The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.
But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.
Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):
“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).
And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):
“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).
The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.
As I wrote before Helm’s Deep is one of the blogs I frequently read. In his post at the beginning of this month, Paul Helm discusses the notion of ‘contingency’. He makes a distinction between two concepts of contingency: logical contingency and synchronic contingency. Concerning the latter, he mentions the name of John Duns Scotus and the advocates of his thinking. The notion of synchronic contingency in Duns has been (re)discovered in the early 1980’s, simultaneously, by Jaako Hintiika (Helsinki) and Antonie Vos (Utrecht). Vos was one of my teachers in Utrecht.
However, Paul Helm is fairly critical about the concept of synchronic contingency. Why? In his post he gives two reasons for his critique. The first is this: “An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being.” But what’s odd here? In fact, as Helm himself notes, this way of applying temporal adjectives to God’s willing and acting has been part of a broad theological tradition. Helm refers to the idea of the divine decrees and the question of its order, as it has been worked out in the reformed tradition. So, his argument turns out to be not an argument about synchronic contingency after all, but, at most, an argument about applying temporal terms to an eternal (that is: timeless) God.
What about Helm’s second argument? Helm claims:
Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do.
Once again Helm seems to work with a confused conception of synchronic contingency. He seems to explain these ‘circumstances’ in a rather ‘psychological’ way. At least, that’s what the word ‘coping’ suggests. Does he think of those circumstances as influences on God’s willing or His motivational structure? But that is of course not the way any medieval (or reformed) theologian could have been thinking. God is the ‘prima causa’. What then could Helm mean with ‘circumstances’? The only alternative which I can come up with, is that Helm thinks of the set of all logical possibilities, which God (necessarily) knows. They ‘determine’ in a certain sense God’s willing and choosing. However, if that is what he means, the word ‘coping’ doesn’t seem very appropriate. God isn’t coping with these logical possible states of affairs. What is at stake in the notion of synchronic contingency in relation to God’s willing, is that He perfectly knows all logical possible states of affairs and chooses one possible world (a set of possible state of affairs), although He could have chosen differently.
So, I don’t think Helm produced sound arguments against synchronic contingency. His real arguments we are waiting for.
I have a tremendous respect for Nicholas Wolterstorff. Not only for the quantity and the quality of his work, but also for its diversity. He is one of very few philosophers who has been reflecting upon the phenonemon of ‘liturgy’. Besides, he has read a good deal of Calvin. Not only his Institution, but also his commentaries.
He offers some very interesting remarks on Calvin´s liturgy of the Lord´s Supper. According to Wolterstorff, the only way to fully understand his liturgy of the Lord´s Supper is to think of it, not merely in terms of presence, but (also) of action. I´m inclined to agree with him. Calvin does speak of the Lord´s Supper in his sermons in terms of (divine) action. He claims repeatedly for example that the Lord´s Supper is a testimony of the Holy Spirit. He assures and consoles us. However, one of the key terms of Calvin´s thinking about the Lord´s Supper is the word ´substance´. He uses it quite frequently, and (that´s important as well) in key phrases. It´s a difficult word to translate. Calvin obviously doesn´t think of ´substance´ in terms of scholastic definitions. Sometimes it means ´content´ or something like ´the real thing´. One is inclined to translate it in some passages as ´(real) presence´. That’s the point Calvin wants to stress repeatedly: it’s Christ Himself who is present and giving Himself in the Lord’s Supper.
If that, however, is correct, the assertion of Wolterstorff should be reformulated. It´s not a matter of presence or action, but of action through presence. It´s the real presence of Christ, through his Spirit, that consoles and assures us. I don’t think Wolterstorff would disagree with this. He would, I suspect, ask a couple of questions. For example: What kind of presence are we talking about? Is it a kind of ‘deputized action’ (compare Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse, 43vv.)? Or should we think of God ‘appropriating’ our celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Divine Discourse, 51vv.)? I’m not sure Wolterstorff would suggest this line of thought. I’m however quite sure Calvin wouldn’t be satisfied with it. He believed in a stronger notion of presence: both real and spiritual.