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.



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.