TF Torrance on Calvin
I wish that I had more to say about this extensive quote I’m about to show you, whether comments of criticism, clarification, construction, or addition. But, the fact is that I don’t quite yet know what to do with the notions that TFT relates here. Some of them resonate, and some of them chafe. There are certainly things that I would want to criticize, clarify, use to construct further positions, or add. For instance, some of the dichotomies that TFT sets up for how Calvin ought to be understood seem a little forced, that is, there are certainly other options for viewing Calvin than those offered here. But, TFT’s vision of Calvin here is so much a whole that I want to be very careful before beginning to pick it apart. It is one of those things that one needs to sit with a while. In any case, I invite you to join me in contemplating what TFT has to tell us about Calvin.
Thomas F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church (Wipf & Stock, 1996): 1.91-3:
“All Calvin’s teaching and preaching have to do with salvation through union with Christ in His death and resurrection. That is very clear in the Institutes in which the central message is worked out more and more clearly and fully from book to book, and is given most magnificent form in book four. In the history of theology Calvin represents the movement to bring the doctrine of the Person of Christ into the centre. In that he stood consciously in the tradition of Augustine and Bernard (the two fathers he cites more frequently than any others) in their emphasis upon personal Christological truth, but in Calvin it is more biblical, more dynamic and eschatological, than mystical – and certainly much less individualistic that it was in Bernard. Calvin, for example, would have nothing to do with Bernard’s notion that the individual soul is the Bride of Christ. It is of the whole Church that we must speak in this way, and union with Christ is essentially the corporate union between Christ and the Church as His Body.
“It is around this doctrine of union with Christ, then, that Calvin builds his doctrine of faith, of the Church as the living Body of Christ, and his doctrines of the Christian life, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Apart from union with Christ, Calvin says, all that Christ did for us in His Incarnation, death, and resurrection, would be unavailing. An examination of the structure of the Institutes makes it clear that this forms the main substance of his theology, and that the idea of predestination is not given a central place. Predestination or election is important, but Calvin speaks about it as a rule in connection with certain controversies (notably with Castellio and Pighius) but never as a basic doctrine in itself – except in so far as Christ is Himself the Beloved Son and the mirror of our election. And so right in the heart of his Christology Calvin devotes a small chapter to that fact, the really central point of election…Rather, then, does Calvin give predestination a place on the circumference of his theology, where it acted like a protecting wall for the central emphases of grace and adoption or sonship in Christ…
“Nothing has done more harm to Calvinism than the invention and perpetuation of the myth that Calvin’s theology was a severely logical structure. That notion grew up on French soil and was perpetuated by the great succession of Calvinist Schoolmen on the Continent, eminently in Holland. Modern research, however, makes it indubitably clear that Calvin’s whole theology was formulated in a very definite reaction against the arid logical schematisms into which the doctrines of the Church had been thrust by “the frigid doctors of the Sorbonne”, as he called them, and that again and again he was content to leave the ends of his theological thinking loose for the precise reason that theology runs out always to the point of wonder where we can only clap our hands on our mouth and remember that we are humble creatures. The whole inner substance of Calvin’s teaching…enshrines mystery and resists rationalistic schematization – so that it is a great disservice to interpret him as above all a logician.
“That is not to say that his theology is not amazingly consistent; as it is. It is consistency, however, that derives not from formal logic but from the thoroughness with which he stated his theology in terms of the analogy of Christ. In his prefatory letter to the King of France, in the 1559 edition of the Institutes, Calvin pointed out that, following the Apostle Paul, Christian theology must operate with the analogy of faith, and that when doctrine is tested by this its victory is secure. By the analogy of faith Calvin meant both that all doctrine must be based upon the exegetical study of Holy Scripture in which Scriptural passages are interpreted in terms of each other, and more basically, that all doctrines are to be thought out thoroughly in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, for example, in regard to repentance, which was such an important issue at the Reformation, while the Roman Schoolmen divided repentance into three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, Calvin, following the analogy of faith in Jesus Christ, showed that repentance has two essential parts, mortification and vivification, corresponding to the death and resurrection of Christ. It was in carrying that Christological analogy through all the doctrines of the faith that Calvin achieved such an astonishing consistency, but it is consistency determined not by logical relation or by some kind of Calvinist philosophy (so-called), but by the principle of Christological analogy – i.e. Christology applied to the whole of our life and work and thought.”