Wolterstorff on the Reformation

Recently I bought Wolterstorff”s collection of essays about Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World, titled: Hearing the Call (Mark R. Gornik & Gregory Thompson (eds.); Eerdmans, Grand Rapids – 2011). It really is a good read. Most of the essays have been published in the course of the past 40 years. However, I was attracted by an unpublished essay: ‘The Political Ethic of the Reformers’. In the Acknowledgements it is called ‘an unpublished essay and undated – I would guess in the 1970s’. I don’t know who the ‘I’ is here – Wolterstorff himself (probably) or one of the editors (less likely) – but I would date it in the early 1980’s. The reason is this: two of the books which are mentioned in the text did appear in resp. 1981 (Alysdair McIntyre, After Virtue) and 1982 (Harro Höpfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin).

I wrote before about Wolterstorff distinction between presence and action, with regard to the Lord’s Supper. The essay on Political Ethic of the Reformers made it clear to me that this distinction is part of Wolterstorff’s perception of the history of the Reformation. Let me quote a few key-phrases:

I suggest that in the Reformation we see the beginnings of a fundamental contrast to the medieval understanding of the relation between God and humankind. (…) For the medievals, the salvation for which we long and which is the true end of all humankind is the Vision of god. For the Reformers, the salvation  for which we long and which is the true end of all humankind is our participation in the Kingdom of God. (337)

This has a lot of implications. About one of these Wolterstorff says:

What will also have to be re-thought in this Kingdom of God perspective is the nature and function of revelation. For one thing, revelation will be demoted from the all-embracing, looming importance that it had in the classical Vision of God theologies. There revelation, once creation had occurred, was the principal engagement between God and us. But in the Kingdom of God perspective, God is seen as acting throughout history for the redemption of God’s wayward and suffering human creatures. Redemption is here the central engagement. Revelation, apart from that which occurs in creation, is an accompaniment to redemption, whereby God makes clear to us what God asks of us and what God does for us. And in so far as God’s revelation is the manifestation to us of God’s will for us, hearing God rather than seeing God will seem the appropriate metaphor.

So, it turns out that the distinction between presence and action for Wolterstorff is connected with, or maybe even rooted in, a perspective on the difference between medieval and reformed theology. It´s the difference in emphasis on God´s nature versus his deeds, on revalation versus redemption, the vision of God´s essence versus the hearing of God´s Word. More precisely stated, the distinction between presence and action has everything to do with the very conception of God. According to Wolterstorff for example, thinking of God in terms of timeless eternity can´t do justice to the biblical history of his mighty deeds.

Wolterstorff offers much more in this essay than I mentioned here (a critical discussion with Alisdair McIntyre, good thoughts about how society and politics were organized in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and so forth). However, these thoughts on the new perspective in Reformation theology are very stimulating on their own.

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Wolterstorff on Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

I have a tremendous respect for Nicholas Wolterstorff. Not only for the quantity and the quality of his work, but also for its diversity. He is one of very few philosophers who has been reflecting upon the phenonemon of ‘liturgy’. Besides, he has read a good deal of Calvin. Not only his Institution, but also his commentaries.

He offers some very interesting remarks on Calvin´s liturgy of the Lord´s Supper. According to Wolterstorff, the only way to fully understand his liturgy of the Lord´s Supper is to think of it, not merely in terms of presence, but (also) of action. I´m inclined to agree with him. Calvin does speak of the Lord´s Supper in his sermons in terms of (divine) action. He claims repeatedly for example that the Lord´s Supper is a testimony of the Holy Spirit. He assures and consoles us. However, one of the key terms of Calvin´s thinking about the Lord´s Supper is the word ´substance´. He uses it quite frequently, and (that´s important as well) in key phrases. It´s a difficult word to translate. Calvin obviously doesn´t think of ´substance´ in terms of scholastic definitions. Sometimes it means ´content´ or something like ´the real thing´. One is inclined to translate it in some passages as ´(real) presence´. That’s the point Calvin wants to stress repeatedly: it’s Christ Himself who is present and giving Himself in the Lord’s Supper.

If that, however, is correct, the assertion of Wolterstorff should be reformulated. It´s not a matter of presence or action, but of action through presence. It´s the real presence of Christ, through his Spirit, that consoles and assures us. I don’t think Wolterstorff would disagree with this. He would, I suspect, ask a couple of questions. For example: What kind of presence are we talking about? Is it a kind of ‘deputized action’ (compare Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse, 43vv.)? Or should we think of God ‘appropriating’ our celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Divine Discourse, 51vv.)? I’m not sure Wolterstorff would suggest this line of thought. I’m however quite sure Calvin wouldn’t be satisfied with it. He believed in a stronger notion of presence: both real and spiritual.