the infallibility of the Church rested on a philosophy of history attaching all importance to the Incarnation, which had of itself transformed the world from darkness to light, abolished the old dispensation, and proclaimed the new. Such a thesis was hard to maintain in the face of the great literary and sculptural masterpieces which proved classical civilization to have been a higher flowering of the human spirit than the so called Christian Dark Ages which followed it. Cosmology had been dislocated as well; in place of the geocentric medieval system in which man’s concerns had a central significance, Copernicus had flung away the spherical wrappings of Aquinas’s universe and showed the earth as a speck of dust in infinite space, in which man looked very small and very accidental. (Copernicus is added here because he completes the pattern: his ideas were by no means undisputed, even by reputable scientists, until late in the seventeenth century.) The whole movement of colonial expansion, of course, was part of the same thing. But while loyalties in the temporal world became less subtle and refined, they became far more material and concrete. The process of atomism that the rise of the middle class was forcing on Europe, the splitting up of the feudal pyramid topped by pope and emperor, reinforced its rapid expansion and division by the consolidation and close organization of each unit. Absolute monarchy and unquestioned obedience to the prince became, with most of the Erastians, even a part of religion, and was in fact largely a substitute for religion, for it is easy to overestimate the actual hold of Christianity on the sixteenth century. Certainly in England a good deal of the Catholic cult of the Virgin was absorbed into the Protestant cult of the Virgin Queen. Not that this implied the passive subjection of the new and dominant middle class, of course; the middle class exalted the prince because their economic interest demanded the protection of a strongly centralized national unit. Their economy was a town economy, and most of the nations growing up at the time consisted of a capital city and a surrounding territory for it to draw strength from. The dictator prince was a projection of bourgeois competitive individualism. This, of course, is what distinguishes the bourgeois culture between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries from the bourgeois culture produced by the Industrial Revolution. The former combines an intense feeling of communal national solidarity with an aggressive individualism; energy, for it, will necessarily incorporate itself in strict forms. When the culture town disappeared at the end of the eighteenth century and the metropolis emerged, with its panoply of democracy, machine technique, and a social feeling of a mass rather than a group, civilization became completely individualized. Calvin is the presiding theological mind of the former period; that of the later, as well as we can judge at present, is Kant.
The sense of dislocation is just as obvious in the history of thought as in the history of politics. In Aquinas, at the height of medieval culture, we have a conception of a God who is infinite energy operating in intellectual forms. God’s will is conditioned by his intellect: he has created a universe in which two and two make four, and he will not go back on that. To Scotus and Occam this was a reflection of God’s power: God can do what he likes; the universe is a projection of his will, and one must not limit God to a necessary choice. Occam is reputed to have argued that God could have incarnated Himself as well in a donkey as in a man if he had willed it. This, of course, was part of the creed of nominalism, according to which the objects of experience were real, and the generic types employed in their classification had a value that was conceptual and instrumental rather than intrinsic. For Aquinas reality lay in those general or universal ideas: it was impersonal and objective and, therefore, intelligible; whereas with his opponents reality was ultimately bound up with experience, of which reason is, like its ideas, an abstraction. Scotus was the first to say that man cannot reach God through the reason. But this feeling of the nominalist, that universals were abstractions and particulars real, had its political consequences as well. The Thomist doctrine that reality existed in universals had as its political inference a politically and spiritually united Christendom. The nominalists by contrast tended to become nationalistic; and they were, of course, supported by the weak but rising middle class, who allied themselves with the king against the nobles, who propped up the feudal system. Therefore, Wycliffe succeeds to Scotus and Occam in England, and with him the patriotic alliance is established. The nobles in England seized power and held it all through the fifteenth century, but eventually they collapsed. The political struggle sharpened on the Continent with Wycliffe’s disciple Huss, and was completed by Luther, who went back to Occam for philosophical guidance.
Calvin comes at the close of the nominalist tradition and completes its destruction of the Thomist synthesis. He follows the great Franciscans in his exaltation of the arbitrary and omnipotent will of God. Aquinas’s conditioning factor of the intellect left the way open, of course, for a systematic interconnection of religion with morality; God’s actions, if intelligible, can be judged by moral criteria. But if God’s will be absolute, it cannot be restrained by moral ideas, and Calvin, as acutely aware as Machiavelli or Nietzsche of the essentially nonmoral nature of experience, sweeps this aside. The Catholic test of justification—good works–is a moral one. The Protestants, in steadily hammering out the doctrine of justification by faith, were emphasizing the fact that reality lies in experience rather than reflection, and that religion, the ultimate reality, therefore, is to be conceived in terms of will, which does not operate in moral categories. Faith is not a moral activity: religion is concerned with God, morals with society; and according to Protestants they are not basically the same thing.
Another important inference from nominalism supplies us with a key to our problem. If God’s will is not conditioned by his intellect, and we cannot reach God through the unaided reason, the Thomist distinction between natural and revealed religion disappears: everything is revealed, and theology, the rational approach to God, becomes impossible except by way of revelation. This, of course, was the reason for the importance of the Scriptures in Protestant doctrine, for the translations of them by Wycliffe and Luther, and for Calvin’s complete reliance on them as the only source of revelation. But that is not the whole point. With the rise of nominalism, the connection between the theology and philosophy disappears. The philosophical descendant of the nominalists, Francis Bacon, banishes theology from discussion on the ground that it deals with revealed truths which by hypothesis cannot encroach on philosophy or science. On the other side, Calvin clings to the authority of Scripture and attacks philosophy whenever it crosses the border of theology.
The general pattern of disruption, then, separates philosophy from theology, and the two studies run separately until the next cultural crisis contemporary with the Industrial Revolution. But the lacuna itself is simply part of an expanded but still unified pattern; the explicit connection disappears, the implicit one remains. There is no cardinal doctrine of Calvin which is not an intellectual product inevitable to the Renaissance. In Calvin’s insistence on the sovereignty of God we see reflected the intense Renaissance feeling for absolute order and cohesion, which exalted the prince to the verge of deification, which in the arts made a cult of strict form and strong outline, which in philosophy reared the dizzy mechanical and mathematical structures of Descartes and the Cartesians. We can see the new feeling for a centralized autocracy, of course, in the Erastian sects. But Calvin is far subtler. In his doctrine of election there is mirrored the immense energy and power of the expanding mercantile capitalism of his time, the activity of which had no moral responsibilities, but responded only to an overruling and irresistible driving force. This is not in Lutheranism, or at any rate not completely in Lutheranism; it is only in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination that we can see the connection between the new self conscious individualism of the Renaissance and the new autocracy, which at first sight seems such a paradox. In his exaltation of the transcendence of God we see the Renaissance contempt of human society that we find in Machiavelli and Montaigne; and in the individuality of Calvin’s appeal, the isolation of the human soul in its relation to God, the Renaissance “complete man.” I am not for a moment concerned to deny that Calvin’s concepts are on a spiritual level and that the things I connect with them are on a temporal one. The patterns remain analogous: Calvin has grasped the inner form of Renaissance life and has worked it into a theological system. The Catholics carried on a parallel development: Loyola and the Jesuits brought a similar revival of Augustine’s doctrines of grace and self discipline, a similar separation of morality from the work of the will of God in the world, a similar feeling for complete cohesion of organization and subordination to authority. The authority was spiritual as well as material: just as the cult of the prince was associated with the following of classical models in art, so was Calvin’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God associated with an absolute reliance on Scripture. But we have to look deeper than scriptural exegesis to get at the conditioning factors of Calvin’s theology. As it is quixotic to look for literal coherence and absolute consistency in the Bible, a theologian seeking scriptural authority is bound to impose a preconceived form on the material provided by it. That form in Calvin’s case was established by the requirements of his own time, which he, as a genius, could grasp as a unity.
If this thesis, that a great book owes its greatness to the fact that it makes explicit the intellectual outlook of its time, be conceded to have any validity, it will at once become apparent that our attitude to tradition is simplified. The one thing certain about the theology of the immediate future is that it will be a twentieth century theology. However, contemporary thought expends a good deal of its energy in predicting the philosophy just around the corner in terms of the swing of a Hegelian pendulum. We have gone too far in this or that direction: there is bound to be a reaction in that or this direction: such is the monotonous argument of innumerable books written today. In making this reaction we will “go back to” some thinker we have neglected, or we will move further away from him and view with alarm, as a symptom of decadence, what he stood for. All this seems to me to be bosh. Whether the future be inevitable or not, there can be no doubt the past is, and the past extends to the present and conditions it at every point. We are not at liberty to free ourselves from the rhythm of history as it sweeps us along the moving dot we call the present: if we are born in a tradition, we have to do the best we can with that tradition. A good deal of Catholic thought today is greatly weakened by the fact that it feels itself bound in consistency to regard the Renaissance and Reformation as essentially a mistake, the development of individuality since that time having been on the wrong track, and to propose that we return to the ideals of the Middle Ages in politics, philosophy, and art. Surely such a reaction to history is hopelessly quixotic. We move very quickly in a linear progression; we are dragged backward into the future, and are not free to stop and start again. Protestantism works with the unit of the individual, not a movement primarily nor the political or cultural manifestation of a movement. It, thus, gains an advantage in that it is not tied to a social group: it does not have to prove that society was happiest when it was most Protestant, nor does it have to whitewash all Protestant governments to show that there was a purity about them that others lacked. The fact actually is that the world has undergone a Protestant Reformation, and we are living in a post Reformation world and have no choice in the matter.
I shall not, therefore, wind up with the conventional peroration that Calvin’s ideas, though they may be outmoded in many ways, yet contain much that is valuable for us, and that as we are moving away from facile humanism and prosperous liberalism, we will find a new value in discipline and humility, etc., by going back to Calvin. My point is throughout, paradoxical as it may sound, that Calvin’s value for us is in direct proportion to his value for his own time: that the latter made him great, and his greatness makes him valuable. Truth, in spheres other than those that can be treated by exact science, depends on organic coherence. Calvin is a fact in our tradition: he is at work moulding and influencing us and countless others in all sorts of subtle and intangible ways, and he is not an isolated thinker we can accept or reject or pick and choose from. The same thing is true of Aquinas, of course; consequently, it is hardly possible for Christianity to preserve much longer the antithesis of Catholic and Protestant. The traditions of Catholics, which run through Loyola and Pascal instead of Luther and Calvin, are different from ours; but as Loyola and Calvin approximated similar cultural patterns, and Catholics and Protestants today do likewise, the difference is far less than we might imagine. Our immediate concern, then, is to review as briefly as possible what lies between Calvin and us.
The most important factor here is, of course, the emergence of a second crisis in the development of Western culture: the shift from culture town to metropolis which brought about the Industrial Revolution in economics, the French and American Revolutions in politics, and romanticism in the arts. This crisis is all the more important for us, since before it those religious traditions which were not Calvinist can be clearly distinguished from Calvinism, but after it a transformation of religious thought took place which began breaking down these distinctions and shaping an entirely different outline of thought.
The first thing to be noticed is that the association of Calvinism with the psychological attitude of a social class resulted in the gradual casting of it off as a disguise for political and economic movements. Thus, the rise of the middle class oligarchy in seventeenth century England was primarily a religious movement in 1642, primarily political in 1688, and primarily economic in 1776. With this subsidence of the religious impulse, it became inevitable that activity should be increasingly regarded as an impersonal force and in origin autonomous with man. Deism, the most prevalent religion of the eighteenth century, prepared the way for the complete individualizing of bourgeois society and the final disruption of belief in a creative consciousness.
The philosophers of German romanticism, who in the main followed Kant in their epistemology, worked out the theory of impersonal overruling will in the world to its logical conclusion. The pessimistic fatalism of Schopenhauer represents perhaps the ultimate reaction to Calvin. For predestination implies a transcendent God, fatalism an immanent one. A transcendent God, postulated as good, is necessarily a completely conscious God: the working out of his purposes may be inscrutable, but should not the less command our loyalty. But an immanent God, practically the same thing as organic nature, must be a blind irrational irresponsible force which causes endless suffering and fitful happiness, and which is never likely to achieve its own self realization and certainly is unconscious of our own participation in it. This repudiation was balanced, partly even in Schopenhauer, by the doctrine of the perfectibility of man through the destruction of evil institutions, a theme which started with Rousseau and finally swept up the Darwinian discoveries into the complete bourgeois synthesis of Herbert Spencer, in whom the universe becomes one vast capitalistic system of competitive development, expansion, and progress, always refining and complicating its technique to produce bigger and better forms of life. In somewhat more appealing forms the philosophy of evolution postulated a Utopian goal for humanity somewhere at the end of history. It is good for us to die fighting to reach that goal, said these philosophers, though there may be nothing to compensate us for our pains but the perfunctory and generalized gratitude of posterity: a view of life so monstrous and hopeless that the most hardened Calvinist might shudder to contemplate it.
Eventually, with Bergson for example, the evolutionary philosophy and the romantic doctrine of the organic, creative, unconscious will met and merged. But this completion of the pattern has shown us very clearly that the access of self consciousness brought about during the Industrial Revolution was basically an awareness of the movement of the time. We have been evolving a time philosophy for over a century and are at present being paralysed through the introspection resulting from the contemplation of motion, seeking more permanent and enduring forms than those afforded by the processes of organic growth: forms more easily accessible both to the intellect and the moral sense. Much of the contemporary horror of Calvinism can be traced to the fact that his predestination is regarded in the perspective of evolutionary fatalism; we take it for granted that the purpose of a transcendent God is the same thing as the “immanent Will and its designs” of Hardy’s Dynasts. Again, it is not always realized how comparatively easy it is to see the essential value of Calvin’s concept of sovereignty and detach from it his particular view of the future life. We have fully realized now, surely, that while rewards and punishments and eternal life may exist after death, all must be infinitely subtler a process than we imagine: that to project into eternity our three dimensional ideas of earthly existence is an activity essential to symbolic art, but has no place in speculation.
Contemporary with Calvin, the thought of the transcendence, immutability, and permanence of God led philosophers to attempt to approach him in terms of the most static forms they could conceive, which they necessarily derived from mathematics and physics. Spinoza’s conception of God, worked out in mathematical metaphors, was completely depersonalized, entirely dissociated from any process of organic development. Thus, the philosophy of Calvin’s age, owing largely to its separation from theology and theism, led first, with Spinoza, to a dead Parmenidean space universe, and then, with Bergson, to a surging Heraclitean temporal one. This means that we are now through with reactions: we must go on from Bergson, but we shall certainly not “go back” to Spinoza. The more we try to react from the time philosophy we were born in, the more assuredly we shall be caught in its backwash. That is a necessary part of our cultural inheritance; the facts it presents are irrefutable, and our future development will depend on an increased absorption of tradition, not on a further selection from it. But that Calvin will be one of the factors absorbed is indubitable. For one thing, he provides, as we have already seen, the possibility for exactly the synthesis we are bound to make. The combination of the doctrine of the sovereign God with the doctrine of election gives us a working basis to establish the permanence and transcendence of form, on the one hand, and the reality of organic experience, on the other.
Whenever a movement in philosophy passes on to another, society passes out of one mould into another, and vice versa. The expanding time philosophy of bourgeois society can last only as long as that society does. Apparently we are engaged in forming a social order dependent on cooperation and a group response rather than anarchic and chaotic individualism, but a group response which will more closely resemble, let us hope, Kant’s kingdom of ends than the stampeding masses of frightened fanatics who seem to be shaping political events today. It seems highly probable that Christianity will become more what it was in apostolic times, a proletariat religion, as we move into a society of metropolitan culture such as was existing in imperial Rome. As our political units become more stable, our philosophy will become more so too. The inference bourgeois society made from the Copernican theory, for example, that the earth is a discrete unit in an infinite and meaningless space, is bound to give way to a sense of relativism which will recognize that the centre of the universe is wherever one happens to be.
It is obvious that if we look at Calvin we can see in his view of God a Cartesian feeling for order and permanence, and that if we look at his view of man we see that for him human activity springs from sources deeper than the human will. The immense energy and uncompromising heroism of Calvinism, its tendency to consolidate in theocratic dictatorships, sufficiently refute the theory that according to it our relation with God should be one of helpless quietism. As a social force, Calvinism identified itself more explicitly with the bourgeois than with the royal side of the alliance of prince and middle class, in opposition to the Erastians, but as a doctrine both factors are present. But they are present in antithesis, not synthesis; God and man have too wide a gap between them. Just as Aquinas had extended the feudal society of his day into heaven and established a hierarchy of angels leading up to God, so in Luther we find an absolute monarch protecting the interests of a democratic body of the saved through their faith in and obedience to him. There is something of this in Calvin, but on the whole his scheme disregards the state and the organization of human society, resting on an Augustinian dualism between a city of God, or body of elect, and an excluded world.
As our civilization becomes more mature, it is bound to expand and take in more of its cultural heritage. A greater eclecticism will no doubt do much to rehabilitate Calvin, but the positive contribution of the thought between Calvin’s time and ours cannot be ignored; nothing less than the full consciousness of the unity of our tradition will be satisfactory for us. And it seems that the time philosophy of the last century has a real value in reinforcing Calvin’s doctrine. Now that evolution has penetrated into our intellectual make up, we are beginning to sense the working out of a purpose in the organic world, so that the Manichean dualism of a static principle of good existing beside an unregenerate nature, which came into Christian thought with Augustine, is no longer necessary for us. Of course, as we have said, the purely evolutionary doctrine, that the only truly elect are posterity, and that the ideal is actualized at the end of a historical progression, is full of contradictions and is, when pressed to its logical conclusion, unthinkably repulsive. But nevertheless we have inherited a feeling which expressed in Christian terminology might be said to be a perception of the creative, developing, redeeming power of the Holy Spirit in the affairs of men, conserving the good, progressing toward the better. To assume that this exhausts God’s activity is to assume God an imperfect force striving to self realization, such as we find in the creative evolution religions of such thinkers as Bernard Shaw. The weakness of such an attitude is that it recognizes no evolutionary lift in human history; it depends ultimately on geology for its religious dogmas and in most cases turns to the idea of the development of a “superman” which, expressed again in Christian terms, amounts practically to a call for an Incarnation, an identification of the evolutionary principle with an historical event. Nor has it a firm enough grasp of the permanence, preexistence, and immutability of the phenomenal world, the world as an object of understanding, which the immediate successors of Calvin perhaps overemphasized.
Our conception of a dynamic world must surely arrive eventually at some idea of a tension of opposites as an underlying principle. On the one hand, there is the sphere of reality which we can in some measure understand but can never comprehend; the world of order, form, and permanence symbolized by mathematics, science, and in general the material worked on by the reason. On the other, there is the sphere of reality which we can in some measure experience but can never control; the world of development, process, and growth symbolized by political and economic movements and in general the material worked on by the will. But thought cannot stop with an antithesis; there must be tension, thrust, and counterthrust: and if there is tension there must be resolution, potential or actual. This resolution is symbolized by the arts, concerned with the incorporation of energy and inspiration in form, the deepest expression of the religious impulse. But symbols are not enough; the deepest powers of our nature drive us to find the resolution in history, and this the Christian sees in the Incarnation. In the Incarnation the redemption of the world and the infinite power of God become united in principle. Thus, Christianity is in every age a religion based on a Trinity, however that may be interpreted. For the Incarnation was not the achievement of a transient success: it was not an electric shock to the world that spent itself and passed away, but the actualizing of a principle as fundamental, as permanent, and as eternal as the love of the Father or the redeeming force of the Holy Spirit. Calvinism is not pantheism; it contains, potentially, the elements postulated above. But it has never completely freed itself from the charge of Arianism; it has not clearly differentiated the three persons of the Trinity in its insistence on the unity of God. Its doctrine of sovereignty brought it too close to the grim fighting monotheisms of Judah and Islam. For God’s power is admittedly absolute, but hardly his sovereignty; sovereign is a word which implies subject as its complement, and complementary terms are relative to one another.
If the Incarnation was the resolution of a tension, however, it becomes a definite and unique focus in human experience, particularly if it can be related to a concept of the Holy Spirit as an evolutionary redemptive force in the organic world. Thus, the Incarnation was not arbitrary and a priori, but an event important through its historical context. What lies ahead of Christian theology is a philosophy of history less antihistorical than Calvinism. For we are coming to the end of a cultural development, and our historical perspective is steadily approaching that of Augustine, who stood at the end of his. In that perspective the rise and fall of civilizations is the pattern of the fortunes of the world; the clinging to the one event in history which hints of something better than an endless dreary record of cruelty and stupidity is the function of the Church. When these two aspects of human life interpenetrate and focus into one, we shall have a theology which can accommodate itself to twentieth century requirements. It will not be Calvinism, but Calvin will be in its tradition.

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3 thoughts on “Calvin and Frye

  1. J. Allan

    Unlike Professor Denham, I had — since one of my earliest readings of Frye — thought that Frye had an affinity with Calvinism. Perhaps, the reason for this is that Frye, like Calvin, is a systematic thinker and one who works through the intrinsic “paradoxes” of their own theories. It would seem to me that Calvin’s system and Frye’s system (particularly, the archetype) share much in common — a view that I have presented previously — in which the notion of knowledge binds Calvinism to the Frygian archetype. Calvin writes in the Institutes: “When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before his eyes, so that to his knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present; and present in such a manner that he does not merely conceive of them from ideas formed in his mind, as things remembered by us appear present to our minds, but really beholds and see them as if actually placed before him. And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world, and to all the creatures.” Calvin’s understanding of knowledge seems to have influenced (a problematic term) Frye’s archetypes insofar as Calvin’s knowledge becomes like the archetype which “extends to the whole world.”

    In Frye’s Calvin essay, there already seem to be indications of a theory of archetypes; “For the ideal is constant and eternal, and the need for reinterpretation arises from the changes in human fortunes, and so that Protestantism, like other approaches in Christian faith, is produced by the necessity of a new historical perspective.” Frye seems very much to be harkening Calvin’s definition of God’s knowledge: “so that to his knowledge nothing is future, or past, but all things are present” when Frye writes “constant and eternal”. Further, it seems that when we turn to Anatomy we can begin to fathom the possibility of a Calvinistic influence when Frye writes that the archetype is “a typical and recurring image” and that “because of the larger communicative context of education, it is possible for a story about the sea to be archetypal, to make a profound imaginative impact on a reader who has never been out of Saskatchewan” and further that such an image “cannot in itself be called even a ‘coincidence’.” It would seem that there is a constant and eternal value to the archetype for Frye like Calvin’s knowledge.

    It would seem, however, that there is much more to be said on this concern. Likewise, I am certain that Professor Denham and other commentators have read far deeper into this concern than I have. In addition, Rev. Ian Sloan recently gave a lecture — “Cheerfully Writing Off Protestantism: The Reverend Northrop Frye and the Reformation” — on this very matter at the University of Toronto as part of a series of lectures offered by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies.

  2. Joe Adamson

    Very interesting essay, Bob, and a good corrective to my dismissal of Clayton’s invoking of Calvin. I am struck by the second last sentence, and the core idea in the essay of a creative tension of opposites, very much along the lines of the closing passage in chapter 2 of The Secular Scripture: “The combination of the doctrine of the sovereign God with the doctrine of election gives us a working basis to establish the permanence and transcendence of form, on the one hand, and the reality of organic experience, on the other.” A transcendent revelation in an evolving or dialectical relationship with the reality of human creativity, the sacred scripture and the secular scripture. The two revelations, “both/and,” and the dialectic of two aspects of the same thing. It also reminds me, in the emphasis he places on the inescapable fact of cultural history, of a quotation he uses from someone (I forget who) to the effect that: “English literature will always have been Protestant.”

    However, what is missing in Calvin is a visionary element, whether sacred or secular. Here is what he has to say about Calvin in 1985 (an idea he recurs to elsewhere) when he was well past his majority, to say the least: “The unwillingness of so many religious temperaments to try to grasp the reality of a revelation in any but doctrinal terms recurs in a number of religious communities. . . . The Reformation was founded on the doctrine of justification through faith, but conceiving faith as something to be expressed in the language of creed or thesis minimized the visionary element in it. We notice that Calvin could make very little of the Book of Revelation in his Biblical commentaries; in spite of its dense texture of allusions to the Old Testament, the quality of the language eluded him.”(Northrop Frye on Religion, 352)

  3. Robert D. Denham

    To be sure, there’s much to admire in Calvin: his humanist assumptions, his hard headed intellectualism, and, as Frye says, his unsentimental view of the psychotic apes (original sinners) that we all are. In his Bible lectures he calls Calvin a “great theologian.” And to be sure, one can find similarities between Frye and Calvin (the system building, the search for coherence, the importance of discipline). But there are differences, and in saying that “on the face of it,” Frye and Calvin would seem to be strange bedfellows, I had in mind the differences. One main difference is Calvin’s insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God. Frye was not given to affirming absolutes about anything. Then there’s the idea that you and I and Northrop Frye may well have already been consigned to hell by this sovereign God. The chief difference, though, is what Joe Adamson points to, by way of the quotation from “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” that Calvin put no faith in the visionary imagination. It’s the absence of that that gave Frye pause about all theologians, and that absence doubtless explains why he read so little theology. He read a smattering of Barth and Tillich and Bultmann, even less of Bruner. On the whole Frye paid little attention to the theologians because he was not much interested in doctrine or systematic theology as modes of thought. As he says in his Late Notebooks, “Calvin was a deluge-theologian: the immense gap between a theological lawyer with his case & the powerful creative energy of Genesis, not afraid to make God look a fool.” Calvin’s unconditioned God, as Frye says in his Great Code Notebooks, is a demon. Or again, also from the Late Notebooks, “The dialectic of belief and vision starts with the contrast in emphasis between the scholastic & the mystical, Calvinism and Anabaptist-Quakerism, Talmudism & Kabbalism. One emphasis listens to the doctrine unfold itself; the other sees the (apocalyptic) pattern.” Calvin saw the Bible as a causal sequence. Frye saw the Bible as a typological series of timeless moments that shatters the sequence.


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