Monday, October 5, 2009

Calvin resurgence: a two-edged sword pt.2

(In the first installment of this essay we set forth the thesis that Timothy 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 this second and final installment, an argument is presented for interpreting George as presenting a two-sided Calvin, and focus is on the divisive, intolerant, and dangerous Calvin who is better left ignored.)

Where is the other Calvin, the one who is intolerant, divisive, and better left in the past? The answer is, he is found in the things that have been conspicuously left unmentioned. While it is true that George makes reference to the doctrine of predestination, what casual and uninitiated folks might think is the central identifying feature of Calvin’s thoughts, he gives a superficial explanation of its meaning and role in Calvin’s theological system and offers no suggestions for how gaining an appreciation for Calvin’s views on the topic may be useful for contemporary evangelicals. But more disturbing is what is missing. Careful examination of the essay reveals a complete lack of reference to any of the doctrines which Calvin himself identified as the most salient features of Reformed thought: worship, the gospel, and church government.

Offering even just glancing insights into Calvin’s views on these core Protestant doctrines in order stimulate a discussion of his views on these topics seems in order if the aim of the biographical essay is to explain how a recovery of his thought could be beneficial to 21st century evangelicals. For instance, to an evangelical world which experiences anything but a consensus on what constitutes a standard of worship, it is strange that George is utterly silent about Calvin’s very clear definition of what constitutes Biblical worship. In an evangelical world where defining what the gospel means is a constant issue of debate, how could George fail to make reference to Calvin’s view of justification by faith alone, which is Calvin’s definition of the gospel? To an evangelical church which has self-consciously attempted to train its pastor/leaders in the mold of Fortune 500 CEO’s, why not present Calvin’s view of a pastor a teacher and as a holy person who “ought to excel others, and shine by the example of a holier life”? (Cf. 2 separate articles in this CT issue for pastors as CEO's, "Liberty Unbound," p.40; and "The Art of Cyber Church," p.54ff).

Failing to offer even brief discussion on these points which Calvin himself identified as the central doctrines of evangelical Protestantism is curious at best and conspicuous at worst. Of course it would be illegitimate to expect slavish conformity to one man’s views on these crucial doctrines, but it is extremely befuddling that no space at all is given to these basic positions and the claims Calvin made about them in an essay designed to encourage recovery of Calvin’s thought. This glaring omission coupled with George’s rather lame attempt to portray a protopostmodern Calvin characterized by bold strokes of mystery shaded in with highlights of tentativeness, leads the thoughtful reader to conclude that George has serious reservations about a robust Calvin resurgence.

It might be reasonable to suggest that lack of space prevented discussion of such issues, but weighed against the significant amount of time he spent filling in highlights of Calvin’s biography in order to set up the narrative of Calvin as a savant wondering the far reaches of the outpost of modernity in search of entirely new way, seems like an intentional effort to direct attention away from the intolerant, theologically defined, and divisive Calvin. The not so subtle impression left by this biographical piece is that a contemporary Calvin resurgence is like a two-edged sword, fraught with potential danger for evangelicals, if left in the hands of the unskillful. Apparently, the real story is, that five hundred years after his birth there is precious little of the historical Calvin to salvage for contemporary use, and deconstructing those rare and precious parts and translating them into 21st century terms is best done by experts like George who are better equipped to figure out what to ignore, suppress, and leave safely behind in a remote and premodern past.

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