New Avenues in Calvin Research

This week the 11th International Congress on Calvin Research is held in Zurich. The program shows an impressive variety in speakers and papers. While I’m not attending the Congress, I wondered what I’m been missing. Moreover, I looked for a common trend John Calvin logoin the research on Calvin. From a distance, it seems to me that there is serious attention to church discipline in Geneva and in Calvin’s works. Furthermore, a lot of comparisons of Calvin with the Church Fathers or contemporaries in the sixteenth century on doctrinal or exegetical issues. And finally, there seems to be quite a bit of attention to the ongoing business of editing and researching Calvin’s works in a digital era.

It is of course very difficult to form a sound opinion from a distance, but I’ve been wondering to which new directions in Calvin research this congress will point. I have to wait until the book will be published. But in the program we can easily recognize important trends of the last two decades: more attention to the exegetical and homiletic works, more research on the details of Calvin’s life and work (for example the exact dating of his sermons), and so forth. These are for sure worthwile projects. But my question, not in the least about my own research, is: where will the increasing attention to detail lead to? It reminded me of a remark of Eberhard Busch. He wrote:

“It is striking that in many recent works, half of the text consists of footnotes that often refer to a large number of other single investigations which are unfortunately often not available to the reader. Furthermore, there is no lack of studies with such specific theses that they cannot be substantiated except by appealing to hypotheses.” (Reformed World 57,4 (2007), p.242).

This is quite a thing to say, of course. But I can catch the drift of his worries. Let me explain in terms of my own research. I’ve been working for quite some time on Calvin’s sermons on the Lord’s Supper. It is perfectly possible to investigate these sermons on a very detailed level. Questions like the dating of the sermons, similarities on the level of words and expressions, and so forth. But my question is: how can I manage to keep an eye on the thread in the whole of his sermons? One way to find such a thread, is to look for promising approaches in Calvin research. To give my thoughts fresh impulses, I’ve been reading recent articles and book chapters about Calvin’s eucharistic theology. I will mention two of them here, both written by non-theologians.

The first article I read was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s contribution on John Calvin in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Brill's Companion to the Eucharist in the ReformationReformation (Brill 2013), edited by Lee Palmer Wandel. I might be biased with regard to Wolterstorff, as loyal readers of this blog may know. But his contribution appears to me as a very lucid and accurate account of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, I regard it as one of the best short introductions to the topic on a systematic level, although from a historical perspective it is wanting.  Nonetheless, it is a very illuminating contribution, thanks to the precise way of analysing what it is going on in Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Wolterstorff follows Calvin in his division between ‘the signification, the matter that depends on it, and the power or effect that follows from both’ (Inst.IV,xii,11). Wolterstorff, however, expresses his astonishment with regard to the latter category, because it seems Calvin continuously blurrs the distinction between what is constitutive of the performance of the Eucharist and what are the effects of participation by the faithful.

“Why did Calvin not expand his understanding of what is constitutive of the Eucharist to include its being a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, its being a memorial, and its incorporating an exhortation to charity? I do not know.” (p.113).

I’m not sure whether I grasp Wolterstorff’s point fully here, but it seems that he didn’t consider to possibility of it being both true. Praise, being a memorial, exhortation to charity being constitutive for the Lord’s Supper and at the same time being an effect of it. That seems to me Calvin’s position.

The second article I read, was ‘Things That Matter’, a contribution on Calvin’s eucharistic theology of Ernst van den Hemel in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality (Fordham University Press 2012), edited by Dick Houtman and Birgit Meyer. Van den Hemel is a Calvin specialist from the perspective of Literary Studies although the book as a whole  is concerned with the question of religion and mThings – Religion and the Question of Materialityateriality (Religious Studies). Van den Hemel’s approaches Calvin’s eucharistic theology from a semiotic angle. That seems to me a very promising route. At the same time, Van den Hemel turns out to be theologically well informed, acquainted with the books of Paul Helm, Heiko Oberman, David Willis and Alister McGrath. He highlights the ‘extra-calvinisticum’ as an important interpretive key to Calvin’s semiotics of the Lord’s Supper. Rightly so, I think. In fact, Van den Hemel’s contribution is part of a larger picture. It strikes me that there is a lot of attention in Literary Studies for Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. The amount of references to his sacramental theology in English Renaissance Studies (Shakespeare, John Bale, etc.) for example is amazing. But the interest is one-sided. So far, there seems to be hardly any readiness within Calvin research to learn from the field of Literary Studies. That is a pity, according to me. In fact, it gives me food for thought that some of the most promising recent contributions I read about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper stem from non-theologians. It might open new avenues in Calvin research.




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