Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas and New Year Special - Back to the Story: Publication and Translation

The Institutes of 1536 contained six chapters and then the next version of 1539 had seventeen chapters.  This version had greatly increased the number of quotations from Augustine, Origen, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca and so too the references to the Bible.  By this time Calvin sees the work as a text book to be used in “the preparation of candidates for the reading of the divine word”.  Calvin began to translate the Institutes from Latin into French whilst undertaking re-ordering of the church in Geneva. No French translation survives except for the edition of 1541-this was Calvin’s own translation of the 1539 edition.  Modern readers of the institutes often claim that earlier versions of the Institutes were less laborious, less controversial and more pleasing to read than then later ones.  Calvin viewed the 1559 version as the complete and most authoritative one.  It is entitled

Institute of the Christian Religion now first arranged in four books and divided by definite headings in a very convenient way; also enlarged by so much added matter that it can be regarded as a new work.  The edition bore the olive branch, Calvin’s symbol of his work.  Gradually the institutes began to be translated into other languages.  The 1536 text was translated into Spanish by Francisco Enzinas, a friend of Melanchthon, one of Cranmer’s proteges and a correspondent of Calvin who was a New Testament translator and scholar.  In 1557 an Italian translation was produced by Giulio Cesari Pascali for the use of the Italian refugee church in Geneva.

The first English translation was produced in 1561 and was followed by two more.  The preface to the third English edition is appended with the name Thomas Norton.  Thomas Norton was a law student who together with one of his fellow students had produced a gory play entitled  “The Tragedy of Gorbuduc”  He was an advocate of Puritan measures within the church and had spent time in prison for criticising the bishops.  He married the daughter of Thomas Cranmer and participated in the trails of Roman Catholics, especially those implicated in the rebellion of 1569.

Norton tackled the translation with great fidelity although he is sometimes criticised for preserving Latin forms and idiom with too much zeal.  The last edition of Norton’s translation was produced in 1634 and each translation was an effort to keep up to date with changes in the language of the time.

After 1634 there were no new English translations until the one produced by John Allen in 1813.  This was followed in 1845 by Henry Bevereidge’s version.

Think about the stages in the publication of the Institutes and in their translation into other languages.  Is there a modern day comparison that would be valid or are most publications just produced and reproduced without adjustment or modification?  What would have happened to a text like the Institutes in our pluralistic age today? Would it be a best seller? Or a text book?  Would it be regarded as a dangerous volume promoting radical thought amongst its readers?

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Chapter III The knowledge of God has been naturally implanted in the minds of men

1.       The character of this natural endowment

Calvin believes that in the human mind there is a natural awareness of divinity that has been planted there by God Himself.  As a progression from this human beings condemn themselves if they fail “to honour him and consecrate their lives to do His will”.  Any nation that does not honour God is therefore barbarous.  This is in agreement with the presupposition of Cicero in “On the nature of gods”  believing in a “sense of deity  inscribed in the hearts of all”.

The establishment of this comes through idolatry: for Calvin human beings prefer to worship wood and stone rather than admit or think that there is any god at all.  Thus Calvin believes that placing other creatures above themselves and turning them into gods is an unwilling human action.  Could this still be true today?  There are many who place other things far above any notion of god –could this be trying to hide from the knowledge of God that is naturally implanted?

May be the knowledge of God is so suppressed that it finds its way into aggression towards God and towards his representatives here on earth –those who actually do believe in Him?  Calvin believes it is impossible to erase the knowledge of God that is implanted in us: is that true for you?

Most people have moments of doubt: what brings you back to acknowledging God’s presence deep inside you?

Saturday, 14 November 2015

2. Knowledge of God involves trust and reverence

“What is God? Men who pose this question are merely  toying with idle speculations.  It is more important for us to know what sort he is and what is consistent with his nature”

Calvin believes that knowledge of God should teach us fear and reverence and that we should learn that we owe our lives to God.  Could it be that our twenty first century world has overlooked this aspect for so many of us think we owe out lives to technology or medicine or some combination thereof?  Calvin suggests that it is our depravity that stops us from seeking God and then goes on to describe what he calls the “pious mind”.

In this he means that the Christian mind should not be trying to “dream up any god it pleases”.  Is that the mistake of the secular world –we are free to dream up gods of money, football, celebrity and the like/ but the Church is not immune: the language of secular culture is often imported in the Church. The language of God does not sit comfortably with our politically correct world. For Calvin contends that the “pious mind” sees God as a righteous judge armed with the severity to punish wickedness”.  Such a mind can accept there will be judgment but that those who love and revere God do not need to live in fear and dread.

From this section Calvin concludes that real religion involves faith and earnest fear of God.  From  this religion comes legitimate worship.  But Calvin warns those of us to do recognise and worship God saying that if there is “great ostentation in ceremonies” then sincerity of heart is rare indeed”. Where do you see evidence of this as you look around day by day? –In wider society, in Church life or in both?

Monday, 12 October 2015

What was in the news when Calvin began writing the Institutes?

It all started when Calvin’s friend Nicolas Cop was the Rector of the University of Paris.  He gave an address that was received as Protestant in tone in 1533. This was dynamite in a Catholic country, bruised by the start of the Protestant Reformation.  In 1534 having fled Paris Calvin went to Noyon, he broke off relations with the unreformed church and clergy and became a passionate advocate of the Protestant cause.  By 1535 when Calvin went to Basel the first manuscript of the Institutes was under way.  Many Protestants were fleeing from persecution in France. This had been exacerbated due to the circulation of a hand bill detailing criticism on the Mass in October 1534 that reached many public buildings and was reported to have reached the King’s bed chamber.

This action incensed the King, Francis 1 and it became known as the incident of the Placards.  Suspects were imprisoned and burned.  Against this back drop Calvin had fled seeking “ a quiet hiding place” in his home country.  Through his writing he wanted to help others suffering as Protestants. The king of France tried  to stop the advance of Protestant thinking by banning all printing.  There was also an attempt to negotiate with Melanchthon and Bucer (two Lutheran reformers)which bore no fruit.

On the Protestant fringe the cause now included the Anabaptist revolutionaries in Munster, a siege that was mercilessly crushed in June 1535.  Calvin had hope to produce the first edition of the Institutes for the Frankfurt autumn fair of 1535 but delays meant that it was eventually published in March 1536.

The title may well be attempt at reconciliation in a polarised Christian environment: The Institute of the Christian Religion containing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the Doctrine of Salvation. A work very well worth reading by all persons  zealous for piety and lately published.  A preface to the most Christian King of France in which this book is presented to him as a confession of faith.  Author John Calvin of Noyon.  Basel MDXXXVI.

If you were Calvin would you have gone ahead with printing?

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Chapter II What it is to know God and to what purpose the knowledge of Him tends

Piety is the requisite for the knowledge of God

What does the twenty first century mind think of when the word piety is mentioned ? Some sort of sentimental religiosity, something to do with monks and nuns/  if we consult the Oxford English Dictionary then the definition we find is “devout, religious, hypocritically virtuous, dutiful”.  In the second chapter of the Institutes Calvin begins to explore the knowledge of God and suggests that Piety is necessary for such knowledge.  Can this be true for us today?  Can God be known where there is no piety?

Some people today would say that they know God every time they see creation- the beauty of a sunset, the intricacy of an orchid, the colour of a kingfisher.  But Calvin would argue that the revelation of God in creation is only a basis for a sound natural theology if the first man, Adam had remained without sin and so Calvin contends that we cannot know God “until Christ the mediator comes forward to reconcile Him to us”.  We may be capable of feeling God’s providence, his goodness and experience His blessings but it is something else to know “the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ”.

Two aspects of the character of God point to this:  1. The fashioning of the universe shows God as creator and 2. The face of Christ shows Him as redeemer.  We cannot apprehend God until we honour these features of His constitution.  He sustains, regulates, preserves and rules the universe.  It is in this that piety is to be located: no wisdom or light exists that does not come from Him and we will not acknowledge him “unless we establish complete happiness in Him”

By Calvin’s definition of piety then it is certainly necessary to know God. The modern definition is more likely to lead us away from God – would you agree?  For someone who is hypocritically virtuous is unlikely to be giving glory to God in their lives, do you think?

Saturday, 15 August 2015

3. Man before God’s majesty

Are we never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of our lowly state until we have compared our self with God’s majesty?  Could this mean anything to those who are not Christian believers?  For many people their God is themselves, but yet ask many a non-Christian and you will find that they do see some overall plan or coherence in their life and some awareness of human frailty.

In this section Calvin it seems that Calvin is trying to illustrate how impoverished the human state is alongside the glory of God and he refers to places in the scriptures where God’s glory is manifested such as Isaiah 6:5 “for my eyes have seen the King the Lord of hosts” and Judges 6:22-23 “I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face”.  Then Calvin illustrates the depravity of human existence through such references as Job 13:28 “Man wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth eaten” and Job 7:5 “My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt”.

But just how great is the gap between human beings and God? So much that we should hide from God’s power? Isaiah 2:10 “Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord and from the glory of His majesty”.  Is modern science responsible for encouraging us to think that we can know God’s ways and do better?

Think about the power locked up in a thunderstorm or torrential rain shower: no human contingency can control it, we might think we can.  Possibly we can harness some aspects of it but control is not a possibility.  So does modern science inhibit our reading of Calvin, catching us in a dual bind:  (1) as humans we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have progressed beyond the need of God? And (2) we have forgotten how powerless we are in the face of God’s glory?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

2. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self

Is this a controversial statement for us in the twenty first century? Yes, for there are so many self help books trying to facilitate our perception of ourselves or trying to create a different self.  So is knowledge of God at best an unnecessary luxury for many people?

Would you count yourself as convinced of your “own unrighteousness, foulness, folly and impurity”?  Calvin uses looking at dark things and then at sun light as a way of contrasting what we think we are with the reality of our human frailty suggesting that we often flatter ourselves.  In what manner do you flatter yourself today? Is it in your relationship with money, power, sex or some other?

“What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness”

Could you apply this to the things you use to flatter yourself? We could think something is perfect but when we see God we see a glimpse of perfection so Calvin’s comment that “without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self” would appear timeless as true now as when he wrote it.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Calvin - not a designer but a thinker?

Blog on the Institutes of John Calvin. Can we gain a contemporary understanding?

The Blog is not a detailed exegesis but designed to stimulate thought and reflection on the relevance of John Calvin’s Theology to Church Life and wider society today.  Can volumes written over four hundred years ago in a different culture (both spiritual and secular) tell us anything about how to live as a disciple of Christ today?  Each section of the Institutes will be studied and I will supply a reflection to provoke thought and interaction about the meaning of Calvin’s work today.

Book 1 The Knowledge of God the Creator

1.      The knowledge of God and that of ourselves are connected. How they are interrelated.

Calvin writes “In the first place no one can look upon himself without turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God in whom he “lives and moves”

In a world where self esteem, especially among young people is low then does this sentence have any relevance.  For most would not contemplate God but do think about other things: appearance: both virtual and real, cars, houses, material possessions and relationships.  Is it deliberate that Calvin speaks of contemplation of God?

Can awareness of God only increase when some life changing event is hurled at us so that “each of us must then be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain some knowledge of God”?  In such a place where does the knowledge of God come from?  Is it solely from experience apart from the very few who are reading the Scriptures?  Is this why so many seek new experiences through holiday destinations, extreme sports, thrills using drugs and sex.  Do any of these cause us to seek God? If none of them then does our own misery when they do not satisfy us bring us to seek God even if we do not acknowledge Him?  Should this be the case perhaps we are closer to John Calvin and his world than we had previously dared imagine?