New Perspective on Calvin PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 13 July 2011 08:17

First there was a NPL—a new perspective on Luther, pursued largely by Finnish Lutherans who, in dialogue with Russian Orthodox theologians, began digging up buried treasure in Luther. Luther was more ontologically interested than Lutherans have often thought; his jabs at the “Church of Aristotle” made room for a more biblical ontology. Luther also had a robust notion of deification, intimately linked with justification. Thus far the Finnish Luther.

Now there is an NPC—a new perspective on Calvin. J. Todd Billings’ 2008 Calvin, Participation and the Gift took issue, as the title indicates, with theologians (mostly Radically Orthodox “gift theologians”) who claimed that Calvin’s notion of participation was anemic or non-existent. Billings argued convincingly that for Calvin salvation was defined as participation—communion in Christ with the Father by the Spirit. Justification and sanctification formed the duplex gratia, the fruit of this participation.

Following on Billings comes Julie Canlis’s fine Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdmans, 2010). Like Billings, Canlis focuses on Calvin’s notion of participation, but Canlis places this theme in the context of Calvin’s theology of descent and ascent. Calvin’s use of this traditional dynamic has been acknowledged by Calvin scholars, but has never, Canlis thinks, been given the attention it deserves. Drawing on recent work that has emphasized the continuity between the exitus-reditus (exit and return) structure of Thomas’s theology and the structure of Calvin’s theology, Canlis argues that Calvin offered a Christology, pneumatological, and of course Trinitarian revision of Platonic/Plotinian, patristic, and medieval notions of the ascent of the soul. According to Canlis, Calvin is close to Irenaeus in his use of “ascent” and his doctrine of participation.

Augustine, Calvin’s most important patristic mentor, sketched out a seven-step ascent that Calvin referred to in his youthful polemic against soul sleep, the Psychopannychia. Augustine’s model gave a Christian spin to Plotinus, but, in Canlis’s view, did not spin far enough. Ascent in Augustine is often ascent away from matter, and, ironically, Augustine introduces a subtle Pelagianism insofar as he sees the human being as the traveler on his way to God, rather than recognizing (as Robert Jenson puts it) that “saving history is God’s journey with us.” Aquinas likewise failed to produce a thorough Christian revision of the neo-Platonic golden circle, since Christ is not integral to the journey away and the movement home. (Canlis suggests that the circle is closed at the end of the second part of Thomas’s Summa, before the Pars tertia introduces Christ.)

Calvin retained the form of ascent, but changed the ground and grammar. The groundwork is creation. For Calvin, the eternal Word is the mediator of creation not merely of redemption. Creation exists and is sustained in Christ. The tree of life was a sign that unfallen Adam should not, in Calvin’s words, “seek life anywhere but in [the Son of God].” Calvin is often viewed as the theologian of dread sovereignty, caricatured as the theology of divine tyranny. Canlis acknowledges that Calvin distinguishes clearly between Creator and creature and emphasizes God’s majesty, but argues that he does so because distinction is a prerequisite of communion: God must be different if we are to have communion with Him. As Mediator, the Word does not bridge an infinite distance between God and man, but is instead the place where God’s communion with creatures occurs.

This implies a fresh understanding of the image of God. For Calvin, the image is not an “endowment” of certain properties that distinguish man from the animals, as it was for the scholastics, but rather a relation and an orientation. The image is a mirror; in Torrance’s words, God images Himself in man. Man is only truly man in union with, when face-to-face with, God. This is what makes the fall so horrible: Its essence is alienation from the Word who is the source of all life and blessing, but it is also a fundamental self-alienation. Man is created toward communion, and when he turns from God he can only live in fear and utter bewilderment.

If the fall is a descent from God, redemption takes place by Christ’s double movement of descent and ascent. Christ is the “ladder” “who reaches from heaven down to earth” so that “we in turn ascend to God” (Calvin’s summary). The Trinitarian formula that the Son descends and dies so that He can catch us up by the Spirit in His ascent to the Father is the large framework for Calvin’s understanding of redemption accomplished (atonement) and applied. Participation is central to both the downward and upward movement, and Calvin’s soteriology, eschatology, and sacramental theology are all enclosed within the theme of union.

Canlis illuminatingly argues, for example, that Calvin’s debate with Osiander was not about infusion v. imputation, or about forensic v. moral accounts of justification, but about two different views of participation. Calvin as much as Osiander wanted to combat an impersonal mechanistic notion of imputation, but he believed Osiander effectively marginalized the humanity of Christ and the cross in the process. Calvin teaches imputation, but he sees it as “the direct result of unio cum Christo.” To take another example of the prominence of the theme: Calvin’s Eucharistic theology is a theology of ascent and participation in which the Spirit catches up to heaven to feed on the incarnate, glorified Christ.

Canlis’s Calvin, like Billings’, is a Calvin with something important to contribute to contemporary theology, and that is because he sounds a good bit like a contemporary theology. He is a Trinitarian theology, for whom “relationship” is a key term. That’s mostly to the good, but Canlis’ portrait at times smooths over the rough bits of Calvin. She acknowledges that there are ambiguities in, for instance, Calvin’s pneumatology that open a door to moralism, and she notices that Calvin’s affirmation of the goodness of creation is tarnished by his regular emphasis on human misery. But she sometimes lets Calvin’s less felicitous statements off too easily (e.g., “the greatest [created] purity is vile” compared with God’s righteousness). The result is a Calvin shinier and more at home in today’s world than the Calvin of history would have been. That’s a loss, because some of the rough bits are the bits of Calvin that are most edifying for the twenty-first century.

All in all, though, the NPC is a gain, a welcome defense of Calvin against both his detractors and, just as importantly, against his most ardent admirers. It recovers themes of Calvin that have gotten lost in recent polemics and in more long-standing truncations of Calvin. It gets us back to a Calvin who might have inspired Bavinck to say things like, “Homer attributed human properties to the gods; I would prefer to attribute divine properties to us humans.”

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