John Calvin

Why read Calvin?

Calvin 19Why read Calvin?

Calvin reminds us that to break bread and drink wine and tell the story about which they bear witness, to embrace the refugee, to spend oneself for those who can offer nothing in return, to put the cause of the gospel before career and comfort, to do justice and to love mercy, is for the Church to participate in the prophetic action of the triune God, and in God’s love for the world. Calvin bequeathed to us a robust theological foundation and ministry example grounded upon the magnificent news that God is determined to self-disclose to us, and that in such a way that God might be ‘heard’ and received. But there is more, for to read Calvin is to be confronted with the possibility that creature’s might be made to be participants in the divine self-disclosure given in the sheer carnality of God, that Spirit and flesh are not so foreign to each other that their co-ministry might not be the means by which broken and hostile creatures are drawn into the knowledge and purlieus of the Father’s reconciling love.

There’s more, of course. Lot’s more … and it’s not all anywhere near as flattering (although this too is valueble). And, no doubt, there are countless other theologians who have borne witness, and are bearing witness, to the kinds of realities to which Calvin so eloquently directed our gaze. We should read these too.

Still, can anyone think of a better reason to read Calvin?

July bests …

CalvinFrom the reading chair: Housekeeping: A Novel, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, both by Marilynne Robinson; John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought, by Randall C. Zachman; Calvin, by Bruce Gordon; Calvin’s Preaching, by T.H.L. Parker; The Theology of John Calvin by Charles Partee; Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist, by Timothy Radcliffe; Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, edited by Lukas Vischer; Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, by J. Todd Billings; Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin, and The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage, both by Brain A. Gerrish; and A Theology of Proclamation by Dietrich Ritschl. 

Through the iPod: Twist, by Dave Dobbyn; Bruckner’s Symphonies 1–9, by Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan; Troubadour, by George Strait; Lady Antebellum, by Lady Antebellum; My One and Only Thrill, by Melody Gardot; Worrisome Heart, by Melody Gardot.                                                

On the screen: Dogville; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Pawnbroker; The War on Democracy; The Savages.

In the glass: Speight’s Old Dark.

Calvin on illegal downloads

piracy global warming

According to Calvin, ‘[S]tealing is not simply committed with our hands, when … someone is able to steal another person’s money or coins. But stealing occurs when a man possesses what isn’t his, and when we don’t attempt to protect what God has put in a person’s hands’. (John Calvin, Sermons on the Ten Commandments (ed. Benjamin Farley; trans. Benjamin Farley; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 190–1).

… but then he never knew about how P2P can save the planet.

Barth’s Hymn to Calvin (the cataract)


Barth was not the only ‘modern’ theologian to have enjoyed a maturing relationship with Calvin’s thought. In the summer of 1922, the young Barth was teaching a course on the theology of Calvin. As he immersed himself in the reformer’s thought, he became beset by the peculiarity and muscle of what he found. On 8 June, 1922, Barth gave voice to this astonishment in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen:

‘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’. – Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914–1925 (trans. James D. Smart; Richmond: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964), 101.

In January 2008, eighty-six years later, these words were then put into verse by David Alexander (then of Tainan Theological College and Seminary) to the tune of Philippi: 

Calvin’s a cataract, primeval forest, a demonic pow’r.
Something directly down, from Himalayan heights,
strange to the absolute, mythic in depth.

We lack the means the equipment to fathom this phenomenon,
nor to present it with adequate clarity.
What we receive is but a little stream.

We can give back but the thinnest of extracts of what we have got.
We would well benefit, if we would only sit,
spending our lives with John Calvin alone.

Hymn - Calvin’s A Cataract.jpg

[Top image: Student sketch of Calvin made during a lecture in the Academy (c. 1559-63). HT: Heidelblog]

On searching for the perfect preacher

preacher parking‘Farel excelled in a certain sublimity of mind, so that nobody could either hear his thunders without trembling, or listen to his most fervent prayers without feeling almost as it were carried up into heaven. Viret possessed such winning eloquence, that his entranced audience hung upon his lips. Calvin never spoke without filling the mind of the hearer with the most weighty sentiments. I have often thought that a preacher compounded of the three would have been absolutely perfect’. (‘The Life of John Calvin’, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 1 (trans. H. Beveridge; Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1844), xxxix).

However, it was none of these things that impressed Uncle Karl who, when he came to recall Calvin’s preaching, wrote:

‘How this man is grasped and stilled and claimed – not too quickly must one suppose by his experience of conversion, or by the thought of predestination, or by Christ, or even, as is commonly said, by passion for God’s glory – no, but in the first instance simply by the authority of the biblical books, which year by year he never tired of expounding systematically down to the very last verse!’ (Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 54).

Did John Calvin write ‘I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art’?

CalvinA friend of mine, John Roxborogh, has been doing some fascinating detective work in recent days around the claim that Calvin authored the hymn ‘I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art’. It’s a wonderful hymn, but did Calvin write it?

Here’s where John has gotten to:

That the hymn is merely attributed to Calvin in most English sources is a hint that the authorship may be uncertain. Calvin is associated with the versification of Psalms (though he gave it up in favour of the poet Clément Marot) but not with the writing of hymns. The first line in French which appears in a number of sources (Je te salue, mon certain rédempteur) is not on any French website, but only in English hymn books or on English websites. It seems agreed that the French text originates from the Strassburgh Psalter La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques of 1545, where the hymn is referred to as Salutation à Jesus-Christ. This edition appears to have been lost. It is item 22 in the ‘Genealogical Bibliography’ in W D Maxwell, The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book used by John Knox while a minister of the English Congregation of Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1556-1559, Westminster, Faith Press, 1931, 1965, p.70.

Andrew Myers in his blog Virginia is for Hugenots on 13 July 2009 also raised the same question, and quotes extensively from sources I have not been able to access fully. His preference for Jean Garnier as the likely author of the text and his confidence that Calvin is not seems well argued. It is a conclusion I am happy to go with.

The English attribution to Calvin appears to be wishful thinking dating especially from the translation in 1869. The mistaken attribution is a fine example of Calvinism and Calvin not being the same thing, but it nevertheless does serve as a powerful connection with the middle period of the Reformation, and to a time when making congregational singing possible was somehow achieved in the midst of the turmoil. It’s a reminder that many people and places helped sort out what a Reformed church should look like. If it would be fair to say that the hymn belongs more to Strasbourg than to Geneva, that too is a reminder we need to know about Strasbourg too as a laboratory of Reformed faith, worship and society.

Perhaps in our times the more accurate story of the origins of this particular hymn will help us connect with God and with those known and unknown in our history who put faith to music and remind us that renewal in the church is never the work of just one person.

John proceeds to draw attention to a number of other sources:

Andrew Myers: Credit where credit is due – is the author Jean Garnier?

Emmanuel Orentin Douen, Clement Marot et le Psautier Huguenot, Vol. 1, p. 452, on the hymn in question:
Ce morceau n’est point, on le voit, une traduction de la Bible, mais une composition libre qui ne rentre dans la maniere de Calvin, et dont Garnier est peut-etre l’auteur.

Erik Routley and Peter Cutts (ed.), An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide (2005), p. 83: 386. I GREET THEE, WHO MY SURE REDEEMER ART

French: JE TE SALUE, MON CERTAIN REDEMPTEUR, which according to Douen appears in the Strasbourg Psalter (1545), and according to E. [Pierre] Pidox is certainly in the edition of 1553 but not that of 1548. It has been attributed to John Calvin, but Pidoux judges this ascription very unlikely; also attr. to J. Garnier, which Pidoux says is mere “guesswork” (Le Psautier Huguenot, 1962). It must be regarded as anonymous.

The ‘Liturgy of Calvin’ in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation

A copy of an enlarged Strassburg ed. of 1545, entitled La forme des prieres et chantzs ecclesiastiques, was preserved in the Public Library at Strassburg till Aug. 24, 1870, when it was burnt at the siege of the city in the Franco-German War (Douen, I. 451 sq.)

Note 552: They were printed at Strassburg, 1539, and republished, together with an original hymn (Salutation à Jesus-Christ), from an edition of 1545, in Opera, VI. 212-224.

Douglas Bond on a Calvin 500 Tour visits Strasbourg and blogs on 9 July 2009

We discussed what Calvin wrote in his commentary on Genesis about music and its role in Christian worship. Here in the Strasbourg Psalter published 1544, was included “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” clearly not a strict Psalm versification (though it has hints of Psalm 67 in it, “shine on us with the light of thy pure day”). Calvin commended Psalm singing, versified poetry from the Psalms himself, commissioned Clement Marot, the work carried on by Beza after him, but nowhere during or after his time in Strasbourg, where German Lutheran hymns were widely sung, did he condemn the writing or singing of hymns of human poetic composition. In the Geneva Psalter published 1551, Calvin included “I greet thee.” Some hymnologists believe Calvin wrote this hymn; it is very Calvin and may have been so; the fact that we don’t know who wrote it is actually a vote in favor of humble, un-self-serving Calvin.

Presbyterian Hymnal

The hymn is 457 in the Presbyterian Hymnal. It is also found in the Australian Hymnbook and With One Voice as number 128:

Author (attr.): John Calvin
Tune name: TOULON
Translator: Elizabeth Lee Smith (1868)
Scripture: John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Colossians 1:27
Key: F Major
Source: French Psalter, Strassburg, 1545
Source: Genevan Psalter 1551, adapt. from Genevan 124

Cyber hymnal

Words: Attributed to John Calvin, 1545 (Je te salue mon certain rédempteur); translated from French to English by Elizabeth L. Smith in Schaff’s Christ in Song, 1869. Music: Toulon, Genevan Psalter, 1551

Rejoice and Sing, 1991.

When the 1991 United Reformed Church Hymnal Rejoice and Sing was being compiled a web-site of sources, the Enchiridion was developed, which includes Notes on Source Books (French & Genevan Psalters). The cross reference is to Rejoice and Sing, 501.

La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques, 1545 &c.

Various editions of the Psalter were published at Paris, Lyons, Strasbourg and Geneva in the years following the death of Clement Marot (1544); these included a Strasbourg edition of 1545 with psalms &c. from various sources and a hymn attributed to Calvin. (The Strasbourg Town Library copy was lost when the library was destroyed in the bobardment of the town during the Franco-German war (Julian, p.579a). )

Xrefs: RS-501 I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art.

The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) article by Alan Clifford, 1989, fn 70

See the hymn ‘I greet Thee who my sure Redeemer art’ in Christian Hymns, Evangelical Movement of Wales, Bridgend, 1977, hymn 124; also Hymns and Psalms, Methodist Publishing House, London, 1983, hymn 391.

The hymn first appeared in the 1545 Strasbourg Psalter, the very same year Calvin produced the new liturgy for his old congregation. Is it not possible that he wrote the hymn for them too? According to Philip Schaff, it was also discovered in ‘an old Genevese prayer-book.’ (Christ in Song, Anson Randolph, New York, 1869, 678). While external evidence might not be conclusive (see Bushell, op.cit., [Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, Crown and Covenant Publications, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1980.”] p.199, n. 56), strong internal evidence of style and piety comparing the hymn with Calvin’s recorded prayers arguably strengthens Schaff’s case for Calvin’s authorship of the hymn.

Thinking Calvin

CalvinIn recent days, my attention has turned to John Calvin, and to a paper that I’m trying to pen for an upcoming conference on Calvin. It has been great to meet books that have remained unopened on my shelves – and the library’s – for well over a decade (I knew I’d read them eventually!), to revisit some great studies, and to familiarise myself with some of the more recent and hard to get scholarship, including Bruce Gordon’s very readable Calvin, and Jean-Daniel Benoît’s enthralling study, Calvin in His Letters: A Study of Calvin’s Pastoral Counselling, Mainly from his Letters (trans. Richard Haig; Courtenay Studies in Reformation Theology; Appleford: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1986); thanks Jim for putting me on to Benoît. I’m also appreciating some re-digging into Barth’s reading of Calvin, such as this observation:

We must not view Calvin’s church of holiness as a catholicizing confusion of divine and human commands, at least not as far as Calvin himself was concerned, no matter what misunderstandings might have arisen among his successors. Calvin himself clearly saw the possibility of such a confusion. Under the pressure of the order and holiness that he found in God, he realized that order and holiness are incommensurable. They cannot be imitated on this side of the human sphere that is not to be confused with the other world, in the little city of Geneva that even at the pinnacle of his success he never truly regarded as a Jerusalem. With a certain resigned wisdom and grim humor, if we might put it thus, he spoke only of honoring God by bonds of humanity so far as this is possible seeing that we live on earth. Calvin did not fall victim to the illusion that gripped the Middle Ages and that has gained force again in the modern age, the illusion that there is a continuous path that leads step by step from an earthly city of God to the kingdom of heaven. For him the divine was always divine and the human always human. – Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin (trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 201.

If you’re interested, my own paper, (tentatively) titled ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’, proposes to attend to the notion of Calvin as minister of the Word, and to consider the attention that preaching occupied in Calvin’s ministry, his understanding of preaching as divine accommodation, as public, as event, as the Word of God, and its relationship to the proclamation activities of font and table.

Towards a theology of the child: a series

childhoodHere’s my posts so far on a theology of the child in historical perspective. It’s a series that I’ve enjoyed doing and which I’d like to return to at some stage (but not for a wee while).

John Calvin on Children


'The Young Calvin', by Oliver Crisp

Children take on a ‘largely symbolic character’ in most of Calvin’s writings wherein children are viewed as ‘metaphor for the religious life of adult Christians’.[1] Unlike Luther, Calvin tells us very little about his encounters with children. He does, however, tell us that he and his wife lost their only biological child: ‘God had given me a little boy. God took [him] away’.[2] We know little about his relationship with the two children from his wife’s first marriage aside from his pledge (on her deathbed) to care for them; or about the children of his brother Antoine, who lived in his household.

Calvin was not, however, indifferent to children. So Pitkin:

[Calvin’s] writings, along with the social and ecclesial changes he participated in and sought to effect, bear witness to the importance of children in church and society. Serious implications for children’s lives and important assumptions about their nature emerge in his radically theocentric theology of grace, especially in his understandings of providence, covenant, baptism, and human nature as created and fallen. Moreover, when one takes into account the full range of his reforming activity, especially his preparation of ordinances for regulation of the Genevan church (1541), his two catechisms (1537 and 1541-2), and his promotion of school reforms in Geneva, it becomes clear that Calvin, like many intellectuals and reformers of his day, was intensely interested in children and child rearing.[3]

There are multiple ways to approach Calvin’s thought on children, one of which is via his thinking on election: ‘the elect are from birth full inheritors of God’s covenant and members in the church’.[4] Another profitable avenue is via Calvin’s thinking on God’s providence. For Calvin, all human life exists under divine providence; children, therefore, are not ‘begotten … by a secret instinct of nature’ or the ‘fruit of chance’ but are gifts of God.[5] So even when he lost his only son (child mortality at the time ranged between 30 and 50 percent), he would write (to Pierre Viret):

The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children.[6]

Providence does not equate to laxness, however, and Calvin took seriously the responsibility of parents (indeed, it was a coordinated effort of family, state and church)[7] in rearing children:

… unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring. Farther, he who thus reflects upon the goodness of God in giving him children, will readily and with a settled mind look for the continuance of God’s grace; and although he may have but a small inheritance to leave them, he will not be unduly careful on that account.[8]

And what sort of children ought parents wish for?

… the children which we ought to wish for, are not such as may violently oppress the wretched and suffering, or overreach others by craft and deceit, or accumulate great riches by unlawful means, or acquire for themselves tyrannical authority, but such as will practice uprightness, and be willing to live in obedience to the laws, and prepared to render an account of their life. Farther, although fathers ought diligently to form their children under a system of holy discipline, yet let them remember that they will never succeed in attaining the object aimed at, save by the pure and special grace of God.[9]

Calvin consistently stressed the parental obligation to fulfil God’s commands and diligently instruct children in the family.

Associated with this is the duty of Christian parents to baptise their children. ‘Parents ought to consider that children in the home constitute a “mirror of God’s grace,” a sign that God cares for the family, and from this consideration be moved to fulfil their parental obligations’.[10] Unlike some, Calvin did not believe that baptism was strictly necessary for salvation. Salvation depends entirely on the promise of God in God’s word, and not on the sign of that promise. Christian parents, therefore, have a duty to baptise their children, but should not worry about the fate of children who die unbaptised.

Calvin takes all authority – parental and otherwise – with the utmost seriousness. But where parents lead their children to violate God’s law, ‘children should regard them not as parents but as strangers’.[11]

Stages of childhood

Like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, Calvin divides childhood up into three stages, each lasting about 7 years.

1-7      On Matthew 18:1-5:

[Jesus] holds up to them a little child as an emblem of humility. When he enjoins his followers to become like a child, this does not extend indiscriminately to all points. We know that in children there are many things faulty; and accordingly Paul bids us be children, not in understanding, but in malice, (1 Cor. xiv. 20;) and in another passage he exhorts us to strive to reach the state of a perfect man, (Eph. iv. 13). But as children know nothing about being preferred to each other, or about contending for the highest rank, Christ desires that their example should banish from the minds of his followers those eager longings after distinction … It will perhaps be objected, that children, even from the womb, have a native pride, which leads them to desire the highest honor and distinction; but the reply is obvious, that comparisons must not be too closely or too exactly carried out, so as to apply at all points. The tender age of little children is distinguished by simplicity to such an extent, that they are unacquainted with the degrees of honor, and with all the incentives to pride; so that they are properly and justly held out by Christ as an example’.[12]

Based on Psalm 8:2, Calvin considers young infants [those still nursing] as mature proclaimers of God’s goodness: ‘[David] says that babes and sucklings are advocates sufficiently powerful to vindicate the providence of God. Why does he not entrust this business to men, but to show that the tongues of infants, even before they are able to pronounce a single word, speak loudly and distinctly in commendation of God’s liberality towards the human race?’.[13]

These comments are remarkable given that Calvin’s stress on sin’s noetic effects. This statement remained unchanged from the 1536 Edition of the Institutes:

Even infants bear their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; for, though they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their own iniquity, they have the seed enclosed within themselves. Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; thus it cannot but be hateful and abominable to God. Through baptism, believers are assured that this condemnation has been removed and withdrawn from them, since (as was said) the Lord promises us by this sign that full and complete remission has been made, both of the guilt that should have been imputed to us, and of the punishment that we ought to have undergone because of the guilt.[14]

Infancy ends with the onset of reason, at about age six.

calvin-and-hobbes7-14     A period of intellectual, spiritual and moral maturation.

So Calvin, on 1 Corinthians 13:11 [‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me’], insists on the necessity of education for childhood, but which does not suit those who have already reached ‘maturity’ (Latin commentary) or the ‘age of discretion’ (French commentary). The awakening of reason involves a lapse from the earlier simplicity. Consider Calvin’s comments on Genesis 8:21 [‘The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood [from youth]. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done’]:

… the clause which is added, “from youth”, more fully declares that men are born evil; in order to show that, as soon as they are of an age to begin to form thoughts, they have radical corruption of mind.[15]

Again from his comments on Psalm 8:2,

If God has appointed children even in infancy the vindicators of his glory, there is no absurdity in his making them the instruments of showing forth his praise by their tongues after they have arrived at the age of seven years and upwards.[16]

Education/instruction was at the forefront of the Church’s/parents’ responsibility towards children. Calvin taught (and practised) and that before a child was admitted to the Lord’s Supper at about age 11 or 12, they underwent weekly catechism classes (based on 52 question-and-answer format questions on nature of faith, the Creed, the Law, prayer, worship, Word and Sacraments) and learnt to sing the psalms. The assumption throughout, however, was that the child (indeed all children and not only those of Christian parents, because one could not know who the elect were) was to be treated as fully Christian (by virtue of the one covenant) and not as an object for conversion. 7-14-year-olds also had to give a public confession of their faith before the congregation. The confession proceeded an oral interview with a pastor and involved a brief verbal testimony. The catechism classes were not with a view to rote learning of answers but with a view to providing young catechumens with a vocabulary for articulating their growing faith.

14-21 [maybe slightly earlier for girls].

Calvin describes this as ‘an age of pride and rebelliousness fired by the awakening sex drive’.[17] Note Calvin on Genesis 34:4:

young men [ought] to take heed to themselves, lest in the slippery period of their age, the lusts of the flesh should impel them to many crimes. For, at this day, greater license everywhere prevails, so that no moderation restrains youths from shameful conduct.[18]

In sum:

Like Augustine, Calvin assumes a graduated guilt as one moves with age to greater accountability for acts of wrongdoing. However, he does not dwell on evidences of corruption in small children, as Augustine does … Although young children are corrupted by original sin, when compares to older children and adults, they demonstrate a lack of malice that their elders ought to emulate. The biblical basis for this view ins 1 Corinthians 14:20, where Paul urges believers to be children not in understanding but in malice … Adult believers ought to imitate children’s natural simplicity but not their lack of understanding … Calvin, the theologian of “total depravity,” is more appreciative of the positive character of children, dwelling less on their sinfulness that some of his forebears (such as Augustine) or successors (such as Jonathan Edwards).[19]

[1] Barbara Pitkin, ‘”The Heritage of the Lord”: Children in the Theology of John Calvin’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 161.

[2] John Calvin, ‘Responsio ad Balduini convicia’ in Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia (ed. G. Baum, et al.; vol. 9 of Corpus Reformatorum; Brunswick/Berlin: C.A. Schwetschke and Son [M. Bruhn], 1863-1900), 576.

[3] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 161-2.

[4] Ibid., 164.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. V (trans. James Anderson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 110.

[6] John Calvin, ‘To Viret. Geneva, 19th August 1542’ in Letters, Part I: 1528-1545 (ed. Jules Bonnet; vol. 4 of Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 344.

[7] See Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 174-89.

[8] Calvin, Comm. Psalms V, 111.

[9] Ibid., 112.

[10] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 173.

[11] Ibid., 172.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1 (trans. W. Pringle; vol. 16; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 332-3.

[13] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. I (trans. James Anderson; vol. 4; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 96.

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Edition (trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Grand Rapids: The H.H. Meeter Centre for Calvin Studies/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 97; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 4.15.10.

[15] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, Vol. I (trans. J. King; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 285.

[16] Calvin, Comm. Psalms I, 99.

[17] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 165.

[18] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, Vol. II (trans. J. King; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 219.

[19] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 165, 169.

Around the traps … [Updated]

  • robert-jensonMichael Jensen gives us Five reasons that Calvin was a postmodernist.
  • Robert Hubbard tells us why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a derivative mess.
  • A new blog to check out: Crucendo.
  • For those blessed enough to be in NZ, Robert Jenson will be in Dunedin in March as the University of Otago’s Burns Lecturer. He is described by Wolfhart Pannenberg as, ‘one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time’. While in Dunedin, Professor Jenson has kindly agreed to lead a half-day seminar at the Knox Centre on the subject of the Eucharistic Church being a Missional Church. It will be held on Friday 13 March, 9.30 am to 12pm. Because the seminar will be interactive we have set a limit of 30 people. The cost per person will be $25, this includes morning tea. To register please contact Catherine van Dorp or phone +63 03 473 0783.
  • For those in the UK, The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics is hosting a one-day conference (Saturday 21st February) on Fertility and Faith. More information here and here.
  • For those unfortunate enough to be in the USA, Biblical Theological Seminary is hosting what looks like a worthwhile conference on ‘Hazardous to your Health – Pastoring through Church Challenges’. More information here.
  • And Robert Fisk asks: ‘When did we stop caring about civilian deaths during wartime?’

A Year with Calvin’s Institutes

john-calvin-portrait-by-titian1During 2009, Princeton Theological Seminary is inviting the church, the academy, and individual Christians around the world to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth by participating in “A Year with the Institutes,” a daily reading of Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

There is never a bad time to start reading – or re-reading – the Institutes. Imagine that, Calvin’s Institutes every day for a year – even via iTunes or a RSS Feed.

More information here.

I will also add the feed to my sidebar.

On creation’s moral sensitivity


Seriously, has there ever been a more timeless exegete of Scripture than Calvin? Commenting on Genesis 4:10–12 Calvin remarks that God ‘constitutes the earth the minister of his vengeance, as having been polluted by the impious and horrible parricide: as if he had said, “Thou didst just now deny to me the murder which thou hast committed, but the senseless earth itself will demand thy punishment”’ (John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, Vol. I (trans. J. King; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 208). God does this, to ‘aggravate the enormity of the crime, as if a kind of contagion flowed from it even to the earth, for which the execution of punishment was required’. There is no sense, for Calvin, that cruelty can here be ascribed to the earth. Rather, the creation, reflecting the Creator’s hand, shows mercy because, in abhorrence of the pollution, it opens up its mouth to swallow the shed blood. For Calvin, this signifies that ‘there was more humanity in the earth than in man himself’ (Ibid., 209).

A similar observation is made by Motyer in his brilliant commentary on Isaiah 24:5: ‘As God’s creation, the world itself is morally sensitive, and the ‘thorns and thistles’ of Genesis 3:18 illustrate the two sides of this sensitivity. On the one hand, they evidence the way in which earth itself fights against sinners. It does not readily yield its bounty to them but turns its productive powers to their disadvantage. On the other hand, the fact that an earth which the Lord pronounced good can produce thorns and thistles is evidence that its nature has been damaged and the garden is in the process of becoming the wilderness’. (John A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 198).

Calvin Conferences

2009 will mark the quincentenary of Calvin’s birth. To commemorate this, two conferences have already been announced to take place in Geneva.

  • Tribute Conference begins: A 4-day international symposium with leading scholars in the historic Auditoire in Geneva (July 6-9, 2009).
  • Commemorating Calvin Conference: A 5-day international symposium with leading Ministers in Geneva (July 5-9, 2009) with a particular focus on the theology and spirituality of Calvin.

Conference speakers at these two events include:

Joel Beeke, PhD
Henri Blocher, PhD
Bryan Chapell, PhD
Iain D. Campbell, PhD
R. Scott Clark, DPhil
Ligon Duncan, PhD
Edward Donnelly, PhD
William Edgar, PhD
Olivier Fatio, PhD
Sinclair Ferguson, PhD
Richard Gamble, PhD
W. Robert Godfrey, PhD
Darryl Hart, PhD
Michael Haykin, PhD
Martin Holdt, PhD
Hywel R. Jones, PhD
Douglas Kelly, PhD
Robert Kingdon, PhD
Anthony N. S. Lane, PhD
Steven Lawson, DMin
Peter Lillback, PhD
Bruce McCormack, PhD
Andrew McGowan, PhD
Phillip Ryken, DPhil
Derek Thomas, PhD
Geoffrey Thomas
Carl Trueman, PhD
John Witte, Jr. , PhD
David Wright, PhD
James McGoldrick, PhD

More information here. I have no doubt that more conferences will be announced as 2009 gets closer.

Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

Biography in Brief – Calvin

Continuing on with my recent ‘Biographies in Brief’ series (here, here and here), we come in this post to Calvin. It is difficult to think of a theologian (and his ideas) who has been the object of more grotesque distortion than Protestantism’s greatest: Jean Calvin. For all the attention he has rightly received, there is, oddly, a dearth of biographical material available on Calvin. Up until recently, we have had little more than Theodore Beza’s classic, The Life of John Calvin. In 1993, Alister E. McGrath offered his most readable biography, A Life of John Calvin (London: Blackwell, 1993). Even with the recent gem on Calvin by Randall Zachman (anything this guy writes is worth reading!), John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought, McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin remains the best biography available. Here’s a taste:

[Calvin’s] importance lies primarily, but by no means exclusively, in his being a religious thinker. To describe him as a ‘theologian’ is proper but misleading, given the modern associations of the term. A theologian is one who is generally seen to be marginalized as an irrelevance by church and academy alike, whose public is limited to a severely restricted circle of fellow theologians, and whose ideas and methods are generally derived from other intellectual disciplines. The originality, power and influence of Calvin’s religious ideas forbid us to speak of him merely as a ‘theologian’ – though that he certainly was – in much the same way it is inadequate to refer to Lenin as a mere political theorist. Through his remarkable ability to master languages, media and ideas, his insights into the importance of organization and social structures, and his intuitive grasp of the religious needs and possibilities of his era, Calvin was able for forge an alliance between religious thought and action which made Calvinism a wonder of its age.

Calvin on salvation in Christ

It’s good to be back home after holidaying and conferencing. I found SST helpful for four reasons: 1. It was a good insight into the state of the theology academy in England; 2. Great opportunities to meet people who are engaged in the doing of theology; 3. I heard some great short papers. Ones by Oliver Crisp and Angus Paddison were highlights for me. Angus’ was on Forsyth, so how could he go wrong!; 4. I always enjoy giving a paper.

Today has been a day of getting back into thesis work. The quote of the day goes to Calvin: ‘We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him’ [I Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare to Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment; in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from the fountain, and from no other.’ – Institutes 2.16.19.