Saturday, December 18, 2010

John Calvin by William J. Bouwsma

John Calvin's theology was very different from the hardened system that has long passed under the name of Calvinism; infinitely more complex and interesting than the received version. The American Pragmatist William James may have a better if a subtler claim to be considered one of Calvin's spiritual sons than many who have thought of themselves as Calvinists.

Calvin remained in major ways a humanist... he never condemned humanism in general and, unlike Martin Luther, rarely attacked Erasmus. Humanists looked for inspiration not to the philosophers of antiquity, as is sometimes supposed, but to its orators, poets and historians. Their preference for the arts of persuasion (rhetoric) over rational conviction was associated with the human as passionate, active and social rather than intellectual beings. They saw language less as a medium for conveying the truth about the world than as an essential ingredient of life in society through its abilities to move the feelings and stimulate the will to act; to inspire souls and set the human heart afire.

Calvin recognized that language is a cultural artifact, the soul of human society and that if people are to be persuaded to cooperate and obey this required rhetorical skill because mere doctrine generally stated does not really move them. Rhetoric- the gold chains in the mouth of Hercules which attracts the ears of the common people- had, in Calvin's view, a mysterious affinity with Divinity. God's very creation of the world was His expression of rhetorical eloquence; His special grace.

In Calvin's view the essential rhetorical virtue was what he called decorum: the deliberate adaptation of speech to one's audience for the sake of persuasion; a wise teacher accommodates himself to the understanding of those who must be taught.. This view determined how Calvin approached his analysis of Holy Scripture: 'God speaks to us of things according to our capacity for understanding, not according to what they are ( which is ultimately inscrutable).

Taking into account the diversity of times and ways of learning, the Holy Spirit accommodates itself to mans infirmities of understanding, and perhaps even more specially to the the roughest and most common peoples. For Calvin this helped explain otherwise puzzling texts, especially those which seemed to deal with natural phenomena in unscientific ways. He believed that such passages should be interpreted figuratively, those figures being appropriate to the earliest stages of human culture, metaphors for a simple folk. When taken literally, Calvin maintained, they are highly misleading. Thus Calvin himself maintained a flexibility in his Biblical exegesis which is 'modern' in every sense but nor always conspicuous among his subsequent and contemporary followers.

In the first place it was important to know how Holy Scripture used words, to understand the rhetorical procedures, style, language and specific idioms of the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin languages through which it has been transmitted to us down through the ages, and to know the cultural contexts in which those words were deployed. When Saint Paul wrote that 'long hair in men was contrary to nature', for example, what Paul meant by 'nature' was what was then acceptable by agreement and custom by the Greeks of his time. Calvin himself came to avoid a crudely material conception of 'hell' itself and regarded 'fire' as a metaphor for God's wrath , 'smoke' as a figure meant to convey the obscurity of Divine things, and in many other ways dismissed 'biblical truths' based on the 'empty shell' of its mere letters or strictly literal interpretation. In other words, full appreciation of the bible depends upon reading it as literature.

Calvin understood that Biblical texts had been assembled and transmitted by fallible human beings over many centuries, the earliest scriptures communicated orally for years before being put into writing, originating as a shapeless collection of prophesies which underwent a series of later reworkings. The New Testament probably contains many copyist errors, some verses arising from the marginal notes of scribes. He thought that the division of the text into verses and chapters was sometimes quite arbitrary and misleading.

The Evangelists were not annalists but artists. Neither were the Gospels written in such a way as always too preserve the exact order of events but to bring everything together so as to place before us a kind of mirror or screen on which the most useful things of Christ could be known. In fact, for Calvin, the notorious differences between the different Gospel accounts increased their credibility, proving that there had been no collusion among their authors. He also noted ambiguity in Scriptures, that some passages could be expounded in at least four different ways. And, understanding that the variety of minds is such that each tends to be pleased or edified by different things, in a doubtful case we are free to use our individual judgments provided no one tries to force all others obey his own rules.

Did the devil really lift Christ to the pinnacle of the temple? The matter is uncertain- the miracles related in the Bible are not essential to its core message- it is permissible to admit ignorance about such specific matters without harm. In such matters Calvin's personal preference was to suspend his judgment.

In other words, John Calvin denied the existence of a fixed New Testament canon. He regarded the notion of a 'verbal inerrancy' in the Bible as a form of willful blindness. We are called upon to continue to pursue our knowledge and understanding of the word of God.

Calvin believed that, since the order, reason, end and necessity of human existence for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose and not apprehended by human opinion, those things and events which he was convinced take place by God's will appear to most people as fortuitous...'it is possible, never-the-less, to seek illumination from heaven for some at least limited understanding of the workings of Providence. Indeed, Calvin believed that only the secret Providence of God which watches out for the protection of the human race can explain at all why human beings- encumbered by such iniquity as they are- have so far failed to totally destroy one another.' While faith and careful attention to the Gospel message are crucial to such illumination, he wrote, 'we should also have the prudence to apply ourselves to what God has done in History and to other notable judgments left in writing, not only Holy Scripture.

[ To my mind] this is perhaps the greatest and most lasting contribution of John Calvin's theology to the Protestant Reformation and the benefits it has provided human society since its inception in the sixteenth century, however much it has been subsequently plagued by an overconfidence in the certainty of human knowledge (rigid doctrine, lapses in strict adherence to scientific methods and political ideology) and the barbarisms of popular culture. Americans in particular seem monstrously possessed by the willful desire to ignore or erase 'the lessons' of history and the notable judgments to be found therein, as reflected in part but not wholly by the persistence of fundamentalist religion.

Thus, after ten long years, I have found the form in which to introduce a comprehensive summary of the works of John Calvin as suggested by William J. Bouwma's John Calvin; A Sixteenth Century Portrait ( Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1988) and some other equally interesting books.


  1. Of all the Western church reformers of the sixteenth century, none has been so consistently defamed, from his own time to the present, as John Calvin of Geneva. I use the word defamed with some care, since Calvin’s name is capable even today of provoking violently negative responses in connection with issues that often have remarkably little to do with what he actually did, thought, or wrote. Henri Daniel-Rops, the great Roman Catholic historian, snarled at Calvin as “one of those terribly pure men who ruthlessly enforced principles,” the theological dictator of a town where there were “too many policemen, too many pliable judges, too many prisons, and too many scaffolds.” Stefan Zweig wrote of Calvin in 1936 as though Calvin were interchangeable with Adolph Hitler and Oscar Pfister, Sigmund Freud’s Swiss theological admirer, wrote off Calvin as a “compulsive-neurotic who transformed the God of Love as experienced and taught by Jesus into a compulsive character, a fanatic of hateful cruelty, bearing absolutely diabolical traits. . . .” Even a modern American televangelist, the much-lamented Jimmy Swaggart, declared that Calvin was responsible for causing “untold numbers to be lost—or seriously hindered—in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.”

    Richard Stauffer, review of the paperbacked edition.

  2. Calvin might be justly considered 'the father' of modern biblical scholarship and theology, yet he stated his hypothesis regarding the character of Holy Scripture in a relatively modest or unassuming way, suitable to his own time. Late and post-modern thinkers have often been more forceful in their presentations of his basic point. By way of illustration, it may be useful to present a couple of examples here; two views on the Bible Hell.

  3. In 1888 the Unitarian Universalist J.W. Hanson published the following discovery:

    “The word Hell in the Bible, whether translated from Sheol ('the grave' in Hebrew), Hadees ('the grave') in Greek, Gehenna ( 'the place of burning' in Greek) or Tartarus ( 'a place of darkness' also in Greek), actually yields no support the doctrine of even future, much less endless punishment. It should not be concluded, however, that from our present understanding of the usage of the word Hell in the Bible, that we should or do therefore deny that the consequences of sin extend to life beyond the grave. Our philosophical conclusion is that there are Scriptures that do teach that the future life is affected to a greater or lesser extent by human conduct here, just that we do not believe that Hell is the place or condition of suffering after death. In the Bible, Sheol, Hades and Tartarus denoted literal death or the consequences of sin here, and Gehenna was the the name of a locality well-known to the Jews ( a kind of garbage dump) into which sometimes men were cast and was made an emblem of great calamities or sufferings resulting from sin. Hell in the Bible in all fifty-five instances in which the word occurs in the Bible always refers to the present and never to the immortal word.”

  4. from www. Christadelphia goes even further than that:

    “A grievous error has been made in interpreting the Bible. But the error is not first of all concerned with heaven or hell; the error really grew out of another theory, that all men are born with what is called an “immortal soul”. This is variously described as a 'never dying entity”, a “divine spark”; and to it are attributed all the characteristics of what is termed 'the real man' – personality, conscience, reason and understanding, emotions and all the moral qualities of which man is capable. The body is said to be mortal and corruptible, turning to dust and ashes after death, whereas the soul is immortal and lives on in endless bliss or misery.

  5. And, of course, once one has accepted such a view of human nature, then a belief in some other place or places as the abiding and continuing home (s) of the soul after death becomes a logical necessity. But, if this view is incorrect, then the popular conceptions of heaven and hell may also be quite false.

    It should be stated at the outset that the phrase 'immortal soul' or 'never dying soul' or indeed any similar expressions are not to be found in the pages of the Bible. Of God alone it is written, “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto” (1 Timothy 6:16)

  6. Man has no inherent immortality and although the word 'soul' occurs frequently in its pages, the Bible does not teach the idea of something independent of the body that lives on after death. The bible account of creation defines the 'soul' quite clearly:

    “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)

    It is the man himself, the body formed from the dust, energized by the breath of life, which is described as 'a living soul'. The original Hebrew word nephesh means simply 'a breathing creature' and is used not only of man but also of animals.... Hell is a Christian hoax.”

    'Parting is all we know of heaven
    And all we need of hell.” - Emily Dickinson

    Recognition of these 'Biblical truths', however, does not invalidate the threats and promises laid out as the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures, at least from Calvin's or the forgoing individuals point of view, it simply shifts the focus and attention of believers to this life rather than the next!

  7. I'm sorry, but any mention of Calvin makes my bile rise: his viciously evil persecution, denunciation (to the French Inquisition!!!) and burning at the stake of Michael Servetus puts his name in the list of the worst criminals against the human race. I almost wish there were a Hell for him to suffer eternal torment there. Just read the list of charges made by this unspeakable monster against a fellow scholar.
    The so-called "Christian" religion, the representatives of which did nothing to discourage and much to encourage WW1 and other crimes against human civilisation, should have been prohibited a long time ago. Doris Lessing movingly asks why the American Civil War (also inevitably invested with religious significance) had not served as a dreadful warning to those who sacrificed what was left of European civilisation in WW1. But were the wars of religion not sufficient to warn against the horrors ideologically and institutionally motivated power groups are prepared to commit?