THE Gospel According to Calvin?

One of the things that animates much of my work is the excitement that comes with imagining myself aiding in modest ways popular readings of material I am passionate about, and encouraging deep reasoning and debate concerning it.  Very recently I contributed to a collection of papers edited by Myk Habets and Robert Grow entitled Evangelical Calvinism.  I had not dealt with Calvin much since the days of the oozing of him in through every pore as a third year undergraduate student, but having done so largely in a way that engaged many of the interpretative streams including that of T.F. Torrance.  I am grateful that the editors of this volume have invited and enabled me to return to that site, and my contribution does so through asking particularly thorny questions about Calvin’s now controversial perspective on prayer (I hope to eventually complete a book on The Politics of Prayer).

Nonetheless, it is worth me offering a brief disclaimer since many will see the title Evangelical Calvinism and make certain assumptions about what the book and my own participation in it are doing (in my Antipodean part of the secular world at the moment even the term ‘Evangelical’ itself is one that brings so much negative baggage that thoughtful and intelligent ‘Evangelicals’ receive little hearing).  To be honest I have little idea of what ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ is, at least if the term depicts some kind of movement!  Movements have a tendency to be rhetorically ungenerous to those with whom there is disagreement, self-protective, and smugly self-satisfied.  In other words, movements can have substantial difficulties resisting the slip into ideology.  As Alasdair Heron says in his insightfully helpful Foreword to the volume, “The authors do not necessarily subscribe to a single definition, but the theological constellation they have in view can be characterized most easily in terms of its affinities in the Reformed tradition. … Readers will observe more than one theological posture maintained in the following pages” [xiii, xv].  Consequently, I would like to critically converse with the editors’ introduction [ch. 1] and theses [ch. 15] at certain points at least where they position themselves as suggesting EC offers a perspective.  (The editors’ say that EC is not “a new movement” which implies that it is a ‘movement’, only an older one than many imagine [p.2].  This is reinforced by setting EC directly over against Federal Calvinism as a “form of Calvinism” [p.3], and by constructing theses characterising EC [ch. 15].)  I would want instead to speak about ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ not as a position but most broadly as an ethos, as I will explain below.

Moreover, I certainly do not read Augustine alongside Aristotle and Newton [pp.440, 447], or regard Thomas as having “developed a speculative theology” [p.429], nor am I as positive towards Duns Scotus [pp.429, 432, 437], nor rhetorically would I want to essentialistically separate EC neatly from [even if there’s a disclaimer of only “certain forms of”] “Roman Catholicism, Federal Calvinism, and classic Arminianism” [p.432].  At least the volume tends to dispense with the now problematic historical descriptor ‘Protestant’ which opens the way for what Donald McKim in his Introduction to Reformed Theology speaks of as a critical learning from, and engagement with, all times and places.  Likewise, it does not succumb to the temptation to singularistically describe Evangelicalism, as Sung Wook Chung tends to simplistically do in his Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology.

On the whole, I have found this to be a most interesting book project, and it offers plenty of intellectual challenges along the way such as to provoke readers into further contemplation of the theological significance of Calvin, among others, today.  The editors are to be thanked for this and for their passion to see the theological reading of Calvin kept alive as something worth critically conversing about.

A sample of my reading of ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ from my chapter:

To take the terms “Evangelical” and “Calvinism” together in such a fashion may be project-determining, and this very book arises out of just such a vision on the part of the editors. But what kind of work is the phrase doing? To ascertain the type of project-determination it involves depends upon how both terms are framed and how they function to qualify and redirect each other. This, of course, can open the phrase to a plurality of understandings, since there is no consensus on what either term means, never mind how their combination operates. For instance, they can function together as a marker, a group-identifying slogan. My own contribution, in contrast, approaches the intellectual conditioning provided by such a broad description in terms of a mood. “Calvinism” has a particular, historically traceable connection to the theological work of the Reformer John Calvin. How far those successors can trace their intellectual lineage back to Calvin is a matter of dispute, and Torrance himself tends to envisage successive generations of the Reformed traditions as diverging from Calvin in key areas, areas of God, grace, and Gospel. Both Thomas Torrance, and his brother James, write in ways that suggest they are attempting to retrieve Calvin from the Calvinists, especially those of the Scottish Federal traditions. Just how far such a project is sustainable is itself a matter of controversy among the work of theological historians such as Richard Muller. Here the best work of an intellectual historian can provide crucial vigilance that restrains the wildest imaginings of the theologians who frequently display impatience with detail and context. Nonetheless, there is something theologically important going on, and it may well be signaled by Torrance’s use of the term “Evangelical.” His theological approach is not that of many who appear to do little more than carry around the bones of the Reformer, attempting to breathe new life into them for each new generation, as if it is only, or at best primarily, through his work that the Gospel is heard (perhaps this could at least partially be described through a term like “Calvinist Evangelicalism”). At worst, the term “Evangelical” functions to reveal a particular way of enclosing the range of theological conversation, and thereby deny certain levels of difficulty and complexity. In this garb, it works to secure a parochial and philistine narrowness of vision. This would entail the reduction of “God” to, in Rowan Williams’ terms, a “tribal fetish”. At best, on the other hand, it can here enable an effort to address “Calvinism” in a way that asks where and how the Gospel might be heard through John Calvin. This project would mean admitting that Calvin was not unsuccessful in fulfilling his dogmatic aim with the Institutes, the aim announced in his prefatory address to King Francis I: “My purpose was to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.” This approach would implicitly make a judgment on any theological conversations that promote decatholicization by calling them into question as improper limitations on the theological activity of listening to the plenitudinous responses to the “all-embracing magnitude in Christ.”

[John C. McDowell, ‘Idolaters at Providential Prayer:  Calvin’s Praying Through the Divine Governance’, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (eds.), Evangelical Calvinism:  Essays Resourcing the Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon:  Pickwick Publications, 2012), 353-403 (354-6)]

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11 thoughts on “THE Gospel According to Calvin?

  1. Hi John,

    I appreciate this, and I am glad that you are willing to be ‘critical’, we need that. A question I have for you is: How would you go about framing what we were (and are) trying to do with the book? In other words, how would you avoid an ‘essentialistic’ framing of things, and just keep them at the level of ethos; and at the same time provide a meaningful place that an ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ could inhabit? If that makes sense.

  2. Hi Bobby, thanks for your comments and question. I guess I would indicate more the looseness of the affiliation, the generousness of the approaches to the range of theological traditions, the porousness of any attempted boundary-drawing, and the ethos of a commitment to the historic attempts to make sense of the Gospel as grace. In other words, I myself would stay away from any suggestion at all of any ‘us vs them’, even if there are things that are shared among contributors that they perceive as being theologically unhelpful in the traditions. That kind of thing. So any kind of geometric language is misleading (e.g., ‘position’, ‘space/place’, ‘inhabit’, ‘territory’, ‘centre’, etc.). What the book at its best does is raise the question of how Calvin is related to a quite diverse set of Reformed traditions some of which may contestable as good ways of hearing the gracious claims of God, and of how he can continue to be heard as an exponent of grace (i.e., what ‘evangelical’ might loosely refer to) in rich and multifaceted contemporary theological conversations. Thanks, John

  3. I should also add to the below, that these things are often better couched in the interrogative mood (as part of the asketic discipline of self-reflection) rather than in the indicative or assertive mood.

  4. Hi John,

    Thank you, that helps me have a better idea of what you are proposing. I do see how there is more of an edginess on display in the tone of the book, and I would venture to say that that is probably because both Myk and I (and I am speaking for myself) take some of our shaping from TFT’s own mode relative to engaging what (as you know) he called Bezan Calvinism (and various other provocative things). But my desire is really, actually, in line with what you have written above — as far as what ‘evangelical’ might refer to — that is, my desire is to present an ethos a mood found within the history and development of Calvinism (or Reformed tradition) that emphasizes that our triune God is indeed a gracious and loving God.

    On a personal note, we attend a church that is antagonistic towards Calvinism (in an American way), and so the way I summarize what our book is about with these folk (in general, and through all of the essays offered), is that we are offering a genuinely Trinitarian theology that emphasizes God’s gracious and loving nature towards us in Christ — but I often contrast this offering with an alternative offering that presents a God who relates to us through ‘Law’. So as you can see, I have a hard time simply offering what we are trying to communicate without, at least, using what has become known as Calvinism in America as a foil; I think this helps people (who haven’t studied this stuff too much) grasp some of the significance of what we are trying to communicate through the book a little bit more clearly.

    With the Theses, my hope is that these help present something that folk can agree with, disagree with, or simply to be provoked a little further than they have before about such things. I was also hoping (and I know Myk was too) that the Theses were clearly being presented as something that Myk and I personally endorse as our own version of what we envision as particular fellows who inhabit the broader mood of an evangelical Calvinism. So we were hopeful that folk could make the distinction between what Myk and I think, and what some of our authors think (thank you for being one!) as the thoughtful reader engages each of the essays on the terms defined by the particular essayer’s own intentions. I am glad that you wrote this blog post, because it helps illustrate (for anyone interested) how one of the authors in our book seeks to distinguish himself in a way that fits with your own understanding of what an so called ‘evangelical Calvinism’ might entail. And to be honest, everything you have clarified resonates with me. That said, I still like what Myk and I presented in our Theses 🙂 … because it represents, well, my own personal beliefs of what an ‘evangelical Calvinism’ looks like. I guess one thing I struggle with, with what you have written, is trying to conceive of a way to introduce something (like an ethos of evangelical Calvinism) without at the same time introducing some sort of identifiable contours of thought or boundaries; indeed, it seems to me that even to suggest that we should engage in more of an asketic style, in and of itself introduces a boundary that some within the ‘tradition’ (of Calvinism) could take exception to. Nevertheless, I still see what you are saying.

    Thank you, John, I really appreciate your time and your thoughtfulness on this!

  5. Thank you John from me as well. You were a good critic of the project as well as contributor and I appreciate that. I like a lot of what you have to say here and as Bobby said, I too resoante with much of it However, to register one small protest (I choose my words carefully :-)), the Reformers themselves, whilst not getting everything right (who apart from Christ does!) did offer a vision of catholic Christianity which they considered the Roman Church to have deviated from. Thus, in any defence of the truth one does depart from others whom one feels are not fully representing the truth. At times many of us do feel that works which bring these differences to the surface are required in order to call all back to Christ as the one Way, Truth, and Life. So in any articulation of EC there will be an implicit argument against other forms of dogmatic theology – Calvinist, Lutheran, Arminian, Roman, and Eastern. I find that unavoidable, but also, if handled well, helpful. Thus I am a Christian (first), a Protestant (second), an Evangelical Calvinist (third), and a Baptist (fourth). Is there any problem in being ‘something’ and not simply ‘catholic’? And I mean this as a genuine question? Thanks John.

  6. Hi Bobby and Myk,
    I suppose I should attempt a clarification since I don’t think my point’s come across sufficiently clearly – the mood I’ve articulated does not do either of 2 things. Firstly, it does not mean that there are not things that we theologically share – Bobby’s hit the nail on the head with the ecumenical creeds’ trinitarianism, incarnationalism, and therefore claims about grace/love as the divine perfection in God’s freedom. Of course, the way those agreements are worked out can reveal other, and quite significant disagreements too. But, yes, I’m in full accord. Secondly, it does not mean that there are not things that one understands to be theologically inappropriate, and hence disagreement and debate are crucial to any healthy theological enterprise. No problem, confession good relativism bad!! [My paper should make it very clear that am making substantial theological claims *for* certain understandings and *against* others of the thoelogical material and the doctrines they expound.]
    But what I’m saying is a little more simple and perhaps subtle than that. Firstly, I’m simply warning against rushing into disagreements where good scholarship would have one tread more warily (Torrance on Thomas, for example, looks pretty poor given Thomistic scholarship). I’d suggest at this point that we carefully read and reflect on the introductory chapter of Barth’s Protestant Theology in the C19th lectures, and particularly his warnings against heresy and his claims about ongoing self-critical learning. Secondly, that notion of self-criticism is something that I’m suggesting that theological rhetoric has to take seriously, not merely nodding towards it but even in shaping the very style of its theological scholarship (with all the urgency it may nonetheless have when conducted in a spirit of faith seeking understanding). My worry is that talk of ‘EC’ over against Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and so on, can make it a little too easy for us to sound ‘right’ and the ‘others’ (massively complex traditions a little too neatly summed up) as ‘wrong’. I expect that’s not what you’re attempting, but I was suggesting that aspects of the theological rhetoric can press in that direction (you’d never think I was ecclesially educated between the ages of 4 and 14 in ‘remnant’ ideology!).
    Any more than that and I suppose I’d have to to theologically sustain my point by unpacking an appeal to the subversion of the stable subject as an eschatological necessity emergent from a theological imagination appropriately asketically directed by the docta ignorantia required by the kenotic disposition of a theologia crucis. Too much obfuscating jargon I know, and there might be an essay somewhere someday in this (a good place to start might be Rowan Williams’ paper ‘Trinity and Revelation’).
    I’m sure that probably won’t help much, and will probably keep the can of worms firmly open, but it’s worth me offering it as a poor attempt to clarify what I was suggesting. It’s maybe easier to say that it’s Barth correcting Torrance, assuming that we’re good exponents of either. Thanks again.

  7. Perhaps I might also say that I have no problem at all with a chapter attempting a set of theses such as the book provides (and from that we could conduct the theological conversation about the theses themselves – for instance, over the reading of Scotus/Thomas, over double predestination [after all, Barth says election is and can only be double otherwise it cannot make sense of the cross, but what he means by that he differs considerably on from the type of Federal Calvinism he was critiquing]). I guess that the question I want to throw out is whether there is enough work done in that chapter 15 to indicate that this is a set of interesting theological claims made by the two editors – i.e., that it’s Bobby and Myk’s chapter – and in that way delineate it from the other contributors (whether we agree with all, some or none of them). After all, the Introduction and Alasdair’s Foreword do indicate lines of continuity and shared concerns among the contributors. I hope that helps.

  8. Yeah that helps a lot thanks John. May the stimulating discussion continue with more dialogue partners!! Blessings.

  9. Thank you, John, I too appreciate your feedback; I especially liked this flow:

    Any more than that and I suppose I’d have to to theologically sustain my point by unpacking an appeal to the subversion of the stable subject as an eschatological necessity emergent from a theological imagination appropriately asketically directed by the docta ignorantia required by the kenotic disposition of a theologia crucis….

    Nice 🙂 !

    I understand some of your concerns with Torrance, and as some have called it; his hagiographic theological style. I would do well to critically engage him a bit more, and so I shall try. And I definitely agree that Myk and I could go much further in developing our theses, in fact that could become a book in and of itself. Anyway, appreciate your contribution to the book, John, and also that you are continuing to offer fruitful points for further consideration. Pax.

    Hi Myk.

  10. Hi Bobby, ‘Pursuing the theses further’ is a really interesting idea. How about this: that you and Myk write a shortish (say 50,000 words or so) introductory book on what EC might look like from your perspective, the themes and arguments, the key players and how they relate to one another, and the focused rejections of many of the features you see as theologically problematic? That would be a valuable companion volume. Perhaps from that you could even contribute to the ‘4 views of…’ series and have one of you, Michael Horton, Henri Blocher, Alister McGrath, for example, engaging one another on ‘4 views on Calvin’. Additionally, a symposium/conference in either the US or Aus debating the role and relevance of Federal Calvinism and the nature of the covenant. There’s a lot of mileage here.

    • John,

      That sounds great! I will be in conference with Myk 🙂 . I really like the idea of a symposium, there needs to be more of these kinds of collegial interactions. Great idea, though!

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