Does The Westminster Confession Contradict Calvin On Assurance And Faith?

For much of the 20th century it was a datum, a given, for many students of Calvin and the Reformed tradition that many of the English Reformed (especially the Westminster Assembly) abandoned Calvin and the Reformation doctrine of the faith and assurance. Typically the argument ran something like this:

  • For Calvin assurance is of the essence of faith.
  • The Westminster divines made assurance a second blessing
  • Ergo, the Divines abandoned Calvin on this point.

The grounds for thinking this way begin in the (1559) Institutes 3.2.7:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it 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 (Battles edition).

In contrast, this reading highlights the fact that the divines confessed:

This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it…. (WCF 18.3)

This interpretation of Calvin and the Reformed tradition is wrong for three reasons.

1. Calvin did not become the sum and substance of Reformed theology until Karl Barth and his followers made him so. This required a significant overhaul of the way the Reformed understood themselves and their history. The Reformed theologians and churches in the classical period (16th and 17th centuries) did not regard him as the last word. He was an important voice in the tradition but there were, from the beginning, other tributaries into the Reformed stream of the Reformation (e.g., Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, and Vermigli). On this see Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ibid., After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

2. This contrast ignores the very contexts (times and places) in which Calvin and the Westminster Assemblies served. Calvin died in 1564. The divines largely completed their work in 1647–48 or 84 years after Calvin’s death. The divines were working in the wake of the rise of the Remonstrant (Arminian) crisis, in the midst of the English Civil War, in the midst of what they saw as an antinomian crisis, and on the edge of modernity—Descartes died in 1650. The English Protestants had 8 decades to practice the theology that had learned from Calvin and his successors. Remember that the divines were active pastors, preachers and pastoral counselors who met regularly with their parishioners to offer them comfort and encouragement. In other words, it is a poor method to set these two statements against each other without accounting for the very different settings in which they were expressed.

3. Most importantly, this contrast quite ignores what Calvin and the divines actually said about assurance. It would require a book to refute this misinterpretation fully but if we simply begin by reading in Calvin beyond Institutes 3.2.7 and if we pay closer attention to what the divines actually wrote, we will have good reason to doubt that Calvin v Calvinists thesis on assurance.

Several years back I did a 5,000 word essay on Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and comfort. In it I wrote,

He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘…repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).

Many years ago, Joshua Rosenthal pointed out to me a very helpful distinction between faith considered in se (in itself) and faith as it exists in us. Calvin himself recognized this distinction. We can see it if we begin in Institutes 3.2.1 and keep reading beyond 3.2.7 to the end of the chapter in section 28. Calvin repeatedly recognized similar problems that the divines were facing, that faith as we experience seems to fluctuate. He recognized, e.g., that all believers have implicit faith in something or someone. “We certainly admit that so long as we dwell as strangers in the world there is such a thing as implicit faith; not only because many things are as yet hidden from us, but because surrounded by many clouds of errors we do not comprehend everything” (Institutes 3.2.4). Rome’s error was in making the church the object of that faith.

Calvin recognized that we do not always experience the benefits of the assurance that belongs to faith.

Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief. Far, indeed, are we from putting their consciences in any peaceful repose, undisturbed by any tumult at all. Yet, once again, we deny that, in whatever way they are afflicted, they fall away and depart from the certain assurance received from God’s mercy (3.2.17).

Nevertheless, as he goes on to explain, even in the midst of doubt and temptation, there is a bedrock of assurance to which we return.

He was not alone in recognizing the distinction between faith as it is in itself and as we experience it. The Synod of Dort, responding the challenge posed by the Remonstrant doctrine that it is possible for the elect to fall away, confessed:

ART. XI. The Scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that they may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:13); and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering (Canons of Dort 5.11).

Calvin’s work, the language of William Perkins (1558–1602), and William Ames (1576–1633) et al formed the background to the assembly’s language on assurance.

In Westminster Confession chapter 18, the divines began to work through the problems associated with the doctrine of assurance. That they began with the problem of hypocrites tells us something about their setting. They were about reforming the state church. There were people who were nominally members of the Church of England, who had no spiritual interest or were only interested in “having the baby done” (baptized) but who were otherwise disconnected with the life of the church. Further, all the Reformed recognized that there will always be those who profess faith but who are not yet born again and there are those who profess faith but who shall never be regenerated nor believe. They described these as “hypocrites and reprobates.” Then there were those who worried that they might be among those who were self-deceived. So the divines distinguished between them. Yes, they conceded, there are hypocrites but, those who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace…”.

In contrast to Rome’s doctrine of “conjectural and probable certainty” (see Perkins above) the assurance about which the divines were speaking is “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation” and the internal testimony given by the Holy Spirit (WCF 18.2). They were even described the assurance that believers have as an “infallible assurance” (18.3). It does belong to the essence of faith but, as Calvin recognized (as Paul Schaefer pointed out several years ago), it does not so belong to it such that believers never doubt, struggle and “conflict with many difficulties.” They freely admitted

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair (WCF 18.4).

Assurance, however, is not a second blessing. The divines did not say that assurance does not belong to the essence of faith. What they did was to recognize that we live in fallen world. That sinners sin. That sinners doubt. That sinners struggle. but God graciously revives assurance within. Arguably, the divines are being criticized by the “Calvin v the Calvinists” school for teaching a theology of the cross.

Indeed, the divines insisted that believers do finally gain assurance “extraordinary revelation” through “the right use of ordinary means” (i.e., the preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and prayer). Contra Rome, this doctrine of assurance does not lead believers to lead immoral lives but to lead godly lives. The divines were concerned that people should not think that because they doubt and struggle that they are not or no longer believers. Rather, they were trying to encourage not discourage people.

The Calvin v Calvinists approach to relating Calvin and the Westminster Confession does not do justice to the different contexts in which Calvin and the divines did their work, nor does it adequately account for the nature of the Reformed tradition, and most importantly, its interpretation of the Calvin and the Westminster Confession does not do justice to what they actually said about assurance. Both recognized that believers, in this fallen world, are going to struggle with assurance but they both affirmed that assurance is of the essence of faith.

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  1. Thanks for your article. I found it helpful. Just today I was on the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary’s website looking at their upcoming conference this January celebrating the 500th year of the Reformation. I saw that one of the speakers, Jason VanVliet, is speaking on the topic “Calvin on Sola Fide: Justified by an Assured Faith Alone?” Here is the description:

    The Reformation made it abundantly clear that we are saved by faith, not by works. At the same time, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1). But what if I don’t always feel so assured in my faith? Must I be certain in my faith to be certain of my salvation? Following John Calvin as our theological guide, we will explore the challenging terrain of faith, assurance, and justification, with a special focus on comforting those who struggle “with various doubts of the flesh” (Canons of Dort, 5.11).

    It sounds like he will be covering some of the points you raised in the above article. I am sure the videos will be on the seminary’s website following the conference if anyone is interested in watching the one by VanVliet or others.

  2. Would it be safe to say that both Calvin and the Westminster Divines preached a faith in God built on the saving acts of Christ, while too many moderns preach a faith in faith?

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