Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #3: The Finite is Incapable of the Infinite, by Bethany Tanis

(Editor’s Note: Bethany Tanis has authored many great comments on the BJS website, particularly concerning Calvinism and so we asked her to do a little writing for us on the relationship between Calvinism and Evangelicalism. It is a good thing for the Brothers and all our readers to understand the various denominational tag lines out there as we seek to uphold the Lutheran Confessions and distinguish them from false confessions. Bethany has a Ph.D. from Boston College in modern British history and is starting an assistant professorship in modern European history at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI in the fall. This is part three of a five part series. To view the other posts in this series click the “related posts” button under the Brother’s Cafe.)

John Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of human reason led to the adoption of the philosophical presupposition that the finite cannot contain the infinite (finitum non est capax infiniti). In good Lutheran fashion, we may ask, “What does this mean”? Remember that Calvin grew up in France and received a humanist education. Much of humanism at this time was tinged with the effects of the neo-Platonic revival. According to Plato, the material world isn’t really “real.” Instead, the highest and most real things are ideas or “forms.” The world of material reality and the world of ideas or forms do not intersect; the only possible connection is through the mind elevating itself to contemplate ideas. Coming from this background, Calvin and his followers argued that the divine cannot join itself to the material in a way that allows for interpenetration. This has dramatic implications for Christology and Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments!

While Calvin confessed the Incarnation and adhered to Chalcedonian Christology – Christ has two natures in one person – his philosophical presuppositions forced him to deny the full communications of attributes between the human and divine natures of Christ. In practice, this led Calvin and his followers to hold a near Nestorian Christology, which emphasized the separateness of Christ’s human and divine natures. Much of American Evangelicalism today is influenced by Calvin’s near Nestorianism, which splits Christ’s humanity from his divinity. In fact, Pastor Klemet Preus recently wrote a series of essays for the Brothers of John the Steadfast on this very topic! Again, Calvin’s desire to separate the natures of Christ derives from his philosophical presupposition that the finite (the human nature) is not capable of the infinite (the divine nature). Taken to its logical end, this belief would lead to a denial of the Incarnation itself! Indeed, errors in Christology always effect others doctrines.[1] In our next essay, we will examine the influence of Calvin’s belief that the finite cannot contain the infinite on his Eucharistic doctrine.

[1] See David P. Scaer, Christology, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics Series Vol. 6 (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Luther Academy, 1989), 25-27.

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About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #3: The Finite is Incapable of the Infinite, by Bethany Tanis — 17 Comments

  1. I went back and read all of Klemet Prues’s blogs on Nestorianism. The comments were full of lively debate and controversy. Instead of clarifying things I found myself getting an exedrin headache- kind of like the kind I got after taking the accounting tests at Calvin. R.C. Sproul once commented that he often got a exedrin headache when contemplating and trying to explain the doctrine of the trinity. I suppose the doctrine of the two natures of Christ is similar. As my brother oftens says when at a bypass theologically- it is a mystery and a paradox but not a contradiction- actually this is very profound but he does not mean it that way (he says it with a sarcastic tone to show his disdain for too much theology; I might add he goes to Willow Creek, is friends with Bill Hybels, wears his hair in a pony tail due to the fact he is trying to relive his radicalism of the 60’s when he was a card carrying member of the SDS but it has been baptized in the Church Growth Movement so he no longer advocates the overthrow of the established order of things. Plus he runs our family business much to my chagrin because he has no business degree- he is just older than me- oops I digress. Needless to say we are at each others throat most of the time).

    After reading the comments I still have the following questions: 1) Were the arguments of anonymous put to rest or is there still some dangling confusion? Since this is at the root of what is dividing the LCMS should we not have more clarity? I have found that whoever plays the Pharisee card 1st is usually in error. He was unconvinced though; 2) Adino the Eznites (I felt like I was living back in the time of Christ when I saw this name- is this a nickname or what?) question about the communication of the attributes was never sufficiently answered either (that is often a problem on internet dialog- we often stop before clarifying answers are given). The analogies of fire and iron and then whipped cream and jello seem like opposites to me. There is more of a mixing of attributes in the jello and whipped cream analogy. I think Adam and Eve before the fall could be used as a helpful analogy here. They were without sin then and the communication between the divine and human was in perfect communion with each other. The Word of God was not mixed with human sin so there was no confusion; 3) Bethany’s contention that Hunter and Jungkuntz were more Kenotic in their heretical ideas than Nestorian was never fully looked into and analyzed. This might have brought some clarity into the debate.

    This is all related to the concept of the finite not being able to contain the infinite. Human philosophic endevour using reason alone without the revelation of scripture always comes to a theological bypass. This is when Luther said such things as “reason is a whore” which causes much confusion among unbelievers (especially the agressive new atheists). This is also where Thomas Reid and his developed philosophy of Scottish Common Sense Realism comes into play. He was able to answer the skepticism of David Hume quite brilliantly in his Inquiry into the Human Mind of Common Sense. Kim Riddlebarger gives an excellent summary of this in the appendix of his Phd thesis on B.B. Warfield which can be accessed on his website. Luther and Calvin could not draw from this and they both came to separate conclusions about Aristotle and Plato. Luther wisely rejected both, however Calvin has elements of Plato in his thinking- as does Augustine.

  2. I took my nickname from 2 Samuel 23:8, which starts off the list of David’s mighty men:

    “These be the names of the mighty men whom David had: The Tachmonite that sat in the seat, chief among the captains; the same was Adino the Eznite: he lift up his spear against eight hundred, whom he slew at one time.”

    although I’ve never killed 800 people at one time.

    I’m still not sure what “communication” means, but that’s ok. I can bypass the question and still believe that Christ is fully God and fully man, even though I don’t understand it.

  3. Adino,

    That made me laugh- my favorite Old Testament story is David and his band of renegades at the cave of Adullam. David was running from Saul at the time and very unsure of what the future might bring. The dire circumstances he was in were eventually turned around because he was a man of faith. My dire circumstances have not turned around yet but I am sure they one day will. It seems like I am still in the cave. I think God understands that if I do not struggle I would probably destroy myself. It keeps me searching for theological and philosophical answers to my hangups.

    So, the Iron and Fire and the whipped cream and jello analogies did not help you much? What about my Adam and Eve analogy? Were you the one who said what does communication of the attributes mean when no one knows the time not even the Son and the Spirit but the Father alone? And there was another scriptural referenc which I cannot remember now?

  4. Isn’t most of Evangelicalism influenced more by Zwingli than Calvin as far as the Eucharist? I mean sure the Zwinglians may have borrowed Calvin’s premise to defend their own position, but to borrow a premise that can bolster your own position does not necessarily imply a direct connection between the theologies derived from the Zwinglian and Calvinist streams of thought.

  5. I understand that Christ is fully God and fully man, one person with two natures. What is unclear to me is what “communication” means in “communication of attributes”.


    Since Christ is God, he is omnipresent. This is communicated to His human nature. So does that mean that Christ’s body is present everywhere? Was it present everywhere when He was walking the earth?

    How do you explain Mark 13:32, “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (NASB)?

    Comment by Adino the Eznite — November 25, 2008 @ 12:05 am

    Yes, it was you Adino- these questions were never answered in the Prues series. Good questions by the way.

    Another passing thought- it seems that Luther was never tempted wth trying to integrate human philosophy with orthodox theology. Augustine and Calvin seemed to be drawn to Plato, Aquinas was enthralled with Aristotle, Barth was all over the place and Tillich tried to integrate theololgy with existentialism (an antithetical mix). Shouldn’t we take our cue from Luther-he seems to be most biblically pure to me- or am I just biased and do not see clearly?

  6. Justin,

    Yes, absolutely Evangelicals today are more influenced by Zwingli than Calvin on the sacraments. Although, Zwingli pre-dates Calvin and so it’s more that Calvin borrowed some of Zwingli’s premises. Nevertheless, they are alike in that both deny the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Zwingli calls it a memorial and Calvin spiritualizes the presence, but in both cases Jesus is somewhere else than on the altar for you because the finite cannot contain the infinite. More on Calvin and the Lord’s Supper next time.
    PS – if there was something else on here I should have responded to but didn’t, sorry, I haven’t had time to read and reply lately.

  7. John Y.,

    I should thank you for resurrecting my questions. I had given up on them. 😉

    The trouble with analogies is that they always fall short of the exact idea. Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. He is not a mixture of two things, as in the jello and whipped cream analogy. He does not consist of two things that are side by side and interacting, as in the fire and iron analogy. He is not multiple distinct persons in communion, as in your analogy of Adam and Eve before the Fall. He is one person with two natures.

    The closest analogy I can think of is light. Light is both a wave and a particle. Like Christ, it is a single entity with two dissimilar natures. But this is of limited helpfulness because wave-particle duality is also very mysterious.

    That’s why I posed the questions (which you have helpfully reposted). I thought that answering the questions would help clarify the ambiguities in the “communication of attributes”.

  8. Adino,

    I am impressed- you are a very smart guy. You also have a sense of humor. You even write and express yourself clearly too. Don’t let it go to your head though. Just use your gifts for good purposes.

  9. We still have not solved the mysteries of the dual nature or the arguments going on in the LCMS. I do not think anonymous was satisfied with answers being given him about the alleged heresy of Hunter and Jungkuntz. Was he being the Pharisee in all this- trying to trap those who answered him rather then honestly seeking the truth of the matter. The Nestorian and Kenotic heresies do cause problems with the implications they have for what Christ actually accomplished on the cross for us. This is not an insignificant argument and the truth needs to be known. It is a truth that I think God delights in us knowing and not confusing. In fact, it may anger God if we are not diligent and careful about it. Let’s get some more clarity here.

  10. Someone is always more right than someone else in a argument- this is a truth that follows logically and one we do not like to face. The opposition many times wants to stay in his error and they try to confuse rather than clarify. Clarity is our only defense against error.

  11. I should have said “The opposition many times wants to stay in their error (because it is advantageous for them to do so)and they try to confuse rather then clarify.

  12. Adino, I just heard some teaching on Christ being fully God and fully man. The teaching was that Christ could be sinless, though born of a woman, because he assumed the human form but was still divine when He walked on the earth. In other words, He was not a human being in the limited and mortal sense we are, but he took on the flesh while still the sinless and perfect second person of the trinity. That makes perfect sense to me. Knowing that he “put on” the flesh puts my mind at ease as to what happened at the cross. At least that satisfies me for now. 🙂

  13. Gayle,

    Unfortunately, once a question enters my mind, I am not satisfied until I know the answer or until I prove to myself that I cannot know the answer.

    I am sort of like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes:
    “And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.”
    Ecclesiastes 1:13 (NASB)

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