Saturday, January 23, 2010

Calvin, Calvin, and more Calvin

I'm presently working on the first chapter of my dissertation in Rhetoric, the topic of which is Calvinist rhetoric. I'm beginning with none other than Calvin himself, or really, those who have written about Calvin and his rhetoric. Since I don't know Latin well enough to read or translate, I am at the mercy of commentators, which means my observations are limited by those I rely upon.

Here are the book-length sources I've read so far:
1. Breen, Quirinius (1931). John Calvin: A Study in French Humanism.
2. Hall, Basil (1967). John Calvin: Humanist and Theologian.
3. Higman, Francis (1967). The Style of John Calvin in His French Polemical Treatises.
4. Bouwsma, William (1987). Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait.
5. Zachman, Randall (2006). John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian. (I've not quite completed this one yet)
6. Gordon, Bruce (2009). Calvin.

It is no mystery that Calvin is a polarizing figure. Some consider him the most blessed man of the Reformation, while others consider him to be the worst thing to happen to Christianity. Some consider him a true humanist and lover of men, others a spiteful persecutor of heretics. That he can be so polarizing owes something to Calvin's commitment to clarity and unwavering fidelity to what he considered to be God's incontrovertible Truth. Such clarity draws and divides men, garners their delight and derision.

Of the above mentioned books, the first is a technical study that focuses particularly on Calvin's education. Breen draws a relatively favorable treatment of Calvin as a keen humanist amongst a generation of humanists in France under whom Calvin studied. He minimizes to a great degree Calvin's "sudden conversion," cited in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, and for the most part underplays Calvin's role as Reformer to his role as a literary contributor to French language and 16th-century "Latinity." Calvin was the most outstanding exemplar of French language use and development, second only, if at all, to the initiator of French humanism, Guillaume Budé. In his Latin, he was skilled in the style of "lucid brevity," which sought to bring home a key point in short, clear, and forceful expression. Breen probably gives too much weight to Calvin's humanism and too little weight to his Protestantism.

Basil Hall's treatment of Calvin is the shortest and most general. He tries mainly to differentiate Calvin from later "Calvinists" who he deems more systematic, more dogmatic, and more narrow in their theological positions. Hall's point is well taken, for Calvin is largely developing his theology through continual study of God's Word and expositing it through his commentaries and sermons, which were written after his first edition of the Institutes, and served him in his later editions of that same volume. Many doctrines Calvin sought to aim at ecumenically amenable positions: for example, he wished to accomodate himself with Zwingli and the Lutherans with regard to Communion (the goal of uniting these parties was never realized), and Calvin's view of Church polity was more flexible than later Scottish theologians, for examples.

Higman's study is the most technical, and included a great deal of French quotations that I could not read. Still, his insights into Calvin's style was quite enlightening, but have to be understood in the right context. Calvin's French was suited to the uneducated, so it made us of local idioms as well as eschewing learned references to Latin authors who would have been largely unread by his target audience. His rhetoric was also distinguished by a more stark hierarchy and dichotomy. For example, Calvin saved his most colorful and bombastic language for his criticisms of opponents, his most clear and plain style for the exposition of true doctrine, and an elevated and elegant style for his calls to contemplate the worth of Christ and His Kingdom. The sharp dichotomy could be seen in his casting opponents in the worst of light while making his own positions appear the most common sense. It was not that Calvin could not, or even would not, argue more acutely, but rather than his audience required a rhetorical argument moreso than a dialectical one.

Bouwsma's book was the most disappointing, despite it copious quotations of Calvin's works. Bouwsma's portrait of Calvin is of a man whose internal anxieties drove him to produce his theology in an age characterized by great anxiety. Calvin is both extremely unassured and extremely self-assured, creating a self-contradictory and dichotomous personality for Calvin. While Bouwsma's use of quotations is extensive, his interpretations rely upon tenuous psychological assumptions about both Calvin and the age of Calvin, and his interpretations of Calvin's imagery may read more into the man than the rhetorical effect of such imagery.

Zachman and Gordon have been by far the most enjoyable and well-developed books. Zachman's book, which I have not yet finished, is a collection of journal articles he has gathered together and edited--all of which treat Calvin's theology in terms of his audience and his convictions concerning the nature of theological offices and responsibilities. What results is an excellent exposition of how Calvin probably saw his own work in relation to those to whom he was writing. The Institutes, a work first intended for lay audience, became an introduction into the doctrine of the Church universal for teachers and pastors who would lead their congregations. The Commentaries were less abstract and universal than the Institutes, but were still intended to prepare pastors and teachers to faithfully teach and exhort their congregations by laying open the mind of the Biblical writers in their historical-grammatical and theological contexts. Finally, the sermons were aimed at congregants who needed both sound doctrine and a healthy dose of direct application to the circumstances they faced in their everyday lives. Hence they are less learned, but also longer in their verbiage than the commentaries, allowing Calvin to expend a good amount of energy apply the text to the lives of individuals. Calvin is not simply a theologian spinning abstract doctrines from an ivory tower. He is rather a man who has an eye to all the various spheres and needs of God's Church--teachers and pastors who need to know true doctrine and how to open God's Word so that individuals can learn from it; and individuals who needed to hear God's Word preached to their daily needs and shortcomings.

Gordon's book is the longest, newest, and most comprehensive. He does a fine job of placing Calvin within his historical context while also drawing out Calvin's unique and lasting contributions. We see Calvin the man as he grew and developed over time as a student of great humanists, a student of great Reformers, and finally a leader of the Reformation himself. Gordon is also very even-handed in treating Calvin's personality, which was both shining and tarnished (as all human personalities are). Perhaps Gordon's most skillful art is in demonstrating the political context and circumstances that Calvin had to maneuver while remaining true to his theological convictions. Calvin could be hard-nosed and unwavering, but he could also go to extreme measures to accomodate himself to those whom he thought could unite the various groups of the Reformation (e.g. the Swiss Protestants and the German Protestants). I grew to appreciate some of the lesser-known (lesser-known to me, that is) figures from the Reformation who had direct impact upon Calvin and His efforts. Calvin's two closest friends, Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret were contrasts in age and in temperament--and both seemed to balance Calvin's own tendencies. Bucer taught Calvin how to shepherd in the Church; Bullinger was a faithful, though at times frustrating, collaborator; Melanchthon was Calvin's theological inspiration in many ways, particularly in terms of theological method; Luther was perhaps the key to Calvin's conversion; Beza was Calvin's Timothy; and there were many others, including lesser known lights who studied under Calvin and took the Gospel back into the France that Calvin had chosen to flee in exile.

After I finish Zachman's book I'm going to pick up Muller's book, The Unaccommodated Calvin (2000), which Zachman and Gordon use quite a bit in their treatments. All in all I'm getting a good understanding of Calvin's humanity, his theology, and most importantly for the dissertation, Calvin's rhetoric, which was quite remarkable in its skill and learning.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Plato & Augustine on Knowledge

I've been reading and rereading some Plato recently for a paper I'm scheduled to present in May on the rhetoric of Augustine's De Magistro.

De Magistro is a dialogue between Augustine and his young son. Its main topic is singular, yet the discussion covers several important topics. The main topic is teaching/learning and asks the question of whether or not anyone can teach someone else, and, conversely, whether we can learn anything from someone else. The reason Plato is important is because he brings up the same question in his dialogue entitled, Meno.

Plato and Augustine both conclude that, insofar as knowledge is concerned, we do not learn from others. Plato thinks we learn from ourselves, that is, from our eternal soul's own recollection of forgotten truth. Augustine concludes that it is Christ Himself who illuminates our minds to know.

The example in Meno is of a young slave. Socrates asks the slave boy, who has never been taught geometry, to answer a geometrical question. At first the boy gets the answer wrong, but eventually, though Socrates continual questions and drawings in the sand, the boy arrives at the correct answer. Many folks disagree with Plato because they think Socrates is teaching the boy by means of his verbal cues, or leading questions. However, Augustine's dialogue shows why this is not the case.

For Augustine, the discussion turns on the nature of signs. How can one teach another about something which the other does not know? If he does not know it, how can he come to know out of his ignorance? And if he does know it, how can he be taught what he already knows? One example is that of walking. If one is standing still, one might be able to teach another what is walking by taking a few steps, say ten. However, the observer might mistakenly conclude that walking is precisely the taking of ten steps, rather than the measured motion of striding with the legs. Alternatively, if both people are already walking, one cannot demonstrate to the other what walking is, because he is already doing it. If he walks faster, the observer may conclude that "hurrying" is the same thing as walking, although the two actions are distinct.

We could use signs to demonstrate what is walking. We could, for example, use words to provide a definition. But, since the signs themselves have no direct relationship to the thing itself (the letters w-a-l-k-i-n-g are not part of what actually is walking), the person cannot come to know walking simply by virtue of the signs. Rather, he must know what walking is in order for the signs to be intelligible.

So if a demonstration does not convey knowledge, and signs, in themselves, cannot convey knowledge, how is knowledge conveyed? One answer, provided several hundred years after Augustine, is referred to as Occasionalism. It has several interpretations, but the idea is basically that all instances where learning occurs (that "ah ha!" moment that comes in circumstances where we see a demonstration or hear a definition given) are simply the occasions that God decrees that we come to know X truth. Malebranche was the noted founder of Occasionalism, which he formulated as an solution to Descartes' mind/body dualism. Jonathan Edwards is also sometimes associated with occasionalism.

However, one need not be an occasionalist in order to accept Augustine's conclusion. To argue that Christ is the only Teacher who illuminates all minds to know the truth is not to argue for a specific method by which Christ accomplishes this fact. The simplest view may be occasionalism, however. It certainly does remove all pretense of human autonomy in the realm of knowledge!

For the Christian, it also harmonizes well with the basic truths of God's nature as eternal. To be eternal and rational is by definition to be omniscient, since anything that thinks and is eternal has thought every truth. That God knows all truth and thinks all truth is simply to acknowledge that truth is the sole possession of God. When men arrive at truth, there is a temptation to take pride in its acquisition. Contemporary belief even argues that we create our own truths. In a previous age, most men thought that a proper understanding of truth is that it is discovered. The keenest insight for the Christian, however, is that all truth is revealed, for it is not simply "out there" waiting to be discovered, but is the possession of God--a possession which God must give according to His good pleasure to whom He will, at what point in time that He will.

That an unbeliever would come upon something true should surprise us no more than that a believer may be deceived by falsehood. God has His own agenda for revealing the Truth, and He often humbles the elect and condemns the reprobate by withholding and revealing knowledge respectively. It is humbling to the elect, for he is driven to realize his complete dependency upon God for all that he must know. It is condemning to the reprobate, because no matter how much truth God reveals to him, saving knowledge remains undisclosed, and his rebellious beliefs only make him, in his understanding of any truth, more culpable before the God who possesses and discloses that truth.