The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition

By Richard A. Muller | Go to book overview

The positive, promising shift in Calvin historiography is a movement, evidenced among historians of ideas as well as among social and political historians, away from the dogmatically motivated study of Calvin's theology and from the related assumption that the primary purpose of an exposition of Calvin's doctrine is to provide a significant point of departure for contemporary theologizing. The other direction, into the labyrinth, moves away from the Barthian approach only to offer alternative modernisms as grids through which to read Calvin's work: thus, it is variously argued that Calvin should be read through a Schleiermacherian, or a “sapiential, ” or an existential and psychologizing glass; or perhaps his foundation in Renaissance rhetoric should be used to draw him into dialogue with twentieth-century theologies in which rhetorical webs of language have replaced objective theological substance.

It is my hope in the present volume to underline the importance of an examination of Calvin's ideas in their sixteenth-century context and, as part of a movement away from various dogmatic readings of Calvin, to emphasize the importance of understanding Calvin's methods and procedures as a point of departure for understanding his thought. Over against such contemporary oxymorons as “postmodern” and “deconstructionist historiography”—and equally against the systematic theologians who, long before “postmodern” and “deconstructionist” became terms in our vocabulary, practiced their trade of deconstructing texts in the name of their own theological program— the plea for an “unaccommodated Calvin” embraces the intransigence and irreducibility of the historical text. The past is not, of course, totally recoverable. In our search for the historical Calvin, we are burdened by numerous layers of interpretive accretion (not the least of which is the apparatus of modern critical editions and the translations based on them) and by irrecoverable gaps in our documentation—but Calvin's text itself and the express statements that Calvin made about the nature, content, method, and arrangement of his work are still available for us to examine. And where there is text, there is hope.

In the context of this last sentiment, some comment must be made concerning the texts consulted. I have tried, as far as possible, to cite the text of Calvin's Institutes from the sixteenth-century editions. Throughout the volume, all subsequent short references to the sixteenth-century editions offer both a short title form and the date of the edition cited. Thus, the Latin text of the Institutes is cited, example, as Institutio (1539) or Institutio (1550); the French text as Institution (1541) or Institution (1560). Whereas the notes consistently provide the Latin or French titles of Calvin's works, I have consistently used English titles in the main text of the essay. I have also, for the convenience of those who do not have access to the sixteenth-century editions, made regular reference to the Calvini Opera (identified as CO)inthe Corpus Reformatorum, and I have offered collateral citation of the 1559 edition of the Institutes where no modern edition of the text is available. I have also used the Corpus Reformatorum (identified as CR) for the citation of Melanchthon's writings. For reasons that will be apparent from the argument of the following work, particularly as found in chapters 4, 6, and 8, much of my analysis of Calvin's methods and thought patterns rests on sixteenth-century editions of his writings: this is particularly true in the case of the Institutes. For the same reasons, I have not relied on the Barth/Niesel Opera selecta unless it offers a text not easily accessible elsewhere. As my apparatus indicates, a considerable number of editions of the

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