Bruce Gordon on Rhetoric in Calvin’s Theology

One of the things that I have always appreciated about Calvin is his rhetorical sensitivity. For my money, he developed this in both his humanist and legal studies – in the former with respect to rhetorical interpretation of texts, and in the latter with respect to his preaching and polemic (i.e., his argumentation). In the below quote, which is something of a summary of Calvin’s 1536 Institutes (i.e., the first edition: I have held an original in my hand, it was rather small – a true handbook! – and the title page had “heretique” written across it in red [unless memory deceives] ink), Gordon has occasion to reflect on this rhetorical side of Calvin’s work.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 61.
[Calvin’s] understanding of what it meant to be a theologian was in place in Basle. God has spoken to humanity in scripture, opened a relationship in which women and men should know and worship God – a worship not confined to religious services, but which embraces every aspect of human existence. The Word of God animates all human faculties; it consecrates them to the service of God. The theologian, versed in the tools of rhetoric, interprets the Word and brings it into the public sphere. Those who hear are not just taught, but are moved to live the Christian life characterized by love and sacrifice. This was the rhetorical element of the Institutes. Calvin sought not only to teach, but to persuade people to the truth. He rejected theology as a speculative science; it is an utterly practical art by which Christians are taught how to live. To do this required that they had to be persuaded to change.

If there is anything that we can say about Calvin, it is that he was incredibly persuasive. The only influence he had in Geneva was what he could drum up with his persuasive power (he wasn’t even a citizen until the last few years before his death when bourgeois status was gifted to him by the city, i.e., he couldn’t even vote!). But I tend to appreciate even more what Calvin’s sensitivity to rhetoric did for his biblical commentaries (those interested in Calvin’s commentaries should check out the DET series, Reading Scripture with John Calvin). He never rests with the question of what a text means, but always also inquires about what it is trying to accomplish. Calvin’s abilities in this regard remain unmatched, in my humble opinion, and this is the reason why his commentaries remain so fresh today. Many the time have I turned to Calvin’s commentary after engagement with a host of contemporary critical commentaries only to find that Calvin sees what they do not precisely because of his sensitivity to rhetoric. Indeed, innumerable are the theological camps today who desperately need to learn from Calvin in this regard. 



Matthew Frost said…
Indeed—sensitivity to rhetoric, to authorial intent and the ways it is attempted and (perhaps) achieved, is something regularly missing from commentary literature. Perhaps it doesn't help that Betz made such a mammoth and intimidating task out of it on Galatians.

And yet the thing is done, here and there. A lot of what I see in socio-rhetorical criticism has far less sensitivity to rhetoric and its practical impact, and more to sociological reconstruction. And the (white) South African school of linguistic analysis pays very close attention to language structure, but is so deeply about modern linguistics, and has never really sat in the mainstream. Dallas/SIL still does much the same, and some of their students reach for more perceptive synthetic approaches to what the text means and does in its rhetorical compass.

But I feel like I'm naming little spots on the margins, all with highly technical barriers to entry—and Calvin does it with a practical naïveté and pastoral concern for application that still doesn't seem matched. That, for my money, is the killer application of these skills.
Bobby Grow said…
Amen, Calvin rocks! His commentary is new/fresh, even though they're old!

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