Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Follow-up on Tim Staples and David F. Wright on Calvin's Mariology

Tim Staples: Apologists Make Mistakes Too, Revisited

In a recent entry I noted that Tim Staples admitted "Apologists make mistakes too!" This refers to a recent Catholic Answers blog post in which Mr. Staples documented Rome's defenders misusing facts about the Reformers. The following is an extended version of some comments I left for Mr. Staples on his blog entry.

After some dialog with another of Rome's defenders, Mr. Staples re-edited his blog post. Originally he stated,

This second myth is even more widespread. I have found it not only taught and published by many Catholics, but I even found one popular Calvinist apologist who has it up on his website as being true. And that is, John Calvin actually taught the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. He did not.

He revised it to:

This second myth is even more widespread, but I must qualify it. There can be no doubt that John Calvin, at least at some point in his career, believed in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But to place him on the same level of Luther, Zwingli and Wesley is misguided. It is not to paint the entire picture accurately.

He has since mentioned in the comments:

I am going to take out even the possibility that Calvin denied the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for both our electronic version of the book and our next printing. Even though I still think there is evidence there, it is not strong enough to contradict the scholarship you mentioned. I remember Jimmy Akin telling me when I first came to Catholic Answers words to the effect of, "There are lots of things that are possibilities and that we may think are really cool that do not merit being published either in a book, CD set, or DVD." I think this is one of these.

What appears to have happened is that an obscure sermon of Calvin's (documented here) influenced Mr. Staples to make this change in his book. In the comments section of his blog entry, Mr Staples wrote that Calvin was "confused" in this sermon for the following reasons:

St. Joseph did not marry Mary, he never lived with her, but he was "married all along." His reasoning seems muddled. Because he never taught on the topic explicitly to defend it, we don't really know what he believed about 1. when Joseph and Mary would have been "married." 2. Were they ever truly married? 3. Did they live together? He appears to say no. It is difficult to see how that would have been a "marriage" to Calvin at all, considering his teaching on marriage.

In response, I offer the following observations:

1) Typical of Calvin on this issue, the subject matter of the entire sermon does not dwell on Mary, and even less on Joseph. The quote in question is more of a passing comment, or more of an an end-note (for lack of a better term) stuck right at the very end of the sermon.

2) The 1562 published sermon isn't exactly from the pen of Calvin. It's a transcription based on what someone heard him say. It's within the realm of possibility that the reason Mr. Staples thinks Calvin's reasoning is "muddled" is due to distortion or lack of clarity in the way it was heard and written down.

3) I've analyzed the sermon and compared it to Calvin's commentary comments, particularly those comments pertaining to Mary that overlap in the sermon and the commentaries. There are indeed many similarities more than dissimilarities.

In the well-known comments from Calvin's Commentaries, his basic point is that a necessary inference that Mary had other children cannot be made from the Biblical texts of Matthew 13:55 and 1:25, and it's “folly” to make a text say more than it does. In this sermon he likewise stresses that "Though some fantasies have been expressed that this passage is teaching that the virgin Mary had other children than Jesus and that Joseph lived with her afterwards, this is nonsense. The Evangelist had no interest in reciting what happened after."

There are some differences as well. When Calvin says, "And besides this, our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence," Calvin's commentary says, "He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin."

The sermon comments have some interesting details about Joseph. One thing to keep in mind is not reading into what Calvin is saying. For instance, when Calvin says, "He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company," and "Joseph had not taken her as his wife to live with her," it would be inconsistent within the context to conclude Calvin is saying that Joseph and Mary never lived together, even after the birth of Jesus. Calvin is not speculating as to what happened afterwards based on this verse (that's his main point!). It would be a contextual error then to think Calvin here means that Joseph was some sort of monk never dwelling with Mary. The point Calvin is making concerns the period of betrothal. See particularly Calvin's comments on Matthew 1:18-25 where Calvin says "before they came together" means "before they came to dwell together as husband and wife, and to make one home and family" and "The meaning will thus be, that the virgin had not yet been delivered by her parents into the hands of her husband, but still remained under their roof." See also Calvin's comments on Luke 2:1-7 and Luke 2:48-58.

If one reads between the lines of the sermon, it appears Calvin is saying Mary had no other children besides Jesus. Without any clear denial that Mary was not a perpetual virgin, and with comments that safeguard against the idea that Mary had other children- I think this is why so many writers have concluded Calvin held to the perpetual virginity of Mary- it's a conclusion from inference rather than a direct admission from Calvin. The problem with the conclusion is that it goes against Calvin's specific guidelines- to not speculate beyond what he thought the Scriptures stated. To be fair to Calvin is to allow him to say what he said, not what we want him to say. If one really wanted to give Calvin's opinion on this issue, it is to simply say that Calvin did not think it correct to speculate.

Revisions are par for the course. People who take written theological positions will at times revise something they've earlier stated. I've never had any personal interaction with Mr. Staples before, but he seems to be willing to follow evidence where it leads. In this instance though, I think he was correct originally that Rome's defenders are misusing Calvin on the issue of Mary's perpetual virginity. Perhaps all it would really take is for him to clarify that there is no explicit teaching from John Calvin on Mary's perpetual virginity. What there is are statements from Calvin saying not to go beyond the text of scripture to speculate as to whether or not Mary had other children. Calvin offers no clear denial of Mary's perpetual virginity.

David F. Wright Calvin's view of Mary's Perpetual Virginity

Mr. Staples also noted he revised his view in regard to Calvin / Mary because of scholarly consensus. This sort of argument was lodged against me 10 years ago when I concluded Luther did not have a lifelong belief in the immaculate conception. You know what I did? I went and looked up what evidence each scholar used to make their conclusion. In many instances, the evidence presented didn't support the conclusion, or was taken from someone else's conclusion, or made a different conclusion. About 10 years later, it was finally conceded by the person using the scholarly consensus argument that I was correct all along.

For instance, the following comment was directed toward Mr. Staples:

This 1562 sermon may be one reason why many Protestant (including Calvinist) scholars agree that Calvin adhered to Mary's perpetual virginity, as I noted in a paper over four years ago now: David F. Wright, in his book, "Chosen by God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective" (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989, pp. 173, 175), stated: '". . . his more careful biblicism could insist on only Mary’s refraining from intercourse before the birth of Jesus (i.e., her virginity ante partum). On the other hand, he never excluded as untenable the other elements in her perpetual virginity, and may be said to have believed it himself without claiming that Scripture taught it. . . . [Calvin] commonly speaks of Mary as 'the holy Virgin' (and rarely as simply as 'Mary preferring 'the Virgin', etc.).'

What I would want to see is if the scholars cited to Mr. Staples about Calvin's view of Mary utilized the 1562 published sermon as this comment asserts. Let's look at the scholar cited, David F. Wright. I happen to have this book of which he's the editor and a contributor. I don't think the 1562 sermon was a factor. If it was, Wright appears to have neglected to cite it in any of his three chapters- particularly Chapter 8: Mary and the Reformers.

The 1562 published sermon isn't cited on either page 173 or page 175.  On page 173 note what Wright says just before the citation offered above. Wright documents Luther's adherence to Mary's PV and then states:
There is no doubt that the consensus of the Reformers affirmed Mary's virginity not only 'before the birth' (in partu) and after it (post partum). Calvin is something of an exception, in that his more careful biblicism could insist on only Mary’s refraining from intercourse before the birth of Jesus (i.e., her virginity ante partum). On the other hand, he never excluded as untenable the other elements in her perpetual virginity, and may be said to have believed it himself without claiming that Scripture taught it.
The other part of the quote, "[Calvin] commonly speaks of Mary as 'the holy Virgin' (and rarely as simply as 'Mary preferring 'the Virgin', etc.)." is from page 175- a different context. There Wright is discussing Calvin's view of Mary's sinlessness, not her perpetual virginity. These two quotes from two different contexts on two different pages, stuck together (for whatever reason), don't say anything about a 1562 published sermon. There are no footnotes from either page 173 or 175 referring to the 1562 published sermon. In fact, there are no footnotes at all to Calvin's writings on page 173. On page 175 there are references to Calvin's writings on the purification of Mary, not Mary's perpetual virginity.

The only possibility that Wright had the 1562 published sermon in question is that on page 170 he cites a number of comments from Calvin's Harmony of the Gospels vol. 1. In documenting the quotes (all direct references to the Commentary), he refers also to Max Thurian on pages 39-40. Nowhere on page 170 does he cite the 1562 published sermon which Thurian cites in his book on pages 39-40. Neither does he cite any of the content from the 1562 published sermon, other than the fact that the sermon also states Calvin's view to not speculate as to what happened afterwards in regard to Mary. In fact, Wright doesn't cite Thurian at all on page 170, but appears to be using him as a secondary reference to the same material from the commentary.

Notice also Wright points out that Calvin's position was an exception to the Reformers, and then speculates that because Calvin "never excluded as untenable the other elements in her perpetual virginity" "he may be said to have believed it". I appreciate Wright's careful exception and understand his speculation. But it is just that: speculation. Calvin's view is to not speculate as to what happened afterward.

I did a cursory search of the footnotes provided for the entire book, Chosen by God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989) to see if anywhere else the 1562 published sermon was mentioned. It was not. There was though an interesting comment from Tony's Lane in his chapter, The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth (chapter 5). There Lane does refer to Calvin:
The virgin birth does not really exalt celibacy unless it is supplemented with the further doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. This doctrine is found already in the second century and was well established by the third century. In its interesting to note that Calvin refused to commit himself on this matter while the marginal notes of the Puritan Geneva Bible of 1560 defend Mary's perpetual virginity. (p.111)
Now if one were to characterize the opinion of this book, both Wright and Lane note Calvin never made a precise statement on Mary's perpetual virginity. Wright speculates he may be said to have held it, Lane leaves it at "Calvin refused to commit himself on this matter."

This is simply one of the things I would do with each of the scholars cited to Mr. Staples before deciding one way or the other what the consensus of Calvin's view is on Mary's perpetual virginity. For David F. Wright, he speculates what Calvin's view is ("It may be said...") with the qualification that Calvin was an exception to the general consensus of the beliefs of the Reformers on this issue.


Mr. Staples left the following comment:

#58  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger
I think you make very good points. I tend to agree with you. But I don't think these points rise to the level of certainty that we want at Catholic Answers in our apologetics books. I think Calvin may well of waffled on this point, but you do make good points. I appreciate your comments. I especially agree with you when you point out Calvin's constant attempt not to go beyond what is said in the texts of Scripture. Thanks again.
October 24, 2014 at 8:14 am PST

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