The Reformation Was Not As Radical As You Think: Calvin And Virtue Ethics

There is a widely held perception today—shared by ethicists, historians of ethics, and theologians—that the Reformation inaugurated a sharp break from earlier forms of eudaimonist virtue ethics prevalent in the medieval period (Rehnman 2012, 473–75, 490; Herms 1982). The assumption that the Reformation broke radically with older theories of virtue, whether Aristotelian or Christian, has been es-poused by a number of scholars. According to Servais Pinckaers, Protestantism replaced virtue ethics with an ethics of law: “What separated Protestantism from the theological tradition preceding it,” he writes, “was, first, the refusal to integrate human virtues within the heart of Christian morality through acceptance and as-similation” (1995, 285). Alasdair MacIntyre likewise interprets the Reformation as a revolt against eudaimonism. He speaks of John Calvin’s conception of God as a des-pot setting forth arbitrary commands with no comprehensible relation to either human ends or desires (1998, 79). This general sentiment is repeated by Brad Gregory, who speaks unambiguously of the magisterial Reformers’ “repudiation of teleological virtue ethics” (2012, 265, and similarly, 209, 211, 269, 271).

However, an alternative line of scholarship argues that Protestantism retained virtue ethics, and one scholar (Rehnman 2012, 476) even charges secondary litera-ture with “gross neglect of primary sources.” After surveying forty-six Protestant commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics published between 1529 and 1682, another scholar concludes that the Nicomachean Ethics “continued to form the backbone of [Protestant] moral education” (Svensson 2019). While most of these commentaries remain unexplored, contemporary efforts to retrieve concepts of vir-tue by reference to early Protestants illustrate the relevance of older virtue traditions for religious ethics (Danaher 2004; Cochran 2014, 2018; Wilson 2005; Herdt 2008; Davis 2004; Fedler 1999; Vos 2015; Nolan 2014; and Hofheinz, 2017, 68–113).

If numerous Protestants espoused varieties of virtue ethics heavily informed by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, does Calvin (1509–64) form an exception to this broader trend? Judging from the results of recent Calvin scholarship, one would assume that virtue ethics was at best incidental to Calvin’s theology. Summaries of Calvin’s ethics admit the importance of natural law but tend to omit any sections dealing with virtue or happiness (Haas 2009, 2004; Fuchs 2009, 1986; Sinnema 1993, 13; and Hesselink 1992). The various citations to Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics in Calvin’s works have been dismissed as “more literary than substantial” such that “the direct Aristotelian influence on Calvin is slight” (Partee 1977, 99; see also Anderson 1973, 55–57; Sinnema 1990, 119). Relying on such scholarship, a recent survey states that “Calvin seems to have had little to do with Aristotle’s philosophy” (Kärkkäinen 2017, 198). Calvin’s ethics has been characterized as making a “sharp break with classical philosophers and medieval scholastic theologians . . . both in its ability to discern good and evil, and in its power to direct the human will and affections into virtuous action” (Haas 2004, 93).

In contrast to such scholarship, others argue for Calvin’s positive relation to virtue ethics. Some of the older literature on Calvin’s ethics observed that he discussed virtues and correlated them with the Decalogue (Lobstein 1877, 13, 43, 46, 81, 114–15, 128; Lobstein 1880; Nazelle 1882, 25–31; and Wallace 1959, 126–30, 170–92, especially 178). A number of recent works dispute the general idea that Calvin broke with virtue ethics, while affirming that he holds a variant of Christian virtue ethics (Fedler 1999; Vos 2015; Nolan 2014; Anderson 1973, 302–76; and Hofheinz, 2017, 68–113). Many scholars also disagree that Calvin only made slight or negligible use of Aristotelian philosophy. Joseph McLelland long ago pointed to Calvin’s use of Aristotelian logic, noted his use of the “familiar [ethical theme] of the mean between two extremes” and argued that generally “his use of certain categories of thought indicates his continuity with much of Aristotelian tradition” (McLelland 1965, 46, 48). Others argue that Calvin has a concept of the virtue of prudence which, while perhaps not entirely Aristotelian, is “something like it” (Stevenson 1999, 43, 160n30–31). Anthony Lane calls attention to Calvin’s use of Aristotelian logical categories—in some cases “fundamental to Calvin’s argu-ment”—that include the ethically significant concept of habit (habitus) (Lane 1996, xxv–xxvi; see also Lane 1981, 82). Irena Backus argues that Calvin employed Aristotle’s concept of equity from the Nicomachean Ethics (2003b, 17–18; correct-ing Haas 1997), and Calvin’s “framework [of emotions] . . . is eclectic combining elements of Stoic and Aristotelian theories in particular” (Backus 2003a, 79). Vernon Bourke interprets Calvin’s theory of the will as holding to a “rational appetite theory not unlike that of St. Thomas,” which places Calvin in discontinuity with Aristotle but in continuity with Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle (1964, 70), while Richard Muller argues that “Calvin clearly held to the traditional Aristotelian ‘faculty psychology’” and he notes various conceptual parallels to me-dieval theories (2000, 165–66). Even more strikingly, Risto Saarinen states that “Calvin’s view of acting against better judgement represents the typical Aristotelian-Thomist model” that stems from medieval commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics (2011, 165; see also Raith 2012). These positive indications of the importance of Aristotelian ethics to Calvin’s thought—sometimes filtered through medieval tradition—fit well into revisionary literature on Renaissance humanism, which observes that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics continued to be the foremost authority for moral philosophy among humanists, including the French humanism of Calvin’s youth (Lines 2012, 2007). Read more»

David S. Sytsma | “John Calvin and Virtue Ethics: Augustinian and Aristotelian Themes | Journal of Religious Ethics 48.3 (2020): 519–56


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!