Friday, February 19, 2010

When Calvin is read in a balanced way he is balanced in what he says

Can we do Catholic one day and then Calvin the next? Yes, we can. The pursuit of the truth has no fear of whence it is penned and preached! Gerald Bray is one of the most luminous minds in the Anglican Communion. His editorials in The Churchman are a thing of beauty to behold: he writes like the wind and serves up substance in a delectable manner. If I might note one slight tendency, unfortunate in my eyes, it is to regularly include a sideswipe at N.T. Wright. This latest editorial is no exception, whether considered from the angle of style, substance, or sideswipe. It is entitled 'Living the legacy' and is a reflection on the true greatness of Calvin, whose 500th birthday was celebrated last year.

Bray writes as a sympathetic scholar of Calvin. Alert to the extremities of positions taken by some Calvinists, he offers us a balanced reading of Calvin's writings. Calvin on this reading is not just a balanced theologian, but seen properly as the truly great theologian he is. Here is the briefest of excerpts:

"Calvin’s importance for us today lies in the fact that he realised more clearly than most have done that there are three pillars of Christian teaching that must be distinguished, developed and kept in the right balance. The first of these pillars is biblical exegesis, the theme of his many commentaries. The Bible is the source of Christian doctrine and must therefore be studied carefully and consistently. It is no good reading only parts of it or interpreting some things in it in a way that makes them contradict other statements. Nor is it true that everything is of equal value in every circumstance, regardless of the context. Without good exegesis, it is possible to have a developed systematic theology and even a comprehensive pastoral practice (as Roman Catholics do) but the foundation of these is insecure. Today, the study of the Bible has progressed in ways that Calvin could not have imagined, but the task of the exegete remains as significant now as it ever was. The sad fact is that much of what passes for exegesis today is little more than special pleading for one cause or another."

Along the way of this editorial, Gerald Bray makes the excellent, often overlooked and therefore misunderstood point that, Anglican theology represented in the Thirty Nine Articles is more Calvinist than we care to admit. He goes on to stress that the true development of Anglicanism did not therefore mean we should have become Puritan. Whitgift, he notes, was a Calvinist all the twenty years he was Elizabeth's ABC, and implacably opposed to Puritanism!

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