Thomas Henry Louis Parker (1916-2016)

A few days ago, May 25th, John Webster passed away,. He was 60 years old. I heard about his sudden death at the Refo500RC Conference in Copenhagen. Home again, I soon found out that his death is lamented at various weblogs: here for example, here, here and also here. His passing away has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Webster truly was an exceptional theologian.

However, in this post I want to pay attention to another theologian who recently diedT.H.L. Parker: the Rev. Dr. Thomas Henry Louis Parker. He died on Monday April 25th of this year, at the blessed age of 99 years. Parker was an outstanding scholar, both versed in Calvin Studies as well as in Barth Studies. His death has not attracted the same amount of attention as John Webster’s, but I gathered it was mentioned on Facebook, and also on the website of Refo500 and in this contribution by Lee Gatiss.

These contributions, valuable as they are, do not tell us much about his career. As far as I have been able to figure out, it looks like this:
1948-55 – Vicar of Brothertoft, Lincs.
1955-61 – Rector of Great and Little Ponton (near Grantham) Lincs.
1961-71 – Vicar of Oakington, Cambridge
1971-75 – University of Durham; Lecturer in Theology
1975-81 – University of Durham; Reader

T.H.L. Parker wrote important books about Calvin’s commentaries on the Old and New Testament. He edited some of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. He wrote a concise, but very informative biography about Calvin. He published studies on Barth and was involved in the editing of the Church Dogmatics, together with T.F. Torrance.

Especially his books Calvin’s Preaching (a profound reworking of his earlier book The Oracles of God) really has been a revelation for me, from the moment I started to read it. There are not many books in my library that I have used more intensively than this book. Not only does it offer a wealth of information, but it captures my attention by its lively style of writing. Writing for example about the lost sermons of Calvin, which were removed from the Genevan library in the 19th century, he recounts that some of Calvin’s sermons were refound. He then continues:

“A few years later (1963) the pulse of life in my quiet country vicarage was quickened by the receipt of a letter from the Librarian of Lambeth Palace, saying that he had recently bought a manuscript volume of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis from Bristol Baptist College; would I please see them and pronounce on their authenticity. This, of course, I was only too willing to do.” (p.70)

About a year ago (March 2015) I unexpectedly came in touch with him by email, because I informed after him at To my surprise the editor passed on an email [sic] of Dr. Parker himself. As a tribute to this outstanding scholar I’d like to cite a few sentences from this email, omitting the more personal details in it:

Twenty years ago I would have thought 98 was really very aged. Now that I am 98 it doesn”t seem much different from 58, 68, or 78, except, of course, that I can no longer indulge in the physical activities that I enjoyed then. I live on my own and more or less look after myself (…).

So, like the shepherd boy in Pilgrim’s Progress, I am content with what I have, little be it or much; and Lord contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.
Every good wish,
Yours sincerely,

The last sentences really impressed me and made me glad because of the steadfast faith and hope that speaks out of it. This ‘shepherd boy’ has come home. We thank God for his life and work.

RefoRC Conference 2016 Copenhagen (May 26-28, 2016)

In May this year the sixth annual Refo Research Consortium (RefoRC) Conference will be held. The conference will be hosted by the theological faculty of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Theme of this year’s conference is: ‘Church’ at the time of the Reformation – Invisible community, visible parish, confession, building…? According to the website:

The conference aims at a clarification and a discussion of the different concepts of church in the 16th century: What did the reformers think about the essence and origin of the holy, apostolic and Catholic church? What was seen as its aim, its purpose? Can human beings see the true church or not? Does it have one existence in this world and another in the world to come? The concept of church is indissolubly connected to the theological concepts of sin, faith, justification, sanctification, and salvation, and the study of it also involves reflections such as those of the nature and scope of the sacraments, the role of the clergy, the aim of the church-buildings, the significance of the inventory and the reflections upon the constituent parts of the mass/church service.

The list of speakers is impressive with – to mention only a few of them – names like Jon Balserak (Bristol), “‘The church that cannot err.’ Early Reformed thinking on the Church”, Charlotte Methuen (Glasgow): “Ordering the Reformation church in England and Scotlant”, and Dorothea Wendenbourg (Berlin), “Luthers Sicht der Kirche”.


I am happy to attend this conference. My short paper proposal has been accepted, so I will present some thoughts about vehemence in Calvin’s sermons for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Vehemence is the word Conrad Badius introduces in his preface for Plusieurs sermons (1558), an edition of Christological and sacramental sermons of Calvin. Why did he choose this qualification for Calvin’s sermons? And what does this tell us about Calvin’s sermons connected to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper? These and other questions will come to the fore in my paper.

Registration for the conference is still open… I am looking forward to it!

“Preaching is essentially a priestly function!” Thomas Torrance on the priestly character of the ministry

It has been silent here for quite a long time. There are good reasons for that, as I try to make progress in my studies. But this evening I discovered a sermon of Thomas F. Torrance, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. I was struck by it. Of course, as readers of this blog may know, I’ve a weak spot for TFT. But it was more than that. And yes, in this sermon Torrance follows the lead of Calvin and his exposure of the priestly character of the ministry. Of course, I’m studying Calvin, but once again,torrance-big that’s not the whole story. The point is this: in a few words (it’s not a long sermon) Torrance uncoveres a deep spiritual insight about the nature of the ministry.

Let me explain why this struck me. In the Netherlands, some theologians call for a more prophetic stance in the ministry of the Word. But – as you will see – Torrance strongly disagrees. He offers a very convincing and thought provoking plea for the priestly character of the ministry. In what follows I will briefly summarize this sermon of his. But let me assure you: it’s worth listening!

Torrance opens his sermon about Malachi 2 with a reference to the munus triplex, the threefold office. But – he says – Calvin had become deeply aware that the priesthood is ‘the primary aspect of the holy ministry’. At the end of his life, he is reformulating his thoughts on the subject, as his prayers at the end of his lectures on the minor prophets show.

Calvin is now convinced that there is now a priesthood within the corporate priesthood of the Church, the Body of Christ. This thought determines his view on the ministry. Every young minister – Torrance says – believes he has to behave like a prophet when he gets up into the pulpit. No, he has to behave like a priest. “As a priest he has to be the messenger of God”. Torrance emphasises three aspects of this thought:

  1. The priesthood has to do with a unique and awful function to which some people are separated. The priest has to bear the iniquities of the people of God and to bear God’s judgment on them. As Calvin understood it, there was a intimate bond between the priest, the offerer and the offering. They were inseparable. And the priest can offer only the oblations and prayers of the people in so far as he himself takes their hurt upon himself and penetrates into their needs and himself bear, penitently, the judgments of God. You can’t be a minister of the Gospel unless you are prepared and willing to bear their sins upon yourself and offer yourself with them before God. That is a priestly aspect, says Torrance, which we have forgotten.
  2. Calvin was aware that where ever the Old Testament speaks about memorial it was always, without exception, a memorial before God. That too is something we (Protestants) have forgotten or changed. We think of the Lord’s Supper as remembring Christ’s death, of what He did. That is not ‘memorial’. The priestly cropped-supperlast2.jpgofferings in the OT are memorials before God.  It is in that sense we have to think about the Eucharist. As Calvin explains in his comments on Numbers 19: Christ is our Memorial and we offer Christ daily to the Father. And that’s what we do in the Eucharist. We are participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. The ministry of the Word is a priestly function. The priest is God’s messenger. His prime task is to bring a Word of God to the people, but in such a way that he evokes or provokes or bring their offering toward God. The priestly function is dual. He ministers from God to man and from man to God. I don’t believe, says Torrance, that anyone can do that simply from the pulpit or simply through conducting the liturgy. He can only do that by visiting the people in their homes and bring the Word of God there and open up their whole life before God. So that he can share their hurts and needs, understand their responses. And then he can  proclaim the Word of God and in the worship of the church bring their true responses back to God.

Preaching is essentially a priestly function. It is in this light that Calvin understood the priestly character of the Word. Because it is only as you share in, by your prayer life, your intercession, your sympathy with people, in the priesthood of Jesus, that you can say in His Name: “Be reconciled to God”. As Calvin saw it, you are representing the person and the role of Christ as a minister.

Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

Time to repent – the forgotten sermons of Thomas Torrance

T.F Torrance (1946)

T.F. Torrance (1946)

It is hard to tell which book of Thomas Forsyth Torrance is his most popular. His books on trinitarian theology, like The Trinitarian Faith and The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, are perhaps among his best known publications.  At the other hand we might also think of his books on Science and Theology: Theological Science for example, or God and Rationality. How this exactly may be, it seems to me that his two collections of sermons, When Christ comes and comes again (1957) and The Apocalypse Today (1960) are largely forgotten nowadays. It’s a fate which they seem to share with other books of that particular period. The two volumes of Conflict and Agreement (1959/1960) for example are hardly ever mentioned in recent literature. In those years TFT was very productive, writing a lot about ecclesiological topics, like the sacraments. The edition of some of his sermons fit in this picture. In his Preface, Torrance indicates that he wanted to offer ‘some doctrinal material for the use of those actively engaged in the work of evangelism’ (When Christ comes…, p.7). Although Torrance would be a theologian of the church all of his life, he was probably at most so in the late fifties.

Alyth Parish Church - Old pulpit

Alyth Barony Church – interior (old situation)

The relative impopularity of his collections of sermons strikes me as odd. In fact, it was due to his book When Christ comes… I became interested in Torrance. About four years ago, I stumbled across this volume in a second hand book shop. At home again, I started reading and from the first page I read, I was struck by the power and intensity of these sermons. Shortly after, I bought The Apocalypse Today, containing, as the title already indicates, sermons about the last book of the New Testament. He preached those sermons during and after the war to the congregations of the Barony Church, Alyth and Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen. One remark about the sermons on the Apocalypse, shouldn’t be omitted: “…while seeking to understand the language of the visions from their Old Testament sources, I have sought throughout to give them the Christological interpretation they demanded”.

As far as I know, there are no other books with sermons of TFT, although a few of them were published in theological journals. In the Preface on The Apocalypse Today, Torrance seems almost as reluctant to publish his sermons as John Calvin was in his days. He writes that ‘…they were not intended for publication’, that ‘they are not meant for the scholar, but for the ordinary member of the Church, who (…) often finds little to guide his understanding outside the fantastic interpretations of the sects’ (The Apocalypse Today, p.5) In the remainder of this post I will offer you two passages from his sermons. Quoting from sermons is, of course, a very arbitrary enterprise. But these quotations both engage with the questions of time, eternity and the need for decision. I hope that, by doing so, it will become clear that – in spite of Torrance’s own proviso – they offer a wealth of theological, pastoral and homiletical reflection.

“God cannot hold Himself back for ever, or rather the sinner cannot live for ever entrenched in his independence, surrounded by all the defences which he builds around his mortal life, in order to protect himself from God. So long as he lives on earth, he can hide himself in time, for as long as he is in time, God waits to have mercy upon him. But when he passes out of time in eternity, all his defences fall away from him, and he stands naked before God. But in eternity he has no time for decision, for repentance, or for faith, for in time the voice of God calls to him and gives him time to make up his mind, and to answer. But when he passes from time into eternity, then all that has gone on in his soul comes to is ultimate crisis. Once that crisis begins, as so many of the parables of Jesus tell us, there is no time for preparation or action. It all happens in a flash, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.”

Sermon ‘The approach to God’, on Exodus 3,1-15 and John 13,6-8 (When Christ comes and comes again, p.133)

“The Word of God towers over land and sea, and dominates the ages. In the presence of that mighty Word time stands still. Time, as it were, is no more in that hour – it is the moment of eternal decision.
How dearly we human beings love to cling to the passage of time, and how we love to take refuge in days and months and years to escape that decisive moment when we are dragged out of past and present and future to stand face to face with eternal God. Man loves to clothe himself with time. He hides himself behind it, and so hides from eternal God in the multitude of minutes and passing events. That hiding place is discovered when the Word of God falls upon man out of the blue of God’s Heaven, for man is interrupted in his life, dragged out of his hiding place behind procrastination. The Word of God refuses to let him drift aimlessly down the current of time any longer. He is confronted with Eternity and at last he must decide. He cannot bluff himself any longer. That is the divine stroke that suspends the flow of time – the moment of eternal destiny and predestination: mankind face to face in time with the eternal Word of God.”

Sermon ‘The Word of God and Time’ on Revelation 10 & 11:1-15 (The Apocalypse Today, p.83,84)

Heiko Oberman and the hot lava of Calvin’s sermons

In September 1994 Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-7, edited by prof. Willem Balke and dr. Wim Moehn, were published. I had been kindly invited to the presentation of the new volume of the Supplementa Calviniana (Neukirchen Verlag) Special guest of honour that day was prof. Heiko Oberman (1930-2001). He was by then known for decades as a world famous expert on the history of the late Medieval and Reformation period. H.A. ObermanIn the Netherlands, however, his name had become associated with a particular committee, which from 1987 to 1989 had been investigating the quality of the various institutions of theological education in Holland. The committe became known as the ‘Committee Oberman’, although he wasn’t its chairman. But the final report caused quite a stir. So, the name Oberman was well known.

To be honest, it was largely because of Heiko Oberman, I attended the presentation of this new edition. I wasn’t familiar with Calvin’s sermons, nor was I aware of their importance. But it became a memorable day. Oberman didn’t disappoint me. On the contrary, I can still remember the excitement his small talk evoked. Oberman made a comparison between Calvin’s sermons and the lava of a volcano. The sermons, he said, are like hot lava. Touching them means burning your fingertips. In the Institutes, by comparison, the lava is cooled and set. You won’t get blisters from laying your fingers on that. In his talk he criticized vehemently those theologians who based their knowledge of Calvin’s theology exclusively on the 1559-edition of the Institutes. He made a plea for the 1536-edition as a ‘powerful catechism’. Furthermore, he criticized the lack of quality in Calvin-research, compared with the standards in Luther-research. And I remember him talking about the importance to locate Calvin’s theology in the context of refugees. It is prominent in the title of his John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Droz 2009 posthumously edited).

His talk in 1994 inspired me very much, because it connected with my own intuitions about Calvin. I had attended a class about Calvin’s Institutes of 1559 shortly before, which was a huge disappointment. The Institutes were read through the lens of the later tradition, wrestling with questions about the doctrine of double predestination.
Inspired by Oberman’s talk, I tried to find a way out by turning to the young Calvin. Although I didn’t buy then the fresh edition of the sermons (it was way too expensive for me then), I bought the first two volumes (1.1 & 1.2) of the Studienausgabe of Calvin’s writings between 1533-1541 instead (much cheaper!). A second impulse was given by a small study-group with professor Balke. With a group of about 7 students we read parts of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. It opened my eyes for a very different Calvin. A Calvin who was not obsessed by the doctrine of double predestination, but who tried as faithfully as possible to explain the Holy Scriptures to the Genevan congregation and (as Oberman would add) his wider audience among the refugees in Europe.

However, my interest in Calvin waned gradually, although it never completely disappeared. But the appeal to the ‘younger’ or the ‘pastoral’ Calvin didn’t work out for me. I needed an alternative systematic perspective, which I found in the work on synchronic contingency of the members of the Research Group Duns Scotus. Finding answers to my questions, cleared in the end the way for a return in 2009 to Calvin, and in particular his sermons on the Lord’s Supper. So, in 2011, 17 years after its appearance, I bought my own copy of this particular volume of Supplementa Calviniana with Calvin’s sermons on the Acts of the apostles. And I agree: the reading of Calvin’s sermons is quite sensational. Thanks to the meticulous work of Calvin’s stenographer Denis de Raguenier, it is possible for us to follow Calvin in his preaching sunday after sunday (or in the case of weekday sermons even from day to day). Oberman was right: reading the sermons is different from reading the Institutes. It is not unlike reading letters. You can ‘smell’ – as it were – the historical context. Reading the sermons is hearing Calvin at work.

The edition of Calvin’s sermons in Supplementa Calviniana started in 1936 with the seminal work of Hanss Rückert (whom Heiko Oberman succeeded in Tübingen). The sermons on the Acts of the apostles were the sixth volume of the Supplementa Calviniana, preceded by volumes on 2 Samuël (1936 partially/1961 complete); Isaiah 13-29 (1961); Micha (1964); Jeremia 14-18 & Lamentations (1971) and Psalm- and Festpredigten (1981). Since 1994 the following editions were published: Isaiah 30-41 (1995); Genesis 1-20 (2000, 2 vol.); Ezekiel (2006) and Isaiah 52-66 (2012, 2 vol.).
To the best of my knowledge we can expect additional volumes with sermons on 1 Corinthians 1-9 (Elsie McKee); Ezekiel 1-15; 18; 20; 22; 23-35 (Erik de Boer) and Isaiah 42-51 (Ruth Stawarz-Luginbuehl & Michel Grandjean). The editing of the sermons Manuscript Sermon Calvinhowever is a very demanding and time-consuming job, as you can easily conclude from the picture with one of the pages of the original manuscript of the Isaiah sermons. So, there is a lot of work to do. In the meantime, a new critical edition of the printed sermons is planned as part of the Ioannis Calvini Opera Omnia Denuo Recognita (Droz). The first volume, Plusieurs sermons, edited by Wim Moehn appeared in 2011.

The late Heiko Oberman was right: Calvin’s sermons are like hot lava. You can smell, touch, feel and hear the wrestling of a man, called by God, to speak in His name to the people in Geneva, part of God’s Church worldwide, a perspective Calvin never would forget. The lava of Calvin’s might help us not to become ‘nonchalant’, a word identified by Oberman in his 1986 Kuyper Lectures (Chapter X ‘Calvin’s Legacy’ in: The Two Reformations (2003)) as a catch-word for Calvin. Let me finish by quoting Oberman himself, writing about Calvin’s personality:

Calvin escapes the limitation (of self-sufficiency, free from external influences [AT]) this implies when he says that the Christian Stoic must add emotional involvement. This is particularly clear when Calvin expresses it in his mother tongue, in letters, and especially in sermons, making it as clear as he can that the genuine Stoic who tries to steel himself against the outside world is more a child of Satan than of Christ. To this emotional armor the Christian must add misericordia. Calvin sums this up in a word which could indeed be found in the French language before his time but only later becomes common parlance. The word is nonchalant, and when he uses it, it has not yet become trite, as it is today. A Christian may not be nonchalant toward his fellow human beings. That would be on the same level with poking fun in relation to God; it would be indifferent, nonchaleur, to have no warmth, to be unconcerned about others. Calvin is different; he is concerned and as such lives an encumbered life: enriched, to be sure, but clearly burdened by his deep and extensive God knowledge. (p.127)

Jesus: Myth or History? A Dutch Debate

“Jesus never existed”. With this headline a Dutch newspaper (Trouw, February 2, 2015) introduced the latest thoughts of a colleague of mine (Edward van der Kaaij) about Jesus. He has reached the conclusion that Jesus never existed as a historical person. Instead, he claims, all elements of His story do stem from old myths. Egypt is seen as the place of birth of these mythical stories about Jesus. The dying and rising deity is the kernal of the Osiris myth in Egypt, which originates out of the archetype of the sun: going down and rising every day. Paul became acquainted Osiriswith these myths in Tarsus, by means of Jews who fled from Alexandria and imported these myths. No wonder then, Van der Kaaij claims, that the historical Jesus isn’t mentioned in the letters of Paul. For him, Jesus is a mythological figure.
What is the conclusion of all this? It brings us, so Van der Kaaij believes, to the heart of the Christian faith: in everything alive is some sort of power of life. A divine spark. And Christianity is about the discovering of that divine spark…

So far for the thoughts of my colleague. As you could imagine, his utterances raised many critical comments, for example from Free University professor Gijsbert van den Brink. He points out that Van der Kaaij derives his theories from the book The Jesus Mysteries, written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. But as Van den Brink points out, this book hasn’t been taken seriously by New Testament scholars. In fact, its content seems to be nothing more than old Gnostic theories in a new coat. Describing the Christian faith in terms of a Gnostic myth has nothing to do with the Credo of the church. I agree with these criticisms. But in this post, I will point out some of the more implicit difficulties with this kind of thought.

Let me start with a quote from an interview with Van der Kaaij.

“I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed, because I think that the opinion He did exist does harm to the understanding of the Bible. (…) In Paul’s letters, you don’t read about the existence of the historical Jesus. Paul actually wrote his letters before the gospels were written. The only source of the historicity of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark. Matthew and Luke draw on that source. But I endorse the theory that in Alexandria, once an important harbour city, the Jewish version of the old myth came into existence. Finally, Christianity has been imported by Alexandrian Jews, who had to flee. In that way, it ended up with Paul in the port city of Tarsis. (…) The origin of the Gospel is mythical, so Jesus is a mythical figure too.”

First of all, there are problems with the underlying theory of knowledge here. Take for example the line: “I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed, because I think that the opinion He did exist does harm to the understanding of the Bible”. Imagine someone saying: “I aim to prove that slavery never existed, because I think that the opinion that slavery did exist does harm to human dignity”. No one would take this kind of wishful thinking seriously.

Then, there is a another epistemological problem regarding the status of theories and evidence. We hear him say: “I aim to prove that the historical Jesus never existed” and “I endorse the theory…”. To endorse a theory about the origin of the gospels is very different from proving that the historical Jesus never existed. In fact, proving the non-existence of Jesus asks for a refutation of all the available evidence, even the slightest hint. Van der Kaaij seems not even to have started with proving that.

A third problem has to do with logical reasoning. Does it follow from “The origin of the Gospel is mythical”, that  “Jesus is a mythical figure too”? Not at all. Suppose I will write a fairy tale about the Dutch king Willem Alexander. Does that mean he becomes a fairy tale figure? Of course not. In short, Van der Kaaij seems to conflate the (onto)logical status of the story with the (onto)logical status of its content.

Another problem concerns the implied ontology in Van der Kaaij’s words. He seems to locate the heart of christian faith in the ‘old archetype’ of the dying and rising deity. Other religions, like the Islam or Buddhism, are in fact different forms of the same archetype. It means that the New Testament can’t contain anything really new. It means that believing boils down to the discovery of what is already there, inside of each of us. There is nothing new under the sun. And there can’t be. But that means an ontology of necessity. Then Jesus not only never existed, but He, God incarnate, the best possible Person, could not even have existed. Proving that requires nothing less than a kind of reversed ontological argument of Jesus’ – and by implication God’s – non-existence.

Van der Kaaij seems not to be aware of these problems. He also seems unaware of an impressive theological tradition in which the roots of Christian faith have been explored in its historical dimensions, including the relation with other religions. The great Dutch scholar Van der Leeuw - portretGerardus van der Leeuw, for example, devotes in his book De primitieve mensch en de religie [Primitive man and religion] (1937) several pages to the concept of myth, in relation to logos and history. He says:

“In Mythos nor Logos anything happens. In history something new,  not repeated, is acknowledged and experienced. Something happens. History saves from the mythical circle and the logical formula. (…) In this the formidable meaning of Israël’s belief in God is revealed. While the whole of older humanity is convinced that the events of the world form a cycle, comes Jahweh’s history instead. (…) This, however, does not take the mythical (in general sense) out of history.” (p.119)

For Van der Leeuw ‘myth’ is (in contrast with popular usage) not equal to not-true en therefore has its legitimate place. But its true meaning is only seen in the light of faith. Faith reveals the meaning of Mythos, Logos and History in the shape of the history of salvation (p.123). For Van der Leeuw, Jesus Christ: Myth or History? is no opposition. One final quote: “Jesus Christ is Mythos pre-done, He is the Logos incarnate, He is human history and divine reality at once”.