Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 7 - Whose Calvin, Which Calvinism? John Calvin and the Development of Twentieth-Century American Theology

Chapter 6 review here. Chapter 5 review here. Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

Chapter 7 dovetails nicely with the preceding chapter's consideration of nineteenth-century Calvinistic theology in America, with many of David D. Hall's allusions for the twentieth-century fleshed out in this masterfully written article by Stephen D. Crocco, who provides the conclusion to the section on Calvin's influence on American Theology. In hindsight, Crocco's article is the standard by which the other two articles are plumbed and judged; each of the Theology articles were thoughtful, but Crocco's is exquisite, and much of my review will consist of lengthy quotations.

To begin. Crocco picks up where Hall concludes, denoting that there are many "readings" of John Calvin and his respective influence, hence, the title, Whose Calvin, Which Calvinism?, which we are told in an endnote is an allusion to Alasdair McIntyre's Whose Justice, Which Rationality? published in 1988. Crocco puts it like this:
There is simply no escaping the fact that, to one degree or another, Calvin "influenced" American Protestantism across virtually every theological spectrum imaginable, even traditions that were sustained in reaction against basic features of his thought. But questions of influence and development are notoriously complex and controversial. Put bluntly, one person's idea of influence and development is another person's plunge into apostasy or fundamentalism (165). 
 Crocco's article is structured threefold; the first division discusses those who discuss Calvin's influence on American theology, the second, which he says is "highly selective," considers those who discuss Calvin's legacy within the "context of the United States as a nation of immigrants," and the third, Crocco suggests a typological reading of Calvin as a "mountain dominating a theological landscape" (166).

In Calvin studies, particularly modern scholarship, there is a distinction between Calvin and Calvinism. Crocco provides adequate coverage of this distinction, highlighting works by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, R. T. Kendell, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1694, and Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists, and sets the stage for a round of important questions:
Any attempt to enlist Calvin into a modern theological program raises the questions: were additions to Calvin--the federalist view of the covenant or modern views of scripture--an extension or confirmation of what was important for Calvin, or were they parasitic accretions? Were the things  that were subtracted from Calvin for the twentieth-century--his views on civil government and double predestination and his anti-Romanist polemics--life-saving amputations, or did they drain the life blood of Calvin? . . . In the narratives behind all of these relationships [Augustine and the Augustinians, Edwards and the Edwardseans, Barth and the Barthians, Calvin and the Calvinists], there is considerable debate about what constitutes a tradition and, more particularly, what counts as progress or regression in it (167).
 Perhaps this dilemma might best be illustrated by the image of a person journeying on a road.  If a person is journeying on a road [the road is a reading of a person, like John Calvin, or a tradition derived/propagated from the writings and influence of said person], then what change in direction constitutes a departure from the road, that is, from the way the person was initially journeying? Or perhaps it is even more complicated than that; perhaps what constitutes a departure (progress or regression) for this person is simply traveling on the road differently. Perhaps now the person beings walking on the other side of the road. What does that imply? Is it a break from the tradition? or merely progress?

We see this type of dilemma frequently--doesn't matter what the topic is, it is evident even within intramural dialogue regarding video games (e.g., is Doctor Wario part of the Mario lineage? or a departure from that original 8-Bit NES greatness? But wait, is 8-Bit NES considered the genesis of Mario? or is that character rightly understood as having originated from the arcade console version of Donkey Kong?)

There certainly is "considerable debate" about what constitutes a tradition, which is why Crocco goes on to say that "in a number of conflicting cases" theologians, historians, economists, theorists, etc., try to "incorporate Calvin into their narratives," which leads to a "wax nose" type of Calvin--"The picture of a dozen or so Calvins sporting different noses is humorous but accurate" (167). Whose Calvin, Which Calvinism? Indeed.

Crocco is wise, noting  that "in addition to having a wax nose, Calvin is also a mirror that reflects the particular beliefs and agendas of those who claim him for their own" (169). It would seem, then, that how a person handles Calvin is a "tell" of what may be veiled or unveiled motives, sensibilities, presuppositions. Calvin wrote on a plethora of topics, and people frequently leverage him across a multitude of academic, spiritual, and political disciplines, and it is oftentimes the case that when people do so, rather than learning more about Calvin, we in fact learn more about the very persons discussing Calvin.

Perhaps one of the most captivating and fascinating parts of the article is Crocco's description of the Council of the Alliance of the Reformed Churches Holding the Presbyterian System in Philadelphia in 1880. Crocco describes and analyzes the imagery and symbolism displayed on the banners representing respective nationalities and theological heritages, ranging from "Bohemia and Moravia, England and Wales, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Spain," and points out the significance that "only two times Calvin was mentioned on a dozen banners"--Crocco concludes that this means that "Calvin was acknowledged as the great theologian behind these traditions. . . . [but] the banners showed that Calvin's influence was mediated [emphasis CCS] or related to particular communities and churches by people who had special historical or ecclesiastical connections to those communities" (171). Crocco continues:
The heroes of the faith of particular nations--figures such as Zacharias Ursinus and John Knox and creeds such as the Westminster Confession, the Synod of Dort, and the Heidelberg Confession--were the paths back to Calvin and the paths forward to the broader Reformed tradition. This patter--where Calvin is acknowledged as the great theologian of the Reformed tradition whose teachings were mediated both by indigenous influences and by subsequent theological development--is at the heart of his role in the development of American theology in the twentieth century just as it was in the nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
Thus Crocco shows that Reformed theology in America is best represented by a cacophony of  theological voices, albeit, voices that are harmonizing (for the most part) with Calvin, the mutually acknowledged great theologian of the Reformed tradition. It is important to note that at different times some of the voices had a more significant role and influence, e.g. "Until the early nineteenth century, American Protestantism was most heavily influenced by the Reformed traditions coming out of England and Scotland" (172), but we also see in different pockets across American influencing "undercurrents" from Holland, France, etc. Crocco provides surveys of this theological development, recounting the histories of the men and theologies who mediated Calvin, those variegated names and universities that have been associated with the differing Calvinistic camps in the American Reformed-landscape, e.g., Old Princeton, Neo-Calvinism, Christian Reconstructionism, etc.

Despite these intramural debates, and the many debates contended by theological liberals during the past 50 years, Calvin is still "lifted up as transformationist and associated with positive social change." However, Crocco adds, "To contend, as this chapter has done, that Calvin's role in American theology were largely mediated does not imply that they were entirely mediated." Calvin certainly was read. He was not merely received through said channels of mediation; Calvin's ideas were not always trafficked through the firewall of another author or tradition (that is, socially speaking, not at the presuppositional level that occurs within every person's private reading). Crocco lists the various published writings by Calvin that were available in America, specifically throughout the past century, and that it was especially during that century that Calvin was mediated anew by men like Karl Barth and H. Richard Neibuhr and Emil Brunner. And so Crocco closes:
Twentieth-century Protestant theologians inherited a landscape in which Calvin was in the air they breathed; he affected every horizon, and the bedrock of his thought was just below the surface of every step they took. To speak in terms of a landscape lends itself to a picture of Calvin as a mountain that dominates the geography. Images of Mount Hood (Calvin) looming above the city of Portland (American Theology) . . . Although theologians and ecclesiastical movements have grown accustomed to the inspiring, hospitable, and malleable character of his writings, history has shown that, 500 years after his birth, Calvin is still capable of pint to a God who resists all efforts to be domesticated by the church or academy. Perhaps Mount Hood's neighbor, Mount St. Helens, provides an apt metaphor of the power that can be unleashed when God decides to speak through his gifted and faithful servants (185-86).
My Thoughts: Masterfully written; excellent research and composition. Crocco's analysis and thought are fair and charitable (and I can only hope someday to write both as well and thoughtfully as he has in this chapter).

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