Helm: Calvin v the Calvinists?

Paul Helm was one of the first to challenge the Calvin v Calvinists thesis so his recent post on Calvin and covenant theology is a little surprising.

Though I’m quite critical of important aspects of Pete Lillback’s volume on Calvin’s covenant theology I do agree with him that Calvin’s covenant theology, though not reaching the sort of development one sees in the 17th-century writers, was probably more developed than Helm seems to allow. For example, Helm denies that Calvin held any sort of notion of the covenant of works. I wouldn’t argue that Calvin never said anything that might be in tension with a covenant of works but he did speak of the tree of life and the Noahic rainbow as “documents and seals of his testaments ” (Institutes 4.14.18). In his commentary on Gen 2 and 3 he suggested that Adam would have entered into a state of glory had he remained upright. The structure of is conception of the prelapsarian existence is at least consonant with later developments and with the Belgic Confession’s notion of the “commandment of life.” To be sure, Reformed federal or covenant theology was in transition at the end of Calvin’s life but it seems to strong to suggest that Calvin’s idea of the prelapsarian state is utterly alien to the developing notion of the covenant of works which was happening right under his nose in the 1550s and 60s.


  1. I’ll be responding to Helm’s little essay in a few days. I think he understates Calvin’s position on the CoW. Interestingly, in his book, “John Calvin’s Ideas”, page 405, I think, Helm suggests that Calvin argues for what would later be known as the pactum salutis.

  2. Helm’s strongest piece of evidence, it seems to me, is that Calvin said of Adam that God could quite well have arranged affairs so that Adam’s sin affected only himself. However, he gives no citation further than “Sermons on Galatians” and I can’t find the relevant section. Any ideas?

  3. Well, de potentia absoluta, (regarding God’s absolute power) that (or other possibilities) is true. What is in question is what Calvin understood God to have ordained. I don’t really understand Paul’s interpretation of Calvin on this. It seems to be excluding a fair bit of data.

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