Calvinism and Rationalism

THE Concordia Publishing House of Saint Louis, Missouri, is currently publishing a translation of the late Francis Pieper’s book on Christliche Dogmatik, or, translated, Christian Dogmatics. There are to be three volumes. Two or them have already appeared.

With great force and conviction, Dr. Pieper sets forth orthodox Lutheran theology. For Pieper, Lutheranism is Christianity come to its own. Non-Lutheran forms of Protestantism are said to be defective. And their defective character is due, basically, to a rationalistic attitude toward Scripture.

Theology of Self-Consciousness

Pieper makes a searching analysis of the “theology of self-consciousness,” that is, the modern theology of Schleiennacher and his followers. “Invented for the purpose of insuring the scientific character of theology, this theology makes its advocates play the role of the man who, in order to brace his toppling Ego, takes a tight hold on his Ego. Furthermore, the Ego theology is a form, the worst form, of idolatry—self-deification” (vol. I, p. 127).

Reformed Theology and Ego-Theology

But what of Reformed theology? Does Pieper share the frequently stated position that all orthodox Protestants have essentially the same view of Scripture? Does he think that all “fundamentalists” should unite in common opposition to all “modernists,” calling them back from their confidence in “experience” to belief in the Word of God? Far from it! Pieper is convinced that orthodox Reformed theology is deeply tinged with the principles of “Ego-theology.” Says Pieper: “The desire to go beyond Word and faith, and to walk by sight already in this life, has given rise to Calvinism, to synergism, and lies at the bottom of the entire modern ‘construction theology’ (Konstruktions-theologie).”

The main objection raised against Calvinism is that of rationalism as based upon and proceeding from an ego-theology. “What we object to in the Reformed theology is this, that in all doctrines in which it differs from the Lutheran Church and on which it has constituted itself as the Reformed Church alongside the Lutheran Church, it denies the Scriptural principle and lets rationalistic axioms rule” (vol. I, p. 186).

Calvin, a Rationalist

As for Calvin himself, says Pieper, he virtually forsook the revealed will of God. “The depths of the Godhead are not hidden to Calvin: they are so clear to him that by them he cancels the revelation in the Word (the gratia universalis)” (vol. II, p. 47).

Calvin’s “particularism” is said to have its roots in his rationalistic appeal to the hidden will of God. “Luther lets the Word of God, Scripture itself, tell him what the gracious will of God is, how far it extends, and what it effects. Calvin lets the result (effectus) or the historical experience (experientia) determine what God’s gracious will is” (vol. II, p. 48). “True, also Calvin says that we should not seek to explore the hidden will of God, but rely on Christ and the Gospel. But how can Calvin direct men to rely on Christ and the Gospel since he teaches that only some of the hearers of the Word have a claim on Christ? As a matter of fact, he does not direct men to Christ and the Gospel, but to their inward renewal and sanctification, or to the gratia infusa” (vol. II, p. 46). “Calvin’s theology, therefore, is not basically Biblical, but rationalistically motivated” (Idem, p. 276) .

Calvinism Virtually Denies the Incarnation

In following Calvin, Reformed theology “through the use of rationalistic axioms, fixes an unbridgeable gulf between itself and genuine Christian theology (vol. II, p. 271). So, for instance, we are told, Calvinism holds to the purely speculative maxim that the finite cannot contain the infinite (finitus non est capax infinite). In virtue of this “rationalistic axiom” Calvinism virtually denies the incarnation. “In so far as Reformed theology, in its effort to disprove Lutheran Christology, applies the principle that the finite is not capable of grasping of the infinite, it inevitably denies the incarnation of the Son or God and Christ’s vicarious atonement, and so destroys the foundation of the Christian faith” (vol. II, p. 271). In this way, Reformed men commit “theological suicide” (vol. II, p. 167).

Calvinism Virtually Denies the Gospel

Again, Calvinism is said to deny the “Scripture doctrine of gratia universalis” because of another “philosophical axiom,” namely, “Whatever God earnestly purposes must in every case actually occur; and since not all men are actually saved, we must conclude that the Father never did love the world, that Christ never did reconcile the world, and that the Holy Ghost never does purpose to create faith in all hearers of the Word. This is the chief argument of Calvin in the four chapters of his Institutes (iii, 21–24) on Predestination. He disposes of the Scripture declarations which attest universal grace with the statement, repeated again and again, that the result must determine the extent of the divine will of grace” (vol. II, p. 26).

A First Reaction

What should be our reaction to these charges? Should we admit the truth of them and all become Lutherans? John Theodore Mueller, professor of Systematic Theology, takes essentially the same position as that of Pieper. Speaking of the confessional Lutheran church, he says: “Its theology is that of the Holy Bible, and of the Bible alone; its doctrine is the divine truth of God’s Word. The Lutheran Church is therefore the orthodox visible Church of Christ on earth” (Christian Dogmatics, St. Louis, 1934). Surely, we warn to belong to the visible Church of Christ.

Perhaps we have been very generous in our attitude toward all “Bible-believing Christians.” But here are “Bible-believing Christians” who charge other “Bible-believing Christians” that they are not true to the Bible. Shall we think of Pieper, of Mueller, and other Lutherans, such as Engelder, as being extremists and drop the matter at that?

Such, it may be expected, will be the attitude of “Evangelicals.” It is Reformed theology that is singled out by Pieper and his present-day successors as particularly untrue to Scripture. Moreover, it has practically become an unquestioned assumption with Evangelicals that all “Bible-believing Christians” have essentially the same attitude toward Scripture.



But Reformed Christians cannot avoid considering the charge of rationalism against them. This is especially true since they themselves make or should make, the same sort of claim for Reformed theology that Pieper makes for Lutheranism. In previous articles of this series, the contention was make that every form of non-Reformed Protestantism has leftover elements of rationalism in it. Surely we cannot then ignore this counter-charge or counter offensive.

In fact, this counter offensive should be heartily welcomed. Here are men of sound learning and piety, who claim that the Reformed Churches are, because of their rationalism, secratrian in nature. True ecumenicity, argues Pieper, can be maintained only by the truly Lutheran attitude toward Scripture. If many true Christians are found in the Reformed denominations this is “due to an inconsistency” (vol. I, p.26).

We Plead Guilty

Taking the charge of rationalism seriously, we would immediately plead guilty. For rationalism, as Pieper uses the term, involves an unwillingness fully to submit our thoughts captive to the obedience of Scripture. And who is not guilty of this?

But we plead guilty too in a more specific sense. We plead guilty to using our minds, our experience, our intellect, as a standard by which to judge whether the Bible is the Word of God. In the last article we charged evangelicals with thus selling up a standard that is above the Bible. But we have often been guilty of this sin ourselves. Yet Pieper did not point to this easily available evidence of rationalism in Reformed theologians.

We plead guilty, moreover, to interpreting whole areas of life independently of Scripture. We all too often use our intellect as though it had a field of its own next to the Bible. Owning the authority of Scripture in religion we all too frequently own the authority of “reason” in science and philosophy. But again, Pieper did not point this out.

Finally, we plead guilty to charge of sometimes saying or assuming that the Bible cannot mean this or that. We are often deductivistic in our exegesis of Scripture. So in affirming the concept of common grace, we assume that there must be commonness without difference. Or, in denying common grace, we argue from the doctrine of election and reprobation that God cannot at any time and in any sense be propitious to those who are ultimately lost.

Now it is deductivism in exegesis that Pieper has in mind when he speaks of Reformed theology, as being rationalistic. And we plead guilty to the frequent employment of deductivism in exegesis. Yet, we do not plead guilty to the charge made against us.

We Are Innocent

Pieper’s charge is not that individual Reformed theologians have been rationalistic in their approach to Scripture. His charge is that it is of the genius of Reformed theology as such to be rationalistic. The system of Reformed theology, he argues in effect is rationalistically constructed. This we deny.

Pieper has not sought to refute the painstaking exegesis of Calvin and his followers as they deal with the doctrines of predestination, the two natures of Christ, and particularism. If Calvin and his followers had been moved by rationalistic considerations in the formulation of these and other doctrines they would have tried to show how such doctrines are “in accord with reason,” in accord with “the experience of freedom.” On the contrary, Calvin and his followers have interpreted “the laws of reason” and “the experience of freedom” in terms of Scripture as the only final authority for man. At the very beginning of Calvin’s Institutes we are told that man does not see himself for what he really is except he recognize himself as a creature of God. And to recognize himself as a creature of God he must own himself to be a sinner before God. Moreover, Calvin argues further on, to recognize one’s sinfulness, he must have learned to know himself in the light of Scripture, of Scripture as understood by the regenerating and illuminating operation of the Holy Spirit.

Lutherans and Irrationalism

At this point, Calvinism and Lutheranism, as set forth in Pieper’s work, part company. With unquestioned desire to follow Scripture wherever it may lead him, Pieper virtually holds that it may lead anywhere. It may teach “that God intends to save the world through Christ.” Nevertheless “God’s purpose is not accomplished in a part of mankind” (vol.II, p. 27).

This approach is irrationalist in character. If God’s will of decree can be resisted, He is as Luther would say “a ridiculous God.” The nature of his power would be indistinguishable from the nature of man’s cause. The distinction between God as original or ultimate cause and man as derivative and dependent cause would be done away. Then Luther’s words are applicable: “But if I know not the distinction between our working and the power of God, I know not God Himself” (The Bondage of the Will, Engl. transl., Grand Rapids, 1931).

Moreover, the irrationalist doctrine o( the human will leads away (rom the Protestant doctrine of Scripture. Romanism required men to have implicit faith in the church. From this slavery of men to other men Luther applied to Scripture. “What say you, Erasmus? ls it not enough that you submit your opinion to the Scriptures? Do you submit it to the decrees of the church also? What can the church decree, that is not decreed in the Scriptures? If it can, where then remains the liberty and power of judging those who make the decrees?” (Idem, p. 22). The very idea of the Bible as a final standard of judgment becomes meaningless on the assumption that there is no Cod who controls whatsoever comes to pass. Faith would be blind trust in the guesses of men themselves surrounded by Chance.

Lutheran Apologetics

We must now inquire about the nature of Lutheran Apologetics as Pieper and others think of it. Do we not expect him to call upon men simply to believe in the Scriptures as the Word of God? In his doctrine of Scripture is irrationalist in nature, how then can he appeal to reason at all?

Yet, to “reason” he does appeal. “When we compare the Holy Scriptures according to content and style with other ‘Bibles’ in the world, e.g., with the Koran, then a reasonable reason cannot do otherwise than conclude that the Scriptures must be divine and confess that it is more reasonable to grant the divinity o( Scripture than to deny it. This is the domain of apologetics” (vol. I, p. 310). Again, “Christ is appealing not only to the Scriptures, but also to something which is known even to natural reason—to the omnipotence of God” (Idem, p. 311).

This conception of Apologetics as held by Pieper and other Lutherans is essentially the same as that o[ other “evangelicals” or “conservatives.” Together with other “conservatives,” Pieper appeals to the “natural man” as having within him, as standard by which he can judge the truth or falsity of the Scriptural claim to its own authority.


The final question now presses itself upon those who hold to the Reformed Faith. The Calvinist certainly believes in the Scriptures as self-authenticating. For believing this, he is virtually labeled as irrationalist by the “conservatives” as represented by Carnell. Carnell wants “reason to canvass the evidence of a given authority,” including that of Scripture. Again, the Calvinist certainly believes that it is God, the self-contained and self-determinate God, who speaks in Scripture. For believing this he is called a rationalist by the “conservatives” as represented by Pieper.

How is it possible that the various classes or “conservatives,” the more rationalist and the more irrationalist types agree in a common opposition to the Reformed Faith? It is because of their common assumption of man as having certain ultimate powers. Even the conservative Lutherans, though they oppose synergism, hold to a view of man that is basically similar to that of Arminianism. In assuming man’s “freedom” to resist the counsel of God, conservatives virtually allow that God is confronted with facts over which he has no control. This is irrationalism.

In assuming man’s “freedom” to do that which is beyond the bounds of God’s plan of providence, the conservative at the same time virtually assumes that God and man are equally subject to laws of logic that operate in a Universe enveloping both. This is rationalism.

Both irrationalism and rationalism are thus seen to spring from a common source. That source is the assumption of man’s “freedom” or ultimacy. It is the human ego, unwilling to recognize that it is a creature and a sinner.

Of course, the conservative is neither a rationalist nor an irrationalist at heart. As a true Christian, he, at heart, believes what the Reformed Christian believes. And, of course, the Reformed Christian also harbors remnants of both irrationalism and rationalism in his attitude toward life. But granting this, it is the Reformed system of thought, and therefore the Reformed concept of Scripture which alone makes a serious effort to set forth a consistently Christian position in the world today.

The Reformation

As this is being written, it is Reformation day. Is that a time for forgetting such things as have been spoken of in this article? Apparently, our Lutheran brethren do not think so. Neither do we. It is, to be sure, a time to thank God for what Luther did. It is also a time to thank God for what all “Bible-believing Christians” are doing. But those who would be true to the “Protestant Heritage” must continue, among themselves, to search for the true principle of Protestamism. A Bible as self-authenticating, not subject to a standard resting in man, a Bible speaking the word of the self-contained and self-determinate God, the God who cannot deny Himself, that is, we believe the true principle of Protestantism. But the “conservatives” or “evangelicals” today do not, as a rule, believe in the Bible in this way without qualification. And to the extent that they depart from believing in the Bible as the self-authenticating Word of the self-contained God, they depart from the principle of Protestantism. And a true Christian apologetic is a true Protestant apologetic.

Cornelius Van Til is professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa.