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,
T.H.L.Parker.

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”.

Visual_Sixth_RefoRC_Conference_2016_Copenhagen

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!

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)

Reformation on All Saints Day: Calvin in Paris

There is a twofold occasion for this post. The first occasion has to do with the date of this post. The 31th of October is a special date in the history of the Church. At this very date in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theseCollège de Fortets at the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. While intending to start an academic debate, Luther did in fact inaugurate the Reformation. While this date is very well known, All Saints Day, 1 November, is not generally associated with the Reformation. But in fact, a good case can be made for that. In order to see why, we need to go to Paris. That brings me to the other occasion to write this post. Last week I spent a few days in Paris, attending a very inspiring conference. I stayed in a hotel in the surroundings of the most famous and oldest university of Paris, the Sorbonne. Those acquainted with Calvin’s writings know that he can be very vehement in his polemics with the theologians of the Sorbonne. In fact, as he writes pejoratively about ‘the scholastics’, it’s them he almost always has in mind.

The buildings of the Sorbonne are located in the Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin). It was, and still is, a district in Paris that has largely been populated with students. In the early sixteenth century Calvin was one of them. In fact, he stayed in Paris several times. In the 1520’s he studied at the (in)famous Collège de Montaigu. But it is very hard to determine with whom he studied (John Major?), let alone what the content of his studies included. However, in the early 1530’s he is back in Paris, after studies in Orléans and Bourges. He takes his residence in the Collège de Fortet, near the Collège de Montaigu, in the Latin Quarter. He became an ‘auditor’ at the recently founded Collège Royal of Guillaume Budé. Besides, Calvin worked hard at his commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. It was finished in February 1532 and printed in Paris two months later. Calvin aimed for a scholarly career and this book has to be regarded as a very important step in that intended career. However, things would turn out differently.

In his biography on John Calvin Yale professor Bruce Gordon writes:

A zephyr of humanist and evangelical ideas blew through Paris during the early years of the 1530’s, and it was felt by Calvin. Fifteen-thirty-two brought the publication of François Rabelais’ Pantagruel, under a pseudonym, in which the doctors of the Sorbonne were mocked. In a long and newsy letter from October 1533, the conversion year, Calvin recounts to Daniel Lambert the events surrounding the performance of a scandalous play by students that led officials to launch an inquiry. He moves to the disastrous story of the theological faculty’s condemnation of a work entitled The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, a volume of devotional verse published in Alençon in 1531 and in Paris two years later which turned out to be by none other than Marguerite of Navarre herself, who promptly complained to her brother, the king. (…) Humiliated, the theological faculty was forced to retreat (Bruce Gordon, Calvin, p.36-37).

What does all this point to? It points to increasing tensions between the doctors of the Sorbonne on the one hand and the upcoming humanist and evangelical ideas on the other hand. At this point, Nicolas Cop, the new rector of the university had to deliver his inaugural adress on All Saints Day 1533 in the Church of the Mathurins. Calvin was befriended with Cop and his family. It has been a matter of considerable debate whether Calvin was (partly) the author of Cop’s words. French Calvin-biographer Bernard Cottret for example is very decided in his dismissal of the possibility Calvin’s authorship. Bruce Gordon on the other hand is more willing to consider Calvin’s influence on Cop, up to the point of a shared authorship. It depends not only on questions whether it is likely or probable that Calvin wrote (parts of) this speech, it depends on our view on Calvin’s conversion as well. That is another complicated question, with a lot of different opinions. How this all may be, the only point I want to make here, is that the adress ‘was an Erasmian account of scripture with unmistakably Lutheran overtones, particularly on Law and Gospel’ (Gordon, Calvin, p.37). When you read these words with the background of the vexed atmosphere of Paris in mind, you can easily understand why this speech roused quite a stir. Cop contrasted the Law with the Gospel. He spoke of God who wakes us up from our sleep in darkness. He told his audience that de forgiveness of sins and God’s love the only remedy is for a troubled conscience.

SorbonneNo wonder then, that the theologians of the Sorbonne were furious. They saw an opportunity for rehabilitation and suggested immediate action to the authorities. Cop had to flee from Paris, warned by a friend that he was sought after. And Calvin made a rapid departure from Paris as well. What does that mean? Although, it can’t be a decisive clue for an answer to the question of the authorship of Cop’s adress, it strongly suggest that by this time Calvin felt himself deeply associated with, if not committed to the kind of interpretation of the Gospel Cop had given. But we must make one more step. By the fact that Calvin fled from Paris, he practically had made a decision. It was not irreversable, to be sure. Nicolas Cop himself could later return to Paris. My point is this: if we grant that Calvin was at least partly involved in the draft of Cop’s speech, then this event is not incomparable with Luther’s nailing of the theses at the doors in 1517. Remember that Luther did not intend a Reformation at that point in history. Nor did Calvin plan to be a reformer in 1533. But by acting the way they did, they choosed a path that led them to speak out more clearly and in public the cause of the Gospel.

It is fairly arbitrary to point to one date in history as the starting point of the Reformation, be it the 31th of October (as for Luther) or be it All Saints Day (as for Calvin). In both cases the events on these dates were just one moment in a string of many decisive moments. However, what happened on these very dates was in one sense very important and decisive. It was for both men the first time they came to the fore with evangelical opinions. They would both have been surprised by the events caused by their action. But they both didn’t want to retrace their steps. They had become advocates of Reformation.

Vermigli on necessity and contingency

Recently, I was involved in writing about God’s providence. In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the concept of permission with regard to divine providence. Shortly after that I had to prepare a sermon about God’s predestination. In the course of my preparation I spent some time on reading Peter Martyr’s commentary on Romans 9, especially his ‘scholium’ onPeter Martyr predestination. I was struck by his careful exposition of these matters in terms of contingency and will. I wrote before on Vermigli’s stance in matters of contingency and necessity, concluding then that the conceptual structure of his thinking doesn’t fit in with the concept of synchronic contingency. However, after reading parts of his scholium on predestination, I now think my conclusions were too rash. My conclusion was based on Vermigli’s assertion that something contingent becomes necessary, once it has occurred. I forgot, however, that even Scotus himself endorsed this view (Lectura I,40).

I am at the moment not in the position to give a definitive verdict in these matters. Instead, I want to give an indication of his conceptual skills by way of presenting Vermigli’s ‘toolbox’. I am not in the possession of the English translation in the particular volume of the Peter Martyr Library (on Predestination and Justification). So I will refer directly to the first Latin edition, printed in Basel in 1558. Vermigli starts a new entry in his discussion on predestination on p.434, asking (1) whether divine predestination entails – somehow – necessity for us; (2) whether it implies an impediment of the free will and (3) whether it removes God’s justice.
In order to answer the first question, Peter Martyr sets out to define what he means with necessity and to make a couple of distinctions. He starts with absolute necessity or ‘necessitas simplex’. This necessity consists in states of affairs, that can’t be denied without implying a contradiction. Examples are God and mathematical or geometric truths. He distinguishes these necessities carefully from physical and natural laws, such as the course of the sun, the burning of fire, and the like. These are not neccesary in an absolute or simple sense, because God can (as Scripture shows) decide to prevent their occurance.

Vermigli however recaputilates them as examples of neccesity on the basis of an inner principle, be it in different ‘degree’ of necessity. This he contrasts with neccesity on the basis of an external principle. He mentions two kinds of this kind of necessity, the first being coerced (by violence f. ex. to act against one’s will or nature. The second is more important for his argument, necessity ‘ex hypothesi’. He mentions (p.435) in this regard the scholastic distinction between the necessity of the consequent (necessitas consequentis) and the necessity of the consequence (neccitas consequentiae). The last necessity is also called implicative necessity. He connects this distinction with another one: ‘sensum compositum’, referring to the necessity of the consequent and ‘sensum divisum’, referring to the necessity of the consequence. His example is a classic in scholastic literature: what is white, can’t be black. Well, says Vermigli, that’s true if we take them together (in sensu composito): a thing can’t be white and black (= not white) at the same instance. In formula: -M (p & -p). However, it can be true, if we take them apart (in sensu diviso). In that case we could formalize it like this: Mp & M-p. He explicates: “Quod est enim album modo, mutari potest et efficiri nigrum”. It seems then, that Vermigli interprets this possibility in terms of change over time. What is possible now (t1), could be different at a later moment (t2): Mp[t1] & M-p[t2]. But even so, this example doesn’t by itself rule out the possibility of an underlying synchronic conceptual structure. Finally, Vermigli adds one more distinction to his conceptual toolbox, speaking about the neccesity of certitude or infallibility, before moving on to apply these distinctions to the questions surrounding divine predestination. This terminology goes back to Duns Scotus. A bit further, he explains his preference: “quia Deus nec mutari, nec falli potest”.

This passage is discussed in the book of Frank James, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination, (1998). He speaks of it as a ‘rather extensive scholastic exercise’ (p.82). Moreover, he interprets Vermigl24727i’s preference for his own terminology (neccisity of certitude or infallibility) due to dissatisfaction with existing scholastic vocabulary. James mentions these distinctions only in passing (in a footnote), apparently not being aware of its conceptual importance.
Luca Baschera treats the passage in his chapter ‘Aristotle and Scholasticism’, in Torrance Kirby, et al. (eds.), A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli  (2009).

In his discussion of whether divine foreknowledge renders all events necessary, Vermigli draws on the traditional distinction between necessity ‘of the consequent’ and necessity ‘of consequence’ in order to demonstrate how God’s infallible knowledge of the future does not entail any coercion of secondary causes. However, even though the nature of secondary causes is preserved by God who makes use of them without doing violence to them, it is quite clear that according to his position, all events, when related to the knowledge and will of God, are indeed necessary (p.157).

This can hardly count as a summary that does justice to Vermigli’s position. Both James and Baschera neglect the conceptual difficulties involved in the discussion about necessity and contingency. Interestingly though, Baschera points to the influence of Gregory of Rimini on Vermigli, although he suggests that the influence of Aquinas in matters of providence and predestination is more important. Gregory of Rimini is mentioned by Antonie Vos, in his masterpiece The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (2007), as one of the inheritors of the line of thought of Duns Scotus (p.6). As said before, at the moment I am not able to decide whether Vermigli did or didn’t work with a concept of synchronic contingency. But a fascinating and intriguing question it is for sure!

Union with Christ: objective and subjective

To round off this year, I offer you a voluminous quote on the union with Christ. Guess who wrote these words. You may be surprised… Speaking of the union of Christ, our author says:

There are objective and subjective sides here. The objective is primary and determinative. It is God’s grace. The subjective is secondary and becomes possible only on the basis of the objective side. It is man’s faith. The objective side of the union of Christ and his church is the Incarnation-that is, the becoming man of the Son of God and the reconciliation which he effected in his humanity. By his grace in becoming man the Son of God united himself to man and man to himself. Thus in Jesus Christ, the Son of God is united with man and man with the Son of God. This unity of divine and human in Jesus Christ is the foundation of the unity between Christ and his church, between the Head and the Body. But the union is not purely one of being. According to the Reformers, Jesus Christ was man in our place. In our place and for us he fulfilled the Law which man could not fulfil. In our place and for us he died as a sinner, under the curse, the rejection, of God. By thus taking our place he united himself with us as those under God’s judgment, and he united us with himself as the one judged and condemned by God. But the crucified man rose again to eternal life and glory. Because it was in his human body that he gloriously rose, the eternally glorious Son of God united himself with men and men with himself. All this is the objective side which, as God’s grace, is primary and determinative. It stands whether man knows it or not. Nor can man’s lack of faith negative it, overcoming God’s grace. If man does not believe, Jesus Christ is still the God-Man who has made himself one with man in sin and glory.
But there is the subjective union of man with Christ. And this union is faith. Note that the Reformers do not say that the union is by faith, but that it is faith. Faith itself is the subjective union of man with Christ. Sometimes they will speak of faith and sometimes of the Holy Spirit as being this union, but they plainly believed that they were saying the same thing in a different way. Faith, which is God’s creation in man, is the recognition and acknowledgment that the reality of man’s existence is to be found, not in his own antagonistic existence, which is not the truth but the denial of the truth, i.e. a lie, but in the existence of Jesus Christ. ‘Who am I?’ faith asks. And answers: ‘I am the man who joyfully and willingly has fulfilled the Law, the will of God. I am the man who died to sin once and over whom therefore sin has no dominion. I am the man who has risen from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.’ I, the breaker and hater of the Law? I, the sinner who prefer my way to God’s? Yes; the reality of my existence is in Christ, who united himself with my humanity and did all that he did for my sake and in my place. This is the recognition and acknowledgment ofthe reality, truth and validity of Christ’s uniting himself with man. And on the subjective side, it is the recognition of the possibility and the acknowledgment of the actuality of the person’s uniting himself with Christ. What is true of the individual is true here of the church. This corpus of men is the corpus Christi on the basis of this twofold union.

This is a wonderful quote, according to me. The author is obviously very familiar with the Reformers. But you can feel, he is also acquainted with Barthian theology. Is it T.F. Torrance? No. Maybe one of the other Torrances: James or David? No again. The author of these words is Thomas Henry Louis Parker. As far as I know, he is still alive, being now 97 years old. He lectured on the university of Durham, but was also for many years a country vicar, combining his pastoral duties with his studies of the Reformation. Outside the circle of Calvin-specialists, the name of T.H.L. Parker is not very well-known. [The only picture of him I was able to find is on the back of his extraordinary book Calvin’s Preaching (1992).] Books of his on Calvin are a biography (with Bruce Gordon’s biography still one of the best), writings on Calvin’s commentaries and two monographs on Calvin’s preaching. T.H.L. ParkerFurthermore, he edited one of the volumes of Supplementa Calviniana.  Less well-known: he was also a Barth-scholar, writing on Barth’s theology and editing a Festschrift on the occasion of Barth’s 80th birthday. Both strands of his theological stance become audible in this quotation: traces of Luther, Calvin and Barth are easily recognizable.

P.S. He wrote these words in an article, titled ‘The Reformation and the Church today’ Churchman 87.1 (1973); p.29-35. You can read it yourself here.

God or Fate: Is Calvin among the Stoics?

Currently, I’m working on three sermon outlines with respect to the 9th and 10th sunday of the Heidelberg Catechism and the 13th article of the Belgic Confession of Guido de Brès. These sermon outlines deal with God’s providence. Critics have pointed out that the theology displayed in these answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, resembles very much Calvin’s opinions (compare his Genevan Catechism, Q&A27). As a consequence, the Heidelberg Catechism shares in the suspicion of Calvin’s alleged Stoicism. In this post I aim to deal with this suspicion towards Calvin. There are, of course, other topics of interest with regard to Calvin’s alleged Stoicism, like his ethics and his view of the body. A few words about that in the end. But before we take a closer look at Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence, we need to give a little attention to biographical matters.

Calvin’s first monograph happened to be a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (1532). For sure, he felt himself somehow attracted to Stoic philosophy. But, as Bruce Gordon shows in his excellent Calvin-biography, Calvin’s relation with Stoic thought Senecadeveloped over the course of the years. While he felt attracted to some Stoic ideals, like self-reliance and self-dependence (p.30,32,248), he gradually moved away from the Stoic view of God as a distant and remote deity, towards a more biblical conception of God (p.57).

With this in mind, we return to Calvin’s doctrine of God’s providence. From the outset, it is clear that Calvin stresses God’s controlling power in his dominion over the world. Calvin abhors the sheer thought that God’s control could ever be wanting. Equally clear is his emphasis on human submission to God’s dealings with this world and our lives. No wonder then, that Calvin has been accused of confounding God and Fate. Hence, the accusation of Stoicism in Calvin’s theology. Calvin himself, however, viewed matter differently. He claimed that his view differed profoundly from the Stoic understanding of fate by arguing that God does not act according to necessity. Time and time again he claims that some of his opponents are Stoic, because their thinking is deterministic (Barbara Pitkin, What Pure Eyes Could See, p.26, 98). Calvin dissociates himself obviously from the Stoics.

So far, so good then? Not quite. The problem is that his contemporaries thought otherwise. In another article of hers, Barbara Pitkin points out how Heinrich Bullinger asked Calvin to write a book in order to make clear that God was not the author of sin, since many people had been troubled by Calvin’s rendering of the doctrine predestination in his Institutes. And Philip Melanchthon called him the ‘protestant Zeno’, which was by no means meant as a compliment (‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’, Journal of Religion 84/3 (2004), p.345-346).

What was the problem? It was not with Calvin’s intentions. Both Bullinger and Melanchthon could be called friends of Calvin, although their friendships were not without tensions. But the problem they had with Calvin was the way he defended his position on providence and predestination. In order to secure God’s control and his active involvement in matters, Calvin denied explicitly the usefullness of the traditional distinction of God’s permission. For sure, he sometimes uses the word in his writings, but conceptually it is elaborated in a different way in comparison with the traditional concept of permission. Take, for example, his Genevan catechism once again. In answer 28 Calvin speaks about God’s permission of the doings of wicked men and devils. But, as the rest of this answers makes abundantly clear, Calvin speaks about this permission in terms of absolute divine control, even coercion. “Although God does not govern them by his Spirit, he however curbs them by his power as a bridle, so that they cannot even move unless in so far as he permits them.” Even more so: “He even makes them the ministers of his will, so that unwilling and against their own intention, they are forced to execute what to him seems good.”

The Heidelberg Catechism seems, at least partly, to share this absolute conception of God’s providence. Answer 26 says for example: “whatever evil HeLogical square sends upon me…”. The Belgic Confession on the contrary, takes up the talk and underlying concept of divine permission of evil (art.13). Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism, applies the same concept of divine permission in his Schatboek, an explanation of the Catechism. That seems to me very important. Let’s take the following example: God wants a state of affairs ‘p’ (gWp). ‘Permission’ is then the conjunction of both: g-Wp & g-W-p. In terms of the logical square (see the picture), it refers to the positions I (g-W-p) and O (g-Wp) together. Talking in terms of permission enables one to explain why God doesn’t have a positive volition to evil states of affairs. So, by denying the usefullness of the concept of permission, Calvin seems to be forced to confirm God’s positive volition towards evil and sin. That is, in rather technical terms, what his friends were afraid of.

Once again the question: is Calvin among the Stoics? It might seem so, but no, I definitively don’t think so. Although influenced by Stoics like Seneca in his early career, his theology can’t be called Stoic, without doing Calvin grave injustice. In fact, as Nicholas Wolterstorff points out in Hearing the Call, Calvin’s way of dealing with grief is quite opposed to the Stoic ideal (p.118-122). And, as Thomas Torrance once showed, Calvin’s thinking of the human body wasn’t Stoic either (Kingdom and Church, p.92-93). Although Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence might seem to be Stoic, it certainly isn’t. And neither is the Heidelberg Catechism. A testcase for that verdict is the human attitude with respect to God’s providence. Fate evokes resignation, but a personal God asks for confidence. That’s precisely what Calvin calls for. So, we may safely conclude that Calvin is not among the Stoics. However, he certainly is among the determinists. But fortunately, that is atypical for Reformed theology in general.