On page 98 of Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving, he says:

But even if all of us are sinners from head to toe, none of us is a sinner through and through, with nothing good remaining in us. As sinners, we are still God's good creatures. To illustrate the relationship between being a good creature and being a sinner, Reformation theologians used the analogy of water and ink. Water is the good creation, ink is sin, and the sinner is a glass of water with a few drops of ink. All the water in the glass is tainted, but it's still mostly water, not ink. Analogously, all our good deeds are marred by sin, but they are still mostly good deeds, not crimes masquerading as merits. Now apply this to gifts. We give gifts. None of them are pure. Yet with all their impurities, many of them are still genuine gifts, not just hidden ways of loving ourselves.

There is no footnote. Who is Volf most likely referring to? What is the original context(s)?

  • If I had to guess, I'd say Luther is the most likely candidate. However, a search of water+ink at CCEL turned up nothing. The closest result was a passage in Calvin's Institutes, talking about how the cuttlefish hides by squirting ink into the water. Jan 22, 2015 at 21:49
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    I emailed Volf himself and he replied tersely: "Calvin. Don't know exactly where. Poke around" I think it's possible he's mistaken that it was Calvin, and perhaps even mistaken that any Reformation theologian used it. I don't think there's any chance he had the cuttle-fish thing in mind either, since they're talking about very different things and Calvin doesn't even say "ink" but "inky blood." Feb 3, 2015 at 1:03
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    This is the oldest use of the example I could find: books.google.nl/… Interestingly it's also being used (in Dutch) by someone on an Islamic forum...
    – AVee
    Feb 7, 2015 at 0:57

1 Answer 1


Expanding the search a bit to account for polluting agents other than ink, the closest I can find in Calvin is in his commentary on Isaiah 1, referring to the line in v. 22 that he translates as "Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water".

Even here though, the sense is not the same as what Volf is going for; Calvin says that the image is one of hypocrisy:

The comparisons here employed are exceedingly well adapted to this end, for dross bears some resemblance to gold; and in like manner, the color of wine mixed with water resembles that of pure wine; and yet both are very far from having that purity of which they make an outward show. In like manner hypocrites, by their hypocrisy, may be said to assume a false color of silver, though they are of no more value than dross.

  • That's definitely the closest one yet. Jun 5, 2015 at 22:59

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