Monthly Archives: April 2012

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again

Nevin, again, providing an account of the “two great Protestant Confessions” that emerged out of Reformation Germany, the Lutheran “Form of Concord” and the several Calvinistic Confessions, which were “embodied comprehensively in the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Nevin asserts that, “They [the two great Protestant Confessions] form altogether one of the most strange and interesting chapters, in the church history of the sixteenth century.” What is the substance of this interesting chapter in sixteenth century history? Here’s the rub:

The great point at issue in the controversy, as it now stood, was the mode simply of Christ’s mystical presence in the holy eucharist. The fact of a real communication with his true mediatorial life, the substance of his body and blood, was acknowledged in general on both sides. The rigid Lutheran party however were not satisfied with this. They insisted on a nearer definition of the manner, in which the mystery must be allowed to hold; and contended for the formula, “In, with, and under” indispensable to a complete expression of Christ’s sacramental presence. He must be so comprehended in the elements, as to be received along with them by the mouth, on the part of allcommunicants, whether believers or unbelievers. It was for refusing to admit these extreme requisitions only, that the other party was branded with the title Sacramentarian, and held up to malediction in every direction as the pest of society. The heresy of which it was judged to be guilty stood simply in this, that the presence of Christ was held to be, after the theory of Calvin, not “in, with and under” the bread, but only with it; not for the mouth, but only for faith; not in the flesh but only by the Spirit; not for unbelievers therefore, but only for believers. This was the nature of the question,  that now filled all Germany with conflagration. It respected wholly the mode of Christ’s substantial presence in the Lord’s Supper, not the fact of the mystery itself  (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 29-30).

Book Review: John Calvin’s American Legacy – Chapter 1 – Calvin and the Social Order in Early America: Moral Ideals and Transatlantic Empire

So, a week ago I read the first chapter for this blog-through-review but now finally taking time to type up my thoughts. Go here for notes on the Introduction and go here for my notes jotted down before I started reading. And so.

Mark Valeri, who is a Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and has written much on Puritanism and early American economic practice, provides the introductory article on legacy of Calvinistic American society, and his contribution is thoughtful and marvelous.

The issues Valeri is grappling with is that there are two veins of thought regarding Calvinist legacy in America. On the one hand, some specialists and historians assert that the original influence of Calvinism in American society was overwhelmed by the demands of the market economy (e.g. the condemnation of the practice of usury was greatly softened as the transatlantic market developed), but on the other hand, other specialists and historians assert that Calvinistic economic thought laid the foundation for capitalism (typically this view is read through a lens provided by Max Weber’s seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

Valeri, however, does all of the historical heavy lifting for us by “setting the narrative of Calvinism and commerce in the context of Atlantic history” (no easy task). Valeri concludes that the two veins of thought described “oversimplify what historically occurred.” Valeri is a real man and does not stand in shadows debating historical quibbles and merely lobbing critical bombs at the fruits of the labor of other men and women, rather Valeri offers a reading of history that breaks from the pack.

He suggests that Calvin’s biblical hermeneutic is the key to best understand the “shift” in the Calvinistic outlook towards transatlantic trade in the New World. Valeri believes that the shift in Calvinistic economic thinking is not evidence of the market having defeated Calvinistic thought, that led to a watering down of the Calvinistic ethos, or the creation of a “fixed association between Calvinism and capitalism” (35). Instead, Valeri says the shift and development is consistent with Calvin’s hermeneutic, which “modeled for his followers a highly disciplined moral method grounded in the Bible. . . . Calvin applied the Bible to everything.”

Calvin’s application of the Bible, however, was not systematic or ideological. Appealing to “William J. Bouwsma, Serene Jones, and others,” Valeri says:

“Calvin applied the Bible in an almost ad hoc fashion to public dilemmas as they presented themselves. Just as he avoided systematic doctrinal formulations, he rebuffed elaborate social theories. He addressed local and immediate problems in their particular context. His pragmatism made it difficult to fix a Calvinist politics or economics but easier to identify Calvin’s chief appeal: it was mobile, practical, and flexible” (22).

It is this “mobile, practical, and flexible” hermeneutic that enabled Calvinistic theological development not in spite of the economic changes but because of them. It was for religious reasons interpretation and application of Scripture developed with the burgeoning transatlantic economy. Valeri suggests the religious reasoning at play was something along the lines of: if something can be viewed as being good for the church (flourishing), then, providentially speaking, the church ought to be gratuitous and accept the development.

Perhaps some will disagree with Valeri’s reading of Calvin, but I don’t think the evidence is there. Calvin’s corpus is largely characterized by his Bible commentaries and his sermons–Calvin in Geneva was a true model of a pastor-theologian–and his most systematic work is the Institutes, which he perpetually revised throughout his lifetime. As anyone who has spent much time with Calvin can attest, he absolutely abhorred theoretical abstractions. One can certainly appeal to the Institutes as a systematic work, and Calvin is a very careful and thoughtful writer, but if the Institutes are read in isolation from Calvin’s other letters, then one is missing out immensely on all that Calvin has to offer. (Personally, I have found his Bible commentaries to be compelling tenfold in comparison to Institutes.)

Thus, Valeri concludes that the “readiness to replace economic ideology with a practical application of the Bible to local circumstances has amounted, in the long run, to the Calvinist legacy in America” (36).  Methinks that is a good legacy to have.

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again

“It [Heidelberg Catechism] is much more indeed than a Catechism, in the ordinary sense; being so constructed as to serve, at the same time, the purpose of the full church Confession. It stands forth accordingly with special prominence, not only among the Catechisms, but among the regular Confessions also, of the period to which it belongs. In this view, it holds, we may say, the very highest distinction. If the question be asked, which among all the symbolical books that have appeared in the Reformed Church, has the best claim to be regarded in the light of an ecumenical or general symbol; the answer must be given undoubtedly, that it is the Heidelberg Catechism” (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 17).

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again

Nevin, again. He briefly accounts the rapid flourishing of the Reformed Churches throughout France, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Holland, and even in the German Palatinate (a German dialect of the Rhine Valley), and carefully notes that, “These different sections of the Reformed Church were regarded, in the beginning, as one and the same Confession. They were not however, like the Lutheran Church, bound together by subscription to a common creed. With an independent organization, each national branch of the general body had its own ecclesiastical standards. Hence a variety of Confessions and Catechisms; which serve strikingly however, by their general agreement, to attest the substantial unity of the faith to which they owe their existence” (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 15).

True catholicity, that.

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again

“It shows a most poor and superficial way of thinking, to look upon the sacramentarian controversy of the sixteenth century, as something only externally or accidentally related to the proper life of Protestantism – an arbitrary, isolated difficulty, created by the caprice of superstition simply, or mere blind self-will. To the religious consciousness of the time, the question stood intertwined with the entire scheme of the gospel, and was felt to reach out, in its bearings and consequences, to the farthest limits of theology” (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 11).

John Hick

John Hick has died (20 January 1922 – 9 February 2012). For those unfamiliar with his work, influence, and reputation, Hick was a philosopher of religion and liberal theologian, a prolific and compelling author, who will unarguably go down in the history books as one of if not the most influential philosophers of religion in the twentieth century. He will be remembered, on the one hand, for his contribution to theodicy (the study of God and evil), and, on the other hand, his contribution to religious pluralism (general acceptance of a variety of religions).

I studied John Hick’s work at length with Professor Steve Horst for an independent study on theodicy while I was an undergraduate student of Philosophy and Religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. After that study I reached a similar conclusion as Gavin D’Costa (who was an undergraduate pupil of John Hick), who recently wrote Remembering John Hick in the May 2012 publication of First Things:

Even if we disagree with his answers, he pushed Christians to look at the difficult questions as he provided answers that compel and challenge. For that we should be deeply grateful to him.

Also, John Hick released an autobiography in 2005. I highly recommend it; those who read it will witness, in Hick’s own phrasing, his intellectual and emotive drift into liberalism from the moorings of Christianity.

Book Review: John Calvin’s American Legacy – Introduction

In his Introduction, Davis provides just the right amount of up-front information regarding both the history of and the current state of affairs for Calvin’s influence and reputation in America . The result: the reader is well-informed, and is so without being over-whelmed or buried in editorial waxing-eloquent. The book’s aim is threefold, a straightforward examination of Calvin’s influence on (1) American society, (2) American theology, and (3) American letters (both fiction and nonfiction). These categories are broad, however, they are not exhaustive, and this prompts one to wonder: why does this volume limit the study of the breadth of Calvin’s influence to these three denoted spheres? It is unfortunate, but Davis does not provide the rationale for demarcation. The absence of which is the only shortcoming of the Introduction.

“While it is funny that Garrison Keillor can declare in one of his standard mock commercials for A Prairie Home Companion–”Mournful Oatmeal! The breakfast cereal of Calvinists”–it is also interesting that the people in the audience get the joke and laugh” (11).