From Essential Selections in Early Modern Philosophy, by James Fieser


Copyright 2015, updated 3/1/2015



Martin Luther

Desiderius Erasmus

Philipp Melanchthon

John Calvin


The Protestant Reformation was born on October 31, 1517 when German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed a revolutionary document to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. The situation was ripe in the surrounding German states to revolt in mass against both the religious and political domination of the Catholic Church, and the Reformation movement spread from there throughout Europe. Reformers were well-schooled in philosophy and had much to say on the subject as they moved away from the medieval scholasticism that had defined the Catholic Church’s conception of philosophy.

            The first selection below is by Luther, who was born in the town of Eisleben, Germany, and studied liberal arts, law and theology at the University of Erfurt. After a religious experience he joined a Catholic religious order, and in the years to come became increasingly discontent with Catholic practices, particularly with the sale of indulgences by which are certificates for purchase from the Church that would reduce a person’s time in purgatory. The passages below are from two sources. First is Luther’s Appeal to the German Nobility (1520), the general aim of which was to garner support from Germany’s rulers. In this he discusses reforms needed throughout society, including university curricula, which relied too heavily on the writings of Aristotle. Second is from Table Talk, which is a collection of conversations with Luther compiled and published after his death in 1566. In this Luther argues that religious understanding is grounded in faith, not reason, and that, while philosophy is necessary for ordinary life, it should stay out of theology entirely.

            The second selection is by Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) who sought to reform the Catholic Church of superstitious practices while still remaining in it. Born in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Catholic priest and his mistress, he was educated in monastic schools, and ordained as a priest. Desiring more freedom to study and write, he became a wandering scholar, tutoring and writing for his income, and later in life was released from some of the constraints of his monastic vows. While initially sympathetic with the concerns of early Protestant reformers, and published works criticizing abuses in the church, he ultimately sided with the Catholics. He was a prolific writer on both religious and non-religious topics and translator of classical texts. The passages below are from four sources. In The Manual of a Christian Knight (1501) holds the Platonist view that there are three parts to human nature whereby our human soul is caught between our animal body and our heavenly spirit. In Praise of Folly (1509), he criticizes religious superstitions within the Catholic Church and the nonsense held by natural philosophers. In Against War, (1515), he argues that nature has designed humans for friendship and not war. In Popular Colloquies (1518) he discusses the differences between Epicureanism and Stoicism.

            The third selection is by German Protestant reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497- 1560), who worked with Luther and was Protestantism’s first systematic theologian. He was born near Karlsruhe, Germany, and after his University education was invited by Luther to teach at the University of Wittenberg. Among his many theological works, he is the primary author of the Augsburg Confession, one of the most important theological statements of the reformation. The passages below are from a 1536 speech he delivered titled “Oration on Philosophy.” He argues that philosophy and the philosophical method of discourse can assist theologians in combatting the theology of the uneducated masses. Aristotle’s philosophical method, he argues, is the best, while the views of Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics should be rejected.

            The final selection below is by French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). He was born in the Picardy region of France, studied philosophy and law at renowned Catholic universities, and 1533 had a religious experience that prompted him to break ties with the Catholic Church. In 1536 he published the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that is both a work of theology and Christian philosophy. Calvin went on to be a leading figure in the Reformation, second perhaps only to Luther, and the doctrines from his Institutes shaped the theology of many protestant denominations. The passages below, which are taken from this work, focus on several themes. First, he argues that human beings have an innate sense of God’s existence. Second, the human soul has a consciousness of ethics. Third is his view that our understanding of human nature needs to be based on what humans were like both before and after the fall of Adam. Fourth is Calvin’s view that God predestines some people to heaven, and the rest he predestines to hell. In a nutshell, his philosophy is this. The first created humans had pure intellects, genuinely free wills, and were not predestined to fall. After the fall, though, humans lost their freedom of choice, their intellects became compromised to at least some extent, and their salvation and condemnation became predestined by God. Both before and after the fall, humans had and continue to have an instinctive sense of God’s existence and a consciousness of morality.




Against Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Ethics (from Appeal to the German Nobility, 1520)

The universities also require a good, sound reformation. I must say this, let it bother whom it may. The fact is that whatever the papacy has ordered or instituted is only designed for the propagation of sin and error. What is the present state of universities, but, as the book of Maccabees says, “schools of ‘Greek fashion’ and ‘heathenish manners’“ (2 Macc. 4:12-13)? They are full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even more than Christ. My advice is that the books of Aristotle, the Physics, the Metaphysics, On the Soul, and the Ethics, which have up till the present been considered the best, be altogether abolished along with all others that claim to examine nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or spiritual things. Besides, no one has been able to understand his meaning, and much time has been wasted and many noble souls bothered with much useless labor, study, and expense. I venture to say that any potter has more knowledge of natural things than is to be found in these books. My heart is saddened to see how many of the best Christians have been fooled and led astray by the false words of this cursed, proud, and dishonest heathen. God sent him as a plague for our sins.

            Doesn’t the wretched man in his best book, On the Soul, teach that the soul dies with the body, though many have tried to save him with vain words? It is as if we didn’t have the Holy Scriptures to teach us everything completely of which Aristotle had not the slightest perception. Yet this dead heathen has conquered, and has hindered and almost suppressed the books of the living God. Thus, when I see all this misery, I cannot help but think that the evil spirit has introduced this study.

            Then there is the Ethics, which is accounted one of the best, though no book is more directly contrary to God’s will and the Christian virtues. Oh that such books could be kept out of the reach of all Christians! Let no one object that I say too much, or speak without knowledge. My friend, I know what I’m talking about. I know Aristotle as well as you or people like you. I have read him with more understanding than St. Thomas or Scotus, which I may say without arrogance, and can prove this if I need to. It doesn’t matter that so many great minds have exercised themselves in these topics for hundreds of years. Such objections do not affect me as they might have done once, since it is plain as day that many more errors have existed for hundreds of years in the world and the universities.

            I would, however, gladly consent that Aristotle’s books on Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics, should be retained, or they might be usefully studied in a condensed form so that young people can practice speaking and preaching. But the notes and comments should be eliminated. Just as Cicero’s Rhetoric is read without note or comment, Aristotle’s Logic should be read without such long commentaries. But now neither speaking nor preaching is taught out of them, and they are used only for argumentation and toil.


Religious Truth acquired through Faith, not Reason (from Table Talk, 1566)

4. We should not criticize, explain, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate on them, and seek their meaning. The devil and temptations also afford us occasion to learn and understand the Scriptures, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listened to them. The Holy Ghost must here be our only master and tutor; and let youth have no shame to learn of that preceptor. When I find myself attacked by temptation, I immediately lay hold of some text of the Bible, which Jesus extends to me; as this: that he died for me, from where I derive infinite comfort.

            58. All the works of God are unsearchable and unspeakable, no human sense can find them out. Faith only takes hold of them without human power or aid. No mortal creature can comprehend God in his majesty, and for this reason he came before us in the simplest manner, and was made man, ay, sin, death, and weakness. In all things, in the least creatures, and their members, God’s almighty power and wonderful works clearly shine. For what man, however powerful, wise, and holy, can make out of one fig, a fig-tree, or another fig? Or, out of one cherry-stone, a cherry, or a cherry-tree? Or what man can know how God creates and preserves all things, and makes them grow. Neither can we conceive how the eye sees, nor how intelligible words are spoken plainly when only the tongue moves and stirs in the mouth. All of these are natural things, daily seen and acted. How then should we be able to comprehend or understand the secret counsels of God’s majesty, or search them out with our human sense, reason, or understanding? Should we then admire our own wisdom? I, for my part, admit myself a fool, and yield myself captive.

            65. For the blind children of the world the articles of faith are too high. That three persons are one only God; that the true Son of God was made man; that in Christ are two natures, divine and human, etc. All this offends them, as fiction and fable. For just as unlikely as it is to say, a man and a stone are one person, so it is unlikely to human sense and reason that God was made man, or that divine and human natures, united in Christ, are one person. St Paul showed his understanding of this matter, though he did not take hold of it all, in Colossians: “In Christ dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” Also: “In him lies hid all treasure of wisdom and knowledge.”

            353. The Anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they receive also faith.


The Limits of Philosophy (from Table Talk, 1566)

7. The school divines, with their speculations about scripture, deal in pure vanities, in mere imaginings derived from human reason. Bonaventura, who is full of them, made me almost deaf. I sought to learn in his book how God and my soul had become reconciled, but got no information from him. They talk much of the union of the will and the understanding, but it is all idle fantasy. The right, practical divinity is this: Believe in Christ, and do thy duty in that state of life to which God has called you. In like manner, the Mystical Divinity of Dionysius is a mere fable and lie. With Plato he chatters: all is something, and all is nothing—and so he leaves things hanging.

            9. The Holy Scriptures surpass in effectiveness all the arts and all the sciences of the philosophers and jurists. These, though good and necessary to life here below, are vain and of no effect as to what concerns the life eternal. The Bible should be regarded with wholly different eyes from those with which we view other productions. He who wholly renounces himself, and relies not on mere human reason, will make good progress in the Scriptures. But the world does not understand them, from ignorance of that self-renunciation which is the gift of God’s Word.

            48. God alone, through his Word, instructs the heart, so that it may come to the serious knowledge of how wicked it is, and corrupt and hostile to God. Afterwards God brings man to the knowledge of God, and how he may be freed from sin, and how, after this miserable, fleeting world, he may obtain life everlasting. Human reason, with all its wisdom, can bring it no further than to instruct people how to live honestly and decently in the world, how to keep house, build, etc., things learned from philosophy and heathenish books. But how they should learn to know God and his dear Son, Christ Jesus, and to be saved, this the Holy Ghost alone teaches through God’s Word. For philosophy understands nothing of divine matters. I don’t say that men may not teach and learn philosophy; I approve thereof, so that it be within reason and moderation. Let philosophy remain within her bounds, as God has appointed, and let us make use of her as of a character in a comedy; but to mix her up with divinity may not be endured; nor is it tolerable to make faith an accidens or quality, happening by chance; for such words are merely philosophical—used in schools and in temporal affairs, which human sense and reason may comprehend. But faith is a thing in the heart, having its being and substance by itself, given of God as his proper work, not a physical thing that may be seen, felt, or touched.

            157. The philosophers, and learned among the heathen, had innumerable speculations about God, the soul, and the life everlasting, all uncertain and doubtful, they being without God’s Word. While to us God has given his most sweet and saving Word, pure and incorrupt. Yet we condemn it. It is nothing, says the buyer. When we have a thing, how good it may be, we soon tire of it, and disregard it. The world remains the world, which neither loves nor endures righteousness, but it is ruled by a certain few, just as a little boy of twelve years old rules, governs, and keeps a hundred great and strong oxen upon a pasture.




Three Parts of Human Nature: Animal body, Heavenly Spirit, Human Soul between the Two (from The Manual of a Christian Knight, 1501, Ch. 7)

To conclude, the spirit makes us gods, the body makes us animals, the soul makes us human. The spirit makes us religious, obedient to God, kind and merciful. The body makes us despisers of God, disobedient to God, unkind and cruel. The soul makes us indifferent, that is to say, neither good nor bad. The spirit desires heavenly things, the body desires delicate and pleasant things, the soul desires necessary things. The spirit carries us up to heaven, the body thrusts us down to hell. To the soul nothing is attributed, that is to say, it does neither good nor harm. Whatever is carnal or springs of the body that is filthy. Whatsoever is spiritual, proceeding of the spirit, is pure, perfect and godly. Whatsoever is natural, and proceeds of the soul, is a medium and indifferent thing, neither good nor bad. Will you more plainly have the diversity of these three parts shown to you as it were with a person’s finger? Certainly I will try. That which is natural deserves no reward. You pay reverence to your father and mother: you love your brother, your children and your friend: it is not of so great virtue to do these things, as it is offensive not to do them. For why should you not being a Christian man do that thing which the nonbelievers by the teaching of nature do, indeed which brute animals do? That thing that is natural will not be credited with merit. But you have come to such a narrow path that either the reverence toward your father must be despised, the inward love towards your children must be subdued, the benevolence to your friend set to nothing, or God must be offended. What will you now do? The soul stands in the middle between two paths: the body cries upon her on the one side, the spirit on the other side. The spirit says, God is above your father: you are bound to your father but for your body only. To God you are bound for all things that you have. The body puts you in remembrance, saying: Except you obey your father, he will disinherit you, you will be called of every person an unkind and unnatural child, look to your profit, have respect to your good name and fame. God either does not see, or else conceals and wittingly looks away from it, or at the least, will be soon pacified again. Now your soul doubts, now she wavers here and there, to whether of either part she turn herself. If she obeys the harlot, that is to say the flesh (the spirit despised), she shall be one body with the flesh. But if she lifts up herself and ascends to the spirit (the flesh set at nothing) she shall be transposed and changed to the nature of the spirit. After this manner get used to wisely examining yourself.


Against Religious Superstition (from In Praise of Folly, 1509)

Undoubtedly, Folly owns those people who love to hear or talk about imagined miracles and strange lies. They never tire of repeating such tales, so long as they are about ghosts, spirits, goblins, devils, or the like. The further they are from truth, the more quickly they are listened to by an audience’s itching ears. These serve not only to pass away time but bring profit, especially to mass priests and indulgence.

             And next to these are people who foolishly though happily believe that if they merely look at a wooden or painted stature of St. Christopher, they will not die that day. Or they believe that if they salute a carved St. Barbara in the usual set form, they will safely return from battle. Or still they believe that if call to St. Erasmus on certain days with some small wax candles and the proper prayers, they will quickly get rich.... Or what should I say about people who hug themselves with their counterfeit certificates pardoning them from sin [i.e. indulgences]? They have charted the time span of purgatory and can flawlessly demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Or what about those people who put stake in magical charms and short prayers invented by a religious fraud? Perhaps for spiritual benefit or financial gain, these frauds promise everything: wealth, honor, pleasure, affluence, health, long life, and lively old age. Further, they promise that the believer will be right next to Christ in the afterlife – which they hope doesn’t happen too soon before the pleasures of this life have run out. . . .

             Why do I launch out into this ocean of superstitions? If I had a hundred tongues, just as many mouths, and a strong voice, I would still not be able to cover the various kinds of fools, or all the names of folly. They are everywhere! And yet your priests have no problem receiving and cherishing them as proper instruments of profit. Suppose, though, that a person of wisdom came forward to speak about the truth of things. For example, he might say that to live well is the way to die well; the best way to get rid of sin is not simply through monetary offering, but through tears, watchings, prayers, fastings, and improving life; a particular saint will favor you if you imitate his life. If a wise person would say these things to the people, what sort of misery would he lead them to from their current state of happiness?


Against the Nonsense of Natural Philosophers (from In Praise of Folly)

After these come our natural philosophers. They are revered for their furred gowns and starched beards and view themselves as the only wise people and all others are mere shadows. How pleasantly do they admire themselves while framing innumerable words in their heads. With a pair of compasses, they measure out the sun, the moon, the stars, even the heaven itself. They establish the causes of lightning, winds, eclipses, and other inexplicable matter. They do all this without the least doubting, as if they were nature’s secretaries, or dropped down among us from the council of the gods. In the meantime, nature laughs at them and all their blind conjectures. The mere fact that they don’t agree among themselves and so are incomprehensible in every subject is a sufficient argument to show that they know nothing.

            Though they don’t have the least degree of knowledge, they claim to have mastered everything. Indeed, even though they don’t know themselves, and cannot perceive a ditch or rock in front of them (perhaps most of them are half blind, or they are half-wits) they still maintain that they have discovered ideas, universal truths, separated forms, first principles, the essential nature of things, formalities, and the like things. They claim to have discovered things so thin and bodiless that I believe even Lynceus [the keen-sighted Argonaut] himself was not able to perceive them. Mostly, though, they ridicule the unholy crowd and they cast a mist before the eyes of the ignorant. This they do with their triangles, quadrangles, circles, and the like mathematical devices, more bewildering than a labyrinth, and letters piled on each other, as if a battle arrangement. You’ll even find that some of these pretend to foretell things by the stars and promise miracles beyond all wonders. They are thus fortunate to meet people who believe them.


War is Contrary to our Natural Human Kindness (from Against War, 1515)

But how more justly should this [tendency towards war] be wondered at, what evil spirit, what pestilence, what mischief, and what madness put first in man’s mind a thing so beyond measure beastly. Why has this most pleasant and reasonable creature Man, which Nature has created for peace and benevolence, who alone she has created to the help and support of all other, should with so wild willfulness, with so mad rages, run headlong one to destroy another? We will wonder even more if we withdraw our minds from the opinions of the common people, and turn it to see the very pure strength and nature of things; and will apart see with philosophical eyes the image of humanity on the one side, and the picture of war on the other side.

            If we would first consider well the behavior and shape of the human body will we not immediately see that nature, or rather God, has shaped this creature, not for war but for friendship, not for destruction but for health, not for wrong but for kindness and benevolence? For whereas nature has armed all other animals with their own armor, as the violence of the bulls she has armed with horns, the ramping lion with claws . . . humans alone she has brought forth all naked, weak, tender, and without any armor, with most soft flesh and smooth skin. . . .

            She has endowed humans with hatred of solitariness, and with love of company. She has utterly sown in humans the very seeds of benevolence. She has so done, that the selfsame thing, that is most wholesome, should be most sweet and delectable. For what is more delectable than a friend? And again, what thing is more necessary? Moreover, if a person might lead all his life most profitably without any meddling with other people, yet nothing would seem pleasant without a companion. Otherwise a person would cast off all humanity, and abandoning his own kind, become an animal.

            Besides all this, Nature has endowed humans with knowledge of liberal sciences and a burning desire of knowledge. This most especially withdraws a person’s mind from all animalistic wildness, and so has it a special grace to get and knit together love and friendship. For I dare boldly say, that neither sympathy nor even kindred relation binds the minds of people together with straighter and surer bands of friendship, than does the fellowship of them who are learned in fine literature and honest studies. Above all this, nature has divided among people by a marvelous variety the gifts, as well of the soul as of the body, to the intent truly that every person might find in every singular person one thing or other, which they should either love or praise for the excellency thereof, or else greatly desire and make much of it, for the need and profit that comes from it. Finally she has endowed humans with a spark of a godly mind, so that though he see no reward, yet through his own courage he delights to do good to every person.


Epicureans and Stoics Contrasted (from “The Profane Feast” in Popular Colloquies, 1518)

            Augustine: Now let us enjoy ourselves, and eat heartily. Let us be Epicureans. We have nothing to do with haughtiness. Farewell care, let all ill-will and detraction be banished. Let us be merry, pleasant, and humorous.

            Christian: Tell me, Augustine, who are those Stoics and Epicureans?

            Augustine: The Stoics are a certain melancholy, rigid, stingy sect of philosophers, who make the highest good of mankind to consist in a certain, I can’t tell what, moral goodness (honestum). The Epicureans are the reverse of these, and they make human happiness to consist in pleasure.

            Christian: Tell me, what sect are you of, a Stoic or an Epicure?

            Augustine: I recommend the rules of Zeno [the Stoic]; but I follow Epicurus’s practice.

            Christian: Augustine, what you speak in jest, a great many do in earnest, and are only philosophers by their cloaks and beards.

            Augustine: Nay, indeed they outlive the extravagant in luxury. . . .

            Christian: I never very well liked those Stoics, who referring all things to their (I can’t tell what) moral goodness (honestum), thought we ought to have no regard to our persons and our palates. Aristippus [the hedonist] was wiser than Diogenes (the Stoic) beyond expression in my opinion.

            Augustine: I despise the Stoics with all their fasts. But I praise and approve Epicurus more than that Cynic Diogenes, who lived upon raw herbs and water; and therefore I don’t wonder that Alexander, that fortunate King, had rather be Alexander than Diogenes.

            Christian: Nor indeed would I myself, who am but an ordinary man, change my philosophy for Diogenes’s; and I believe Catius [the Epicurean] would refuse to do it too. The philosophers of our time are wiser, who are content to dispute like Stoics, but in living outdo even Epicurus himself. Yet for all that, I look upon Philosophy to be one of the most excellent things in nature, if used moderately. I don’t approve of philosophizing too much, for it is a very boring, barren, and melancholy thing. When I fall into any calamity or sickness, then I take myself to philosophy, as to a physician; but when I am well again, I bid it farewell.

            Augustine: I like your method. You do philosophize very well. Your humble servant, Mr. Philosopher; not of the Stoic school, but the kitchen.

            Christian: What is the matter with you, Erasmus, that you are so melancholy? What makes you frown? What makes you so silent? Are you angry with me because I have entertained you with such a slender supper?

            Erasmus: No, I am angry with you that you have put yourself to so much effort on my account. Augustine gave you strict instructions that you would provide nothing extraordinary on his account. I believe you have a mind that we should never come to see you again; for they give such a supper as this that intended to make but one. What sort of guests did you expect? You seem to have provided not for friends, but for princes. Do you think we are gluttons? This is not to entertain one with a supper, but victualing one for three says together.


PHILIPP MELANCHTHON (from “Oration on Philosophy”, 1536)


Philosophy Helps Combat the Theology of the Uneducated Masses

Since the theology of the uneducated masses has so much evil, it can easily be seen that the Church needs great works of art from many people. To judge and properly explain intricate and obscure matters, it is not enough to know the common precepts of grammar and dialectic. Rather, we need diverse knowledge. For many things that we understand are based on natural philosophy, and many things in Christian doctrine are connected to moral philosophy.

            Two things are needed to have strong and diverse knowledge, namely, the method and form of dialectical discourse, and these come through long practice in many of the arts. For no one is able to become skilled in the method of discourse unless he first becomes properly trained in philosophy. In fact, it must be one specific branch of philosophy that seeks and analyzes truth, and reveals sophistry. Those who are used to this study will acquire a habit of connecting the method of discourse to all that they wish to understand or teach to others. They will also know how to develop methods in religious discussions, remove what is complex, unify what is fragmented, and clarify what is obscure and doubtful.

            We need great and varied knowledge for another reason, that is, to structure our discourses, as anyone knows who has even a little interest in literature. To accomplish this, we need the habit of forming a method of discourse, which involves much effort. These things happen only to those who are accustomed to the several roles of philosophy. Those who are not accustomed to this will have only a shadow of the method, even if they have some acquaintance with discourse. No one produces more harm and error then these people. . . . 

            I think no one is foolish enough to ignore that those who are instructed in moral philosophy are better able to handle the many parts of Christian teachings. For there are many things that are alike, with laws, political ethics, contracts, and the many duties of life, and we are helped, not only in the order and method of philosophy, but also through a careful perception of the things themselves. When things are not alike, we can reason about them with a great deal of light. Further, just as a lame person handles a ball, so too is someone who lacks knowledge of natural philosophy and tries to understand moral philosophy. Now, the history and the exact computation of time periods relies on mathematics, and this part is also to be conjoined with natural philosophy. From reality as the source, most things in natural philosophy arise. It is a kind of barbarism, to say nothing else, to despise the beauty of the arts concerning the movements of the stars, that result in the differences between years and seasons, and proclaim the most important things to come, and give us useful warning.

            I am aware that philosophy is one kind of doctrine, and theology is another thing. Surely, I do not want to mix them as a cook mixes ingredients, but I want to be of help to the Theologian by organizing his method. It will be necessary for him to borrow much from philosophy. . . . Those who are not learned in philosophy may not properly see what theology professes or how far it is consistent with philosophy.


Aristotle Good; Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism Bad

There is no need to review the ridiculous subtleties of the ancient philosophers that besieged Christian doctrine. It is learned philosophy that matters, not these quibbles, which amount to nothing. For that reason I said that one kind of philosophy should be selected that has little sophistry and retains a proper method, namely, Aristotle’s doctrine. Yet with this, however, the most precious part of philosophy needs added from other sources concerning the movements of the heavenly bodies. As for the remaining schools, they are full of sophistry, absurdity and false opinions, which, additionally, harm people’s behavior. The extreme views of the Stoics are entirely sophistical, that good health, wealth, and the like are not good. Stoic apathy is a fabricated, false and dangerous belief concerning fate. Epicurus does not philosophize, but jokes when he stated that all things happen by chance; he rejects a first cause the entirety of the true teaching of Physics. The [skeptical] Academy should also be rejected, which does not comply with the method of discourse, and takes the liberty of overthrowing everything: those who attempt to do this will necessarily resolve many things sophistically. But, those who especially follow Aristotle as a standard, and desire one simple non-sophistical doctrine, can sometimes take from other authors. Just as the Muses were victorious when singing against the Sirens and used their feathers to make crowns for themselves, so it is also with our use of philosophical schools; although we approve most of one school, we occasionally collect truth from others, which enhances our views. . . .

            It is proper what the Stoics have said: that all things are of God, and the philosophers are friends of God, therefore all things also belong to the philosophers. Thus, with great courage we must defend the study of letters, a station that we are placed in by God’s judgment. Because this cause is so great, let us carefully make this our duty, and wait for God to reward us for our labor.


JOHN CALVIN (from The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536)


Innate Sense of Divinity (sensus divinitatis) (Book 1.3.1-3)

1. We hold to be beyond dispute that there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of divinity. This is so since, to prevent any person from pretending ignorance, God himself has given all people some idea of his Godhead. He constantly renews and occasionally enlarges our memory of this. Thus, being aware that there is a God, and that he is their maker, people may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to God’s service. Certainly, if there is any area where it may be supposed that God is unknown, the most likely for such an instance to exist is among the dullest tribes farthest removed from civilization. But, as a heathen writer tells us, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be endowed with the conviction that there is a God. Even those who in other respects seem to differ very little from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion. This common conviction is thoroughly possessed in the mind and firmly stamped on the breasts of all people. Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any area of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of divinity is inscribed on every heart. No, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant humans are to lower themselves, in order to set other creatures above them. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be. For, it is more difficult to obliterate it from the minds of people, than to break down the feelings of his nature. These feelings are certainly being broken down, though, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God.

             2. It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals. Supposedly, these cunning individuals did this as a means of keeping the body of the people in due subjection; and, while teaching others to worship God, they themselves could not have believed less in the existence of God. I readily acknowledge, that cunning people have introduced a vast number of fictions into religion, with the view of inspiring the populace with reverence or striking them with terror, and thereby rendering them more submissive. But they never could have succeeded in this, had the minds of men not been previously imbued with that uniform belief in God, from which, as from its seed, the religious propensity springs. . . .

             3. All people of sound judgment will therefore hold that a sense of divinity is permanently etched on the human heart. This belief is naturally brought out in all, and thoroughly fixed as it were in our very bones. This is strikingly attested by the insubordination of the wicked, who, though they struggle furiously, are unable to untangle themselves from the fear of God. Though Diagoras, and others of like minds, make themselves merry with whatever has been believed in all ages concerning religion, and Dionysus scoffs at the judgment of heaven, it is only a cynical grin. For, the worm of conscience, keener than burning steel, is gnawing them within. ... It follows that this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is his own master, from birth. One which nature herself allows no individual to forget, though many, with all their might, strive to do so. Moreover, all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God; and if the knowledge of God fails to fulfill this purpose, then it is fleeting and vain. Thus, it is clear that all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfill the law of their being. This did not escape the observation even of philosophers. For it is exactly what Plato meant in the Phaedrus and the Theatetus when he taught (as he often does) that the chief good of the soul consists in resemblance to God. That is, the soul resembles God when, by means of knowing him, it is completely transformed into God. . . .


The Soul: Consciousness of Ethics (Book 1.15.6)

It is pointless to seek a definition of the soul from philosophers, not one of whom, with the exception of Plato, distinctly maintained its immortality. Others of the school of Socrates, indeed, lean the same way, but still without teaching distinctly a doctrine of which they were not fully persuaded. Plato, however, advanced still further, and regarded the soul as an image of God. Others so attach its powers and faculties to the present life, that they leave nothing external to the body. It was already shown from Scripture that the substance of the soul is incorporeal. We must now add that, though it is not properly enclosed by space, it however occupies the body as a kind of habitation. It not only animates all its parts, and makes the organs fit and useful for their actions, but it also holds the first place in regulating the conduct. It does this not merely in regard to the function of a terrestrial life, but also in regard to the service of God. This, though not clearly seen in our corrupt state, yet the impress of its remains is seen in our very vices. From what source do humans have such a thirst for glory but from a sense of shame? And what is the source of this sense of shame but from a respect for what is honorable? Of this, the first principle and source is a consciousness that they were born to cultivate righteousness, – a consciousness akin to religion. But as people were undoubtedly created to meditate on the heavenly life, so it is certain that the knowledge of it was etched on the soul. Indeed, people would lack the principal use of their understanding if they were not able to discern their happiness, the perfection of which consists in being united to God. Hence, the principal action of the soul is to aspire to that higher level, and, accordingly, the more a person studies to approach God, the more he proves himself to be endued with reason.


Human Faculties Before and After the Fall (Book 1.15.8)

Therefore, God has provided the human soul with intellect, by which he might distinguish good from evil, just from unjust, and might know what to follow or to shun, reason going before with her lamp. For this reason, philosophers, in reference to her directing power, have called her “princely”. To this he has joined will, to which choice belongs. People excelled in these noble endowments in his primitive condition [i.e. before the fall of Adam]. At that time, reason, intelligence, prudence, and judgment, not only sufficed for the government of his earthly life, but also enabled him to rise up to God and eternal happiness. Thereafter choice was added to direct the appetites, and temper all the organic motions. The will was thus perfectly submissive to the authority of reason. In this upright state, human nature possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life.

            It is unreasonable to introduce here the question concerning the secret predestination of God, because we are not considering what might or might not happen, but what human nature truly was. Adam, therefore, might have stayed in this original state if he chose, since it was only by his own will that he fell. But it was because his will was pliable in either direction (and he had not received constancy to keep going) that he so easily fell. Still he had a free choice of good and evil. Not only so, but in the mind and will there was the highest integrity, and all the organic parts were duly framed to obedience, until humans corrupted its good properties, and destroyed himself. Hence we see the great darkness of philosophers who looked for a complete building within the rubble of ruins, and fit arrangement in disorder. The principle they set out with was that humans could not be rational animals unless they had a free choice of good and evil. They also imagined that the distinction between virtue and vice would be destroyed if man did not of his own direction manage his life. Well-reasoned this far, if there had there been no change in man. This being unknown to them, it is not surprising that they throw everything into confusion.

            However, some, while they profess to be the disciples of Christ, still seek for free-will in human nature, notwithstanding that humans are lost and drowned in spiritual destruction, labor in various delusions. This approach makes for a heterogeneous mixture of inspired doctrine and philosophical opinions, and so erring as to both. But it will be better to leave these things to their own place, (see Book 2 chap. 2). At present it is necessary only to remember, that human nature, at its first creation, was very different from what it has become. It derives its origin from its later state, after it became corrupted, and received a hereditary taint. At first every part of the soul was formed to decency. There was soundness of mind and freedom of will to choose the good.


God not Responsible for the Fall and Humanity’s Weak Will (Book 1.15.8)

If anyone objects that it was placed, as it were, in a slippery position, because its power was weak, I answer, that the degree conferred was sufficient to take away every excuse. For surely the Deity could not be tied down to this condition—to make humans such that they either could not or would not sin. Such a nature might have been more excellent. But to dispute with God as if he had been bound to confer this nature on man, is more than unjust, seeing he had full right to determine how much or how little he would give. Why he did not sustain humans by the virtue of steadfastness is hidden in his own purpose. It is our purpose to keep within the bounds of composure. Humanity had received the power, if it had the will, but it had not the will which would have given the power. For this will would have been followed consistently. Still, after humans had received so much, there is no excuse for them having spontaneously brought death upon themselves. No necessity was laid upon God to give humanity more than an intermediate and even transient will, so that out of humanity’s fall God might extract materials for his own glory.


Accomplishments of Non-Believers: Human Reason Partly Preserved after the Fall (Book 2.2.15)

In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, so not to insult him, to avoid rejecting or condemning truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much justice? Should we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind? Should we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Should we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What should we say of the mathematical sciences? Should we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration. It is an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But should we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Such ingratitude is far from us. This is an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that people whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.


Predestination to Heaven and Hell (Book 3.21.1)

The covenant of [eternal] life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, it does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity of reception displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt a part of God’s purpose of eternal election. But if it is plainly owing to God’s mere pleasure that salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it, great and difficult questions immediately arise. These questions are inexplicable, when proper views are not entertained concerning election and predestination. To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incompatible that, of the great totality of mankind, some should be predestined to salvation, and others to destruction. ... However, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, we will never feel persuaded (as we ought) that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God ... It is plain how ignorance of this principle greatly detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility. ... To make it evident that our salvation flows entirely from the good mercy of God, we must be carried back to the origin of election. Thus, those who would extinguish it, wickedly do as much as in them lies to obscure what they ought most loudly to extol, and pluck up humility by the very roots.


Predestination different from God’s Foreknowledge (Book 3.21.5)

No pious person could simply deny the predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and pronounces others to eternal death. But it is greatly undermined especially by those who make foreknowledge its cause. We, indeed, ascribe both foreknowledge and predestination to God. But we say, that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former. When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye. To God’s knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present. Indeed, all things are so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before God (such as objects which we retain in our memories) but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection. This foreknowledge extends to the whole circuit of the world, and to all creatures. By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every person. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation. Accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that each person has been predestined to life or to death. God has testified this not only in the case of single individuals, but with communities too. This was so of all future generations of Abraham, to make it plain that the future condition of each nation lives entirely at his disposal.


Questions for Review

1. According to Luther, which writings of Aristotle’s are bad and which are good?

2. According to Luther, what is the relation between faith and reason, and between theology and philosophy?

3. According to Erasmus, what are the three parts of human nature, and what tension does that create in the human soul?

4. What are Erasmus’s criticisms of religious superstition and natural philosophers?

5. According to Erasmus, how is our natural human makeup contrary to war?

6. According to Melanchthon, what benefit can philosophy have for theology, and what does he find bad about Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism?

7. According to Calvin, what evidence is there of a sense of divinity

8. What is Calvin’s view of the soul’s consciousness of ethics?

9. According to Calvin, what were human reason and human will like both before and after the fall?

10. Describe Calvin’s position on predestination to heaven and hell.


Questions for Analysis

1. On the issue of faith and reason, Luther holds what is sometimes called the “fideist” position, which is that religious understanding comes only through faith, and not through reason. Explain Luther’s position and discuss both the positive and negative features of it.

2. Luther and Melanchthon have differing views on the value of philosophy. Compare and contrast them, and discuss which view seems right.

3. Erasmus has two accounts of human nature in the above selections. In the first, the human soul wavers between the opposite influence of the body and the spirit; in the second, humans are naturally inclined to friendship rather that war. Try to reconcile these two views.

4. Give Calvin’s arguments for the sense of divinity and discuss whether you agree.

5. Calvin argues that there are essentially two human natures: one before the fall and one after the fall. Discuss possible problems with that view.

6. Calvin attempts to distinguish predestination from divine foreknowledge. Explain his position and discuss whether the two can be separated.