Saturday, January 29, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 6 / Conclusion

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Concluding Observation

OK, I’d like to wrap up with one final observation.

The longer I reflect on Calvin’s personality, the clearer it becomes to me that he was, above all, a man of truth. And the more I think about it, the more convicted I become by the possibility that at least part of the reason we’re not attracted to him is because, unlike us, he simply refused to fake friendship for political reasons. He was so repulsed by duplicity and hypocrisy that he resolved never to pretend to be someone’s friend when he really wasn’t.

The drawbacks to that way of relating to people are perfectly obvious, but the motivation for Calvin’s honesty is entirely praiseworthy. It was because he regarded friendship as such a great gift and blessing from God that he refused to degrade it with insincerity and feigned kindness. In most Christian contexts, that way of operating just wouldn’t fly. But it’s hard not to respect Calvin’s courage and the clarity of his perception that of all God’s gifts to us, close friendship is certainly one of the best.

So let me suggest that we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth in an unconventional way. For the rest of the year, whenever we think of Calvin, or even better, as we’re reading one of his books, let us allow his memory to be an occasion for us to praise God for the incomparable blessing of friendship. Calvin was always uneasy with memorials, but I think even he would be pleased with that way of celebrating his life and legacy.


[Ed.: Thank you, Adam!]

Friday, January 28, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 5

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friendship with Martin Bucer

Bucer was born into a German-speaking family of craftsmen in Alsace, and at 15 he entered a Dominican monastery. The Dominicans sent him to Heidelberg to pursue a doctorate, and there he came under the influence of Erasmus. Then, in April of 1518, he had an experience that made a profound impact on him. He was allowed to sit in on Luther’s famous Heidelberg Disputation, where for the first time he encountered Luther’s theology of the cross. The experience blew his Dominican doors off.

And after a personal meeting with the great man, Bucer became convinced that Luther’s teaching on grace was true. So in 1521, he left the Dominicans and promptly married a former nun, Elisabeth Silbereisen. After a few moves, the couple settled in Strasbourg, and when the town decided to embrace the Reformation, they chose Bucer and Wolfgang Capito to lead them.

In keeping with the anecdotal style of this lecture, it seems appropriate to mention the name of Bucer’s second wife, Wibrandis Rosenblatt. Have any of you heard of her? Her story’s pretty remarkable. When her first husband died, she married Johannes Oecolampadius, the great reformer of Basel. And when he died in 1531, she married Wolfgang Capito, whom I just mentioned was Bucer’s partner in the reform of Strasbourg. In 1541, an epidemic hit Strasbourg and claimed the lives of both her husband, Capito, and Elisabeth Silbereisen, Bucer’s wife. And so in their mutual grief, she and Bucer consoled one another by getting married. Which meant that after all was said and done, Wibrandis was wife to three of the most influential men in the Protestant Reformation: Oecolampadius, Capito, and Bucer – and in fact was mother to all of their children. Remarkable.

At any rate, back to Bucer. Throughout his life, he attempted to be a mediating figure, especially between the Reformed and Lutherans in their disputes about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, Calvin thought Bucer was too conciliatory and diplomatic, and he criticized him for minimizing significant theological issues for the sake of unity. And in light of Calvin’s friendship with Farel, you won’t be surprised to learn that Calvin didn’t hesitate to voice these criticisms to Bucer.

He wrote a somewhat hot-headed letter to Bucer expressing his concerns in 1538. The year is important because 1538 is also the year that Bucer enthusiastically invited Calvin to join him in Strasbourg. And when you realize that Bucer extended this invitation just a few months after Calvin had reprimanded him, perhaps even somewhat unfairly, you can’t help but be impressed with his humility. And it was that sort of deep virtue that quickly captured Calvin’s heart.

Throughout his life, Calvin only referred to two people as his “fathers” in the Christian faith – Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. Which is interesting because the forms of their respective influences on him were quite different. Luther and Calvin never met one another face to face, nor did they exchange letters, so Luther impacted Calvin primarily through his writings. Calvin actually did write one letter to Luther, but Luther never received it because Phillip Melanchton – who promised to deliver it – never did, which is a shame. On the other hand, Bucer and Calvin were next-door neighbors for three years in Strasbourg and they spent time with one another daily.

If you think about the circumstances in which Calvin arrived in Strasbourg, it’s not hard to see why his heart was receptive to someone like Bucer. Because Calvin came to Strasbourg embarrassed about being exiled from Geneva, and uncertain about where God was leading him. In fact, his expulsion from Geneva had left him with very real doubts about his call to pastoral ministry. And as he was licking his wounds and trying to sort out his life, he found himself increasingly distrustful of his own feelings, which led him to long for wise counsel – or, as he put it, for “safe and prudent guides.” And that’s exactly what Bucer became for him.

More than anyone else, Bucer helped Calvin regain his focus and get back in the pastoral saddle. There’s even a humorous parallel between Bucer’s methods of persuasion and those of Farel before him. Just after leaving Geneva, when Calvin was in Basel trying to figure out his next step, he decided to revert to his original plan of becoming an independent scholar. But Bucer thought that was a bad plan, and instead decided that Calvin should join him in Strasbourg as pastor of a congregation of French refugees.

But when he floated the idea, Calvin declined his offer. And so being a clever man Bucer employed the tactic that had worked so well for Farel. He told Calvin that if, like Jonah, he refused to man his post in Strasbourg, God was going to curse his disobedience. And it worked! Calvin changed his mind and agreed to Bucer’s plan.

But that encounter isn’t indicative of Bucer’s normal way of relating to Calvin. Bucer knew how the fiasco in Geneva had chastened Calvin, and he also knew that Calvin had become acutely aware of his weaknesses as a pastor and public figure. And Bucer’s genius was to see that what Calvin needed was encouragement and, above all, a renewed vision for ministry. Which led him to take Calvin under his wing and become his mentor, especially his mentor in ministry.

It was from Bucer that Calvin learned to order the church according to the fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon. Bucer was the one who helped Calvin perceive the vital importance of church discipline, which Calvin eventually came to describe as “the sinews of the body of Christ.” And Bucer’s exegetical work and preaching also made a deep impression on Calvin. In a letter to Heinrich Bullinger, Calvin wrote this about Bucer’s skill as a biblical interpreter:
“There is no reason why you ought to be suspicious of Bucer. He is endowed with a singularly acute and remarkably clear judgment. In fact, there is no one who is more religiously desirous to keep within the simplicity of the Word of God, and less given to hunt after niceties of interpretation that are quite foreign to it.”
Bucer’s influence even extended into the very center of Calvin’s personal life, since he was the one who convinced Calvin that he ought to get married, something Calvin was initially hesitant to do. And so through everything Bucer was able to do for Calvin what all good fathers and mothers are able to do for their children: he understood Calvin better than Calvin understood himself, and because of that, he was able to counsel Calvin with great wisdom.

When Geneva eventually realized its mistake and invited Calvin to return, Calvin’s initial response was unmistakable: “I would rather submit to a hundred other deaths,” he wrote, “than to that cross on which one must perish daily a thousand times.” To Calvin, Geneva was “a great abyss” in which he expected to be “completely swallowed up.” The prospect of returning to Geneva terrified him, and at one point in his deliberations, he claimed that he would only return if he could bring Bucer with him. That didn’t end up happening. But I think it speaks volumes to how close Calvin and Bucer had become during what turned out to be three of the happiest years of Calvin’s life.

By 1541, their relationship had developed to the point where Calvin understood himself as subject to Bucer’s spiritual and paternal authority. In October of that year, just six weeks after returning to Geneva, he wrote this to Bucer:
“Until I confess to you that I can bear no more, do not doubt that I am performing faithfully what I promised you I would. And if in any way I do not live up to your expectation, you know that I am under your power, and subject to your authority. Admonish, chastise, and exercise over me all the powers of a father over his son.”
In the end, Bucer’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, his Christocentric piety, his edifying exegesis and preaching, his affirmation of the doctrine of election, and his genius for church discipline and order, were all things Calvin whole-heartedly resonated with and which eventually became hallmarks of the Genevan Reformation. Willem van’t Spijker, one of the leading scholars of Calvin’s relationship with Bucer, summarizes their influence on one another like this:
“Calvinism owes its most characteristic features to Bucer. But Bucer owes it to Calvin that his most essential ideas received their further elaboration, which he had never been able to provide himself.”
And that, of course, is what good friends do for one another; they spur one another on and compensate for each other’s weaknesses, which enables them to be more than twice as strong together as they would be alone.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 4

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friendship with William Farel
The two closest friendships that Calvin developed during his first stay in Geneva were with Pierre Viret and William Farel who had been laboring alongside one another in the Genevan reform. Calvin joined them in 1536, and the three men quickly became so close that people in town nicknamed them “the tripod” and “the three patriarchs.” Calvin dedicated his commentary on Titus to them, and after comparing their work together in Geneva to St. Paul’s work in Crete, he says this:
“I do not believe that there have ever been such friends who have lived together in such a deep friendship in their everyday style of life in this world as we have in our ministry. I have served here in the office of pastor with you two, and there was never between us any appearance of envy. It seems to me that you two and I were as one person.”
Interestingly, all three men were quite different in temperament. Whereas Farel was fiery and tenacious and ornery, Viret was calm, self-deprecating, and apparently had a wonderful sense of humor. In fact, it’s sometimes pointed out that one helpful way of understanding Calvin is to recognize that throughout his life he tried to blend Farel’s prophetic zeal with Viret’s moderation, albeit with varying degrees of success.

As it turns out, it was Viret whom Calvin referred to as his “greatest friend of all.” But Farel’s name is probably more familiar to most people primarily because of the fireworks that accompanied his first meeting with Calvin.

When Calvin was forced to leave Paris in January of 1535 – in part because of his connection to another friend, Nicholas Cop – he fled to Basel, where he finished the first edition of the Institutes. It became an instant bestseller. Calvin’s plan was to help spread the evangelical message as an independent scholar, and so he resolved to settle into a leisurely life of study and writing in evangelical Strasbourg. But as he was on his way there, he was forced to take a detour through Geneva.

When Farel heard that Calvin was in town, he seized the moment, and invited him to stay and help with the reform. Calvin politely declined his offer, and where most people would have accepted the decision with resignation, Farel decided to bring out the heavy artillery. The best description of what happened next was written by Calvin himself. As you listen to this, take a look at the monument to Farel in Neuchatel, which makes Calvin’s recollection of the episode all the more believable.
“Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing with his attempts to persuade me, he prayed that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance when the need was so urgent. By this denunciation, I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken [and agreed to remain in Geneva].”
So for the next two years, Calvin and Farel were inseparable partners in the cause of the Reformation. When Calvin was invited back to Geneva in 1541, he nearly declined the invitation – in part because Farel hadn’t also been asked back. But Farel encouraged him to go, and he eventually did. Farel was later called to serve as pastor in Neuchatel, and even though they no longer worked side by side, he and Calvin remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Of all the things one could say about their friendship, to me the most striking is the way they were able to relate to one another with an unusual mix of both perfect frankness and indestructible commitment. To take just one example, Calvin often spoke to Farel about the fact that his writings were too verbose and his sermons too long. And as gossip about this continued to emanate out of Neuchatel, Calvin decided to confront his friend about it in a letter written in January of 1552:
“From my standpoint there is one thing that I want to caution you about: I understand that because of the length of your sermons there are many complaints. You have often confessed to me that you know this is a fault that that you would like to correct it. Therefore, I ask that you prevent these complaints from growing into seditious clamor, and I beg you to make a serious effort to restrain yourself rather than giving Satan the chance that we see him looking for.”
“I beg you to make a serious attempt to restrain yourself.” How can you not love that?! In one short sentence, Calvin expresses what so many parishioners instinctively know, but are too polite to say – that most sermons would be twice as good if they were half as long. And to portray his verbosity as essentially Satanic – well, that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out if Farel actually succeeded in becoming less prolix; somehow I doubt it.

As another example of their openness, consider this. After they had been expelled from Geneva, Calvin returned for a time to Basel. In the meantime, Farel had been invited to become a pastor in Neuchatel, and Calvin considered joining him there. But Martin Bucer thought that would be a bad idea. In his opinion, the two men didn’t always bring out the best in one another. Or, more precisely, he didn’t think Farel always brought out the best in Calvin. And so Bucer was worried that if Calvin went to Neuchatel, Farel’s fire-eating instincts would rub off on him and keep him from being as effective as he otherwise could be.

So Bucer spelled out all of this in a letter to Calvin. And I’m sure you can probably guess what Calvin did with the letter. He showed it to Farel – who you know must have been injured by it – and they proceeded to discuss the merits of Bucer’s argument. As it turns out, they must have realized that Bucer was making a good point because Calvin didn’t end up moving to Neuchatel. I mention this little episode because here you have two people, each very passionate in his own way, openly addressing a painful criticism, and rather than simply being offended by it, they were mature enough to acknowledge its basic truth. That’s impressive.

By far the most controversial and salacious episode in their relationship came when Farel decided to get married. For the first sixty-plus years of his life Farel was celibate, and at sixty-four he became gravely ill. Everyone thought he was going to die. Calvin even traveled from Geneva to Neuchatel to spend several days at his bedside. But while he was there, Calvin became so overwhelmed with emotion that he started to worry that he wouldn’t be able to hold himself together when his friend died. So just before Farel’s last hour, Calvin decided to say goodbye to him and return to Geneva.

But at the very moment that Calvin was telling people that his dear friend was dead, to his surprise, and everyone else’s, Farel recovered. And apparently he recovered with renewed gusto because five years later he revealed to Calvin that he had fallen in love with a refugee in Neuchatel, whom he planned to marry. Seems sweet enough, right? But there was a hitch. At the time of their engagement, Farel was 69 . . . and the girl he planned to marry was only 17!

And so Calvin responded to this in the same way that you and I probably would have. He told Farel that it was a terrible idea – not just because it’s gross, but especially because it would give enemies of the Reformation ammunition to ridicule the whole movement. So Calvin refused to participate in the wedding.

Now if you read up on this, you’ll occasionally hear that this led Calvin to break off his friendship with Farel. But that’s exactly wrong. In fact, Calvin did just the opposite; he lobbied the pastors of Neuchatel on Farel’s behalf to try to dissuade them from opposing the wedding. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to them:
“I will not stop requesting you to remember how Farel worked for 36 long years or more to serve God and to build up the church – how successful his labors have been – with what zeal he worked – and even the blessings which you have received from him. This should persuade you to have some humaneness – not that you should approve of anything bad, but that you should not treat him so harshly . . . and that the poor brother should not be damaged by sadness and gloom.”
So through thick and thin, Calvin and Farel remained the closest of partners. And considering the role that Farel played in bringing Calvin to Geneva, their friendship also happens to be one of the more historically important of the whole Reformation.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 3

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friends: Preamble

Perhaps a more obvious way to try to humanize Calvin would have been to give you a glimpse into his warm relationship with his wife, Idelette de Bure. Idelette was a member of Calvin’s congregation, the widow of a converted Anabaptist, and the mother of two children, a boy and a girl. When she and Calvin married, Calvin became the father of these two children, and during their marriage she bore Calvin three more children, all of whom died in infancy. When Idelette herself died after only nine years of being married to Calvin, it came as a devastating blow to him.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend Pierre Viret soon after Idelette’s death:
“Although the death of my wife has been bitterly painful to me, I restrain my grief well as I can. . . . You know well enough how tender, or rather how soft, my mind is. Had I not exercised a powerful self-control, I could never have borne up so long. And truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, who, if any severe hardship had occurred, would have been my willing partner, not only in exile and poverty, but even in death. As long as she lived she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never felt even the slightest hindrance. During the whole course of her illness she was more anxious about her children than about herself. Since I was afraid that she might torment herself needlessly by repressing her worry, three days before her death I mentioned that I would not neglect my fatherly duties to her children. When I said this to her, she spoke up at once, saying, ‘I have already committed them to God.’”
Or another way would have been to focus on Calvin’s pastoral care, especially his care of those in situations of extreme suffering. To take just one example, Calvin and Idelette would rent rooms in their home to students in order to supplement their income. Once, while Calvin was away, one of the young men living with the family died of plague. Here’s an excerpt from a letter that Calvin wrote to the boy’s father:
“When the news first reached me of the death of your son, Louis, I found myself so distracted and confused in spirit that for several days I could do nothing but cry. And in prayer to God I was not comforted at all nor helped by the aid which he gives us in times of adversity – even if in the presence of other people, I appeared to have some control over myself . . . For I continued to be seized by grief and pain that such a young man, with so much potential, and with so many gifts, had been taken away from us – carried off in the very beginning of the prime of his life. You see, I loved him as if he were my own son, and he honored me as if I might have been his second father. I tell you this because I want to console you. But I do not want my consolation to become a heavy burden for you, which it might become if you think of me as someone recommending bravery and steadfastness at a distance, but not sharing in the same grief that you experience. For in fact, God in his unique goodness has in some measure graciously alleviated my grief and pain – grief and pain that I have in common with you, indeed almost in the same degree as you.”
But even more than his family life or pastoral care, I think Calvin’s friendships open the broadest window onto his humanity. And apparently Calvin thought so too. Here’s how he put it: “When we are dealing with our friends, our hearts are gladdened, all our feelings can be expressed, nothing is hidden – and our minds open out and display themselves freely.”

In my judgment, of all the possible ways one might begin to evaluate a person’s character, the capacity to establish, cultivate, and retain close friendships has to be one of the most revealing. This may seem like a strange thing to say, since we often view friendship as a kind of luxury – desirable, of course, but not essential, and certainly an inferior form of love than marriage. But the classical world disagreed. To them, friendship was the “happiest and most fully human” of the various forms of love. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves, the Ancients viewed friendship as “the crown of life and the school of virtue . . . a main course in life’s banquet.” But for us it’s marginal – “something that [merely] fills up the chinks of our time.”

In the classical Christian world, Augustine and Jerome stand out as two of the church’s indisputably great teachers. But nothing so starkly distinguishes their respective personalities than their capacity, in Augustine’s case, and incapacity, in Jerome’s, to establish lasting friendships. Whereas Augustine seemed nearly incapable of losing a friend, Jerome seemed equally incapable of keeping one. For Augustine, deep and open friendships came naturally. In Book IV of the Confessions, he describes one of his friendships as, “sweeter to me than all the pleasures of life.” But Jerome’s friendships were notoriously conflicted and fragile.

I draw the comparison simply to point out that when it came to friendships, Calvin was like Augustine and quite unlike Jerome. He established close friendships at every stage of his life, and apart from a few rare exceptions, he retained them. According to Emile Doumergue, one of Calvin’s foremost biographers, “no other reformer had the personal attraction which Calvin had.”

Recently, a wonderful book has come out that details dozens of Calvin’s friendships. The fact that such a book could be written at all, much less that it could be so vivid and revealing, testifies to Calvin’s expertise in this area. Which means that when it comes to selecting which friendships to focus on, I’m spoiled for choice. I nearly decided to do Phillip Melancthon, whom Calvin once said could no more be separated from him than he could be torn from his own bowels. But in the end I’ve decided to take a look at Calvin’s friendships with William Farel and Martin Bucer.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 2

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin as he Exists in Popular Imagination

To most people, Calvin’s name is synonymous with the doctrine of predestination and the execution of Michael Servetus. And to the extent that people think about him at all, they think of him as a kind of bloodless misanthropic dictator, a sadistic genius, a sad and lonely man who never loved nor was loved in return. And there’s never been a shortage of critics ready to reinforce the caricature. To take just one influential example, in The Story of Civilization, Will Durant offers this little gem: according to Durant, “we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” And as far as Calvin-bashing goes, that’s pretty mild.

As for the Servetus trial, let me mention just a few things. The first is that while to us the idea of executing a heretic is unconscionable and unthinkable, that wasn’t as clear in the 16th century. Even the most enlightened civil leaders thought government had the power to execute heretics. Earlier in 1553 – the year Servetus was executed – French Roman Catholics had already convicted Servetus of heresy and were about to execute him themselves, but he escaped from prison before they could. Berne, Basel, Zurich, and Schaffhausen all agreed that Servetus should be put to death. And not only that, but Calvin even warned Servetus in a letter not to come to Geneva.

And in the 1530s – after Servetus published his first anti-trinitarian book – Calvin set up a meeting with him in Paris to try to persuade him that rejecting the trinity is a bad idea. Servetus never showed up for that meeting, but it’s important to mention, because at the time that Calvin traveled to Paris, he had already been condemned to death in France, which means that he literally risked his life to help Servetus. And even despite the snub, Calvin corresponded with Servetus throughout the 1540s. When Servetus eventually was tried in Geneva, Calvin served as a witness to his theology, not as one of the judges. And once the death-sentence was handed down, Calvin pleaded for a more merciful form of execution than burning.

Obviously, none of this excuses his role in this whole mess, nor does it make the 16th Century lack of tolerance in doctrinal matters any less repugnant, but it does add necessary background to the situation. The sad truth is that in the Servetus affair, Calvin was simply unable to rise above the majority mindset of his time.

And regarding predestination, whatever you think about that doctrine, and no matter how problematic Calvin’s elaboration of it might be, you should know that Calvin’s view isn’t particularly unique. In fact, his doctrine of election isn’t all that different from that of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and a host of other traditional doctors of the church. And you should also remember that Calvin affirmed the doctrine primarily because he thought that Scripture plainly taught it – a view which, even if wrong, any fair-minded person who has read Romans 9-11 will forgive him for holding.

So predestination was obviously important to Calvin. But I’ve had far too many conversations with people who speak as though his writing can be reduced to that doctrine, which is just wildly uninformed and inaccurate. Because, to take just one counter-example, if there’s a more edifying and penetrating discussion of the Christian life anywhere in Christian literature than Book III of the Institutes, I don’t know what it is. This is from the chapter on prayer, the single longest chapter in the whole of the Institutes:
“It’s through prayer that we grasp those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father. . . . Everything God promises to give us, he also bids us to ask for in prayer. . . . Through prayer, we dig up the treasures that the gospel points us to, and which God allows us to gaze upon in faith. Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways it benefits us. . . . In prayer we call upon God to reveal himself as wholly present to us, and from there comes an extraordinary peace and rest to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord everything that is pressing in upon us, we rest fully in the knowledge that none of our troubles is hidden from him who has both the will and the power to take the best care of us.”
I teach a class here at Whitworth called Great Christian Thinkers in which we read selections from a number of the church’s great theologians. And every semester the student-responses to Calvin are exactly the same. They say, “We had no idea Calvin was this good!” And they wonder why they’ve never read him before.

So the point I’m trying to make is that like, say, the Cathedral Basilica in Saint Louis, or the Taste of Thai restaurant here in Spokane, Calvin is an under-appreciated treasure. For all his fame, he’s simply not a vital voice for most people in our churches today, including most Presbyterian churches, for the simple reason that most ordinary church people don’t read Calvin. And yet the scraps that they’re willing to feed on in the “Christian Inspiration” aisle of Barnes and Noble can’t begin to compare with the feast of expert guidance available in books like Calvin’s Institutes or in his biblical commentaries.

Now I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons why this is the case. But I want to mention just one that explains why I decided to lecture today on “The Humanness of John Calvin” – a title that I borrowed from Richard Stauffer, who wrote an excellent book by that name 45 years ago which I’ll rely on in the third part of the lecture. (By the way, if you’re interested in reading a brief and helpful introduction to Calvin’s life, check out the first chapter of Randal Zachman’s book John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian. A few of the quotes from this talk are from that book.)

Anyway, having grown up in a Presbyterian church, taken all of my education in Reformed institutions, and now teaching at Whitworth, my sense is that for many people in the Reformed tradition, Calvin is someone universally respected, but not much loved. And I think that at least partially explains why he’s neglected. People don’t read him because they’re not attracted to him as a person. Of course there are strands within the Reformed tradition that are over-zealously attracted to him. But I’m not talking about them – people who, frankly, persuade more people to hate or ignore Calvin than any of his supposed enemies ever could.

Instead, I’m talking about what I imagine to be the view shared by many people in this room. We think of Calvin as a scholar-genius, a man of world-historical importance, and a churchman par excellence. And in that sense, we think of him exactly like we think of his great colleague Martin Luther. But no one would ever think of writing a book called “The Humanness of Martin Luther.” Because that would be like writing a book about the building-ness of the Space Needle or the liquid-ness of beer – things so obvious they simply go without saying. So whereas Luther looks up at us through the well of history in full Technicolor – in 3 dimensions, earthy and vivid and human – Calvin observes us with cool detachment – in black and white, bloodless, severe, and perfectly rational. We can perhaps imagine ourselves having a conversation with Luther or even sharing a joke with him. But Calvin . . . not so much. Because despite their similarities, our sense of the personal ethos of these two men could hardly be more different.

To put it crassly, if elements of Luther’s personality remind us of Will Ferrell or Chris Farley, elements of Calvin’s personality remind us of Peter Singer. Because like Singer, you respect Calvin and you know how important and wicked-smart he is. But you’re also tempted to think of him as a kind of brilliant fascist, someone whose mind is as sharp as a razor, but whose heart is tiny and desiccated, if he has a heart at all. So the point is just that we somehow intuitively connect with Luther, whereas Calvin remains a stumbling block for us, an alien. And that, I’m arguing, is part of the reason more people don’t read him.

Here’s how Karl Barth once put it in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen:
“Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.”

But where Barth continued on to write that he could “gladly and profitably sit down and spend the rest of my life just with Calvin,” we’re pretty sure we’d never say that.

Have any of you ever been to Geneva and seen the Reformation Wall? The statues of some of the Reformers on the campus of the University of Geneva? One hundred years ago that monument was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Well, I’ve been there. And for me, the experience of seeing those statues for the first time was something close to terror. The wall is over one hundred yards long. And the image you’re looking at is at the center of the monument. That’s William Farel on the left, then Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox.

I mean just look for a second at Calvin. He makes you want to run away and hide – like Adam and Eve in the Garden after they sinned. And as you stand there with Calvin staring at you, the possibility becomes more and more plausible that at any minute laser beams are going to shoot out of his eyes and disintegrate you. The statue just couldn’t be any more menacing and unapproachable.

In fact, to my mind, it’s even more frightening than the statue of the other giant of the Reformed tradition – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich. Granted, Zwingli’s wielding a sword that would make any gladiator proud. But his features are human, and if you look closely, you can see that he’s almost smirking.

But Calvin looks hypnotized . . . almost possessed.

Obviously, I’m painting in broad strokes here, and speaking with more than a little hyperbole. But you get the basic point. Our natural instinct is not to think of Calvin as one of us – as a flesh and blood person with affections and feelings and vital human relationships. We just think of him as Calvin – the great and imposing and important man – severe, sober, and scholarly. And I’ll admit that to some degree those impressions are justified. Calvin was scholarly and serious and determined. And unlike Luther, he wasn’t loud and animated. He was moderate and measured and somewhat reserved. He also had plenty of enemies, which is perhaps understandable given his public position and the nature of the Genevan reform.

But it’s easy for us to forget that we encounter Calvin as people who inhabit a semi-literate popular culture that is largely adolescent in its sensibilities. Which means that most of us are not naturally attracted to patient and disciplined reflection on serious matters. We prefer sound-bites and talking-points to real analysis. We like CNN and USA Today, not Charlie Rose and The Economist. And what we really like, even more than babbling about celebrities, is babbling about ourselves, which, for all their positive uses, is endemic to technologies like Twitter and Facebook.

And so Calvin’s reticence to talk about himself makes no sense to us – especially when Luther was ready to describe his inner-life at the drop of a hat. And let’s be honest: compared to the celebrities that occupy our imaginations, Calvin’s public persona wasn’t exactly scintillating.

Let me illustrate this with an anecdote.

Calvin usually preached in a lectio continua style, where he’d work his way through an entire book of the Bible. So just before he was abruptly expelled from Geneva in 1538, he was, as ever, in the middle of a sermon series. When he triumphantly returned to Geneva from Strasbourg three years later, he began preaching at exactly the chapter and verse where he left off – as if nothing had happened. So after a few opening remarks, do you know how he started his first sermon?


But there’s another side of Calvin that few people know anything about. And that’s Calvin as an affectionate husband and father, a patient and paternal teacher and pastor, and a person with a remarkable capacity for developing and cultivating vital friendships. And that leads us to the next part of the lecture – Calvin’s friendships.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Introduction / Part 1

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

I’d like to begin with an anecdote. Two weeks ago, I sat next to a French Dominican priest on a flight from Minneapolis to Spokane. We struck up a conversation in which he told me that Martin Luther had no interest in sanctification. Luther’s doctrine of justification, he said, was nothing more than an attempt to justify his own sinful patterns of life. As he put it, “Luther wanted to eat, drink, and be merry, so he figured out a theology that would allow him to do that.” When I suggested that Luther’s teaching concerning the law in the Large Catechism seemed to me essentially identical to Calvin’s teaching on the third use of the law, his response was, “Ah yes, Calvin. Very sad. Hardly even a human being.” And when I told him about this lecture – that I was going to try to open a window into Calvin’s humanity – his response was as simple as it was emphatic: “Impossible!”

So today I want to attempt the impossible. Rather than offering an argument about this or that aspect of Calvin’s thought or his historical influence, I want to try to paint a sort of impressionistic portrait of the man – Calvin in color, so to speak. Now don’t worry. I have no interest in psychoanalyzing him in order to discover the secret essence of his personality. People have tried that, and in my judgment, none of them have been particularly successful. Nor do I want to idealize him. Calvin could be impatient, he had a temper, he was insufficiently tolerant of his enemies, he could steamroll people who got in his way, and I doubt many of us would have wanted to live in Geneva during the time of the Reformation.

Instead, I simply want to introduce you to a side of him that you may not know, and hopefully to persuade you that he does, after all, belong to the human race. And I want to do that by focusing on two of his close friendships. But before I do that, I want to do two other things. First, I’m going to make an observation about the cultural context in which we today encounter Calvin. And then I’ll describe Calvin as I think he exists in the popular imagination.

An Observation About Our Culture

Before he committed suicide in September of last year, David Foster Wallace – who battled severe depression for decades – was, to my mind, the most interesting and morally serious observer of American culture. He also happened to be the best American writer of his generation. And so in addition to being tragic and almost unbearably sad, his death means that we’ve lost one of our most perceptive cultural critics. I mention this because Wallace coined the term that I think best describes the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

America, he said, is a culture of Total Noise. Inundated with media options, bombarded by advertising, harangued by a cacophony of competing experts, we’re awash in a sea of expanding information. To be alive today is to be the target of arsenals of voices – helpful and unhelpful, sane and insane – all competing for our minds and hearts, and especially our wallets.

And yet the irony couldn’t be thicker. Instead of making us wiser, instead of illuminating our lives, the proliferation of information and the multiplication of competing authorities have left many of us feeling more confused than ever – confused about the world, about ourselves, and about what it means to live a good life. Today we have more access to more information than ever before in history and yet we hardly have a clue what to make of it or what to do with it.

But no matter what you think of the information age or the internet or new media, and no matter where you stand within the political and ideological spectrum, one thing is certain: we all need reliable guides, competent teachers, people clear-sighted enough to lead us through the data-fog that we inhabit.

Christians know that Christ alone is wise enough to be our prophet because he alone is our eternal priest and king. And we also know that Holy Scripture is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “our rule of faith and life,” which means, as Calvin put it, that just as someone with poor eyesight can only see clearly with spectacles, so too will we remain confused unless guided by Scripture.

But who in here thinks he doesn’t need a good teacher? Who has never longed for someone competent and coherent and willing enough to guide her in the Christian life? And who’s been lucky enough to find such a person and isn’t profoundly grateful for it?

I’m sure you see where I’m headed with this. As far as trustworthy and illuminating guides to the Christian life go, they don’t get much better than Calvin. He’s among the greatest pure teachers the church has ever had. You see this in all sorts of ways, but especially in his perfectly tuned instincts for what’s important, in his singular desire to help ordinary people become better readers of Scripture, and in the inimitable excellence of his writing style, which is at once lively, lucid, and succinct.

Calvin’s writing is as pure and crisp as mountain water. Or, to change the metaphor, it’s as clean and sweet as a Zinedine Zidane free kick. Unlike so many lesser writers who mask what they’re trying to say in opaque and confusing speech, Calvin loves his readers enough – and love, by the way, is the right word – he loves his readers enough to write with such perfect clarity that you never have to wonder what he means or where he stands. And that takes not only skill, but also courage. Because if you write unclearly, you can always shield yourself from criticism by claiming that you were misinterpreted. This sort of cowardice is common in academic writing, and when you encounter it, you can be sure that the writer cares more about his reputation than he cares about the subject matter. But no fair-minded person, no matter how much she disagreed with Calvin’s theology, would ever dream of leveling that charge against him.

And it’s not just that he’s capable of leading us into the higher realms of speculative theology. More importantly for our churches today, Calvin excels at showing how first-rate theology informs ordinary life. He’s a master of what today we would call spiritual theology – theology that guides and aids the Christian life. In fact, there’s never been a more eloquent enemy of theological speculation than Calvin.

So Calvin is an expert guide to the Christian life. But the problem, of course, is that the Calvin I’ve been describing is not the Calvin who inhabits popular opinion. And that leads us to the second part of the lecture.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Upcoming Mini-Series on Calvin by Special Guest Author, Adam Neder

That’s right, folks – January seems to be turning into Guest Author Month here at DET. Earlier in the month we had a sermon for Epiphany from Nathan Hitchcock, and it is now my distinct pleasure to announce that Adam Neder has graciously consented to my publishing here a talk that he gave on Calvin back in the summer of 2009 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birthday. The talk focuses on Calvin's personal humanity rather than his doctrine, and provides a lively and engaging glimpse of Calvin the man.

Adam teaches theology at Whitworth University, and is a graduate of the doctoral program here at Princeton Theological Seminary. A revised version of his dissertation was published relatively recently under the title, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Barth's "Church Dogmatics," which is exactly what it sounds like - an introduction to Barth presented through the lens of what he has to say about participation. It is an especially concise, well-written (and low-priced!) book that is well worth your time. I have featured it previously here at DET.

So, in short, I'm excited to have Adam as a guest author, and I commend to you his reflections on Calvin's humanity. Here is the index:
  1. Part 1: Introduction
  2. Part 2: Calvin in Popular Imagination
  3. Part 3: Calvin's Friends, preamble
  4. Part 4: Calvin's Friendship with William Farel
  5. Part 5: Calvin's Friendship with Martin Bucer
  6. Part 6: Conclusion


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Limited Coverage of Bruce McCormack's Croall Lectures

Darren over at Via Crucis has a post up about Bruce McCormack's Croall Lectures, currently underway at the University of Edinburgh. While he won't be posting full summaries and such, watch Darren's site for further discussion of and reflection upon these lectures.

As Darren explains, "The title of the lecture series is 'Abandoned by God: The Death of Christ in Systematic and Historical Perspective,' and the overarching agenda is to offer a new typology for the doctrine of the atonement."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Catholics Take Notice of Keith Johnson's Work on Barth and the Analogy of Being

Those of you who have noted my persistent promotion of Keith Johnson’s book, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis, might be interested to know that a Roman Catholic blogger has now engaged with Johnson’s work. Actually, I should say that this blogger has engaged with a very fragmentary aspect of Johnson’s overall argument, namely, that portion set forth in Johnson’s recent Modern Theology article. There is much, much more in the book.

That said, this blogger’s response to Johnson (and Barth) is by turns puzzling and problematic:
  1. In terms of puzzling, we have this blogger’s insistence that RC theology is interested in denying that sin “goes ‘all the way down.’” To anyone who has read Augustine, such a claim sounds scandalous, even without considering one’s possible Protestant sensibilities.
  2. In terms of problematic, this blogger seems not to have paid sufficient attention to Johnson’s whole essay, and therefore does not deeply engage with Barth's position. He quotes from one of Johnson’s paragraphs, but seems not to have encountered the next – which addresses what Barth thinks about the internal constitution of the human creature, doing so in a way that keeps faith with Augustine and the Protestants on the radical effects of sin. To get more concrete, our RC blogger wants to define human nature apart from the complex of sin and reconciliation revealed and enacted in Jesus Christ. Barth, on the other hand, will hear of no such thing. Thus, Johnson (from the MT article):
    "In short, in his mature theology, Barth adopts an analogical understanding of God-world relation that leads to continuity between God's act in creation and justification, but this analogy works in reverse from the Roman Catholic one: the human as created stands in continuity with the human in grace precisely because justification is the condition of the possibility of creation. This construal does, in fact, leave Barth with a type of an analogy of being, but Barth's analogy of being is substantively distinct from Przywara's version of it. That is, for Barth, 'being' itself is determined by God's free and eternal decision to enter into human history in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile sinful humans. Any talk of 'being' at all, therefore, and any talk of an 'analogy of being' between God and humans, must be based solely upon this act of reconciliation and the human's being 'in Christ' that occurs as a result of the justification of his or her sin. Barth's mature version of divine-human continuity, therefore, leaves no room for any knowledge of God apart from the knowledge of humanity's reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ." (645)
    It is hard to see how such an account could be accurately described with language about opposition between human nature and divine grace, or with denying continuity between fallen and re-created human being.
One might well hope that future Roman Catholic engagement with Johnson’s work on Barth, Przywara and the analogia entis, and - therefore - their engagement with Barth, will exhibit more care than is in evidence thus far. At the same time, engagement is engagement.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

DET Re-design

Greetings faithful DET readers,

Some of you may have noticed that DET underwent a re-design yesterday. All your favorite bits and pieces are still around, but some of them have moved. Aside from a general aesthetic change, the biggest change is that some of the 2010 KBBC materials that had remained on the sidebar have now been moved to the KBBC index post (accessible from the menu at the top of the page). I suspect that most people read DET through aggregators, but all this should make it easier to navigate the site if you're going back to look for something, leave a comment, etc. The last template was something that I had struggled to adapt, and I just got tired of the rough edges.

Anyway, enjoy!

- Management

Friday, January 14, 2011

Who Said It? Installment, the First.

I've seen these sorts of posts on other blogs, and I've enjoyed them, but I never tried it here at DET. Well, today I correct that oversight. Feel free to leave comments trying to guess who said the following line, and I'll post a comment revealing the mystery writer on Monday (or something like that). Unfortunately I can offer no prize except satisfaction of a well nigh impossible feat accomplished. So, without further ado, I ask you: Who said it?
"Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy."

(P.S. Some attentive RSS feed readers may have gotten a head start on this task, so don't waste any time - register your guess right now!)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My Most Recent Publication

David Congdon & Travis McMaken, “Theo-Blogging and the Future of Academic Theology: Reflections from the Trenches” in Princeton Theological Review 17.2 (Fall, 2010): 91-100.

That’s right, your favorite theo-blogging dynamic duo are at it again, this time reflecting on theo—blogging itself! David and I offer a proposal for how blogs should be incorporated into the landscape of academic theology, discuss the medium’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer some suggestions for what might make your blog better. The PTR website has not yet been updated with this issue, but you may want to keep an eye on it to read our piece, as well as other interesting essays – including a pair on the virtual church (the issue theme is “The Church After Google”). Here is the conclusion to David’s and my essay, to whet your appetites:
Christianity is, of course, a “religion of the book,” and theology is the ongoing reflection on ancient and modern texts. But the challenge today is to understand how the church and the theological academy ought to adapt to new media in the so-called “Internet-Age.” Our proposal here is a modest one: the church and academy both have much to gain from the prudent use of blogs as vehicles for theological reflection. They are not a panacea, and they are no substitute for the traditional forms of scholarly work – just as e-books are no replacement for a tangible, bound volume. Nevertheless, they have a place within contemporary scholarship as a liminal space for the review of current literature, the promotion of collegial dialogue, and the exploration of new possibilities in theological discourse.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2007 Karl Barth Reading Group Notes – A Belated Index

Some folks are reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics - a worth undertaking if ever there was one. Some of you may remember my 3.5 week blitz through CD 4 earlier this year, after which I posted some reflections. In any case, back in the summer of 2007 I convened a reading group here at PTS to read the first half of CD 1.1. I prepared notes for the purpose, and posted them here on DET. Given that these notes cover the material through which the above-mentioned valiant adventurers are currently slogging, I wanted to bring them to their attention. But, given that I never indexed them, there was no easy way to do so. Thus, I am posting this belated index. Enjoy!

Friday, January 07, 2011

Ellen Charry on Two Types of Divine Commands

Ellen Charry, God and the Art of Happiness, 170:
Biblical commands are of several kinds… (1) single-occurrence or rarely occurring punctiliar orders that test obedience, and (2) guidelines that commend an ongoing way of life. Tests, the first type, are voluntarist rules that God lays down in particular situations for a specific purpose or around specific events. Voluntarism holds that the divine will defines morality. Even if a command looks arbitrary or even immoral to us, it is good because God commanded it. Divine power defines goodness. The assumption here is that blind obedience is praiseworthy either for its own sake or because it cultivates humility. The second type of command is moral guidelines that cultivate wisdom: they embody broad humanist principles that shape a salutary life for the well-being of both the individual and the community. They are asherist commands that are conducive to wise living. While voluntarist commands require blind obedience, asherist commands promote open-eyed obedience because their value for personal and communal well-being is evident.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Magi and Theological Method - A Sermon for Epiphany-eve

(Editor’s Note: The following sermon was delivered by Nathan Hitchcock at Sioux Falls Seminary on January 5th, 2010. It is presented here one year later on, once again, the day before Epiphany. Nathan is known to DET readers through his contribution to the 2009 KBBC. Having completed his dissertation at Edinburgh on the resurrection of the flesh, Nathan is now an assistant professor at Sioux Falls Seminary. Finally, the story of the Magi was recently enlisted by my friend and co-belligerent in support of something like an analogy of being on his Christmas podcast, and one might find it interesting to compare these two interpretations of the passage.)
The Magi and Theological Method
Mt 2:1-12

Kai krēmatisthentes kat’ onar mē anakampsai pros Hrōdēn,
di’ allēs hodou anechōrēsan eis tēn chōran autōn.

Following the western Church calendar, tomorrow is epiphany. Christians have generally associated this festival with the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bringing frankincense, gold and myrrh to the newborn Christ. Careful study begins to clarify for us who these magi were and were not. First, there is no mention of there being three of them, only three kinds of gifts. Maybe there were two, or four, or eighteen. Moreover, we can be certain they were not kings. Magi – think royal magicians here – were probably oriental scientists in noble courts. They may have had priestly and scholarly functions as well as serving as dignitaries of kings. We also puzzle over their country of origin, being generally apo anatolōn (v.1), having seen the star en tē anatolē (vv.2,9). Some have suggested that they came from Babylonia, which would be appropriate, considering Matthew mentions the Israelite captivity there (cf. 1:17). Or they could have been from more distant, Asian kingdoms. What we can say with greater certainly is that they fulfilled the prophecy of Isa 60:3, that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The disturbing thing, in any case, is that we know for sure that they were religious stargazers. Astrologers. Pagans.

If I feel a certain affinity with the magi, it has to do with my own religious past. By the age of eleven I had become a practitioner in the New Age. My first religious experience, I recall, was climbing into the branches of a tree behind my father’s office, feeling that somehow all nature was one with God and God was one with me. Over the next few years I adopted the eclectic constellation of beliefs characteristic of the New Age: cultivation of psychic powers, doomsday predictions, earth energies, even a special place for UFO phenomena. All of this I studied religiously.

It is difficult for me to make sense of how all this transitioned into Christianity. At age 14 God revealed Himself to me through a supernatural dream, through someone’s prophetic word, through the preaching of a red-headed college student named Scott Bryson. I found Jesus Christ (or Jesus Christ found me, one might say). Hallelujah! – but how? How had my perverse spirituality been taken over by the Holy Spirit? How had God even used some of my own idolatry as a preparation for the gospel?

Those of you with similar histories will feel the weight of these questions when considering the Magi. While millions of other heathen were left to their own demon worship, these astrologers were delivered from their ignorance by finding Christ. They found Him, moreover, through natural means, through pagan means. They “saw” the star, somehow with their own debased arts tracking down the Christ-child. Various theorists since Kepler have tried to explain the Magi’s success by the postulation of a supernova; or perhaps it was a combination of a three-planet alignment happening sometime around 4 BC. Michael Molnar concludes, however, that the magi’s determination about the star in the east was far more subtle and complicated, that “the star of Bethlehem was indeed rare, but it was so on the basis of a set of complex rules that defy statistical quantification” (Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem, 102.) The magi were very specialized occultists following an astrological sign. How strange that God would use a natural event combined with heathen wisdom to lead in the direction of Christ!

“Being warned in a dream . . .”

Our text makes little of stargazing, however. The appearance of the star has led the magi in the direction of Christ. All well and good. But once they arrive in Israel, God bushwhacks their whole theological method. Notice how in vv.3-6 they have to… consult the heavens? No. They search the scriptures. The chief priests and scribes tell the magi that the Anointed One will be born in Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah. That’s the first distinctly supernatural revelation from Yahweh. The second has to do with the star, but this time the Lord causes it to do something unprecedented; it “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (v.9). Now God intervenes. Now the star behaves miraculously. Now there can be and need be no calculations. And sure enough, the starlight shines directly upon Jesus, who is God incarnate, who is the revelation of God, full of grace and truth.

Some of you seemed to have come to Christ by “natural” means. You straggled along and somehow came near to Him. Maybe you dabbled in other religions. Maybe you listened to Oprah along the way. Maybe you went through tragic events and received strange consolations. Perhaps you ended up at a church service by circumstance or because of a love interest or just because you were a “religious personality.” But – heed these words – no one comes to Christ unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44). And when the Father draws a person, He sets him or her on the Christian journey through miraculous rebirth by the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5), through the Word and Spirit. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). We walk along many avenues, but the hearing of the gospel in the power of the Spirit of God is the only way people know Jesus Christ. The only way!

But back to the magi. A third revelation speaks to them. They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by another way (v.12). Forget the stargazing. Forget the political networking. God has spoken.

“. . . they departed by another way. . .”

By another way! Were every theologian to heed this warning. Instead we have commentaries and textbooks that give us a theological methods that sound, well, too normal, too much like that of the world. I recently picked up a book that claimed that Buddhism is an indispensable assistance for understanding Jesus Christ. More common are western theologians who seem to start on the right path, but in their prolegomena explain that our inborn image of God (interpreted either as rationality or spirituality or immortality) is what gives us natural access to God. They start (and sometimes end) with something other than God’s own self-disclosure.

By another way! Any first principle must affirm that we are wholly dependent on God’s grace in order to know Him. Thus we begin with the chief witness to God’s self-revelation: the holy scriptures. God’s word is surrounded by other words, by dreams and visions, angelic visitations and spiritual gifts and remarkable healings. But our most normative encounter with the Living God is through the preaching of the gospel, which has as its source and content and vehicle the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew scriptures push us towards Christ and the apostolic witnesses hearken us back to Him. All the while Psalm 119 shouts this in our ear: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart, who . . . walk in His ways!” We are to walk in His law, in His ways. That means that for all the exegeting and analyzing of the text, we ultimately stand with and under the scriptures, not above them. Both liberal and conservative theologians can err by appealing to a rationalistic or psychological reading of scripture. They can appeal to some sort of natural capability we have as human beings to understand God. Relying on self instead of God’s revelation, however, is an insane arrogance. Would the magi dare go back to the science of astrology after having heard from God directly?

By another way! Ultimately, the other way is Jesus; He is the way (Jn 14:6). He is the “perfect light” to which we are guided. And the gospel is clear that our whole paradigm changes once one comes to Christ. Regardless of may have led to Christ, now everything must come from Him. He is the Alpha and Omega of theological construction. If all things hold together in Him (cf. Col 1:17), shall we not say the same thing doctrinally?

Every other theological pathway is a dead-end, even if it be trumpeted as “practical,” “ecumenical,” “inclusive,” even “biblically scientific.” To have any first principle beside Jesus, the Word of God, is to invite disaster. To make a theological system out of the ways of the world is to go through the broad gate, which is wide and easy – and leads to perdition (Mt 7:13). Going back the way you came is comfortable. But the Herods and Pharoahs of the world will chase you down and force you to recant all that horrible babble about a King being born. They will pressure you, perhaps put you in stocks. They will talk you out of those “esoteric” and “fundamentalistic” aspects of your faith. You Christians are just like the rest of us, no? You love your neighbor and subscribe to commonsense principles, right? You don’t really believe that nonsense about the Messiah, about knowing a special way to God, do you?

We must be courageous and follow the same tracks as the magi. They do not go back to the principalities and powers. They do not go back by natural theology. Like Moses and the Israelites they take a most unusual route; we might even say that they walk through the waters. For they have seen Christ. Being warned in a dream, they go back by another way.

“. . . to their own country.”

Nonetheless, almost improbably, the magi return to their own country. Having heard and beheld the Word of God, having witnessed the unthinkable miracle that is the incarnation, having encountered such a radically different God, it might seem tempting to go to some other country. Why not leave behind their families, their careers, their old social webs? Why not develop an idiosyncratic religion to worship the mystery in private? Having met Jesus Christ, the beginning and end of the world, why not take up the mantle of an otherworldly mysticism?

The Word of God leaves us no option to hole ourselves up or fly off to heaven. Jesus Christ’s coming was a coming of God in the flesh. “He came to those who were His own,” even if His own did not receive Him (Jn 1:11). If the Revelation of God came home to us, how much more must our feeble witness be directed homewards! This the magicians from the East know. They must go back to the royal courts and confess, however inadequately in their fragile language and culture, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

The theologian’s task – and we all are theologians in some sense – is to return home with a word about God. A good word is hard to come by, you realize, since our language fails to capture the majesty and mystery of God. Having beheld something totally new, we struggle to preach and share with others exactly who this God is. Theology often brings out this failure. Theologians are always asking if the Church’s testimony is sound, whether that word be the Belhar Confession, the book The Shack, last week’s sermon, or what you told your hairdresser you believe about God. This is theology’s critical task.

Nevertheless, theology (like preaching the gospel itself) is contextual. It comes home in provincial language, themes and structures. All good theology is missional theology. For the sake of Christ it is approachable and seeks to address the themes of its day. I think of the magi, or the Ethiopian eunuch, or the glorious diaspora that went out from the outpouring at Pentecost, and how their awe for Christ was paired with a love for their countrymen. They returned home.

Is this not the profound peril of doing theology? In our returning to familiarity, we face the temptation of defaulting to the values and perceived needs of the people. We come under the temptation of honoring even the questionable paths by which we came to Christ, whether by strange religions or, say, the emotional sway of music or the water-tight reasoning of rational apologetics. And how often we preachers praise suffering and death for their supposedly holy powers!

No doubt God can use these methods. He can use a Balaam. He can hearken the magi by a star. He will use the wicked and the ambiguous for His purposes. He will not, however, give His glory to Baal. Woe to us if we mistake the star for the scriptures, or culture for Christ! Woe to us if we concede anything to our false gods and corrupt nature! Woe to us if we return to Herod and our star maps! Theology at its most degenerate becomes a fanciful regurgitation of our previously held values. But theology at its best is a homecoming sent by and from the Christ. If we insist on doing otherwise, let us not pretend that we have not been warned.

The magi remind us of the narrow gate through which we theologians pass: that we return home – but by a different way. By a different way – but truly back home. Let us follow Christ, then, that great Pillar of Fire in the night, who is not without His canvas of starlight.