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How John Calvin Dealt with Refugees and the Poor

In the 1550’s Geneva witnessed an influx of French refugees into the city. William Naphy has argued that this influx, and the growing influence of these French religious refugees was the single most common complaint in Geneva during this period. (Naphy, 121) Prior to the influx of politically powerful French refugees, there was an influx of poor refugees. For example, in October 1538-1539 Geneva’s city hospital assisted 10,657 poor strangers as they passed through the city. Naphy notes that this number does not even include Genevans who would have been attended to by the hospital. (Naphy, 122)

Regularly the hospital would have been charged with the city’s poor. The hospital would be john-calvin-9235788-1-402expected to take care of the sick in the hospital, deal with outpatients as well as people who were housed in the hospital, including orphans. In addition to these ministrations , the hospital had a bread baking ministry in which bread cooked in the hospital ovens was weekly distributed to the poor at their homes. (Olson, 164)

Naphy also notes that by the close of 1543 a clear pattern began to emerge between the city and these refugees. Geneva was willing to help strangers when able to do so, but when resources were strained the city itself pulled back on giving direct help. It seems as though this lack of resources, which were provided by the city hospital, were filled  by several Bourses or funds specifically created by the foreign residents of Geneva in order to take care of the poorer refugees entering the city. These funds were formed by French, Italian, and German ethnic groups and — as Olson writes with respect to the French Fund — it seems as though Calvin “had a direct hand in its formation (the French Bourse)….[being] regularly involved through his contributions and recommendations to poor people to seek out the fund for help.” (Olson 165)[1]

Calvin’s work with the French Bourse reveals something about the role that the church ought to play in social concerns. It has been said that for Calvin, care for the poor was practically the fourth mark of the church. This claim especially comes to light when Calvin and the company of pastors make the administrators of the French Bourse deacons. The fact that these administrators were made deacons is important because it reveals Calvin’s dissatisfaction with the current diaconate. According to Calvin, deacons are those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor. (Tuininga, 239) Prior to the growth of the Bourse system the term deacon primarily applied to the procureurs and hospitalliers of the city hospital, however applying the term deacon to these roles was fairly complicated because the hospital was responsible to the city council.  In the 1543 edition of the Institutes Calvin argues that the work of deacons is not to be understood as a part of civil government: ‘it was not secular management that they were undertaking but a spiritual function dedicated to God’” (Tuininga, 242). The Hospital, in the 1540’s, was run by “deacons” but  reported to the city councils, and leadership was designated by the councils. This arrangement was not in line with Calvin’s vision of the diaconate. On the other hand, the Bourses were operated solely by the deacons under the oversight of the church without any involvement from the civil magistrates, and were considered ministers of the church. (Tuininga, 243)

How exactly did these deacons address social concerns? They provided hospitality to travelers, medical care for the sick, temporary support for the unemployed, long term support for widows, and job training for orphans. The work of the Bourse “presents a clear example of the type of work that Calvin believed the church was called to do for the needy, without any cooperation with civil government.” (Tuininga, 244)

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St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva

What exactly does Calvin’s preference for working alongside of the Bourse as opposed to the procureurs and hospitalliers reveal about his understanding of “care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church?” It shows that Calvin believed that the ministry of the diaconate, which was to care for the poor, properly belonged to the church as opposed to being “outsourced” to some other entity. Care for the poor was a responsibility that the church itself had, and could not and should not simply and over to some other body. Although other entities ought to be commended for taking care of the poor, the church has failed if it does not do something to relieve the plight of the poor. This is why Calvin says “we must begin at the end, that is to say, there must be ministers to preach the doctrine of salvation purely, there must be deacons to have care for the poor.” Does this mean that Calvin saw care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church? Probably not, however what it does mean is that the church is somehow deficient (as opposed to not the church at all) if it lacks a means for taking care of the poor.

Calvin’s understanding of how the poor ought to be cared for extends beyond discussion of the city hospital or even the distribution of the Bourse funds in Geneva. Calvin was under the impression that care for the poor is actually a requirement of natural law. Tuininga argues that Calvin interprets relief for the poor as a requirement of nature’s law of equity in other words, this law of equity is not grounded in the gospel but in the order of creation. (Tuininga, 227-8) Thus Calvin can say “this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right, if their hunger is not relieved.” How does Calvin believe that this law of equity is enforced? It is enforced by rulers and authorities. Thus he argues that “a just and well regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” (Tuininga, 230) Governments are charged with taking care of the poor and needy. They ought to build poorhouses, hospitals, and schools, they ought to prohibit laws that harm the poor and hinder them from making their way out of their condition. If a government fails to perform their obligations to the poor they are liable to God’s judgement. Not only this, but they are worthy of criticism from the church, in fact Calvin was known for harshly criticizing specific governments for failing to perform their obligations to the poor.

The fact that Calvin was willing to criticize not only local magistrates but also kings and foreign governments illustrates Heiko Oberman’s thesis in Europa Afflicta. There Oberman shows that Calvin’s reformation moves beyond merely city reformation, aiming at a larger reformation that takes all of Europe into account. According to Oberman Calvin did not serve a parish, a territory, or a country. (Oberman, 103) He saw himself as being called to minister by God, and not by any city council or King. Thus he had the authority and responsibility to seek the welfare  of all Christians even if that brought him into conflict with those in power. This international awareness is why Calvin can warn against the territorial hunger of the German emperor and the expansionism of the French King. (Oberman, 105) Calvin explicitly warned that as kings become more powerful, the poor would suffer more. However, kings are not above the law, “If a king wants to be regarded as legitimate and as a servant of God he has to show that he is a true father for his people.” (Oberman quoting Calvin, 107) Calvin was concerned  for the welfare of the poor, especially poor Christians, not only in Geneva, but in Europe as a whole.

From what we have seen above — namely, Calvin’s concern that the church fulfills its role in taking care of the poor and that civil governments fulfill natural law in taking care of the poor — we see that for Calvin social concern is a topic that the church not only involves itself in but also speaks up about. Contemporary evangelicals, especially in the United States, ought to take notice that John Calvin himself (not a mainline liberal) believes that the church is not fully the church when it is not taking care of the poor. It ought to take notice that Calvin himself believed that the church had the responsibility of speaking truth to power, because the church lives as refugees in this world. Thus if evangelical churches are going to be true to their reformation heritage they would do well to reexamine how Calvin approached social concerns.

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[1] Tuininga notes that in the earlier years Calvin was the most generous single contributor the the French Bourse.

Reforming the Law: John Calvin and the Use of the Law in Geneva (Pt. 1)

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A Portrait of John Calvin

Addressing “The Pattern of the Law for Piety,” John Calvin states that the law profits believers in two ways: 1) it instructs us about God’s will and 2) it exhorts Christians to obey it. Given these two functions of the law, which are related to its “third use” (McKee, 266), we may wonder what role the law played in the daily life of Christians in Geneva. We may also wonder how important biblical law was for everyday Christians and how the law was enforced. At one point Calvin says,

Now this scriptural instruction of which we speak has two main aspects. The first is that the love of righteousness, to which we are otherwise not at all inclined by nature, may be instilled and established in our hearts; the second, that a rule be set forth for us that does not let us wander about in our zeal for righteousness. (McKee 271)

Here Calvin seems to indicate that the law has two ways of reforming behavior and inculcating a love for righteousness. First, it seems to establish a natural desire in the believer’s heart to obey the law, which prior to regeneration was not there. Second, the law acts as an external form of enforcement,  as a rule that does not let believers wander. In this brief essay I argue that Calvin’s method of instilling of God’s law into God’s people manifests itself in two ways — one, in the organic and unforced social process; the second, externally imposed by legislation. Calvin seeks to navigate between two ways of imposing the law. On the one hand, to leave law-keeping simply up to organic growth may lead to a lack of true enforcement. On the other hand, legislating conformity may create mere external obedience rather than real heart change. As we shall see, both manners of enforcing the law play an important role in Calvin’s Geneva, but both bring potential dangers. We shall begin the discussion of Calvin’s reformation of the use of the law for Christians by highlighting a few examples of how Calvin sees the law play out in Christians’ lives, then  turn our attention to each manner of enforcing the law.

The Pattern of the Law for Piety

Calvin argues that at the core of God’s law there are simply two principles. The first concerns what we owe God, and the second concerns what we own our neighbors. (McKee, 256) Thus all of the law can be considered to fall within the scope of these two concerns. Accordingly, it is the Christian’s duty to learn the law and internalize it. The Christian ought to be like a servant prepared to “search out and observe his master’s ways more and more in order to conform and accommodate himself to them.” (McKee, 266). This is the duty of all Christians, and it  ought to be pursued on a daily basis.

An important aspect of coming to internalize the law involves learning to recognize that other persons are made in the image of God. Learning to see, respect, and honor the image of God in others is a way of owing God what God is due and owing our neighbors wat they are due as well. The recognition and reverence of the image of God imprinted upon each person will keep Christians from shedding the blood of others, stealing from them, and bearing false witness against the. Recognizing the image of God in others will help Christians see the stranger and give them honor and love. The image of God recognized in others will generate a desire to be generous, giving them what they deserve. (McKee, 276) If honoring God and neighbor through the recognition of a shared image of God is the goal of Christian law keeping, we may wonder, how do Christians grow in their desire to follow the law? As mentioned above there are at least two ways. We will jump into these next time…

Calvin on the Injustice of Oppression by Those in Power

But there is still more; that is, that the image of God is engraved in all people. Therefore not only do I despise my [own] flesh whenever I oppress anyone, but to my fullest capacity I violate the image of God. Therefore let us carefully  note that God willed in this passage to point out to those who are in authority and who receive esteem, who are richer than others and who enjoy some degree of honor, that they must not abuse those who are under their hand; they must not torment them beyond measure. They must always reflect on the fact that we are all descended from Adam’s race, that we possess a common nature and even that the image of God is engraved on us…

(John Calvin: Writings On Pastoral Piety, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, 260-1.)

Practicing Scripture, Christ, and the Church: John Calvin’s Agenda for the Eucharist

What is “practical” theology? Often, practical theology is thought to consist of the explicit practices of the church, such as church discipline, preaching, leadership, types of worship, etc. Is this the sort of practical theology Calvin is engaged with in his Eucharistic theology? Although a good portion of Calvin’s practical theology of the Eucharist surely is focused on explicit practices, such as those mentioned above, Calvin also concerns himself with at least three implicit practical consequences that emerge from Eucharistic theology. These three concerns revolve around: 1) faithfulness to scripture, 2) Christology, and 3) ecclesiology. Here we shall see how these three themes emerge in Calvin’s work and result in a theology of the Eucharist that is eminently practical. But first we shall begin by outlining some of the explicitly “practical” comments Calvin makes regarding this sacrament.

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The final twelve sections of 4.17 are Calvin’s theological reflections on how to practice the Eucharist. Here he emphasizes the necessity for communicating the communal implications of this sacrament. He points to Augustine’s work as a precedent for using this practice as a goad to arouse mutual love in a local church. (1415) Calvin also teaches that the sacrament must be offered together with the preaching of the word. To do otherwise is to promote superstition. He also addresses the topic of who ought to be able to take communion. He then devotes several pages on the proper celebration of the Eucharist, explaining how often it should ideally be taken (often) and in what manner (in both kinds). A cursory reading of this section reveals how concerned Calvin is with the actual practice of this sacrament. This sort of reading would prove instructive to those wanting to emulate Calvin’s practice; however, to simply read these twelve sections and ignore the thirty-seven sections that precede them would mean ignoring other important reasons why Calvin is so concerned with practicing the Eucharist properly, namely, his scriptural, Christological, and ecclesiological concerns.

Calvin’s thought regarding the importance of reading Scripture faithfully emerges in the section where he deals with the basis of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus the battle over how to practice the Eucharist appropriately appears to be a battle over how best to read scripture. He cites his Roman Catholic opponent’s use of the Exodus story in which Moses’s rod is changed into a serpent as an example of reading scripture improperly. He also cites their reading of Jeremiah as evidence that they misread scripture. According to those who argue for transubstantiation, the fact that the prophet complains that wood is put in his bread signifies that Christ’s body was allegorically affixed to the wood of the cross. (1378) Calvin  disdains  this “disgraceful” sort of allegorical reading because it occludes the prophet’s true meaning. (1378) In fact, Calvin calls those who read these passages this way “enemies” of the prophet’s true meaning. Hermeneutical concerns are not reserved to his Catholic opponents alone, he also takes aim at Lutheran readings of Scripture. In a section dealing with the use of the word “is” in the words of institution he shows his hand again, revealing how he feels about those who accuse the reformed of reading scripture improperly. Here Calvin says,

 

Now I think I have made my point, that to sane and upright men, the slanders of our enemies are loathsome when they broadcast that we discredit Christ’s words, which we embrace no less obediently than they, and treat with greater reverence… our examination of the matter ought to be a witness of how much Christ’s authority means to us. (1387-8)

Later on he says that his opponents imbue the “simpleminded with the notion that we discredit Christ’s words, when we have actually proved that they madly pervert and confound them but that we faithfully and rightly expound them.” This passage reveals something important about Calvin’s Eucharistic theology, namely, that a faithful reading of scripture is at the forefront of his mind when doing Eucharistic theology. Knowing Calvin, this should come as no surprise. However, this observation has far-reaching practical implications beyond the Eucharist. In Calvin’s mind the authority of Christ comes to us through scripture, and to read scripture in a way other than it was intended to be read discredits Christ’s authority. To read allegorically or to add to scripture diminishes the authority of Christ, which is something Calvin is loathe to do.

Another one of Calvin’s concerns is also related to Christological features, not necessarily Christ’s authority, but the metaphysics of Christ’s presence. Concern with the metaphysics of the Eucharist would seem to be a theoretical concern rather than a lords-supper1practical one, but it is eminently practical, for the very gospel hinges upon it. The metaphysical issue Calvin is concerned with is the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ. The Lutherans, according to Calvin, want to enclose Christ under the bread, and “to meet this necessity they have introduced the monstrous notion of ubiquity.” (1401) Calvin counters this “monstrous notion of ubiquity” by showing from Scripture that Christ’s body is circumscribed by the measure of a human body, thus he is not in all places. (1401) We may read this as another battle over Scriptural authority, however it is much more than this.[1] According to Calvin, the doctrine of ubiquity (which is grounded in Eucharistic theology) is “plainly in conflict with a nature truly human.” This has profound soteriological implications. If Christ does not have the same sort of human nature that we have how can we say that Christ took on our “true flesh,” suffered in our “true flesh” and also took up that same “true flesh” in his resurrection and brought it up to heaven? (1399) To say that Christ has a different sort of flesh than our own undermines the vicarious work of Christ for us; it also undermines our eschatological hope. As Calvin says, “how weak and fragile that hope would be, if this very flesh of ours has not truly been raised in Christ, and had not entered into the kingdom of God.” (1400)

The final theoretical agenda (if we can call it that) in Calvin’s Eucharistic theology is ecclesiological. In a famous passage in which Calvin argues that participation in the Eucharist makes all who partake  participants in the one body of Christ, Calvin explains how the nature of bread shows us that this is so. He explains that just as bread is made of many grains so that one cannot be distinguished from the other, it is the case that the body of Christ (i.e. the church) is joined and bound together so that “no sort of disagreement or division may intrude.” (1415) This has profound implications for local congregations. In fact, Calvin highlights this, saying that we cannot injure, despise, reject, abuse or offend other believers and not do the same to Christ; we cannot love Christ without loving other believers, and we cannot give ourselves to Christ without give ourselves to one another. However, these ecclesiological implications go beyond the local congregation (though Calvin certainly had local concerns in mind), and the call to unity is a call for the universal church to live in a united manner. This is a matter that seems to be understood across the reformation as a whole. Most efforts that were made to encourage unity throughout the magisterial reformation revolved around the Eucharist. For instance, consider Wolfgang Musculus’s writings on the Eucharist. Craig Farmer argues that substance of Musculus’s Eucharistic theology (i.e. the notion of an exhibitive presence) remains relatively stable, but that he was willing to abandon certain controversial terms in making efforts towards finding a middle ground between Wittenberg and Zurich. (Farmer, 310). Similarly, throughout they years Calvin, makes adjustments to his Eucharistic theology in order to promote Eucharistic concord. According to Wim Janse one would not realize this simply by reading the 1559 Institutes. (Janse, 37) In his article “Calvin’s Eucharistic Theology: Three Dogma-Historical Observations” Janse argues that Calvn’s development of his Eucharistic theology goes through Zwinglian, Lutheran, and spiritualizing phases. The source of these changes came from his desire to find consensus. Thus in Calvin’s development of Eucharistic theology we see a series of compromises and conciliatory formulations. (Janse, 40) Not only do we see his goal of church unity through the Eucharist manifested in his theological development, we see in his actions, for instance the signing of the Augsburg Variata and the Consensus Tigurinus, as well as his cultivation of relationship with Melanchthon.

Calvin’s practical theology of the Eucharist extends far beyond typical “practical” concerns. His Eucharistic theology has far reaching implications for how scripture is read, how the gospel is understood, and how the church expresses its unity. Given that these are not the typical concerns of many practical theologians today, those doing practical theology would do well to pay attention to how Calvin’s “theoretical” theology does not lend itself to the tidy separation between theoretical and practical theology.


[1] For instance, see where Calvin says “They cannot show a syllable from Scripture by which to prove that Christ is invisible.” (1398)

 

John Calvin on the Benefits of Baptism

A century after his death, William Poole excluded Calvin from his 1669 Synopsis Criticorum because supposedly Calvin was overly practical. Although in some ways Poole was off the mark with this critique, there is some truth in Calvin’s reputation as a pastor, primarily concerned with practical matters.  Calvin’s practical and pastoral concerns emerge in his doctrine of baptism — specifically, as we will see, in and around two loci: the benefits of baptism for the Christian life and the benefit of baptism in the face of death. baptism

Calvin begins his discussion of baptism by defining it as “the sign of initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children.” The fact that his first line in the baptism chapter begins by speaking of the communal benefits of salvation seems to indicate that the “means of grace” aspect of this sacrament is secondary. However, he counters this possibility when he says that it is given to believers “first, to serve our faith before him,” and second, “to serve our confession before men.” (Calvin, 1304) Thus in explaining the reasons we are given baptism he places the “means of grace” aspect first. This is followed  by discussion of three ways in which God’s grace is manifested to us through this particular sacrament.[1]

The first way baptism serves as a means of grace for believers is that it gives them proof that they are cleansed of their sins. Their sins are “abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his (God’s) sight, be recalled or charged against us.” (Calvin, 1304). As a sacrament, baptism does not actually cleanse believers of their sin; rather it gives certainty and knowledge of the fact that believers have been given this gift. In other words, baptism gives the believer assurance of the fact that they are cleansed of their sins. Anyone who serves in some pastoral capacity knows that a lack of assurance of salvation and forgiveness is a common issue among parishioners. One way people deal with this lack of assurance is by attempting to make penance for their sins. Calvin mentions this problem as well.  In Calvin’s context, as opposed to our current protestant context, some attempted to get assurance through the “fictitious sacrament of penance.” Baptism provides assurance that penance cannot. Calvin says, “there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their fault, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood.” (Calvin, 1307) Thus baptism serves as a means of assuaging guilty consciences which in turn may doubt the assurance of their forgiveness.

A second pastoral concern, not unique to Calvin by any means, is that Christians quite often fail to live in such a way that shows they are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. In other words, Christian tend to slip back into carnal ways of thinking and living rather than Spiritual ways of living. Christians can fall back into sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, range, malice, slander, and idolatry. In other words, they fail to put to death whatever belongs to their earthly nature.[2] How does Calvin address this pastoral problem? By arguing that baptism shows us the reality of our mortification in Christ, and our new life in him. (Calvin, 1307) In being baptized we are baptized in his death, but we are also “aroused to righteousness by example of his resurrection.” Thus baptism acts as a sign of the reality in which the Christian’s sinful nature has been put to death in Christ, and that they have been raised to life in righteousness. The reminder of mortification helps believers know that despite their sins, which give them so much trouble, they ought not cease to struggle, to have courage, and to spur on to full victory. (Calvin, 1312). It reminds struggling believers that the mortification of their sin will one day day be fully accomplished.

Thirdly, baptism acts as a token of our union with Christ. In virtue of being united to Christ, Christians have all the benefits which are necessary and sufficient for living out the Christian life. According to Calvin in baptism we are “so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings.” (Calvin, 1307) Christians are told they are children of God, they are cleansed by his blood, they have a mediator, regeneration, resurrection, sanctification, and the righteousness of Christ.

Thus far we have seen the “means of grace” type benefits of baptism. These pastoral benefits Calvin addresses are in line with his belief that the sacraments are given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith. Baptism, which is received “from the hand of the Author himself” is given to Christians as a gift which will help them life which is pleasing to God.

In addition to stressing that baptism arouses, nourishes, and confirms God’s grace to believers, there is another pastoral element in Calvin’s baptismal theology. This appears in how he addresses what he takes to be wrong teachings about infant baptism. In this regard, Karen Spierling[3] does much to shed light upon what caused the rise of these teachings.

Spierling explains that baptism in Roman Catholic theology baptism was the rite by which an infant “was freed from evil spirits, purified of original sin, and sanctified in God’s promise of salvation through Christ.” (Spierling, 65) Given the high infant morality rate and theology which said that if a child had not been purified of original sin through baptism they would not receive salvation, one can imagine parent’s concern for ensuring that their child be baptized no matter what. Naturally, parents were worried about the fate of the soul of their child. For their child to miss baptism understandably brought much anxiety. For this reason, emergency baptisms were often performed by midwives when they believed the child would not survive before being baptized in the church. There were even instances of “resuscitation” that occurred in order that children who died before baptism could be baptized and thus “saved.” (Spierling, 79-80).

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Given the fact that Roman Catholic theology about infant baptism was deeply ingrained into the minds of Christians who became reformed, its not surprising to hear that emergency baptisms continued in reformed and Lutheran cities. Spierling notes that in some areas, like Scotland, leaders allowed for the gradual adoption of “more thoroughgoing protestant doctrine” by allowing the “solace of emergency baptism” without “explicitly granting its theological underpinning.” (Spierling, 78) Calvin, however, was not so accommodating. He vehemently opposed the Roman Catholic understanding of infant baptism. Many of the reasons why he did so were pastoral. First, emergency infant baptism (not to mention resuscitating baptism) represented a reversion into the error of separating word from sacrament. In Calvin’s opinion, separating word from sacrament led to superstitious practices. Calvin wanted to avoid superstitious practices because people tended to put their trust in those practices rather than in Christ. Second, Calvin wanted to counteract the anxiety that Roman Catholic theology of baptism potentially brought to parents. In fact, Calvin believed that the reformed doctrine had greater potential to give parents confidence that their dead infant was saved. Spierling argues that “Calvin was not, however, so callous as to want to leave parents thinking that an infant who died unbaptized would be stuck in limbo or refused salvation. Instead he argued that baptism was important as a sacrament, yet not vital to salvation.” (70) Calvin declares that God adopts the babies of believers before they are born, thus parents of believers could be saved if the parents themselves were saved. This was supposed to assuage the anxiety suffered by parents whose children died unbaptized. Whether or not it actually provided comforting assurance to parents is questionable, nevertheless it was supposed to fulfill this pastoral function.

Confirming the fact that Calvin was truly a practical theologian we have seen that Calvin’s theology of baptism was intended fulfill the pastoral functions of encouraging believers, both in their Christian life and in the face of the death of their children. Whether Calvin’s theology accomplished this end in Geneva is questionable. Nevertheless, we can say at the heart of his baptismal theology was the notion that God has given the church this sacrament for the sake of its benefit.


[1] Concerning sacraments in general Calvin says, “They do not bestow any grace of themselves, but announce and tell us, and (as they are guarantees and tokens) ratify among us, those thing given us by divine bounty.” (Calvin, 1293)

[2] See Colossians 3:5-11.

[3] See Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva, WJK 2005.

Reviews of Calvin’s Ladder

A varied cast of characters has taken interest in Julie Canlis’s Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. This book has caught the attention, in the form of reviews, of church historians, philosophers, and pastors. Those writing from the perspective of these vocations have all noticed strengths and weaknesses in Canlis’s book which are unique to their perspective. In this brief “review of reviews” I would like to highlight some of the features which make up these reviews and provide some comments on the merits of these assessments.

The first set of reviews consists of reviews by church historians. I began by 51nsdxz0m4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_examining a booknote by Tony Lane, professor of Historical Theology at the London School, in a 2012 edition of Evangelical Quarterly (EQ 84.3, 280-1). He begins by noting that this book was birthed out of Canlis’ doctoral studies at St. Andrew’s and that it received the 2007 Templeton Award for Theological Promise. He lavishes praise upon the book when he says “it is easy to understand why” it won this award. His review of this book is relatively short. He notes that ascent of the soul is a concept generally greeted with suspicion in the Reformed tradition, but that Calvin has essentially “reformed” it from its Platonic and Neo-Platonic tendencies. He also mentions her comparison between Calvin’s doctrine and Irenaeus’s doctrine. He commends her for restraint in not citing direct influence, but wonders whether tracing out Irenaeus’s influence on Calvin would be an interesting topic for future study. In terms of critique, Lane rightly notes that “there is occasionally a tendency in her exposition of participation to swallow up other categories of Calvin’s thought.” This is a critique which appears in several other reviews as well. However, one might wonder, “If participation is the central theological theme of Calvin wouldn’t it make sense for all other categories to fall under this one category?” In order for this sort of defense to stick, however, one would have to prove that participation is Calvin’s central theme. The other review I examined was written by Sujin Pak, who is now the Assistant Research Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity school. Her review of Calvin’s Ladder can be found in Modern Theology (MT 27.4, 717-20). She begins by noting the trend in Calvin studies to focus on Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and participation in Christ and says that Canlis now adds an important and eloquent contribution to this topic. Like Lane she notes how Canlis persuasively shows that Calvin reforms the traditional theologies of Ascent. Despite being persuaded regarding ascent, Pak displays some hesitancy regarding Canlis’s understanding of Calvin’s theology of participation. She notes that it might not be as important as Canlis has made it out to be. She cites the fact that Calvin does not clearly make the connection between participation and election as evidence that it may not be as central as Canlis makes it out to be. She also wonders whether Canlis overlooks the forensic nature of participation in Calvin. As a minor point of critique Pak points out that Canlis doesn’t address commentaries on key passages that evoke participator themes, for example Romans 8. Despite these shortcomings she sees Calvin’s Ladder as a generally persuasive and eloquent rereading of Calvin’s understanding of salvation and sanctification. Of these two critiques by church historians one would expect significant attention to be paid to the historical claims Canlis makes, however both of these reviews are lacking in this area. Lane’s review completely lacks this feature, though he might be excused given the length of his review. Pak’s critique from a historical perspective is limited to her suggestion that Canlis should have read other texts. Neither critique is historically significant. One would expect more from church historians.

The second type of review I examined was written by a professor who holds a position at Baylor as assistant professor of Religion and Philosophy. Charles Raith, whose review of Calvin’s Ladder appears in the International Journal of Systematic Theology (IJST 15.2, 233-5), has written various works on Calvin and participation, thus he seems to be an appropriate person to review this book. Like many others Raith notes the similarities to Billings’ work on participation. Raith focuses on Canlis’ account of Calvin’s relational ontology. For Canlis, the soul’s ascent is rooted firmly in a relational ontology, which is rather different from traditional accounts which are rooted in a substantialist ontology. Raith notes that she also makes a case for a relational ontology in the works of Irenaeus.

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Julie Canlis, author of Calvin’s Ladder, is currently a lecturer at Regent College.

Although Raith appreciates Canlis’s work in showing that God desires to draw humanity to himself, Raith questions Canlis’ understanding of Calvin’s teaching on participation. He believes that Canlis has squeezed Calvin into the contemporary ideas within social Trinitarianism of “personhood” and “relational ontology.” He says that one gets the feeling Canlis has “left the sixteenth century building and entered into contemporary debates about person.” In doing so, Canlis has promoted “a major ontological shift in the name of Calvin.” He concludes his review by saying, “Canlis’s imposition of current trends in relational ontology and personhood onto Calvin’s thought, and the claims that result, raise some concerns.” This seems to be an understatement given the rest of his critique of Canlis’ book. It should be said that Raith’s critique has some merit, Canlis certainly uses relational language which may not be as prominent in Calvin’s own work, however Canlis is certainly not squeezing Calvin into social Trinitarian ideas of personhood and relational ontology. The reasons I say this is that Canlis’ account of participation in Christ and union with the divine life of the Trinity is heavily influenced by the theology of T.F Torrance (though she is not very explicit about this.) Torrance is by no means a social Trinitarian. Torrance also never proposes that the ontological category personhood is grounded in relationship (as Zizioulas and other social Trinitarians do). Read in light of Torrancian theology one can make sense of her statements regarding the Trinity and ontology without accusing her of falling into contemporary categories put forth by social Trinitarians.

The third type of review I examined was a review written by pastor Jamin Coggin in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (4.2, 316-8). Jamin currently serves as the pastor of spiritual formation and retreats at Saddleback Church. He begins by noting Canlis’ vision for the book which is “concerned with a story line that has always been at the heart of Christian mystical theology and spiritual praxis: the ascent of the soul.” He believes that Canlis has done a fine job of articulating a clear theology of participation in the Triune life of God from a distinctly Reformed perspective. She does a fine job of showing how Calvin avoided the ever prevalent Hellenistic schemas of ascent and has placed Christ at the center of the believer’s ascent into the life of God. Taking the perspective of a pastor, Coggin notes that her book offers fodder for reshaping spiritual formation in a more theologically robust way. He commends the book for avoiding the tendency of books on spiritual formation to be overly practice oriented and not sufficiently grounded in theology. He critiques the book for not engaging with Bonaventure’s theology of ascent and not devoting sufficient attention to the topics of prayer and spirituality.  Throughout his critique of Calvin’s Ladder, one can see his pastoral colors emerge. Coggin is concerned about spiritual formation and Christian practices. He reads Canlis’ book in light of how helpful it will be for the work of pastors. He concludes that it will in fact be a very helpful resource for accomplishing the pastoral task.

Having briefly looked at three types of reviews, those written by historians, a philosophical theologian, and a pastor, several common themes emerge. The first is that Canlis has done a service to the church by adequately showing that Calvin’s spirituality can be understood as being rooted in participation in Christ. Historians, theologians, and pastors commend her for showing that a theology of ascent is actually a part of the Reformed Tradition. A common critique of her work is that she failed to address the reviewer’s field of expertise, i.e. she should have engaged x or y work. This is not a substantial criticism. However more substantial than this criticism is the critique that Canlis has molded Calvin in her own image, i.e. a 21st century theologian working in a highly relational/social Trinitarian context. The way Lane articulates this critique is quite tempered, whereas Raith’s articulation of this critique is more forceful. However, I have shown that Raith’s critique may be a bit too strong.

When reviewing a book like Canlis’s, which toes the line between history/theology/praxis, it is helpful to have a multitude of voices and disciplines weigh in. Hopefully this review of reviews has helped to highlight the multifaceted contributions that Calvin’s Ladder can make to various fields of study.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension

The church is no stranger to theologies of ascent. Julie Canlis, lecturer at Regent College, suggests that Calvin’s voice ought to join the chorus of such theologies. In Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, Canlis argues that Calvin’s voice isn’t drowned out in this chorus but that it sticks out for various reasons, the primary reason being that his theology of ascent is grounded in the concept of participation in Christ.

Canlis suggests that Calvin’s understanding of Christian piety ought to be understood through the concept of Trinitarian koinonia. This koinonia begins with Christ. Christ makes 51nsdxz0m4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_a double movement, that of descent and ascent. In Christ God has come as man to humanity to stand in our place and as man Christ leads us back to the Father. According to Canlis, “The entire Christian life is an outworking of this ascent – the appropriate response to God’s descent to us – that has already taken place in Christ.” (3)  Whether one is talking about desire for God, prayer, obedience, vocation, or worship, or ascent, all has been accomplished for humanity vicariously through Christ. Canlis devotes six chapters to unpacking Calvin’s understanding of this vicarious ascent in Christ.

She begins with a survey of various theologies of ascent, including the works of Plato, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas. These thinkers all tell the story of humanity’s self-empowered (though sometimes assisted by grace) journey towards the divine, in which the individual is the primary agent of ascent. Calvin breaks the mold, making Christ the primary agent of ascent:  ascent is not something that fallen humanity does, rather it is something that humans participate in.

She expands upon the theme of participation by beginning with creation. creation’s existence is infused with relationality. In fact, “Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains.” (54) However, humanity has exchanged communion for independence. This is the essence of sin. The solution to the problem of sin would be to reestablish humanity’s existence in communion with God.

Following the chapter on creation, Canlis devotes a chapter to exploring how Christ’s double movement of descent and ascent addresses the problems of fallen humanity. The Son descends fully into humanity, in order that humanity may participate in him. He then ascends, taking humanity up into participation in God’s own life. How is this participation applied to humans? Her fourth chapter is devoted to showing that the appropriation of Christ’s ascent happens through union with Christ, which is enacted by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit not only makes that union objectively true, but the Spirit’s actions in the Lord’s Supper is also the means of grounding and reconstituting that union. (171) The Lord’s Supper is the concretization of the relationship of union and ascent between Christ and Christians.

The fifth chapter is devoted to putting Calvin in conversation with Irenaeus. She argues that neither Calvin nor Irenaeus presents a picture of participation in Christ as something in which humans become less than fully human; rather, through participation in the divine life, humans experience a more deeply human reality. She doesn’t argue for Irenaeus’ direct influence upon Calvin, but notes that there are many important similarities.

Canlis’ final chapter is dedicated to unpacking the implications of the idea that for Calvin “ascent was not ascent of the individual soul but humanity’s participation in the triune communion” which is opened up by Jesus’ ascent. (230) She suggests that Calvin’s theology might have much to contribute to ecumenical dialogue, that it might provide a robust pneumatology that has normally been lacking in Reformed theology, and it might serve as an antidote to the individualistic and reductionistic spirituality so prevalent in our day.

There is much to appreciate in this book. Canlis does a fine job of showing that the concept of mystical ascent into the life of God need not be foreign to Reformed Christianity. Simultaneously, she shows that Calvin’s theology makes a unique contribution to this strand of Christian spirituality. She has also done a fine job in showing how important participation in Christ is to the rest of Calvin’s theology. Calvin’s doctrines of creation, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, the Trinity, and Eschatology cannot be understood apart from the concept of participation.

To say that Canlis has succeeded in these areas is not to say the book does not have its shortcomings. First, one might wonder whether her understanding of the Christian life is too individualistic. Yes, the Christian life might be grounded in participation in Christ, but her interpretation of Calvin on this point does not require that a Christian be in communion with other Christians. The topic of communion with other Christians is surprisingly absent in her discussion of the Lord’s Supper. Second, we may wonder why Canlis doesn’t do more to address her indebtedness to Torranceian theology. Her understanding of the descent/ascent, vicarious humanity of Christ, and grace are explicitly Torranceian. Torrance’s reading of these concepts in Calvin are rather controversial (to say the least), yet she does not address this controversy at any point.

Despite these shortcomings,  Canlis ought to be commended for writing a book that makes an important contribution to mystical spirituality from a distinctly reformed position.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension by Julie Canlis (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), xii + 286 pp.