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 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.


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.

Boersma’s sacramental suggestion

Last holiday I read Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation – the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). I had read some favorable reviews (here and here) of theHeavenlyParticipation book. I’d been looking forward to the reading of the book, not in the least because Boersma appeals to the ‘nouvelle théologie’ of De Lubac and others. Himself being an evangelical theologian, that is quite remarkable. The Dutch systematic theologian Hendrikus Berkhof remarked once about most reformed or evangelical theologians (at least in Holland): ‘catholici non leguntur’ (‘catholics are not read [amongst us]’). Berkhof himself was an exception to that rule, and so is Hans Boersma (who has Dutch roots as well). That makes his book quite remarkable. Heavenly Participation can in this sense even be called a brave book. Boersma shows to be acquainted not only with De Lubac, but also with other representatives of ‘nouvelle théologie’ like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.

Boersma’s overall thesis is that there has been a loss of the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the church fathers. And we are in need of a recovery of that synthesis of the ‘Great Tradition’, as Boersma likes to call it. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, called ‘Exitus: the Fraying Tapestry’, offers an analysis where and how the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry, as it was common among the fathers in the Early Church, took place. The second part, ‘Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads’, attempts to point out how the sacramental world view of the fathers can be restored in its former glory. Now, it’s clear that the success of the last part depends on the degree of success of the first part. If the diagnosis fails, the therapy will be wanting as well. So the question is: How convincing is Boersma’s analysis?

In chapter 3 Boersma lists five factors that, according to Boermsa, the nouvelle theologians believed were responsible for the modern unraverling of the sacramental tapestry:

  1. Juridicizing of the Church (Congar). The Gregorian Reform, which resulted in an enormous increase of the authority of the pope and of the power of the church as institution. This resulted in a distinction between divine and human actions, which led to a gradual disappearing of the sacramental, divine character of authority.
  2. Discovery of Nature I (De Lubac). The debates concerning the nature of the Eucharist between Berengar of Tours and his opponents in the 11th century, also led to a loss of sacramental sense. Although the Church rejected Berengar’s views, his underlying assumptions were adopted, especially the separation between sacrament and the unity of the church.
  3. Discovery of Nature II (Chenu). The rediscovery of Aristotle lead to a discovery of nature in the 12th and 13th centuries, claims Boersma, pointing to Chenu. The dualism between matter and spirit of the Platonic worldview was challenged now. But that meant a desacramentalizing of nature, an abandonment of the Platonist-Christian synthesis.
  4. Scripture, Church, and Tradition (Congar). The 14th and 15th centuries witness an ever-increasing separation between the authority of Scripture and that of the church. Congar locates the source of this trouble with Henry of Ghent, with Duns Scotus and Ockham in his trail. From their questions it was only a small step to dissenters like Wycliffe, Hus and the reformers. Once again we observe, according to Boersma, a moment of loss of the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition, in which Scripture and church were kept together.
  5. Nature and the Supernatural (De Lubac). De Lubac’s Surnaturel offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between nature and the supernatural. He criticizes in particular those Renaissance theologians (like Cajetan, Bellarmine) who spoke about ‘pure nature’ (pura natura), thereby highlighting the autonomous character of the natural. This also led to a loss of the sacramental synthesis, because nature was no longer in need of the supernatural.

In the next chapter Boersma adds two other factors which, in his opinion, contributed to the unraveling of the tapestry. In fact, he calls them the ‘Scissors of Modernity’. These factors are: Duns Scotus’ concept of the Univocity of Being and the rise of nominalism through the pilosophy of William of Ockham. Together they ‘cut the sacramental tapestry in two and thus caused the decline and ultimately the near-collapse of the Platonist-Christian synthesis in the modern Western world. That, in short, is Boersma’s analysis. But, as an analysis, or diagnosis, it raises a lot of questions. Let me list a few of them:

  1. Boersma offers us a list of seven possible contributing factors to the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry. But nowhere does he pose the question whether all these factors were equally important. Or to put it differently, nowhere does he make an attempt of connecting these factors with each other. In fact, Boersma suggests a lot, but he omits to ask the really important questions.
  2. Another question would be whether all these cited authors, from past to present, meant the same thing when they spoke about ‘sacramental’. Boersma uses the term ‘sacramental’ without explaining what he precisely means by that. The same could be said of another key term: ‘participation’. What happens then, is that these terms become a kind of mantra, obscuring all possible conceptual differences and problems.
  3. A next question is how it is possible that in Boersma’s analysis not only the introduction of Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts in the 12th and 13th century counts as contribution to the loss of the sacramental tapestry (discovery of nature), but also the philosophies of the fervent opponents of this development (Franciscans like Duns Scotus and Ockham). And yes, there has been a discovery of nature in the line of this latter philosopical trail. But that was a very different discovery and a very different way of speaking about nature.
  4. In his critique on Scotus’ concept of univocity of being Boersma claims: ‘For Scotus, God is simply one of many beings – all understood in the same, univocal sense of “being” (…) The new understanding (…) turns God into one of many categories’ [75-76]. Therefore, Boersma opts for the concept of the analogy of being. This leaves room for just one conclusion: Boersma doesn’t understand the concept of univocity of being in Scotus. In fact, the concept of analogy of being presupposes a kind of univocity. So his criticism seems out of tune. More generally, Boersma seems not be aware of the developments in the study of medieval philosophy in the last decades.

Danielou and De LubacIn short, this book of Boersma didn’t convince me, how much I sympathize with his sacramental suggestion and his conversation with the nouvelle theologie. That certainly is important for evangelical theologians. There is much to learn from De Lubac, Daniélou and others. And with Boersma, I’m longing for a better and deeper understanding of the sacraments in our church. But in order to achieve that, we need to take a better look to the (indeed: great) tradition of the church than is offered in his book.

Hans Lassen Martensen: Kierkegaard’s opponent

Recently, May 5th, it was 200 years ago that the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was born. Kierkegaard is still widely read and his birthday has been celebrated, also in the blogosphere. For example at Jason Goroncy’s blog Per Crucem ad Lucem, with a guest post of Andrew Torrance. Kierkegaard is well-known for his fiery attacks on thJacob Peter Mynstere church of his days, especially in its official forms. For Kierkegaard the embodiment of all the wrongs in the church of his days was Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884). Martensen was lecturer and later professor in theology in Copenhagen. But in 1854 he became bishop in Zealand, as successor of Jacob Peter Mynster (1775-1854), who had just died that same year. In fact, the eulogy of Martensen upon Mynster became the immediate cause of the quarrel between Kierkegaard and Martensen.

Martensen called Mynster a witness of truth. Interestingly enough, Kierkegaard’s father had been befriended with Mynster. But Kierkegaard  was neverthelessSoren Kierkegaard very critical on the theology of Mynster and Martensen. In Kierkegaard’s opinion both Mynster and Martensen were deeply influenced by the contemporary idealistic philosophies of Hegel and Schelling. He detested their tendency to mysticism and speculative theology. Kierkegaard opted for a personal (some may call it ‘existential), critical and ethical way of life. The christian faith is to be lived out in concrete and responsible commitments. Only then you can properly speak about being a witness of truth. The Danish Church lacked, in his opinion, the faith to be such a witness. And hence his fiery criticitisms of Mynster and Martensen. Kierkegaard died shortly after the launch of his attacks on the speech of Martensen, in 1855.

What to think about these opponents of Kierkegaard? Recently, I bought and read (parts of) Martensen’s Christian Dogmatics. He wrote this work in 1849 in Danish (Den christelige Dogmatik). The English translation (1866) of the book is based upon his own German translation. Not only Kierkegaard was critical, in general the reception of Martensen has been pretty dismissive. He has been said to be very speculative, a mediation theologian (Vermittlungstheologie) and not to be an original thinker. The reading of this book, however, surprised me in a positive sense. Let me give three illustrations of that.

1. Although Martensen certainly seems to be indebted to the philosophies of his days, he is critical in his adherence as well. He is arguing not only with Hegel or Schelling, but also with Schleiermacher. He is critical on the tendency in their systems of thought to a form of pantheism. Martensen argues that the christian faith in a personal God, is not compatible with any form of pantheism. So, he develops a way of understanding our knowledge of God, by falling back on the (classical) notion of ‘con-science’. That however, does not imply an uncritical appeal to revelation as source of inviolable knowledge. The content of revelation is open to human (dialectial) reasoning and argumentation. In short, Martensen tries to find a middle course between the subjectivism and objectivism of his days.

2. In his Christian Dogmatics Martensen frequently touches at the old discussions between lutherans and calvinists. For instance, as he deals with sacramental theology, his sympathy is with the lutheHans Lassen Martensenran camp. Throughout the book, he appears to be  especially critical on the calvinistic version of predestination. But that’s not all that has to be said. Surprisingly for a Lutheran, he insists on the continuance of the eternal Logos alongside the incarnate Logos, which seems to imply an acceptance of the so-called doctrine of the ‘extra-calvinisticum’. He seems to have been a ‘mediation theologian’  (Vermittlungstheologe) in more than one respect. In this light, we begin to understand why his thoughts were so deeply despised by Kierkegaard, whose thought was characterized by paradoxes.

3. The contrast between Kierkegaard and Martensen strikes the eye particularly in Martensen’s articulation of the motivation for the Incarnation. Martensen is, to use a phrase coined by Marilyn McCord Adams, an ‘Incarnation anyway’ theologian. He holds – as many theologians in the 19th century in Schleiermacher’s trail do – that Christ would have become incarnate, even if the Fall wouldn’t have happened. What arguments does Martensen bring forward for this supralapsarian Christology? In § 130 he stipulates that the world-redeeming Mediator must have a necessary and eternal relation of perfect fellowship both with the Father and with the human race. In the next paragraph he concludes that:

“… sin alone cannot have been the ground of His revelation, for there was no metaphysical necessity for sin entering the world, and Christ could not be our Redeemer, if it had been eternally involvoed in His idea that He should be our Mediator. Are we to suppose that that which is most glorious in the world could only be reached through the medium of sin? That there would have been no place in the human race for the glory of the Only Begotten One, but for sin?”

Unlike Schleiermacher, Martensen denies the necessity of the entrance of sin in our world. But like Schleiermacher, he emphasises that Christ would have become man, irrespective of the Fall. If humanity is destined to bear the image of God, to be filled with God, must we not – he asks – assume that this fullness of God must be exemplified in perfection: the true and complete God-man? It is, I suppose, not the best argument for a supralasarian Christology, but it certainly is intriguing and worth pondering.

Rowan Williams on Vaticanum II and Henri de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, adressed to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday. He spoke about the connection between contemplation and evangelisation. His whole lecture can be read here. In the introduction of his adress Williams touches upon the importance of Vaticanum II. The council was a rediscovery of ‘evangelistic concern and passion’. Then, he continues by saying:

But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.

It’s a remarkable passage in the Archbishop’s adress, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s in a certain sense brave. De Lubac’s specific view on the history of doctrinal development is by no means generally accepted in today’s Roman Catholic church. No wonder, as his words surely imply an incisive critique on the (neo-)scholastic tradition from Cajetan until the 20th century.

Secondly, the words of Rowan Williams imply a qualified view on the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. This rupture is, at least partly, ascribed to the doctrinal developments in the Catholic church of the late 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Reformation is in this view a re-action, instead of the initial action. Of course, opinions may vary about the nature of this reaction. De Lubac, for instance, was of the opinian that both the Reformation and Jansenism were deviations of the true Catholic doctrine, an ‘over-reaction’. J.H. Walgrave however, a Dutch Catholic theologian and philosopher, claimed the opposite, maintaining that both the Reformation and Jansenism were, in a certain sense at least, the legitimate continuation of (augustinian) Medieval theology.

Finally, the words of Rowan Williams evoque an augustinian anthropology of longing to God and the only possible fulfillment, by embracing his grace. As De Lubac in a number of writings underlined, there is not such a thing as ‘natura pura’, meaning a conception of human nature that is capable of reaching its natural potency. According to this doctrine, the supernatural longing for God does not properly belong to human nature. It’s an ‘extra’, an addition to human nature. The Archbishop certainly is right about the implications about our anthropology for evangelisation. But I suppose it has implications in the direction of sacramental theology as well. The sacramental debate in the Reformation period might be read in this light. In the theology of the Counter-Reformation we might detect a tendency to ‘supranaturalize’ the sacramtents, especially the eucharist, by emphasizing its mystery and incomprehensibility. The Reformation, on the contrary, seems to downplay the importance of the sacraments, may be not so much in theory, as well in practice. In the Swiss Reformation the habit of celebrating the Lord’s supper only four times a year became the standard practice, suggesting that it is an ‘extra’. For me, it’s an open research-question whether this tendency is also inherent in Calvin’s sacramental theology or not. Further study must show.

Calvin: accomodated or unaccomodated?

Anyone who seriously projects to study Calvin’s theology needs to read Richard Muller’s book, The Unaccomodated Calvin. In this book Muller discusses several approaches to Calvin’s theology, which have been en vogue over the years. He is crystal-clear in his verdict about liberal, neo-orthodox and/or barthian approaches to Calvin. How well-written these studies may be and how informative to a certain level they may prove, in the end they fall short because they aren’t genuine historical.

Much of the scholarship in this century has tended to view Calvin’s theology as (miraculously!) providing its own context, and either a rather generalized view of the thought and culture of the sixteenth century or the dogmatic assumptions of a particular twentieth-century school of thought (like neo-orthodoxy) as providing a suitable backdrop or foil for the interpretation of Calvin. And, although this scholarship has produced many notable works and has, in many ways, advanced our understanding of Calvin’s thought, it has also frequently obscured the detail, direction, and immediate context of Calvin’s work for the sake of offering a normative dogmatic portrait of the Reformer. (p.78)

Unmistakably, Muller has a genuine point here. But I’m not sure he doesn’t conflate two distinct points here into one. Let me explain.

Muller is certainly right in his analysis of past approaches to Calvin in so far as they quite often appear to be a-historical. Of course, studies like these deal with the past, with Calvin’s texts, and so forth. But the way they do this is not historical. That is, there is no real search for the meaning of these texts, events, etc. in the context then and there. Calvin is treated as a contemporary. Thomas Torrance has been criticized for his a-historical approach of the church-fathers and the Reformation. As far as I can see, these criticisms are justified. This certainly was a weak spot in Torrance’s approach. So, according to me, Muller is right in this regard.

However, Muller’s target seems to be not only the lack of historicity in several twentieth century approaches to Calvin’s theology. He also seems to appeal against ‘normative’ or ‘dogmatic’ accounts of Calvin’s theology in general. Don’t get me wrong: Muller doesn’t play down the systematic impulses in Calvin’s works.In fact, his treatment of the structure of Calvin’s Institutes as ‘ordo recte docendi’ is very instructive. My point is that Muller seems to dismiss all approaches with a normative or dogmatic concern. They are doomed to fail as a viable entry into Calvin’s theology. But is that true?

Take, as an example, once again the figure of Thomas Torrance. Last holiday I read his Kingdom and Church. A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (1956). Does it meet the methodological test of a historical study? No, it doesn’t. Is he correct in all the details. No, he isn’t. Doesn’t he try sometimes to write to his conclusions? Yes, he does. But does all this mean it is a poor study? No, not at all. In fact, I found the reading of Kingdom and Church really instructive and inspiring.

It might, after all, be a case of what Muller calls a ‘notable’ work, that ‘advances our understanding of Calvin’s thought’, while at the same time ‘obscuring the detail, direction, and immediate context of his work’. But here’s my question: could it be that the many historically respectable studies of our time, throw light on the detail, direction and context of Calvin’s works, but fail to offer deeper theological perceptions and systematic connections? If I had to choose, between a mere historic, unaccomodated Calvin and a systematic, accomodated Calvin on the other hand, I’m not sure I would opt for the unaccomodated Calvin. But, fortunately, I think there is no need for choosing. We may have it both…

Jeremy Begbie on the potential of the Reformed tradition

Jeremy Begbie is one of the leading theologians discussing the connection between christian faith and the arts. Very recently, I discovered a (pre-publication) article of his, titled: ‘The Future of Theology amid the Arts: Some Reformed Reflections’. (Because of the pre-publication shape of the article, Begbie asks the reader not to cite this version. I will respect that and summarize his thoughts).

In the initial pages, he outlines his perspective on the discussion between theology and aesthetics in different strands of Christianity. He argues that the lack of dialogue between these strands in the early 1980s, has completely disappeared by now. Reformed evangelicals do not hesitate to be inspired by Roman Catholic of Eastern Orthodox writers and thinkers. But it seems as if the Reformed tradition is in this respect always to some degree suspicious. Isn’t the Reformed tradition iconoclastic, extreme suspicious to the (figurative) arts, and so forth. Those are the questions of Begbie, and they seem to hit the mark, according to me.

Begbie knows of some careful corrections in the past decade of this picture of the Reformed tradition. A number of studies argue for a different and more nuanced perspective. But the shadow of doubt still remains… But then Begbie makes a very interesting observation. From whence comes this shadow of doubt, he asks. And doesn’t the Reformed tradition possess enough riches to be explored? What striked me in this suggestion is the similarity in this respect between the situation in theological aesthetics and in sacramentology. Concerning sacramentology, the same observations could be made. The Reformed tradition is still regarded with suspicion, not only concerning the arts, but also concerning the sacraments. And for the same set of reasons, just mentioned.

That’s a pity, Begbie argues. We need the Reformed tradition in the debate about theology and the arts. And I add: we need the Reformed tradition in the ecumencial debate about theology and the sacraments.