[K:NWTS 25/2 (Sep 2010) 43-67]

Calvin's Idea of Meritum Christi

Philip Tachin

Contemporary scholarship has argued that Calvin's view of the meritum Christi is traceable to the Scotistic tradition.[1] In this article, I argue that Calvin's understanding of the meritum Christi ("the merit of Christ") cannot be easily reduced to the Scotistic traditions despite their similarities and that his view is uniquely his. In doing this, I relate his doctrine of merit to his Christology because it is the person of Christ that gives meaning to the value of his atoning work.

Interpretation of Calvin's understanding of meritum Christi should not be done in isolation from his teaching on Christology. It is only by observing the thread of continuity between his view of meritum Christi and his Christology that justice can be done to his concept of merit. Many of the misleading conclusions drawn by some Calvin scholars in this respect come about because they fail to connect his concept of the merit of Christ with his main Christological thrust. A close examination of Calvin's theology shows that there exists a necessary circularity in the connection between Trinity, Christology and soteriology.

The Difference between Calvin and Scotus on Meritum Christi

Calvin developed his theology of meritum Christi as occasioned by Socinus' questions to him.[2] David Willis says Socinus' questions are not extant but may be inferred from Calvin's answers to them. One question presumably asked by Socinus may be stated plainly: "Can God's fidelity be counted on if his will is mutable, as would seem to be implied by a doctrine of the merits of Christ and by a doctrine which admits that God sometimes removes faith once apparently given"?[3] Calvin answers those questions in Books II and III of the Institutes, which cover the merit of Christ and the assurance or certainty of faith and salvation.

The merit of Christ was not fully developed in the earlier editions of the Institutes until the 1555 version, in which Calvin treated the topic extensively. Socinus' questions had serious implications for the doctrine of the merit of Christ including his divinity which prompted Calvin to give more serious considerations to them in the 1555 edition.[4] Though originally his purpose of developing it was to answer the questions of Socinus, this became an important foundation for discussing the nature of merits of works under "De justificatione fidei et meritis operum" ("Concerning Justification by Faith and the Merits of Works"). Under this heading, Calvin disputed the Papist teachings on personal merits in addition to the merit of Christ. He argued that the merit of Christ is God's manifest grace to us. The merit of Christ strictly speaking is not one of human merits before God, though he performed his meritorious work in his humanity. We will concentrate here on one of the questions which relates to the merit of Christ. In it, Socinus is pressing the issue of the immutability of divine will which should guarantee salvation for those who are being saved by God. If this is the case, God's fidelity is reliable. But if Christ's merit were to effect a change in God's will whereby he would not have saved those whom he in fact does save on account of Christ's merit, then the divine will would be mutable and consequently divine freedom would be diminished.

Willis paraphrases Socinus' question: "If the justification of men depends on the sheer mercy of God, how is it necessary that Christ's merit should at the same time intervene? How can one say both that God freely forgives and that Christ merits our forgiveness?"[5] Calvin's response shows the justification of teaching the merit of Christ: "It is by Christ's merits that the Father who has always loved us and who is now reconciled to us embraces us and discloses his love."[6] But Willis says the sum total of Calvin's response is found in what he says: "Both God's free favor and Christ's obedience, each in its degree, are fitly opposed to our works. Apart from God's good pleasure Christ could not merit anything; but did so because he had been appointed to appease God's wrath with his sacrifice, and to blot out our transgressions with his obedience."[7] Willis thinks the content of Calvin's answer was influenced by Socinus. But what exactly is the nature of that influence; whether it forces Calvin to grant Socinus' position is what Willis does not make clear. Furthermore, Willis argues Calvin's connection with Scotus thus:

The resemblance between Calvin's argument on the merits of Christ and that of Scotus on the same subject has been noted and is indisputable. . . . Both argue that apart from God's good pleasure, Christ could not merit anything. Scotus says that Christ's work, and especially his willingness, was meritorious because of the acceptatio of God. If it had pleased God, a good angel could have made satisfaction by an offering which God could have accepted as sufficient for all sins. For every created offering is worth exactly what God accepts it for and no more.[8]

McGrath argues in the same direction, tracing the history of interpretation of the merit of Christ from Augustine into the late medieval division of intellectualist and voluntarist traditions and terminating at Calvin as an heir of the Scotistic voluntarist view.[9] Muller also interprets Calvin's view "probably as an intensification of the Scotistic view."[10]

It is not so easy to dispute the claims of such great scholars who are authorities on Calvin. Yet a careful examination of their claims may yield helpful alternative interpretations. If McGrath is right to interpret Calvin as saying "the basis of Christ's merit is not located in Christ's offering of himself (which would correspond to an intellectualist approach to the ratio meriti Christi), but in the divine decision to accept such an offering as of sufficient merit for the redemption of mankind (which corresponds to the voluntarist approach),"[11] does this not run counter to Calvin's teaching on the significance of the perfect active obedience of Christ that "only he who was true God and true man could be obedient in our stead,"[12] i.e., that Christ's divinity is a basic requirement for our redemption? Here the basis of the merit of Christ for Calvin is clearly in his obedience, which was able to counter the disobedience of Adam, satisfy "God's judgment, and pay the penalties for sin."[13] I believe the cause, which is divine pleasure, should not be confused with the basis, which is the personal obedience of Christ. This cause should be understood in the sense of the choosing of the means to save us rather than causing Christ to be who he is essentially.

Moreover, does Calvin's statement that "apart from God's good pleasure, Christ could not merit anything" mean exactly the same as what Scotus says? Or what precisely does Calvin mean by this? It is not necessarily the case that two or more persons use similar words to mean exactly the same thing. Willis himself later cautions that it "would be a mistake to overemphasize the Scotistic element here."[14] The difference between Calvin and Scotus, according to Willis, is that the former does not talk about what Christ merited for himself, but what he merited for others, because the question of whether Christ merited anything for himself is "unprofitable."[15] And Scotus himself "says that Christ's superabundant merit is indispensable, but not entirely sufficient for our salvation;" and its goal was just to take "away the obstacle which blocked the way to heaven."[16] If this is Scotus' thinking, then one can see the ambiguity in the word "indispensable," as it loses its reasonable meaning when the merit of Christ is both "indispensable" and also "not entirely sufficient" at the same time. Scotus' position diverges from that of Anselm, who teaches that forgiveness of sin required infinite satisfaction, which could only be done by a person whose dignity is also infinite.[17] But Calvin is directly opposite to Scotus' view: "Christ's merit means exactly that no merit is required or can be offered to supplement or complete Christ's deserving."[18] Willis minimizes what I consider to be the serious difference that exists between Calvin and Scotus: "Calvin and Scotus are interested in slightly different things in the way they relate Christ's merits and the will of God."[19] The question is how slight is "slightly"? To understand the difference between Calvin and Scotus, it may be proper to ask why Scotus draws his conclusions as such.

Although their statements are similar, I consider the similarity only apparent but not real. McGrath says: "Scotus seems to suppose that for an action a to have infinite intrinsic worth, it must be the case that a is caused by—not just predicated of—a divine person."[20] So, in effect, Scotus is saying that apart from becoming incarnate Christ surrendered every qualifying decision to the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit, who would decide his fate. He clearly asserts that "the Father acts from himself; the Son not from himself."[21] Whether this is of the ontological or economic Trinity is unclear from Scotus, but it does not allow for the aseity of the Son that Calvin affirms. And it is the aseity of the Son that expresses his freedom. In effect, Scotus says Christ emptied himself of all his ontological prerogatives and therefore everything he did was only as a man without qualification. Scotus gives primacy to the will of God. Calvin appears to tread the same path by saying,

For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are. For if it has any cause, something must precede it, to which it is, as it were, bound; this is unlawful to imagine. For God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it.[22]

Here the will of God is the determinative entity, but Calvin does not necessarily subordinate the divine intellect or knowledge of God to the divine will.

While Scotus is willing to emphasize the supremacy of the Father's will, he seems not to do the same for the Son. However, he grants that "God assigned a reward to us because of Christ's affection for justice elicited in his willing submission to God's will in the passion. This affection is an act of Christ's human will, and is therefore finite in value."[23] This seems to assume the Thomistic notion of condign merit—finite nature warrants finite value. Yet for Aquinas, the condign merit of Christ is not premised on his humanity but on his divine personality. Scotus places the Son's voluntary submission only within the context of his incarnation which necessarily makes his meritorious accomplishment to be of finite value with respect to his human nature. He does not allude to the impact of Christ's divinity on the meritorious value of his work. But Calvin upholds the absolute freedom of the Son even in his incarnation: "True, Christ himself was born a mortal man; but this was a voluntary submission, and not a bondage laid upon him by another."[24] This "voluntary submission" predates his incarnation; it occurred when he agreed with the Father. This agreement could only arise from his self-existence (autotheos) and therefore the agreement is absolute because it is not just of human inclination, but stems from his ontic person.

Again, Scotus' view probably stems from his understanding of infinity, for which reason the incarnate Christ could not be properly construed in the sense of infinite existence. To him, "[Infinity is not a property but an intrinsic mode of being.] From this it follows that intensive infinity is not related to the being said to be infinite as a kind of attribute that accrues to it extrinsically."[25] Infinity is therefore not a property of an attribute of a thing or being. Rather, "intensive infinity expresses an intrinsic mode of the entity."[26] This means that it is the mode of being that defines whether a thing is finite or infinite, not its property. "Therefore, the intrinsic mode of anything intensively infinite is infinity itself, which intrinsically expresses a being or essence which lacks nothing and which exceeds everything finite beyond any determinable degree."[27] Applied to the state of incarnation, the Son's mode of being in his incarnation is finite, and so also is his accomplished work of salvation; it is only the approval of God that defines it as infinite. As such, his properties do not define his mode of being. Yet the question is how one separates mode of being from ontological properties. Does a mode of being diminish one's personal properties so that he becomes something other than he is essentially? Bavinck explains that God's "infinity is synonymous with perfection and does not have to be treated separately."[28] If infinity is an attribute, as Bavinck says, then Calvin upholds the notion that the perfection and infinity of Christ derive from his divinity. If Scotus denies this, then he would have to understand the kenosis as Christ emptying himself of his divinity. It will become clear on this note that Scotus' view does not comport with Calvin's Trinitarian and Christological views.

For Scotus, Christ accomplished his work in human flesh, but his "human nature actualizes no potentialities in its subject" the Word.[29] And since "nothing outside God can bring about any effect internal to God," what Christ accomplished in the flesh was finite and of no effect to the intrinsic being of God.[30] The humanity of Christ, being accidental to him, his meritorious accomplishment cannot be attributed to his divine ontic being. Scotus may be guarding against communicatio idiomatum between the natures, but doing so does have other implications for the work of Christ, since he reduces the entire work to the humanity of Christ, as if his divinity has no effect on it. The crux of his Christology in this regard is that Christ's work was an "offering by the human nature to the Trinity, and not ... an offering by the Son (the second person of the Trinity) to the Father."[31] Calvin offers an opposing view of the nature of the work of Christ in itself as it bears the mark of the one who did it:

He now clearly shows how Christ's death is to be estimated, not by the external act, but by the power of the Spirit. For Christ suffered as man; but that death becomes saving to us through the efficacious power of the Spirit; for a sacrifice, which was to the an [sic] eternal expiation, was a work more than human. And he calls the Spirit eternal for this reason, that we may know that the reconciliation, of which he is the worker or effecter, is eternal.[32]

Calvin's position comports with the confessions of orthodoxy: "Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature."[33] Also,

So then, what he committed to his Father when he died was a real human spirit which left his body. But meanwhile his divine nature remained united with his human nature even when he was lying in the grave; and his deity never ceased to be in him....These are the reasons why we confess him to be true God and true man—true God in order to conquer death by his power, and true man that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.[34]

"By his power" here refers not to his humanity (as it is subject to death and weakness), but to his ontic power as Son of God. This means his offering was both in his humanity and in his divinity because by humanity alone he could not have conquered and inevitably could not have offered what was acceptable to God. So while his human spirit was what he offered to God, it was offered by his divine power, which gave impetus to its infinity in order to pacify God's infinite wrath against the infinity of sins.

However, one is not sure of the consistency in Scotus' theology when he also avers that "when Christ...offered himself on the cross he made adequate satisfaction for an infinity of sins."[35] Though he bases this statement of adequate satisfaction on divine acceptatio, how does the logic hold that "infinity of sins" is intrinsic, but the offering for them is not infinite except only as God freely accepts it? If it may be argued that it is God who qualifies the infinity of the act of sin against him as well as the offering for the sin without those acts being really infinite in character, does it not amount to arbitrariness in divine justice to make something to be other than what it really is? As a matter of fact, there is no compelling evidence to show that Calvin was saying that Christ's merit ontologically construed could not merit anything before God, as was Scotus. It is doubtful if Scotus' view of the work of Christ can fit into Calvin's matrix of Prophet, Priest and King in the strictest sense, since these epithets take into view the harmonious work of the two natures in his work of redemption. Scotus' theology undeniably breeds Socinianism, which brought into question the merits of Christ. This can be discerned in the connection that Willis establishes between Socinus' question and Scotus. Both Scotus and Socinus failed to see Christ's merit as what originally qualified him to be the ordained means for our salvation. Calvin's theological position makes no room for Socinianism and this difference should not be ignored.

Calvin's view is not Scotistic but is drawn largely from his vast study of the church fathers,[36] the medieval scholastics and his independent Biblical exegesis. Though elements of Scotism are found in his way of framing the idea of the merit of Christ, Calvin's view is essentially or materially different from Scotism. Calvin's view of the merit of Christ is premised on Christ's condignity which sounds more Thomistic than Scotistic. Whatever may be the historical links between Calvin and Scotus, their views of the merit of Christ at critical points are opposed to one another.

The Merit of Christ in Calvin's Christology

Calvin's Christology must be understood from the background of his Trinitarian theology. His main thrust is to expound Christ as the sum total of the gospel to whom the whole of Scripture testifies. Christ is God in the absolute sense who also became man for us. The ontic status of Christ is the background for understanding the nature of biblical Christology as it bears on his redemptive work. To this he says,

But John spoke most clearly of all when he declared that that Word, God from the beginning with God, was at the same time the cause of all things, together with God the Father [John 1:1-3]. For John at once attributes to the Word a solid and abiding essence, and ascribes something uniquely His own, and clearly shows how God, by speaking, was Creator of the universe. Therefore, inasmuch as all divinely uttered revelations are correctly designated by the term 'word of God,' so this substantial Word is properly placed at the highest level, as the wellspring of all oracles. Unchangeable, the Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God, and is God himself.[37]

Calvin takes us back to the beginning of creation, which Christ precedes. This means our Christology should not begin with the incarnation, but should go back to the pre-creation in accordance with John's testimony. Calvin recognizes that what Christ was before his incarnation, he still is because he is unchangeable. This means even in his incarnation nothing was added to or subtracted from him. This is the cardinal principle for true biblical Christology.

Everything that Christ obtained for our salvation is, therefore, grounded in the fact that what God required for our salvation was already found in Christ's being as God. Calvin's clarity on this cannot be any clearer.

For as the names of God that have respect to his outward activity began to be attributed to him after the existence of his work (as when he is called Creator of heaven and earth), so piety recognizes or allows no name which intimates that anything new has happened to God in himself. For if there had been anything adventitious, the passage of James would fall to the ground: that 'every perfect gift comes from above, and descends from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change' [James 1:17].[38]

Christ was not on an adventure to add anything to himself which he had not attained before. As God, he holds all things in himself. The glory and eternal life that he obtained in his humanity are for us, not for himself because he owns all glory and life.

Calvin further argues this principle which is crucial for answering the question of the merit of Christ. He says, "For because something begins to be manifested at a certain time, we ought not therefore to gather that it never existed before."[39] If this is true, then Christ's merit, which began to be manifest in the flesh, was already something to be recognized in qualifying for his mediatorial work. For to seek to establish when he obtained merit for us, one "will find no beginning." Thus what Calvin speaks of as "the beginning of merit to be in him"[40] should be understood differently.

This stands in sharp contrast to Scotus' Christology. Scotus' Christology leans more on the side of the humanity of Christ. The Son of God was predestined to be human. Incorporated in this predestination is the glory that Christ would attain when he shall have finished his redemptive work. This means the merit of Christ for the satisfaction of divine justice was also part of the predestined aspects of his work, so that his work could only be counted de congruo rather than de condigno.[41] The whole Christological thrust of Scotus does not represent Christ in his capacity as a divine person who acts in accordance with his nature as the Son of God but only what God was accomplishing through Christ as if Christ was a mere instrument.

Calvin contemplates the magnitude of the problem to be solved and the solution that is proportionate to it. In this case, the gap that stands between us and God is not a finite one but an infinite one, so that no human being could overcome it. The gap or "cloud" that has been cast between us and God is the result of sin which has broken off our relationship with God.[42] This is Calvin's immediate context for understanding what he refers to here as the "cloud." This chasm is the result of "our uncleanness and God's perfect purity" and it is doubly problematic in view of the Creator-creature distinction that was in place before we became unclean. In fact "no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace;" furthermore, it would have been a hopeless situation for us "had not the very majesty of God descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him."[43]

The same point was made when Calvin responded to Stancaro's denial of the divinity of Christ on the grounds of his being the Mediator. According to Stancaro, "Christ was not the mediator between God and men with respect to his divinity, for this would attribute to him a divinity inferior to that of the Father," for which reason "Christ was Mediator only as man."[44] In his response, Calvin says, "But we maintain, first, that the name of Mediator suits Christ, not only by the fact that he put on flesh, or that he took on the office of reconciling the human race to God, but from the beginning of creation he already truly was Mediator, for he always was the head of the church, had primacy over the angels, and was the firstborn of every creature (Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:15; 2:10)."[45]

When Calvin refers to the mediatorship of Christ in 1Tim. 2:5, his primary concern is the unity of God and the exclusiveness of the mediatorship of Christ when Paul says "there is one Mediator between God and men." In the same passage above, Calvin also stresses the connection that the transcendent God has with us through "the man Christ Jesus." This mention of the humanity of Christ should not be placed over and against the divinity of Christ. It is the middle position that Christ takes by combining divinity and humanity together in his reconciliatory work that is paramount. Calvin does not make the humanity of Christ to be the sole ground for understanding the Mediator. He makes this very clear: "When he [Paul] declares that he is 'a man,' the Apostle does not deny that the Mediator is God, but, intending to point out the bond of our union with God, he mentions the human nature rather than the divine."[46] Nothing can be clearer than that Calvin appeals to the ontological status of Christ preliminary to understanding the person of the Mediator. We must not minimize this emphasis upon the divinity of Christ in Calvin because it shows the ontological status of Christ to be crucial in Calvin's Christology.

The divine ontological aspect of Christ was decisive in electing Christ for our redemption because the "heavenly decree" could not have stipulated one whose ability to earn salvation for mankind was uncertain. For a Mediator whose ability was unknown and who would fail would jeopardize even the very mercy of God upon which the heavenly decree to save was based. Calvin underscores the essentiality of the ontological integrity of Christ the Mediator, for the power that he possessed in view of his task "cannot be properly attributed to the human nature."[47] In his Trinitarian theology, Calvin teaches that Christ as the Son of God is autotheos. This understanding grows out of the association of Christ with the name Jehovah.[48]

I will begin here by examining Calvin's passage which has been interpreted by some scholars as Scotistic.

In discussing Christ's merit, we do not consider the beginning of merit to be in him, but we go back to God's ordinance, the first cause. For God solely of his own good pleasure appointed him Mediator to obtain salvation for us. Hence it is absurd to set Christ's merit against God's mercy. For it is a common rule that a thing subordinate to another is not in conflict with it. For this reason nothing hinders us from asserting that men are freely justified by God's mercy alone, and at the same time that Christ's merit, subordinate to God's mercy, also intervenes on our behalf. Both God's free favor and Christ's obedience, each in its degree, are fitly opposed to our works. Apart from God's good pleasure Christ could not merit anything; but did so because he had been appointed to appease God's wrath with his sacrifice, and to blot out our transgressions with his obedience. To sum up: inasmuch as Christ's merit depends upon God's grace alone, which has ordained this manner of salvation for us, it is just as properly opposed to all human righteousness as God's grace is.[49]

Though Scotus also agrees on this point, in Book II, chapter XVII, where this passage is found, Calvin makes it explicit that he is following Augustine. This might imply a silent objection to Scotus for the reason that the similarity to Scotus is only formal, not material. He cites Augustine before reasserting his own opinion. Augustine's overall context for setting forth his view is his contention against Pelagianism. Pelagianism made human ability for good works the grounds for earning salvation from God. In the Enchiridion, Augustine sets the mercy and grace of God against human works or merits as far as works of the flesh cannot count before the holy majesty of God. The grace of God is demonstrated in the fact that he has shown his wonder of grace in taking the human nature that is very low to manifest his glory: "In this the grace of God is supremely manifest, commended in grand and visible fashion; for what had the human nature in the man Christ merited, that it, and no other, should be assumed into the unity of the Person of the only Son of God?"[50] Here Augustine underscores how we may understand the anhypostatic human nature of Christ—that it is of no value in itself except as it is united to the person of Christ who was divine before the incarnation. His argument therefore is that the humanity that Christ assumed had no merit of its own as to merit union with the Son of God, but it was a demonstration of God's grace that such flesh should be counted worthy.

But looking at the other side of the dignity of Christ as the Son of God, Augustine says, "Indeed it was Truth himself, God's only-begotten Son—and, again, this not by grace but by nature—who, by grace, assumed human nature into such a personal unity that he himself became the Son of Man as well."[51] Here we can see the tension between what is not meritorious and what is also meritorious, as indicated by "not by grace but by nature," simultaneously held in the person of Christ. On the one hand, this view stands against Pelagianism and Roman Catholicism's teaching on human works of righteousness, so that only by grace alone could humanity benefit from God's mercy. On the other hand, Augustine shows how Christ by right of nature, not by grace, merited the favor of God for us. It would make more sense, therefore, to place Calvin in the same line of thought, since he is following Augustine. On this point, it would be in order to place Calvin in the intellectualist tradition and also as a radical modified Thomist on the concept of meritum Christi.

If we interpret Calvin on the above passage to say the death of Christ was of no value in itself except by divine acceptance, it will ultimately place Christ at divine mercy like any other person. If this interpretation is correct, then Calvin's view here would not be consistent with his Trinitarian and Christological frame. Paul Jensen presents the implication of such interpretation: "If Calvin is interpreted as holding this belief, he was maintaining the possibility that God could have refused to accept Christ's sacrificial death as meritorious and, if that holds true, God's justice did not dictate the nature of satisfaction that was required, rather his will dictated the nature of the satisfaction that was provided."[52] Jensen's alternative to Calvin's reading is that satisfaction was the prerogative of God's will while "the nature of the satisfaction," which is Christ's death, was the prerogative of God's justice; which is to say, "God was free to provide or not a satisfaction for sin."[53] The divine will does not antagonize divine justice, but both aspects cohere in God as his intrinsic properties.

To interpret Calvin through Scotistic spectacles will obviously turn Calvin against his entire Christological frame. The Scotistic view, which is founded on the idea that God could have chosen anything at all to merit salvation for us, diminishes the exclusive, unique and extraordinary claims of Christ, since it obviously implies that nothing intrinsically meritorious was found in him except as the grace of God, as might be the case with any other human being. This would run counter to Calvin's thought and he would resoundingly reject it.

Calvin's original point is not whether the value of Christ's merit was intrinsic or not, but whether all of his work may be properly called meritorious, which he affirms. He is not denying the intrinsic merit of Christ, but he is dealing with the logic of Socinus' question which is how mercy and merit meet. The struggle in Socinus is with harmonizing God's free mercy towards sinners and at the same time requiring merit for that same mercy which necessitates the death of Christ. The problem with Socinus results mostly from his denial of the divinity of Christ, which makes Christ essentially human. By so doing, he places Christ purely as a man in distinction from God and from this arrangement it becomes rationally impossible that human merit could meet God's judicial demand for satisfaction. In that case, God's mercy would also become unrealistic. On this logic, Calvin says no man can merit God's favor. He retrieves Christ from the Socinian error and places him where he properly belongs, stating that both Christ and God's mercy are given to us from one source—God's good pleasure. This is clearly noticeable in Calvin's conditional clause "if anyone would simply set Christ" which suggests that if we look at Christ merely or simply as an ordinary human like any of us without recourse to his divinity, then he could not have merited God's favor for us.[54]

But Calvin's point is different. Calvin says, "inasmuch as Christ's merit depends upon God's grace alone, which has ordained this manner of salvation for us, it is just as properly opposed to all human righteousness as God's grace is."[55] God in his grace decides the best means, for God is perfect in all his ways. In that case, God's mercy precedes Christ because it is by that mercy that the Son of God was elected to be the Christ through whom the mercy would become available to us. It is therefore the case that without divine mercy or good pleasure Christ could not merit anything since he could not have been decreed to become our means of divine mercy.

Furthermore, we find some allusion to the intrinsic character of the value of Christ's merit in what Calvin says. If the value of Christ's merit were based on the human nature that Christ shared with sinners, no person could merit God's grace. But the ground for Christ's merit goes back to "God's ordinance" as the "first cause." What Calvin means here by "first cause" of Christ's merit does not mean the ordinance showed mercy to Christ. Calvin does not indicate that the decree meant that the Father would accept the Son's merit as it pleases him. The decree rather means that when God decided to provide a satisfaction for the sins of humanity, he chose in his justice, the means that was fitting by meritorious qualification. The decree to ordain Christ for redemption only affirms that the personal merits of Christ cohere with the divine plan of salvation. He says that Christ is the total sum of the decree, being "the most excellent luminary of grace and predestination."[56] Again it may be observed from what Calvin says above that it is "God's mercy" or "God's good pleasure" or "God's grace alone" that is the ground by which Christ's merit is available to us, not merely by divine will. And there is no compartmentalizing God's will and his good pleasure, as they are indivisible aspects of his one perfect reality. All of God's grace in Calvin's thought is directed towards the sinner, not towards Christ, as if he were in need of grace for himself. That grace is in Christ and it flows through him to the sinner.

The reason for our inability to merit God's favor lies in our unworthiness, which Christ fills with his. As Calvin says, "In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ, it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy."[57] This is an ontological contrast between our unworthiness and the worthiness of Christ. The Son of God possessed the merit that was required for our redemption, for which reason he was appointed Mediator by the decree. "God's pleasure" refers to the nature of the means of redemption that was selected. God did not show mercy to that means; if he had, it would have been irrational for God to direct his mercy to Christ instead of to sinners, who are the object of redemption. This is what Calvin means when he says that "inasmuch as Christ's merit depends upon God's grace alone, which has ordained this manner of salvation for us, it is just as properly opposed to all human righteousness as God's grace is."[58] We must conclude, therefore, that though Calvin uses an expression similar to that of Scotus, his understanding of the relation between merit and the decree is certainly different.

The basic thrust of Calvin's view is that "Christ rightly and properly...merited God's grace and salvation for us" and foundational to this position is the conviction that "Christ's merit does not exclude God's free grace but precedes it."[59] Two important observations must be made here. First, when something is said to be properly the case, it touches the essence of that which makes it to be the case, and that essence is intrinsically, not extrinsically premised. So logically, it means that Christ's merit is what belongs to him by virtue of what he has accomplished through perfect obedience and this merit ultimately depends upon who he is essentially. Merit is not imputed or accorded to Christ's work. Second, Calvin says Christ's merit precedes God grace, which means the grace of God did not fill up a vacuum that was in Christ. But before God's grace chose the means to save us, Christ was already meritorious. The Lamb of God was already worthy on account of who he is and in this case his merit preceded the grace of God.

The definitive character that the divinity of Christ gives to the redemptive historical is climatically expressed in the contrast that Paul stresses between Adam and Christ. Whereas Adam's disobedience brought condemnation and death through sin, Christ's obedience brought justification and life through righteousness (Rom. 5:1-19). The infinity of Adam's sin resulted from his violation of an eternal order. Christ's perfect obedience involves two basic considerations. First, obedience to that eternal command still remains in force as far as the covenantal relationship between God and man remains, so that the infinite value of Christ's merit is reckoned with the object (namely God) to which that obedience was directed. Second, the passive and active obedience that Christ demonstrated was the action of God to redeem mankind, which qualifies that obedience as infinite and perfect.

Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it by his perfect, active and passive obedience. Again, in 1 Cor. 15:40-47, Paul's eschatological frame contrasts Christ and Adam in a way that shows that the heavenly intrudes and redefines the whole state of affairs in the redemptive history. The new order that Christ introduces is heavenly and spiritual; Christ is called the "life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45) in contrast to the Adamic earthly, natural and living-soul order. More particularly, Paul grounds the efficacy of the resurrection order in Christ's origin in verse 47: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven." The redemptive covenantal context provides the grounds whereby the divine ontic person of Christ exhibits his saving powers in redemptive history.

The ontological merit of Christ does not destroy the concept of merit as God's gracious bestowal of value to what he deems as such, but rather expresses it, so that without the merit of Christ no human being could merit God's favor. His merit is of God and as such is the grace of God given to us that we might have a right standing with him. Calvin explicates this elaborately.[60] Following Paul, Calvin says:

Christ is given us to be our righteousness [1 Corinthians 1:30]. He alone is well founded in Christ who has perfect righteousness in himself: since the apostle does not say that He was sent to help us attain righteousness but himself to be our righteousness [1 Corinthians 1:30]. Indeed, he states that he has chosen us 'in him' from eternity 'before the foundation of the world,' through no merit of our own 'but according to the purpose of divine good pleasure' [Ephesians 1:4-5, cf. Vg.]; that by his death we are redeemed from the condemnation of death and freed from ruin [cf. Colossians 1:14, 20].[61]

Here Calvin very clearly locates the righteousness or merit of Christ that comes to us in the pre-existent Christ. He is the righteousness of God given to us to provide for us what is lacking. Contrary to the Scotistic understanding of merit based on divine acceptation (which implies that it was alien to Christ), Calvin in the above passage says Christ has "perfect righteousness in himself" which qualified him to be given to us.

Socinus' attack on the merit of Christ was to reduce him to a "mere instrument or minister, not as the Author or leader and prince of life, as Peter calls him [Acts 3:15]."[62] Calvin despised this attitude. When Calvin says "if anyone would simply set Christ by himself over against God's judgment, there will be no place for merit," he is actually arguing that such an opposition would contradict the very nature of God and would not allow the opportunity for satisfaction of divine justice by Christ in his human nature. That there would be no place for merit is not meant to contradict the fact that Christ's merit was of himself; in fact, Christ's merit according to Calvin even "precedes" God's mercy which made it possible for God's mercy to be genuine. Having taken his Son who was meritorious by all standards, he has bequeathed to us the satisfaction of his own justice. Calvin says: "In discussing Christ's merit, we do not consider the beginning of merit to be in him, but we go back to God's ordinance, the first cause. For God solely of his own good pleasure appointed him Mediator to obtain salvation for us."[63] Here Calvin goes beyond the humanity of Christ to his ontological pre-existence, which meritorious status was recognized and selected by the good pleasure of God to be the only Mediator. Clearly, Calvin does not give room to those who stop at the humanity of Christ in order to reduce him to a mere instrument of salvation.

The concepts of merit and righteousness are correlative. Where there is righteousness there is merit. Perhaps we can take the language of righteousness as Paul uses it to explain the sense of the merit of Christ. Righteousness comes by perfect obedience to the established law because it is a moral end. It must come through an act. Paul says that Christ is the embodiment of the righteousness of God that becomes ours by faith (Phil.3:9). Christ as God's righteousness is not simply the act of his being sent to die for our sins, but Christ's obedience to God unto the point of death on the cross is also an essential part of that righteousness. Therefore, the whole life of obedience of Christ is the righteousness of God that is given for our redemption and only Christ could be obedient to God in the perfect way because of who he was. This is Calvin's point. If the righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of God because he himself is of God, then it is infinite in character because it is of God. This is Calvin's idea of the merit of Christ.

Calvin interprets Phil. 3:9 that Christ's righteousness becomes ours because God takes what Christ obtains by his perfect obedience and confers it upon us.[64] Calvin, in line with Paul, contrasts the righteousness of man which comes by human efforts and that which is of God and which is given to us through our faith in Christ: "These he [Paul] represents as so directly opposed to each other, that they cannot stand together."[65] Christ's merit or righteousness is opposed to human merit because his is of divine origin. Though Calvin recognizes that Christ mediates as man, yet he does not only mediate as mere man but as the God-man, and his righteousness is therefore not of man but of God. By the unique identity of the person of Christ, his merit or righteousness is divine because he is divine. It is not as though merit was first conferred upon him and then finally to us.

But on the contrary, what was not originally of Christ namely, our sin, was conferred upon him so that what was originally his (that is, his merit or righteousness) was conferred upon us (2 Cor. 5:21). The contrast between sin and righteousness here is rooted in the ontological and moral deterioration in our case and perfection as in the case of Christ. Calvin recognizes Paul's teaching here that sin which is originally ours is contrasted with righteousness which is originally Christ's so that "we are judged of in connection with Christ's righteousness, which we have put on by faith, that it might become ours."[66] It is by our solidaric union with Christ that what he owns becomes ours, dikaiosu,nh qeou/ evn auvtw/| which came only by the sacrifice of Christ (Phil. 3:9). I take evn auvtw to refer both to the eternal being of Christ (as is characteristic of Pauline usage elsewhere) and also to union with him in his accomplished work of redemption. Our redemption stands on this unity of the pre-existent and incarnate person of Christ.

In Calvin's Christology, it is very clear that the ontic merit of Christ cannot be divorced from the fact that it is "the very majesty of God" that has "descended to us."[67] This statement recognizes all that accrues from the person of Christ by right as autotheos whose merit was intrinsically infinite. The person of Christ and his work are conjoined in Calvin's thought, so that denial of his ontic merit jeopardizes the unity of his two natures in which he performed the mediatorial work. There cannot be a split between the person and work of Christ because the work is performed by one person with both natures. It therefore follows that Christ's absolute perfection, where everyone else had failed, was due to his ontological worth, acting to safeguard his humanity from falling as Adam did.

In explicating the nature of the power of Christ, Calvin says it obtains in Christ by virtue of his divinity, for "this power cannot be properly attributed to the human nature."[68] Here Calvin gives primacy to the deity of Christ rather than his humanity. This provides the frame of understanding that the merit of Christ, by which divine wrath is removed, is the highest expression of the power of Christ and may also be properly attributed to the person of Christ by virtue of his divinity. Helm makes a categorical assertion of Calvin's view of Christ's merit: "Christ, being divine, has infinite merit, the creatures no merit at all."[69] Negatively construed, Christ "could not fulfill other aspects of the office [of mediator] unless by his divine power: it was not within man's capability to overcome death and the devil, nor could man alone win righteousness, give life, or grant all the benefits which we receive from him."[70]

Calvin's precision on this matter is obvious as he applies this to Christ's qualification for the priesthood: "'You are my Son, today I have begotten You' (Heb 1:5; 5:5, Ps 2:7), by which he clearly shows no one is equal to or suitable for this office without divinity" because "this divinity is a necessary requisite of the office of priesthood."[71] If Calvin is indeed correct here, then the infinite worth of Christ's work must be also based on the grounds of his divinity instead of being based on divine acceptation. If the divinity of Christ is necessary for his priesthood, so also is his divinity necessary for the goal of his work, which is the outpouring of his meritorious person and work unto us to safeguard us from divine wrath. After all, God hated us for our sins before also showing love to us. Calvin consistently points out that Christ was appointed Mediator according to the divine good pleasure, but this does not exclude his prior qualifications. He was chosen to give us merit because of who he is; in fact he had "taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace."[72] It must be understood that Calvin is not here talking of Christ communicating characteristics uniquely his in order to make us divine; rather he is saying that what grants us a righteous standing before God is Christ's merits.


Finally, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1561 which was written by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus which has become the universal document of the Reformed tradition was based on Calvin's Catechism that he wrote in Geneva in 1545. The Christological trust of the Heidelberg Catechism especially Question 17 and its answer could be said to be an abridged idea of Calvin on the nature of the Mediator who bears two natures.[73] In Ursinus' exposition of the catechism, he underlines the divine qualities that are essential to Christ's mediatorial work such as "infinite wrath of God against sin" and the punishment of that was "infinite in greatness, dignity and value" which requires the "infinite strength" of the Mediator.[74] The Belgic Confession of 1561 has the same attestation with the Heidelberg Catechism on the respective functions of the divine and human in Christ in meeting the requirements of divine justice. Both confessional standards were adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1617 as keeping in tune with the Calvinistic position on the nature of the mediator. Both confessions have a serious breach with Scotism, if there was any connection at all between Calvin and Scotism. The differences between Calvin and Scotus outweigh the similarities and as such it is unwarrantable to describe Calvin as a Scotist.

—Theological College of Northern Nigeria Bukuru, Jos, Nigeria.


[1] John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).

[2] Laelius Socinus (Lelio Francesco Maria Sozini) (1525-1562).

[3] David Willis, "The Influence of Laelius Socinus on Calvin's Doctrines of the Merits of Christ and the Assurance of Faith," Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, ed. by Richard C. Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 59 (emphasis mine).

[4] See Calvin, Institutes, 2.17, note 1, 528.

[5] Willis, 60.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 2.17.1, 299 (This page is from Ages Digital Library).

[8] Willis, "The Influence of Laelius Socinus," 61. He endorses Wendel's view (see Francois Wendel, Calvin: Sources et evolution de sa pensée religieuse [Paris, 1950], 94, 171). Elsewhere he says Wendel "raises critical questions about the implication of Calvin's view of the merit of Christ for the doctrine of the humanity of Christ" (Willis, ibid., 59). For similar conclusions, see also scholars such as Albrecht B. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, 413-438; Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, 219-232; Williston Walker, John Calvin: The Organizer of Reformed Protestantism (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 414; Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 138-150; also his "John Calvin and Late Medieval Thought," Archive for Reformation History, 77 (1986): 74-78; Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 191; Joseph Wawrykow, "John Calvin and Condign Merit," Archive for Reformation History, 83 (1992): 73-90.

[9] Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 138-150. The "extra Calvinisticum" is another area that McGrath argues is voluntarist or via moderna oriented (McGrath, "John Calvin and Late Medieval Thought: A Study in Late Medieval Influences upon Calvin's Theological Development," Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, 33-34).

[10] Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 191 (emphasis mine).

[11] McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 115.

[12] Calvin, Institutes, 2.12.3, 234 (page from Ages Digital Library).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David Willis, "The Influence of Laelius Socinus on Calvin's Doctrines of the Merits of Christ and the Assurance of Faith," 62; see also note 1.

[17] See Anselm, Why God Became Man, 1.20,21; 2.18.

[18] Willis, 62.

[19] Ibid. (emphasis mine).

[20] Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 132.

[21] Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 125, citing Duns Scotus, Ordinatio 3.1.1, n.18 in Duns Scotus, John, Opera Omnia, ed. by Luke Wadding, 12 vols. (Lyons: Durand, 1639), 7.29.

[22] Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.2, 949.

[23] Cross, Duns Scotus, 130.

[24] Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998), 368.

[25] John Duns Scotus, God and Creatures, trans. by Felix Alluntis and Allan B. Wolter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 5.10, 111.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 5.11, 111-112.

[28] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2, 160.

[29] Cross, 117.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 131.

[32] Calvin, Commentary on the Hebrews, 180 (emphasis mine except for the word 'eternal').

[33]The Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.7.

[34]The Belgic Confession, Art. 19.

[35] Cross, Duns Scotus, 131.

[36] See Anthony N. S. Lane's concerns too in John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999); also B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1956), whose works have shown that Calvin never got stuck to one particular influence.

[37] Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.7, 130.

[38] Ibid., 1.13.8.

[39] Ibid., 131.

[40] Ibid., 2.17.1, 529.

[41] Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, III, ed. by Luke Wadding (Lyons: Durand, 1639), d. 7, q. 3, no. 2; XIV, 349a.

[42] Calvin, Institutes, 2:12:1

[43] Ibid.

[44] Joseph Tylenda, "Christ the Mediator: Calvin versus Stancaro," Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, 5, ed. by Richard Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 161.

[45] Ibid, 168.

[46] Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle to Timothy (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998), 43

[47] Joseph Tylenda, 13.

[48] The name Jehovah or YHWH (I AM THAT I AM) was revealed to Moses in Ex. 3:14. This explains God's aseity with the significance of overall independence by virtue of self-existence, self-sufficiency, and self-containment. Calvin argues that Paul attributes this name to Christ as one who introduced himself to Moses (Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1858], 56; this one was written in May 1537 to Simon Grynee to explain his position on the accusation of Sabellianism against him). Hodge explains that "self-existence and necessary existence, as well as omnipotence and all other divine attributes, belong to the divine essence common to all the persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is the Triune God who is self-existent, and not one person in distinction from the other persons" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975], 467).

[49] Calvin, Institutes, 2.17.1, 529. He follows Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, xv.30, 31 (MPL 44.981 f.; trans. NPNF V. 512).

[50] Augustine, Confessions and Enchiridion, trans. and ed. by A. C. Outler (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), XI. 36, 361. See also The Trinity, 13.23, 362, where Augustine defends the incarnation against those who denied it and states that the reason for resisting human merit and pride is that apart from the incarnation human nature is worth nothing, so that only "in the man Christ it advertises the grace of God toward us without any previous deserts on our part, as not even he won the privilege of being joined to the true God in such a unity that with him he would be one person, Son of God, by any previous merits of his own." Clearly, he is not against the intrinsic value of the merit of Christ considered in his ontological being as God but his humanity, which of itself could not merit anything. A little further along he explains that man was conquered by Satan because he was a man characterized by pride, but the one who conquered Satan was "both man and God," which points to the ontological and qualitative difference between Christ and other humans with regard to merits before God.

[51] Ibid., Confessions and Enchiridion, 362 (emphasis mine).

[52] Paul Jensen, Calvin and Turretin: A Comparison of their Soteriologies, 127 (emphasis his).

[53] Ibid. (emphasis his)

[54] Calvin, Institutes, 2.17.1, 529.

[55] Ibid. 12.17.1, 299 (page taken from Ages Digital Library) [emphasis mine].

[56] Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. by J. K. S. Reid (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), IV, 64.

[57] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998), 8 (emphasis his).

[58] Calvin, Institutes, 2. 17. 1, 529 (emphasis mine).

[59] Calvin, Institutes, 2.17.1, 298.

[60] Calvin, Institutes, 3.15:1-3, 267-270.

[61] Ibid., 3.15:5, 272.

[62] Ibid., 2.17:1, 298.

[63] Ibid., 298-99.

[64] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998), 83.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998), 126.

[67] Ibid., 2.12.1, 464.

[68] Joseph Tylenda, citing Calvin in "Christ the Mediator: Calvin versus Stancaro," Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, ibid., 13 (emphasis mine).

[69] Helm, Calvin's Ideas, 336.

[70] Ibid., 13-14.

[71] Ibid., 14. Cf. Calvin, Commentary on the Hebrews, 102.

[72] Calvin, Institutes, 2.12.2, 465.

[73] Compare the Heidelberg Catechism Question 17 and its answer to Calvin's Institutes, 2.12.2-3. Cf. also The Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 8:3, 7 and Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 40 and its answer.

[74] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1852), 87.