Calvin's Philosophical Anthropology

of the Imago Dei*

Nythamar de Oliveira

* Originally published in the review Theophilos 1/2 (2001):385-404.


That the Calvinian doctrine of "man"(1) as imago Dei occupies an outstanding position within Reformed theology is an unquestionable fact, I dare to say, a fait accompli which can be plainly verified in the historical development of Protestant theology itself. A problem persists, however, in establishing the real meaning of Calvin's anthropology in the broader framework of his thought. Just as philosophical anthropology permeates all the significant attempts at a normative foundation in the history of ethics and political philosophy, a peculiar Calvinian conception of the humanum has been claimed to constitute an alternative response to the challenges of transcendental philosophy and post-Kantian undertakings to overcome dogmatic metaphysics, especially among neoconservatives and apologists of the so-called "Reformed epistemology."(2) It is my contention here that Calvin's philosophical anthropology of the imago Dei accounts for a discursive articulation of faith and reason within a theology of creation that brings together a negative critique of philosophical reason (i.e., the inadequacies of philosophical discourse taken per se) and a positive account of revelation (i.e., the very possibility of saying something about our human condition in light of what has been revealed in the Bible as the Word of God), and yet such an approach cannot support the apologetical idea of a "Christian philosophy" let alone the fundamentalist, anti-secularist view of "political theology." Our human finitude and God's incomprehensibility are precisely what accounts, according to this Calvinian view, for a reasonable correlation of our knowledge of God, self-knowledge, scientific knowledge, and other forms of knowledge. In the current essay, I shall not delve into epistemological problems but will be rather confined to the philosophical-anthropological understanding of the Biblical metaphor of the imago Dei. In particular, I should like to tackle the question: what is the relevance of the imago Dei in Calvin's writings, and how did he situate it in his world- and life-view? This seems to constitute a philosophical-theological problematic, in that the anthropology in question has to do with the problem of "human nature," what after all makes human beings human, their Menschenwesen or that which marks the human off vis à vis nature on the whole and other animals. The first difficulty appears thus on the order of Calvin's reflection upon the humanum. For Calvin's usage of the term "imago Dei" is, prima facie, at once abundant and inconsistent, in a sheer contrast with most of the concepts which he systematically develops in his theological reflection, particularly in the Institutes. Yet this methodological difficulty confirms the thesis that Calvin's "dialectical" hermeneutics is hermeneutica biblica par excellence insofar as the Bible itself is exposed through its own unveiling of doctrines, their dénouement and unfolding, inseparable from the historical development of its peoples, places, and times.(3) Although I recognize the impossibility of fully exploring Calvin's philosophical anthropology here, I should like to attempt at an outline of the main problems regarding his metaphorical conception of the imago Dei, in the historical context of his time.

The Calvinian Philosophy of Man

Without any pretension to developing Calvin's anthropology in a couple of pages, a few words have to be said here, before one proceeds to examine the Reformer's conception of the imago Dei. One cannot understand Calvin without recalling the humanistic spirit which characterized his own time as l'âge de la Renaissance humaine. The Italian Rinascimento had already reached its apex in the fifteenth century ("il Quattrocento"), with the rebirth of Neoplatonic philosophies of man and the consecration of the so-called "ideal of personality."(4) The Neoplatonic view of man as a microcosm, as the ontological bond between the infinite and the finite, had been renewed and developed by great humanists such as Lorenzo Valla, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola. The eclectic, syncretist writings of those writers were well known by French educators and thinkers who exerted a profound influence in the formation of the young Calvin. Among his teachers, like Mathurin Cordier and André Alciati, and his friends, like Nicolas Cop (a personal friend of Guillaume Budé's), François Daniel (closely bound to the writer Rabelais), François de Connan, and Nicolas Duchemin, Calvin naturally cultivated the humanist spirit of "renouveau" until his subita conversio, which certainly took place between 1531 and 1533. Calvin's cryptic words about his conversion, in a famous passage from the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, indicate that he embraced the spirit of reformation before Cop's rectorial address in 1533:

Comme ainsi soit que je fusse si obstinément adonné aux sympathies de la Papauté qu'il était bien mal aisé qu'on me put tirer de ce bourbier si profond, par une conversion subite, il [Dieu] dompta et rangea à docilité mon coeur.(5)

Nevertheless it was only in 1534 that Calvin definitively broke with Roman Catholicism, after meeting Jacques Lefêvre d'Etaples at the court of Nérac. In any case, it is important to signal here that Calvin's conversion took place through his systematic readings of the Bible. For Calvin's passage from a humanist "idealism" to a Christian "realism" is clearly accompanied by an intellectual, radical metanoia of the whole man, whose integral commitment to God meant above all a consecration of both mind and soul, coram Deo. Already in his analytical commentary on Seneca's De Clementia (1532), one finds that Calvin's attitude towards Catholic humanism had to assume its decisive pitch of criticism vis à vis "pagan philosophy," in particular Latin Stoicism. Yet it was only after reading Budé's De transitu hellenismi ad christianismum (1535) that the "born-again" Calvin understood the incompatibility between Christianity and humanist philosophy. Furthermore, because Budé remained faithful to an aristocratic "catholicisme réformiste," like Erasmus and Sadolet, Calvin set out to elaborate his own Reformed alternative to humanist thought, a theological project which has been interpreted by some as an extension and deepening of his early humanism.(6) In point of fact, Calvin's biblically-oriented critique of philosophy underlies the hermeneutical effort of building up a veritable theologia christiana, as the one elaborated in his monumental Institutio religionis christianae of 1536:

Que nous lisions Démosthéne ou Cicéron, Platon ou Aristote, ou quelques autres de leur bande, je confesse bien qu'ils attireront merveilleusement et délecteront et émouvront jusqu'à ravir même l'esprit; mais si de là nous nous transportons à la lecture des saintes Écritures, qu'on le veuille ou non, elles nous poindront si vivement, elles perceront tellement notre coeur, elles se ficheront au-dedans de moelles, que toute la force qu'ont les rhétoriciens ou philosophes, au prix de l'efficace d'un tel sentiment, ne sera que fumée. D'où il est aisé d'apercevoir que les saintes Écritures ont quelque propriété divine à inspirer les hommes, vu que de si loin elles surmontent toutes les grâces de l'industrie humaine.(I, viii, 1)(7)

It is however beyond the scope of this limited paper to examine the idea of a "Christian philosophy" out of an "humanisme réformé" in the thought of John Calvin. I assume from the outset that, as Dooyerweerd remarked, one "will seek a philosophical system in Calvin that is not there."(8) Just as one rejects "the canonizing of a philosophical system" and continually strives for "the reformation of philosophical thought," not only do Calvinist thinkers reaffirm Pascal's contention that "the god of philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob " (Le Dieu d'Abraham, Isaac et Jacob n'est point le dieu des philosophes") but they also denounce the aporetic alternatives formulated by every philosophical attempt to overcome metaphysics and avoid the philosophical anthropology embedded in religious presuppositions. According to Dooyerweerd and most Calvinist apologists, the one thing that becomes clear as one proceeds to outline the Calvinian philosophy of man is precisely that most of the humanist concepts and themes explored by the Reformer, such as God, human freedom, and immortality, underwent a profound critique, in the light of his sparkling exegesis of the Scriptures. Calvin's contribution to the idea of a "Christian philosophy" comes thus down to the presupposition of the Bible as the main source of revelation or as textual evidence to be reconciled with natural, empirical evidence --an alternative reading that seems to be less antagonistic towards Thomist theologies of nature. Thus it is primarily on the level of his theological anthropology that Calvin distinguishes himself from the humanist scholar, and his Reformation from the Renaissance of the latter. As against the Italian umanista --succeeded by the French humaniste-- who proclaimed the rebirth of the universal man ("l'uomo universale") in the individual's self-liberation of reason, Calvin announced the impossibility of human self-knowledge and knowledge of the cosmos apart from the revealed knowledge of God Himself. As we read in the powerful words which open the Institutes,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For(...) no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. (I, i, 1, 2)(9)

According to Calvin, humans simply cannot know themselves without the contemplatio upon God, which is the conditio sine qua non for any human reflectio, including human self-reflection itself. Certainly, this idea of visio Dei beatifica had already been developed by Thomistic theology, and the Platonic image of the human soul as mirror (speculum) of the Summum Bonum had been largely invoked by the Classical humanists, Romantics, and heirs to Hegelian idealism all the way up to Jacques Lacan. In effect, one of the most influential writings during Calvin's youth was entitled Miroir de l'âme pécheresse, by the queen of Navarre, Marguerite d'Angoulême, sister of François I and one of the greatest supporters of French Reformers. Nevertheless, the Calvinian image of "God's creation and man as a mirror" implies a whole view of reality --a Weltanschauung, some would say, after Schopenhauer, Jaspers and Scheler-- which is based upon the Revelation of God as Sovereign Creator, Savior and Maintainer of human existence, de facto and de jure. Hence it is the Calvinian theological motif of Creation-Fall-Redemption that makes his metaphorical imago Dei distinct from the humanist usage of the same conception of man as microcosmos of the divine. Calvin goes on to develop thus his anthropology in function of this motif, which permeates in fact his entire theological reflection:

Il faut maintenant parler de la création de l'homme, non seulement parce que c'est le plus noble et le plus excellent chef-d'oeuvre où la justice de Dieu, sagesse et bonté apparait, mais d'autant, comme nous avons dit, que nous ne pouvons connaître Dieu clairement et d'un sens arreté, sinon que la connaissance de nous-mêmes soit conjointe et même réciproque. Or bien que la connaissance de nous-mêmes soit double: à savoir, quels nous avons été formés en notre premier origine, et puis en quelle condition nous sommes tombés aprés la chute d'Adam...( I, xv, 1)

And he adds further,

Toutefois il ne semble point qu'il y ait encore pleine définition de cette image, s'il n'appert plus clairement pourquoi l'homme doit être prisé [quibus facultatibus praecellat homo], et pour quelles prérogatives il doit être réputé miroir de la gloire de Dieu. Or cela ne se peut mieux connaitre que par la réparation de sa nature corrompue.(I, xv, 4)

We conclude therefore that Calvin's philosophy of man has to take into account the doctrine of "original sin," and that the imago Dei has to be understood from two different standpoints, namely before and after the Fall. In effect, Calvinian anthropology deals with human nature in three basic conditions or states: the "original" man, originally created in God's image and likeness (Gen 1:26); the "alienated" man, whose fallen and sinful nature is completely deprived of his justitia originalis, in total corruption and depravity (Rom 5:12); and the "regenerated" man, made righteous by the divine justice of "the second Adam," Jesus Christ, through His expiatory death on the cross and triumphant resurrection in the flesh (2 Cor 5:21). Moreover, it bas been emphasized, especially after Barth's "theanthropological" appropriation of Calvin, that the Reformer's anthropology is completely based on his christology. Although Calvin's christology underlies most of his theological motives, I prefer to avoid any kind of reductionism in a particular direction, and confine myself to underlining the forensic character of his ordo salutis: electio, vocatio, iustificatio, sanctificatio, glorificatio. Human beings cannot know anything --including themselves-- apart from their knowledge of God, and such a knowledge is bound up with the revealed doctrine of creation, hence the Calvinian triad Deus-creatio-scientia. Calvin's articulation between God's righteousness and man's sanctification constitutes indeed the kernel of his philosophical anthropology of the imago Dei. And to that I shall turn next.

The Imago Dei as Mirror

As we have seen, Calvin's conception of the imago Dei as a mirror was a known metaphor by Renaissance thinkers of his days. What distinguishes Calvin's anthropology from that of humanist authors is essentially the Scriptural content which he set out to unveil by an enlightening exegesis of the Biblical texts. And yet one should not reduce Calvin's hermeneutics to a mere archeology of Biblical terms, for Calvin never meant to confine the Word of God to some lexicographical private piety; on the contrary, one of the greatest achievements of the Reformer's ministry and teaching lies precisely in that he applied the regula scripturae to the whole structure of human existence. As André Biéler has remarked,

...Calvin donne l'un des exemples historiques les plus typiques d'une théologie évangélique dynamique qui se tient toujours en éveil devant les circonstances de l'histoire; elle demeure à l'écoute, aussi bien de la Parole de Dieu pour en discerner les exigences prophétiques, que des événements contingents pour en comprendre les fluctuations et l'évolution... Cette double intelligence de la mobilité prophétique de l'immuable Parole de Dieu et du bouleversement continu des situations humaines dans l'évolution sociale distingue très nettement Calvin des théologiens scolastiques. Tandis que ces derniers tentent d'enfermer, dans un système théologique cohérent et permanent, au niveau de la raison, la rencontre de Dieu et des hommes, établissant une continuité ininterrompue entre les données de la nature et celles de la révélation, qui passe par le stade intermédiaire d'un droit et d'une morale naturels qui seraient communs à tous les hommes, Calvin --en dépit des emprunts fréquents qu'il fait dans ce domaine à la scolastique-- a une conscience très aigue de la discontinuité et de l'hétérogéneité du divin et de l'humain. D'un coté il y a la vérité vivante de la révélation divine, en action permanente, et de l'autre les phénomènes de l'histoire individuelle, sociale et ecclésiastique en continuel bouleversement.(10)

It is only against such a "wholistic" hermeneutics that we can really understand Calvin's anthropology and its place in his world- and life-view. Although he borrowed most of his vocabulary from the humanist intelligentsia of his time, including the Thomistic articulation of scientia and creatio ex nihilo ultimately grounded in theology, Calvin's conception of man is in fact diametricaily opposed to an essentialistic view of man as a fragment of the divine speculum. Instead of adopting an ontical conception of the imago Dei, Calvin refuses any possibility of participatio between the humanum and the divinum --at the heart of Neoplatonic philosophies and Aquinas' anthropology--, articulating the manutenentia of the divine creation with God's gubernatio or the continuata creatio, as he defines the imago as an ethical, relational creaturehood coram Deo:

C'est pourquoi sous ce mot (imago) est comprise toute l'intégrité de laquelle Adam était doué pendant qu'il jouissait d'une droiture d'esprit, avait ses affections bien réglées, ses sens bien attrempés [modérés], et tout bien ordonné en soi pour représenter par tels ornements la gloire de son créateur. Et bien que le siège souverain de cette image de Dieu ait été posé en l'esprit et au coeur, ou en l'âme et ses facultés, cependant il n'y a eu nulle partie, jusqu'au corps même, en laquelle il n'y a eut quelque étincelle luisante.( I, xv, 3)

The imago, according to Calvin, is to reflect all the fullness of God's glory in the humanitas, setting man apart from and above the rest of God's creation, which appears also, to some extent, as a mirror of the Creator's glory. In fact, besides the Pauline figure of speculum (2 Cor 3:18), which depicts the idea of sealing our salvation in Christ through the Spirit, it is the Word of God that Calvin invokes to bring out the saving faith which restores our original vocation to reflect the gloria Dei:

The Word itself, whatever be the way in which it is conveyed to us, is a kind of mirror in which faith beholds God. In this, therefore, whether God uses the agency of man or works immediately by His own power, it is always by His Word that He manifests Himself to those whom He designs to draw to Himself.(III, ii, 6)

Because man has been created ad imaginem Dei, "he" is said to reflect God's glory as in a mirror. And yet, as Meredith Kline has shown in a brilliant, controversial study, the analogy between imago and gloria cannot be reduced to some kind of ontological continuum, for the former describes a "state" (man's creaturehood vis à vis the Creator) whereas the latter describes an "action" (bringing forth God's Shekinah), in the fulfilment of God's sovereign design.(11) Calvin's philosophical anthropology has to be understood thus against the broader soteriological framework of his theology, still within the ontical framework of what Kant and Heidegger termed the "onto-theo-logic," and the structure of this ontical, rationalist theology seems to be dialectically intertwined with an all-embracing world- and life-view, whose supposedly "transcendental" arché and telos always point to the Gloria Dei. That is certainly the reason why Calvin did not follow most of the Church Fathers in their speculations about the "essential" meaning of the imago Dei. Irenaeus, for instance, made a distinction between the "image" (Heb. tselem) and the "likeness" (demuth), and even Augustine spoke of a psychological, trinitarian constitution of man (intellect, will, and memory). Calvin's primacy of an analogia relationis over a supposed analogia entis suggests that his forensic view of an iustitia Dei, applied to the regeneration of the fallen man, required a solid ethical foundation in the God-man relationship. Again, it is the problem of "knowing God" through His Revelation that distinguishes Calvin's theological reflection from other worldviews. For even though it recognizes the ontological reality of God's sovereignty over the entire cosmos of existence, the Calvinian conception maintains man, as it were, in his "ontological regionality" and in his "ethical raison d'être" coram Deo. Hence, very reminiscent of Luther's "ontological turn," Calvin's contention that our human knowledge of God has nothing to do with the quid of God's Being ("ce qu'est Dieu") but we are rather called to know His qualis ("il nous est expédient de savoir quel il est"), in His revealed attributes ("et ce qui convient à sa nature.")(12) Calvin's philosophical theology becomes thus revealing for understanding his doctrine of the imago Dei not as an "ontology of human nature," but as a "noetic view of man." Comparing Barth's christological constitution of Menschenwesen with Calvin's and Bavinck's conceptions of the imago Dei, G.C. Berkouwer affirms that

The viewpoint of Calvin and Bavinck is not ontic, but rather noetic. They are convinced that we can never discover the essence of man --that is, the image of God-- through empirical investigation. They thus refer to the Scriptural passages in Genesis regardirg the creation of man in God' s image, and refer further to the witness of the New Testament, which, in its descriptions of the renewal of the image, sheds light on the meaning of the image of God. The reason that the ontic motif, which plays so decisive a role in Barth's thought, plays no role in the thought of Calvin and Bavinck is not that they did not consider man's relation to God as it affects man's essence and our knowledge of it. The reason is rather that ir their thinking they always approach the Incarnation from a consideration of man's fall and guilt.(13)

The Imago Dei as Response

Calvin's conception of the imago Dei as mirror is thus closely related to doctrine of the Word of God, in that the former reflects God's glory in our creaturehood just like the latter conveys His grace to the elected. This metaphor is particularly appropriate when used in a soteriological context, as we think of God's re-creational vehicle of Grace, the Word Incarnate, assuming in His own person the restoration of of the imago Dei. Certainly this theme is explored and largely developed in the Institutes, but it belongs to another genre of study, soteriology, which would deserve a much more specific treatment than the philosophical-anthropological one at work here.

As we have seen, Calvin's anthropology of the imago Dei is better understood in function of its conformitas, i.e. the restoration of the fallen image and its conforming to God's likeness in the believer's sanctification and glorification in Christ. Such is the soteriologicai element of Calvin's antithetical dialectic of integritas (pre-lapsarian) and corruptio (post-lapsarian), a dialectic which cannot be synthetically overcome (aufgehoben) by any means but the "means of Grace," namely, by the Holy Spirit through the salvific work of Jesus Christ. As against the "supernaturalistic view" of a certain donum superadditum added to the original image after the Fall, Calvin does not hesitate to assert that the imago was not lost with the Adamic entrance of sin, even though man became then totally corrupted in his whole being (totus homo peccator):

Il n'y a aucun doute qu'Adam étant déchu de son degré, par telle apostasie ne se soit aliéné de Dieu [Deo alienatus]. C'est pourquoi bien que nous confessions l'image de Dieu n'avoir point été entièrement anéantie et effacée en lui [exinanitam ac deletam], cependant elle a été si fort corrompue [sic tamen corrupta fuit], que tout ce qui en est de reste est une horrible déformation [horrenda sit deformitas]; et ainsi le commencement de recouvrer salut est en cette restauration que nous obtenons par Jésus-Christ, lequel pour cette cause est nommé le second Adam, parce qu'il nous remet en vraie intégrité [in veram et solidam integritatem restitui].(I, xv, 4)

The imago was not annihilated but it was so corrupted and deformed that only God Himself could restore it: this work of restoration of the imago Dei is identical thus with the redemption by faith in Jesus Christ in the novissimus adam. In this sense, Calvin speaks of both faith and love as having been lost by the Fall, since the entire humanitas was affected by the original sin. In effect, Calvin identifies the cause of the Fall with un-faith-fulness (infidelitas), which is a much deeper and more accurate definition than the Augustinian identification of the original sin with "pride" (superbia, ambitio). Calvin admitted that Augustine's interpretation was "not bad" (non male, "pas mal"), "for if ambition had not raised man higher than was meet and right, he could have remained in his original state."(II, i, 4) According to Calvin, however, this human pride of wanting to be equal to God was manifest in both Adam and Eve as a consequence of their free decision to disobey God, a spontaneous act of infidelity and incredulity vis à vis the Word of God. And Calvin's Biblical hermeneutics --which had properly assimilated the humanist esteem for philology and its return ad fontes-- appears, once again, to carefully remain faithful to the literal exegesis of Hebrew word-concepts: shma' and 'emeth clearly suggest that "listening" and "truth" ("confession of faith," 'emunah) support the jeu de mots between "obeying" and "believing," not as an amusing pun or "language game" but as the rational expression of a world- and life-view. For Calvin, sin and unfaithfulness imply indeed an irrational attempt to deny God's Law and the reality of His Truth. The forbidden fruit was thus a "test of obedience, an exercise of faith," as B.P. Gerrish has put it:

Unfaithfulness, then, was the root of the Fall. But thereafter ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam by seeking more than was granted him spurned God's great bounty, which had been lavished upon him. To have been made in the likeness of God seemed a small matter to a son of earth unless he also attained equality with God --a monstruous wickedness!(14)

Notwithstanding it would be misleading to conclude from these remarks that Calvin's anthropology reduces the imago Dei to a lost paradisiacal relationship with the divine, which can only be restored by faith in Christo. Nor should one conclude --like Gerrish does --that this faith-oriented restoration of the imago implies the mirroring of a moral bonum in our human reappropriation of the humanitas. Although the Adamic sin of infidelity was that of "not listening to God," and Adam is thus rightly characterized as verbo incredulus, for "he questioned the Word," it does not follow that the ethical corruption of man can be levelled with his ontological constitution as a moral being. Indeed, this kind of tendency has been supported by the so-called "transmoral" ontological conception of most post-Kantian theologians who conceive of ethics as a "post-lapsarian ethics," to employ one of the late Robert Knudsen's favorite formulas.(15) For such an "ontologization of the ethical" would inevitably reduce all the historical meaning of the humanitas to its fallen condition opening up the way to its own immanent self-becoming, the Geschichtlichkeit of human existing (Dasein) as the ultimate category of its own a-lêtheia (the Heideggerian concept of truth as the unveiling of Being). That would make Calvin, mutatis mutandis, another "philosophe de l'existence," and facilitate the pretentious project of reconciling Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Barth on the same level of an existentialistic theology! That kind of "eisegetical" hermeneutics requires nevertheless more imagination than our naive understanding of historical theology can afford: while Calvin's anthropology seems to recuse any essentialistic view of man, it remains far from reducing the ethical meaning of humanitas to its existential structure. And we find the basis for this anthropological realism not only in Calvin's conception of the imago as mirror (res divina) but also in his view of man coram Deo, as homo respondens vis à vis the Word of God.

Both Thomas F. Torrance and Wilhelm Niesel, following Karl Barth's analogia christologica, tried to systematize Calvin's anthropology of the imago Dei in terms of the Calvinian soteriology. Torrance recognizes the difficulty and complexity involved in the Calvinian articulation of the humanitas with the imago Dei, and he tends to define the imago as a spiritual condition to be fulfilled in the christological work of redemption:

A more precise knowledge of the imago Dei may be gained from the reparation of man's corrupt nature in Christ, i.e., in regeneration through the Spirit. This shows us that the image of God is not any natural property of the soul, but is a spiritual reflection in holiness and righteousness, in knowledge and truth, which should characterize all human nature. The imago Dei is essentially spiritual, and is apparent in man's response to God the Father, in his witness to the truth as it is sealed in his heart by the Word and the Spirit. It is grounded in the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti. As such it is not a possession of the soul, though the soul may be said to be the seat of the imago Dei...It is God's action on man by the imprint of the truth upon his mind, and becomes man's possession only in the active response of love and obedience. Therefore the strength of the imago Dei and its continued maintenance in man lie in the Word of God and not in the soul of man. In a real sense, the image of God in man is the communicated Word in which God's glory shines forth. By means of this spiritual image man's whole person partakes of rectitude, so that his whole person may be said to image the glory of God.(16)

In a similar fashion, Niesel defines the Calvinian conception of the imago Dei as man's "right attitude towards his Creator and thus his right attitude towards ali other creatures," for the rectitudo indicates that Calvin was concerned about man's nature in a much deeper level than that of his psycho-physical constitution. Niesel advocates thus a "spiritual" conception of the imago:

The divine similitude consists not in the fact that man is endowed with reason and will, but in the fact that these faculties in original man were directed wholly towards knowledge of and obedience to God ... It is superadded to the psycho-physical constitution of man and imparted from outside. This is illuminated by the fact that it is restored to us through Christ. But it should not be asserted that the similitude to God is an addition to the creaturely status of man, that the former might even be absent. lhere is no neutral psycho-physical constitution of man...The divine similitude depends rather on man's relation to his Lord. Man was created by God to serve Him in freedom. He was endowed with freedom to choose the good. When he threw away his opportunity his relation to the Creator and consequently the divine image in him was destroyed.(17)

Although both views of Calvin's anthropology rightly emphasize the relational, responsive condition of the imago vis à vis the Word of God, it seems that the image is somehow reduced to a "spiritual" attitude of man's appropriation of the Word. The soteriological standpoint should not however limit the Calvinian conception of the imago Dei to a re-creational framework. The eminent "calvinologue" Richard Stauffer has criticized Torrance's and Niesel's christological reduction of the imago to a spiritual, redemptive view of man, which seems to neglect Calvin's creational conception of the imago "comme une réalité dans chaque créature humaine."(18) In effect, although he asserts that only the regeneration allows us to understand what the imago is, Calvin does not reduce the imago to the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, which was indeed one of the heresies defended by Osiander. Stauffer goes on to emphasize the usage of the term "imprimée" (imprinted) in Calvin's sermons, to designate a "created reality" of the humanum which belongs to every human being, both believers and unbelievers.(19) The imago Dei turns out to constitute thus the foundation of a Christian realism which holds man as a responsible, responding creature, endowed with soul and mind --or in a word, a heart (Heb. lebh)--, and called to present his whole being as a conscious cultus to God. Such responsive attitude of gratefulness and recognition towards the Creator is certainly preceded and accompanied by God's gracious intervention, in His very Word's continual address to all men. It follows therefore that man's creational reality, as expressed in the imago Dei, falls into the doctrinal cadre of the common grace and the creatio continuata rather than that of a special vocation or predestination. The re-creational, soteriological destiny of man becomes then an "overlapping" reality, as it were, of our primordial condition considered from a covenantal perspective. In other words, the restoration of the imago is not a utopian ideal nor an eschatological factum: it is rather the realistic fulfillment of God's Providence towards the manifestation of His Glory in the humanitas, as we freely respond to the ethical, cultural mandate imposed upon us by the Word of God.


Several studies have been undertaken to evaluate Calvin's indebtedness to humanist and Scholastic thinkers, and to specify the merits of the Calvinian mode of thinking in theology. Yet two main points become very clear as we approach Calvin's philosophical anthropology, within the theological cadre of his thought:

(1) In spite of all the humanist terminology and exegetical methodology which characterizes him as an enfant de son temps, Calvin's hermeneutics is essentially Biblical, and it is on the Holy Writ that he set out to ground his anthropology of the imago Dei;

(2) Although Augustine inspired Calvin's own perspective of "reading" the humanum "through" the lenses of the sacra doctrina, Calvin's hermeneutical anthropology breaks off with the essentialistic, analogical mode of thinking of medieval theology, insofar as he avoids any descriptive language about God and man.

To be sure, Calvin's analogia fidei makes an extensive use of metaphors and figures of speech. Nevertheless this dialectical reflection between God's revelation and human self-knowledge remains always on the level of the noetic, i.e., as epistemological language and never as being itself (analogia entis). As Torrance has remarked,

It is impossible to say in language how language is related to being. Belief that this can or ought to be done was one of the root errors of Medieval epistemology and hermeneutics, but it is only in intuitive knowledge of God that it really becomes clear that we cannot through language relate language to being, or merely through thought relate thought to reality --in the nature of the case we cannot pass from ideas to being, or from what we already know to some unknown reality. All knowledge presupposes the given and operates within the relation set up between the given reality and our knowing of it. This was the point that emerged so clearly from Calvin's insistence that in knowing God we cast wholly upon His own prior and given activity in presenting Himself to us, but that snaps any possible argument from our own speculative notions to God Himself. This had immense implications for hermeneutics, for it meant, as Calvin learned also from Hilary, that we can never subordinate the res to the sermo but must always subordinate the sermo to the res which it serves through its signification of it. This represents, then, a radical rejection of nominalism, and a return to the Anselmic doctrine that faithful interpretation issecundum rem and not just secundum formam vocum.(20)

Thus Calvin's forensic concept of iustificatio agrees with both Luther and Melanchthon, in their emphasis upon the external and imputative nature of righteousness, but the Geneva Reformer adds also a metaphorical element that typifies the non-ontological character of his language: the unio mystica, which signifies the "incorporation" of the believer into Christ. Now Calvin goes on to stress the inseparability between imputatio and union in that Jesus grafts the believer into His body (simul inserere in corpus suum), yet Calvin does not make room for any kind of deification of the humanum, as he radically refutes Osiander's heresy of "essential righteousness."(21) In point of fact, the Calvinian anthropology of the imago Dei confirms hence to what extent his soteriology, christology, and pneumatology turn out to be distinct from the Lutheran homologues, precisely because of the ontological emphasis of the latter ("the real presence.")

By way of conclusion, I should like to underline the Calvinian binomial fides-cognitio according to which faith cannot be "implicit" but requires a personal knowledge of God's grace (fides enim in Dei et Christi cognitione).(22) However, even the implicit faith is regarded by Calvin as a praeparatio fidei: as against the natura-gratia antinomy of Thomist theology, Calvin maintains that man's sensus divinitatis ("sentiment de divinité") and semen religionis ("semence de religion"), intrinsic to the imago Dei in his creaturely condition, exclude every possibility of rationally excusing himself before God for not knowing His Revelation.(23) Following Paul's words to the Romans (1:18-32), Calvin does not hold reason to be neutral or autonomous, but just like faith, reason has been radically affected by the deformation of the imago. That is why Calvin defines faith as "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely-given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit."(III, ii, 7) Firmam certamque cognitionem --faith implies both certainty (certitudo) and assurance (securitas),-- for the knowledge of faith (vera scientia) is certain and firm --just as knowledge tout court may be reasonably defined as true belief.

Thus the Calvinian articulation of the creational and re-creational dimensions of the imago Dei, as speculum and responsa, supports a philosophy of man without any essence of itself and in integral dependence upon God and His Word. And the fact that our creation in the image and likeness of God was, since the beginning, an act of the Word in Christo, preserves the mysterium fidei of this confession:

Que tout ce qui a été imprimé d'excellence en Adam est procédé de cette source: qu'il approchait de la gloire de son créateur par le moyen du Fils unique. L'homme a donc été créé à l'image de celui qui l'a formé (Gen. 1:27), et par conséquent a été comme un miroir auquel la gloire de Dieu resplandissait, et a été élevé en tel degré d'honneur par la grâce du Fils unique.(II, xii, 6)


BERKOUWER, G.C. Man: The Image of God. Translated by D.W. Jellema.Series "Studies in Dogmatics." Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

BIÉLER, André. La pensée économique et sociale de Calvin. Geneva: Librairie de l'Université, 1961.

BOHATEC, Josef. Budé und Calvin. Studien zur Gedankenwelt des franzõsischen Frühhumanismus. Graz: H. Böhlaus Nachf., 1950.

BREEN, Quirinus. John Calvin: A Study in French Humanism. Grand Rapids: 1931; 2nd ed., Archon Books, 1968.

CALVIN, Jean. Johannis Calvini Opera Selecta, vols. III, IV. Edited by P. Barth and W. Niesel. Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1959.

----------. Institution de la religion chrétienne. Edited by the Société Calviniste de France, 4 vols. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1957.

----------. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by J. Allen. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936.

CASSIRER, Ernst et al. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948.

DE OLIVEIRA, Nythamar Fernandes. Tractatus ethico-politicus. Porto Alegre: Edipucrs, 1999.

DOOYEWEERD, Herman. A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 2 vols. Translated by D. Freeman and W. Young. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: H.J. Paris and Presb. & Ref. Publ. Co., 1953.

GERRISH, B.A. The Mirror of God's Goodness: Man in the Theology of Calvin. Concordia Theological Quarterly 45 (1981): pp. 211-222.

KLINE, Meredith. Images of the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.

McGRATH, A.E. Humanist Elements in the Early Reformed Doctrine of Justification. Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 73 (1982): pp. 5-20.

NIESEL, Wilhelm. The Theology of Calvin. Translated by H. Knight. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956.

STAUFFER, Richard. Dieu, la création et la Providence dans la prédication de Calvin. "Basler und Berner Studien zur historischen und systematischen Theologie." Bern: Peter Lang, 1978.

TORRANCE, Thomas F. Calvin's Doctrine of Man. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.

----------. Knowledge of God and speech about Him according to John Calvin. Cahiers de la Revue d'Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 39 (1965): pp. 140-160.

WENDEL, François. Calvin et l'humanisme. Paris: P.U.F., 1976.


1. Calvin uses the term "man" as it refers to the conception of "human nature," in a universalist sense.

2. On the thesis of the impossibility of avoiding the problem of metaphysics and philosophical anthropology in any quest for a defensible justification of the normative grounds of ethics and political philosophy, see de Oliveira 1999.

3. I am using the term "dialectic" in the pre-Hegelian, hermeneutical sense, correlate with rhetoric, logic, and grammar, as in the Stoic and Medieval study of the humanitas.

4. Dooyeweerd 1953, vol. I, pp. 169-199. Cf. Cassirer et al. 1948.

5. Préface du commentaire sur les psaumes. Calvin 1959, vol. XXXI, p. 22. Cf. Biéler 1961, p. 72.

6. Cf. Wendel 1976; Breen 1968; Bohatec 1950.

7.. I am relying on the modern French (Calvin 1957) and Latin (Calvin 1959, vols. III-IV) editions, hence the references to Book, Chapter, and Paragraph of the Institutes.

8. Dooyeweerd 1953, vol. I, p. 522.

9. Calvin 1936.

10 Biéler 1961, p. 515 f.

11 M. Kline, Images of the Spirit, 26-34.

12. Institutes, I, ii, 2.

13. Berkouwer 1962, p. 96 f.

14 Gerrish 1981, p. 218.

15 Robert D. Knudsen, Søren Kierkegaard, (Class Lectures; Westminster Theological Seminary, 1987), SK VII-6 (Mimeographed Class Notes).

16 Torrance 1957, p. 52.

17 Niesel 1956, pp. 68 f.

18 Stauffer 1978, p. 201.

19 Stauffer 1978, pp. 203 ff.

20 Torrance 1965, pp. 154 f.

21 Calvin 1957, III, ii, 35; cf. III, xi, 5-12.

22 Calvin 1957, III, ii, 3.

23 Calvin 1957, I, iii; I, v, 1-4; Cf. III, ii, 5.

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