Bruce Gordon on Rhetoric in Calvin’s Theology
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.