Saturday, 11 February 2012

Calvin quincentenary - revisited

I've been reading the published version of the keynote addresses from the Calvin quincentenary conference I attended in Geneva during May 2009. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the conference for a couple of days, and didn't actually hear many of the most interesting of the keynote papers - so its good to catch up with them here.

Irena Backus and Philip Benedict (eds), Calvin & his Influence, 1509-2009 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) consists of fifteen essays, some on Calvin himself, and his influence during his lifetime, others on the longer term impact of his thought through Europe and beyond. In many ways its a volume that summarises the history of Calvin studies, and gives a sense of where the discipline is at today. As with any collection of essays they're a little mixed in quality, and I felt that some of those translated from French and German didn't work all that well in English. I dont intend to comment on all of them here, just a few of what I felt were the highlights.

Diarmaid McCulloch's chapter on Calvin as a Fifth Latin Doctor of the Church, setting him in the context of Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, is almost worth the price of the volume in itself. McCulloch argues that Calvin's Institutes, his commentaries and his sermons were a careful distillation of the post Chalcedon, Augustine dominated Western Christian tradition - Calvin was entirely maintstream!

One of the themes that emerges repeatedly from some of the chapters dealing with Calvin's legacy is the extent to which Calvin remained a shadowy figure, and many 'Calvinists' strove to define themselves without explicit reference to the Genevan reformer. This is certainly something I've noticed in some of my recent work on the Welsh Reformed tradition - many eighteenth century Welsh Calvinists were proud to call themselves Calvinist but had limited exposure to Calvin himself and were often at pains that they discovered Reformed theology through the plain reading of Scripture than through their reading of Calvin.

This is certainly a line of argument that Richard A. Muller has explored to the full in recent years, and his chapter: 'Reference and Response: Referencing and Understanding Calvin in seventeeth-century Calvinism', provides more evidence for the reluctance of many in the seventeenth century to elevate Calvin to 'high authority' (p. 182).

The eighteenth century has generally been held to be a low point in the fortunes of Calvinism, at least in Europe. In an excellent chapter Ernestine van der Wall, looks at the fortunes of Calvin in Holland during the era of the Enlightenment. The chapter argues that for much of the eighteenth century Calvin remained a 'distant' figure (p. 202). Those Enlightenment figures who bothered to engage with him tended to dismiss him as intolerant and despotic on account of the Servetus affair. Yet in the eighteenth century attitudes towards Calvin 'varied between the more orthodox Reformed Protestants and their liberal and progressive brethren' (p. 211). Responses could be classified into three broad types: the orthodox, who were interested in worrying deviations from Reformed orthodoxy; the moderately enlightened Protestants and the much more radically progressive Protestants.The three types are illustrated with Dutch-orientated case studies.

Also highly enlightening is David Bebbington's essay on responses to Calvin among British evangelicals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A tremendously rich and detailed essay traces the varying fortunes of Calvinism, and concludes by arguing that there remained considerable distance between British evangelicals and Calvin during both centuries. Particularly useful, given my Lloyd-Jones interests, is Bebbington's judgement that the Reformed 'revival', if thats not too strong a term, led by Jim Packer and Lloyd-Jones from the mid 1950s onwards, while it certainly had 'wide appeal' (p. 297) was largely theological, having few if any socio-political implications.

So like all essay collections there something here for most readers. In many ways this is a great intorduction to scholarly study on Calvin, and the state of the scholarly debates on many aspects of his life, career and influence.

No comments: