Thomas Henry Louis Parker (1916-2016)

A few days ago, May 25th, John Webster passed away. He was 60 years old. I heard about his sudden death at the Refo500RC Conference in Copenhagen. Home again, I soon found out that his death is lamented at various weblogs: here for example, here, here and also here. His passing away has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Webster truly was an exceptional theologian.

However, in this post I want to pay attention to another theologian who recently diedT.H.L. Parker: the Rev. Dr. Thomas Henry Louis Parker. He died on Monday April 25th of this year, at the blessed age of 99 years. Parker was an outstanding scholar, both versed in Calvin Studies as well as in Barth Studies. His death has not attracted the same amount of attention as John Webster’s, but I gathered it was mentioned on Facebook, and also on the website of Refo500 and in this contribution by Lee Gatiss.

These contributions, valuable as they are, do not tell us much about his career. As far as I have been able to figure out, it looks like this:
1948-55 – Vicar of Brothertoft, Lincs.
1955-61 – Rector of Great and Little Ponton (near Grantham) Lincs.
1961-71 – Vicar of Oakington, Cambridge
1971-75 – University of Durham; Lecturer in Theology
1975-81 – University of Durham; Reader

T.H.L. Parker wrote important books about Calvin’s commentaries on the Old and New Testament. He edited some of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. He wrote a concise, but very informative biography about Calvin. He published studies on Barth and was involved in the editing of the Church Dogmatics, together with T.F. Torrance.

Especially his books Calvin’s Preaching (a profound reworking of his earlier book The Oracles of God) really has been a revelation for me, from the moment I started to read it. There are not many books in my library that I have used more intensively than this book. Not only does it offer a wealth of information, but it captures my attention by its lively style of writing. Writing for example about the lost sermons of Calvin, which were removed from the Genevan library in the 19th century, he recounts that some of Calvin’s sermons were refound. He then continues:

“A few years later (1963) the pulse of life in my quiet country vicarage was quickened by the receipt of a letter from the Librarian of Lambeth Palace, saying that he had recently bought a manuscript volume of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis from Bristol Baptist College; would I please see them and pronounce on their authenticity. This, of course, I was only too willing to do.” (p.70)

About a year ago (March 2015) I unexpectedly came in touch with him by email, because I informed after him at To my surprise the editor passed on an email [sic] of Dr. Parker himself. As a tribute to this outstanding scholar I’d like to cite a few sentences from this email, omitting the more personal details in it:

Twenty years ago I would have thought 98 was really very aged. Now that I am 98 it doesn”t seem much different from 58, 68, or 78, except, of course, that I can no longer indulge in the physical activities that I enjoyed then. I live on my own and more or less look after myself (…).

So, like the shepherd boy in Pilgrim’s Progress, I am content with what I have, little be it or much; and Lord contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.
Every good wish,
Yours sincerely,

The last sentences really impressed me and made me glad because of the steadfast faith and hope that speaks out of it. This ‘shepherd boy’ has come home. We thank God for his life and work.

RefoRC Conference 2016 Copenhagen (May 26-28, 2016)

In May this year the sixth annual Refo Research Consortium (RefoRC) Conference will be held. The conference will be hosted by the theological faculty of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Theme of this year’s conference is: ‘Church’ at the time of the Reformation – Invisible community, visible parish, confession, building…? According to the website:

The conference aims at a clarification and a discussion of the different concepts of church in the 16th century: What did the reformers think about the essence and origin of the holy, apostolic and Catholic church? What was seen as its aim, its purpose? Can human beings see the true church or not? Does it have one existence in this world and another in the world to come? The concept of church is indissolubly connected to the theological concepts of sin, faith, justification, sanctification, and salvation, and the study of it also involves reflections such as those of the nature and scope of the sacraments, the role of the clergy, the aim of the church-buildings, the significance of the inventory and the reflections upon the constituent parts of the mass/church service.

The list of speakers is impressive with – to mention only a few of them – names like Jon Balserak (Bristol), “‘The church that cannot err.’ Early Reformed thinking on the Church”, Charlotte Methuen (Glasgow): “Ordering the Reformation church in England and Scotlant”, and Dorothea Wendenbourg (Berlin), “Luthers Sicht der Kirche”.


I am happy to attend this conference. My short paper proposal has been accepted, so I will present some thoughts about vehemence in Calvin’s sermons for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Vehemence is the word Conrad Badius introduces in his preface for Plusieurs sermons (1558), an edition of Christological and sacramental sermons of Calvin. Why did he choose this qualification for Calvin’s sermons? And what does this tell us about Calvin’s sermons connected to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper? These and other questions will come to the fore in my paper.

Registration for the conference is still open… I am looking forward to it!

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.

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.

Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency

Recently, I read Barbara Pitkin’s essay ‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’ (published in The Journal of Religion 2004; 347-378; online available on She shows how Melanchthon and Calvin differ on important issues concerning divine action and human liberty. Yes, they agree on the basic intent, namely that human beings are not capable to will the good on their own, but in the way they articulate this basic insight they differ considerably. Calvin, on the one hand, tends to downplay the ability of the human will in favour of the determing role of God’s willing and acting. Melanchthon, on the other hand, seeks to explore the way in which human willing is involved in and – in some sense – cooperates with God’s willing and acting. Pitkin shows how the interaction between the two men developped. Melanchton was concerned about Calvin’s views on predestination, deeply aware of the threat of determinism in Calvin’s theology.

This reminded me of an article in the Dutch journal Kerk en Theologie (2011; p.138-159) from Antonie Vos about the Freedom of the Will according to Melanchthon. Vos shows how Melanchthon changed his opinions about determinism and contingency between the first edition of his Loci Communes in 1521 and the second, revised edition of 1535. Vos uses the edition from the Utrecht University library, instead of the text from the Corpus Reformatorum (XXI), which is an amalgam of different editions. The textual history of the Loci is indeed quite complex (compare the ‘Introduction to the second edition’, p.xiii-xv from Benjamin T.G. Mayes in the English translation from Melanchthon’s Loci Praecipui Theologici from 1559): The Chief Theological Topics, translated by J.A.O. Preus (Concordia Publishing House 2011)). After some research I found a copy of this second 1535-edition on the internet, digitalized by the Herzog August Biblithek Wolfenbüttel. The quotes I checked, show that it is the same edition as the Utrecht-copy. The relevant texts are to be found under the title ‘De causa peccati & de contingentia’ (in PDF-reader, p.92).

On an earlier occasion I wrote about Antonie Vos and the rediscovery of synchronic contingency. Vos and his Research group published about the synchronic contingency in the theology and philosophy Duns Scotus on the one hand, and some important reformed theologians, like Voetius and Turretini, on the other hand. However, this seemed to presuppose a certain gap between medieval theology and the emergence of reformed scholasticism. And indeed, the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin show certainly deterministic traits, to say the least. Moreover, both Luther and Calvin fulminated against scholastic distinctions in this regard. The more surprising it is to discover Melanchton’s ‘conversion’ from determinism to contingency. “The freedom of the will is the cause of our action’s contingency”, he writes (Est autem libertas voluntatis causa contingentiae nostrarum actionum). The contrast with the 1521-edition is immense. There he asks rhetorically: “‘What then?’, you will ask, ‘isn’t there – to use a phrase of those – no contingency in reality, no chance, no fortune?'” (Quid igitur, inguies, nullane est in rebus, ut istorum vocabulo utar, contingentia, nihil casus, nihil fortuna).

So, between 1521 and 1535 Melanchthon changed his mind in this regard. The question is: can we trace this change more precisely? Vos mentions in his article a remark of Bernard Lohse, who suggests ‘after 1527’. Barbara Pitkin, following Timothy J. Wengert, mentions also 1527-1528, more specifically, his edition of the commentary on Colossians (‘The Protestant Zeno’, p.359). It certainly is worth further study to trace backhis notion of contingency. Moreover, it seems probable that Melanchthon wasn’t the only one who rediscovered the notion of (synchronic) contingency in the turmoil of the Reformation era. There must have been others as well, I expect. On top of my list of other ‘suspects’ is the name of Peter Martyr Vermigli

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.