My understanding of Calvin's teaching on Paul's expression of foreknowledge, election and predestination is that all of these are within the eternal Deity.

That which occurred within Deity (I understand Calvin to have taught) was within the Person of the Father : a matter of his own foreknowledge of whom he would beget, in Christ, in time : a matter of his own divine will and purpose.

My understanding of Calvin's teaching is that no souls did exist or could exist in the eternal existence of God Almighty, and that souls are created in time.

For souls to 'pre-exist' ascribes to human souls an attribute of Deity, I would say. And I do not remember anywhere in Calvin's Institutes that would condone such a concept.

Am I wrong about what I have understood John Calvin's teaching to be, regarding Paul's doctrine?

  • Have you seen someone say that Calvin did teach that souls pre-existed? – curiousdannii Nov 28 '19 at 10:08
  • @curiousdannii Not specifically. It seems to me to be inferred, but I have yet to discover any valid reference to the Institutes. – Nigel J Nov 28 '19 at 10:24

Here is an answer in two parts. The first part deals with information extracted from Book 1 of Calvin’s ‘Institutes’. The link given opens up at Book 3 so you have to navigate back to Book 1. https://reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/books/institutes/books/indxbk3.html

CALVIN INSTITUTES - BOOK I. THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD THE CREATOR. Discussion of Human Nature as Created, of the Faculties of the Soul, of the Image of God, of Free Will, and of the Original Integrity of Man's Nature: Section 15: STATE IN WHICH MAN WAS CREATED. THE FACULTIES OF THE SOUL - THE IMAGE OF GOD - FREE WILL - ORIGINAL RIGHTEOUSNESS.

  1. Manichaean error of the soul's emanation: It must, therefore, be held as certain, that souls, notwithstanding of their having the divine image engraven on them, are created just as angels are. Creation, however, is not a transfusion of essence, but a commencement of it out of nothing. Nor, though the spirit is given by God, and when it quits the flesh again returns to him (cf. Eccl 12:7), does it follow that it is a portion withdrawn from his essence.

  2. Opinions of the philosophers on the soul criticized in view of the fall of Adam - The soul and its faculties: It were vain to seek a definition of the soul from philosophers, not one of whom, with the exception of Plato, distinctly maintained its immortality. Others of the school of Socrates, indeed, lean the same way, but still without teaching distinctly a doctrine of which they were not fully persuaded. Plato, however, advanced still further, and regarded the soul as an image of God. Others so attach its powers and faculties to the present life that they leave nothing external to the body.

  3. Free choice and Adam's responsibility: At present it is necessary only to remember, that man, at his first creation, was very different from all his posterity; who, deriving their origin from him after he was corrupted, received a hereditary taint.

NOTE: Immortality of the soul does not mean the soul existed from eternity. Immortal means it does not die, not that it always existed.

Nowhere does Calvin suggest that human souls pre-existed. On the contrary, he declares that souls are created and have their commencement “out of nothing”. Souls are created in time, not before God created time, space, matter and all life as we know it.

The second part to this answer has more to do with Calvin’s view of the soul separating from the body at death and how Scripture shows that the soul is immortal, that it continues to exist after death. Source: http://archive.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_105_3_Hallett.pdf

When, in Inst. 1:15:2, Calvin talks of the soul being the ‘nobler part’, he does so arguing from Scriptures which clearly distinguish the soul from the body and emphasize the immortality of the soul. It is in this sense that Calvin then concludes that the soul is the ‘principal part’...

When we consider for example, that in Institutes 1:15:2 Calvin refers to no less than sixteen passages in Scripture which talk of the soul and body separating at death, and that he only uses the word ‘flesh’ when the New Testament uses it, then it is harder to accept that Calvin is Platonic in this area, rather than Biblical. [p 5]

It is perhaps impossible to ascertain exactly the Platonist influence on Calvin. He was certainly well versed in both Plato and Plotinus and, of course, in Augustine and this may well have resulted in certain tensions in his thinking, reflected, perhaps, in the Platonist language and terminology he frequently used. But, having said that, it appears that his overriding concern was to allow his theology to be shaped by Scripture. [p 6]

The soul, then, is something essential apart from the body and is, argues Calvin from Scripture, ‘the principal part.’ It is the soul which survives when freed from the prison house of the body and it is the soul which bears the image of God. Calvin puts it this way: ‘For although God’s glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul.’ [p 7]

It is worth repeating that the biblical doctrine of the immortality of the soul does not mean the soul existed from eternity. Immortal means it does not die, not that it always existed. There is no attribution of ‘deity’ to the human soul, even though the first man and the first woman were created “in the image of God.” Neither does Calvin suggest that human souls pre-existed in some heavenly or spiritual realm and were then “transferred” into human bodies at some later point in time.

(NOTE: Emphasis in quotations added by me)

  • I could find no source where Calvin says precisely when he believes a soul is created. Do you see anything in your research? – Kris Dec 1 '19 at 22:19
  • @Kris The question is asking if Calvin taught that souls pre-existed and there is no evidence that he did. Had he held such a view then I am sure it would have been mentioned in the sections I read. Likewise, with the Traducianist view - some may interpret Calvin's writings to support that view, but that is not what is being asked here. Your first quote is interesting but to support the claim Calvin believed the soul is created by God at the moment of conception would necessitate further research into Calvin's writings. I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into that. – Lesley Dec 2 '19 at 12:19
  • I understand I was hoping for a quote attributable to Calvin that reflected a belief that during the time between conception and birth a soul is created thus ruling out a pre existence belief by default. – Kris Dec 2 '19 at 12:33

It would appear that Calvin did not believe in pre existence of the soul based on the quote below

For Calvin, the very idea that the soul “sleeps” until the resurrection made no sense, given the unique properties of the human soul. As a creationist, Calvin affirmed that the human soul is not eternal but is uniquely created by God at the moment of conception and possesses independent and immortal existence apart from the body.

This is taken from a commentary on Calvin’s book Psychopannychia (“On the Sleep of the Soul”), published in 1542,

The commentary is found here

Additionally I found the following excerpts from The Anglican Theological Review

Creationism. The doctrine of Creationism maintains that the “soul” is created and introduced into a fetus by God at a point of his choosing, either at the time of a fetus’s first breath, as was the case with Adam in Genesis 2:7, or when God in his sovereignty knows that a fetus is not going to be spontaneously (meaning “naturally”) or intentionally aborted.

Traducianism. The doctrine of Traducianism teaches that the “soul” is present in both the sperm and the egg when they unite. The combination forms a new “soul” automatically and immediately. Traducianism has been held by at least some Christians since the church’s earliest years. Tertullian (c.160–c.225), for instance, wrote that “we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception;

Pre­existentianism. Pre-existentianism is the belief that souls are preexistent entities who await bodies to enter. According to this con- cept, the body is essentially “accidental” and relatively unimportant; a human being is complete without a physical body. Historically, very few within Christian circles have held or taught this view, though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints adopted it in the nine- teenth century and certain New Age groups have more recently attempted syncretisms between Christianity and Eastern reincarna- tionism that include forms of pre-existentianism. From the standpoint of the historic canonical writings, however, there is no support for the idea of “souls awaiting bodies.” To the contrary, there are several pas- sages which speak of the physical body as an essential aspect of hu- manness as well as the physical manifestation of the members of the church both now and in eternity. (Bold by me)

After those three explanations we find this nugget that seems to answer your question:

With respect to Protestantism the writings of John Calvin and Martin Luther were interpreted by their immediate successors as supportive of the Traducianist position. Over time, however, many in the Calvinistic stream returned to the Creationist position, while Evangelical Protestants—derived mainly from Lutheran Pietism— have remained nearly unanimous today in their advocacy of Traducianism.

So the only options given for how John Calvin ever felt about the soul were either Traducianism or Creationist. Neither support the idea of pre existence of the soul in any way.

  • 1
    I believe this is correct, but a first hand rather than a second hand source would make it a lot more authoritative as an answer. How did the commentator come to that conclusion? – Caleb Nov 29 '19 at 6:19

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