Reconsidering Calvin

Article by   March 2014
zachmanreconsidering93.jpgRandall C. Zachman, Reconsidering John Calvin. Current Issues in Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, viii + 212pp. $29.99/£18.99

This elegant little book formed the content of the Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in October 2009 in honour of Calvin's quincentenary.As a noted Calvin scholar and Professor of Reformation Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Randall Zachman is an insightful guide to the Genevan Reformer. The book is based on a verbatim transcript of the lectures and received only light editing in order to preserve the oral character of Zachman's presentation. In several places this makes reading a rather more noticeable act than it should be and, uncharacteristically for CUP, there are some typos.

Reconsidering John Calvin retains a historical focus by expounding Calvin alongside other significant thinkers (Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Julian of Norwich, as well as Ezra the Scribe), but here Professor Zachman also gestures in the direction of constructive theology. The title word 'Reconsidering' is key. Zachman aims to 'develop themes' in Calvin's theology in light of his own theological concerns and commitments. He seeks to 'build on' Calvin's claims, bring them 'into dialogue' with other theological views, and 'trace out trajectories' in his thought which can be explored further. In several areas Zachman either sketches or hints at his own theological answers to the questions raised. 

So Calvin is not being reconsidered here in terms of his own context; his ideas are not being reconsidered as to their own internal consistency (although there is some of this in the book); nor is he being reconsidered to see if there are things we have missed. Rather, Calvin is being reconsidered as a resource for the kind of theological stances we may or may not wish to adopt today. His theology is shown to offer either fruitful openings or unacceptable conclusions, but at every turn it is the kind of engagement which comes from a mature scholar wrestling with a thinker he deeply respects even where he strongly disagrees. Where departing from Calvin he seeks, where possible, to do so on the basis of what he takes to be un-germinated ideas in Calvin himself. Zachman wants to appeal to Calvin, the other thinkers included here, and the Bible, as the source of his own theological proposals.

All of this makes the volume an enjoyable foray into Calvin and a stimulating launch-pad into several issues of interest to Zachman. The chapters on the imago dei and the comfort and challenge of love, where Calvin is in dialogue with Kierkegaard each time, are perhaps the ones which will resonate most with readers of Ref21, suggestive as they are of rich anthropological insights and useful probing of the place of conscience in Calvin's two-part content to piety: knowledge of God and ourselves. There is a danger in a book like this that what is really being reconsidered is not Calvin or the other theologians, but rather Zachman's own themes. It is a measure of his skill that the positions he wishes to advance for himself do not drown out the seed-bed voices in the tradition, but come to stand in a real relationship to them. Overall, each of the chapters seem to point towards what appears to be a centre in Zachman's thinking⎯God is love⎯so that the worldview of a liberal Protestant emerges. Zachman, in fact, is explicit about this perspective (p.1). And so John Calvin is reconsidered along lines of greater inclusivity, tolerance and divine benevolence, as well as eschatological optimism and greater epistemic and theological humility. 

Perhaps the stand-out examples of this are the chapters on the election of Israel in Calvin and Barth and Zachman's own proposal for a more satisfying alternative, and the final chapter on Calvin and Julian of Norwich on the wrath of God. While recognising that Calvin and Barth have very different understandings of the election of Israel, Zachman nevertheless perceives an underlying similarity in that both end up with an Israel that rejects grace and finds itself under divine judgment. This is what Zachman terms 'oppositional thinking.' Despite the positive aspects of Calvin's and Barth's theology of the election of Israel, in the end, those aspects succumb to a conviction which is opposed to the inherent, ongoing divine pleasure in Israel's irrevocable calling. Zachman's over-arching presupposition that God is love means that some binary distinctions (such as Calvin's and Barth's view of Israel as elect and rejected) need to be overcome with an alternative model, while some distinctions (such as the beauty and terror of the universe) should be left to stand as unresolvable dialectical tensions. 

The discussion of the election of Israel, however, is stymied by a lack of precise definitions. Zachman allows the strength of Calvin's and Barth's negative language to become connected, however indirectly, to anti-Semitism and its tragic outworking in history (Calvin, for instance, 'did not see the Shoah coming, but on the other hand his language definitely did not help', p.75). Would it have altered much in Zachman's treatment to consider Paula Fredriksen's distinction between anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, where one is a political viewpoint, one is a racist stance, and one is a theological position, respectively? Perhaps not. Neither Calvin nor Barth are beyond reproach for their rhetoric in this area, but it can certainly be argued that their overall positions incline much more towards the last of Fredriksen's options than those tainted with anti-Semitism. Even here, there are important nuances which need to be considered. Zachman is aware of Calvin's and Barth's treatments of Romans 11, but does not make enough of the fact both interpreters discern the whole point of Romans 9-11 is actually to short-circuit a form of Christian anti-Judaism by circumventing the boasting of Gentile Christians. 

If, however, the 'anti' preposition would be unacceptable to Zachman tout court, then we should note that the problem of oppositional thinking is not one which he can evade in his own proposals. This is evident in the material shape of his book, given that he has placed Calvin in dialogue with thinkers some of whom are chosen precisely because they stand opposite Calvin on the matter to hand. Some kinds of opposition are acceptable, and Zachman asks us to allow him to be the adjudicator. But it is also evident formally, in that his positive proposals work by opposing theological motifs many readers will find much more satisfying to synthesise. 

Consider just one example. In arguing for the Jews as present day objects of divine faithfulness, Zachman summarises: 'I will set forth a trajectory in Calvin that I hope will allow us better to understand the covenant made with Israel on its own terms, without mediating this covenant through Christ, so that Christians can acknowledge the integrity of this covenant on its own terms, based on our own Scriptures' (p. 91, emphases added). Further, he asks 'Is there a way out of this dynamic that allows us to see God's relationship to the Jews on its own terms, without appealing to Christ and the Gospel, but based on the Scriptures that Christians claim as their own?' (pp. 91-92, emphasis added). For Zachman, there is a Christian way of understanding Jews, and there is the way Jews understand themselves; this is not a shared understanding, but both perspectives should be allowed to stand together in an unresolvable dialectic so that each may accept the validity of the other. Christians and Jews are 'brothers and sisters' (p.190). 

Much of this can be contested. It is not clear what 'its own terms' can be for the covenant with Israel given that the Christian presupposition is surely that the covenant's own terms are that it is mediated through Christ. Zachman's way forward on the Jewish question is to set aside Calvin's and Barth's Christological wrestlings in favour of his own non-Christological reading, and the result is simply a competing oppositionalism i.e., opposing Old Testament and New Testament, old covenant and new covenant, Jesus and Paul, John and the Synoptics. The fact is that wherever one set of continuationist claims are preferred above another, then an alternative set of oppositional readings naturally follows. Such oppositional problems become particularly pronounced in the final chapter where, as well as some bald misrepresentations of Calvin ('The hatred of God for most of humanity is essential to Calvin's theology', pp. 160-161), Julian of Norwich's vision that there is no anger in God is implicitly deemed preferable to Calvin's attempt to follow the Pauline teaching of end-time recompense by the Lord Jesus. 

Those who approach Calvin or the tradition with different confessional commitments than Zachman will want to reconsider, with gratitude, both his own answers to the thought-provoking questions he has posed and, in a different way, Calvin and each of his dialogue partners. This will sometimes mean that where Zachman seeks a 'without' or 'either-or' (for example, either God is angry or God is love), others will find the path of patient and humble fidelity to necessitate seeking a 'with' or 'both-and' (God is love and God is a consuming fire), and vice-versa.

David Gibson is a Minister of Trinity Church, Aberdeen, Scotland, and author of Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election, and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2009).

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