Learning to Speak Thoughtfully of Jesus: Calvin’s Way With Heretics

Calvin knew that in all cases, truth is best served by humility and mercy, and not by “bitterness, nor contentiousness, nor quarrelsomeness."

Most Christians have a basic understanding of the issues that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Yet we all tend to downplay the degree of theological uncertainty in which the reformers were working. Challenges to the Roman Church’s theology and practice created a vacuum in which ancient heresies1 came out of their hiding places (so to speak) and clamored for reconsideration. Much earlier, in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians had affirmed that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were fully God along with the Father (the doctrine of the Trinity); they had also clarified that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine (the doctrine of the two natures of Christ). Yet not everyone in the 16th century was willing to follow their lead. A flourishing of heretical teaching partly explains why Luther and Calvin gave authority to the Nicene Creed (325) and the Definition of Chalcedon (451) respectively as clarifications of biblical thought, even while they were committed to the principle of “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura).

This article explores how John Calvin held to the Nicene/Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus Christ in the face of a particular challenge. It is good to know that Calvin did this, and how he did it, for a number of reasons. First, if we think of Calvin as writing only in response to Roman Catholic theology, we miss out on much of the creative and constructive flavor of his work. Calvin was writing for all Christians, explaining and defending not only Reformation convictions but also the ancient faith. Moreover, the particular way in which Calvin adhered to creedal teaching on the person and work of Jesus is instructive to us today. What should be our response to misunderstandings of Jesus Christ that reappear, in slightly different form, from generation to generation? It helps to begin—as Calvin did—with the early church.

Trinity, Person and Nature How and why the church developed a doctrine of the Trinity and fully accepted it by the late fourth century would be an article in itself. To summarize: in 318, a priest named Arius from the city of Alexandria provoked a firestorm by arguing that Jesus was a creature, made by God: a special creature who could do special things, yet not of the same divine Being as God. After all, how could Jesus be divine if there was a time when he had not yet existed? God-ness is eternal, Arius argued, and Jesus was not; ergo, Jesus was a creature and not the Creator. From a common sense perspective, this view makes a great deal of sense even today. Yet others in the early church knew that it did not make biblical sense: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). Biblically, Jesus Christ has always existed. To call Jesus the “only-begotten” is to identify him as a unique, unrepeatable communication of the very substance of the Father (Jn. 3:16). Therefore “begotten” does not mean “created” as Arius believed. Rather it describes an eternal relationship of the Father “speaking” his substance in the Word from before time began. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was not his beginning but merely the entrance of the Word into human time. These insights led to the writing of the Nicene Creed in 325 and its full ratification in Constantinople in 381. They also led to a useful distinction between Substance (what there is one of in God) and Person (what there are three of in God). Yet it often happens that the solution of one conundrum leads to the creation of another, and this was the case theologically between 381 and 451. If Jesus fully shares in the divine substance (as the Holy Spirit also does), then what of his humanity? Was it merely an illusion? The apostles testify that Jesus ate, slept, cried, became tired, felt love and anger, and even experienced a genuinely human fear of death. Paradoxically, this humanity is what allowed Jesus to fulfill his divine mission of dying for sin and rising to life. And so the church made yet another theological distinction: between Person (what there is one of in Jesus) and Nature (what there is two of in Jesus). The Definition of Chalcedon (451) states that Jesus is one Person in whom there is both a complete divine nature and a complete human nature. And how did this happen? In the womb of Mary, the pre-existent Word—who was God and was with God—assumed a totally human nature. That human nature had to be complete in every way, so that every aspect of our humanity could be healed by the Word’s gracious choice to assume it.

The Chalcedonian Definition was not a “definition” in the sense that it ruled out any discussion of the mystery of Jesus Christ. For example, there was still the perplexing question of how the divine and human natures related to one another. Some theologians put the focus on Jesus’ human nature; others used the categories of Greek philosophy to put the focus on His divinity. Everyone struggled to articulate a relationship between the humanity and the divinity that did not violate the essential properties of either one. The writers of the Definition sought to put boundaries around this ongoing discussion in order to keep it healthy. They included four phrases, each of which is a preemptive strike against a possible heresy: “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” In the one Person of Jesus, the two natures do not get mixed up with one another to become a third thing; they do not change their properties; neither of them are missing any parts; and they are never separate from one another. Any of these alternatives would threaten the full reconciliation of humanity and divinity in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is our salvation.

As for Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion he carefully adhered to what we now call the “four fences” of Chalcedon. Calvin also recommended another ancient technique for safeguarding healthy speech about Jesus. When “the Scriptures speak of Christ,” he explained, “they sometimes attribute to him what must be referred solely to his humanity, sometimes what belongs uniquely to his divinity. And they so earnestly express this union of the two natures that is in Christ as sometimes to interchange them. This figure of speech is called by the ancient writers ‘the communication of properties.’”2

An example of the communication of properties occurs in Acts 20:28 when Paul says, “God purchased the church with his blood.” Strictly speaking, it is the blood of Christ that Paul has in view, but in the mystery of their union, God can meaningfully be said to have shed blood. Calvin was very fond of such expressions because they honor the mystery of Jesus as a unique and unrepeatable Person who alone can mediate between a holy God and a sinful people. In other words, Calvin did not want his readers to be pondering how generic divine nature (is there such a thing?) interacted with generic human nature in Jesus. There is only one Savior and there is nothing generic about Him. We know him truly through his work as revealed in Scripture, and Calvin’s favorite umbrella term for that work was mediation. As we will see, Calvin did not limit the mediation of Christ to the cross. He insisted that the eternal Son was mediating on our behalf before the world began.

The Challenge of Francesco Stancaro

We are now ready to eavesdrop on the debate between John Calvin and Francesco Stancaro, an Italian teacher of Hebrew who made his way to Poland in 1559. At this time, Calvin was nearing the end of his leadership in Geneva and was only six years away from his death. One of Calvin’s strengths was the value he placed on friendship and collaboration, which caused him to maintain a constant and lively correspondence with other reformers throughout Europe. In this way he came to know that Poland was a hot-bed of anti-Trinitarian and anti-Chalcedonian teaching, and that the Polish Reformed church had expelled Stancaro for his teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Stancaro, however, was eager to correspond with Calvin and his fellow reformers directly. In his letter to them, the Italian scholar adopted a bizarre strategy: Stancaro claimed that the teachings of Arius from the fourth century were alive and well in Poland and were being falsely attributed to Calvin! To paraphrase: “I know, Calvin, that you are not a follower of Arius. You do not believe that Christ is inferior to the Father. If you want to refute this heresy effectively, and protect your reputation, you will join with me in teaching exactly what I teach.”

Stancaro’s attempt to ingratiate himself with Calvin had two easily discernible weaknesses. First, it was known that Stancaro had publicly insulted Calvin and the other reformers, famously commenting that a particular theologian of the past had been “worth more than a hundred Luthers, two hundred Melanchthons, three hundred Bullingers, four hundred Peter Martyrs and five hundred Calvins, and all of them ground in a mortar with a pestle would not amount to an ounce of true theology.” Obviously, Stancaro would not be making common cause with someone he despised, and must have another motive for reaching out to Calvin. Second, Stancaro’s own view of Jesus Christ was neither an effective refutation of Arius nor a view that Calvin could share, given Calvin’s appreciation for the “four fences” of Chalcedon.

What did Stancaro teach? First of all, he did not object to the ancient conception of two complete natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ. Stancaro believed that Jesus did possess a complete divine nature; on this point he truly was an opponent of Arius. Stancaro also shared Calvin’s interest in the biblical image of Christ as Mediator. For his part, Calvin strongly believed that human beings would still need a Mediator even if we had never fallen into sin—because we are finite, and God is infinite. But Stancaro questioned how Jesus could be a mediator on the basis of his divine nature. In his mind’s eye, Stancaro could easily imagine the human nature of Jesus mediating between us and the Father. After all, he argued, a mediator is usually inferior in status than the one to whom he addresses mediation. Stancaro’s difficulty was imagining the divine nature of Jesus as involved in mediation to the Father. If mediators are always of lower status, wouldn’t that make Jesus’ divinity less than the divinity of the Father? And is not that dangerously akin to what Arius taught?

How much better it would be, Stancaro urged, to describe Christ as mediator with the Father only on the basis of his human nature! Then we would run no risk of implying that Jesus’ divinity was less than that of the Father. Stancaro also wanted to avoid what he believed to be a puzzling image of Christ as God mediating with Himself. So he suggested that the best way to understand the mediation of Christ is to imagine the human nature of Jesus (and never his divine nature) as representing our interests before the entire Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Knowing that he needed biblical evidence in order to be persuasive, Stancaro cited I Corinthians 15:24-28 in which “the Son himself,” having secured the world against evil, hands it over to God the Father and “is subjected” to God. In Stancaro’s interpretation, this act of subjection perfectly symbolizes the mediation of Jesus’ human nature only before the Father (and, by extension, the Holy Spirit).

At this point I invite the reader to imagine: what if a 21st-century version of Francesco Stancaro were to teach in your adult education program on a Sunday morning? How would you respond to his teaching? You might be impressed that Stancaro was so eager to refute the ancient heresy of Arius, and be afraid yourself of slipping into that error. If you knew your Nicene Creed, you might join Stancaro in wondering why a fully divine Christ would address mediation to the Father when Christ, the Spirit and the Father are supposed to be “equally worshipped and glorified.” Hopefully, in addition to this surface agreement, you would have an uneasy feeling at the thought of separating the human and divine natures of Christ into a division of labor in which one nature has the ability of mediation and the other does not. And with that, you would have arrived at the moment in your thinking when the four fences of Chalcedon—“without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”—really display their value.

John Calvin’s Response

We are fortunate to have two letters that Calvin wrote back to Stancaro, so we know exactly what he said to the erstwhile reformer. Calvin took a clear stand against the separation of the natures and for the communication of properties as we defined it above. His favorite designation for Jesus Christ—“the one Person of the Mediator”—occurs frequently in these two letters. Jesus Christ is one unified Person, in that His divine and human natures are never separable in anything he does. Even if we were to decide that mediation to the Father is most logically related to the human nature of Jesus, because of the communication of properties, his divine nature would be a full participant in the act of mediation because He is never divided against himself. The One who heals the division between God and humanity is never thus divided, in his person or in his work. “What truly and suitably belongs to the totality,” Calvin wrote, “ought not to be divided and assigned to the natures.”3 Moreover, there are sound biblical and theological reasons why mediation in particular “truly and suitably belongs to the totality,” that is, to the two natures of Christ in their unity. First, consider the priestly type of mediation that Jesus displayed. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our great high priest, who by sacrificing himself reconciled us to God. Calvin reminded Stancaro that this priestly work of Jesus was an act of mediation in both natures, human and divine. “When expiation cannot be accomplished without dying and the shedding of blood, then the mediator must die. This is something proper to humanity, “he explained. Divinity cannot die; but a human nature can. However, “since dying is one thing and the effect of dying another, the reconciliation effected by death is falsely attributed to the human nature alone.”4 Our sin is an offense against God, and only God can receive its expiation and choose to be reconciled. One could say, then, that the divine nature of Christ was equally involved in the sacrifice that won our salvation—and this is true. It is even better to say that from before all time, the unity of the human and divine natures in the eternal Son of the Father made him the perfect expression of priestly mediation when the time came for him to die on our behalf.

This was Calvin’s trump card in his resistance to Stancaro: the eternal nature of Christ’s mediation in two natures. “Certainly,” he insisted, “the eternal [Word] was already mediator from the beginning, before Adam’s fall and the alienation and separation of the human race from God.”5 As Head over humanity and the angels, the only-begotten Son has always been for us; he has always interceded on our behalf. Many Christians have trouble with this concept because they think of salvation history as a timeline, in the way that we experience it as human beings. How could Jesus be the eternal Son of the Father if the incarnation came “after” the creation? It helps to remember, as Calvin did, that God is outside of time and does not experience sequence as we do. From the vantage point of the Eternal Son, creation and incarnation and expiation are one, simultaneous “now.” And in that “now,” Jesus Christ is always our mediator, and always in two natures: “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” His acts of mediation in time are fitting expressions of the unity that He is outside of time.

What of Stancaro’s concern about the divine nature of Christ addressing mediation to the Father and the Spirit? Does that mediation suggest that Jesus’ divinity is less “divine” than theirs? (As if divinity could be a matter of “more” and “less”!) Only if we accept Stancaro’s assumption that a mediator is always of lesser status. Calvin exposed this as a human, not a biblical, understanding of mediation. For the biblical understanding of mediation, he turns to Augustine, his favorite among the early theologians. Augustine argued that “to be mediator [Christ] must have something in common with God and something in common with men, lest being like men in both points, he would be far from God, or if in both of them like God, he would be far from men, and so he would not be mediator.”6 Biblically speaking, the mediation of Christ is not addressed from less to more, but from same to same, and in two dimensions at once: human and divine.

Finally, Calvin also tackled Stancaro’s interpretation of I Corinthians 15:24-28, a passage that still troubles Christians today. It describes the last moments of history, when Jesus has carried out his mandate from the Father to “reign until he has put everything under his feet,” including death itself. At the very end, the Son of God will also be “made subject” to God that God might be “all in all.” Calvin flatly denied that this picture of Jesus as subject to God, and to God’s purposes, confirms him as mediator in his human nature only. The Father has “sent” the Son to do what only the One human-divine Mediator can do. “What does it mean to overcome death?” Calvin inquired. “To rise in the power of the Spirit and to receive life from oneself? To unite us to God and to be one with God? Without doubt, these will not be found in Christ’s human nature apart from the divinity…”7 Calvin believed that this interpretation of I Corinthians fits much better with Jesus’ own request that God would honor him “with the glory which I had with you from the beginning” (Jn. 17:5). If Jesus were a mediator in the human nature only, this request would be presumptuous; from the One Person of the Mediator, however, it is “only proper.”8

Conclusion: Speaking Well of Jesus

What can we learn from Calvin’s approach to the theology of Francesco Stancaro? It is important to note that—in an age known for brutal language between intellectual opponents—Calvin could be surprisingly mild when he spoke to and about Stancaro. He did not respond “out of hatred for Stancaro or to weigh him down with ill will.”9 This restraint is all the more significant considering that Stancaro was generally known for his arrogance and malice, and that Calvin was not generally known for meekness! With respect to Stancaro’s ideas, Calvin was unstintingly negative; with respect to the man himself, Calvin even “hoped that natural endowment, which was raised too much on high by boasting, may incline [Stancaro] to gentleness and moderation.”10 In other words, Calvin could praise his opponent’s gifts even while disagreeing with the employment of them.

I believe there is much for us to learn from Calvin’s self-control in this matter. We live in an age in which public discourse wobbles between relativism (“everything is true”) and dismissal (“you and your views are ridiculous”). In the presence of a fellow believer whose theological standpoint is troubling to us, neither of these extremes is appropriate. Who knows what personal struggles have led to their current convictions? This is a brother or sister for whom Christ died. We always have the right to disagree—and sometimes, we have the responsibility to present a view that is more biblical and that has stood the test of time. We can only discern on a case-by-case basis whether it is best to speak or to keep silence. But Calvin knew that in all cases, truth is best served by humility and mercy, and not by “bitterness, nor contentiousness, nor quarrelsomeness.”11

Believers today can also learn a great deal from the content of Calvin’s rebuttal to Stancaro. In my experience, church people have far better theological judgment than they believe themselves to have. Of course, you and I are not theologians on the same order as Calvin; but we do have access to the same resources. Calvin depended on Scripture, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the testimony of the early church to determine what was “off” in Stancaro’s thinking and how best to respond to it. Even if we do not have the minute knowledge that Calvin had, we can still learn from the way he used these tools. First, in controversy, Calvin referred to the whole Bible and its over-arching story of salvation, rather than slinging around a few verses as proof-texts. Long before the encounter with Stancaro, he had built an understanding of the One Person of the Mediator that depended on both the Old and New Testaments. That “big picture” view prepared him for the confrontation with Stancaro, and enabled him to recognize the separation of the natures as a biblical problem, as well as a creedal one. Today we can emulate Calvin’s approach by seeking those resources that strengthen our “big picture” understanding of the Bible.

Second, instead of getting distracted by a human conception of mediation, such as the “lesser to greater” image in Stancaro’s mind, Calvin stuck to a biblical conception of mediation which the creeds and early theologians had helped him to identify. The reader might not have the opportunity for a detailed study of Augustine, but the creeds are brief and lend themselves to memorization. Finally, part of the lure of heresy is that it can be easier to understand and explain than (for example) the “two natures in one person” language of the Definition of Chalcedon. Stancaro’s view of mediation according to the human nature alone is an example of this easier way. But the creeds are complicated for good reason: they are protecting the mysteries that lie at the heart of our salvation.

In other words, the mediation of Jesus Christ on our behalf in two complete natures may be harder to articulate, but it is essential to the salvation story. Here is why: because he is human, Jesus’ mediatory work can reach us and apply to us; because he is divine, we can trust that his mediation is effective and enduring. Like Paul, Calvin was convinced that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Calvin well knew that the assurance we gain from a better understanding of Jesus Christ is the definitive reason why theology should exist at all. _________________________________

The Reverend Karen Peterson Finch, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Theology at Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington.

1 A heresy is a theological perspective, held by a person within the Christian community, which pertains to the heart of the Gospel and is crippling to the way Christians understand and/or practice the Gospel.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics 20 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), II.14.1.

3 Joseph N. Tylenda, “Controversy on Christ the Mediator: Calvin’s Second Reply to Stancaro.” Calvin Theological Journal 8, no. 2 (1973), 153.

4 Ibid, 149.

5 Ibid, 147.

6 Ibid, 155.

7 Ibid, 153.

8 Ibid, 155.

9 Ibid, 146.

10 Joseph N. Tylenda, “Christ the Mediator: Calvin versus Stancaro,” Calvin Theological Journal 8, no.1 (1973), 16.

11 Tylenda, “Controversy on Christ the Mediator: Calvin’s Second Reply to Stancaro.” 157.


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