Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Before You Think You Have it All Figured Out...

There are many in blogdom who think they know everything about dead theologians and can put them into a nice neat box. But then there is always that passing comment that you cannot fit into your system. This is the case with John Calvin. There are many, who are all over the map theologically, who try to make Calvin fit into their theological camp.

I am not one who thinks Calvin fits perfectly in my theological camp. I try to let Calvin stay in the 16th century, where he belongs. This by no means is to say that we cannot read Calvin and gain insight. We should read him! Calvin is great and he has many great insights, but the problem comes when we try to pull Calvin out of the 16th century and drop him into the 21st century. This happens, for example, when people try to make Calvin pick sides in the atonement debate. Many in blogdom insist that Calvin held a view of the atonement that includes Christ dying for all people of all times. They muster many Calvin quotes to show this to be the case. But then there is alway that passing comment that throws a monkey wrench in to the whole endeavor.

[T]he first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins? I agree with him, that Christ is present as a strict judge when his Supper is profaned. But it is one thing to be eaten, and another to be a judge.

This quote will make you scratch your head. Did he just say that Christ was not crucified for the wicked? It seems that way to me. Now, I am not trying to say Calvin held a limited atonement. But what I am saying is that Calvin was not in the 17th and 18th centuries when the debate of the extent of the atonement hit its climax. This issue was not of the front-burner of Calvin's mind. This quote should do at least one thing, it should make us stop and think before we shove dead theologians into our modern theological boxes. Read them in their context, this includes their historical context.


  1. Josh,

    I think most of what you've said here is unobjectionable (I'd be interested to see the wider context of that quote, though). But one thing to keep in mind is that, while we ought to keep our favorite theologians in their own historical context and interpret them accordingly, the Reformed churches of our day still utilize confessions penned at the time these theologians lived, and therefore to leave Calvin (or any of the magisterial Reformers) swaying in the 16th cent. as though understanding what they thought is not of utmost importance in current intra-Reformed debates is not adequate.

    If the Reformed churches were to adopt a new confession with modern thought forms and different, more recent theologians influencing their statements, then yes, invoking the authority of Calvin (or any 16th cent. theologian) while perhaps instructive on a historical level, would be for the most part a moot point when attempting to interpret a 21st cent. confession. But when we're interpreting documents from the 16th and 17th cent. which were penned by men who were self-consciously aware of the influence men such as Calvin, Bullinger, etc., had on how they viewed things, then understanding what these men believed and taught in their writings is really a matter of first importance if we are going to engage said documents intelligently and honestly.

    Don't you think?

    Jonathan Bonomo

  2. Johnathan,

    Thank you for a well thought out and intelligent response. I wish others in the blogosphere could response as you have done. It is a great example of Christan love and charity. Thank you for that.

    As to your comments, I would agree with you if we consider men like Calvin broadly. That is, Calvin's broad thought did influence the Westminster Assembly, there is not doubt about that, but what I want to avoid is saying that this or that statement by Calvin, or any other theologian, is going to be a guiding force in our understanding of the Confession. Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying you do this. However, some from other theological movements seem to do this. They latch on to one or two statements from Calvin and read into it their whole system of thought and understanding of the Confession.

    Again, I agree with the overall thrust of your post, but we need to be cautions and sadly many in blogdom are not!

  3. Josh,

    Thanks for the good thoughts and the kind words. I agree that a quote here or there should not govern our thinking on a given issue, whether it be our interpretation of a confession (Westminster or otherwise) or our interpretation of the thought of the theologian who made the quote, and much less a theologian with such a voluminous corpus of work as Calvin. What needs to rather occur is an analysis of the entirety of the thought of a theologian considered in light of the thought forms and terminology at work in the day as well as the place that theologian occupies in the theological landscape of his period, both with regard to his partricular "camp" and his prominence within that camp and the larger ecclesial scene of his day.

    To do this, however, various texts compiled on the topic in question do need to be located, analyzed, and interpreted, toward the goal of viewing them in light of that theologian's wider body of work and system of thought as a whole. So, while there are no doubt some who just throw out quotes from their favorite theologians haphazzardly in order to pontificate on every topic under the sun without having, in reality, much at all in common with the overall trajectory of said theologian's thought, there yet remain many, myself included, who are in the process of ongoing investigation and analysis of the thought forms of a given period (for me, the sixteenth century Reformed) who at times may take notice of particular statements which, when considered in light of the wider body of material available, are worthy of particular note.

    The problem is that, unless one desires to spend all of one's time on the internet, one cannot possibly demonstrate in full this ongoing project of research through endless blog posts, throwing out all of one's laboriously taken notes for the world to see, and so sometimes these folks may bring out a quote in seemingly haphazzard fashion to make a particular point, when in reality their selection of the quote may not have been haphazzard at all, and may in fact have been considered, analyzed, and interpreted in light of the context, both literary and historical, in which it was made.

    Of course, none of this is said to express divergence from your main point that those who are simply scouring the works of theologians for "proof-texts" in order to beat like a drum are in error, on a number of levels. This point is well taken, and many would do well to heed it. I'm just pointing these things out because I think it should be recognized that not everyone who brings forth quotations from Calvin (or whoever else) frequently on the internet is necessarily doing this. Discerning the difference between one who does and one who does not know what the heck he is talking about may, I suppose, be hard at first glance. But I suspect a brief conversation with the one offering the quote would give us a solid indicator of whether this person actually has any meaningful familiarity with the thinker/times he is presuming to interpret, or whether he is just an unlearned, disingenuous child.

  4. Once again, thank you for the great post. It is insightful and helpful. Many great things to consider.

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