Saturday, March 11, 2006
"Calvin is as popular as a 16th century philosopher to the secular crowd as He is to Reformed Christians." - Fr. Joseph
" I have a degree in philosophy from a secular university and I never heard Calvin mentioned." - James Swan
An articulate Catholic named Fr. Joseph (cristoiglesia) on the CARM Catholic board recently stated,
“One should not be surprised that John Calvin wrote persuasively. He was a lawyer and was trained in persuasive argument. He was in part presenting an argument against the Catholic Church and presenting a foundation to establish a new Gospel that had not been challenged for 1500 years since it was first taught by Jesus and the apostles and repeated by their successors. Enthralled by Humanism, Calvin believed that his beloved pagan philosophy could be successfully blended into Christianity. It is obvious to me that his syncretic effort here is to separate the Scriptures from their authors and the teachings that inspired them within the Church.”
Elsewhere Fr. Joseph stated:
“The facts are [Calvin] was a Humanist lawyer and author virtually untrained in theology and was never ordained as a minister. Yet, he shaped and influenced Reformed theology like no other person. He was not just one who read the "Odyssey" or the "Iliad" and enjoyed it but applied Humanist philosophy to his theological musings. When he wrote the "Institutes" he relied heavily on the theological philosophy of Erasmus that was already a syncretic blend with Humanism. If you study a reliable biography it will also tell you that the first published work of Calvin was a commentary on Seneca's "De Clementia" a Latin philosophical work. His support for his commentary was Humanists. This goes far beyond just reading the classics for enjoyment but applied the philosophy to his new theology. Now, I could go into detail how he instituted Humanist philosophy into Christianity but as I said before this is a very complex topic with a lot of players involved as well such as Erasmus, Colet, More, Zwingli, Beza, Calvin and others. All seemed to have a common goal to change Christianity to conform to their philosophy of Humanism.”
I say this Catholic is "articulate" - not based on the above content, but on the style of writing. Normally, those with venom against the Reformers lack a sophistication in writing- and one can usually tell the person lacks education. Not so of this guy. The sentences are well constructed. Fr. Joseph provided this autobiographical information :
"About fifteen years ago I realized the influence of Humanism on my own way of thinking and on my faith. I began to search for deeper meaning by rejecting Humanist ideals when they conflicted with the teaching of Christ and the Apostles.This led me on a journey towards Catholicism or the faith and practice of the early Church. The results of the journey, except my conversion to Catholic faith and practice, has been a new found obedience and devotion that I never experienced as a Protestant, when I was so indoctrinated by Humanism both secular and Christian."
"Many Protestant Fundamentalists like myself are finding a nurturing environment in the Catholic faith and are converting to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. We are free to continue our journey of ridding ourselves of Humanist influence that we see as a part of our sanctification to final salvation. In Protestantism the social and ecclesiastical environment requires that one conform to the faith and practice of the community or be rejected as being heterodox. This is what happened to me and countless others of conservative Christian principals, forcing them to change church affiliation and finding that we can find a home in Catholicism where we can continue our journey in faith unencumbered by social norms and ecclesiastical dogmas that lead us to a different path than the Spirit leads us."
The picture of Calvin as “enthralled by Humanism” and devoted to blend “his beloved pagan philosophy” with Christianity struck me as being historically suspect.
Is Renaissance Humanism the bogeyman that Fr. Joseph suggests? The Renaissance was a rebirth of learning of the Greek and Roman worlds. It began in the late 14th century, blossomed in the 15th century, and came to full fruition in the 16th century. It began in Italy as primarily an educational reform movement. It was a rebellion against Middle Age scholasticism- which had an emphasis on Latin and the rational/ logical.
The Humanists were interested in recovering that which was lost in classical antiquity. There was a great push among them to recover the Greek and Hebrew languages, which had been swept away in the West. The Humanists also complained that even the Latin being used was a corrupted version. By the early 16th Century- an educated man was to know three languages- Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. There was studies of pagan scholars, as well as early church fathers.
Due to the push of the Humanists to recover Greek and Hebrew, The Bible was once again read in the original languages, rather than Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Questions were raised as to whether the medieval inheritance accurately reflected what the Bible and Church Fathers actually taught. This drove the Humanists to the original sources- hence their slogan “ad fontes” which means “back to the sources.”
Most of the great leaders of the Reformation were trained as renaissance humanists- except Luther who was trained as a medieval scholastic theologian, but he was also well trained in Renaissance thought also. It was through biblical humanism though that Luther was able to engage the biblical text as biblical text, instead of the Latin Vulgate- coming to understand what the biblical writers “really” said profoundly changed his theology.
Calvin and Humanism and Philosophy
Calvin indeed was highly influenced by this movement- because of its plea of ad fontes, as were many Roman Catholics as well. But as to blending pagan philosophy- this is simply untrue. The tools of Humanism Calvin used were philology and history. In other words- Calvin strove to read the Bible in its original languages, as well as the church fathers. For Calvin, a text had to be read in its original language and in its original context. This is the primary result of Humanism on Calvin- and this aspect of Humanism forced The Roman Catholic theologians to do their own ad fontes work. It’s not surprising that they likewise began doing Bible translations from the Greek and Hebrew.
Interestingly, it's possible Calvin was still a Roman Catholic that Calvin did his work on Seneca. In that work he shows quite a command of classical works, as any educated humanist would. It is also interesting that while all the Reformers, and Western culture in general, owe a great debt to Erasmus and his work on the Greek New Testament, Erasmus and Calvin stood in complete opposition to each other on many issues- primarily free will.
William Bouwsma in his biography of Calvin points out that Calvin believed the human mind was so incompetent it couldn’t even grasp the ten commandments- therefore he was very critical of ancient moral philosophy. Bouwma continues,
“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.’ ” (Page 155)
"But [Calvin] reserved his full scorn for speculative philsosphy, of which Athens was his symbol as it had been for Tertullian” (page 155)
“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.’” (156)
Source: William J Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)
Bouswsma goes on for a few pages with similar information: documenting painstakingly Calvin’s dislike of applying philosophy to the Bible (as the scholastics had done). To be fair, Calvin's knowledge of ancient sources available to him was commanding. One needs only to read through his Institutes in particular to and check his references. While making reference to Demosthenes, Cicero, Plato, or even Aristotle, Calvin places the Bible above all these writings. Bernard Reardon points out, "Doubtless as Calvin grew older his regard for the pagan writers, like Augustine's, lessened. Yet he never questioned their basic cultural value, even though bound to deplore the human pride and vanity all too often manifested in them." (Religious Thought In The Reformation, New York:Longman Group, 1981), 162.
One the best overviews of what type of Humanist Calvin was, was given by Bernard Cottret in his biography of Calvin:
“If by humanism one means a concern for fine literature and the restoration of texts, Calvin was unquestionably a Renaissance humanist. At least he belonged to the second generation of French humanism, forced to choose sides after the Affair of the Placards in 1534. If, on the other hand, one means by humanism faith in man, in his rights and his virtues, or confidence in the indefinite progress of the human spirit, Calvin was the absolute opposite of a humanist. We must renounce the necessary association of these two complementary meanings of the word "humanism." Renaissance humanism was not always progressive," and it did not necessarily prepare "the triumph of Luther's ideas over
those of Rome.”
Source: Bernard Cottret, John Calvin: A Biography (Michigan: WB Eerdmans, 1995), 331.
Here, BB Warfield comments on Calvin's Humanism; that is, Calvin's scrutiny of languages and grammatico-historical skills:
"Second only to the service he rendered by his "Institutes" was the service Calvin rendered by his expositions of Scripture. These fill more than thirty volumes of his collected works, thus constituting the larger part of his total literary product. They cover the whole of the New Testament except 2 and 3 John and the Apocalypse,
and the whole of the Old Testament except the Solomonic and some of the Historical books. It was doubtless in part to his humanistic training that he owed the acute philological sense and the unerring feeling for language which characterize all his expositions. A recent writer who has made a special study of Calvin’s Humanism, at least, remarks: "In his sober grammatico-historical method, in the stress he laid on the natural sense of the text, by the side of his deep religious understanding of it — in his renunciation of the current allegorizing, in his felicitous, skillful dealing with difficult passages, the humanistically trained master is manifest, pouring the new wine into new bottles." Calvin was, however, a born exegete, and adds to his technical equipment of philological knowledge and trained skill in the interpretation of texts a clear and penetrating intelligence, remarkable intellectual sympathy, incorruptible honesty, unusual historical perception, and an incomparable insight into the progress of thought, while the whole is illuminated by his profound religious comprehension. His expositions of Scripture were accordingly a wholly new phenomenon, and introduced a new exegesis — the modern exegesis. He stands out in the history of biblical study as, what Diestel, for example, proclaims him, "the creator of genuine exegesis." The authority which his comments immediately acquired was immense — they "opened the Scriptures" as the Scriptures never had been opened before. Richard Hooker — "the judicious Hooker" — remarks that in the controversies of his own time, "the sense of Scripture which Calvin alloweth" was of more weight than if "ten thousand Augustines, Jeromes, Chrysostoms, Cyprians were brought forward." Nor have they lost their value even to-day. Alone of the commentaries of their age the most scientific of modern expositors still find their profit in consulting them. As Professor A. J. Baumgartner, who has set himself to investigate the quality of Calvin’s Hebrew learning (which he finds quite adequate), puts it, after remarking on Calvin’s "astounding, multiplied, almost superhuman activity" in his work of biblical interpretation: "And — a most remarkable thing — this work has never grown old; these commentaries whose durable merit and high value men of the most diverse tendencies have signalized, — these commentaries remain to us even to-day,.an astonishingly rich, almost inexhaustible mine of profound thoughts, of solid and often ingenious interpretation, of wholesome exposition, and at the same time of profound erudition."
Source: Works of BB Warfield Volume 5, Calvin and Calvinism, 9-10 (Ages Software, Electronic Edition)
John Armstrong provides a helpful summary of Calvin the systematizer, and his rejection of applying excessive reasoning to the Bible- the exact thing the scholastics had done:
“Calvin thought of himself, first and foremost, as a biblical theologian. Further, he knew the limits of human theologizing, something his modern followers do not always seem to know as clearly. Bouwsma writes that Calvin “valued system and expressed himself systematically only for limited, practical, and pedagogical purposes. Otherwise he distrusted the all-too-human impulse to systematize, above all in religious matters.” Calvin himself wrote that, “Anyone who does not allow God to be silent or to speak as he alone decides, is striving to impose order on God, a thing disgraceful and repugnant to nature itself.” He did not commit himself to rigid philosophical methodology and system building but to biblical exposition. He saw, Bouswma says with a great degree of irony, that the Holy Spirit “taught with affection, [and] did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan.” In addition to this Calvin insisted that Christianity is, in its fullness and essence, paradoxical. The major articles of theology are “contemptuously rejected by the common understanding of men.” What were these paradoxes for Calvin? He answered, “That God became a mortal, that life is submissive to death, that righteousness has been concealed under the likeness of sin, that the source of blessing has been subjected to the curse.” As a result of this approach to theology Bouwsma correctly concludes that Calvin was “always ready to sacrifice systematic order in order to introduce into his discourse an unexpected imaginative insight, rhetorical elaboration, digressions, and repetitions that might serve persuasive, polemical, instructional, or other practical purposes.”
Source: Reformation and Revival Ministries. (2001; 2003). Reformation and Revival Volume 10 (vnp.10.4.10). Reformation and Revival Ministries.
It would be interesting to find out where Fr. Joseph is getting his information on Calvin, Humanism, and the Reformation in general. It would behoove him to back up his claims that the Institutes relied heavily on the theological philosophy of Erasmus- particularly since Erasmus was more interested in moral reform, whereas, Calvin following the tradition of Luther, was heavily interested in doctrinal reform. It would behoove him to document all his claims. I will not accept anything like "the sources you used are biased." I have an extensive library on the Reformation, including many works by Roman Catholics. Cottret and Bouwsma are by no means non-critical of John Calvin, and anyone even remotely aware of recent Calvin studies knows these two books are considered two of the best.
The contrary though cannot be ignored. I wonder if Fr. Joseph is arguing against the humanist scholars of the Reformation, I wonder if he stands to defend the scholastics. If so, this is a major battle of the Reformation. Aristotelian metaphysics played important role in medieval theology, in some instances, damaging the biblical message beyond recognition. Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics influenced the shape of Christian theology as it was taught, discussed, and applied to analyze the Biblical texts. It is within the scholastic tradition that such things like "transubstantiation" were born- when philosophy pretends to be theology, unbiblical concepts like this become common.
Fr. Joseph says he knows his theology:
"I do not know where you have done your reading or study of Calvin but it would be very difficult to find a source on Calvin's teaching that does not give reference to his Humanist roots and philosophy. I gained this information while getting a masters degree in Reformed theology and a PhD in religious studies from two Protestant seminaries, one Baptist and the other Methodist."
I do not deny Calvin's humanism, nor i do I deny his command of ancient sources. I deny though that it was through the lens of pagan philosophy that Calvin's biblical studies were done. I hold Calvin to be a biblical scholar of the highest caliber.