Bruce Gordon on De l’Estoile, Alciati, and Calvin's Legal Education

In addition to re-reading Cottret, I have now read for the first time Bruce Gordon’s Calvin book. Let me just say briefly and by way of general comment that although by no means antagonistic to Calvin, Gordon is less sympathetic than I would like. He also focuses much more on the interpersonal and social history rather than the theology – this is fine if you, like me, enjoy that stuff but it makes the volume less serviceable than Cottret as a general introduction to Calvin.

Anyway, I came across this passages about Calvin’s two law professors. Pierre de l’Estoile was French and taught at Orleans, an established seat of legal scholarship. Calvin studied with him first. Andrea Alciati was Italian and taught at Bourges, the up-and-coming scholarly contender. Calvin studied with him second. Gordon here lays out their differing ways of going about legal interpretation. Anyone who knows Calvin will see him in Gordon’s description of both his professors. That said, I’m not sure exactly how to parse out Calvin’s heritage from each and what conclusions to draw from it. So I offer the following passage to you, gentle readers, so that we might ponder it together.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 20.
Calvin’s legal studies cast in relief the central intellectual and spiritual questions of the French Renaissance, as witnessed in the different approaches advocated by his rival French and Italian teachers. Both were exponents of humanist methods, but in quite different ways. De l’Estoile remained deeply wedded to the medieval tradition of legal commentary. Rejection the Renaissance emphasis on rhetoric and historical analysis, he favoured a method in which the sixth-century body of Roman law, known as the Corpus iuris civilis, was interpreted according to genus and species. This meant that material was gathered together under specific headings, or topics, in a manner in which little attention was given to its historical development.

Alciati . . . offered a different view not only of how ancient texts should be read, but also of the relationship of the past to the present. . . . Unlike de l’Estoile and his careful mining of texts for crucial terms, he embraced a more bravado approach based on conjecture and intuition. This shocked many of his opponents, who regarded him as something of a dilettante picking and choosing his way through ancient texts. Alciati, however, believed himself to be doing something rather different. Like de l’Estoile, he regarded the Corpus iuris civilis as a coherent body of work, and argued that it was the interpreter’s task to reveal the connectedness of passages. At the same time, he rejected de l’Estoile’s faith in an underlying stratum of logical meaning. Rather, words and passages were to be examined stylistically (rhetorically) and with regard to particular circumstances (historically) in order to discern particular meanings. That this approach might reveal contradictions did not disturb him. He believed that this method of interpretation enabled the scholar to distil ‘proper’ interpretations from the mass of evidence.

As a bit of a bonus, here is how Gordon summarizes the importance of Calvin's legal studies for his later reforming career:

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 22.
Calvin's rigorous legal training left its imprint on every aspect of his life. It sharpened his mind to interpret texts and form precise arguments based on humanist methods; it provided him with a thorough grasp of subjects ranging from marriage and property to crime. He was taught to frame legislation, writing constitutions and offer legal opinions, all of which would loom large in his Genevan career. But the legacy was also intellectual. It was from the law that he would draw some ofhis most fundamental theological concepts, such as the Holy Spirit as 'witness', the nature of 'justification', God as 'legislator' and 'judge', and Christ as the 'perpetual advocate'. The philological and historical methods drawn from both de l'Estoile and Alciati would become the foundations of his biblical commentaries as he revolutionized the art of interpreting scripture.
Again, nothing particular in terms of how the competing legal methods play out but an abiding sense that they had an important impact. Thoughts?



Bobby Grow said…
I read this one by Gordon when it first came out. I liked it for what it was, but I liked Charles Partee's 'Theology of John Calvin' better :-).

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