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)

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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”.