Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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

The CARM dialog with Fr. Joseph on “Calvin’s Pagan philosophy” and it’s alleged “blending” with Christianity continues with a response from Fr. Joseph found here. My previous work on this subject can be found here:

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

Fr. Joseph Revisted: Calvin's Beloved Pagan Philosophy

For the most part, nothing to substantiate Fr. Joseph’s claim that “Calvin believed his beloved pagan philosophy could be successfully blended into Christianity” was brought forth. Fr. Joseph reasserted his position, and noted what really, no one denies- that Calvin was a skilled humanist. His position lacks the clarity of definitions and examples from Calvin’s writings in this current response.

Fr. Joseph’s words will be in Red. I have numbered the sections as well.

1. Fr. Joseph’s Opening comments
I want to thank Mr. Swan for his patience and for his well thought out commentary thus far. He has explained well his point of view and has shown a desire to learn as well as to enlighten others in this pursuit of the theology of John Calvin and whether he was indeed influenced profoundly by Humanism as I have stated or was not influenced but instead had only a scholarly curiosity as is Mr. Swan’s position, supported by his supporting quotations from Calvin’s biography by the esteemed liberal Renaissance Humanist historian from UC Berkeley.”

Correction of Fr. Joseph’s opening synopsis: I have consistently maintained John Calvin was “influenced profoundly by Humanism.” Back in post #1 of the CARM thread- I said, “Calvin indeed was highly influenced by this movement.” One could quibble over the differences between “influenced profoundly” and “highly influenced”- but I take both the phrases to be saying the same thing. That is, throughout his work, Humanism influenced Calvin. I see this a definite positive, not a negative.

Fr. Joseph presents an ambiguity regarding his understanding of my defined position. The phrase “scholarly curiosity” is ambiguous. I really don’t know what Fr. Joseph means. Does it mean Calvin simply “dabbled” in Humanism by using its philological and historical tools? This would be incorrect. My definition and position on Calvin’s humanism was put forth in post #1 at length. The interested reader can consult this, and then attempt to make sense of what Fr. Joseph mean by “scholarly curiosity”. That my own position on this subject may be being misunderstood by Fr. Joseph at this early stage greatly decreases our ability to successfully discuss this subject.

Fr. Joseph is incorrect that my support stems from one source (“Calvin’s biography by the esteemed liberal Renaissance Humanist historian from UC Berkeley”). I have used the following, either here or on the extended versions of my responses on my blog:

William J Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Bernard Cottret, John Calvin: A Biography (Michigan: WB Eerdmans, 1995).

Anthony Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) (Citations from this book forthcoming).

Bernard Reardon, Religious Thought In The Reformation, (New York:Longman Group, 1981).
Works of BB Warfield Volume 5, Calvin and Calvinism, (Ages Software, Electronic Edition)

John Armstrong, Reformation and Revival, Volume 10 (vnp.10.4.10)

My overview of humanism given in post #1 was taken from my notes of Reformation lectures given by Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary. I have other sources yet to be used from my personal library.

I await Fr. Joseph likewise making his sources known.

2. Fr. Joseph’s non-definition of terms and misunderstanding on my position
I am also predisposed to learning but extremely doubtful that the overwhelming evidence of Calvin’s syncretic efforts towards Christian theology and Humanist philosophy can be overcome with reason to the contrary which I believe is Mr. Swans only appeal.”

I’m hopeful that concrete examples of “Calvin’s syncretic efforts towards Christian theology and Humanist philosophy” in Calvin’s actual writings, particularly his biblical commentaries, will be put forth. So far Fr. Joseph hasn’t touched Calvin’s actual Biblical expositions. This should indeed be the area of discussion: concrete examples of Calvin’s Biblical exegesis that smells more of “pagan philosophy” than Biblical exegesis.

What does Fr. Joseph mean by “Humanist philosophy” (or “Christian theology” for that matter)? We’re using terms as if they are mutually understood. Frankly, I have no idea what is meant by “Humanist philosophy” for Fr. Joseph. His definitions of “Humanism” have been vague as well- as has been repeatedly pointed out by others.

3. Fr. Joseph’s non-use of biographical material
To understand John Calvin’s theology one must first make an attempt to understand the man.”
Indeed. Why not share with us which biographies of Calvin you use for reference?

4. Comments on Calvin’s De Clementia: Is it the “best way” to understand Calvin? What does a study of De Clementia establish?
The best way of coming to some understanding is to study his work before he embarked on his theological efforts in his first version of the continuously evolving great work of his called the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion”. Prior to his theological endeavors he wrote a commentary on Seneca’s “De Clementia” which established him to have a fondness for pagan writing and philosophy as well as at least a scholarly curiosity for pagan thought.”

Certain things can be established from this work- one can notice Calvin’s gift of scholarship. One can recognize his ability to grasp ancient literature. One can stand amazed at how the young Calvin took on Erasmus in this work- much to his detriment (some speculate his negativity towards Erasmus in this work is the reason it did not gain popularity). One can see that the young Calvin gained a grasp of ancient literature- Calvin was doing nothing out of the ordinary- many of the early humanists learned and conquered ancient literature to show their expertise to be scholars. I like how Matthew McMahon sums up De Clementia:

Calvin’s commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia was his first complete published work. Its form and content underlie the style and formative mind that Calvin would later demonstrate in his Institutes, though by a converted heart. Thus, this former work under-girds in many respects the later Institutes as “typical Calvin,” though primitive.”

Source: Interpreting John Calvin, A Summary of Ford Lewis Battles' work on Calvin

Now its true Calvin does refer to Seneca in the Institutes- but not exclusively. If anyone has the Battles edition, see index II- note the amount of people Calvin cites. The list for his citations of Augustine is about 7 pages long, two columns per page. The citations to Seneca are on 1 page, a column and a half. His citations to church fathers greatly outnumber his citations of “pagan” philosophers.

But it is true Calvin did cite pagan philosophers. But a crucial question must be asked at this point: Simply because a philosopher is a “pagan” does that necessarily mean every thing they write is incorrect? I think not- even a pagan philosopher can get some things right. In a paper I wrote for a Reformation class I cited Bertrand Russell- the point he made was accurate, despite the fact that he was an atheist. It would be interesting to look at all Calvin’s citations of Seneca in the Institutes. Is Calvin using Seneca to establish a theological point rather than the Scriptures?

5. Tangent: Calvin’s Citations of Augustine
"In writing his commentary on “De Clementia” he has relied on Humanist philosophy, in particular Erasmus and Budaeus in support of his views and opinions. In particular his use of Budaeus is a precursor for a writing style he would use later in his theological writings where he takes great liberty in paraphrasing Budaeus as he does later in his writing referencing St. Augustine."

Again, we’re dealing with the undefined “bogeyman” of Humanism. We’re again at a loss for what Fr. Joseph means by “humanist philosophy”. In regards to Calvin’s “great liberty of citation”- this is tangential to this discussion. However- I direct you to Lane’s book John Calvin: student of the Church Fathers. It’s no big secret that Calvin’s citations weren’t always accurate. Calvin had little time, and a limited availability of texts. His “great liberty” was not done with devious intentions- some times he cited from memory- inaccurately. Sometimes he cited from a secondary source- which may have cited a primary source inaccurately. This can be seen clearly in Calvin’s citations of Augustine in his book, Bondage and Liberation of the Will- Calvin relied on Augustine citations given by the opponent he was responding to.

6. Tangent: Calvin’s citations of Augustine, and Calvin’s Geneva
With St. Augustine one can almost find his agreement with the great doctor of the Church, so subtle are the differences, albeit profound in their application to theological thought. In both cases it seems to be an effort at using another’s work and scholarship to give credit to his own work. Perhaps this is an insight into one who is insecure with his own thoughts and may explain his later brutal theocracy that he created in Geneva, putting to death and banishing his detractors.”

If you would like to discuss Calvin’s citations of Augustine- then, as you’ve suggested to others- start another thread. I have plenty of material on this at my disposal. I don’t see how it is at all relevant to this discussion. (As an aside- how about chastising Augustine for his neo-platonic influence throughout his theology?). Another tangent is Calvin’s alleged “brutal theocracy.” What does this have to do with this discussion? That the Reformation retained elements of the medieval period is well known.

7. Tangent: Did Calvin brutally enforce his views?
Calvin throughout his life showed very little confidence in his own ability to persuade with his brilliance but instead depended on brutality to enforce his will on others. History has proven the extravagance of his approach, as his work has captured the interest and indeed, the devotion of many followers, adopting his views as their own.”

Again- this is tangential, and debatable.

8. Fr. Joseph’s reassertion of his position- without a definition of humanism
In reading “De Clementia” we can see that in this particular time in his life that he was a student of the pagan philosophy and see an influence in particular to Cicero and an understanding of the historical approach of Suetonius. This work, “De Clementia”, establishes John Calvin to be influenced by these ancient works far more than one who studied the Latin and Greek writings for mere enjoyment or scholarly curiosity.

“We can see an incorporation of this Humanist worldview and one must conclude that Humanism was already an influence on the intellectual approach of Calvin in all scholarly pursuits and later particularly in his approach to theology. I submit that this Humanist philosophy was already such an integral part of Calvin’s thought that only one well versed in the humanities and theology could ascertain where Calvin’s theological thought began or ended. This realization behooves one to ponder and indeed acknowledge that John Calvin’s syncretism and approach to theology and philosophy has its genesis long before his interest in theology. This first love of the humanities and his later love for theology is the wellspring from which his syncretism of pagan philosophy and Christian theology comes

Forgive my impatience, but you’ve said as much previously.

Again, we’re dealing with the undefined “bogeyman” of Humanism. This is not my view of Calvin’s work on De Clemntia- that is that I deny Calvin’s depth of knowledge of those you mention. Which particular aspects of “pagan philosophy” does Calvin grasp to in this work? Which does he incorporate into his theological paradigms? I have De Clementia. Simply give me a page number.

9. Tangent: The Impact of Humanism
"These beliefs may have remained thought only had it not been for the Reformation already underway and increasing in momentum in Europe. Calvin’s opportunity to present his new theological views would not have come to fruition, for without the reformation there would not have been an audience for such unorthodox syncretism, especially from a lay person untrained in theology coming from a foundation in the humanities rather than theology. Prior to the Reformation and the wave of Humanist thought permeating Europe, John Calvin would have been just another heretic in a long list of heretics attacking the theological foundations of the Church. But because of the Reformation John Calvin had an audience sympathetic to change and receptive to syncretism of the humanities and Christian theology. "

The discussion of the impact of humanism is tangential to this discussion. One could argue for the positive impact of humanism as well. What I want to get at is which philosophical pagan paradigms did Calvin use to interpret the Bible? This is the crucial key to this discussion.

10. The Issue at hand
"Now, to establish that Calvin was influenced by Humanism one must examine the greatest of his works “Institutes of the Christian Religion”. We must identify specific themes or positions that depart from orthodox theological thought to show their relationship with pagan philosophy. In part two of my exposition I will attempt to show such a relationship and presupposition in Calvin’s approach to theology."

I can appreciate that Fr. Joseph wrote a basic introduction to his position. However, i've noted a fair amount of tangents, lack of definitions, and possible lack of understanding of my own position. This last point from Fr. Joseph is the heart of the discussion- but a sufficient ground to enter into this study is lacking for him.

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