John Calvin


I have just posted a guest post (at my other blog Behind The Back) by Myk Habets on Thomas Torrance’s Framing of Natural Theology through John Calvin & Karl Barth (my title). This is quite good, and would’ve fit in quite well with Travis’ recent Barth Blog Conference. For anyone interested in such things come give it a read, give some feedback, I’m sure Myk would be happy to respond back. See you there . . .

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Here is a video that is quite excellent in elucidating the kind of Calvin theology that T. F. Torrance develops in his book Scottish Theology; and the thesis, in regards to understanding Calvin’s theology, that Charles Partee develops in his newer book The Theology of John Calvin. The thesis is that Calvin’s theology is oriented around Unio mystica, or “Union with Christ.” This video is also interesting, because it comes from a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in PA, his name is Dr. Lane Tipton. Ironically, but not really, another WTS professor (although this one from the CA campus) takes issue with Tipton’s statement on the forensic component of justification overshadowing the person of Jesus Christ in salvation, and in particular the theology of John Calvin (not the “Calvinists,” per se) . . . you can read what he has to say here. Watch the video, it’s only about 5 minutes, and then I’ll pick you up on the other side:

H/T: R. Scott Clark

This, if taken at face value from Tipton (which I am), writhes against dyed in the wool Federal Theologians; that is, their interpretation of Calvin, and the continuity of heritage, reads Calvin almost exclusively through forensic lenses (which is what Federal theologians must do, at least if they are going to claim to be the only living heirs of Calvin). What Tipton is saying, is what Partee is saying about Calvin, and this is what T. F. Torrance is saying about the Scottish/Evangelical Calvinists who emphasized this ‘Calvin’ theme of “Union with Christ” within their own theological development.

The question is, theologically, does Calvin ground his view of justification on the terms of the decree (Covenant of Works/Grace) being met; or does he ground it in the person of Christ? The Federal says the former, the Evangelical says the latter. Not to be too audacious, but it almost sounds as if Tipton is Evangelical, at least his interpretation of Calvin is.

Here is J.K.S. Reid in his Introduction to his translation of John Calvin’s Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God. He is concerned with underscoring Calvin’s procedure of thought and method per his “system” of things. Calvin’s appropriation by the post-Reformed (those who followed Calvin, through Beza, Zanchi, Perkins, Ames, and others) is a very “logic” driven system of coherence; i.e. they “finish off” where Calvin supposedly “left off.” Certainly they could’ve, but then again they “could’ve not.” This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories — thus the existence of “Evangelical Calvinism” in Scotland, and what Janice Knight has called The Spiritual Brethren in Old England (where they predominated for a time), and New America (where they were overshadowed by The Intellectual Fathers, or Federal/Classic Calvinists). Here is Reid:

. . . A good deal of nonsense is talked about Calvin, as though his system were logical in the sense of being rounded off and complete; and the statement by frequent repitition has become almost a commonplace. In fact his system has not this character at all. It is certainly logical in the sense that the argument moves carefully step by step from one point to the next. But, to do it justice, it must bejohncalvin7recognized as including elements not easily (or at all) capable of being harmonised — a complexio oppositorum, as H. Bauke says of it (see J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, p. 202). Of special relevance to the purpose here is the following example. Pighius objects to Calvin that the dominical command to preach the Gospel universally conflicts with the doctrine of special eleciton (§VIII. I). Calvin’s brief answer to this conundrum is that Christ was ordained for the salvation of the whole world in such a way that only those  who hear are saved. The universality of the grace of Christ is symbolised by a promiscuous preaching of the Gospel; the universality of the Mediator is paralleled by the universality of the call to penitence and faith. But at this point the harmony ends; the offer of salvation is made equally to all, but salvation itself is for those who are elect. It is the bare bones of the argument, then, that are exposed, even if the result manifests a certain awkward untidiness. There is no attempt to compel harmony or to systematise by force. That there is a consequent practical difficulty is obvious; and it is one which, whatever Calvin thought of it, was compelling enough to drive his opponents into another camp. The situation for Calvin is not really significantly relieved by what he adds to the argument. The universal offer of the Gospel does indeed have a meaning for those in whose case it is not effective. Quoting St Paul, Calvin says that for them it can only be a “savour of death unto death.” The logicality of the exposition is so far preserved that the universal offer of salvation has at least some effective consequence in all cases. But the parallelism on analysis is found to be specious; the awkwarx untidiness reappears at a different point. It does not now consist in the fact that the same offer of the Gospel sometimes has and sometimes has an effect commensurable with its nature and with the purpose with which God designed it, and that sometimes, on the other hand, it has a quite opposite effect, incommensurable with its nature and the saving purpose of God — it precipitates death instead of life, destruction in place of salvation. This goes to show that Calvin’s first loyalty is directed, not to formal adherence to abstract logicality, but to the facts of the case and situation as he conceived them, or rather as he conceived the Scriptures to depict them. The logicality of his thought is dedicated not to the formation of a system, but rather to the eliciting of the meaning and the implications of those facts which, as it seemed to him, belong the body of Christian truth. (John Calvin, trans., J.K.S. Reid, “Concerning The Eternal Predestination Of God,” 13-14)

This fits well with Charles Partee’s point on Calvin as a “confessor,” more than a dogmatician; Calvin certainly had a logic and method to his theologising, but it was driven by his ineluctable commitment to say what scripture says — even if coherence remains tenuous. Richard Muller and his followers, and those he follows in the history of post-Reformed orthodoxy, have sought to provide, by and large, the “rounded-offness,” or logical coherence to Calvin’s enthymemic (unstated premises) articulation. It is this crux upon which this school claims to be orthodox, its orthodoxy is proximate to its genealogical lineage to Calvin himself; or so goes the thinking. Of course this claim remains questionable at best, since enthymeme is by definition “unstated;” the danger with discerning the unstated is that we might “state” where or what Calvin, in this instance, never intended.

Since, if as Reid has stated, the “lack of logicality” is real in Calvin; the door is open for, as stated before, multiform appropriation of Calvin. My contention is not that the “orthodox” don’t have a credible claim on Calvin, instead that their’s is not to be understood as exclusive. The history of “Calvinism” bears witness to this, amen, amen! 

P.S. The theology that Reid brings up in the quote will have to be addressed at a later date, it is substantial.

Here is Charles Partee on Imago Dei (Image of God) and Imago Christi (Image of Christ):

Having praised the original creation of human understanding and will, Calvin concludes that God is comprehended in Christ alone (II.6.4) until such time as we shall see God as he is (II.14.3). God cannot be known apart from Christ because “all thinking about God outside Christ is a vast abyss which immediately swallows up all our thoughts.” Those who philosophize about God without Christ are deluded (compare 1 Pet. 1:20; I John 2:22). Since Calvin’s theology is based on faith, not on reason, the Christian life is not linked by chains of reasoning but guided by faith in Christ, which is the principal work of the Holy Spirit. “We hold ourselves to be united with Christ by the secret power of his Spirit (III.11.5). “Therefore, that joining together of head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed” (III.11.10).

Image and Likeness. The same dynamic from created to fallen to restored also applies to Calvin’s view of the image of God. Mankind was originally created in God’s image, which means “that man was blessed, not because of his own good actions, but by participation in God” (II.2.1). The image of God is not to be understood only as a possession but a relationship—and “participation in God” involves “union with Christ.” In the fall, while “God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in [Adam], yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity” (I.15.4). Human sin means that the image of God cannot be understood solely in terms of creation or fall but in the true image of God restored in Jesus Christ. In other words, Calvin defines the image more in terms of redemption than creation. Regeneration is nothing else than the reformation of the image of God in the godly, but the second creation of the image in the restoration by Christ is a far more rich and powerful grace (Com. Eph. 4:24). The grace of God exhibited in Christ exceeds all miracles. Indeed the redemption that he has brought surpasses even the creation of the world (Com. Is. 9:6).

Since Christ is the perfect image of God and we are united to him, we are restored to God’s image. . . . (Charles Partee, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 86-87)

Much to be said, and I will reflect on this over the weekend. Let me just place a bookmark on the participation and Imago Dei/Christi point, this is important, even if Calvin himself was not entirely internally consistent, himself.

Go see this really good post by Jason Goroncy on Calvin:

Michael Jinkins on, ‘Myths and urban legends about John Calvin’

Two quotes from Calvin on Union with Christ (or Unio Mystica):

First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us.

— Institutes III. 1. 1 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 40

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts — in short, that mystical union — are accorded by us the highest degree of importance. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body — in short because he deigns to make us one with him.

Institutes II. 16. 19 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 41

Both of these quotes illustrate something that stands at the heart of an ‘Evangelical’ approach to Calvinism; and that is the vicarious life of Christ. If we aren’t ‘really’ brought into His life, in the Incarnation and Atonement (both of these being inextricably linked), then salvation only ends up dealing with the symptoms (murders, lying, stealing, lusting, blaspheming, etc.) — the external problems — and not with the “heart problem” (where the murders, lying, etc. flow from). If Jesus didn’t get into our skin, and thus we into His, then we end up with a half baked salvation . . . which really is no salvation. More to come . . .

For anybody interested, and who has access to academic journals, Dr. Myk Habets — “Evangelical Calvinist, extraordinaire” 🙂 — has yet again been published in the Scottish Journal of Theology. His most recent essay is entitled:

“Putting the ‘Extra’ back into Calvinsm”

Here is the bibliographic info: SJT 62(4): 441–456 (2009) Printed in the United Kingdom C  2009 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi:10.1017/S003693060999010X

If you hadn’t guessed, the article is dealing with the so called extra Calvinisticum. Here is the abstract:

With a long and venerable history in both Catholic and Protestant traditions the doctrine represented by the term extra Calvinisticum has fallen out of favour within contemporary theologies of the cross. Through an examination of the history of the doctrine and its constituent features the present article advocates the reclamation of the doctrine as a necessary component for a contemporary theology of the atonement, with special emphasis on the trinitarian dimensions of the death of God on the cross. The extra Calvinisticum is then adopted to refute contemporary theologies of a suffering God. (see biblio info above)

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