‘Naturally More Vehement and Intense’: Vehemence in Calvin’s Sermons on the Lord’s Supper

RRRI’m happy to announce the publication of my article “‘Naturally More Vehement and Intense’: Vehemence in Calvin’s Sermons on the Lord’s Supper”, in Reformation & Renaissance Review, vol. 20,1 (2018), 70-81. The online (open access!) and printed versions are available at the RRR’s website.

In this article I explore why Conrad Badius,the editor of Plusieurs sermons (1558) speaks in his preface to the collection about the ‘vehemence’ of these sermons of Calvin’s, which were selected by their Christological content as well as their connection to the preparation and celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

This is what the abstract says:

This article focuses on the remarks of Conrad Badius – in the preface to his publication of Plusieurs sermons of Calvin’s – about the ‘vehemence’ of sermons relating to the Lord’s Supper. By comparing two of Badius’s prefaces in editions of Calvin’s sermons, it becomes clear that he chose his words intentionally. On examining here the rhetorical background of vehementia/ véheménce, its use in the final part of Calvin’s sermons is clarified. Some contemporary witnesses to Calvin’s habit are cited. Moreover, in light of the role of vehemence in Calvin’s preaching in general, it is shown that the context of the preparation for the sacrament and its celebration prompted Calvin to preach even more vigorously. The outcome is that Badius’s comments on Calvin’s preaching underline the vital importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Reformer, a sacrament which required intensive and sanctifying preparation.

And Reformation & Renaissance Review‘s editor, Ian Hazlett introduces the article in his editorial introduction thus:

It underlines that Calvin was well aware that while people were willing mostly subscribe to the Reformation, it was a challenge for preachers to break down the crusted hearts of many people in order to induce genuine conversion to the authentic Christian way. The article discusses how Calvin’s preaching, far from being calmly expository or a pleasing religio-cultural lift for the listeners, was at points right confrontational, a spiritual cold shower. There is a focus on Calvin’s robust and vehement style which he employed particularly in the sermons on the sacrament – well testified in contemporary sources of friends and colleagues. Accompanying this is evaluation of how far these high-pitch tones in familiar and accommodating language were attributable to Calvin’s irascible nature and character, or to his masterly recourse to the techniques of classical rhetoric and oratory, and so communication skills; the aim was not just to move and persuade the congregation, part of which was indifferent, hypocritical and nonchalant, but also to force it to submit in order to help the Word of God gain urgent entry. For voluntary or spontaneous adoption of Christian righteousness, inwardly and outwardly, by many people remained illusory. Eucharistic participation in the body of Christ and enjoying the sursum corda were hard to translate into real life.

You can read the full article here. I hope you will enjoy it!



Christmas sermons: variations on a theme

Christmas is approaching. For those who are called to preach with Christmas, it means a time of (sometimes desperately) searching for creativity. How do you tell the very well-known story of Christ’s birth this time again? One option is of course to larder one’s sermon with all kinds of moving stories and anecdotes. That would not be my choice. On the contrary, in this post I will argue for a moment of reflection on the motivation for the Incarnation. Why did Christ came to us? Why was he born in Bethlehem?

The answer seems maybe obvious. The standard answer many of us would be inclined to give goes something like this: Christ had to come in order to save us. Take a look of your own Christmas sermons or those of others and you will find out that this is the basic scheme of nearly all of these sermons. That is, the motivation for the Incarnation is explained in terms of our fallen condition. In other words, this is an infralapsarian scheme. Last year I offered an example of such a sermon, from Karl Barth. No one will deny its truth and its worth in telling the story of Christmas. But is it the whole story? Asking this question means – in theological terms – asking whether Christ became man exclusively because of our sins. Would he have become man if the Fall had not occurred? Put differently (and less speculatively): can we offer other motives for the Incarnation, independent from our sinful condition? This is, of course, a supralapsarian take on the Incarnation. In the remainder of this post, I will offer two examples of this supralapsarian variation of the story of the Incarnation. Of course, these are offered by way of example, in order to point a direction, instead of fleshing out arguments.

mccordadamsIn her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (2006), the late Marilyn McCord Adams (1943-2017) defends the thesis that Christ’s mission is not so much saving us from our sins, but rescue us from horrors. Christ as our horror-defeater. Note that the motivation for the Incarnation here is indeed sin-independent, since McCord Adams holds that ‘horrors cannot have its origin in misused created freedom’ and that ‘humans were radically vulnerable to horrors fron the beginning, even in Eden’ (p. 36 – italics original). A Christmas sermon along these lines will posit Christ’s birth as a participation in our horrors. Moreover, it will not explain his participation in our horrors in terms of sharing our guilt, but in terms of sharing our situation by which we are ‘overpowered’. You might even want to go as far McCord Adams by suggesting that this is what God, as our Creator responsible for our vulnerability to horrors, owes us… Note, that McCord Adams’s proposal is indeed sin-indepent, but it is still ‘problem-driven’, the problem now being our vulnerability to horrors… Although I admire McCord Adams ingenious book, I am not completely convinced.

So, is there another variation available? Yes, I think so. Let’s consider a proposal from Edwin Chr. van Driel in his Incarnation Anyway. Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (2008). In this monograph he develops incarnationanywaythree arguments for a supralapsarian Christology, in conversation with Schleiermacher, Dorner, and Barth. One of his arguments is the Argument from Divine Friendship. My rendition here does not justice to the richness of his thoughts. However, it will hopefully serve to see the supralapsarian logic at work. ‘Friendship’, Van Driel says, ‘is motivated by a delight in and a love for the other’. Of course, he explains, friendships can be in danger, be under pressure, and so on. Friends, real friends, will look of course for reconciliation. However, that means that the wish for reconciliation is prompted by a deeper motivation: the longing for friendship, for community, for mutual love. That is what is at stake in the Incarnation. God is not merely solving ‘our problem’. His goal is friendship with us. This might sound rather familiar to you. Yet it could lead be translated into a rather different Christmas sermon. To illustrate what I have in mind, I can suffice with pointing to a sermon of Samuel Wells, which offers an eloquent illustration. Wells very convincingly points out that the heart of God’s reaching out for us can not be captured (only) in the word ‘for (God did this for me)’, but rather in the word ‘with’ (God wants to be ‘with us’). If you look for inspiration for your Christmas sermon along these supralapsarian lines, you might watch this video. Anyway, my Christmas sermon of this year will follow the trail set out by Van Driel en Wells.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on Populism


Last week I had the privilege of attending a session with Nicholas Wolterstorff. It had been my wish for a long time to meet him in person. His visit to the Netherlands then was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.  On the occasion of his visit, a new book titled ‘Thinking about Shalom’ (Denken om Shalom) was presented about his ‘practical philosophy’. During the week, four meetings with him were organized about different topics (philosophy, politics, education, liturgy), but all related to ‘shalom’. The concept of shalom became very important in Wolterstorff’s thinking throughout the years. I would have loved to attend the friday meeting on liturgy, but my schedule prevented that. However, the wednesday session about politics, which was held in the beautiful meeting room of the Upper House (‘Eerste Kamer’) in The Hague, was excellent. In this post I will limit myself to Wolterstorff’s own contribution, though there were several fine speakers besides him. In particular I want to highlight what he said about populism.

9200000077785330Wolterstorff started his talk with a reference to Jeremiah 29,7: ‘Seek the shalom of the city…’. How does this mandate relate to the present phenomenon of populism? A first important step in Wolterstorff’s  analysis was the interpretation of populism in terms of loss. A populist laments the loss of a former way of life, be it the Amercian, Dutch or French way of life. A second step in his analysis is to point out that the populist claims to have a right to (t)his way of life. And if this right is not fulfilled, he considers himself to be a victim. There is – in short – a moral dimension to populism, which is often ignored. So, the question is: is the populist right in his claim? Wolterstorff said: it depends… On what? There is no serious moral reflection or the beginning of an answer yet. That at least was Wolterstorff’s conclusion.

I take these moves to be typical for Wolterstorff’s approach. He has increasingly tried to give voice to the suppressed, be it Palestinians, black South Africans, or others. This is what he seems to do in this case as well: giving voice to the populists. Put differently: he brings to light an all too often overlooked dimension of the populist’s voice. But that is not the end of the story. Populism is at least in three respects at odds with shalom:

  1. An essential part of shalom is peace or social harmony. Populists, however, tend to create hostility in society. At least they aim at increasing divisions between groups of people, the elite and the ordinary man for example.
  2. Populists demand justice for themselves, while they stay at the same time indifferent to the rights of others, like refugees, immigrants, and so on. This is also at odds with shalom.
  3. Shalom does not exclude strangers, but welcomes them and will treat them with openness and respect. Populism does the reverse, treating strangers in terms of threat and danger.

This is, summarized all too shortly, what Wolterstorff had to say about populism. The strength of his remarks is in my opinion that he gives voice to the point of view of the populists, in particular to the implicit moral dimension of his indignation. I fully agree with his analysis that populism is – at least – at three points at odds with shalom. However, it seems to me an intermediate step is missing. Imagine that these three criteria were applied to the Palestinians or the black South Africans in the 1970’s and afriekalleenblank.png80’s. I am not sure they would have passed the test of shalom at that very moment. The process of reconciliation in South Africa was hard and it took many years, while never been fully completed. Yet, Wolterstorff considered their fight to be just, in contrast to the present fight of populism. Why is that?

It has to do with the moral dimension in Wolterstorff’s analysis. The populist feels being wronged. Wronged by the politicians, the elite, and so on. But the important question is of course: is he right in this feeling? The same question apllies to the Palestinians and black South-Africans, when they felt they were being wronged. Were they right? I think so. Not everyone will agree. But even in that case, it seems beyond doubt that their complaints were of a different order in comparison with current populism. In the former case it was about their intrinsic worth as human being, in the latter case about the preservation of a lifestyle. This, I suggest, is an essential difference with a view to the assessment of the question whether one is right in his feeling of being wronged.

This is my suggestion in addition to Wolterstorff’s remarks. But it wouldn’t surpise me as this comes close to what Wolterstorff had himself in mind when he remarked about the question whether the populist is right in his claim: ‘It depends’.

Christmas in Basel – Karl Barth’s sermon from 1954

Every year again I use to read two or three classic Christmas sermons. John Donne’s Nativity sermons are among my favorites, for example. This year however, I decided to take up the volume with ‘Predigten’, held by Karl Barth in the karl-barth1prison (Strafanstalt) of Basel. This fact is surely important. From 1947 until 1954 Barth’s preaching activities were interrupted. But in 1954 he started preaching again more regularly. However, he restricted himself almost completely to the prison of Basel as his pulpit. These sermons have become famous because of their pastoral nature. The sermon for Christmas Day 1954, about Luke 2,10-11, offers abundant testimony to this quality.

After a short, direct prayer Barth sets off: ‘My dear brothers and sisters!’ (‘Meine lieben Brüder und Schwestern’). This is a sermon on its own, in which he embraces those prisoners. ‘Now we have heard the Christmas story’, he says. ‘And how did we hear it?’ Barth specifies a few options. Some of us, he says, might have missed it, because they were distracted. Others will have heard it like a nice fairytale, which they deeply question. Yet others will have had cherished childhood memories, a wonderful Christmas sentiment which will never return. ‘I  just want to say, dear friends’, Barth continues, ‘this is what we make of Christmas. All of us’.
Until the angel of the Lord arrives… ‘The angel surely has gone through the streets and squares of Basel. He was there for those, who are lonely and sad or those who celebrated Christmas Eve perhaps too joyous and stupid. He is there for those, who are asleep now… And he will visit the churches from Basel this morning…’.

Barth’s pastoral introduction stands out. It might strike you as being at odds with his emphasis on the vertical dimension of the Gospel (‘senkrecht von oben’). In this sermon, however, Barth very consciously introduces his message in relation to the experience of his hearers. This does not mean that the vertical dimension is absent. On the contrary, Barth emphasizes it quite literally, refering to a picture that he had seen recently, on which the angel comes down like a thunderbolt. This is the truth about his message, Barth says, it really strikes us. There can be no doubt, that the Gospel comes to us from God and from Him alone.


In the remainder of his sermon, Karl Barth highlights three moments of his text. To start with he emphasizes the ‘to you’ (Euch) from the angel’s words: ‘For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’. It is this ‘to you’ that makes the message of the angel different from other messages. In the latter case we could think: it is not my business. But the angel says: ‘for you’. Barth doesn’t shun a bit of selfmockery. ‘The angel of the Lord was not a professor, as I am. A professor would perhaps have said: To the people the Saviour is born. That is spoken in general. It makes one think: it is not about me, but about others.’
Then Barth underscores the words: ‘this day’ (Heute). That does mean that we are not talking about a remote past event, Barth says. It means we are living in the present, in a new day, God’s day. We need to hear it, in order that we take courage!
Lastly, he marks the word ‘Saviour’ (Heiland). It is the core of the Christmas story. ‘The Saviour is the One who brings us salvation, who rescues us, who liberates us. He is the One who brings salvation to all! He makes no exceptions, because we are all in need of his salvation and because He is the Son of God, who is the Father of all of us. As He became man, He became our Brother!’ Here we see that the way Barth adressed his hearers in the beginning of the sermon was no coincidence!

In the closing part of the sermon Barth returns to the different experiences he evoked in the introduction. Do we stick to the distractions, our questions or nostalgic memories? Or do we really notice, get up and convert? ‘The angel of the Lord does not compel anyone – says Barth – and I really am unable to do so. A compulsive hearing and a forced participation in this history, that is our history, would be nothing. It is about a free obedience and a free participation in this history’.

‘Euch ist heute der Heiland geboren’ (Lukas 2,10-11, Weihnacht 1954, Strafanstalt Basel), Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe vol.12, reihe I. Predigten 1954-1967, Herausgegeben von Hinrich Stoevesandt, p.9-17.

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 BiblicalStudies.org. 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 brings 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.