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)

Vermigli on necessity and contingency

Recently, I was involved in writing about God’s providence. In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the concept of permission with regard to divine providence. Shortly after that I had to prepare a sermon about God’s predestination. In the course of my preparation I spent some time on reading Peter Martyr’s commentary on Romans 9, especially his ‘scholium’ onPeter Martyr predestination. I was struck by his careful exposition of these matters in terms of contingency and will. I wrote before on Vermigli’s stance in matters of contingency and necessity, concluding then that the conceptual structure of his thinking doesn’t fit in with the concept of synchronic contingency. However, after reading parts of his scholium on predestination, I now think my conclusions were too rash. My conclusion was based on Vermigli’s assertion that something contingent becomes necessary, once it has occurred. I forgot, however, that even Scotus himself endorsed this view (Lectura I,40).

I am at the moment not in the position to give a definitive verdict in these matters. Instead, I want to give an indication of his conceptual skills by way of presenting Vermigli’s ‘toolbox’. I am not in the possession of the English translation in the particular volume of the Peter Martyr Library (on Predestination and Justification). So I will refer directly to the first Latin edition, printed in Basel in 1558. Vermigli starts a new entry in his discussion on predestination on p.434, asking (1) whether divine predestination entails – somehow – necessity for us; (2) whether it implies an impediment of the free will and (3) whether it removes God’s justice.
In order to answer the first question, Peter Martyr sets out to define what he means with necessity and to make a couple of distinctions. He starts with absolute necessity or ‘necessitas simplex’. This necessity consists in states of affairs, that can’t be denied without implying a contradiction. Examples are God and mathematical or geometric truths. He distinguishes these necessities carefully from physical and natural laws, such as the course of the sun, the burning of fire, and the like. These are not neccesary in an absolute or simple sense, because God can (as Scripture shows) decide to prevent their occurance.

Vermigli however recaputilates them as examples of neccesity on the basis of an inner principle, be it in different ‘degree’ of necessity. This he contrasts with neccesity on the basis of an external principle. He mentions two kinds of this kind of necessity, the first being coerced (by violence f. ex. to act against one’s will or nature. The second is more important for his argument, necessity ‘ex hypothesi’. He mentions (p.435) in this regard the scholastic distinction between the necessity of the consequent (necessitas consequentis) and the necessity of the consequence (neccitas consequentiae). The last necessity is also called implicative necessity. He connects this distinction with another one: ‘sensum compositum’, referring to the necessity of the consequent and ‘sensum divisum’, referring to the necessity of the consequence. His example is a classic in scholastic literature: what is white, can’t be black. Well, says Vermigli, that’s true if we take them together (in sensu composito): a thing can’t be white and black (= not white) at the same instance. In formula: -M (p & -p). However, it can be true, if we take them apart (in sensu diviso). In that case we could formalize it like this: Mp & M-p. He explicates: “Quod est enim album modo, mutari potest et efficiri nigrum”. It seems then, that Vermigli interprets this possibility in terms of change over time. What is possible now (t1), could be different at a later moment (t2): Mp[t1] & M-p[t2]. But even so, this example doesn’t by itself rule out the possibility of an underlying synchronic conceptual structure. Finally, Vermigli adds one more distinction to his conceptual toolbox, speaking about the neccesity of certitude or infallibility, before moving on to apply these distinctions to the questions surrounding divine predestination. This terminology goes back to Duns Scotus. A bit further, he explains his preference: “quia Deus nec mutari, nec falli potest”.

This passage is discussed in the book of Frank James, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination, (1998). He speaks of it as a ‘rather extensive scholastic exercise’ (p.82). Moreover, he interprets Vermigl24727i’s preference for his own terminology (neccisity of certitude or infallibility) due to dissatisfaction with existing scholastic vocabulary. James mentions these distinctions only in passing (in a footnote), apparently not being aware of its conceptual importance.
Luca Baschera treats the passage in his chapter ‘Aristotle and Scholasticism’, in Torrance Kirby, et al. (eds.), A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli  (2009).

In his discussion of whether divine foreknowledge renders all events necessary, Vermigli draws on the traditional distinction between necessity ‘of the consequent’ and necessity ‘of consequence’ in order to demonstrate how God’s infallible knowledge of the future does not entail any coercion of secondary causes. However, even though the nature of secondary causes is preserved by God who makes use of them without doing violence to them, it is quite clear that according to his position, all events, when related to the knowledge and will of God, are indeed necessary (p.157).

This can hardly count as a summary that does justice to Vermigli’s position. Both James and Baschera neglect the conceptual difficulties involved in the discussion about necessity and contingency. Interestingly though, Baschera points to the influence of Gregory of Rimini on Vermigli, although he suggests that the influence of Aquinas in matters of providence and predestination is more important. Gregory of Rimini is mentioned by Antonie Vos, in his masterpiece The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (2007), as one of the inheritors of the line of thought of Duns Scotus (p.6). As said before, at the moment I am not able to decide whether Vermigli did or didn’t work with a concept of synchronic contingency. But a fascinating and intriguing question it is for sure!

Calvin on faith and assurance

In an interesting post on his blog Mirifica Commutatio Bobby Grow writes about Randall Zachman’s book: The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in het Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Zachman claims that Luther and Calvin intended to ground the assurance of faith in Christ, but that they not completely succeeded in doing that. The problem is, according to Zachman, that both Luther and Calvin operate with a doctrine of limited election. If that is true, than the real question with regard to assurance cannot be answered in christological terms in the end, but only in terms of God’s election and (secret) counsel. The lamentable result of this: endless efforts (for example by applying the syllogismus practicus) to make this uncertainty undone. Bobby Grow adds to this an advice to ‘move out of the voluntaristic theology of both Calvin and Luther’ and to bridge the gap between God’s inner life and outer life with the help of the theologies of Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth.

I’m, however, not fully convinced. Let me try to explain why with the help of Calvin’s sermons and an article of Thomas Torrance. One of the topics Calvin frequently mentions in his sermons is the question of the certainty of our faith. Let me give just one example. In his sermon on Is. 31,1-3 (Supplementa Calviniana III (ed. by F.M. Higman, T.H.L. Parker, L. Thorpe), p.85) Calvin speaks to the Genevan congregation of assurance.

First, he sums up what God has said and done on our behalf. He says that He rescues us, that He is close to all who ask Him for help, that He has shown us that He is God with us in Jesus Christ, that He never forgets us, that He hears all our prayers. If we are not by now assured, says Calvin, than we are most ungrateful. So, the first step to assurance is looking around and seeing the work God does, every day, in our lives.

However, he continues by saying that, if God was promising so much in the time of the Law (the Old Testament), we have even more reason to be assured:

“Car nous avons l’asseurance de nostre adoption, d’autant que nous sommes membres de son Filz unicque, qui est le chef de toute l’Eglise. La porte de paradis nous est ouverte, d’autant que nostre Seigneur Jesus Christ est entré au Sanctuaire non point fait de mains d’hommes, mais eternel, afin d’estre nostre advocat et intercesseur.”

So, for us, who may share in the Gospel, there is a more direct and secure route to assurance. We may know that we are adopted as children of God, that the paradise has been opened for us, and that we have free entrance into God’s presence, thanks to our High-Priest, Jesus Christ. Note that Calvin does not separate here between believers and non-believers, elected and non-elected. This is what he says to the congregation in Geneva: you may be sure of God’s grace, by looking to Christ and what He has done for us all.

But there is one step further to go. This is where Torrance comes in. In a Festschrift for Peter De Klerk (Calvin’s Books, ed. by W.H. Neuser, H.J. Selderhuis, W. van ‘t Spijker) he wrote an essay titled ‘Legal and Evangelical Priests: the Holy Ministry as Reflected in Calvin’s Prayers’. It’s pretty short, but rich and instructive. In this essay he points out that for Calvin ministry involves executing a priestly office, including offering and mediating. In fact, he claims (p.74):

“[W]e can understand in this light how he [Calvin, AT] could regard the sermon not only as a proclamation of the Gospel from the mouth of God but as an offering made to God, assimilated to Christ’s one self-offering as the Word become flesh now ascended to the Father.”

Let me put it my way. The statement of Torrance implies that for Calvin assurance is not something to figure out in private. No, in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, God descends to us in his offering of grace. But, at the same time, these events are invitations to us to ascend, to lift up our hearts to God. To put it differently, assurance of faith is not a private enterprise, but part of the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. At that moment God Himself is at work, and it is our responsibility to accept that. And, of course, to thank God for it.