English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities ­Baroque & Enlightenment

Study Guide to the exchange between

Calvin and Cardinal Sadoleto

on the proper end of human existence

    1. What is the connection between this view of divine providence and the doctrine of the "fortunate Fall" ( or felix culpa)?

    Q-2. In addition to the premise Calvin chooses for his point of attack, Cardinal Sadoleto relies on another, namely, that in deciding questions in which the answer cannot be decided with certainty (such as with questions of faith, about which sincerely held opinions have a history of differing), we should look to considerations of "probability" and "risk": where are we "more likely" to be right. You will recognize this as the sort of question that insurance companies pose when they compose their actuarial tables for determining how much they should charge for issuing a policy covering such-and-such a contingency. The assumption here is that even when there is no demonstrably clear answer, there can still be a "rational" way of approaching the question, instead of confessing that we are confronted with the necessity for a "blind leap of faith" (an abandonment of ourselves to sheer irrationality).

    1. A century later, the Jansenist Catholic philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (after whom the computer programming language "PASCAL" is named) would lay the foundations of modern mathematical probability theory. Some of you are acquainted with the role played in this by "Pascal's triangle," the arrangement of co-efficients in the expansion of the binomial expression (a + b)n. Pascal would try to formulate a version of probabilistic argument directed against the indifference of the religious skeptic or unbeliever. (Sadoleto, in contrast, is speaking to an opponent operating from within what he thought was a shared overall framework of religious agreement.) Pascal's famous argument is known as "the wager" (and ever since as "Pascal's wager"). It goes like this: if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in Him; if God does exist, the skeptic loses everything by not believing in Him, but wins everything (eternal life) by believing in Him. The rational gambler must therefore (he asserts) choose to believe in God.

      1. The common tactical move here (between Spoleto and Pascal) is to try to find some anchorage in Reason for dealing indirectly with questions that are not directly amenable to Reason, so as not to be left with the alternative of confessing Faith to be altogether irrational ­ or at least to exploit whatever leverage is available for Faith (however arrived at in one's own case) in virtue of the rational element of the human constitution of others.

        1. Certain theologians (including Catholic ones) will be inclined to question whether this approach can result in the kind of Faith that is required for salvation. Calvin's response (despite its warnings about the risks of being directly concerned with salvation) is essentially of this nature.

    Q-3. There is still a third premise in Spoleto's argument beyond the two already singled out. This is that the age of the Church, as opposed to the "novelty" of Geneva Protestantism, is a consideration that weighs in favor of the probability of its representations being true. This is essentially an appeal to the authority of tradition.

    1. What arguments would you expect a Protestant to imagine as weighing against such an appeal as this?

    Q-4. What can you imagine might be the lines of response Cardinal Spoleto might consider take to Calvin's rejoinder?

    Q-5. If the goal of human life is "to hallow the name of God," what do you figure are the means by which Calvin figures this is to be accomplished?

  1. Q-6. Whatever these means might be, would they not constitute a species of "works"? Yet if, as Calvin holds, works are irrelevant to salvation, which depends instead wholly upon God's election-from-eternity (predestination), do we have an inconsistency here? What would Calvin reply to this question?

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Revised 16 October 1996

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