Reading Scripture with Calvin and the Inevitability of Theological Exegesis for All

The following is a post I wrote many years ago now; it’s rather short and to the point, but it’s about a very important thing that continues to remain a problem johncalvinsickbedfor many a Christian. It can be a very positive thing once the Christian Bible reader can be humble enough, and/or critical enough to come to recognize the inevitable reality that it is. What I am referring to is the reality of theological exegesis; we all do it, and it has been done ever since the Patristic beginning (meaning the theology that was developed in the so called ecumenical councils; the theology we consider orthodox today relative to the Trintarian and Christological grammar we employ as Christians). The following post broaches this topic once again, I can only hope that if you don’t realize that the way you read Scripture comes from a particular theological tradition, that in fact you will indeed come to realize that you do in fact read Scripture from a particular theological tradition[s]. Here’s what I had to say, appealing to John Calvin, back some time ago.

. . . Calvin, like the other reformers, understood that scripture could not stand without a framework of intepretation. And that framework ultimately supported his theological conclusions. This was precisely how it worked in Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches of the sixteenth century.[1]

I have recently been in a dialogue with a guy who clearly loves the Lord. We have been discussing the idea that God is the Gospel. This idea actually troubles this fellow, “that God is the Gospel,” he has said:

I’ve been going over this and talking it over with people. I am unwilling to say that God is the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the saving redemptive work of Christ. That is the way scripture defines the word “gospel”. It’s very specific. To go beyond that is to go beyond the teaching of scripture, the way scripture defines the term for us and I am unwilling to go there.

The reasons supporting the phrase “God is the gospel” presented so far are not based on exegesis of scripture, but rather on philosophical reasoning. In fact I find the reasoning to be specious. By the same reasoning one might conclude that God is the author of sin. Logic would lead us to believe that was true if we were not fenced in by the limits of scripture.

For this gentleman, the Gospel is strictly a verb, and is not a subject too — which it is. Not to digress, but to illustrate, in contemporary ways, the importance of Calvin’s own approach to scripture. That is, part of interpretation is to recognize that we are indeed interpreting. And that it is okay, and necessary, to go deep into the inner logic and implication of scriptures’ own assumptions. Calvin was aware of the fact that we all have grids of interpretation that we bring to the text, and part of this “spiraling” process of interpreting scripture is to allow scripture and Christ’s life to impose its own categories of thought upon our preconceptions.

In our case, with the fellow I mention above, if he realized that even his desire to read scripture in the way that he does (rather “woodenly”), is in fact a consequence of his prior commitment to an interpretive framework; then he would quickly realize that “his commitment” itself is not “scripture.” That his interpretive paradigm in fact — and I think this is safe to say — is resting on a certain philosophical arrangement that, unfortunately, is unbeknownst to this well intending brother in Christ.

 

[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 108.

 

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Reading Calvin the Way He Intended: Calvin and the Calvinists, again . . .

The never ending debate of continuity between Calvin and the Calvinists will probably endure until the Lord returns. Bruce Gordon, amongst most ‘Reformed’ scholars, holds to the thesis that in fact there is continuity between Calvin and those who bear his name today; he says:

. . . Calvin’s discursive, humanist style, which he shared with his contemporaries, was replaced by new forms of argumentation that could be used in the schools and academies. The theology itself was not changing, and Calvin’s thought remained crucial to Reformed tradition, but the means by which it was taught reflected new requirements. Moreover, as he had lived, in death Calvin did not stand alone. He was read, studied and interpreted in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought that included Bullinger, Vermigli and their successors. Just as he had wanted, he belonged to the community of churchmen. (Bruce Gordon, “Calvin,”339).

I think, reading between the lines, Gordon is saying that much of the post-Calvin development was really only a matter of genre; that pedagogy, and historical circumstances — facing “the Calvinists” — required various approaches and appropriations. I am sure this is true. But is it also sound to reduce Calvin’s thought, and the development of his thought to an issue of “style,” and not “material content,” as Gordon does? I am leery on this point.

Beyond this, and what is agreeable with what Gordon asserts, with qualification of course, is that Calvin was read “in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought.” What Gordon seems to be presuming, given his list of “Calvin’s readers” (i.e. Bullinger, Vermigli, et al.), is that this wider stream is what developed into what we now call “Orthodoxy” (i.e. corollary with the Westminster Divines, et al.). This is where “Evangelical Calvinism” wants to step in and say, “hello, wait a minute, what about the Scots and even some of the English?” Now certainly, if we assume that “Orthodoxy” is “Orthodoxy,” then the “stream of Reformed tradition” is delimited in ways that automatically preclude what we as “Evangelical Calvinists” want to say; and that is that there are readings of Calvin within the ‘Reformed tradition’ that do not fit into the “Orthodox” stream, per se (viz. depending upon what the standard of actual “Orthodoxy” is — is it sola scriptura, or self proclamation?).

Case in point, and on this I will close; Calvin had a very Trinitarian way of reading Union with Christ, it was ‘real’ and ‘ontological’ union — this is what Evangelical Calvinists believe as well. Do the Federal or Orthodox, predominately see it this way (I am generalizing here)? Julie Canlis, a Calvin scholars says:

My suspicion is that Calvin’s scuffle with Osiander is largely to blame for our Reformed emphasis on justification to the exclusion (or downgrading) of adoption as spiritual union. Although Alister McGrath notes, “Calvin is actually concerned not so much with justification, as with incorporation into Christ,” it seems as if Reformed theology traded this full-bodied trinitarianism for a narrower (though vital) christocentrism. Out of fear of Osiander’s (and others’) focus on union unaccompanied by an appropriate role for the cross, we have compensated by limiting union to the cross—the method by which we are saved. With this move, however, we are no longer asking the questions that Calvin was asking: we suddenly are left with questions about how we are saved, from what we are saved, and what we should do now that we have received this salvation. They tend to be the questions that quench rather than nourish spiritual formation because they are stunted. Calvin’s questions always centered around God (not ourselves, or even our salvation) and about the glory of God—questions that are not stunted because they open themselves up to a reality much larger than themselves and do not approach this reality with a (frankly consumerist) howcan- I-get-salvation mentality or a (primarily functional) what-should-I-do-now mentality. Calvin’s questions took their cues from God in his trinitarian fullness and his inexplicable desire to bring us into this fullness. In distancing himself from Osiander, Calvin was not necessarily less radical than Osiander in his vision of union with God, he was just relentlessly trinitarian. Union, when explained as justification or friendship or even fellowship with God, doesn’t quite meet Calvin’s standards. “Not only,” Calvin says, “does Christ cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship (societatis), but, with a wonderful communion (communione), day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us until he becomes completely one with us.” It seems that Calvin himself is arguing for something more than fellowship: “not only fellowship but communion, becoming one with us.” What does this mean? I believe it is Calvin’s desire to push us deeper, through the glory of being reconciled to God by justification, into a life of being spiritually formed by the Trinity itself (himself!). Adoption is Calvin’s answer to both Osiander’s non-trinitarian union and the sometimes-diluted “union” that we in the Reformed tradition have unconsciously embraced. (Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation,” Resurgence [2007])

There is alot in this one quote (Osiander was one of Calvin’s theological opponents, btw); suffice it to say, besides the rich points that Canlis is making (theologically), this illustrates the way that Calvin can and should be read on “Union.” If this is the case, shouldn’t this be one of the salient points that we judge whether or not the “Orthodox Calvinist” has indeed read Calvin the right way? I think it should be. If this was a key of Calvin’s theology, shouldn’t it be a keynote in the “Orthodox” Calvinist’s theology?

I could provide more comment, in fact I want to quote TFT in his book “Scottish Theology,” wherein we see ‘Evangelical Calvinists’ reading “Union” much the same way as Calvin. The point would be, if “Scottish Theology” reads Calvin the way he intended, and “Federal Theology” (Classic Calvinists) do not; wouldn’t this at least suggest that “Evangelical Calvinism” should be included in the discussion of the “wider Reformed tradition?” I think so, thus an impetus for this blog. I wonder what you think . . .

Calvinists, "Not Christians!"

I just came across this great little quote from Bruce Gordon’s book, “Calvin:”

. . . Terms like ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Zwinglian’ were not badges worn with pride so much as insults used by opponents to indicate that the people were not Christians.” (p. 185)

The time frame this is referring to, is at least Calvin’s life time.

I suppose this is true today, as well; it all depends on what direction your looking at it from.