Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some Helpful Calvin

I’ve reported guardedly about my Calvin readings in past years. I’m in the middle of my 2013 assignment in the Institutes, and so I should record my thoughts again if it’s going to mean anything to have a blog about my reading plan. But I still feel a need for caution. I don’t want to argue with anyone about whether Calvin (or Calvinism) is right or wrong on any certain point; my experience tells me that these arguments don’t change either person and certainly don’t edify me. So once more I’ll just stick with my personal reaction, which can’t really be contradicted. (Hmmm. Ironically, I hope to avoid conflict by being subjective rather than objective.)

I usually find Calvin’s polemical style distasteful even when I agree with his content, which is admittedly most of the time. And this year the Genevan theologian has again set my teeth on edge. This time my fingernails have come into contact with the chalkboard of this statement: “I say nothing of the fact, that [clerical benefices] are conferred on barbers, cooks, grooms, and dross of that sort.” To imitate Calvin, I won’t quibble with him about claiming to say nothing about the very fact that he indeed says something about. But must he call barbers, cooks, and grooms “dross”? I’m not entirely sure what it means to call human beings dross unless it means that they constitute an undesirable element that remains after a trial by fire, a oddment fit only to be disposed of. So I must take the opportunity to support tonsorialists, chefs, and ostlers by professing my strongly held belief that their noble vocations don’t earn them automatic relegation to the trash heap. I certainly don’t see them as occupations of any lower station than that of tax collecting, fishing, or political activism, the original callings of a few of the most prominent church officials of the New Testament era.

In spite of this awkward passage, though, I admit that I’ve found Calvin quite helpful this year. I don’t want to raise any Catholics’ hackles, either, but I have to say that I found Calvin’s critique of papal supremacy pertinent, rational, scholarly, and in some ways quite generous – not final or authoritative by any means, but definitely helpful. He points out some things unsaid in Paul’s letter to the Romans and in his letters written from Rome that could well have been said had that Apostle recognized Peter as the supreme Vicar of Christ. He raises a question I’d never thought about concerning just how long Peter could have resided in Rome if he stayed in Jerusalem for a few years after the Ascension and then served as bishop of Antioch for a period. And he makes some arguments based on early church councils, not just about their findings, but about their structure.

Finally, he has me reading some letters of Gregory the Great that I would not have read otherwise. I’ve learned in the last week that many Catholics interpret these letters in a way opposed to Calvin’s, and that’s interesting to me, as well. As to my interpretation, I’ll just say that early Church history suggests to me that modern-day Catholics ascribe too much to the bishop of Rome, while Protestants (almost all of them, anyway) ascribe too little.

And there I am again in a familiar place: me against the rest of Christendom, when I so desperately only want to be with all the rest of Christendom. But what can I say? Here I stand.

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