Learning from Calvin

Young Calvin, woodcut from library in TurinI’ve just finished teaching an intensive on John Calvin. Some of this has involved dispelling myths (ones both positive and negative), and some has been about first introductions to the life and thought of one whom I consider (notwithstanding those nasty words about ‘perverting’ Anabaptists) to be the greatest catholic theologian the church has produced in the past millennia. (The extraordinary study on The Young Calvin by the Roman Catholic theologian and historian Alexandre Ganoczy, for example, points out the astonishing degree to which the Second Vatican Council came to agree with much that was decisive for Calvin – a Christ-centred ecclesiology, constitutional pluralism, a return to biblical and patristic sources, liturgical reforms, Eucharistic renewal, the ministry of the so-called ‘laity’, etc.) It’s been exciting to see students engage with the ideas of, and have their minds changed about, one that some of them had previously thought to be pure rogue, pure saint, embarrassment, and/or simply irrelevant for doing theology and church today. (No one quite followed Barth and called him ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, [or] mythological’.)

We concluded the intensive by reflecting on Calvin’s deeply inclusive vision of humanity, and by returning again to the opening paragraph in Book I of the final edition of his Institutes which articulates the conviction that our knowledge of self and our knowledge of God are inextricably related. Regarding the first of these, some might find it odd or even mistaken, given the way his doctrine of election has sometimes been articulated, to consider Calvin’s vision of humanity to be a deeply inclusive one but it seems to me that Calvin’s vision of the God-given dignity of the human person – broken by recalcitrance and restored in Christ – celebrates the sheer giftedness and mystery and freedom of being a human creature in such a way that all other identifying markers – such as religion, race, culture, social class, or gender – are secondary. And this means that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise; that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected; that justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectarian interests are part of what makes human life valuable and good and beautiful.

Regarding the second, the personal, theological, and pastoral instincts behind Calvin’s claim (in Inst. I.1.1) that ‘nearly all the wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves’ are, it seems to me, extremely important. Those who claim to know God but display very little self-awareness ought to send off as many alarm bells in us as those who claim to know themselves really well but have little or no interest in God. If Calvin is right, then the two cannot so easily be disentangled, if at all. This is what it means to be a creature.To be human is to be a person-in-relation, with creation and with the Creator.

This twin reality – the interdependence between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of self – is powerfully articulated some 400 years later in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The question which throbs at the centre of Bonhoeffer’s theology is ‘Who is Christ actually for us today?’ But this question could not be considered in isolation from the question he asked from his Tegel Prison cell in July 1944 – ‘Who Am I?’. ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘Who am I?’ – for both Calvin and Bonhoeffer, these questions are inextricably linked.

I’m already looking forward to teaching on Calvin again …

One thought on “Learning from Calvin

  1. Splendid. And what a sharp observation and important point about Bonhoeffer’s 2 prison (school-for-learning) “Who’s”.

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