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Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics

Volume 22, Fall 2002

Kyle Fedler
Pages 133-162
DOI: 10.5840/jsce2002228

Calvin's Burning Heart: Calvin and the Stoics on the Emotions

Calvin's ethics is often misconstrued as legalistic, somber, and ascetic. However, such a treatment is simply not consistent with Calvin's deep and abiding concern for the development and display of proper emotional responses in the lives of Christian believers. This paper examines the nature and function of the emotions in Calvin's theological ethics. Pre-figuring modern cognitivist views, Calvin rejects the characterization of the emotions as blind, arational forces. In so doing he displays a generally Stoic vision of the nature of the emotions. They are not simply nonrational forces that "overcome" us, but are integrally related to what we believe and value. Although Calvin largely agrees with the Stoics that the emotions are derivative of our beliefs and values, he explicitly rejects the "iron philosophy" of the Stoic doctrine of apathy (apatheia). Calvin argues strenuously that the emotions are an integral part of the creation of human beings and not simply the result of the Fall. He grounds his arguments for the goodness of the emotions soteriologically, Christologically, and on the doctrine of God. Therefore, where the Stoics called for an elimination of the emotions, Calvin calls for their purification or "sanctification." To this end Calvin argues that believers can and should train their emotions by means of meditation upon the cross of Christ, meditation upon the future life and the spiritual discipline of prayer.