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.

Union with Christ: objective and subjective

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

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

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

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

New Finnish Luther and Barth Interpretation?

Recently, I have been reading about the Finnish Luther Interpration. The last three decades a new Luther interpretation has been born in Finland. The founder of this line of interpretation, Tuomo Mannermaa, claims an alternative understanding of Luther’s writings. Instead of reading him as the advocate of an forensic concept of justification, Mannermaa holds him to be a theologian for whom concepts like the union with God, conceived as a union of being, and the (real-ontic) indwelling of Christ are at least equally important. In an article, titled ‘The Study of the Fundamentals of Martin Luther’s Tuomo MannermaaTheology in the Light of Ecumenism’, he introduces his findings. Besides his own work, he mentions the work of others in his trail. They have paid attention to the question why the interpretation of Luther became so fixated upon a forensic understanding of his doctrine of justification. Mannermaa’s colleagues and pupils (Simo Kiviranta; Risto Saarinen; Eeva Martikainen) detected and documented the massive influence of the German theologians Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). Mannermaa summarizes their findings into two lines of thoughts (quotations are given without reference to page or paragraph numbers, because they are lacking in the original (internet) source).

  1. The first is the ‘transcendental-ethical justification of religion’. The crucial distinction in this regard is that between ‘person’ and ‘nature’. “As ‘nature’ the human being is part of mechanical causality and belongs to the domain of theoretical reason. As ‘persons’, however, human begins are beyond nature because of their will, that is, because of their practical reason, which sets values.” In the light of this distinction it is illegitimate to speak about theosis as a union of being. Mannermaa once again: “I do not think that the reach of the influence that the transcendental-ethical justification of religion has had upon the later understanding of Christian faith can be overestimated. One example of the outcome of this influence is German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s (1851-1930) conception of the history of dogma, and his negative appraisal of the doctrine of divinization.” I find myself in full agreement with Mannermaa.
  2. The second hermeneutical tradition that according to Mannermaa has contributed to a mere forensic interpration of Luther’s doctrine of justification goes back to Ritschl as well. Ritschl adopted from the ontology of Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), German philosopher, “the idea that God can be known only in the acts (Akten) of God’s effects (Wirkungen) on human beings. According to Ritschl (and here he differs from Lotze), the origin of these effects, as well as their ontological nature an sich, remains unknown. From this selective adoption of Kant’s and Lotze’s positions arises actualism, ‘Aktualismus’, which has had a significant influence on the understanding of both revelation and the concept of the word in dialectical theology.”

So far, I’ve been chiefly quoting Mannermaa’s article. He points out how these two ‘hermeneutical traditions’, as he calls them, influenced the interpretation of Luther. But, as we saw, they had a profound impact on the development of Karl Barth’s theology and that of other representatives of dialectical theology. The first line of thought can be traced in Barth’s resistance against any form of theosis/deification (unlike T.F. Torrance, who was in this regard deeply influenced by the church fathers). The second line of thought is recognizable in Barth’s so called ‘actuallism’. Though it’s quite difficult to fully clarify what Barth is aiming at (this post on Out of Bounds might help you), it seems clear that Barth endorses the thesis that God can only be known in his acts, that is in history. All knowledge of God is determined by His revelation in Jesus Christ. So, there is no way to speak about God (and his being) apart from his acts in history. If this is correct, it shows that Barth not only criticized Enlightenment philosophical thoughts, but was deeply influenced by them as well. In short, the findings of the Finns are worth to be applied to the interpretation of Barth as well, although I’m certainly not an expert on Barth. You might call it a new Finnish Barth Interpretation.

But is it as new as it seems to be? As early as 1907, the Dutch theologian Isaäc van Is. van DijkDijk refuted Harnack’s thesis that: “Dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel” (History of Dogma I (1885; transl.1894), p.17. Instead, Van Dijk wrote: “Dogma is in its conception and development a word of the Christian spirit with Greek resources” (Gezamelde geschriften (1917), p.327). A few years later, in 1921, a pupil of Van Dijk, Maarten (!) van Rhijn wrote a short book with studies on Luther’s doctrine of justification (Studiën over Luther’s rechtvaardigingsleer). In the first essay he points out that the forensic interpretation of the doctrine of justification is due to later developments (e.g. the conflict between Melanchton and Osiander). For Luther, writes Van Rhijn, justification implies the ‘self-M. van Rhijn (jong2)communication of God, by the indwelling of Christ in the sinner’s life’ (p.35). So, this book anticipates in a certain sense the Finnish Luther interpretation. But Van Rhijn has also a keen eye for the development in Luther’s theology. He observes that in Luther’s first period (up to 1517) the idea of ‘Christ in us’ was the dominant theme, whereas after 1517 the thought of ‘Christ for us’ became more important. And that fits perfectly with an often made criticism with regard to the Finns, that their ‘new’ interpretation can only be held in the light of the early works of Luther, but falters with regard to his later works. How that may be, both the New Finnish Luther interpretation and its critics seem to be anticipated by the Old Dutch interpretation.

Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Divine Presence in the Lord’s Supper

In the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was one of the most important theological topics. In the controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, the theologians of the Reformation developed alternative views of the Lord’s presence in Holy Communion. Last SupperUnfortunately, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, to mention only the three best known Reformers, didn’t agree which option was best. For the moment, I won’t work out how these differences historically developed or how they may exactly be spelled out. Instead, I’d like to sketch four models of interpreting Christ’s presence in the Holy Meal. These models, I believe, are not mere theoretic options, but – to speak so – ‘live options’. We are talking about the way how pastors and members of the church view, consciously or unconsciously, the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Symbolic presence. With symbolic presence I mean those thoughts and theories that rely on a symbolic theory to explain how the Lord is present in the Eucharist. This seems to me a especially in Roman Catholic circles a viable theory. Under the influence of French philosophers like Ricoeur and others, the old dogma of transsubstantiation has, at least in Europe, been largely displaced by symbol-theories. Note, that according to this line of thought the presence in the Eucharist requires no specific action of God, apart from the original institution of the sacrament. 
  2. Ritual presence. This model is akin to the symbolic presence model. Rituals are commonly understood as symbolic actions, that is: actions with the aid of, or on the basis of, symbols. However, it is very well possible to make a distinction between these two models. In contrast with the first model, theories of ritual presence emphasize ritual action, instead of the symbol itself, as a vehicle of meaning. In the Zwinglian tradition we find examples of this model. Zwingli himself taught his congregation that not bread and wine, but they themselves were the Body of Christ, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
  3. Spiritual presence. The third model I call ‘spiritual’, which might give rise to some misunderstandings. The aforementioned Zwinglian tradition is sometimes called ‘spiritual’, to mark the contrast with ‘real’ presence. However, by ‘spiritual’ I mean those theories, which explain Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in terms of the Spiritus Sanctus, the Holy Spirit. John Calvin is of course the best known representative of this insight. In contrast with Zwingli, Calvin did not care much about the specific forms of the Eucharistic rite. The key in his understanding of the Communion is the so-called ‘Sursum Corda’: “Lift up your hearts…”. In doing that the participants will experience that Christ is present by his Spirit.
  4. Local presence. The difference between Luther and Calvin with regard to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can be largely traced back to different opinions with regard to the Ascension of Christ. While Luther held that Christ’s body in heaven is omnipresent (thanks to the ‘communicatio idiomatum’), whereas Calvin emphasized the heavenly location of Christ’s body (the so-called ‘extra calvinisticum’). This model tends therefore to be Lutheran in its intention. Crucial in this model is at least an interpretation of Christ’s Eucharistic presence in terms of spatiality and locality.

It’s important to stress that these options are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to combine for example aspects of the ritual presence and the spiritual presence model. However, I believe that an approach like this can clarify some of the important differences with regard to the Lord’s Supper.