The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

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