Friday, 20 April 2007

Paul Helm: John Calvin's Ideas

Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 438 pp. (review copy courtesy of Oxford UP)

Paul Helm is a leading authority in the philosophy of religion, as well as a historian of early Protestant thought. In John Calvin’s Ideas, Helm brings these two fields together in an engaging philosophical account of Calvin’s thought.

Throughout the 20th century, Calvin scholars tended to exaggerate the distance between Calvin and his medieval background. Thus Calvin was often portrayed as an anti-scholastic thinker, or as an anti-philosophical biblicist, or even as a proto-Barthian “theologian of the Word.” Recent Calvin scholarship has gone a long way towards dismantling such interpretations, and the best scholarship (e.g. that of Richard Muller) has foregrounded Calvin’s complex relationships to medieval thought on the one hand, and to later Protestant scholasticism on the other. Paul Helm builds on this recent approach to Calvin, and, focusing especially on the contexts of late medieval philosophy and theology, he offers a portrait of Calvin “as a receiver, user, and transmitter of … ideas” (p. 1). He shows that Calvin has “an intimate knowledge of scholastic distinctions and their associated doctrines” (p. 282), even though Calvin used and criticised these distinctions and ideas with considerable freedom.

Helm’s interest in Calvin here is driven largely by debates within contemporary North American analytic philosophy. Thus he explores themes such as providence, the soul, free will and determinism, religious epistemology, common grace, and the natural knowledge of God. He offers some very pointed (and convincing) criticisms of contemporary “Reformed epistemologists” like Alvin Plantinga. For example, Plantinga uses Calvin’s concept of the sensus divinitatis to support his own theory of “properly basic” beliefs, so that Calvin is interpreted as a theorist of the rationality of religious belief. But as Helm observes, Calvin has no interest in questions of religious rationality or of epistemic justification, nor is he interested in debates between foundationalist and non-foundationalist epistemologies. Rather, Calvin’s interest is soteriological: what human beings need is “not the development of an alternative epistemology, but the knowledge of God the Redeemer freely given to us in Christ” (p. 240).

In all this, Helm is keenly alert to the dangers of anachronism. And the book’s most interesting arguments often arise from a sense of Calvin’s historical distance from our own anachronistic concerns. In his account of Calvin’s doctrine of God, for instance, Helm rightly observes that Calvin “is not a modern Trinitarian theologian” (p. 34), and that his distinction between God in se and God quoad nos “requires a robust metaphysical theism” (p. 29) that has little to do with “the theological agnosticism of … post-Kantian Protestant theology” (p. 193).

Indeed, Helm argues that this medieval distinction between God-in-himself and God-towards-us is of great importance for understanding the structure of Calvin’s theology. Unlike modern theologians, Calvin drives a “wedge” between the immanent and the economic Trinity precisely in order to preserve this fundamental distinction between God in se and quoad nos (p. 48). So too, Calvin’s insistence on the so-called extra calvinisticum arises from the same distinction: the incarnation “expresses the divine essence without exhaustively revealing it,” so that God-towards-us can never be identified with God-in-himself (pp. 63-65).

In a similar way, Helm observes that Calvin’s whole christology is shaped by an asymmetry between the person of the Son and the Son’s “assumed” human nature. At the heart of Calvin’s extra, therefore, is the claim “that the expression ‘Jesus Christ is God’ cannot be an expression of identity” (p. 91). If all this sounds strange (and intensely problematic) to modern ears, it should nevertheless remind us that we cannot simply impose our own theological agendas back on to the 16th century – as though Calvin could or should have been alert to our characteristically modern (i.e. post-Kantian and post-Barthian) concerns.

Helm’s important chapter on divine accommodation and religious language includes a similar reminder that Calvin’s view of accommodation has nothing to do with Kantian concerns about God’s knowability. Indeed, “the reasons Calvin gives for the language of accommodation have surprisingly little to do with the limitations of human knowledge” (p. 193) – his focus, instead, is on the problem of human idolatry and the mode of God’s gracious intervention.

Helm’s consistent attempt to recover Calvin’s thought from its entanglement in anachronistic frameworks is of great value – like Richard Muller, Helm wants to present a Calvin who has not been “accommodated” to the concerns of contemporary frameworks and debates. Of course, Helm’s own theological and philosophical commitments occasionally lead him into anachronisms of his own – for instance, while his critique Reformed epistemology is exactly right, one can’t help wondering whether his own interpretation of Calvin as the proponent of an “internalist,” evidentialist epistemology is also straining too hard to find the answers to modern questions in Calvin’s work.

Similarly, while Helm is right to concentrate on the contexts of Calvin’s thought, I’m not sure he always attends to the most appropriate contexts. Above all, I’m not convinced that Calvin’s context owes more to Thomas Aquinas than to Duns Scotus (even though Helm is right to highlight Calvin’s divergences from Scotist thought). And I’m not convinced that we should downplay the significance of the Lutheran controversy for the development of the extra calvinisticum – as though here Calvin were simply repeating well-worn patristic insights.

In spite of such isolated problems, though, Helm’s approach to Calvin models a very fruitful way both of interpreting Calvin contextually and of bringing Calvin’s thought into dialogue with contemporary philosophical and theological questions. The book thus offers both a creative contribution to Calvin studies, and a wonderfully spirited engagement with contemporary philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition.


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