Tag Archives: John Calvin

The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther.  I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training.  I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains.  Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.”  It ruined almost everything.  “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term.  If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.

All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004).  I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument.  Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree.  However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.

In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism.  It is a two-storied view of reality.  The Reformation, however, overcame it.  Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81).  Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred.  All of life is one before the face of God.  We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.

A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation.  This paragraph illustrates the issue:

Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought.  The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights.  Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism.  As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)

Where to begin in discussing this?  First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights?  From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself.  For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae).  Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary?  The existing vocabulary was already quite rich.  Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy?  I fail to see how all this follows.  My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.

But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary:  “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.”  She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis.  Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says.  But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.”  She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study.  Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way.  But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come.  The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.

Here’s the nub of the problem:  scholasticism was a method of teaching.  As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques.  It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content.  There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed.  The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing.  However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic.  Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method.   A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu.  This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32.  I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit.  It was meant for the university context, not the church.  Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.

Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.”  This raises questions too.  Are we talking about theology?  What do you mean by “basis”?  What do you mean by “system”?  What time period are we discussing exactly?  Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology.  Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on.  To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640).  Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis.  What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis?  “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.”  Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi).  Nothing about Aristotle.  From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.

Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them.  Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized.  So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy?  I reckon she has to find another explanation.  Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.


Laying On of Hands Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Belgic Confession article 31 and what it used to say about the laying on of hands.  You can find it here.  I noted that the Confession, in its earliest editions, said that not only ministers, but also elders and deacons should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  However, this was dropped at some point, and today’s Belgic Confession editions don’t include that.  At the time, I posited that perhaps the change was made with the revision of the Confession at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.

I had opportunity to revisit this question today.  I was reading Calvin’s Institutes and in 4.3.16 he also says that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  That got me to thinking about the Belgic Confession again.

I went over to the Post-Reformation Digital Library to see if they might now have a link to a 1566 edition of the BC and — jackpot!  They’ve got it.  You can find it here.  Here’s what I found when I looked at article 31:

For those who don’t understand French, there’s no mention here of the laying on of hands.  This means that, yes, the mention of this was dropped early on — at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.  It’s also another reminder that the Belgic Confession we have today is not entirely the Belgic Confession written by Guido de Brès in 1561.

Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?


Unbelief in the Institutes

There are several English translations of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The most popular is the Ford Lewis Battles translation edited by John T. McNeill and published by The Westminster Press.  When I first became serious about studying theology, my pastor at the time recommended I buy this edition — and so I did.  My copy of this two-volume set was purchased way back in 1992.

Over the years, I’ve referred to it often.  I’ve also encountered criticisms both of the translation and the notes.  In The Unaccommodated Calvin, Richard Muller complains that all three modern translations (Allen, Battles, Beveridge) are deficient in the way they translate Calvin’s technical vocabulary (p.177).  Somewhere, I’m not quite sure where anymore, Muller mentions that, overall, he still prefers the Allen translation (find it online here).  Muller and others have also noted that the Battles/McNeill edition has theological issues — the translator and editor were not exactly confessionally Reformed.

I recently encountered a notable instance of liberal bias in Institutes 1.8.8.  Calvin is writing about Scripture.  He notes how the prophets predicted events long before they happened.  He provides an example from Isaiah:

Let us grant that to predict, long before, what at the time seemed incredible but at last actually came to pass was not yet a clear enough token of divine inspiration.  Yet from what source but God shall we say have come those prophecies which Isaiah at the same time utters concerning release?  He names Cyrus [Isa. 45:1] through whom the Chaldeans had to be conquered and the people set free.  More than a hundred years elapsed from the time the prophet so prophesied and the time Cyrus was born; for the latter was born about a hundred years after the prophet’s death.  No one could have divined then that there was to be a man named Cyrus who would wage war with the Babylonians, would subdue such a powerful monarchy, and terminate the exile of the people of Israel.  Does not this bare narrative, without any verbal embellishment, show the things Isaiah recounts to be undoubted oracles of God, not the conjectures of a man?

Beautifully put.  However, the editor J. T. McNeill goes and tries to deflate Calvin’s whole argument with this footnote:

The modern view of the late date of Isa., ch.45, does not of course enter Calvin’s mind in this argument.

There are indeed modern scholars who hold to a late date for that part of Isaiah.  They actually deny that Isaiah wrote it.  They say that it was someone else using Isaiah’s name and writing about the events long after they occurred.  This view would never enter Calvin’s mind not only because it would not surface for a few hundred years, but also because Calvin believed the testimony of Scripture.

So there’s unbelief in the Institutes, but it’s not coming from the pen of Calvin himself.  The unbelief is from his unbelieving English editor.  If you’re referring to the Battles edition of the Institutes, be careful with the footnotes!


Must-Have NT Commentary Set

There are questions that I wish people would ask.  Questions like:  “If I had the means, what one set of New Testament commentaries should I purchase?”  I’ve never been asked that.  But it’s a great question and perhaps answering it will lead to some people actually thinking about it and then following up on it.

One possible answer would be John Calvin’s commentaries.  I love John Calvin’s expositions of Scripture.  I often refer to them.  Even after nearly 500 years, Calvin almost always has something valuable to offer.  But…there are three things that put Calvin in second place.  First, it’s not complete.  Calvin didn’t produce a commentary on the book of Revelation (in the Old Testament he also missed Judges, Samuel-Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs).  Second, when it came to the synoptic gospels (Matthew-Luke), he chose to work with a “harmony” method, rather than commenting on each book individually.  That has its advantages, but it can be difficult to find commentary on a particular passage in those books.  Third, Calvin was commenting nearly a half millennium ago.  He worked in literary Latin or French and had a rhetorical style with which many people today struggle to readily connect, even when he’s translated into English.  So Calvin is great, but would not be my first recommendation.

My first recommendation is the New Testament Commentary set produced by William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker.  Hendriksen (1900-1982) was a Christian Reformed minister.  He also served as a New Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1942-1952.  The first volume of his New Testament Commentary was on the Gospel of John and it appeared in 1953.  He later wrote volumes on about half of the books on the New Testament.  After his death in 1982, Simon Kistemaker began the work of completing the set.  Also with a Christian Reformed background, Kistemaker served as a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.  He wrote the volumes on Acts, 1-2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and James-Revelation.

Why would I recommend this commentary set?  First, it is complete, covering the entire New Testament verse by verse.  Second, it is written with exceptional clarity.  Both Hendriksen and Kistemaker were scholars and gifted communicators.  The average person in the pew shouldn’t struggle with these volumes.  Third, most importantly of all, Hendriksen and Kistemaker had a high view of Scripture.  They were Reformed in their theological perspective, confessional men.  Consequently, the New Testament Commentary set is trustworthy.

When I say that it’s reliable, I don’t mean to say that I always agree with Hendriksen or Kistemaker.  I have my differences on various passages — for example, I don’t follow Hendriksen on Romans 11:26, “And in this way all Israel will be saved…”  As he typically does, he lays out several of the options and chooses for one, but I disagree with his choice on that passage.  Same thing for 1 Timothy 2:15, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…”  Nevertheless, it’s not the case that the interpretations with which I disagree result in an attack on the Reformed faith.  They still fall within the pale of confessionally Reformed orthodoxy.

So, if you’re in the market for one set of NT commentaries, I highly recommend the New Testament Commentary set published by Baker. When I just need to quickly check out at least one reliable Reformed interpreter, NTC is my first stop.  It’s getting on in years now, but still valuable and still faithful.  It’s worth having on your shelf.

NOTE:  Sadly, it appears that this set is out of print.  That means you’d you have to find it used.  It’s also available electronically for Logos.