Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Fr. Joseph Revisted: Calvin's Beloved Pagan Philosophy

There hasn’t been much action on whether or not Calvin’s alleged “beloved pagan philosophy could be successfully blended into Christianity.” The CARM dialog between Fr. Joseph and I is somewhat at a standstill. Fr. Joseph basically restated his position (his words in red):

Mr. Swan has taken exception, in particular to two statements I made in posts to others about Calvin and his foundation in Humanism. The statements are that Calvin was “enthralled by Humanism” and “his beloved philosophy”. He has asked that I develop and expose my theory in more detail revealing my sources for my obvious opposition to humanist, pagan syncretism within Christianity and to show how Calvin, in particular but not exclusively, was subject to this influence.”

I don’t recall actually being interested in anyone other than Calvin. It’s quite obvious from any basic historical text that Humanism was a factor during the Reformation. We could talk about any number of 16th century people- Melanchthon, Erasmus, Beza- but none of these men produced work equivalent to Calvin (except the Greek New Testament by Erasmus). Try to find works by Melanchthon or Beza- you’ll find a few, but probably nothing substantial. You might find a few texts by Erasmus. With Calvin though, you’ll find his Institutes and commentaries still in print. You’ll also find a good handful of his other writings as well. Ages software makes a wonderful CD of Calvin’s writings available, for under 20 dollars- including some materials that have been out of print of some time.

My understanding of Mr. Swan’s position is that he is not denying the influence of humanism but more so the extent of this influence in Calvin’s theological positions. I believe that the study of this subject reveals a profound influence of humanism and, in fact, results in an alternative syncretic Gospel other than the Gospel taught by our Lord and Savior and proclaimed by the apostles and their successors.”

Well, Calvin’s theological positions were arrived at by his study of Scripture. The tools of humanism were definitely a factor. But what were those tools? As I’ve already stated, Calvin indeed was highly influenced by humanism- because of its plea for ad fontes research. The tools of Humanism Calvin used were philology and history. In other words- Calvin strove to read the Bible in its original languages. For Calvin, a text had to be read in its original language and in its original context. Calvin’s use of the Church Fathers can’t be overlooked either. No better text bears this out than Anthony Lane’s book, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers.

I am at somewhat of a loss- because I don’t know too much about Fr. Joseph, other than what my friends on the blog have told me. When he says “Gospel”- what does he mean? I know what Rome means- but I’ve been told Fr. Joseph is not a “Roman” Catholic- so I don’t know what the “Gospel” is in his mind.

I think that it is important before engaging in this conversation about the influence of humanism on Christian thought to state that I believe that any syncretic attempt at rationalizing humanism and Christianity is an error regardless of one’s philosophical or theological presuppositions. I am opposed to these syncretic attempts whether approached from a Catholic or from a Protestant perspective. The reasons for this are obvious to me.”

As was pointed by other CARM participants, Fr. Joseph seems to play loose with his definition of humanism. I’ve yet to see him offer one. Shouldn’t this be an opening consideration?

In its infancy, humanism was to be a tool that served the church. Who would be against saving the works of classical literature? Who would be against saving the writings of the early church fathers? Who would be against recovering the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible? It seems Fr. Joseph is. I wonder which version of the Bible he uses, and if he realizes the debt he owes to the humanists for pushing the notion of ad fontes. Perhaps Fr. Joseph uses the Latin Vulgate…well…which version? Even the Vulgate owes a debt to the Humanists.

I am opposed because one’s presuppositions, influenced by pagan thought or philosophy, greatly influences one’s image of God “imago Dei’ and God’s relationship to humanity revealed in the regula fidei or rule of faith within Christ’s Church.”

Again, I’m at a loss, because I know what "Roman" Catholics mean with a statement like this, but I don’t know exactly what Fr. Joseph means.

Humanist philosophy inhibits one’s ability to be instructed by God’s Word and the reception and/or application of the revelations of the Spirit. A humanist worldview whether speaking of renaissance humanism or contemporary humanism affects the way humanity approaches the throne of God as well as how one perceives Christ as a man among us and Christ in His divinity.”

“Humanist worldview” “humanist philosophy”… what does this mean? Fr. Joseph assumes we’re on the same page. I have been fairly up front with my position on humanism, Fr. Joseph has not. What are the differences between the types of Humanism Fr. Joseph mentions?

I believe that this relationship is where Calvin and his fellow syncretists struggle to find relevancy in the corpus of a Christian worldview. The question I wish to explore here in this dialog is whether one can separate oneself from this humanist thought, as pagan man is little different from contemporary man, and experience God’s divinity from His Word alone? May the Lord be with us in this endeavor.”

Fr. Joseph has raised the issues of worship, the humanity and deity of Christ, and the alleged inadequacy of sola scriptura, all without any quotations from Calvin. Now, these are interesting rabbit trails to run down. We could quibble over the Eucharist, or some such thing. However, I think it would helpful to heed the thankful response Luther gave the humanist Desiderius Erasmus in his book, The Bondage of the Will:

I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues), with which almost everyone hitherto has gone hunting for me without success. You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot; for which I sincerely thank you, since I am only too glad to give as much attention to this subject as time and leisure permit.”

What was the “vital spot”? It was the freedom or bondage of the will. Really, it does come down to this. If Calvin is wrong on the bondage of the will, any type of Catholicism is correct. So, over on the CARM boards I posted this link for Fr. Joseph:


The link is to Calvin’s commentary on Romans 3, a passage that Calvin felt clearly spoke of a depraved mankind enslaved to sin. I’ve asked Fr. Joseph to read this small section and “show” where Calvin’s alleged pagan humanism is.

Calvin arrived at his position by a close study of the Scriptures. He didn’t consult pagan philosophers, nor did he think the human mind and “reason” were capable of totally grasping everything the Bible says. For Calvin, it is the Bible, not reason that is the ultimate authority for Christians.

Calvin though is not a "despiser" of reason. He felt the human mind was a gift from God, Christians were called upon to use their minds to the best they could. But ultimately Christians must realize their reason cannot penetrate into the deepest and highest truths, the spiritual realities of life. Reason needed to be submissive to the Bible. Calvin would say, it is not the Bible that contains errors, but human reason which does. Thus, any comments on Calvin’s humanism must factor this in.

I alluded earlier to William Bouwsma’s biography of Calvin. Below is an extended section, documenting Calvin’s attitude toward philosophy:

Above all, for Calvin, reason cannot grasp the Gospel. For those most endowed with learning and intelligence, Christ crucified can only be "weakness and foolishness," the way of redemption a fable; wisdom is of no importance for faith. It is futile, therefore, to try to support the Gospel with philosophy; even the ancient philosophers, the more they sought to approach God, only became more distant from him. Calvin did not deny that "excellent sentiments" inspired by God himself could be found in the works of "philosophers and profane writers," but he thought these "radically contaminated," so that anything based on them is obscured by "a huge mass of errors."

The limits of the human mind would appear, then, to make natural theology virtually impossible: nature, in this perspective, is for Calvin "nothing," God is "all," and in any case the heavens "are not transparent." Nature can provide "nothing certain or solid or clear-cut"; its findings are so confused that it leads only to the worship of "an unknown God." The proper response to nature, in any case, is emotional rather than intellectual; we are not so much to understand it as to appreciate it. Insofar as we can grasp the wonderful order of the heavens, Calvin thought, it should "ravish us with astonishment." The best we can conclude from inspecting it is that "God has made such a masterpiece that we should admire it, confessing that we cannot comprehend a thing so high and so profound and secret."

In the absence of divine revelation, therefore, Calvin recommended, on religious matters, a deliberate agnosticism, a docta ignorantia that allows God to be wiser than we are. "To be ignorant of things which it is neither possible nor lawful to know," he argued, "is to be learned." He retold with approval Cicero's anecdote about Simonides who, when asked by Hiero the Tyrant what God is, requested a day to consider, asked for further delays as the question was repeated, and finally concluded that the question only became more baffling the longer he thought about it. "He wisely suspended judgment," Calvin concluded, "on a subject so obscure." This comes close to the famous remark—so shocking to the pious—attributed to Protagoras: "About the gods I have no knowledge whether they exist or do not exist. There are many obstacles to such knowledge, for instance the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life."

Calvin continued, to be sure, to insist on God's rationality. What appears chaotic and meaningless to us, he argued, is nevertheless "governed by his inestimable wisdom"; however incomprehensible his ways may appear, they are nevertheless infused with "the best reason"; and although God may seem variable to us, he is "never inconsistent nor unlike himself." But God's rationality is impenetrable to his creatures. Whatever it is, it is nothing like human rationality, so imperfect and obscured by sin. Calvin had only limited respect, then, for the competence of the human mind in earthly matters, where, even in his most measured statements, he could describe it only as not altogether worthless. It sometimes seemed to him a vast and unstable confusion, "entangled and intertwined like the branches of a tree," driven aimlessly "hither and thither" by every passing novelty.

Believing the human mind incompetent to grasp even the Ten Commandments, he was critical of ancient moral philosophy. "If we want to measure our reason by God's law, the pattern of perfect righteousness," he declared, "we shall find in how many respects it is blind." It fails to comprehend at all the first table of the Law, and only imperfectly grasps the second.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Calvin's attitude, not only to Scholasticism but to all philosophy, was less than positive. He most opposed it when it "contaminated" religion; he thought philosophers peculiarly tempted to attempt "to penetrate heaven." Even when he was most generous about philosophy, he emphasized its limitations. "I do not deny," he wrote, "that one can read clever and apt reflections about God here and there in the philosophers, but these always betray a giddy imagination." What even the best among them said of religion—Calvin probably meant Plato—"is not only frigid but empty."

But he reserved his full scorn for speculative philosophy, of which Athens was his symbol as it had been for Tertullian. "There is no doubt," he asserted, "that God allowed the Athenians to fall into extreme folly so that they might demonstrate to every age that all the acuteness of the human mind, aided by learning and teaching, is only foolishness in relation to the Kingdom of God." Philosophers were his "most potent example" of human weakness: "not one of them can be found who has not fallen away from solid knowledge into pointless and erroneous speculations. Most of them are sillier than old women." Like Augustine he was particularly repelled by their inability to reach agreement. Among philosophers, he exclaimed, "how shameful is the diversity! Each one camouflages his utterances with his great wit and the grace of his art and knowledge, but if you look more closely, you will find only fleeting unrealities." This came close to calling philosophy "mere rhetoric," a neat revenge for a rhetorician. "If anyone prefers it in a word," Calvin charged, "philosophy is nothing but persuasive speech that insinuates itself into the minds of men with fine and plausible arguments." He attributed this conception to Paul: "In my judgment, he means [by "philosophy"] whatever men invent out of themselves when they want to know something by their own understanding, and that not without a specious pretext of reason, in order that it might appear probable."

His sharpest attacks on philosophy were directed against Scholasticism as the most flagrant example of the attempt of philosophers to storm heaven. He distinguished between more and less sound Schoolmen, but even the former—whom he chose not to mention by name—repelled him because of their "thorny subtleties." He forgot the flirtations of the Fathers with philosophy when he imagined them standing in judgment on Scholasticism. "All the Fathers," he wrote, "detested with one heart the contamination of God's Holy Word by the subtleties of sophists and the squabbles of dialecticians [which] obscure the simplicity of Scripture with endless contentions and worse than sophistic brawls. . . . Why, if the Fathers were now brought back to life and heard such brawling art as these persons call speculative theology, there is nothing they would less suppose than that these folk were disputing about God!" The Schoolmen, for Calvin, "malignantly converted prudence into cunning in order to construct for themselves profound cogitations with which shamelessly to insult God."

His denunciations of Scholasticism recapitulated the attacks of generations of Renaissance humanists. Some of his charges were directed against the abstract intellectuality of Scholasticism and were closely related to his anthropology. In Scholastic discourse, Calvin charged, "vain men weary themselves with speculations which lack, so to speak, any practical value"; this was a peculiar "madness." "Today," he charged, "sophists come to mock God with their sophistical subtleties." He also attacked Scholastic discourse as incomprehensible. He reminded Sadoleto of this as one humanist to another: "Do you remember how it was when our [reformers] appeared, and what kind of teaching candidates for the ministry learned in the schools? You yourself know that it was mere sophistry, and sophistry so twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling, that Scholastic theology might well be described as a species of secret magic." Such theology was only "babble" and "chatter"; its questions were "frivolous."

The Schoolmen did not truly engage with the Gospel. "In the shady cloisters of the schools," Calvin wrote, "anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come into the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles." The Schoolmen treated even repentance abstractly, having "never awakened from their brute stupor to feel a thousandth part, or even less, of their faults." Sadoleto himself had "too indolent a theology, as is almost always the case with those who have never had experience in serious struggles of conscience."

With such accusations Calvin mingled the equally serious charge of "curiosity," the immoderate pursuit of knowledge, to which we are "impelled by nature and therefore ask frivolous questions. To curiosity we add audacity and temerity, so that we do not hesitate to make assertions about unknown and hidden matters. From these two causes has been born a good part of Scholastic theology.'' God "does not wish us to be too wise" but to exhibit "sobriety"; we must not seek to know more than "it pleases him to teach us." When he "is our teacher and we hear him speak, he is able to give us prudence and discretion to understand his teaching, and we cannot fail in that; but when our Lord keeps his mouth closed we must also keep our senses closed and hold them captive." He imagined himself questioning a wretch afflicted with the lust to know more than he should: "I wish to know this." "And why do you wish to know it?" "Because it pleases me." God had appeared "in a whirlwind and dark cloud" to discourage such curiosity

Source: William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 154-157

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