Calvin at the Centre

Paul Helm’s latest, Calvin at the Centre, is a fascinating book presenting a fresh look on several key themes in Calvin and his lasting influence upon later theologians. In many ways, the book is a follow-up to Helm’s earlier work John Calvin’s Ideas. Calvin at the Centre focuses on Calvin’s thoughts on epistemology, metaphysics and anthropology.

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10 years ago

Great episode. Helm’s book is superb.
I think the connection between Descartes (primarily the Meditations, Ob. and Replies, and Discourse on Method) and Calvin–or what we might think of as the basics of reformed and biblical epistemology–needs further consideration. Helm’s chapter is a wonderful survey, but it does not go much beyond summarizing Menn’s book Augustine and Descartes and Verbeek’s Descartes and the Dutch, and does not stop to consider the generally mainstream view of Descartes scholars, that he was far more naturalistic than a quick browse of the Meditations might suggest.

If we follow the more theistic interpretations of Descartes, seeing him in many ways in line with Augustine, it’s not exactly clear (as Jonathan states in the episode) that “while Calvin thinks the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are reciprocal, Descartes denies that.”
You might think this because, of course, the bottom foundation of our knowledge for Descartes is “knowledge of self,” the cogito and, broadly, the contents of thought. That is where Descartes, after all, begins. But first of all, this betrays the narrative structure of the Meditations. Descartes, at least at first, distances himself from the mediator, whom he presents as an empiricist, and likely Descartes is framing the meditatior as a common sense thinker, a scholastic in the Aristotelian tradition. This structuring of the Meditation, Descartes’ distance (at first) from the meditator, and its polemical, rhetorical purposes, should make us pause in interpreting the arguments, especially their ordering.

Nonetheless there seems to remain an epistemic priority between knowledge of self and knowledge of God, with the former, for Descartes, being more basic. That’s the standard story and it might be right (if you read Descartes’ attempt, in the Ob. and Replies, to demonstrate the arguments “in geometrical fashion,” this un-calvinist interpretation certainly seems to fit) but there’s also reason to think Descartes might be far closer to Calvin’s epistemology than virtually anyone has argued. There are a number of reasons, one of which is that I think Descartes uses a strong transcendental argument in the early Meditations, uncomfortably similar to Van Til’s. Another is that some difficult passages in the Meditations (e.g.) are often dismissed by most commentators. Consider this notorious passage in the third meditation, in questioning the reliability of clear and distinct perception and the possibility that God is a deceiver:
“But in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver. For if I do not know this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else.”
The passage should be surprising—most commentators think Descartes does not really mean that, without knowledge of God, he can doubt everything, as that would include the cogito! But I think that’s exactly what he means, and a type of transcendental argument flows out of this, because it means the existence of any knowledge whatsoever presupposes the existence of a non-deceiving God. Anyway, that’s a possible interpretation which you can read about here: http://sites.google.com/site/paphilosophy/home/papers/Descartes%27sTranscendentalProject%28Winter2010%29.pdf?attredirects=0

Nate Shannon

10 years ago


Is this paper on Descartes – the link provided above – are you the author?


10 years ago

Yes. Sorry for the self-promotion on an otherwise empty comments page.


10 years ago

Sorry, James, not Jonathan.

Tim H.

10 years ago

I finally finished this one. (I’m getting behind!) It was very helpful. I didn’t follow everything, but I just love to hear James talk. Bring him on more often!


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