Tag Archives: John Calvin

True Love

“I’m probably not predestined, but I love John Calvin,” said no one, ever.

Happy G.K. Chesterton on Sad William Cowper

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton begins an illuminating passage on madness, predestination, reason, and poetry with some observations about the English poet William Cowper:

“[O]nly one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Hart’s counterpoint to Christian fatalism

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At a critical moment in cultural history — not that there were not various fateful moves in the history of Western theology that led to it — many Christian thinkers somehow forgot that the incarnation of the Logos, the infinite ratio of all that is, reconciles us not only to God, but to the world, by giving us back a knowledge of creation’s goodness, allowing us to see again its essential transparency — even to the point, in Christ, of identity — before God. The covenant of light was broken. God became, progressively, the world’s infinite contrary. And this state of theological decline was so precipitous and complete that it even became possible for someone as formidably intelligent as Calvin, without any apparent embarrassment, to regard the fairly lurid portrait of the omnipotent despot of book III of his Institutes – who not only ordains the destiny of souls, but in fact predestines the first sin, and so brings the whole drama of creation and redemption to pass (including the eternal perdition of the vast majority of humanity) as a display of his own dread sovereignty — as a proper depiction of the Christian God. One ancient Augustinian misreading of Paul’s ruminations upon the mystery of election had, at last, eventuated fatalism.  – Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book The Beauty of the Infinite

Calvin’s disdain for allegory — an excerpt from Peter Enns

Bible scholar Peter Enns has made concrete some ironies and tensions that have troubled me in a vague way — vaguely, because I didn’t have names for them. The following is an excerpt from Part Two of his series Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism at The BioLogos Forum:

Paying attention to the historical and grammatical context of the Old Testament sometimes led Calvin to bucking the trend. Most clearly this pertains to Calvin’s disdain for allegory. Since the examination of context was foundational to Calvin, he had no place for allegory, which he felt was arbitrary.

Calvin was not unique in his rejection of allegory (given the general “humanistic” climate mentioned above), but that rejection was still somewhat against the mainstream of the day. Allegory in the church is rooted in Origen (185-254) and was a common approach to biblical interpretation throughout much the 1500 years prior to Calvin (including Paul, see Galatians 4:21-31). But Calvin’s concern was that allegory downplayed the Christ-centered message of the Old.

Calvin felt that by divorcing Scripture from history (as allegory tends to do) the truth and reality of the gospel was in danger—which is a great irony, since allegorical interpretation arose precisely to advance Christological readings of Scripture.

Further, allegory took the Bible out of the hands of the people and into the hands of experts. Only those with literary sensitivity and training could see the deeper allegorical meanings in the text. Although here too is an irony, since a historically responsible handling of the Bible requires its own kind of expertise (e.g., knowing Greek and Hebrew), and the subjectivity of allegory actually made it more available to the uneducated.

In any event, Calvin’s grammatical-historical approach was a move to respect the context of Scripture, and so he saw himself as correcting the allegorical tradition of early and medieval exegesis. A contextual reading for Calvin was a necessary first step to mining Scripture in his theology. This is certainly understandable today—even instinctual—but it also introduced a tension for Calvin that we can see him working out here and there: the New Testament authors do not always seem rooted in the grammatical historical context of Scripture.

Servings of Harry Potter and John Calvin

On Harry Potter: More Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are cool with Harry.

On John Calvin: Sure, there was more to Calvin than dour asceticism, but what’s his greatest and most lasting influence?