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.

“Preaching is essentially a priestly function!” Thomas Torrance on the priestly character of the ministry

It has been silent here for quite a long time. There are good reasons for that, as I try to make progress in my studies. But this evening I discovered a sermon of Thomas F. Torrance, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. I was struck by it. Of course, as readers of this blog may know, I’ve a weak spot for TFT. But it was more than that. And yes, in this sermon Torrance follows the lead of Calvin and his exposure of the priestly character of the ministry. Of course, I’m studying Calvin, but once again,torrance-big that’s not the whole story. The point is this: in a few words (it’s not a long sermon) Torrance uncoveres a deep spiritual insight about the nature of the ministry.

Let me explain why this struck me. In the Netherlands, some theologians call for a more prophetic stance in the ministry of the Word. But – as you will see – Torrance strongly disagrees. He offers a very convincing and thought provoking plea for the priestly character of the ministry. In what follows I will briefly summarize this sermon of his. But let me assure you: it’s worth listening!

Torrance opens his sermon about Malachi 2 with a reference to the munus triplex, the threefold office. But – he says – Calvin had become deeply aware that the priesthood is ‘the primary aspect of the holy ministry’. At the end of his life, he is reformulating his thoughts on the subject, as his prayers at the end of his lectures on the minor prophets show.

Calvin is now convinced that there is now a priesthood within the corporate priesthood of the Church, the Body of Christ. This thought determines his view on the ministry. Every young minister – Torrance says – believes he has to behave like a prophet when he gets up into the pulpit. No, he has to behave like a priest. “As a priest he has to be the messenger of God”. Torrance emphasises three aspects of this thought:

  1. The priesthood has to do with a unique and awful function to which some people are separated. The priest has to bear the iniquities of the people of God and to bear God’s judgment on them. As Calvin understood it, there was a intimate bond between the priest, the offerer and the offering. They were inseparable. And the priest can offer only the oblations and prayers of the people in so far as he himself takes their hurt upon himself and penetrates into their needs and himself bear, penitently, the judgments of God. You can’t be a minister of the Gospel unless you are prepared and willing to bear their sins upon yourself and offer yourself with them before God. That is a priestly aspect, says Torrance, which we have forgotten.
  2. Calvin was aware that where ever the Old Testament speaks about memorial it was always, without exception, a memorial before God. That too is something we (Protestants) have forgotten or changed. We think of the Lord’s Supper as remembring Christ’s death, of what He did. That is not ‘memorial’. The priestly cropped-supperlast2.jpgofferings in the OT are memorials before God.  It is in that sense we have to think about the Eucharist. As Calvin explains in his comments on Numbers 19: Christ is our Memorial and we offer Christ daily to the Father. And that’s what we do in the Eucharist. We are participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. The ministry of the Word is a priestly function. The priest is God’s messenger. His prime task is to bring a Word of God to the people, but in such a way that he evokes or provokes or bring their offering toward God. The priestly function is dual. He ministers from God to man and from man to God. I don’t believe, says Torrance, that anyone can do that simply from the pulpit or simply through conducting the liturgy. He can only do that by visiting the people in their homes and bring the Word of God there and open up their whole life before God. So that he can share their hurts and needs, understand their responses. And then he can  proclaim the Word of God and in the worship of the church bring their true responses back to God.

Preaching is essentially a priestly function. It is in this light that Calvin understood the priestly character of the Word. Because it is only as you share in, by your prayer life, your intercession, your sympathy with people, in the priesthood of Jesus, that you can say in His Name: “Be reconciled to God”. As Calvin saw it, you are representing the person and the role of Christ as a minister.

Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

Time to repent – the forgotten sermons of Thomas Torrance

T.F Torrance (1946)

T.F. Torrance (1946)

It is hard to tell which book of Thomas Forsyth Torrance is his most popular. His books on trinitarian theology, like The Trinitarian Faith and The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, are perhaps among his best known publications.  At the other hand we might also think of his books on Science and Theology: Theological Science for example, or God and Rationality. How this exactly may be, it seems to me that his two collections of sermons, When Christ comes and comes again (1957) and The Apocalypse Today (1960) are largely forgotten nowadays. It’s a fate which they seem to share with other books of that particular period. The two volumes of Conflict and Agreement (1959/1960) for example are hardly ever mentioned in recent literature. In those years TFT was very productive, writing a lot about ecclesiological topics, like the sacraments. The edition of some of his sermons fit in this picture. In his Preface, Torrance indicates that he wanted to offer ‘some doctrinal material for the use of those actively engaged in the work of evangelism’ (When Christ comes…, p.7). Although Torrance would be a theologian of the church all of his life, he was probably at most so in the late fifties.

Alyth Parish Church - Old pulpit

Alyth Barony Church – interior (old situation)

The relative impopularity of his collections of sermons strikes me as odd. In fact, it was due to his book When Christ comes… I became interested in Torrance. About four years ago, I stumbled across this volume in a second hand book shop. At home again, I started reading and from the first page I read, I was struck by the power and intensity of these sermons. Shortly after, I bought The Apocalypse Today, containing, as the title already indicates, sermons about the last book of the New Testament. He preached those sermons during and after the war to the congregations of the Barony Church, Alyth and Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen. One remark about the sermons on the Apocalypse, shouldn’t be omitted: “…while seeking to understand the language of the visions from their Old Testament sources, I have sought throughout to give them the Christological interpretation they demanded”.

As far as I know, there are no other books with sermons of TFT, although a few of them were published in theological journals. In the Preface on The Apocalypse Today, Torrance seems almost as reluctant to publish his sermons as John Calvin was in his days. He writes that ‘…they were not intended for publication’, that ‘they are not meant for the scholar, but for the ordinary member of the Church, who (…) often finds little to guide his understanding outside the fantastic interpretations of the sects’ (The Apocalypse Today, p.5) In the remainder of this post I will offer you two passages from his sermons. Quoting from sermons is, of course, a very arbitrary enterprise. But these quotations both engage with the questions of time, eternity and the need for decision. I hope that, by doing so, it will become clear that – in spite of Torrance’s own proviso – they offer a wealth of theological, pastoral and homiletical reflection.

“God cannot hold Himself back for ever, or rather the sinner cannot live for ever entrenched in his independence, surrounded by all the defences which he builds around his mortal life, in order to protect himself from God. So long as he lives on earth, he can hide himself in time, for as long as he is in time, God waits to have mercy upon him. But when he passes out of time in eternity, all his defences fall away from him, and he stands naked before God. But in eternity he has no time for decision, for repentance, or for faith, for in time the voice of God calls to him and gives him time to make up his mind, and to answer. But when he passes from time into eternity, then all that has gone on in his soul comes to is ultimate crisis. Once that crisis begins, as so many of the parables of Jesus tell us, there is no time for preparation or action. It all happens in a flash, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.”

Sermon ‘The approach to God’, on Exodus 3,1-15 and John 13,6-8 (When Christ comes and comes again, p.133)

“The Word of God towers over land and sea, and dominates the ages. In the presence of that mighty Word time stands still. Time, as it were, is no more in that hour – it is the moment of eternal decision.
How dearly we human beings love to cling to the passage of time, and how we love to take refuge in days and months and years to escape that decisive moment when we are dragged out of past and present and future to stand face to face with eternal God. Man loves to clothe himself with time. He hides himself behind it, and so hides from eternal God in the multitude of minutes and passing events. That hiding place is discovered when the Word of God falls upon man out of the blue of God’s Heaven, for man is interrupted in his life, dragged out of his hiding place behind procrastination. The Word of God refuses to let him drift aimlessly down the current of time any longer. He is confronted with Eternity and at last he must decide. He cannot bluff himself any longer. That is the divine stroke that suspends the flow of time – the moment of eternal destiny and predestination: mankind face to face in time with the eternal Word of God.”

Sermon ‘The Word of God and Time’ on Revelation 10 & 11:1-15 (The Apocalypse Today, p.83,84)

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.

Comments on Vermigli’s Commentaries

At his blog Paul Helm announces a couple of posts about Peter Martyr Vermigli. More specifically, he will write about Vermigli’s  and Calvin’s attitude to Aristotle’s ethics. I look forward to these posts. I seized the opportunity to open up my copy of Volume Four of the Peter Martyr Library: ‘Philosophical Works’. The title is a bit pretentious, because this volume offers an anthology of various passages from Vermigli’s commentaries. However, this was the way in which Vermigli’s Loci Communes (posthumously) were edited. There is a wealth of theological and philosophical reasoning, scattered over his writings, including the commentaries.Loci Communes In contrast to Calvin, who aimed in his commentaries at ‘brevitas’, Vermigli took ample space to elaborate on interesting issues mentioned in the biblical text. His excursus on the resurrection in his commentary on 2 Kings 4 is a very convincing example of this phenomenon. In this Volume it extends to nearly 100 pages. In this light we can easily understand Calvin’s aiming for brevity… Nevertheless, Vermigli was certainly the better philosopher of the two!

The lecture of this Volume reminded me of an earlier post, in which I speculated about Vermigli’s stance towards (synchronic) contingency. Well, in the section about Providence, a passage from his commentary on 1 Samuël 10:2, we find the answer. Vermigli starts the discussion by making two distinctions.

“There is one necessity that is absolute (simplex) and another that is conditional (ex hypothesi). When we say that God is wise or just, we understand it to be a simple and absolute necessity. Other things are conditionally necessary, such as this subject of debate in the schools: Whatever is, is necessary while it exists.” (192).

This is the first distinction. There is another to follow:

“Moreover, things may be considered in two ways, first a they are in actuality, in which case they have the nature of necessity since they are no longer indefinite. For instance, to write or not to write is hypothetical. But if you are in the act of writing, it is no longer contingent but necessary. Hence we say that sensory knowledge is certain, because the objects themselves cannot be otherwise. Secondly, things may be considered as they lie hidden in their causes; but since causes may sometimes produce effects and sometimes not, there is no necessary power of acting in them.” (192).

At this point Vermigli starts a discussion about God’s eternity in relation to his causal action and whether this action of His make things necessary or not. In the sentence which is written bold, Vermigli offers the clue to his conception of necessity and contingency. APeter Martyr Vermigliccording to him, time alters the modal status of things. What was contingent, becomes necessary. That’s basically the Aristotelian (and Thomistic) view of diachronic contingency. Synchronic contingency denies the (possibility of the) modal change implied in this view. Time doesn’t affect the contingency of a certain state of affairs. So, Vermigli can be dispatched of my list of ‘suspects’ of Reformers who were important in the transmission of the Scotian concept of synchronic contingency to the reformed scholastic tradition. All the same, I look forward to the posts of Paul Helm about Calvin’s and Vermigli’s attitude to the ethics of Aristotle.

One more thing: this Volume of the Vermigli Library was edited and translated by Joseph C. McLelland. He dedicated the Volume “to Thomas F. Torrance, Doktorvater and friend, who introduced me to Peter Martyr”. McLelland wrote his dissertation about Vermigli’s eucharistic theology. It reminds me, once more, of the fabulous intuition of Thomas Torrance. Although he occasionally cites Vermigli in his books (f.ex. Kingdom and Church), to the best of my knowledge he never refers to him while speaking about the incarnational union with Christ, which was very important to Torrance. But Vermigli comes quite close to this conception in certain passages (letters and commentaries). Did Torrance read those passages? I’m not sure. But he might…

Calvin: accomodated or unaccomodated?

Anyone who seriously projects to study Calvin’s theology needs to read Richard Muller’s book, The Unaccomodated Calvin. In this book Muller discusses several approaches to Calvin’s theology, which have been en vogue over the years. He is crystal-clear in his verdict about liberal, neo-orthodox and/or barthian approaches to Calvin. How well-written these studies may be and how informative to a certain level they may prove, in the end they fall short because they aren’t genuine historical.

Much of the scholarship in this century has tended to view Calvin’s theology as (miraculously!) providing its own context, and either a rather generalized view of the thought and culture of the sixteenth century or the dogmatic assumptions of a particular twentieth-century school of thought (like neo-orthodoxy) as providing a suitable backdrop or foil for the interpretation of Calvin. And, although this scholarship has produced many notable works and has, in many ways, advanced our understanding of Calvin’s thought, it has also frequently obscured the detail, direction, and immediate context of Calvin’s work for the sake of offering a normative dogmatic portrait of the Reformer. (p.78)

Unmistakably, Muller has a genuine point here. But I’m not sure he doesn’t conflate two distinct points here into one. Let me explain.

Muller is certainly right in his analysis of past approaches to Calvin in so far as they quite often appear to be a-historical. Of course, studies like these deal with the past, with Calvin’s texts, and so forth. But the way they do this is not historical. That is, there is no real search for the meaning of these texts, events, etc. in the context then and there. Calvin is treated as a contemporary. Thomas Torrance has been criticized for his a-historical approach of the church-fathers and the Reformation. As far as I can see, these criticisms are justified. This certainly was a weak spot in Torrance’s approach. So, according to me, Muller is right in this regard.

However, Muller’s target seems to be not only the lack of historicity in several twentieth century approaches to Calvin’s theology. He also seems to appeal against ‘normative’ or ‘dogmatic’ accounts of Calvin’s theology in general. Don’t get me wrong: Muller doesn’t play down the systematic impulses in Calvin’s works.In fact, his treatment of the structure of Calvin’s Institutes as ‘ordo recte docendi’ is very instructive. My point is that Muller seems to dismiss all approaches with a normative or dogmatic concern. They are doomed to fail as a viable entry into Calvin’s theology. But is that true?

Take, as an example, once again the figure of Thomas Torrance. Last holiday I read his Kingdom and Church. A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (1956). Does it meet the methodological test of a historical study? No, it doesn’t. Is he correct in all the details. No, he isn’t. Doesn’t he try sometimes to write to his conclusions? Yes, he does. But does all this mean it is a poor study? No, not at all. In fact, I found the reading of Kingdom and Church really instructive and inspiring.

It might, after all, be a case of what Muller calls a ‘notable’ work, that ‘advances our understanding of Calvin’s thought’, while at the same time ‘obscuring the detail, direction, and immediate context of his work’. But here’s my question: could it be that the many historically respectable studies of our time, throw light on the detail, direction and context of Calvin’s works, but fail to offer deeper theological perceptions and systematic connections? If I had to choose, between a mere historic, unaccomodated Calvin and a systematic, accomodated Calvin on the other hand, I’m not sure I would opt for the unaccomodated Calvin. But, fortunately, I think there is no need for choosing. We may have it both…