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.


Anonymous said...

A fair review, Ben. To my mind, Paul's book is the best piece of secondary literature on Calvin to come out (so far) this century!

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. A very interesting book it seems.

Anonymous said...

I have not previously found Helm's work interesting, but this one sounds like it would be. Thanks.

Jonathan Erdman said...

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.

This sounds pious. But realistically we all have theological, philosophical, and existential concerns. So, it is natural to impose them on the figures of the past in order to make some ground for the things that are important to us. In this regard, what is wrong with Plantinga recontextualizing the sensus divinitatis discussion into the contemporary epistemological debate?

Calvin's theological concerns were differnt than our own, but why can't we hijack his writings and find some good stuff for the present? Everyone has "concerns" and everyone has agendas - nobody falls from the sky with a blank slate, even Jesus!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review...

For those of you interested and available, Prof. Helm is teaching "Calvin's Ideas" as a summer course at Regent College (May 28-June 8). Vancouver isn't a bad place to be in the summer, and I'm sure that the course will be fascinating as well.

Anonymous said...

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

I always thought that for Calvin the sensus divinitatis was a natural faculty that allowed us to recognize the “truth of God” independently of specific Jewish Christian revelation. But you seem to be saying that Calvin had no interest in how such non-revelational truth might be known. So now I wonder what the sensus divinitatis meant for Calvin?

Anonymous said...

Don't miss this one: Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin by Randall C. Zachman, University of Notre Dame Press (March 2007), 536 pp.

Zachman has read everything Calvin ever wrote -- in the original languages. His knowledge is extensive and his judgments are keen. I haven't read Helm's new volume, but when he tries to think theologically, his philosophy of religion approach is not always an asset.

As an interpreter of Calvin, I would rank Zachman above both Muller and Helm (insofar as I know their works, which is admittedly is within limits).

See also Zachmann's other two Calvin books, both first-rate:

John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought (Paperback - May 2006)

The Assurance Of Faith: Conscience In The Theology Of Martin Luther And John Calvin (Paperback - April 2005)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Helm also has some small pieces on Calvin at his blog, Helm's Deep.

Anonymous said...

I dont know if it is true but I once read somewhere that Calvin's mammoth Institutes only contained the word LOVE 5 times.

Is this true or nearly true?

What has that got to do with the great calling of Jesus to love the Divine Lord with every pore of ones being and then on that basis love thy neighbour as thyself?

If it is true then what does it say about him as a person and the "religion" that he promoted and founded. His applied politics were certainly rather nasty.

Ben Myers said...

Hi John. Thanks for your comment -- that’s certainly an interesting statistic! It’s definitely apocryphal, though. I’ve just done a quick search using the Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts, and there are at least 167 instances of “amor” and derivatives in the Institutes (and over 2,500 instances in his complete works).

I guess this apocryphal statistic is based on the old picture of Calvin as a cold-hearted, joyless tyrant. But I reckon Calvin himself knew a thing or two about love for God -- this comes through very clearly in his commentaries (e.g. on the Psalms). And let’s not forget his own personal motto: “cor meum tibi offero Domine, prompte et sincere” (I offer you my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely).

The maiden said...

As an Anglican heavily influenced by eastern orthodoxy, I've always been more than a little wary of Calvin. Your review encourages me to read Helm's book. (I've used his Faith & Reason in classes for a few semesters.)

Anonymous said...

I've never had any trouble believing in Calvin's love for God. As Ben says, that comes across clearly in many of his commentaries. (I have always admired Calvin as a biblical expositor more than I do as a theologian, per se.) But I have more trouble wondering if Calvin knew much about love for people. Here's a Calvin story that I've heard (although it may also be apocryphal): that when his wife died, Calvin's dry-eyed eulogy was, "she never bothered me [in his study]." Woof. Be still my heart.
For all his faults, no one ever had to wonder about the depth of Luther's love for Katie!
Of course, Calvin is hardly the only male theologian who is a less than stellar role model for marital love. After a year long evangelistic trip by horseback, for instance, John Wesley stopped by his house and asked his wife how she was doing. When she replied, "fine," he got back on his horse to go spread the gospel. And William Carey forced his wife to accompany him to India by taking the children. She became mentally and physically ill in India, but Carey didn't take her back to England for care. She spent years in a cage to prevent her harming herself when he could not care for her! Then there are the adulteries of Barth, Tillich, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.

I really hope we male theologians learn better how to love people, starting with our wives. This week in the U.S. a statistic was released showing job satisfaction very high for most male pastors--but not so high for their wives.

I'm not laying this all at the feet of Calvin, of course. But I think it should be kept in mind when we assess ANY theologian's grasp of love.

Anonymous said...

Hi its John again. I like being a gadfly.

My spiritual teacher teaches that there is only one way to assess the authenticity of any and everyones religion, and that is by observing what that person actually does in their day to day life and their actions altogether---not by what they say.

He points out that a truly religious person is a benign and healing presence and that he or she freely blesses all others with selfless and compassionate and tolerant service. Applied love in other words.

I have a book in front of me which happens to have a brief history of Calvins applied politics. They were truly monstrous. He instigated a reign of cold hearted terror in which large numbers of people were executed for the most trivial reasons.

Ben Myers said...

Hi again John -- thanks for this. I hate to be so picky, but this story about "large numbers" of executed people under Calvin is also apocryphal!

Anonymous said...

Calvinism had spawned monstrous politics--and movements for democracy and human rights, too. Max Stackhouse divides the political forms of Calvinist social ethics into three groups: Authoritarian Calvinists (includes some of the defenders of American slavery and South African apartheid); Spiritualist Calvinists(apolitical and passive); and Free Church Calvinists (including John Milton, Roger Williams, John Bunyan). The last category included some of the most powerful voices for human rights and peacemaking in the last 4 centuries. I think Stackhouse is right in saying that all three groups can find legitimating impulses in Calvin's own theology.

So, whenever this Anabaptist is asked about Calvinism, I was reply, "Which kind?'

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. Definitely one for the wishlist.

Ben Myers said...

By the way, Michael: I know we've been around this topic before, but I don't agree that we can simply speak of Barth's "adultery" with Kirschbaum (and it's certainly misleading to put this relationship in the same category as Tillich's promiscuous "open marriage"!). If anyone's interested in this, we argued about it back in this thread.

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