John Calvin

Calvin for today: on living with ‘others’


This story made news today here in Australia. It reminded me of John Calvin’s words on James 3.1:

For it is to be observed, that James does not discourage those neighbourly admonitions, which the Spirit so often and so much recommends to us, but that immoderate desire to condemn, which proceeds from ambition and pride, when any one exalts themselves against their neighbour, slanders, carps, bites, and malignantly seeks for what they may turn to a sinister purpose: for this is usually done when impertinent censors of this kind insolently boast themselves in the work of exposing the vices of others.

From this outrage and annoyance James recalls us; and he adds a reason, because they who are thus severe towards others shall undergo a heavier judgment: for that person imposes a hard law on themselves, who tries the words and deeds of others according to the rule of extreme rigour; nor do they deserve pardon, who will pardon none. This truth ought to be carefully observed, that they who are too rigid towards others, provoke against themselves the severity of God.

Jürgen Moltmann on ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’

The 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference, currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary, has kicked off with a stirring opening lecture by Jürgen Moltmann on the topic ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’. Professor Moltmann reminded us again why Barth was right when he wrote, in CD §32, that ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’.

For those who missed the lecture, here it is:

The main sessions are being live streamed here, and the Q&A time for this session can be watched here – great news for those of us unable to make it to Princeton for this wonderful event.

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 …

John (de Gruchy) on John (Calvin): a commendation

De Gruchy - John Calvin

John W. de Gruchy, John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-62032-773-9. 240pp.

John de Gruchy’s little book on John Calvin is a great read! One of its real achievements is that its author has succeeded, in little over 200 pages, in capturing something of Calvin’s spirit and energy. It is certainly no hagiography – de Gruchy is not shy to point out those areas where paradox exists in his subject, and where he thinks that the reformer simply got it wrong! In an honest effort to introduce one of the most important figures in Western intellectual, theological, and social history, it picks up some themes that marked and gave anatomy to his work. De Gruchy is especially keen to retrieve Calvin and the tradition that exists most consciously in his wake as constructive expressions of Christian humanism, a movement of social transformation that is at once liberating, ecumenical, and humanising.

Writing with a non-technical style, and out of his own experience of witnessing both the beauty and the ugliness of the reformed project played out in his native South Africa, de Gruchy builds a compelling case for why we should take Calvin’s thought seriously as a resource for what it means today to engage in the public commons, and for encouraging the kind of flourishing of human society that God desires. Certainly not everything in Calvin’s thought lends itself to such a project, but there is much that does, and these are the features that de Gruchy identifies and develops. He concludes his study by offering six affirmations about Christian humanism and its public vision. They bear repeating and thinking about as a way into considering Calvin’s own vision, and its portability today. They are:

First, Christian humanism is inclusive in its vision of humanity. It recognises that being human is our primary identity – coming before those of religion, race, culture, social class or gender.

Second, Christian humanism affirms both the God-given dignity of being human and the concomitant responsibility of being human. Given human brokenness, it understands the gospel as God’s way of restoring human dignity and awakening our responsibility for the world in which we live.

Third, Christian humanism is open to knowledge and insight from wherever truth is to be found, but it draws most deeply from the Christian Scriptures and the long history of their interpretation through the centuries, embodied in what is called ‘Christian tradition’.

Fourth, Christian humanism insists 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, and that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected.

Fifth, Christian humanism places justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectional interests. It is concerned to ensure that scientific and technological development serve the common good and the well-being of the earth.

Sixth, Christian humanism encourages human creativity and cherishes beauty. It insists that goodness, truth and beauty are inseparable, though distinct. Just as it places a premium on moral values and the search for truth, it also regards the development of aesthetic values and sensitivity through the arts as essential for human well-being.

I warmly and enthusiastically commend this book, particularly for those for whom Calvin remains something of a persona non grata, or an embarrassing – or worse! – spokesperson for the Christian faith, and for those who wish to gain a clearer sense of the world-embracing vision of the reformed project at its best.


Calvin: The Man and the Legacy

Calvin The Man and the Legacy

After over four years in the wings, it is indeed a delight to see that Calvin: The Man and the Legacy has finally hit the press. (One recalls Walter Benjamin’s words in Aesthetics and Politics―‘I came into the world under the sign of Saturn―the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays’).

The book, which is edited by Murray Rae, Peter Matheson and Brett Knowles, consists mostly of papers delivered at a conference held at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in 2009, one of a plethora of conferences organised to mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. It really was a great two days—marked by intelligent papers on a diverse range of themes, good humour, abundant attendance, a generosity of spirit, real coffee, and low testosterone, a combination of features relatively rare at these kinds of gigs.

The book’s description reads:

Alongside essays on aspects of Calvin’s theology, Calvin: The Man and the Legacy includes studies of Calvin as pastor, preacher and liturgist and traces the influence of Calvin as it was conveyed through Scottish migration to Australia and New Zealand. Fascinating stories are told of the ways in which the Calvinist tradition has contributed much to the building of colonial societies, but also of the ways it has attracted ridicule and derision and has been subject to caricature that is sometimes deserved, sometimes humorous, but often grossly misleading.

And the TOC reads:

Part 1: The Man and His Thought

1. Graham Redding—Medicine for Poor Sick Souls?: Calvin’s Communion Service in Profile
2. Jason Goroncy—John Calvin: Servant of the Word
3. Randall Zachman—The Grateful Humility of the Children of God: Knowledge of Ourselves in Calvin’s Theology
4. Elise McKee—A Week in the Life of John Calvin
5. Murray Rae—Calvin on the Authority of Scripture
6. Randall Zachman—Calvin’s Interpretation of Scripture

Part II: The Legacy and the Caricature

7. John Roxborogh—Thomas Chalmers and Scottish Calvinism in the Nineteenth Century
8. John Stenhouse—Calvin’s Own Country? Calvinists, anti-Calvinists and the Making of New Zealand Culture
9. Peter Matheson—The Reception of Calvin and Calvinism in New Zealand: a Preliminary Trawl
10. Alison Clarke—Popular Piety, the Sacraments and Calvinism in Colonial New Zealand
11. Kirstine Moffat—‘Mr Calvin and Mr Knox’: The Calvinist Legacy in the Fiction and Poetry of New Zealand Scots
12. Ian Breward—Calvin in Australia and New Zealand

You can pick up a copy here.

Happy birthday Jean Cauvin

Today’s the day to light a few candles for one of the original homeboys of the reformed movement, one whom John Updike once described as ‘calm, gentle, [and] reasonable’, and whom Karl Barth described as ‘a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological’. We are talking here of Mr and Mrs Cauvin’s little boy Jean.

Now Mr Cauvin Jnr, of course, was not too fond of those who lit candles, associating them on more than one occasion with that most deplorable practice of pouring wine and water into the cruet. So perhaps a few pints of Calvinus (which now comes with a new black Cauvin option) might be a more appropriate way to celebrate his big day.

Aquinas, Luther and Calvin on the role of the priest in the eucharist

While in the current of writing a lecture on the Eucharist, I have been enjoying intincting – and, in some cases, re-intincting – into some great books: William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, Angel F. Mendez Montoya’s The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist, Stephen Sykes’ Power and Christian Theology, among them. William Stringfellow’s essay ‘Liturgy as Political Event’ is also wonderful. I’m also enjoying George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, a book that deserves a very close read and is certainly among the boldest and most important studies available on the subject.

Hunsinger notes that Thomas Aquinas, who was among the most impressive of the pre-Reformation theologians, understood the role of the priest in the eucharist as in some sense mediating between Christ and the faithful. In other words, for Thomas, the priest was the central figure in the eucharistic sacrifice. So Hunsinger writes: ‘‘He [i.e., the priest] acted both “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi) as well as “in the person of the church” (in persona ecclesiae) (ST 3.82.8). In the person of Christ, he consecrated the sacrament. In the person of the church, he offered Christ in prayer to God (ST 3.82.8). Whatever the priest did when acting in the person of Christ was taken up in turn by the people (ST 3.83.4). The priest’s union with Christ, however, was different than it was for the laity. “Devout layfolk are one with Christ by spiritual union through faith and charity,” explained Aquinas, but the priest was one with Christ “by sacramental power” (ST, 3.82.1). At his ordination the priest had received a special status, “the power of offering sacrifice in the church for the living and the dead” (ST 3.82.1). The priest was set apart from the people, and above them, by virtue of this sacramental power’ (pp. 114–5).

Luther, of course, would radically qualify – or extend – this notion in his argument that the priest symbolised the priesthood of all believers, while possessing no special powers of consecration and sacrifice in and of himself. Luther stated:

‘Thus it becomes clear that it is not the priest alone who offers the sacrifice of the mass; it is the faith which each one has for himself. This is the true priestly office, through which Christ is offered as a sacrifice to God, an office which the priest, with the outward ceremonies of the mass, simply represents. Each and all are, therefore, equally priests before God . . . For faith must do everything. Faith alone is the true priestly office. It permits no one to take its place. Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women are priestesses, be they young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, learned or unlearned. Here there is no difference unless faith be unequal’. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament 1 (ed. J.J. Pelikan, et al.; vol. 35; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 100–1.

Hunsinger, in Eucharist and Ecumenism, properly notes that Luther upheld the idea of grace alone by combining christological mediation with communal participation:

‘The believer and the community can be said to offer Christ by participating in Christ’s own self-offering, which in turn mediates them into eternal life with God. Inclusion in Christ’s priestly self-offering is at once the promise and the consequence of grace. At the same time, the place of the priest in the mass has been radically redefined. Christ the eternal priest does not operate in and through the visible priest, nor does the priest offer Christ as the invisible victim through the bread and the cup. The bread and the cup, for Luther, are the sacramental but not the sacrificial body and blood of Christ. That is, they are not the means of reciprocal self-offering to God by Christ, priest, and people. They are not the eucharistic means by which Christ is offered up. The bread and cup are simply a pledge of Christ’s faithfulness to his promises. It is not the priest but the faith of each believer that offers Christ to God. The role of the priest is simply to symbolize by outward ceremonies the one true priestly office, which is faith’. (p. 135)

The Reformed, following Calvin and the best of those who spoke in his wake, sought to witness to how the cross and the eucharist are held in a unity that does not violate but reinforces their distinction via two forms: The constitutive form is the cross while the mediating form is the eucharist. ‘The cross is always central, constitutive, and definitive, while the eucharist is always secondary, relative, and derivative. The eucharistic form of the one sacrifice does not repeat the unrepeatable, but it does attest what it mediates and mediate what it attests. What it mediates and attests is the one whole Jesus Christ, who in his body and blood is both the sacrifice and the sacrament in one. As the sacrifice, he is the Offerer and the Offering. As the sacrament, he is the Giver and the Gift. The Son’s sacrificial offering of himself to the Father for us on the cross is the ground of the Father’s sacramental gift of his Son to the faithful in the eucharist’ (Ibid. 151). As TF Torrance has shown in Theology in Reconciliation, the cross is the ‘dimension of depth’ in the eucharist. The eucharist has no significance in and of itself. Its significance is both derived and grounded in the cross. The cross alone is, as TF Torrance notes, the saving ‘content, reality and power’ of the eucharist. It is to this that the Reformed minister and church directs our gaze.

It was precisely such a position which led PT Forsyth, the theologian of the cross, in his lectures on The Church and the Sacraments, to offer the following statement:

The Lord’s Supper is the most complete and plenary of all the cultic ways of confessing the work of reconciliation, where the sin of humanity is conquered by the grace of God in a holy Kingdom. It is therefore the real centre of the Church’s common and social life. This should not be sought in social reunions, or ecclesiastical monarchy, or philanthropic cohesion, but in the spiritual region, in the worship, and the theology moulding it. For here we are summoned to what is our vital centre deep within all the individual wills that wish to unite, to what is the centre of the faith that makes the new Humanity, and to the goal which rounds all’. (p. 260)



Calvin the preacher

‘[Calvin] the preacher does not so much move forward from point to point as be borne onwards by the movement of his author’s thought. Even so, this is not a simple, uncomplicated stepping from clause to clause; for within each clause there is movement and counter-movement of one sort or another. The sermons are like rivers, moving strongly in one direction, alive with eddies and crosscurrents, now thundering in cataracts, now a calm mirror of the banks and the sky; but never still, never stagnant. Calvin’s intention (like that of the medieval theology lecturers) was to expound each passage. Usually this entailed the continuous exposition of sentence by sentence, sometimes of clause by clause. After a brief preface to remind the congregation of what the previous passage had said, and thus to set the present verses within their context, he would embark on the exposition of the sentences, usually rendering them in a slightly different (sometimes very different) form from the head text; this partly because he was translating direct as he went along, partly for the sake of clarification by paraphrasing. The exposition will consist where necessary of simple exegesis and the unravelling of any difficulties (perhaps discrepancies with other passages of Scripture, which, again like medieval lecturing, had always to be reconciled); after this he will apply the place to “our” use so that “we” may profit from it and be “edified”’.

– Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 132–3.

Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth: A Review

Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, by David Gibson. Pp. xiii + 221. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009, ISBN 9 780567 468741.

In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin’s thought – even cancelling his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on the Reformer’s writings. In a letter penned to Eduard Thurneysen that same year, Barth expressed his astonishment at the strangeness and power of what he had discovered: ‘Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin’. Certainly any project which attempts to bring these two giants into conversation is, to say the least, ambitious; particularly, perhaps, when it comes to their respective doctrines of election.

Unprepared to simply accept various readings of Calvin’s and Barth’s doctrines of election, David Gibson, in a ‘lightly revised version’ (p. xi) of his PhD dissertation completed at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Francis Watson, turns to Calvin’s corpus (particularly to his commentaries and to the Institutes) and to Barth (CD II/2 principally) in order to investigate and then compare their respective articulations of the doctrine, and to enquire about what relationship election has with christology in their projects. Moreover, Gibson is concerned to attend carefully to their exegeses, and to the ‘role of text-reception in theological construction’ (p. 11) in both thinkers. His argument is that ‘the exegetical presentations of Christology and election in Calvin and Barth expose a contrasting set of relationships between these doctrinal loci in each theologian’ (p. 1) and that this differing relationship between the two doctrines flows from and informs two contrasting approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. Gibson helps his readers appreciate how, for both Calvin and Barth, doctrine and exegesis are not tasks to be taken in isolation, but are, rather, united around, in different ways, the subject of their enquiry; namely, Jesus Christ and the caelesti decreto.

Employing and qualifying Richard Muller’s distinction between ‘soteriological christocentrism’ (so Calvin) and ‘principial christocentrism’ (so Barth), Gibson suggests a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’. A ‘Christologically extensive’ hermeneutic is evident, Gibson contends, when ‘the centre of Christology points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other’. Here christology ‘may influence and shape’ other loci, but christology neither dictates nor controls them. This, Gibson argues, represents Calvin’s christology. Conversely, a ‘Christologically intensive’ hermeneutic describes when ‘the christological centre defines all else within its circumference. Within this circle, Christology draws everything else to itself so that all other doctrinal loci cannot be read in Scripture apart from explicit christological reference’ (p. 15). So Barth, whose intensively christological hermeneutic ‘privileges the name of Jesus Christ in ways which go significantly beyond Calvin’s understanding of how Christology functions in exegesis’ (p. 27).

Gibson traces these two distinctions through Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches to christology, election and hermeneutics, illustrating that while much of the same grammar is employed, and many of the same biblical texts examined, and while their respective exegeses of election exist within ‘christological horizons which show how doctrine itself may be a hermeneutic’ (p. 16), Calvin and Barth often sing in different keys, and at times different songs though with no less exegetical reasoning in either.

In Chapter 2 – ‘Christology and Election’ – Gibson deepens his basic thesis by further sketching the relationship between Christ and election in Calvin’s and Barth’s exegeses. He argues that, while Barth’s position is not as radical as some recent interpreters have claimed, Barth’s understanding of the pre-existent Jesus as the subject of election sponsors two different understandings of election’s trinitarian basis than we see in Calvin. Gibson’s basic point here is that Calvin’s christocentrism emerges as distinctively soteriological while Barth’s is radically principial: ‘Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree’ (p. 30).

In Chapter 3, Gibson illustrates his thesis in detail by outlining Calvin’s and Barth’s reading and use of Romans 9–11. He shows that both theologians operate with different understandings of the relationship between covenant and election because of the location that each grants to christology. This leads to two contrasting ideas of Israel’s vocation and relationship to the Church. Moreover, whereas for Barth, Christ himself is the subject of election, and for whose sake Israel’s election occurs, Calvin reads Romans 9–11 as an exposition of the eternal decree in which christology recedes into the background. In other words, christology, for Calvin, is concerned with the economy of salvation rather than, as it is for Barth, with the eternal ground of salvation itself. Gibson concludes the chapter by asserting that ‘whereas for Calvin, Israel is typological of the church, for Barth both Israel and the church are typological of Christ, so that both forms of the community are “initially the two different but then inseparably related aspects of the fulfilment of the one covenant of grace in Christ”. These radically different conceptions of the covenant in Calvin and Barth issue directly from different forms of christocentrism’ (p. 153).

Gibson turns then in the final chapter to survey how christology shapes the way that his two subjects read Scripture. His aim here again is to show how Calvin’s christologically-extensive theology of interpretation explains how he intends election to be read in Scripture, and how this differs from Barth’s christologically-intensive approach. Gibson describes the latter’s reading of election as a ‘hermeneutic of patience and complexity, of interaction between the individual, multi-faceted predestinarian texts and the christological whole of which they are a part’ (p. 192). He also explores how ‘underlying these different hermeneutical approaches are two fundamentally different conceptions of the doctrine of revelation’ (p. 155).

There is much to commend about Gibson’s study: (i) He offers the reader a clear, careful and fair reading of Calvin and Barth on a doctrine that is, in the latter’s words, ‘the sum of the Gospel’ (CD II/2, p. 3); (ii) He is refreshingly appreciative of the ways in which the connections and motifs internal to Barth’s own thought are deeply indebted to the Reformed tradition, and particularly to Calvin: ‘For all his independent and creative genius, Barth’s theology is profoundly catholic, soaked in dialogue and debate with centuries of tradition and modulated with a Reformed accent’ (p. 18); (iii) The comparative reading (in §3) of Romans 9–11 yields much that is fruitful, and superbly illustrates the thesis of the entire volume. But, to my mind, the supreme value of Gibson’s study is (iv) the reminder – and there is little doubt that current Calvin and Barth scholarship needs such! – that at core, both Calvin and Barth are exegetes of Scripture, and that the neglect of the exegetical contours which shape their respective dogmatic projects is ruinous to providing a faithful reading of their corpuses. ‘For both interpreters, Holy Scripture is the quarry from which their dogmatic structure for election is hewn. Repeatedly, in the writings of both theologians, the emphasis on reception – it is in Scripture and not in their own theologizing that election is properly learned – is accompanied with a stress on right reception’ (p. 198). Gibson also addresses a brief word to contemporary Barth scholarship: ‘It is likely that where Barth’s doctrine of election is debated without attention to his practice as an exegete, and specifically to the very question which mattered most to him – “Does it stand in Scripture?” – then a debate occurs within parameters which Barth himself would not have recognized’ (p. 199). Such an approach is to be enthusiastically welcomed.

There are, however, a few less-satisfying aspects of what is otherwise a very valuable study. I will name five: (i) To my mind, Gibson appropriates too uncritically Muller’s reading of Calvin, and those readers less confident that Muller has read Calvin rightly may well be left wondering just how robust Gibson’s argument is; (ii) The focus of Gibson’s treatment of Barth tends to be too narrowly focused on CD II/2 and so neglects to attend to the nuances and developments in Barth’s understanding and articulation of election in other places. This leads at times to a flatter presentation of Barth’s (and of Calvin’s) thought than if greater attention had been paid to the historical and polemical natures of their projects. In Barth’s case, for example, of the way that his ‘principial christocentrism’ serves as protest to post-Kantian theology; (iii) Not a few readers will be disappointed that there is so little engagement with the secondary literature. For example, while Matthias Gockel’s and Suzanne McDonald’s PhD theses on Barth and T.F. Torrance’s study on Calvin’s hermeneutics are less concerned with the detail of biblical exegesis in their subjects than is Gibson, Gockel’s project is quickly dismissed (on p. 26) and any engagement with McDonald’s and Torrance’s work, and the kinds of systematic terrain that they are concerned to explore, is noticeably absent from Gibson’s essay. They would, if handled carefully, inform and strengthen its own foci; (iv) Most readers would no doubt prefer that extended quotations in Latin be accompanied with translation; and (v) Finally, Gibson resists offering any substantial critique or evaluation of his subjects’ method and doctrinal conclusions. Such may have served to draw out in constructive detail some of the places where Calvin and Barth are less than rewarding to us.

These reservations aside, this study deserves a wide reading, and will be of particular interest to Calvin and Barth scholars, to those interested in the development of the theo-logic of the doctrine of election in the Reformed tradition, and to those who are interested in seeing how two of that tradition’s major voices – one early modern and one late modern – read and used the Bible.

A wee note on Calvin’s (wordy) sermons

Lest we hastily accuse Calvin of extraneous verbiage, we would do well to recall the distance between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. In her extraordinary collection of essays The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson notes that ‘Cauvin and his supporters seem to have been intent on consolidating a revolution, one in which religion was as central to the imagination of the project as political liberty would be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and economics and nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth. Traditionally European societies instructed their members in approved beliefs through rituals, processions, feasts, fasts, pilgrimages, and iconography. Geneva replaced all that with hour upon hour of sermons and lectures, and a system of education that was compulsory for all children and free for the poor … If all these lectures and sermons seem a poor exchange for pageants and altarpieces, it is well to remember the Renaissance passion for books, and for the languages and literatures of antiquity, first of all the Bible. Cauvin’s virtuosic scholarship could be thought of as monumental public art, by analogy with the work of contemporaries like Michelangelo’ (pp. 199–200). And Bernard Cottret, in Calvin: A Biography, recalls that ‘Calvin was never so much a man in his time and of his time as in his sermons’ (p. 289).

This spoken proclamation – which was, in Calvin’s mind, the prime purpose of his preaching – was then transposed into written form as a result of the ‘company of strangers’ who, from 29 September 1549, arranged for Calvin’s sermons to be recorded in shorthand by Denis Raguenier, then transcribed, printed and published. A basic list of Calvin’s sermons is available in Appendix 7 of Cottret’s volume (pp. 354–5). Between 1549 and 1564, Calvin preached verse-by-verse through Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Zephaniah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Job, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Galatians, Ephesians, Harmony of the Gospels (during his last five years), Acts, Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. Some ignorant librarians sold many of the volumes for the weight of the paper. A search of the lost sermons means that we now possess about 1500 of them. Cottret recalls that the Opera Calvini includes 872 sermons, while a further 680 are in the process of being published elsewhere, particularly in the Supplementa Calviniana. The manuscripts are held in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire in Geneva, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Lambeth Palace in London. (See Cottret, Calvin, 289n5).

Those wishing to read more on Calvin’s preaching might consult the following:

By the way, those interested in Calvin’s view of Scripture might check out:

The ‘calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin’

In his In the Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike wrote of the ‘calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin’, an image reinforced by THL Parker:

The reader [of Calvin’s sermons] will have noted the low key in which he speaks. There is no threshing himself into a fever of impatience or frustration, no holier-than-thou rebuking of the people, no begging them in terms of hyperbole to give some physical sign that the message has been accepted. It is simply one man, conscious of his sins, aware how little progress he makes and how hard it is to be a doer of the Word, sympathetically passing on to his people (whom he knows to have the same sort of problems as himself) what God has said to them and to him. We even notice that … there is not one direct imperative in the second person. He is content to pass on the message, to declare how unwilling ‘we’ are to accept it and how weak ‘we’ are in general, how slack and rebellious, and then to use the firm but gentle first person plural imperative, ‘let us …’. Yet he is never weak. Sin is never condoned, never treated lightly. Its gravity in the sight of God, the eternal curse that lies upon every departure from the Law, every falling short of God’s standard, are continually and relentlessly driven home. But because he is always aware of his solidarity in sin with all his hearers, there is no moral brutality of the strong Christian bullying the weak. Nevertheless, we must certainly not give the impression that butter would not melt in his mouth. There are some things that rouse his anger. One is injustice, and especially injustice under the cloak of legality. Another is deliberate and flagrant opposition to the Gospel by those who had sworn to uphold it’ – THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 118–9.

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

Are images of Jesus idolatrous?

It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:

# 1. Violation of the second commandment

There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)

Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?

# 2. All attempts are false representations

Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.

# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like

Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.

# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism

The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:

‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.

Regarding this council Philip Schaff, in History of the Christian Church. Volume IV: Mediæval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VI; A.D. 590–1073, writes:

The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)

This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:

  • Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
  • That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
  • That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
  • That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
  • ‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
  • ‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!

So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)

For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.

One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.

So NT Wright:

‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).

Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.

Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:

Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).

‘Who shall unseal the years, the years!’: Around the traps

Thinking with Calvin about the relationship between pulpit, font and table

I’ve just finished giving some lectures on Calvin, part of which consisted of some reflections on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between pulpit, font and table. I recalled how when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he sought to make the Lord’s Supper the defining centre of community life. His Catechism of the Church of Geneva, penned in 1545 (the year before Luther died), outlines Calvin’s notion that the institution of the signs of water, bread and wine was fashioned by God’s desire to communicate to us, and that God does this by ‘making himself ours’. The signs testify to divine accommodation, to God ‘teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone’. But the signs are not only God’s. They are also human actions, faith’s testimony to the Church’s cruciform identity in the world, to its belonging, its ontology. Moreover, font and table remain places of privilege where believers expect to see, taste, hear and touch the Word’s carnality in ways not expected elsewhere. The drama performed around font and table constitutes the activity of the Church which, together with its pulpit, ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’. The sacraments ‘derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligently’. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, written while in Strasbourg but with an eye on Geneva (where it was printed), Calvin further expanded themes introduced in his Strasbourg liturgy, notably a more christologically-determined epistemology and doctrine of assurance, and the claim that the ‘substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus’ himself:

Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord, which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.

Calvin contended that ‘the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper’ is that it ‘directs and leads us’ to Christ, attesting to the truth that ‘having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have everything that is useful and salutary to us’. So in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin defines sacrament as ‘an outward sign’ which testifies to God’s grace, and which ‘never lacks a preceding promise but is rather joined to it by way of appendix, to confirm and seal the promise itself, and to make it as it were more evident to us’.

Calvin begins his Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments with the statement that ‘The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life’. And Calvin proceeds to outline that this communication of Christ – which is both ‘incomprehensible to human reason’ and ‘effected by the Holy Spirit’ – is made possible because of God’s desire to ‘communicate himself to us’ through the same Spirit, and involves us being joined to Christ our Head, ‘not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone’. This union is effected by the Spirit who, in Calvin’s words, ‘uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’. Moreover, Calvin imagines that the union of believers with Christ involves ‘two ministers, who have distinct offices’. There is (i) the ‘external minister’ who ‘administers the vocal word’ which is ‘received by the ears’ and ‘the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible’, and (ii) there is the ‘internal minister’, the Holy Spirit who ‘freely works internally’ to truly communicate ‘the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ’.

Implicit here is the weight which Calvin places on the event of the Supper as a whole, and not just on the sacramental hosts. So Trevor Hart:

It is the ‘ceremony’ as such which constitutes the wider ‘sign’ within which the particular signifying power of bread and wine is located. And the ceremony is, of course, a synthesis in which objects, actions and words are juxtaposed and related to one another. So, while Calvin insists that the material signs are vital, he also refuses to detach their meaning from the accompanying immaterial symbolics of narrative. The bread and wine are ‘seals’ and ‘confirmations’ of a promise already given, and make sense only when faith apprehends them as such. There must therefore always be some preaching or form of words which interprets the ‘bare signs’ and enables us to make sense of them, and the ‘faith’ which apprehends them, while not mere intellectual assent, has nonetheless a vital cognitive dimension (Inst. IV.xvii.39) … This does not, it should be noted, reduce the elements to dispensable visual aids, as if the essential meaning of the Supper could be conveyed equally well in their absence. Calvin’s choice of similes is helpful here. Certain sorts of images (in our day we might cite photographic as well as painted images) may well require some verbal context before we can make appropriate sense of them, yet when viewed in this context they undoubtedly possess a power or force of their own which transcends the limits of meaning to which words alone may take us.

Clearly, for Calvin, the sacraments are essentially another form of the word. They are, after Augustine, the verbum visibile (‘a visible word’), ‘God’s promises as painted in a picture’ and set before our sight. They confer neither more nor less than the Word, and they have the same function as the Word preached and written: to offer and present Christ to us. They are, just as preaching is, the ‘vehicle of Christ’s self-communication … the signs are nothing less than pledges of the real presence [of Christ]; indeed, they are the media through which Christ effects his presence to his people’. And they constitute – no less than preaching – the Church’s ministry of the Word.

The separation of pulpit, font and table, and the prioritising of ‘words’ over the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist, betray a failure to understand how these three particular activities might inform – and be informed by – theories of semiotics, ritual, dramaturgy and the sociology of knowledge. It is also, and more urgently, a failure to understand the nature and witness of Word in the Church’s ‘two marks’, and of the way the Spirit functions to create faith is us and to make us ‘living members of Christ’. And this has, consequently, sponsored both disproportion between word and sacrament, and a tendency towards binitarianism, both to the detriment of Reformed worship and ecclesiology. Certainly, preaching and the proclamation activities of font and table constitute two parts of the one action. A ‘low’ view of one results in a ‘low’ view of the other. As Joseph Small has noted: ‘If word and sacraments together are the heart of the church’s true and faithful life, neglect of one leads inexorably to deformation of the other, for when either word or sacrament exists alone it soon becomes a parody of itself … Reformed neglect of the sacraments has led to a church of the word alone, a church always in danger of degenerating into a church of mere words’. Why a community claiming to be concerned with the proclamation of God’s good news would neglect to taste the Word in the Supper each time it gathers to hear the Word expounded in human speech truly is an oddity.

While Calvin argued that ‘it would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule’, forlornly, many Reformed churches have propagated a situation wherein the pulpit and its associated wordiness have eclipsed the sacraments, sponsoring an arid intellectualism which has turned the worshipping community into ‘a class of glum schoolchildren’. It is not uncommon to witness Baptism’s reduction to little more than a welcoming ceremony, for the Supper to be celebrated infrequently, and even for fonts and tables to be discarded in favour of a pulpit which stands unbefriended in the centre of the chancel. In more appalling cases, the pulpit has joined font and table as relics on the sidelines, casualties of modernity’s techno gods.

Calvin, conversely, placed sacrament and word together at the heart of the community’s life not because he was a dreary traditionalist or obstructionist but because he ‘regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’. In other words, pulpit, font, scripture and table function alike as witness to the Word who is the life of the world: (i) proclaiming in bold relief the gospel of Christ in whom we have true knowledge of God, and (ii) communicating Christ’s real presence to us, uniting us to Christ in the power of the Spirit ‘who makes us partakers in Christ’. So Calvin: ‘I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him’.

I could have gone on (and on, and on) about Calvin, and to recall words from others too who further echo Calvin’s heart on these matters, but even lectures on Calvin must come to an end. Anyway, had I gone on, I may have invited reflection on these two passages:

‘[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters … to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. – Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000), 281.

‘Both sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ Christ has done what I could never do … But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis, which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning…[conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today … Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history – we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future … The sacrament powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community’. – Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 137–8.

Luther and Calvin on Slander (and Women)

Although I’m writing lectures on Calvin at the moment, brother Martin is rarely far away. So as a bit of fun [read ‘distraction’], I thought I’d check out some of their reflections on the same topic – namely, slander. Unlike Calvin who is typically careful, measured, sober, and rarely amusing, Luther – whether relatively dry or completely off his face – is a brilliant hoot, often careless, never politically correct and always calls a spade a shovel. Isn’t that precisely one of the reasons why we love him so much! Anyway, here he is in near-full swing:

‘It is especially among womenfolk that the shameful vice of slander is prevalent, so that great misfortune is often caused by an evil tongue. This is the work of those bitter and poisonous brides of the devil, who when they hear a word about another, viciously make it sharper, more pointed, and more bitter against the others, so that sometimes misery and murder are the result.

All this comes from the shameful, demonic filth which naturally clings to us, that everyone enjoys hearing and telling the worst about his neighbor and it tickles him to see a fault in someone else. If a woman were as beautiful as the sun but had one little spot or blemish on her body, you would be expected to forget everything else and to look only for that spot and to talk about it. If a lady were famous for her honor and virtue, still some poisonous tongue would come along and say that she had once been seen laughing with some man and defame her in such a way as to eclipse all her praise and honor. These are really poisonous spiders that can suck out nothing but poison from a beautiful, lovely rose, ruining both the flower and the nectar, while a little bee sucks out nothing but honey, leaving the roses unharmed. That is the way some people act. All they can notice about other people are the faults or impurities which they can denounce, but what is good about them they do not see. People have many virtues which the devil cannot destroy, yet he hides or disfigures them to make them invisible. For example, even though a woman may be full of faults and have no other virtue, she is still a creature of God. At least she can carry water and wash clothes’. – Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, 41.

Calvin makes what I think is the same basic point, but O how different in tone. Here he is on the ninth commandment (‘You shall not be a false witness against your neighbour’, Exod 20:16):

‘The purpose of this commandment is: since God (who is truth) abhors a lie, we must practice truth without deceit toward one another. To sum up, then: let us not malign anyone with slanders or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood, in short, injure him by unbridled evil speaking and impudence. To this prohibition the command is linked that we should faithfully help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth, in order to protect the integrity of his name and possessions’. – Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.viii.47.

Calvin’s Candour

Calvin 15Candour is a ‘monthly magazine about ministry and leadership’ produced by the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Recent issues have been dedicated to ‘Ecumenism and collaboration’, ‘Interaction with Contemporary Culture’ and ‘Ministry paradigms and hats’. The latest issue is dedicated to John Calvin, and includes (heavily) edited versions of conference papers by Graham Redding, Murray Rae and yours truly. Enjoy.

Michael Jinkins on ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’

4Firstly, don’t forget to enter the Who said it? competition. It closes on Friday. Suggestions so far have been fascinating.

Now, enjoy this post by Michael Jinkins on ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’:

Recently I asked Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, what resources she finds particularly helpful in her vocation as a theological educator and church leader. She said, “This may sound corny, but John Calvin.” I don’t think she sounds corny at all, but, then, I’m a Calvinist. Or a Neo-Calvinist. Or maybe a Crypto-Neo-Calvinist. Anyway I agree with Serene – and with David Steinmetz writing for “Faith & Leadership” here.

This year we Calvinists have been busy baking birthday cakes with 500 candles on them in honor of John Calvin whose influence has been noted, lamented or celebrated by figures as divergent as the sociologist and economist Max Weber, the journalist G. K. Chesterton and the novelist Marilynne Robinson. As a public service to all non-Calvinists, I have assembled a myth-busting primer on the Protestant Reformer.

Myth No.1: John Calvin was a sour puss.

Martin Luther is usually cast as the fun-loving, beer-swigging, warm-hearted Reformer while Calvin is caricatured as dour, the sort of person who (as one Episcopal bishop once notoriously described him) “sucked sour persimmons for fun.” In fact, Calvin was the Reformation’s chief apologist for fun. For example, he reminds us that God created food and drink “for delight and good cheer,” not simply for nourishment. Quoting the Psalms he tells us that wine is given to us to gladden the heart, and olive oil was made for dipping bread. Here’s a person who knew his way around a Michelin Star restaurant (never forget that Calvin was French!). According to Calvin, God did not create the world merely for utilitarian purposes, but for beauty and pleasure.

Myth No.2: Calvin was a tyrant.

Recently this myth got some highly visible air time in “The New York Times Magazine” in an article titled: “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” The article profiled a preacher who justifies his refusal to listen to the criticism of lay leaders by citing Calvin. When a member of his congregation complained, for example, the pastor suspended the complainer’s membership, explaining, “They were sinning through questioning.” The author of the article commented, “John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.” In fact, Calvin could and often did say it much better than that. Calvin distrusted the vesting of power in any individual (himself included), and abided with decisions made by the ordered bodies of his church and city even when he did not agree with them. Calvin believed that God makes God’s will known through groups more reliably than through the will of individuals, and there’s no better guarantee against the abuse of a leader’s power than a vigilant group in which authority is shared.

Myth No.3: Calvin and Calvinism are identical.

This one’s tricky! There’s an assumption that everything we call “Calvinism” actually came from Calvin. A colleague recently mentioned that he was sitting on a plane reading a book about Calvin. The flight attendant saw what he was reading and said, “I know about Calvin. He’s the TULIP guy.” In fact, the well-known “five points of Calvinism,” memorialized in the acronym TULIP (Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints) dates from the century after Calvin (the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619), and represents the high water mark of “Calvinist Scholasticism” in which the warm personal evangelical movement that Calvin led was distorted by a calcified reactionism. Calvin scholars like James Torrance and T.F. Torrance, R. T. Kendall and Holmes Rolston, III, have helped us differentiate between Calvin and his latter-day disciples.

Myth No. 4: Calvin was a religious fanatic.

There certainly is a popular perception of Calvin as a sort of religious fanatic or zealot. After all, there are some Christian Fundamentalists to this day who claim him as their spiritual father, and let’s not forget the various heresy prosecutions that have followed in the wake of “Calvinism” especially in Scotland and the United States. In fact, Calvin himself deserves to be remembered both as a “Renaissance Man” and a “Humanist.” Calvin was part of that remarkable Renaissance movement that included Thomas More (the brilliant Catholic “Man for all Seasons”) and Desiderius Erasmus (the Dutch scholar known for his critical studies and satire). The humanist movement swept away the cobwebs of superstition and obscurantism and placed the Bible, freshly translated, in the hands of ordinary Christians. Calvin, like other humanists, was also a critical scholar of the Bible who believed that knowledge and wisdom, scholarship and science are not enemies of the faith.

Myth No. 5: Calvin was sadistic.

Obviously this myth is supported by the burning of Michael Servetus (a person who had the distinction of being considered a heretic by both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics and of being a physician who discovered how blood circulates in the human body). Calvin opposed Servetus’s teachings. Calvin denounced him to the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Calvin believed that Servetus’s heresies were dangerous to the future of the Church, and he wanted him silenced. In fact, however, what is less well known is that Calvin argued that Servetus not be burned at the stake. The conventional picture of Calvin cruelly twirling his moustache like Snidely Whiplash while Servetus burned is baseless. Calvin urged the courts to spare Servetus from burning, which Calvin considered a barbarous method of execution – and to behead Servetus instead. Okay, this one sounds like cold comfort even to me, and even if Calvin thought Servetus “had it coming” (to quote Clint Eastwood). The fact that Calvin believed the church was locked in a life and death struggle with Servetus, and that the magistrates had no other responsible alternative than to execute him, does not necessarily mean that Calvin was sadistic, though he does appear to have been a pretty typical product of a cruel age on this score. The burning of Servetus ignited a firestorm of controversy among Protestants as to whether such measures are ever justified. Incidentally, Servetus was opposed to the use of force to promote religion long before he was sentenced to death.

[Source: Faith and Leadership]

John Calvin: Servant of the Word

Calvin's pulpit in St-Pierre cathedral

Calvin's pulpit, St-Pierre Cathedral, Geneva

Short of the Lord’s return, or of some unforeseen event, Monday will see me deliver a paper on ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’ at the Calvin Rediscovered conference in Dunedin. Here’s my opening paragraph, and if you’re around consider coming along to hear the rest. It really does look like it’ll be a worthwhile gig.

While the Church had known schism before, its program of reform in the sixteenth century led to its fragmentation the likes of which it had not known since the ‘Great Schism’ some five centuries earlier. The magisterial reformers were understandably concerned about the centrifugal force that their program encouraged, and they did not dismiss lightly Rome’s sharp indictment that disunity indicated defect. This concern is evident in one of the more ‘catholic’ of the Reformed confessions, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) penned by Huldrych Zwingli’s student Heinrich Bullinger: ‘We are reproached because there have been manifold dissensions and strife in our churches since they departed themselves from the Church of Rome, and therefore cannot be true churches’. In response, and by way of marking some distance from more radical wings of the reformation, the magisterial reformers reminded Rome of her own history of conflict and fragmentation, and, more substantively, addressed the question of what constitutes ‘true church’. Their conclusion, précised by John Calvin, is well known: ‘Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists’. These two ‘marks’ function not as boundaries so much as ‘directional signs that point to the core of faithful church life’. And they recall that no matter how frequently or intentionally the Church may engage in additional practices or activities, the most basic, indispensable and controlling hub of its life remains its witness to the one Word of God from pulpit, font and table. This paper will mainly be concerned to attend to the place that the former occupied in Calvin’s ministry and thought, and it asks what remains serviceable about Calvin’s homiletic for those who preach – and for those who hear and taste – the Word of God today.