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.