The Potter and The Clay: Comparing Calvin with Early Church Theologians

What is the relationship between the potter and the clay, between God and humanity? John Calvin states:

Cannot I determine, saith God, with regard to men, as the potter, who forms the clay as he pleases? We must maintain this principle, – that men are thus formed according to God’s will, so that all must become mute; for uselessly do the reprobate make a clamour, object and say, ‘Why has Thou formed us thus?’ Has not the potter, says Paul, power? This is what must be said of God’s hidden predestination… God determined, before the creation of the world, what he pleased respecting each individual; but his counsel is hid, and to us incomprehensible. 1

In the above passage, Calvin draws on Isaiah 45.9 and Romans 9.21 to comment on Jeremiah 18.7-10. For the French Reformer, the metaphor is disproportionate, because “God has much greater power over men than a mortal man over the clay”.2 Calvin then points to St. Paul’s application of this metaphor, who, according to Calvin, “spoke of the hidden purpose of God, by which he has predestined some to salvation and some to destruction.”3 In other words, “the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.”4 The logic of the potter and the clay metaphor seems straightforward enough: the clay is made how the potter wants it to be made, and God has made all of creation, with both good and evil events, with according to the Divine will (leading to the argument of the “best of all possible worlds” in high Calvinism). This interpretation can be found in numerous Protestant pulpits and theology books today.5 However, is this interpretation in continuity with earlier theologians of the Church? Is Calvin going against the metaphorical flow of Jeremiah?

God’s Hidden Will and Revealing Calvin’s Blunders

         At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
(Jeremiah 18.7-11, NRSV, Emphasis mine)

We will be focusing on Jeremiah 18.1-12, Paul’s use of this metaphor in Romans 9.21, and Calvin’s presuppositions and arguments when interpreting these passages. Calvin has one major presupposition while interpreting this text: a certain form of predestination, otherwise referred to as God’s “secret” or “hidden” will, in which the Divine works for the salvation of some and the destruction of others. Calvin paradoxically admits within his predestination-driven interpretation that God “was ready to receive [them] if they repented”.6 How does he sort out this paradox?

Calvin differentiates Jeremiah’s use of this metaphor from Paul’s use: the passage in Jeremiah “is more popular or comprehensive, for he refers to repentance” while Paul spoke in an unpopular manner “for he did not speak of repentance, but ascended higher and said, that before the world was created, it was in God’s power to determine what he pleased respecting every individual, and that we are formed according to his will, so that he chooses one and rejects the other.”7 Calvin maintains the principle of “God’s hidden predestination” within his interpretation of Jeremiah, who “accommodates his doctrine to the people”.8 The application of predestination within this passage shows that God, at any give time, “takes away his blessings, and that at another he raises men as it were from death, that he might set them on high, according as he pities those who truly and from the heart turn to him, or is offended with the ingratitude of such as reject his offered favours”.9 Thus, the passage in Jeremiah shows God as having only the appearance of a dynamic relationship with humanity, because God’s hidden predestination is the underlying truth of both the salvation and destruction of individuals. In Calvin’s own words, “the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will”.10

However, Calvin’s interpretation is entirely dependent on his view of predestination. Without this, the text seems to be implying the exact opposite of what Calvin asserts. For Jeremiah, the future of the clay is not “set in stone”, but accounts for the human response. If God is a “potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you”, then the passage, following the Calvinist framework, should state that God executes that plan. However, the passage states the exact opposite by discussing the possibility of repentance: “Turn now, all of you from your evil ways, and amend your ways and your doings.” Is this statement merely a “front” for God’s hidden will? Or is this a blunder on Calvin’s behalf? Is Jeremiah to be interpreted in light of Paul? Or Paul in light of Jeremiah? Is there a difference? We turn to the insights of some of the early church theologians – St. Irenaeus of the 2nd century, Origen of the 2nd -3rd century, and St. John Chrysostom of the 4th century – and compare them to Calvin.

Irenaeus, Origen, and Chrysostom

Before St. Irenaeus discusses the metaphor of the potter and the clay, he begins by emphatically stating “Man has received the knowledge of good and evil”, so humanity may choose to obey or disobey God.11 Irenaeus states that God has given humanity the “mental power” to know and choose between obedience and disobedience.12 Humans are created as “free agents, and possessed of power over themselves.”13 The 2nd century theologian states that God does not “exercise compulsion upon any one unwilling” and lays the fault of disobedience on the side of humanity.14 The metaphor of the potter and the clay, then, is to show that humans have the capability to become “moist clay”, able to be fashioned by the hands of its Maker, or to become “obstinately hardened, [and] reject the operation of His skill.”15 To do evil is to “lose the impressions of His fingers”, while doing good allows humanity to “ascend to that which is perfect”.16 Humans are God’s workmanship and creation, and “creation is an attribute of the goodness of God”.17

In his work entitled On First Principles, Origen argues against a hypothetical argument concerning the potter and the clay metaphor:

Someone will perhaps say that as the potter out of the same lump makes some vessels to honour, and others to dishonour, so God creates some men for perdition, and others for salvation; and that it is not therefore in our own power either to be saved or to perish; by which reasoning we appear not to be possessed of free-will. 18

Origen responds with two stinging questions: “For what reward of good will be conferred on him who could not commit evil, being formed by the Creator to that very end? Or what punishment will deservedly be inflicted on him who was unable to do good in consequence of the creative act of his Maker?”19 The possibility that God creates some to be saved and others to be condemned without any measure of free will is nonsense. It is illogical to blame the sinner and to praise the saint if all “the cause was in the Creator”.20 For Origen, the final judgement of humanity is incoherent “since they who have done evil have advanced to this pitch of wickedness because they were created vessels unto dishonour, while they that have lived virtuously have done good because they were created from the beginning for this purpose.21 Origen harmonizes Romans 9.21 with 2 Timothy 2:21 to work through the potter and clay imagery in light of free will, coming to a similar conclusion that Irenaeus developed:

“That vessel which has cleansed itself from all impurity He makes a vessel unto honour, while that which has stained itself with the filth of vice He makes a vessel unto dishonour… We are not to suppose either that those things which are in our own power can be done without the help of God, or that those which are in God’s hand can be brought to completion without the intervention of our acts, and desires, and intention; because we have it not in our own power so to will or do anything, as not to know that this very faculty, by which we are able to will or to do, was bestowed on us by God”.22

St. John Chrysostom comments on Romans 9.21, explicitly stating the intent of this metaphor “is not to do away with free-will”, but a call to obey God.23 To take the illustration to the extreme is to make God responsible for both the good and evil of humanity, making humanity “free from all responsibility.”24 Those who interpret the potter and the clay metaphor without a notion of free will, according to Chrysostom, cause Paul “to be at variance with himself, as he always bestows chief honour upon free choice.”25 The sole purpose of this passage is “to persuade the hearer to yield entirely to God”.26 Honor and dishonor do not totally depend on the potter, says Chrysostom, but “it depends upon the free choice.”27 One becomes a vessel of wrath “by his own lawlessness” and others become vessels of mercy “by their own readiness to obey.”28

These three theologians share the common presupposition of free will in their interpretation of the potter and the clay metaphor. They didn’t view Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 9-11 as the underlying presupposition to interpreting the passage in Jeremiah, but a passage to be harmonized with the rest of Scripture. Rather, these three theologians keep in step with Jeremiah: by the grace of God, all of humanity has the power to turn from their evil ways. For Origen and Chrysostom, to deny free will is to put Paul at odds with himself and the rest of Scripture’s testimony. The potter and the clay metaphor serves as an image between God and humanity, but it does not define it. To stretch the meaning of the metaphor, as Origen and Chrysostom argue, disqualifies the legitimacy of Christianity itself. There is no “hidden predestination” going on behind the scenes. God is not ordaining (actively or passively) the wickedness of humanity. Rather, Chrysostom states that God passionately desires our salvation!29

Discontinuity, Tradition, and History

Calvin’s interpretation of Jeremiah and the potter and the clay metaphor is not in line with these major theologians of the early church. One may argue that my critique of Calvin can be applied to these theologians: there is a certain presupposition “controlling” the rest of their interpretation. For Calvin, that is a certain form of predestination. For the three early theologians, they have a strong commitment to maintain the concept of free will. One could then continue the argument: Calvin’s presupposition is justified because it is based on the “correct” interpretation of Paul and Scripture, and that is why he interprets the metaphor in this way. The same could be said of these early theologians in their commitment to free will. We can see, then, one is stuck in a circle of interpretation: Calvin sees predestination in a passage where it “seemingly” discusses free will, because, for Calvin, predestination is the key to understanding Scripture based on his interpretation of Paul.

However, one glaring issue is the place of St. Irenaeus, Origen, and St. John Chrysostom within Church history as interpreters of Scripture. It should be noted that nearly all, if not all, of the early theologians championed free will over any theological arguments that placed God as directly or indirectly involved with the cause of human evil.30 For these three early theologians, there is a consensus to the meaning of this passage, whereas Calvin and later Reformed interpreters have a contrary exegetical conclusion. The implications of this are difficult for those who hold to Calvinism: there is a major interpretive and theological break between what was normative in the early church and what is normative in the Calvinist legacy. While one could supposedly argue exegetically against the early theologians, the difficult question lies in the historical position of the interpreters: who is interpreting the text correctly and incorrectly, those within the first few centuries of the Church, or the sixteenth century reformers? Does “earlier” automatically entail “correctness”? Can one judge the early church theologians, the disciples of the Apostles? These are all valid questions. The principle of Sola Scriptura plays a significant role for the Reformers, because it is by Scripture that all traditions are to be judged. I have written about the issue of Sola Scriptura before, and one major recurring issue is that the application of this doctrine does not yield theological or ecclesiological consistency. The many Protestant denominations who hold to Sola Scriptura have different beliefs, stemming from the same principle. Who or what is the true judge among these denominations?

I argue, then, that being in step with the early church means rejecting Calvin’s interpretive guideline of the “hidden predestination” of God. Perhaps it is the Reformed tradition that needs to be reformed in light of earlier traditions. High Calvinism has no place amongst the early church. In one way, Calvin was correct: the potter and the clay metaphor is not the perfect metaphor. But where the early church theologians harmonized this metaphor with the rest of Scripture, Calvin took it too far. The theological legacy of Calvinism reached a dangerous point when Jonathan Edwards stated that God is the “author of sin”:

If by the ‘Author of Sin’, be meant the sinner, the agent, or actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing; so it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the ‘Author of Sin’. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the ‘Author of Sin’… But if, by the ‘Author of Sin’, is meant the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is meant, by being the ‘Author of Sin’, I do not deny that God is the ‘Author of Sin’, (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense,) it is no reproach for the Most High to be thus the ‘Author of Sin’. This is not to be the actor of sin, but, on the contrary, of holiness. What God doth herein, is holy; and a glorious exercise of the infinite excellency of his nature. 31

Though Edwards qualifies his statement, he holds that God ultimately controls “the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes”, designating God as the “Orderer of Sin”.32 The Marcionite heretics, according to Tertullian, had a similar argument: they “designated the author of evil” to be God.33 Origen states that it is “clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will”.34 Irenaeus remarks that all sin is a result of willful disobedience. An authentic, loving relationship with God is only possible with free will and responsibility, otherwise God, in the words of Novatian (who was later deemed a heretic), “will appear to have condemned His own works, which He had approved as good; and He will be designated as seeming capricious in both cases, as the heretics indeed would have it”.35

[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume IX: Book of the Prophet Jeremiah Volume II, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 398.
[2] Ibid. 394-395.
[3] Ibid. 397.
[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume IV: The Book of Joshua, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 164.
[5] This language can still be found in the company of 20th -21st century Calvinists such as Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and John Piper.
[6] Ibid., Jeremiah, 402. Emphasis mine.
[7] Ibid. 397.
[8] Ibid. 398.
[9] Ibid. Emphasis mine.
[10] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XIX: Commentaries on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 362. Emphasis mine.
[11] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4.39.1
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid. 4.39.3.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid. 4.39.2.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Origen, On First Principles, Book 3.20.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. 3.20 and 3.22.
[23] St. John Chrysostom, “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, On the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans”, A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church: Anterior to the Division of the East and West Volume VII (Rivington, London: Oxford), 296.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid. 296-297.
[26] Ibid. 297.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid. 298.
[30] St. Justin Martyr (First Apology of Justin, XLIII), St. Athenagoras (A Plea For Christians 24), St. Theophilus (To Autolycus, VII), Tatian (To the Greeks, VII), St. Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, I.XVII).
[31] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume One, (Avon: The Bath Press, 1974), I.XI.II.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Tertullian, Against Marcion, XIV.
[34] Origen, On First Principles, Preface V.
[35] Novation, On the Jewish Meats, II.

  • Renewal

    Hi Alvin,
    Thanks for this article. This is a doctrine I have really struggled with, & it is only recently I have discovered that the earliest church, who wrote & collected the canon, did not believe in TULIP. Nor did they believe in original sin, sola scriptural, penal substitutionary atonement & no doubt other things I thought had always been around. I’m amazed to discover that the earlier pictures of God were so much kinder & loving, than the much later ones… how did it change so much? I’ll be using your site partly to help me answer these things, as I’d much rather put those later doctrines behind me, & become confident that God loves & wishes to save all.
    Plus this site is beautiful, & really helps me get past the weird look of other sites, so mission accomplished.

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