John Calvin on Implicit Faith

Feb 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Recent discussions at Called to Communion, though admittedly polemical, have focused attention on an important commonality between Catholic and Reformed Christians.  We both share a deference for a historical and creedal understanding of the faith, and a suspicion of mere private theological opinion. In that spirit, I would like to draw attention to a seldom acknowledged aspect of that commonality: the doctrine of implicit faith. Most readers are probably aware that Calvin was highly critical of the Catholic doctrine of implicit faith, or at least the practical application of that doctrine that he perceived in the Church of the sixteenth century. What may be less known is that Calvin himself affirmed a doctrine of implicit faith. Years of practical experience in ministry left Calvin with a deep skepticism about the ability of laypeople to understand, let alone properly formulate, theological propositions. Eventually, he came to believe that only a few Christians were able to grasp the nuances of Christian doctrine. For the masses, it was better simply to hold unity with the Church.

The Doctrine of Implicit Faith

In traditional Catholic theology, special allowances are made for those who suffer from “invincible ignorance.”  According to the theory, certain people are constrained in such a way that they are prevented from coming to knowledge otherwise necessary for their salvation. (They might not be rationally capable of deducing valid conclusions from the first principles of natural law, or able to derive doctrines properly from the articles of the Creed.)  In such instances, it is sufficient for them to assent generally to the authority of the church.  Such faith is called implicit.[1] It is important to recognize, however, that traditional Catholic thought does not allow for a faith that is completely implicit.  There are some articles of faith that must be held explicitly.  St. Thomas, for instance, argues that explicit faith in the incarnation and passion of Christ has always been necessary for salvation.[2]

Calvin mentions the doctrine of implicit faith in briefly in 1536, stating dismissively, “our adversaries … think it of no concern what belief anyone holds … if only he submits his mind with implicit faith to the judgment of the church.”  Again in 1539, he laments that Catholic theologians ascribe the title faith to “the most crass ignorance,” thereby “abusing the miserable plebs.”[3] In 1559, similarly, he alleges that Catholic theologians use this doctrine of implicit faith as a justification for total ignorance on the part of the laity.  Naturally, Calvin rejects this doctrine as an absurd abuse of Christ’s poor sheep.  For Calvin, it is the word, not the church, which is the scepter of Christ’s kingdom.  Calvin argues (like Thomas), therefore, that at least a minimal faith in God and his Christ is requisite for all the faithful.[4]

Calvin’s assault on the Catholic doctrine of implicit faith is simply one part of his much larger polemic against the Catholic bishopric.  Whereas the principal task of a bishop ought to be teaching, Calvin holds, the Roman bishops refuse to teach, refuse to read the Scriptures to the laity, and justify all this by appealing to a doctrine of implicit faith.  Instead of piety, he alleges, they encourage crass superstition.  They set up images and idols in their churches, calling these the teachers of the unlettered.  But Calvin retorts, “This is not the method of teaching the people of God whom the Lord wills to be instructed with a far different doctrine than this trash.”[5]

In this assault on “implicit faith,” Calvin is not concerned with the fine points of scholastic subtly, but with the practical issues of teaching and ministry.  The great irony, therefore, is that Calvin will return a favorable judgment on implicit faith when he considers it within the context of his own preaching ministry.  In Geneva, there was no question of the faithful having access to preaching.  There were preaching services daily in which the Scripture were read and expounded.[6] Throughout his career, however, Calvin did encounter unbelief, opposition, and misinterpretation of his doctrines. How then to explain or even understand the continued “ignorance” of God’s people?  If doctrine is to be the lifeblood of faith, what do you counsel a man who hears the word, and yet still cannot understand or accept the doctrine?  Calvin turned eventually to the doctrine of implicit faith.  In his mature thinking, Calvin held that the laity cannot be expected to grasp more than the barest essentials of faith.  On all other questions, they must submit to the judgment of the ministry.

Calvin’s Doctrine of Implicit Faith

Calvin’s first extensive discussion of implicit faith comes in chapter four of the 1539 edition of the Institutes. He undertakes to assault “that figment of implicit faith” proposed by the Romanists.  According to Calvin, salvation comes not from assenting to the authority of the church, but from knowing God is merciful through Christ.  At the same time, however, Calvin offers the following qualification:

Indeed, I do not deny—such is the ignorance with which we are surrounded—that most things are now implicit for us, and will be so until, laying aside the weight of the flesh, we come nearer to the presence of God.  In these matters we can do nothing better than suspend judgment, and hearten ourselves to hold unity with the church.[7]

In subsequent editions, Calvin broadens his affirmation of implicit faith.  In 1550, for example, Calvin again considers the Roman doctrine of Scripture and the authority of the church.  He proceeds to address the locus classicus for the Catholic defense of ecclesiastical authority: Augustine’s famous statement, “I would not have believed the gospel, but for the authority of the Catholic Church.”[8] As Calvin understands it, this passage had falsely become a pretext for submerging the primacy of Scripture.  However, it was not wrongly applied to the doctrine of implicit faith.  According to Calvin, Catholic apologists have understood Augustine’s remark as an argument for the authority of the church over the gospel.  Calvin, however, does not completely reject that allegedly Catholic doctrine.  Instead, he says that such an ecclesial authority is necessary, principally for those who have not yet received spiritual illumination.  While the faith of the enlightened may rest upon a firmer basis, the unenlightened must rest upon the testimony of the church.  Calvin explains:

Saint Augustine does not want the faith of Christians to be founded on the authority of the church, nor the certitude of the gospel to depend upon it.  But he means rather that an incredulous person would not be assured of the gospel, or be disposed to come to Jesus Christ, if he were not pushed by the authority of the church, by which such persons most often comeHe only meant to indicate what we also confess as true: those who have not yet been illumined by the Spirit of God are rendered teachable by reverence for the church, so that they may persevere in learning faith in Christ from the gospel (emphasis mine).[9]

By 1550, Calvin had encountered stiff resistance in Geneva.  Vociferous public opposition to his preaching began in 1546 and would continue until 1555.  Furthermore, the Genevan consistory had repeatedly suspended church members from the celebration of the sacraments for failure to give an acceptable account of their faith.  Calvin’s response to such ignorance and dissension was consistently to insist on the authority of the ministry and the duty of laity to submit.  The evolution in the theology of the Institutes surely reflects this pastoral experience.[10]

In 1559, Calvin makes plain that a great many people crowding even into Protestant churches lack illumination.  Calvin says that they may be people of good will, but they cannot be said to have truly received the illuminating grace.  They are disposed “to submit themselves willingly to Christ,” but lack real faith.  They are “teachable and ready to learn,” but still not “imbued with the first elements.”  According to Calvin, they can be said to possess “implicit faith.”[11]

According to Calvin, Scripture sometimes calls this readiness to learn “faith,” though it really falls short of “true faith.”  He explains, “We may also call that faith implicit.”[12] The essence of this “faith,” for Calvin, is a respect for the Church.  “Such reverent attention,” he argues, “which disposed them to submit themselves willingly to Christ, is graced with the title ‘faith’; yet it was only the beginning of faith.”[13]

Calvin believes that this type of faith can be found very frequently, even in the Reformed church.  In his commentary on John 14:25, for example, he teaches that God often obscures the Scriptures in order to humble his people.  He writes:

It is indeed a punishment threatened by Isaiah against unbelievers, that the Word of God shall be to them as a book that is sealed, but in this manner, also, the Lord frequently humbles his people. We ought, therefore, to wait patiently and mildly for the time of revelation, and must not, on that account, reject the word.[14]

Obviously, it is not only the reprobate who misunderstand the Bible.  Even the elect can fail to penetrate Scripture’s obscurity.  God even forces them to misunderstand, in order to inculcate humility and submission.  In this case, Calvin contends, “we can do nothing better than suspend judgment, and hearten ourselves to hold unity with the church.”[15]

Calvin does recoil at the allegedly Roman doctrine of implicit faith.  To his thinking, the Roman church does not even insist upon the minimum standard, since it allegedly allows for a completely implicit faith and refuses to teach the Scriptures.  In some ways, however, Calvin makes the Reformed congregation even more dependent than the Roman upon the consensus of the ministry.  The Roman doctrine teaches that all baptized Christians are at least potentially capable of exercising an informed assent to the creed.  Such assent constitutes true faith.[16] Calvin, by contrast, teaches that God consciously prevents many Christians from understanding central tenets of the faith.  Many more are intrinsically capable of faith, but must first pass through the stage of being simply “teachable.”  They must submit themselves to the church and learn from her.  Finally, there are others (seemingly the vast majority) who attain true faith, but this faith consists only in the minimum standard.  These must rest ever content to “suspend judgment” and “hold unity with the church” whenever other doctrines are at stake.  They must submit themselves to a man with “a true knowledge of Christ.”[17]

Concluding Thoughts

As a former Presbyterian-turned-Catholic, I still appreciate the Reformed emphasis on and effectiveness in catechesis.  It is practically a truism that the average PCA member knows his faith far better than the average Catholic. For all that catechesis, however, it was also my experience in the PCA that some people “just don’t get it,” take little interest in theology, or simply defer to their leadership, trusting that the Westminster Assembly must have gotten it right. It is interesting for me to reflect that Calvin considered this state of affairs to be normal and even of divine design. Now let’s have a discussion about the proper grounds for this trust in Church authority.

[1] ST I-II. 76.3; ST II-II 2.6.

[2] ST II-II 2.7.

[3] CO 1: 472 (1539); “Alterum, quod crassissimam ignorantiam fidei nomine praetexentes (quam ipsi implicitam appellant) miserae plebeculae sic illudunt.”  Calvin continues his lament two paragraphs later (CO 1: 473): “Figmentum autem de fide implicita, veram fidem non modo sepelit, sed penitus destruit.” For English translation, see the Ford Lewis Battles of the 1536 Institutes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 4.

[4]Inst. 3.2.2; 3.2.3; Richard Muller speaks of Calvin’s “continuous polemic against the scholastic doctrine of fides implicita, and yet argues that Calvin’s doctrine of faith is “surprisingly like that of the great medieval doctors.”  See his “Fides and Cognitio in Relation to the Problem of Intellect and Will in the Theology of John Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal 25 (1990): 207-224.

[5] CO 1: 34; Battles  (1536), 21.

[6] T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox,1992): 59-64.

[7] Inst. 3.2.3; CO 1: 474.

[8] Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti (PL 42: 176): “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the catholic church.”  Cited in Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, I: 76, n. 6.

[9]Inst. 1.7.3; CO 1: 295:  “Non ergo illic docet Augustinus fundamentum esse piorum fidem in ecclesiae autoritate, nec evangelii certitudinem inde pendere intelligit; verum simpliciter nullam fore evangelii certitudinem infidelibus, ut inde Christo lucrifiant, nici ecclesiae consensus eos impellat … sed tantum ut indicaret quod nos quoque verum fatemur, eos qui nondum spiritu Dei sunt illuminati ecclesiae reverentia ad docilitatem induci, ut Christi fidem ex evangelio discere sustineant.”

[10] For details, see my article, “How John Calvin Made me a Catholic.”

[11] Inst. 3.2.5.

[12] Inst. 3.2.5.

[13] Inst. 3.2.5.

[14] Comm. John 14:25; CO 47: 334.

[15] Inst. 3.2.3.

[16] According to Thomas, baptism invariably grants the grace necessary for the assent of faith.  On this topic, see ST 2b.2.1; 3.69.5;  3.69.8.

[17] Calvin does not call for the private interpretation of Scripture. By contrast, consider the following remarks about lay reception of preaching and private reading (CO 28: 546-547): “Cognoissons que nous ne comprendrions ce que nous est propose en son nom et de par luy, sinon qu’il nous illuminat … quand nous lisons en l’Escriture saincte, ou quand nous venons ouyr la parolle qu’on nous annnonce: que nous y cerchions edification … Mais il y en a bien peu qui sentent ce qui est ici declare: et de faict, la plus part du monde n’en est pas digne.”

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  1. so… from what i’ve heard about Calvin, not only on here, but from other sources as well… he really only agreed with Catholic Church teaching when it benefitted his own ministry. yet, he probably wouldn’t have admitted that it was Church teaching because he somehow had arrived at the same conclusion ‘on his own’.
    yet again it’s confirmed that the only reason why non-Catholic churches ‘succeed’ at all is because they’re doing something good that the Catholic Church already did/does.

  2. David,

    Great post. I remember thinking that Calvin could not possibly believe that implicit faith is no faith at all and your post demonstrates clearly that he had to re-work his original hubris. One of my favorite lines of the Liturgy is when the priest says, “look not upon our sins, but on the faith of your Church…” The Church’s faith is a very comforting truth, demonstrating the maternal nature of the Church. The Church as Mother nurtures me and tells me what it is that we believe and I trust her because she is Mother. I do not stand in judgment on the Church, rather I submit to her, for she holds within her the treasure of the faith and invites me to share in it with her.

  3. David:

    Thanks for this contribution. What it points up, I believe, is that even if the theologically “correct” interpretation of Scripture is clear to those who “get it,” most Christians are not in a position to mount an intellectually respectable case for whatever “orthodoxy” is as a whole, so that their recourse is simply trust the authority of their church’s leadership. The sort of debate we’ve been having around here is, accordingly, a debate among the theologically well-educated about which, and more importantly, which sort of, ecclesial leadership is trustworthy as an authority for determining orthodoxy.

    In fact, the debate is ultimately about whether such authority is primarily academic or primarily charismatic, and if the latter, how the charisma certum veritatis, the “sure charism of truth,” is to be recognized as such in ecclesial leadership, as distinct from just a book or a tradition. The chief value of your contribution is its providing evidence that said charism must reside in the subject of Scripture and Tradition, i.e. in the Church and those divinely appointed to speak for her, not just in those objective sources themselves.


  4. In this assault on “implicit faith,” Calvin is not concerned with the fine points of scholastic subtlety, but with the practical issues of teaching and ministry.

    Dr. Anders,

    In your study of Calvin and your subsequent conversion, what role if any did you see Calvin’s lack of formal training in philosophy/theology as a contributing factor in his understanding or rather lack there of scholastic distinctions?

    Do you think the general state of education/literacy, in particular the great socio-economic divide at the time between those who studied and those who didn’t, lent itself toward a general understanding of implicit faith, both Catholic and protestant, that could express itself in such terms as “la plus part du monde n’en est pas digne”? It would seem that the catechetical problems Calvin is ascribing so universally we might ascribe now only to developing countries.

    How should we think about implicit faith in purview of not the gross ignorance of a world, but rather in a world where knowledge is so ubiquitous or at the least where “la plus part du monde peut comprendre”?


  5. Michael,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that the debate around here is often between an academic and a charismatic view of Church authority, with Catholics representing the charismatic side.

    It is important to note, however, that Calvin never said, “Believe me because I am educated.” Instead, he appealed to his office as pastor, to his “knowledge of Christ,” and, most importantly, to his self-identification as a prophet. Several years ago, Max Engammare demonstrated Calvin’s prophetic self-consciousness very convincingly in an article in Church History:

    Engammare, Max. “Calvin: a Prophet without a Prophecy.” Church History: Studies in
    Christianity and Culture 67 (1998): 643-661.


    Thanks for your remarks.
    Even doctors of the Church frequently preface their works with a disclaimer saying something like, “If I have written anything contrary to the faith of Holy Mother Church, then I defer to that authority.” I don’t think implicit faith is limited to the unlearned. I often come up against something where I know the Church must have a stance, but I’m not yet clear on what that is. In those instances, I practice implicit faith in the teaching before I am able to inform myself. I decide in advance “to believe whatever the Church teaches.”

    There is also a kind of humble submission that falls short of the assent of faith that Catholics are bound to show to their bishop and the Holy Father. Often, this involves prudential questions of judgment instead of doctrine.


  6. David,

    Is Calvin thinking primarily about the unlearned? It seemed like the citation was hinting at that; which would have certainly been a humanistic sentiment. I always Calvin as being condescending.

    When I was coming into the Church, purgatory was the doctrine that I had to employ implicit faith. It was my “last hurdle”. About 2 weeks before coming into the Church I had a conversation with a catechist mentor, and she described Blessed JPII words regarding purgatory, and it was like the light bulb went on and I finally could assent to what I had humbly accepted up until that point.

    Thanks for the continued interaction.

    Through The Immaculate Conception

  7. I never read anything explicit on this topic but as an elder with 20 years in congregational life I have puzzled at times over the shocking ignorance of long time and faithful members as pertains to doctrine . I think it is very hard to discount the faithfulness of such souls and I see that catholicism and calvin had a way to deal with it that is comforting . I wonder if Catholics would concede implicit faith to a Christian obeying implicitly the only ecclesia he knows in this case protestant as this seems to be a way in which God works.

  8. I wonder if Catholics would concede implicit faith to a Christian obeying implicitly the only ecclesia he knows in this case protestant as this seems to be a way in which God works.

    I can’t speak for “Catholics,” Doug, but the Catholic Church has spoken for herself, and her answer to your question is “yes.” See Lumen Gentium §15 and Unitatis Redintegratio §3.


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