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)

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”.

“You can’t properly think in English”

Let me introduce you to a little discussion on language and philosophy in the Netherlands. The title of this post refers to the title of an interview with the Dutch philosopher Ger Groot (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (Saturday 22th November). In this interview Groot expresses his deep worries about the gradual transition in the philosophy departments from Dutch to English. His objections are manifold. Ger GrootWriting essays in a non-native language gives a loss of subtility of expression and sensibility of turns of thought. Moreover, it will lead to an impoverishment of the native language as well. In short, the drift of the interview is that this development will inevitably lead to an attenuation of the education of philosophy in the Netherlands.

The article remained largely unnoticed. A couple of letters and reactions expressed approval and it must be admitted that Groot touches upon a couple of relevant objections. For example, he mentions that the translation of philosopical topics to the public domain (newspapers, other media) needs the creation of a philosophical discourse in the native language. The comparison with theology is readily made in this regard. The same objection can be made by and large for theological education as well. Doing theology has a practical aim: it serves the Church and its practices. But the language employed in most congregations in the Netherlands will be Dutch. That seems to have an important consequence for the language employed in theological education.

So, Ger Groot seems to underscore a valid point of view. However, in one sense I strongly disagree with him, for Groot presupposes a specific relation between language and reality. Let me give an example of this: “In science the use of language is very limited. In the case of philosophy the importance hardly can be overestimated. Words and philosophical concepts are indissolubly connected with each other.” “Anglo-Saxon philosophy often doesn’t fully realize how ‘language-dependent’ our thinking is.” In this connection, he speaks about a linguistic mono-culture. The journalist then remarks that there has been one scientific language before: Latin in the Middle Ages. But Groot’s answer again is typical: the use of Latin lead to scholastic thinking.

What is the problem with this way of reasoning?

1. First of all, there is a historical problem. It simply is a myth that one language leads to one (type of) philosophy. Latin was indeed the language of the scientific community, not only in the Middle Ages, but long since. Calvin’s Institutes for example were written in Latin, but it’s not a specimen of scholastic theology, in contrast with his friend Peter Martyr Vermigli, for example. That is not to say that a particular language is a matter of indifference. Far from that! And, of course, it is true that there are different traditions of doing philosophy. But my point is that accounting for these differences only, or even largely, in terms of (a particular) language is a gross misrepresentation of the complex reality of philosophical development.

2. The second problem is a philosophical one. In particular, it refers to the history and development of philosophy in the Netherlands. One of the remarkable achievements of Dutch philosophy has been in the area of the research of medieval philosophy. The name of Lambertus de Rijk stands out. A quote of Antonie Vos (pupil of De Rijk) from his The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus to illustrate this point:Lambertus de Rijk

In his important introduction to medieval philosophy, De Rijk lists four examples of original contributions that excel the inventions of ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Latin philosophy: terminist logic, which is in fact a part of the much wider phenomenon of the logica modernorum, the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the critical theory of knowledge of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a way of thought which differs markedly from necessitarian Greek philosophy.

3. Groot does not only seem to be unaware of this alternative way of thinking and doing philosophy in the Netherlands, by Lambertus de Rijk and his pupils, he also missed the systematic importance of these discoveries. Scholastic medieval thought emancipated from Greek and Hellenistic thought with its thought patterns of necessitarianism. It disconnected the absolute parallelism of thinking and being. But if that’s true, it is nonsense to bound up the content of a particular philosophy with the language in which it is spoken or written. In fact, this way of doing philosophy asks for a new sensitivity to the way language is used. One and the same sentence, be it in Latin, Dutch of English, can mean something completely different in a different context. Unearthing these differences is the task of a philosopher, and a theologian as well. Not always easy, but worth the effort!

So, yes, you can think properly in English, although it might be hard work, especially for a Dutchman…

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 and the Right to Resistance

During my study time I once read a review, written by one of my teachers, on a book about Peter Martyr VeRobert Kingdonrmigli. At that time I was almost completely ignorant on Vermigli. But the review somehow aroused my interest. And ever since I’ve been attracted to Vermigli’s biography and theology. Recently I bought Roger Kingdon’s The political thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli – Selected Texts and Commentary (Genève, Librairie Droz 1980). As its subtitle shows, the book is a collection of translated texts of Peter Martyr on political theology, preceded by an excellent introduction of Robert Kingdon.

There has been a renaissance in the study of Peter Martyr Vermigli, since the publication of McLelland’s dissertation The Visible Words of God: the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli. But, as Irena Backus pointed out in a review in Zwingliana in 2003, the research on Vermigli suffers from the lack of a critical edition of his Opera Omnia. The bulk of Vermigli’s writings consists of commentaries on Scripture. He chose a middle course between Calvin’s brevitas and Bucer’s prolixity, by collecting his theological digressions in loci. These passages were edited after his death (1576) by Robert Le Maçon, pastor of the French Strangers’ Church in London as Loci Communes. The Loci became a popular source for studying Vermigli’s theology in the course of time. At the same time however, it means that other parts of his work remain obscure. Kingdon’s collection offers some of those neglected texts.

In the same review Irena Backus mentions a list of topics that have not been investigated, at least in 2003. One of those topics is Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance, which has not been researched thoroughly to date as far as I know.  And indeed, this is a fascinating aspect of the theology of the Reformation in general, and of Vermigli’s theology as well. Kingdon points out in his Introduction that the topic was important for Peter Martyr. His biography will have contributed to this, while he was forced to flee a couple of times during his lifetime. Another factor is the fact that Vermigli had to lecture on books of the Old Testament in Strasbourg and Zürich. And as Kingdon remarks: “The matter of the Old Testament, furthermore, in some ways lends itself more than the New Testament to political commentary” (p.V).

Kingdon devotes considerable attention Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance in his Introduction, characterizing it as ‘basically Lutheran’ (XVIII). As he points out: “Vermigli very clearly wanted to avoid any hint of sanctioning popular revolt” (XVI). However, in somPeter Martyr Vermigli-1e circumstances he approves of resistance by inferior magistrates. Kingdon clearly suspects that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject are flawed by inconsistency. He writes that ‘Vermigli (…) tried to apply the same argument (…) but without much success’ (XVII), that his examples ‘are not fitted very convincingly to the general theory’ (XVII) and that ‘[t]he apparent contradiction is not recognized or resolved’ by him (XIX). With all due respect for Kingdon (and he was indeed an expert on the Reformation!), I would question whether he is correct here. While it might be possible that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject were somehow inconsistent, it seems far more probable that we haven’t caught the precise drift of his thoughts. Let me give one example of possible additional thoughts.

Vermigli seems to be very emphatic in his refusal to assign the right of resistance to individuals! Only on the basis of political ‘institutions’ (be it impersonal (laws) or personal (magistrates)) there can be talk of justified resistance. Why is that? It is my hunch that here the ‘logic of God’s commandments’ is at work: “You shall not kill” (Ex.20:13 RSV). There is no mandate to overrule this commandment on an individual basis. But there can be such a mandate for a policital body. Paul asks in Romans 13 not only for obedience to the governing authorities (13:2). He also points out that it has the duty to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (13:4). This is the kind of mandate, given not to an individual, but to a political body, which Vermigli has in mind. The structuring of divine mandates might resolve the apparent inconsistency when Vermigli maintains that “resistance to the ancient kings of Israel was never justified”, while in the same scholium on Judges 3 speaking approvingly “of the imprisonment of a Danish king by his subjects and of the English practice of compelling kings to account for misspent money” (XIX). Kingdon suggests that “[t]his statement would seem to prohibit resistance in hereditary kingdoms and permit it only in elective kingdoms” (Ibid). But this conclusion does not follow, if we keep an eye on the ‘logic of God’s commandments’. Precisely that seems Vermigli’s point: the specific mandate given by God to David seems to overrule the right of resistance. Why this is so, is another question. My hunch is that the more specific a commandment is for Vermigli, the higher its lasting validity.

Anyway, it seems that outlining Vermigli’s political theology and in particular his doctrine of resistance is a worthwile project indeed!

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.

 

 

The Theology of Father Brown

It sounds rather pretentious: ‘The Theology of Father Brown’. Like ‘The Theology of John Calvin‘ or ‘The Theology of Karl Barth‘, to mention just two random titles.  It sounds rather peculiar too. The theology of a fictional character, what is that supposed to be? But think of Dante and his Divina Commedia. Think of Milton and his Paradise Lost. Think of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. Gilbert Keith Chesterton and FrancesTheology clothed, or should we say disguised, in fiction. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are of a different league of course. Does it make sense to question these detective stories about their theology? Well, it seems so, at least according to the great Dutch phenomenologist and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. In 1944 he wrote an article ‘Het detective-verhaal als spiegel van dezen tijd’ (‘The detective-story as a mirror of the times we live in’). Van der Leeuw rooted in the so called Dutch  ‘Ethical Theology’. Many of the ‘Ethical theologians’ (like J.H. Gunning jr., Is. van Dijk, and many others) wrote about literature (Dante, Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.). It is a very interesting tradition of engaging theologically with literature. So, let’s have a look into the theology of Father Brown…

Let me first mention a few facts about the author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). He definitely was a flamboyant man and a brilliant writer. He wrote columns, stories, poems, books, and so forth. In his youth he felt himself attracted to occultism, but, thanks to his wife Frances Blogg, he was lead back to the (Anglican) Church. He often referred to himself as an ‘orthodox Christian’. In 1922 he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the final step in a long process, which was reflected in his many writings. Besides his polemic and apologetic writings, like for instance Orthodoxy (1908), he became also famous by his 51 fictional Father Brown detective stories. Chesterton based the character of detective-priest Father Brown on a parish priest in Bradford, John O’Connor, he knew well and who was intimately connected to Chesterton’s gradual turning to Roman Catholicism. Chesterton endowed the character of Father Brown with a charming combination of clumsiness and wit. Let me give, with this in mind, a sketchy outline of the theology implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the (early) Father Brown stories.

1. Chesterton presents Father Brown repeatedly as a man of reason. Take for example ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’ (from: The Incredulity of Father Brown). In the story everyone is convinced that a miracle has happened. Only Father Brown refuses to believe in a miracle.

By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.  There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split; it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.’

Father Brown is, time and time again, presented as a reasonable thinker, not in spite of his belief in God, but because of his belief in God. Chesterton seems in his books especially fond of mocking French defenders of reason and logic. Invariably, they turn out to The Innocence of Father Brownaccept all kinds of irrational beliefs and opinions. To be sure, in the theology Father Brown mystery is not passed by. Miracles do exist, but only the real miracles. In ‘The Wrong Shape’ (from: The Innocence of Father Brown) “The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle”.

2. An interesting question would be whether for Chesterton the domain of reason is limited to the realm of natural things, in contrast with the supernatural as the domain of faith. In that case, he would embrace the  dualistic theology  of the Counter-Reformation, as pointed out by Henri de Lubac and others. It seems to me however, that Chesterton doesn’t fit into such a dualistic scheme. Take for example this saying, already quoted above, from ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’: “… it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things”. As far as I can see, this is a basic Augustinian position: it’s natural for man to long for God. Finding God is ultimately like coming home, not arriving in a strange country.
Chesterton stuffs his stories with lots of hints in this direction. For example: “The Christian is more modest,” muttered Father Brown; “he wants something” (in ‘The Wrong Shape’).

3. There is another feature of Father Brown’s theology that strikes me as Augustinian. It is his emphasis on the sinfullness of human nature. The best illustration of this feature in the Father Brown stories is offered in the following passage from ‘The Hammer of God’. “How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.” So, the knowledge of his own evil heart enables him to trace the evil thoughts and deeds of others. It’s no coïncidence then in Chesterton’s book that precisely a priest turns out to be a clever detective.
In fact, the emphasis on man’s sinful nature is no sad or negative message. Take for example his passage from ‘The Three Tools of Death’, where a daughter caused, unknowingly, the death of her father:

“Don’t you see it was because she mustn’t know?” “Mustn’t know what?” asked Merton. “Why, that she killed her father, you fool!” roared the other. “He’d have been alive now but for her. It might craze her to know that.” “No, I don’t think it would,” remarked Father Brown, as he picked up his hat. “I rather think I should tell her. Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins; anyhow, I think you may both be the happier now.”

Sin is not the real problem, the denial of sin is! Or, to put it differently, the real sin is the denial of your own sinfullness, the evil in your own heart. “The foulest crime the fiends ever prompted feels lighter after confession; and I implore you to confess” (from ‘The Eye of Apollo’). The reverse side of this is that without repentance things will deteriorate. As Father Brown puts it in ‘The Flying Star’: “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”

4. A last distinctive feature of Father Brown’s theology is the emphasis on humility. We heard Father Brown already saying that the Christian is ‘more modest’. Let me give another example, from one of the earliest stories: ‘The Queer Feet’ (in The Incredulity of Father Brown). “Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?” Passages like this, emphasizing the contrast between high and low, pride and humility, are nearly omnipresent in these stories. In  ‘The Hammer of God’ Chesterton writes:

“Look at that blacksmith, for instance,” went on Father Brown calmly; “a good man, but not a Christian — hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”

In the same story, Father Brown says about the murderer: “He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.” In short: kneeling before God is essential to retain our humility. And, I’d like to add, our humanity.

BBC Father BrownThere is, of course, much more to be said about the theology of Father Brown. His aversion to puritans, and especially Scottish puritans, for example. Or we could ask how Christ is brought to the fore in these stories. And we could compare our findings with other books of Chesterton, like Orthodoxy  or Everlasting man. But that would lead to another topic: the Theology of G.K. Chesterton.
Anyway, I hope you will agree with me, on the basis of what here has been said, that the Father Brown stories remain worth reading (and watching!), not only because of their plot and humor, but also because of their theology!