Monday, March 22, 2010

Are There Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin? (Part One)

A Roman Catholic recently blogged a large amount of material on John Calvin. I held out reading any of it and waited to see what he'd put forth in a published book ( I eventually recently received his self-published book on this Calvin material). Material on a blog can be edited or deleted as if by magic. A published work though sets one's opinion and research concretely. I plan on at least working through some of it to see if Patrick Madrid's claim that this author's work ably refutes Calvinism is correct. It may indeed be the case it accurately presented the argumentation of Calvin's Institutes and contrasted those differences succinctly with his particular flavor of modern day Roman Catholicism. If that turn out to be so, I'd be pleasantly surprised. 

Given the author's work on Luther, I do have significant doubts that he accurately presented a correct analysis of Calvin. The author has claimed to present "Biblical Catholic answers." As I work through the material, I'll keep a sharp lookout for these Biblical Catholic answers. This is actually the first quizzical statement from the author. Will the author be presenting Biblical answers which are those interpretations of Biblical texts most commonly used by current non scholarly defenders of Rome? Since there are so few (or perhaps any) actual infallibly defined verses for Roman Catholics to utilize, will this treatment be this Roman Catholic author's particular interpretations of the Bible that serve as a response? Or, will those answers be his particular Biblical interpretation along with his particular interpretation of statements from Papal encyclicals, councils and Tradition, etc.?

The author dedicates the book "To my Reformed Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ, for whom I have a great deal of respect. May we rejoice in the common ground that we have, and be cordially open and honest with each other, as fellow Christians, when we disagree." Let me be cordially open and honest. More often than not, seriously Reformed five-point Calvinists do not consider Roman Catholics "brothers and sisters in Christ." Recent argumentation put forth by Doug Wilson and his group (as well as some atypical reasoning from Charles Hodge) are exceptions, not the rule. We can be grateful for the author's graciousness towards separated brethren, but the author should not be surprised that Reformed people deny the hand of fellowship in return for this dedication. Those like the author that knowingly and actively promote Rome's false gospel do not stand on common ground with the Reformed on issues most vital to the Christian faith.

Translation of Calvin's Institutes
The author relied on the older Henry Beveridge translation of Calvin's Institutes (1845) "to easily cut and paste everything in it, without a great deal of extra typing being necessary". This is unfortunate, because a far superior translation by Ford Lewis Battles now is the norm for English readers. A cyber-version of this translation can be obtained for a meager $15 (savvy searchers could probably find it for free). Of the Beveridge translation John T. McNeill notes the Beveridge translation is of "uneven quality" and it's "rather less accurate than either of his predecessors, and is chargeable with numerous minor omissions and a few clearly erroneous renderings" (The Library of Christian Classics edition of Calvin's Institutes, volumes 20 of Westminster's series, p. xlvii). McNeill says though that Beveridge did an admirable job on many sections of the text. One wonders why the author, for a mere $15 wouldn't seek out the best translation? The Battles translation is also more than just a modernized rendering. The in-depth historical and bibliographic notes are of great value to anyone engaging the Institutes. If an English reader really wanted to understand the Institutes and all it entails, the Battles edition is the best choice. To go along with this, any layman serious about engaging the Institutes would greatly benefit from the compendium book by Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (New Jersey:P and R Publishing, 1980). Battles provides an outline form for each chapter of the Institutes. I point all this tedium out to note that the necessary tools to understand Calvin in context are readily available for any serious study and interaction with the text.

The author wrote he chose to use his "Socratic manner" to interact with the Institutes. What this usually means is that a section of text is posted and then commentary from the author follows. The positive aspect of using such an approach is that one can claim to have interacted line by line with a complete text. The negative aspect is that complex argumentation sometimes must be viewed as a whole in order to be best understood and appreciated. If a text is scrutinized line by line without the whole in view, the argument can be missed, caricatured, or mishandled. Also the "Socratic manner" often employed by the author tends to scream out, "I need an editor." Sometimes what could be said in a paragraph of analysis spans multiple paragraphs of tedium and rabbit trails. In this volume, the author appears to argue against Calvin by reorganizing the Institutes into his own system. For instance, Calvin begins Book IV (the focus of the Roman Catholic author's book) addressing The Holy Catholic Church, our mother. The author approaches this subject on page 323 of his critique. The author begins his book with Institutes IV, 8:13 and IV, 17:48 discussing The Catholic Church vs. the Bible. Calvin though discusses the authority of Scripture throughout the Institutes, but in particular in Book I.

The Focus of This Roman Catholic Book on John Calvin
The author says his focus is on Book IV of the Institutes: Of the Holy Catholic Church. He claims that Calvinism and Roman Catholicism are far closer on soteriology,whereas the real differences between the two systems are on ecclesiology. With this I have an immediate rejection, as would John Calvin most likely. Perhaps the author means only to suggest that current Roman Catholicism is closer in soteriology to Calvin, whereas, Calvin wrote with his contemporary "Papists" in view. In either case, the differences between imputation and infusion are still two different soteriologies staring at each other across an immense chasm never to be bridged. The author says Calvin didn't even realize how close he was to being in harmony with Roman Catholic soteriology. I would say quite the opposite is the case (see Institutes Book III, 13-20).

The Author vs. the Goliath of Calvin
The author compares his credentials to those of Calvin, noting Calvin's "formal education, rhetorical and literary ability" and "remarkable encyclopedic knowledge". The author though is "just a lay Catholic apologist with a degree in sociology, and no formal theological education (but with lots of informal theological education for over thirty years)". I have to wholeheartedly agree with the author that Calvin is far his superior. Calvin with his limited library (and all those issues which plagued his life) is still the greater intellect compared to the author living in the United States with a computer. The author says that since Calvin's been dead a long time and can't counter respond, Calvin's education makes this a fair fight. That is, it's not unfair to write a refutation of someone that's long gone if they have a pedigree of intellectual accomplishment. The "unfairness" as I see it is in this sense: Calvin wrote against the particular Roman church of his day. The author writes from his modern Roman perspective. As long as the author takes this into consideration, a fair response to Calvin is an approachable endeavor.

The author says "I'm confident that [Calvin] has been, throughout my replies, very often plainly shown to be in error. I've often noted that one may be the greatest genius of all time, but if the facts and the truth are not on one’s side, even an infant who knows the truth can 'get the better of them' in discussion." I can appreciate the fact that the author argues for the perspicuity of truth without infallible help. It's refreshing to find a defender of Rome so willing to admit that words and information on a printed page can obviously be clear enough to be true or false, and that a person without formal theological training can arrive at truth. This is refreshingly Protestant of the author.

Get The Anti-Catholics Before They Get You
The author notes that even before his book was published, certain Reformed nefarious anti-Catholics were already attacking his Calvin project. After searching around a bit, it appears those being refered to actually made their comments on this blog. The author suggests these minions actually fear such a book on Calvin coming out. Contrarily, those in my immediate apologetic circle that doubt the author's abilities to put forth a coherent response to Calvin by no means "fear" his intellectual prowess. Rather, my response to the project is more like someone watching a car wreck about to happen: Someone get the keys before the car pulls away.

On the other hand, the author makes a point which at first appears valid in his defense: "The second defense I made was to appeal to Calvin’s own claims for his work, and its intended audience. It was not supposed to be for scholars and theologians only, but rather, primarily for students and laymen." Steve Hays though has pointed out,"The definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes was written in Latin. It’s not as if the average baker, blacksmith, midwife, or cobbler could read Latin. Indeed, universal literacy in the 16th Century was nonexistent." Hays goes on to say:
Even more to the point, it’s obviously anachronistic to say that because 16th Century work was pitched at a popular level, therefore a 21st Century blogger can write a commentary on that work without any specialized background knowledge. Even if it was written for popular consumption in the 16th Century, to a 16th Century audience, that doesn’t mean it’s equally accessible to a modern audience. It was written at a very different time and place. To correctly interpret Calvin, you’d need to know about his intellectual influences, the socioeconomic and political conditions of the day, the historical antecedents to his theological terminology, the identity of his theological opponents, &century. What may be common knowledge for someone living in the 16th Century is hardly common knowledge for someone living in the 21st Century.
On this blog some months ago, this very subject of the author's Calvin material came up as well. The author says of his Calvin work: "Catholics who encounter Calvinist friends might like to consult this for reference purposes." Hays responds,
So Catholics who are incompetent to evaluate Calvin should consult a Catholic epologist who is equally incompetent to evaluate Calvin. Richard Muller might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. Roger Nicole might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. Paul Helm might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. There are probably some Catholic scholars who would be qualified to do so as well. You are not. Your commentary on the Institutes is an exercise in self-conceited charlatanry.
The words "self-conceited charlatanry" made it to the published edition of the book. The other person apparently singled out in the book is Tim Enloe, who stated the following on this blog:
I thought it was bad some years back when [the author] claimed he didn't even need to know the alpha from the omega in order to "refute" an argument advanced by a man who had been teaching Greek on the college level for many years. I thought it was bad when a few years back he claimed that an entire critical portion of my thesis on conciliarism, discussing the centuries of Medieval canon law debates about the limits of papal power, was "too boring" for him to read through and try to figure out, but he was going to go ahead and "refute" my "dumb" statements about the orthodoxy of conciliarism anyway. The notion that [the author] is writing a "commentary" on Calvin's Institutes, however, tops it all off. The man simply has no concept of his limitations, and despises the correction of others who do. This is one part of the biblical definition of a fool, and since [the author] apparently considers himself a Modern day Socrates, it is worth noting that Socrates would have called him a fool, too - not to mention a Sophist.
The words “no concept” and “limitations” made it to the book. Enloe went on to say:
The question being raised about qualifications to, say, write a "commentary" on Calvin's Institutes is very interesting and touches precisely on why I am so hard on Internet apologists. It's one thing to blog in a spirit of "faith seeking understanding" inquiry where one recognizes one's intellectual horizons and is seeking to grow in his or her understanding. It's quite something else to set oneself up as a master of some subject matter for the purpose of "defending the Faith" and acting like the command to "give an answer" means that any old time you run into something you don't understand, a few nights with encyclopedias and popular-level works will suffice to write a definitive "refutation" of someone's "errors."
It is still an interesting question - the limits that laymen should observe when putting their thoughts out in public. I scrolled through the papal document on lay apostolates last night, and while I would not be able to say that I have a great grasp of its guidelines, I did find it interesting that it said some things about laymen needing to have specific mandates from the hierarchy and obtaining "serious" training for the purpose of being competent to do those mandated tasks. It does make an outsider wonder about much of what goes on in the Catholic apologetics world, especially the common enough phenomenon of Joe Blow, who just converted 6 months ago after reading 25 pages of the Church Fathers, 100 pages of Catholic convert stories, and a 2 page summary of Newman setting himself up as an "apologist."
The author says of Enloe and Hays:
This is how the academic snob views most popular analyses, written for the masses and the proverbial “common man,” rather than merely to academics and pointy-headed “intellectuals.” Neither of these men, however (ironically), are actually academics themselves. One is a teaching assistant and the other is still trying, in his late thirties, to obtain a graduate degree. Both have been very active on the Internet for years (a “popular” medium if there ever was one), since that has been the only way they could be read at all (neither having had a book published by reputable publishers, as I have, six times now). They seem to believe that the only people who can think and analyze and critique are scholars and professors. Yet they write such analyses all the time, and are scarcely more qualified than I am (if not less) to do so.
One can see that both Hays and Enloe raised serious questions as to the author's work on Calvin, yet it is enough to attack these men personally as a response, in print. One wonders if any publisher or editor would have kept such comments in a published book. He ignores their constructive criticism and says,"No law or rule can be found that would forbid me from doing this, or entail that this endeavor ought to be defined as having 'no concept' of my 'limitations,' as one of my critics put it, or, 'an exercise in self-conceited charlatanry,' as another delightfully opined." Even if there was a law or rule, one doubts the author would follow it anyway.

Final Remarks
The author says his book is a "gift to John Calvin". Poor Calvin, all his opponents want to give him refutations of the Institutes. Servetus sent Calvin his Christianismi Restitutio, an attack on the Institutes. Normally, gifts aren't meant to tear a person down. I do find it interesting that a man deemed a heretic by Romanists and Protestants likewise wanted Calvin to have such a present.

The author finishes his introduction by stating, "May God the Holy Spirit, our Helper, guide us all into all truth, and grant us the will, by His grace, to want to always seek truth." I haven't done any searches on this sentence, but it is rather curious for a Roman Catholic espousing free will to ask God to "grant us the will." Perhaps a little Calvin actually did rub off on the author.