Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Calvin resurgence: a two-edged sword pt.1

(this article is a critique of "John Calvin: Comeback Kid" by Timothy George published in Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/september/14.27.html)

As a subcategory of epideictic rhetoric, biography informs the audience about values which are important to the author, and beyond that of the kind of change the author intends to effect in the reading audience. So, a significant question to ask in evaluating a biographical piece is what change did the author seek to effect. Answering this question provides a key to unlock the values of the biographer and in turn gives insight into the criteria used for the selection of the details included the biographical piece. On the other hand, if the elements isolated for presentation and commendation (implicitly so) are a means of measuring what an author values, it seems fair, on the other hand, to take note of the significant components of the subject of investigation which were suppressed and not presented, and seek from them some insight into the values of the subject which are worthy of blame. In turn, this kind of inquiry should provide insight into some significant differences of opinion between the biographer and his subject of study and presentation.

Timothy George in his biographical essay on John Calvin entitled, “John Calvin: Comeback Kid,” presents a Calvin standing on the fringes of modernity to readers positioned tentatively in the stream of postmodernity. The aim of this biographical piece was to draw out enduring lessons for a 21st century reading audience on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, presenting noteworthy details from Calvin’s academic development, call to ministry, social life, and theological labors. The thesis of this paper is that George presents a portrait of a two-sided Calvin, one who is malleable and adaptable to progressive evangelicals in a postmodern age and one who is intolerant, divisive, and better ignored and left in the past.

In developing the portrait of a malleable and adaptive Calvin, George suggests three reasons why Calvin is receiving so much attention with the arrival of the 21st century and the postmodern age. Before analyzing the three reasons he provides, it is instructive to notice the placement of these three points within the flow of the essay. Just prior to stating his three reasons he charts the backdrop of Calvin’s reception over the past five centuries. After portraying Calvin as somewhat ambivalent on the question of political revolution he notes that his own followers both in the 17th century in England justified regicide in the case of Charles I in 1649. Following that he charts the course of Calvin’s heritage in America following the trail from the Mayflower landing to Jonathan Edwards, to Emerson, the liberal grandson of Puritans, and finally to the embryonic yet growing Calvin resurgence emerging after the turn of the millennium exemplified in popular evangelical authors and speakers such as John Piper and R.C. Sproul, as well as among select academia including Notre Dame’s leading philosopher Alvin Plantinga and Harvard Divinity School’s George Marsden. This wide, yet disparate reception throughout the centuries suggests that Calvin, in spite of wide spread suspicion, just may well be a man for all seasons after all.

Having set up the brief historical backdrop of Calvin’s reception, George discloses his reasons for Calvin’s current resurgence among postmodern evangelicals. The first is that “postmodernity has placed us all ‘on the boundary’—on the border between the fading certainties of modernism and new ways of understand the world with its promises and perils.” Appealing to Calvin’s own status as a refugee in Geneva where he spent the bulk of his public ministry and teaching, he notes that Calvin’s model of pursuing the call of God as a sojourner in the strange and unfamiliar waters of life at a time of great social and ecclesiastical upheaval makes him adaptable to a 21st century evangelical swimming with or against the tide of postmodernism (whatever the case may be) in a time similarly marked by questions about ultimate issues and anxieties about the stability of the future.

While it is true that Calvin’s time as well as our time is marked by intellectual uncertainty and anxiety about the stability of the future, whether that be politically, economically, or environmentally, it is not clear, from what George says, just how it is that contemporary evangelicals are to abstract concrete direction from Calvin’s model. George provides no cues for his readers to look to whether that be in Calvin’s actions, life experience, theology, or methodology, in order to trace outlines for contemporary application. Perhaps it is George’s intention to portray Calvin as cloudy and amorphous in order to make him more attractive to intellectually “confused” postmodern types, but if that is his intention, it is a far cry from what is known of the way in which Calvin fought for his own ideas and there application to his own society and the Church. Though he was well schooled in the arts and humanities as attested to by his fist published work, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clemencia, Calvin was anything but ambivalent about his method and the authority of the source of his theological ideas and ecclesiastical policies. Anyone familiar with his published works, as George most certainly is, is well aware that Calvin uncompromisingly held to the sole authority of the Bible as his epistemological foundation. If it were George’s intention to draw direct lines from Calvin’s pursuit of his ministerial calling as a refugee in uncertain times to contemporary postmodern evangelical refugees in post-Christian culture, it seems odd that he did not stake out an objective point of reference for the contemporary audience to look back to in order to find guidance in the tumultuous world of the 21st century. By remaining silent about the objective point of reference it may be that he intends to keep Calvin more mysterious, and more postmodern, while leaving it to the reader to fill in his or her own blanks for application, but, if that is the case it fails to do justice to what the historical record indicates about Calvin.

The second aspect of Calvin’s model that George extrapolates for contemporary application is the character of Calvin’s theology, that, contrary to expectation, on account of Calvin being oft perceived as “an intellectualist and theological rationalist” his theology is actually pervaded by “mystery.” While it is true, as George himself points out, Calvin often referred to doctrines such as the incarnation, the riddle of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the real presence of Christ in the eucharist as characterized by mystery, to simply assert that Calvin’s theology was characterized by mystery without explaining further what that means and what application it might have for contemporary evangelicals, is very misleading. Certainly Calvin saw mystery in many aspects of Christian doctrine, yet the reality is, Calvin found mystery and confessed mystery only where he thought the he found mystery in the Bible. Again, George seems to present Calvin as a postmodern before his time, as if, being a refugee in turbulent social and ecclesiastical context, Calvin was fond of poking holes in traditional doctrinal formulations, deconstructing accepted metanarratives, and pondering questions without seeking absolute answers. Such a conception could not be further from the truth. Calvin, if anything, was a man who was quite certain that there were clear answers to be found about doctrine, ecclesiastical polity, and the natural world; all one needed to do was consult the Bible and the writings of the church Fathers and theologians, and for questions about the natural world he conceded that many of the sounder philosophers and scientists had sufficient answers. While it might be true that Calvin questioned the theological arguments offered by the Roman Catholic magisterium, and though he certainly did question the legitimacy of papal authority, he certainly did not maintain the posture of an epistemological skeptic or that of a mystic either. The only way to find a hologram of a postmodern thinker in Calvin is to impose it upon the historical record, and then transport it forward in time!

Finally, George explains that Calvin is experience a resurgence today because he was “a theologian of the long view.” What he means by that is that though Calvin was uncertain about the prospects of ecclesiastical reform taking firm root and having sustained impact on into the future, he evaluated the prospects of failure or success in view of the eternal horizon and not a temporal one. In other words, he maintained a deep-seated theological conviction that “victory” would ultimately and climactically come in the future by direct divine intervention. There is nothing substantially incorrect or difficult with that so no comment is needed.

(come back soon for pt.2)

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