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John Calvin’s Institutes (ICR) > Book 2, Chapter 12, Section 1 to Book 2, Chapter 14, Section 8

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Our reading group is now reconvening after the summer break. If you recall, at our last meeting, we learned about the similarities and differences between the Old and New Testaments. Today, we will be starting our study on the person of Christ. I have added a few more sections to this session’s material, so that we finish all of chapter 14. Also, in an effort to simplify things, the notes will be greatly abbreviated and I will rely more on Anthony N. S. Lane’s A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institutes (Baker Academic, 2009) for the summaries.


In this chapter, Calvin shows how our Mediator needed to be both God and man.

1. It is impossible for anyone to restore peace between God and ourselves except by a Mediator who is both God and man. This is God’s initiative. “The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us ‘Immanuel, that is, God with us’ [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23]” (p. 464). Christ became man because God willed it, not because it was an absolute necessity. God was not forced to provide a Savior; rather God freely willed it.

Here, Calvin also introduces the humbling idea that humanity needed a Mediator even before the fall; how much more so after the fall! “Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator. What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse?” (p. 465).

2. Calvin affirms the patristic idea that Christ became who we are in order to make us what he is. “His task was so to restore us to God’s grace as to make of the children of men, children of God; of the heirs of Gehenna, heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom. Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace?... Ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us” (p. 465). For this reason, it was necessary for him to be both God and man.

3. Calvin summarizes Anselm’s classical treatise Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man?”). Christ’s death was a satisfaction offered to God: “that man, who by his disobedience had become lost, should by way of remedy counter it with obedience, satisfy God’s judgment, and pay the penalties for sin… In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us” (p. 466). Here, Calvin also develops the idea that Christ paid our penalty (an idea that is less prominent in Anselm’s work). Note the last sentence: “He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath” (pp. 466-467).

4. to 7. Calvin rejects the teaching that the Son would have become incarnate as man, even if Adam had not fallen. (This idea originated with Duns Scotus [AD 1265-1308] in the Middle Ages and was held by Calvin’s contemporary, Andreas Osiander). “The only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf” (p. 468). The Scripture clearly teaches that Christ came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). “For if Adam’s uprightness had not failed… it would not have been necessary for the Son of God to become man” (p. 471).

To those who speculate that the Son would have taken on human likeness apart from the fall, Calvin warns, “all those who propose to inquire or seek to know more about Christ than God ordained by his secret decree are breaking out in impious boldness to fashion some new sort of Christ” (p. 469). Calvin calls this type of teaching “rubbish” (p. 474).


In book 1 chapter 13, Calvin taught on the deity of Christ. Here, he proves Christ’s humanity.

1. Scripture proves Christ’s humanity. Here are some of the examples that Calvin provides: gospel blessings are promised to be accomplished by the seed of Abraham and Jacob, that is, by true human flesh (e.g., Gen. 12:3; 17:2, 7; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). Christ is the Son of David (e.g., Ps. 45:6; 132:11; Matt. 1:1; Rom 1:3). He is born of a woman (e.g., Gal. 4:4). He was subject to human infirmities like hunger, thirst, and cold (e.g. Heb. 4:15a).

2. Calvin refutes the errors of Marcion and Mani. Marcion (living in Rome from AD 140-155) taught that the Old and New Testaments were opposed to each another. He taught that the world of space, time, and matter was evil. Accordingly, Marcion believed that Christ “put on a phantasm instead of a [true human] body” (p. 476). Similarly, Mani (AD 216-277) taught that physical matter was evil. As such, according to Mani, Christ had a “body of air” (p. 476). Both Marcion and Mani were condemned as heretics by the early church.

Calvin reminds us that Christ was endowed with a real human body. “‘Christ shared in flesh and blood’ that he might gather his children unto himself to obey God [Hebrews 2:14]. In these words Christ is clearly declared to be comrade and partner in the same nature with us” (p. 477).

3. Calvin rejects the idea that Mary was only Christ’s “host mother” (as taught by the Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons). Calvin considers Menno Simons as a ‘Marcionite’ of his day because of Menno Simons’ erroneous teachings, denying Christ’s true humanity. Calvin clarifies that Mary was Christ’s true mother (Luke 1:42). “Christ was begotten of Mary [and] he was engendered from her seed, just as when Boaz is said to have been begotten of Rahab [Matthew 1:5]. In the same way that Isaac was begotten of Abraham, Solomon of David, Joseph of Jacob, Christ is said to have been begotten of his mother. Christ was begotten of Mary” (p. 480).

4. Christ is truly human, but without sin, because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. “For we make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall. And this remains for us an established fact: whenever Scripture calls our attention to the purity of Christ, it is to be understood of his true human nature, for it would have been superfluous to say that God is pure” (p. 481).

Note the last two sentences where Calvin affirms that the Word was not confined to his human body. Being truly God, the Word fills the universe. “For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!” (p. 481). It should be pointed out, however, that Lutherans object to this point because they deny that the Word can exist outside the body.


This chapter affirms the Chalcedonian doctrine that Christ is one person in two distinct natures.

1. At the incarnation, the Word became flesh without confusion or mingling of the two natures. In Christ, divinity and humanity are united, but remain distinct. “The Son of God became the Son of man — not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with his humanity that each retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two natures constitute one Christ” (p. 482).

Drawing from Augustine, Calvin points out that the union of Christ’s two natures parallels the union of body and soul in humans. Every human has a body and soul. These are united, but also distinct. “For the soul is not the body, and the body is not the soul. Therefore, some things are said exclusively of the soul that can in no wise apply to the body; and of the body, again, that in no way fit the soul; of the whole man, that cannot refer — except inappropriately — to either soul or body separately… Thus, also, the Scriptures speak of Christ” (p. 482).

2. Scripture proves that Christ is both God (paragraph 1) and man (paragraph 2). Scriptural proofs that Christ is God include his own self-attestation that “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He is the “first-born of all creation” who was “before all things” and “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:15, 17). Christ was “glorious in his Father’s presence before the world was made” (John 17:5). He is also truly man. Scripture testifies that he “increased in age and wisdom” (Luke 2:52), did “not know the Last Day” (Mark 13:32), etc.

Sometimes, Scripture makes statements about one nature that pertain to the other. This is referred to as “communication of properties” (paragraph 3 and footnote 4). For example, it is said that “God purchased the church with his blood (Acts 20:28) and that the “Lord of glory was crucified (1 Cor. 2:8). John says that the “Word of life was handled” (1 John 1:1) and that “God laid down
his life for us” (1 John 3:16). “Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched with hands. But since Christ, who was true God and also true man, was crucified and shed his blood for us, the things that he carried out in his human nature are transferred improperly, although not without reason, to his divinity” (p. 484). The reason that it is possible for Scripture to speak this way of Christ is “because the selfsame one was both God and man, for the sake of the union of both natures he gave to the one what belonged to the other” (p. 484).

3. Scripture clearly teaches the unity of Christ, especially in John’s (paragraph 1) and Paul’s writings (paragraph 2). “For [in the Gospel of John] one reads there [was] neither of deity nor of humanity alone [in the person of Christ], but of both at once: he received from the Father the power of remitting sins [John 1:29], of raising to life whom he will, of bestowing righteousness, holiness, salvation; he was appointed judge of the living and the dead in order that he might be honored, even as the Father [John 5:21-23]… the Son of God had been endowed with such prerogatives when he was manifested in the flesh” (p. 484).

Similarly, Paul speaks of how Christ “lay concealed under the lowness of flesh and ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ [Philippians 2:7], laying aside the splendor of majesty, he showed himself obedient to his Father [Philippians 2:8]. Having completed this subjection, ‘he was at last crowned with glory and honor’ [Hebrews 2:9], and exalted to the highest lordship that before him ‘every knee should bow’ [Philippians 2:10]” (p. 485). Therefore, “those things which apply to the office of the Mediator are not spoken simply either of the divine nature or of the human” (p. 485), but of both united in one person.

message 2: by Alex, Moderator (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
4. Calvin firmly believes that the teaching of two natures (neither mingled nor separated) in one person is clear from Scripture. “It is utterly obvious how beautifully the various statements agree among themselves, in the hands of a sober expositor who examines such great mysteries as devoutly as they deserve” (p. 486).

Christ’s two natures are united, not mingled (as opposed to the Eutychian error) and not divided (as opposed to the Nestorian error). “Away with the error of Nestorius, who in wanting to pull apart rather than distinguish the nature of Christ devised a double Christ! … Let us beware, also, of Eutyches’ madness; lest, while meaning to show the unity of the person, we destroy either nature… For it is no more permissible to commingle the two natures in Christ than to pull them apart” (pp. 486-487; see also footnote 11).

5. to 8. Calvin turns his attention to Michael Servetus, whom he calls a “deadly monster” for teaching that “Christ [is] a mixture of some divine and some human elements, but not to be reckoned both God and man” (p. 487). Calvin warns his readers to beware “this foul dog” for his damnable heresies which threaten to “extinguish the hope of salvation” (p. 493).

This concludes our (very) quick study on the person of Christ! At our next meeting, we will be studying the redemptive work of Christ!

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