Interpreting John Calvin: An Overview - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

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An overview of Battle’s work on Calvin’s life, theology and his affect on the Reformation.

Interpreting John Calvin: Introduction Part I

Hesselink makes mention of his indebtedness to Battles for his new translation of Calvin’s Institutes, published in 1960. Hesselink was in the midst of his doctoral dissertation and was forced to utilize the Allen translation of this work when Battles emerged with this new translation with cross-references, notes and indices which remain invaluable until today. Though the work of Battles remains important, Battles was not a theologian, but more precisely, a historical theologian. Battles did not believe himself to be a systematic theologian, but rather gathered the facts of history in a scholarly manner.

Upon meeting Hesselink, Battles invited him to take part in research surrounding a new study concerning the shaping of Calvin’s theology as a young man and the sources and influences that aided in that transformation. Battles, like Calvin, had a desire to work with the original sources for one’s theology, and the original languages in which they were written. Battles, then, was a profound linguist in Latin, German and French in order to read the first source and secondary source materials for Calvin’s theology and life.

Battles’ focus was to emphasize the main areas of Calvin’s life and theology which clarity. He demonstrates Calvin’s goal in his writings as “lucid brevity.” His conversion, Battles says, is progressive over a series of five stages, and we have little that helps us to see his conversion as instantaneous. Battles also focused on Calvin’s piety (pietas), and was the first to take this aspect of Calvin to scholarly levels. Battles demonstrates that Calvin was committed to discussing fine points of theology, but at the same time remained firm as a herald of the simple Gospel.

Interpreting John Calvin,
Introduction Part 2

Donald McKim introduces us to the “Calvinian Works” of Ford Lewis Battles. Battles was a master at dealing with first sources, and behind everything he wrote about Calvin and his theology were the primary sources in the original languages they were written.

The work in question, Interpreting John Calvin, is divided up into two sections. The first five articles explain the origin and structure of Calvin’s theology, where the next four deal with Calvin as poet, his piety, and his morality. Concerning the origin and structure of Calvin’s theology, Battles covers Calvin’s humanistic education, primarily focusing in on the sources of Calvin’s Seneca commentary and the influences surrounding Calvin in order to write this work. Next he deals with the Institutes of the Christian Religion in its first printing, demonstrating it to be in the form of a Protestant Catechism. Next, Battles deals with Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation, since it is primary in understanding Calvin’s approach to Scripture and his hermeneutics in the process of the creature’s capacity to have a true “knowledge of God”.

Battles confirms Calvin’s poetry was “doxological, christological and soteriological.” Calvin’s Psychopannychia exhibits early on that Calvin had an cute sense of poetry, demonstrating chiasms, parallelisms, and anaphora structures. His piety is clearly expressed through the meaning of faith (pietas) and his morality through Justitia.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 1,
Calvin’s Humanistic Education

From 1523-1533, there are three universities that Calvin attended: Paris, Orleans and Bourges. In 1523, at age fourteen, Calvin enrolled in the university of Paris at the will of his father who desired him to study in the priesthood. He spent the first three months in the College de la Marche and then transferred to the College de Montaigu. Here he spent four years pursing a degree in the arts. Calvin then attended the university of Orlẻans to study law (which had earlier been a center for medieval scholasticism) from 1528-1529 and then later again in 1532-33. He then attended the university at Bourges and continued his education in political law. Finally, he went back to Paris for a second stopover, when Francis I was in prison and the university desired to extricate reform.

Six of Calvin’s teachers are worthy of note. Calvin dedicated his Commentary on 1 Thessalonians to Mathurian Cordier (1523). Cordier taught Calvin Latin and his Grammatica Latina went through many editions. Peirre de l’Estoile (1528) is paid high esteem in Calvin’s introduction to the Antapalogia of another student (his first published piece) and had forced conservativism upon Calvin for his views on law. Andrea Alciati (1529-30) affected Calvin in a negative way where he wrote in the same introduction against Alciati for opposing l’Estoile. Melchior Wolmar (1530-31) was Calvin’s first Greek teacher. Calvin also relied heavily on Guillaume Bude (1531-32) for his understanding of legal terms, political philosophy and literature. Pierre Dane (1531) may have been a teacher of Calvin, but this is unconfirmed, though Calvin desired to sit under him. All of these men influenced Calvin’s thought, and his educational plan for Geneva.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 2,
The Sources of Calvin’s Seneca Commentary

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. The theme of this commentary is that the “mighty” (Alexander in this case) should rule with mercy since such rulers are held morally responsible before God for their actions.

Calvin’s sources for his commentary can be seen by internal citations, however, as much as the citations are important, where he read those citations are equally important. Twice Calvin uses the term “pillars” to point to the authorities he used in citation for his commentary. The first was Erasmus and the second was Budaeus. Both are referred to in the commentary, though Budaeus is relied on more heavily. It is apparent that Calvin leaned on Budaeus’ writings surrounding, legal terms, Roman institutions, political philosophy, abstract philosophy, and literature. Calvin was not a lackey to Budaeus, for he does not quote him verbatim, but rather paraphrases his thought in process. Calvin may have had a third pillar, Philippus Beroaldus the Elder (1453-1505), though he does not mention him directly but does quote him directly, and by other citations was influenced by bibliographic information in Beroaldus’ works. Obviously Calvin used philosophical sources, including Cicero and Seneca’s writings (two ancient pillars) in which he relied heavily, as well as Greek and Latin literature, Latin poets, historians (such as Suetonius), humanists, and rhetoricians.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 3,
The First Edition of the Institutes (1536)

Calvin’s original intent for the publication of the Institutes was that of catechizing the reader on the basics and rudimentary intention of piety and Christian faith. This is plainly seen in his introductory letter to Francis I. However turbulent times did not allow Calvin to reach his desired end and the catechism turned into an apology for Christians. (This turbulence of time can be seen in Calvin’s diversion in writing the Psychopannychia (a work dealing with the false teaching of “soul-sleep” and reality of the mediatorship of Jesus Christ.).) Thus, Calvin wrote the Institutes as instruction for the brethren, and to plead their case before the king to stop Protestant persecution.

The first edition of the Institutes comprised a dedicatory letter to the French king, and then six chapters. There were eight parts to the introductory letter: circumstances for writing, persecution of individuals, charges of Catholics against the Reformed faith, the support of the church Fathers in reformed doctrine, against papal tradition and custom for the papacy, the true church is always observable, a defense of the preaching of the Gospel, and then finally a plea to the king. The Institutes then follow chapter divisions: on the Law (an exposition on the Decalogue); on faith (and exposition of the Apostle’s Creed); on prayer (resting on Bucer’s Commentary on the Gospels); on the sacraments (where he rejects the Zwinglian and the Roman view of the Supper, and the Anabaptist view of baptism); on the five false sacraments (where he overthrows Catholic theology) and then a final letter to the King and explanation of proper obedience to the king in truth, even if the king were to remain unjust in his persecuting acts.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 4,
God Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity

It is impossible to study Calvin as an exegete without understanding his view of the doctrine of accommodation that permeates the Institutes. Accommodation for Calvin has to do with both the interpretation of Scripture and the whole created reality, of which, “Scripture holds the clue.” The entire creation is an accommodation (i.e. God has accommodated Himself to us, or, adapted through verbal and created representation the matter of His own being so that creatures can apprehend something about Him.) For example, Calvin deals with the manner in which God interacts with man in questioning whether God repents or not (cf. Institutes, 1:17.12f). God makes Saul king, Saul rebels, and God repents that He made Saul king. Calvin’s answer is that God “represents himself to us not as he is in himself [which would be impossible for us to understand being finite creatures] but as he seems to us to accommodate to our weak capacity.”

Calvin recognized that God used certain “portraits” of Himself in verbal revelation as accommodation. Such portraits seem inconsistent, for God does not have feathers (Psalm 91:4) or hands (Exodus 9:3). But there were certain “ruling metaphors” for Calvin in this way: God as Father, God as Teacher, and God as Physician. This is in contrast to man as child, schoolboy and sick with sin.

For Calvin (and every Christian) the ultimate remedy for this accommodating gap between God and man is the incarnation of the God-man Christ Jesus explained to us in the accommodation of the Scriptures. The ultimate anthropomorphism of Scripture is the bodily manifestation of Jesus Christ on earth, and his testimony of exegeting the Father.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 5,
Structure of the Theology of John Calvin

Calvin’s theology is structured around his view of faith and conversion. His conversion is difficult to pinpoint, yet, based on his textural evidences, it seemed to be a result of Romans 1:21 and/or 1:25, as well as Calvin’s emphasis on the Psalms. There are four assumptions surrounding piecing together his conversion: 1) Romans 1:18-25 was the trigger for his conversion; 2) a section written to Cardinal Sadolet in 1539 concerning the confession of the layperson before the judgment seat of God; 3) two theological “restatements” of his conversion (one by Pierre Robert, his cousin, in the preface to the French New Testament translation, and the other in the initial pages of the Institutes in 1536); 4) the mediating position Calvin found between following the papacy and the radical Anabaptists who were spiritualists. Calvin does not write out his conversion experience, but it is pieced together based on Calvin’s recantation of false faith, and his apologetic against false views of the soul against Anabaptist theology.

Five theses characterize the structure of Calvin’s theology: 1) the Institutes were based on a reworking of his view of faith through various editions; 2) new additions were a result of mediating between papalism and spiritualism; 3) a true/false structure characterizes this, and underlies the manner in which he thought about theology; 4) these dichotomies of the true/false principle can be blueprinted and worked out in three layers based on the operation of the Spirit in His universal providence, special providence and inner working in the elect; 5) Calvin follows a patterns of “fractioning off” theological ideas expressed in terms of limits to truth.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 5,
Appendices A-F

Something must be said for the outstanding work that Battles demonstrates in the six appendices following Calvin’s Theological Structure. Appendix A houses thirty-seven dichotomies in which Battles has outlined Calvin’s Institutes in terms of the true/false principles. Though these tables do not define scriptural exegesis to the conclusions that Battles makes, they do give the reader a formidable outline to follow for Calvin’s thought against what is false. Particular attention should be given the reader to table 6 (law and Gospel) tables 10-17 (the gift and exercise of faith) and tables 27-34 (sacraments). In Appendix B, Battles demonstrates the “web of meaning” of Calvin’s theology and insists, rightly, that Calvin’s meanings of certain words should be taken not in part, but in the whole ensemble of his work in the Institutes. Battles then exemplifies the definition of fides (faith) for Calvin in a helpful diagram (table 39). Appendix C demonstrates the theatrum mundi or theater of the world that comprises Calvin’s history of salvation by God in the realm of the created order. He explains the virtutes Dei (qualities of God) in terms of His accommodation to us, and the exercise of this power and quality of God in the theater of human life (table 42). Appendix D demonstrates Calvin’s’ theology of ascent and descent. Appendix E deals with Calvin’s theology against the Libertines, where he demonstrates God’s care in governing the universe in three ways: 1) universal operation, 2) God’s work in creatures for them to serve him, and 3) He governs his believers by the Holy Spirit. Appendix F is a notation demonstrating Calvin’s twofold knowledge of God possibly being drawn in part from quoting Clement’s Paidagogoes.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 6,
Remarks about the “Found” Poetry of John Calvin

As a thoughtful theologian, Calvin was also a poet at times. He was so entrenched with the poetic structures of the biblical record (especially in the books such as Psalms and the Song of Solomon) that he had a tendency to express himself in his writings by poetic structures. For instance, in times where he was most passionate and vehemently contending for the doctrines of Christ, he would enter into poetic composition. Oftentimes this theological burst of meditation and feeling expressed itself in three forms of thought – christological, doxological and soteriological (in other words, as one is in the thrall of praising Christ for salvation, arranged poetry emerges.) Such structure took upon itself four general characteristics in Calvin’s writings: 1) natural division of the text into lines of similar length; 2) parallelism; 3) a division into stanzas; and 4) inclusio or chiastic constructions.

Calvin had dismissed himself as a poet early on, but in his writings he practiced it under the guise of doxological theology. In this way, for the theologian, poetry is necessary. Calvin has many specifically lined structures through all his works, even his Psychopannychia, and his commentary on Seneca, both of which were written before the Institutes (which in itself holds many of these structured poetic sections). One can trace the depth of Calvin by his style and thought in such passages, and the reader, who “outlines” these thoughts, will see more clearly the manner of Calvin’s patterns. This is where his intellectual theology becomes intensely practical, exemplifying both matters of the heart as well as the head.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 7,
True Piety According to Calvin

For Calvin, piety was a matter of both what one understands and what one lives out, even amidst persecution. Pietas translates into Calvin’s whole understanding of Christian doctrine of faith and life. Specifically, Calvin says piety is, “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” It carries in it both the honor and obedience of God as our Father (an accommodating term used frequently by Calvin) as well as the fear of the Lord in service as the Creator. It includes our walk before God as sons and our walk before our brethren as fellow heirs together in Christ. This theme is even interwoven in Calvin’s own allusions of his conversion in his preface to the Commentary on the Psalms, and more fully developed later in his tract On the Christian Life. Such thoughts are finally developed in later translation of the Institutes as his ideas were born from a sense of controversy in theological reflection.

Calvin wrote a number of tracts that pressed the need for true piety in the Christian life. On Scandals (1550) taught that the Gospel is born of scandal, and the Christian must partake of it. Such scandals emerge intrinsically by those who take offense at the Gospel. Annexed scandals arise when the Gospel is preached and sects and controversy result. Adventitious scandals spring from Gospel hypocrites and covenant breakers. In Excuse to the Nicodemites (1544) he attacks lukewarmness, where God is both Lord of the body and the soul of His elect people, and they should act as such. In What Faithful Men Ought to Do Dwelling Amongst the Papists (1543) Calvin demonstrates a living Reformed faith is best amidst persecution from those without.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 8,
John Calvin, Justitia and Old Testament Law

Calvin’s ideas surrounding justice and law emerge from a framework of sixteenth century legal scholarship processed through the grid of the Mosaic Law. Everything that Calvin wrote about law was profoundly influenced by his in-bred conceptions of Graeco-Roman law in his scholastic days as a student at the universities of Orlẻans and Bourges.

Calvin explained a tripartite purpose to the law of God. There was the moral law (or Decalogue) that exemplified the expressed character of God in pure form that binds all rational creatures to it in character and conduct. There was the ceremonial law that was abrogated with the coming of Christ, useful as types and shadows of the Christ to come, now done away with in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Finally the judicial law, for the civil and criminal element of a theocratic kingdom and nation, was a Jewish counterpart of national laws in other countries. His view of the law in the first five books of Moses is harmonized in four heads: 1) preface, 2) Decalogue, 3) supplements to the two tables of the law, 4) the practical application and use of the law.

The “clue” to Calvin’s concept of justice in the law resides in the epieikei, or the clemency and the letter of the law based on the intention of the Lawgiver. He taught that man in his fallen condition still retains enough reason and rationale to be “distinguished from the brute beast (Institutes, 2.2.21).” “Equity, then, is the prime principle for Calvin in understanding true justice.” Such teaching is explicit in the Lawgiver of the Old Testament and made full by the teachings of Christ in the New Testament.

Interpreting John Calvin: Chapter 9,
Against Luxury and License in Geneva

A fragment of Calvin’s writings called De Luxo (1546) demonstrates his desire to uphold and improve the piety and private morality of the people in Geneva. The intention of the document is to outline the base pleasures of life that ought not to take precedence over the good of the soul. Calvin quotes Augustine to epitomize the purpose of the tract when he says, “Out of your abundance actors are steeped in luxury, while the poor lack even necessities.”

Calvin attempted to set up a society where the Lord’s Supper remained at the center. This meant that the city-state of Geneva desired to protect against the pollution that immorality brought to the people over holiness. Calvin submitted a number of works to the Genevan council demonstrating the need to make whatever provisions necessary for the attainment of holy morals. Thus, Calvin had an intricate structure laid out for the use of the Law, the use of Punishment to that law, and the use of Church discipline (all of which remained tripartite in their structure (cf. table 59). The end of this crusade, then, was the “protection of communion through moral discipline,” for “a state with defective laws will have defective morals (Seneca, Ep. Mor. 94:38/LCL 3.36f).”

In this document Calvin explains the devilish tendencies of luxury that to him are “childish.” Abstinence should be sought rather than pleasure (luxury). Sensual pleasures in those outwardly shameless affect those who are weak and impressionable. In luxury lust is exemplified, and acts such as dancing, gluttony, drinking and dressing lavishly should be held in contempt. The poor, then, are oppressed by the acts of the rich.

Bible Verse:

"...knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot," (1 Peter 1:18-19).

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