Where Did They Get It?

September 8th, 2007

It is not pure antiquarian interest that inspires the ongoing interest in the theology of the Reformers and the Puritans. If it were antiquarian interest, I suppose, The Boke of Margery Kempe, or Albertus Magnus’ (or Cotton Mather’s) writings on the properties of minerals would be read quite as much now as any other document from balmier times.

No, the ongoing interest in the Reformers and Puritans is too wide to be chalked up to antiquarian interest. Of course, between agenda-driven reading (“Oecolampadius anticipated my favorite theologian”), a desire to be in the inner circle, and a sense of obligation, we may have exhausted the sources of this interest. But I would like to think that people recognize the persistent value in the older theologians. When one turns from the often insipid or superficial modern treatments of a given question to a Reformer or a Puritan, it is to meet again the fact that theology is stimulating, profound, precise and an ocean which easily overcomes our feeble thrashings. We are on firm ground against even the most violent waves in the wading pool: but already the surf at the edge of the beach is too much for us, and we cannot remain unmoved in the face of that invincible pull.

So we wonder, how did they get that way? How do the perenially great theologians come to that grasp and enjoyment of their doctrines which stuns and overwhelms us?

While I most certainly cannot speak as an expert, I believe I can hazard a tentative guess, in the illustrative example of Calvin.

The easy answer, which is perfectly true, is that the Holy Spirit taught him. But he was taught by means.

As you read Calvin, something that stands out is his grasp on the church fathers. Time and again he can summon testimony after testimony from Augustine, can put perverted citations in their true context and restore their intended force, or can adduce an explicative parallel from another work. It is obvious that Calvin has not merely read, he has digested, the teaching of certain great predecessors in the theological realm. The Holy Spirit has taught him; but the Holy Spirit has taught him in part by having taught others first.

What is true of Calvin’s grasp of certain fathers, can be stated with more force with regard to his grasp of Scripture. It is a book with which he is intimately familiar, as demonstrated not solely by the Institutes, but also by his sermons and commentaries. To take just one example, in commenting on Psalm 48:2 he has no trouble comparing Isaiah 14:13 –on the basis of the word “north”. The Holy Spirit has taught Calvin by a minute acquaintance with the letter of sacred Scripture.

There is yet another element. Apart from the citations of Scripture or the church fathers, you find in the pages of Calvin a host of rather despective references: Osiander, Servetus, Abelard, the Schoolmen, to mention only some, come in for what is often amusingly scathing reproof. He knows their opinions, he knows their arguments, and he thoroughly takes them apart. The Holy Spirit taught Calvin –but he taught him through the instrument of analyzing and opposing error.

Scripture: sound theologians; errorists. These were the instruments the Holy Spirit employed. By embracing and assimilating and rejecting these, Calvin came to the stature of a perenially great theologian: a teacher of the church for all times since his own.

And this we can apply to ourselves: not in the almost certainly vain dream that we will become the Calvins of our own time; but in the hope of extending our grasp on God’s truth –or of more perfectly submitting to its grasp on us. There is no replacement for Scripture: for personal, detailed engagement with the Biblical text in the measure that we are capable of. This is, after all, the principium cognoscendi externum of our theology. Yet we are by no means the only people doing this: and it is to be fervently hoped that we are not so foolish as to conceive that we are the only ones with the Holy Spirit. And so the great teachers are to be respectfully and honestly listened to: not for absolute unanimity with them—Calvin can baldly disagree with Chrysostom or Augustine when necessary: and note that he prefers to express disagreement than to attempt to foist his views upon them—but for the benefit of consecrated intellect led by God along the same path we endeavour to pursue. So that it is not so much breadth of reading, the number of differing names we can add to our lists of conquered books, but depth of understanding, the degree to which we have justly appreciated the writer’s statements and assumptions, which is the great desideratum. Reading should not be narrow; but nor should it be so wide that it is necessarily shallow. And then there is controversy. Rev. Matthew Winzer has noted that the profoundest theology is often found in polemical works. In arraigning the subtleties of error, the nuances of truth must be drawn out. In defending the citadel from enemy hordes, we become more intimately familiar the intricacies of its walls than from many leisured walks to admire the sunset from its battlements: for we have studied how their footholds can be turned against them and have a detailed knowledge of each contour. And yet not all are called upon to be direct defenders throwing down the scaling ladders and repulsing the grappling hooks: the wall is also familiar to those who build, those who maintain, those who adorn; but it is never well known to those who merely take it for granted.

2 Responses to “Where Did They Get It?”

  1. Lauren Says:

    Nice thoughts, Ruben. I like the Reformers and Puritans because they resonate in the truth that comes from the hard work of those means you speak of, and by the Holy Spirit’s illumination that prompts and rewards the accessing of those means.

    But errorists, I don’t know…that sounds like something Rudy Giuliani sprays under the bed.

  2. py3ak Says:

    We could substitute “accursed schismatics” or “doctrinal deviants” for “errorists”, if that would make the specter of Mr Giuliani go away.

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