Saturday, April 01, 2006

Continuation of the Dialog with Fr. Joseph on Calvin's Pagan Philosophy (Part 4)

Fr. Joseph over on the CARM Catholic board continued his defense of the negative influence of “pagan philosophers” on the theology of John Calvin. This will be part four in my responses to Fr. Joseph.

Previous entries can be found here:

On John Calvin and Humanism: Did Calvin Blend Pagan Philosophy With Christianity?

Fr. Joseph Revisted: Calvin's Beloved Pagan Philosophy :

Continuation of the Dialog with Fr. Joseph on Calvin's Pagan Philosophy

Here are my responses to Fr. Joseph’s most recent points:

1. Fr. Joseph continues to make points without documentation
I was pleased that Fr. Joseph finally attempted to present some evidence from Calvin’s writings to substantiate his claims. Unfortunately, the evidence lacked what I think is crucial to any historical discussion: actual references. Perhaps Fr. Joseph is working from memory on his previous studies. Perhaps he’s too busy to pull out Calvin’s Institutes and provide the necessary references.

Somehow or another, I always get myself in situations like this: it’s up to me to do the work necessary to find out where Calvin or Luther said “x or y.” Some of you may think this is nitpicking, but my time is important to me. I shouldn’t have to be the one that finds the reference for the point made by someone I’m dialoging with. This is actually a very good debate tactic (in a bad sort of way): present material that forces your opponent to do the work you should have been doing (i.e. providing references). In this, he will get discouraged by the time it takes and give up.

2. Calvin’s “accommodation” was not based on pagan philosophy
In response to my continued badgering for Fr. Joseph to substantiate his claim that pagan philosophy negatively influenced Calvin’s Biblical theology, Joseph finally provided this bit of evidence:

In reading Calvin’s “Institutes” it is evident that there is a doctrinal theme to his catechism. This is sometimes referred to as Calvin’s “accommodation doctrine”. Calvin suggests that God does not represent himself to man as He really is but instead presents himself as a kind of caricature of Himself rather than to burden man’s finite intellect with a completely true revelation of God.”

First, let’s give Fr. Joseph credit. Calvin scholars do point out there is indeed a doctrinal theme of “accommodation” in the Institutes. Ironically though, it is Fr. Joseph that presents the “caricature”. According to Calvin, it is in the Scripture in which we learn about God, where God “accommodates.” Let’s take an elementary look at this, as provided in the simplistic book, Calvin for Armchair Theologians:

Calvin thought that educated readers of the Bible in his time, who came to the text expecting its eloquence to reflect the literary values of the Renaissance, would be disappointed. The Bible is not, in his view, sophisticated philosophical discourse. Its stories, poems, chronicles, legal codes, and letters reflect the world and worldviews out of which these particular texts emerged. According to Calvin, God made use of the idioms of ancient language and culture and in so doing ‘stooped down’ to the level of the audience, accommodating their limited ability in order to communicate with them. You might say (and Calvin does say) that Scripture is God’s baby talk. Just as adults will alter their speech when talking to a baby in order to suit the infant’s capacity to understand, God puts things in terms chosen to suit the capacity of the hearers of the biblical text.”

Source: Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2002), 52.

Fr. Joseph suggests Calvin held God presents Himself as a “caricature” rather than “a completely true revelation of God.” But this is incorrect, because the revelation of God presented in accommodation is “completely true.” Calvin does not hold God is presenting Himself falsely. He’s presenting Himself in a way that finite minds can understand, that is via the pages of sacred Scripture. One has to stop and ask if Fr. Joseph is arguing the contrary: that finite minds can completely grasp the infinite. Such though is logically impossible. Only the infinite can completely understand the infinite.

Fr. Joseph continues:

I believe that this is an incorporation of Pagan Greek philosophy whether intentional or accidental. To Greek philosophical thought the god’s are presented without complexity and in human form representing a metaphorical personification of human desires to aid man in understanding or accepting the awesome creation. In Calvin’s philosophy, he believes that God by His very creation is accommodating to mankind. Creation is for mankind that it may understand Him. This parallels Greek thought in that, they saw their god’s and goddesses as aids to mankind. Their structure of god’s and goddesses were for the purpose of serving mankind instead of mankind serving god. Therefore, Calvin perceives the incarnation as God revealing Himself in accommodation to man rather than God preparing the harvest in preparation for the parousia.”

One has to immediately stop and ask how it was those who followed Calvin and wrote the Westminster Confession were able to pen the words, “What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever (I Cor. 10:31; Psa. 73:25-26).” Calvin’s actual lifelong concern was to proclaim the power, grace, and glory of God, who has revealed himself to man in Christ. Calvin’s entire doctrine was intended to affirm the sovereignty of God and to vindicate His honor.

The fallacy put forth above by Fr. Joseph is an example of post hoc ergo proctor hoc. The fallacious argument goes like this “X occurred, therefore it is the direct cause of Y”. In other words, Fr. Joseph is fallaciously arguing:

Pagan philosophy held to a “structure of god’s and goddesses.. for the purpose of serving mankind instead of mankind serving god”

…this was the direct cause of Calvin’s view that the infinite God has presented Himself in finite terms so that finite creatures can truly comprehend Him.

Such though does not follow. Calvin’s view of accommodation maintains the holiness and splendor of God, as well as God’s mercy. In His infinite perfection, He has mercifully made Himself known to His creation.

In order to fully grasp the non-relatedness of the point Fr. Joseph raises, it would be helpful to consider the contrary. Is Fr. Joseph suggesting it is possible to grasp the infinite attributes of God without any type of accommodation? Has Fr. Joseph perhaps been granted a special extra-biblical revelation of God’s infinite attributes apart from God accommodating himself through the Scriptures, Nature, or even (for sake of argument) His church? Is Fr. Joseph therefore, denying God accommodates Himself in any way? I suggest Joseph is out of synch not only with Calvin, but Aquinas and Augustine as well.

Fr. Joseph then presents this curious argument:

Calvin perceives the incarnation as God revealing Himself in accommodation to man rather than God preparing the harvest in preparation for the parousia.”

Quite frankly, I have no idea what Fr. Joseph is saying here. It appears to be an either/or fallacy. Either God presents Himself for the preparing of the harvest of the parousia (whatever that means), or God accommodates Himself via Scripture so man can comprehend Him. Fr. Joseph will need to clarify his point.

3. Tangent: the revisions of Calvin’s Institutes
Fr. Joseph then went on to make some unrelated tangential points. He first commented on the revisions of the Institutes:

"We know that Calvin’s Institutes’ went through countless revisions and expansions of the catechism. This would be expected of one creating a new Gospel that would be viable in a systematic way, as well as creating a new church and a new way to worship under different authority than that which was created by Christ and the Apostles. It also shows that Calvin’s theological doctrines developed over time as changes in authority and practice conflicted with orthodoxy.”

How is this at all relevant to the discussion? It’s not. Regardless, Calvin published the 1st edition of the Institutes (which was about 1/5 the size of the final 1559 edition) in March 1536. He wrote it in about 18 months from his conversion (at age 25). It was hailed as a major achievement as an apology / introduction to the Protestant faith. The word “Institutes” was intended to mean, “How one is educated or introduced to Christian religion.” It was thus, intended to be an introduction. Here the interesting fact for Joseph to come to terms with: most of the major themes of Calvin’s theology are included in 1st edition. While he expanded his points, he rarely changed them. Fr. Joseph would do well to provide evidence that crucial elements of Calvin’s theology presented in the Institutes changed in a contradictory way from that which was first penned. Joseph should then explain why is this relevant to this discussion.

4. Tangent: Anticlericalism
"Calvin was certainly a proponent of the Humanist presupposition of anticlericalism. While there are conflicting biographies as to whether Calvin was ever ordained, there is no real evidence that he was ever ordained that I have ever seen. It would seem that by not being ordained he was not convinced of the necessity of validly ordained clergy in the Church departing from the teachings of Christ who selected the twelve as the foundation of the Church who ordained their successors and the Church fathers that maintained Apostolic succession.”

How is this at all relevant to the discussion? It’s not. It is yet another tangent. Does anticlericalism stem from pagan philosophy? Did Calvin formulate his view on church authority from reading Cicero? What was Calvin’s view of Church authority? What texts of Scripture did he use to explain his view? Did he use pagan philosophy to interpret the proof texts he used for his opinion? Why does it matter to this discussion if Calvin was “ordained”?

Ironically, Luther was an ordained Catholic priest, yet when I mention this to Catholics that the Papacy gave Luther the authority to study the Bible, instant balking occurs. Why would Calvin being ordained by the Roman Catholic Church matter to this discussion?

5. Calvin and the Eucharist
Since the Clergy was necessary for the deliverance of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Calvin first had to redefine the Eucharist as something less than a miracle from God where Christ is made present at the one sacrifice for mankind making the faithful present and sharing in that sacrifice at the foot of the cross. Calvin defined the Eucharist as not being the corporeal presence of Christ but a Spiritual presence only, which essentially forbids Christ in a corporeal sense from Calvin’s version of Reformed worship. From a Humanist point of view reason would dictate that there is not a miracle as it defies science and the natural law. Calvin ignores Scriptural instructions from Jesus that His miracle is to be Spiritually discerned instead of carnally discerned and puts his faith in the natural law rather than Jesus’ words. Calvin then in need of a replacement for the focus of worship emphasized “sola Scriptura” or the worship of the written Word of God rather than the corporeal Christ.”

I knew this was coming. I believe that this will be Fr. Joseph’s main assault against Calvin- and that this is what really interests him. First, note that no actual exposition of Calvin’s understanding of the Eucharist is presented.

Secondly, one wonders if Fr. Joseph even understands Calvin’s notion of “reason”. According to 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 needs to be submissive to the Bible. For Calvin, it is not the Bible that contains errors, but human reason which does. Therefore, “reason” must submit to the Bible. For Joseph to substantiate his charge here, he must provide references to Calvin’s writings. I have no desire to meander from one vague complaint to another. Joseph: find Calvin’s writings on the Lord’s Supper, provide references, and document your complaints.

One other point basic point needs to be made. One can quibble that those who disagree with one’s particular interpretation of the Bible is because they are using human “reason” rather than simply obeying the text of Scripture. But, really, everyone uses “reason”. Those who say “I simply listen to the plain teaching of Scripture rather than human “reason” have used human reason to arrive at this interpretive paradigm! Again, what Fr. Joseph needs to do here is cite Calvin on particular biblical passages related to the Eucharist. Has Calvin done damage to the text? Has Calvin ignored context? Has Calvin brought in Cicero to help him interpret?

6. A moment of clarity from Fr. Joseph
"Now, one may say, but what does this have to do with humanist influence.”


7. Tangent: What was Calvin’s view of “Tradition” and how is this relevant?

This is really a point similar to that I covered in #1. Fr. Joseph says:

We know from reading the works of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato that, mans ideal is to serve the Greek city state by improving life for man in his earthly existence. The focus of pursuit should be in discovery and pursuit of the arts and sciences. The Christian ideal is man serving God and doing His will. We see in Calvin’s catechism a Humanist confidence in mans ability to understand God through His accommodation to man with the written Word. It is interesting to note that this is an area that Calvin disagrees with Plato and with St. Paul’s teaching about Tradition. Plato taught that the oral tradition was the only reliable tradition because the written tradition required a prepared or predisposed intellect for understanding where the oral teaching can be questioned and developed into more complete and veracious learning and understanding. In Plato’s teaching the oral tradition was far superior to the written. St. Paul saw both the oral and the written tradition as equal in veracity and authority. Calvin saw only the written Tradition as reliable as a rule of faith and practice.”

Interestingly, here Fr. Jospeh points out Calvin disagreed with Pagan philosophy!

Well- how did Calvin understand tradition? What arguments did he give for concluding one infallible source of truth? Secondly, how did Calvin understand Paul’s comments on scripture and tradition? Third, how does man understand Scripture according to Calvin (hint: see book one of the Institutes)?

8. Tangent: Calvin’s theocracy
Calvin in setting up his theocracy modeled Geneva after a Greek city state with himself as the undeniable monarch having unquestionable authority over all aspects of life.”

And the proof is…………? Calvin s tried to prevent the government from interfering in spiritual concerns by moving toward a structure of church government that could function independent of the state. Morals, usually the jurisdiction of the state, Calvin felt should be the legislation of the church.

That Calvin was a tyrant in Geneva is a myth. He never held a real civic office, was not even a citizen until late in the 1550’s. His position in Geneva was not really secure until 1555, when his enemies were clearly not going to be elected to the city council. His only authority was based on his moral authority and teaching. The city council many times goes against him and his recommendations. Example: Calvin wants weekly communion, council decides to go with only 4 times a year.

He prepared the way for an authoritarian structure within the church after his departure based loosely on his version of Biblical instructions of church structure, ignoring traditional structure, organization and authority as put into practice by the first century Church.”

And the proof is…………? Calvin admired Bucer, and was greatly influenced by his model for church structure:

-Office of doctor (or teacher)
-Office of pastor
-Office of elder
-Office of deacon

So, already Calvin is departing from the mantra “ad fontes”, ignoring the historical reality and the writings of the fathers. In particular he ignores St. Ignatius who describes in undeniable detail the Episcopacy at the end of the first century as the authority of the Church and legacy from the Apostles.”

And the proof is…………? Have you done any research into Calvin’s understanding of Ignatius, or if Calvin was even in possesion of writings from this Church father?

"In a real sense Calvin sets up a authoritarian structure of his own design to replace the authority instituted by Christ and the apostles and maintained in Apostolic succession. In doing so Calvin usurps the authority of Christ and of the Apostles as the cornerstone and the foundation of the Church to create his own authority that recognizes his monarchical reign. Part III to follow with a study of Calvin’s doctrines and their relationship with Humanist precepts.”

And the proof is…………?

-to be continued, depending on Fr. Jospeh-


MasterJedi said...

It seems as though Joseph has no real interest in truly understanding Calvin's POV on much at all. He gives an appearance of doing such, but all along it is quite obvious that he has no desire to provide evidence and details for his argument - for if he did - I believe his own prooftexts and documentation would be turned around against him and prove the exact opposite of his true intentions, which are clearly to slander and belittle any Reformer who stands in opposition to Rome.
What I get from Joseph, and this may or may not be true, is he has examined materials that attack Calvin and this supposed influence of Pagan Philosophy and is simply reguritating what he has read without going into the tedious work of examining Calvins writings in their fullness. Much like many RC's do with Luther's work - which you have accurately rebutted time after time.

Not much changes when dealing in this apologetic field James, but I am truly greatful for your continued patience and honesty when dealing with defenders of RC Doctrine. I sincerely appreciate the way you deal with facts and information and lay your arguments out in the open in plain fashion for all to examine and make proper judgements . May God continue to bless you in this endeavor. Keep up the good work, it's quite refreshing.

James Swan said...

Excellent comments M.J.

I took on Fr. Joseph because I thought he was making a claim that probably at one time in his education he had either heard or read-

He was giving some folks on the CARM board a hard time about this subject- telling them to start a new discussion if they were interested- while at the same time dismissing the current charges they were making against him about his understanding of humanism.