The understanding of sin and responsibility in Calvin differs radically from
concepts later dominant in Reformed theology and in moral philosophy. In federal
theology the covenant of works determines man's duty and culpability. Created
Into an order of justice and moral law, men is or is supposed to be en autonomous
creature who through his power, will, and ability lives by righteous works of
merit. This is his responsibility. In this light sin is legal transgression,
a failure to provide perfect moral works. This theology is linked with Hie
parallel concept in Kantian ethics where responsibility is defined with reference
to man's freedom and ability, and where culpability lies in moral failure.
Calvin's teaching stands over against these ego-centric concepts, for Calvin
begins with a divine order of grace. God as father cares for man; he assumes
this responsibility. Man as son is to accept and acknowledge this care. Man
is responsible as he responds to and participates in grace. Man is not independent,
but dependent; he has no ability of his own, but is enabled and bound by grace
in ell things. He is responsible as he in fidelity, trust, obedience, love,
and gratitude, allows another to be responsible for him. but in sin man - Adam
and humanity - disdains God's grace, as he strives to raise himself up in independence
of grace and in dependence on his own ability. In infidelity, unbelief, disobedience,
concupiscent self-will, and ingratitude, he disgraces himself, iie disorders and
inverts the divine order of grace. The notion that man is or ought to be responsible to God on the basis of his own works is the essence of sin. As God does
not give up his fatherhood or the end of his creation, but continues to offer
his grace to men in nature end gives it again in law and gospel, man's culpability
lies essentially in his free and voluntary rejection of grace. This involves an
antinomy, for while man can resist God's grace and is culpable for so doing, he
is not and is not supposed to be free and able to accept grace, but is to rely
even in his acceptance upon the grace which enables him.
With regard to responsibility, predestination, and original sin, Calvin
teaches that the apparent conflicts here cannot always be rationally resolved.
We are not to employ the more formal and rigid development of logical argument
which characterised later Reformed thou^it, but have to acquiesce in truths of
a partly irrational nature, and make place for human responsibility alongside
our concepts of man's total depravity at birth and of God's predestination.
Thus into his concept of an immutable providence of God, Calvin incorporates
dynamic concepts, the importance of which has often been overlooked. At the
same time, under the influence of reprobation and the bias of polemic or
systematic treatment, he sometimes allows these concepts to deteriorate so
that he makes errors he has warned against and prejudices the seriousness
of his own concept of sin and responsibility.