Monday, December 17, 2012

Bruce Gordon on the Relationship between Calvin and Bucer

I posted on Calvin and Bucer in the not too distant past. This relationship has sort of been on my mental back burner for the past year or so since one of my colleagues is working on a Bucer dissertation. So I was happy to come across the below discussion from Gordon’s book. I have redacted it a bit – i.e., you can look it up for yourself and learn still more than I have reproduced here. The end of what I have given you here is particularly good, I think. It is at least an interesting way to think about and characterize Calvin’s relationships with the other major reformers of his day. One also gets a sense in this material of just how much Calvin owed to Bucer, not only intellectually but career-wise as well.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 86.
Calvin was not really needed in Strasbourg. Bucer took him under his wing to teach him how to be a pastor, but his purpose was ultimately missionary. Calvin was to return to Geneva and resume his work.
Gordon highlights here both how Bucer went out of his way to help Calvin and how his motivation was not merely charitable. He had a goal in mind. Bucer was a general – he surveyed the field of battle and he deployed resources. Human and theological resources, in his case. He recognized the potential in Calvin and wasn’t going to miss his chance to put him to good use. One sees much the same modus operandi in Calvin himself later in his career. Anyway, continuing…

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 88-9.
At first glance, Martin Bucer and John Calvin cut very different figures. In 1538 Bucer was a veteran of the Reformation whose achievements owed as much to his patience and fortitude as they did to his theological acumen. His efforts in establishing the reformation in Strasbourg and in seeking peace between the warring Protestant churches had come at considerable personal cost, all too often pilloried by both sides for his flexibility – or his lack of principles, as it was portrayed by his detractors. Calvin, eighteen years his junior, was a volatile firebrand who oscillated between . . .self-confidence and . . . self-doubt. Yet Bucer saw in him the possibility of greatness.

Bucer’s cumulative influence on Calvin during these years forms a central part of our story. Above and beyond the opportunities afforded by refuge, a congregation and a teaching post, the Strasbourg years witnessed a discernible broadening and deepening of Calvin’s theology, and for this he owed much to Martin Bucer. In particular, he believed Bucer to be the best of the Protestant commentators on scripture . . .

Calvin’s debt went further and became evident after his subsequent return to Geneva, where his fourfold office of ministry, the liturgy and church discipline bore the mark of Bucer’s teaching. He embraced Bucer’s understanding of the early church as a model for the organization of the church in the sixteenth century. . . .

Bucer put himself out for Calvin in every respect: he provided accommodation in his own home, introduced him to his circle of friends, and finally found a house with a shared garden where they might easily meet and converse. Calvin’s Strasbourg letters contain numerous references to evenings spent deep in conversation with Bucer’s circle, which he came to refer to as ‘we’. . . . Even in this idyll and with a man he admired as much as Bucer, Calvin’s relationships were never straightforward. By the time he returned to Geneva he would describe his relationship to his teacher in terms of father and son, and expressed his willingness to submit himself to the Strasbourg reformer’s authority. But as with all sons and fathers there was conflict and willful declarations of independence. . . .

Yet, . . . Bucer remained foremost in Calvin’s affections. Although we have no access to their conversations in their shared garden, we know that Calvin’s relationship with Bucer was different. Farel was a loveable, if frustrating, uncle; Bullinger was the close cousin; Melanchthon the good school friend; Beza the son. Bucer was truly the father figure.
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Monday, December 10, 2012

The Theologian's Almanac: December 10, 2012

In my research for today’s almanac, which aimed at honoring one individual in particular, I learned that this date marks not the death of one, but “The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians.” The December 20, 1968 issue of Time Magazine honored them thusly:

“One was a Protestant theologian who labored quietly in university towns of Switzerland and Germany for half a century. The other was a Roman Catholic monk who worked hermitlike on his writings in the hills of central Kentucky. But while Karl Barth gave his life to scholarship and Thomas Merton to contemplation, both men were Christian activists who found in the Word a command to do. Barth stood courageously against Nazi totalitarianism. Merton drove himself endlessly in championing the cause of the poor and oppressed. On their journey toward their deaths last week, each brought to his age, and to his fellow man, a message of love that was ardently Christian.”


“To believe in Christ has always been, as Kierkegaard put it, an inexplicable leap of faith. The most profound preacher of that mystery in the 20th century was Karl Barth, who died last week at the age of 82. Eulogized as the century's most significant religious thinker, Barth changed the course of Protestant theology in his lifetime almost singlehandedly. Though he abhorred theological systems, he produced, in his 14-volume Church Dogmatics, the most powerful exposition of Protestant thought since Calvin's Institutes.”


“For 20 years Merton had been the most publicly visible Christian contemplative since St. Simeon Stylites took refuge on top of a pillar. Merton's pillar was print, and he had not exactly chosen it for himself. What he had chosen, at the age of 26 and as a new convert to Roman Catholicism, was the silent and anonymous life of the Trappist monks, who rise early, work hard, eat little and pray much. When he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, however, his abbot decreed that Merton should continue writing—as he had since the age of ten. Merton was ordained a priest in 1949, the year after his first major book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had become a bestseller and thrust him permanently into a life of books, articles, poems and a massive correspondence with friends all over the world.”

*You can find the entire article here: “Religion: The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians.” Time December 20, 1968.

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Friday, December 07, 2012

Reckoning With Death: Humanity, Mortality, and the Ends of Life - Call for Papers

A friend from Virginia asked me to post this notice. It looks like a good event. Graduate student conferences are always fun. So be sure to submit a proposal if it's up your alley!



Virginia Graduate Colloquium on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
University of Virginia

April 5-6, 2013

Plenary Speakers:
Jeffrey P. Bishop, St. Louis University
Andrea C. White, Emory University

The 2013 Virginia Graduate Colloquium welcomes submissions of original research from graduate students on the topic “Reckoning With Death: Humanity, Mortality and the Ends of Life.” At once a subject for the loftiest theological and philosophical reflection and a pressing practical concern, death intrudes, eventually, into every human life. With this year’s theme, the colloquium organizers hope to foster a robust interdisciplinary discussion about how the fact of mortality structures our understanding of what it means to be human.

To that end, we welcome papers that approach death from a variety of different angles. Theologians and philosophers might ask, How do we properly conceive of the reality of our own death while we are yet living? What does the fact of human finitude teach us about the nature of human existence, especially for those who believe that death is not truly the end? Social theorists and ethicists may want to focus on how these questions inform the most pressing societal dilemmas of our day. How does ambivalence about death influence a society’s practice of medicine, politics, and economics? Is it possible to face death well as a society in the absence of a consensus about the end—or ends—of life? The colloquium hopes to address how particular communities conceive of and approach questions about death, mourning, and remembrance. Are there communities that illustrate what it looks like to die well; remember and memorialize rightly? Do religious traditions offer liturgical or scriptural resources that might shape one’s conception of death in a salutary way?

Successful applicants will approach this question not only with insight and clarity but also a willingness to engage in an interdisciplinary discussion. We welcome relevant submissions addressing the following areas of study:

Philosophy of Religion - Liturgical Studies - Religious Ethics
Bioethics - Constructive Theology - Biblical Studies
Religion and Critical Theory - Political Theology - Religion and Literature

* Proposals in the form of a 250-word abstract are to be emailed to vgc-tec@virginia.edu by January 31th, 2013. Notifications of acceptance will be sent out on February 11th, 2013. Final papers, not to exceed 2000 words, must be submitted by March 4th, 2013. Travel stipends may be available.

This colloquium is sponsored by The University of Virginia Office of the Dean of Arts & Sciences, The University of Virginia Office of Diversity & Equality, The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, and The University of Virginia Department of Religious Studies.

For more information, check the website!

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

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. 

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