Thursday, July 09, 2009

Defense of My Critique of Calvin's "Institutes", in Reply to the Condemnations of Steve Hays

By Dave Armstrong (7-9-09)

From recent exchanges on an anti-Catholic board. Most of this was taken from a larger attempted dialogue. Anti-Catholic Reformed Polemicist Steve Hays' words will be in blue. He is objecting to posts which later became the basis of my book, Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin.

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4.Or, to approach the question from another angle, consider Armstrong’s running commentary on Calvin’s Institutes. What he apparently does is to sit down with his laptop, pull up an online copy of the Institutes, then type an interlinear commentary. Now, seriously, what are his qualifications to write a commentary on the Institutes? More generally, what qualifications would you need to write a commentary on the Institutes? For one thing, you’d need to know your way around the primary sources. A fluent command of Middle French and Neo-Latin. You’d also need to be conversant with the secondary literature on Calvin and 16C European church history in various modern languages, viz., French, German, Italian, Dutch. Not only does this require an easy command of the requisite languages, but access to a research library with the relevant primary and secondary literature. To write a competent commentary on the Institutes calls for a very specialized knowledge of Calvin’s life and background–as well as 16C European church history.

The question of who can comment on Calvin's Institutes is secondary [to our discussion on what an apologist is], and so I pass over it. Obviously, as I claimed, mine was simply a popular approach, not a scholarly one.

So if you toss in the “popular” disclaimer, you don’t have to be competent.

No; you have to be competent and informative on a popular level. It's distinct from a scholarly, academic level. Most folks would have no difficulty whatever distinguishing between the two, but for some reason you do. Different strokes. There is a thinking world beyond academia, believe it or not. Just because I don't know double Dutch and Middle English doesn't mean I can't think or critique Calvin or any other Protestant errors. Calvin is often so illogical, I am finding, that no particular training is needed to overcome his argumentation: just basic logic and a fair knowledge of the Bible (and I possess both of those).

Fine. So what qualifications would you need to write a competent commentary on the Institutes? A mastery of the primary and secondary literature.

Not at all. That is the academic qualification. Apologists usually don't have time to read vast numbers of books on particular topics, because that is what scholars and academics are paid to do. They have the time to do it because that is how they make their living, and it is the requirement.

Which disqualifies you from writing a commentary on the Institutes.

Apologists interact with real people, day-to-day, with real crises of faith and real questions about difficulties in living and believing a given (Christian) faith. It's a far more practical, concrete enterprise than academic theology. You guys write to each other and argue with each other, usually on matters that are of little interest or consequence to the masses. We deal with those masses, in order to bolster their confidence in their own faith tradition (Catholicism). The goals are almost completely different.

Does writing a commentary on the Institutes fall under that rubric or not?

That said, the qualifications that I have to write a critique of Calvin on a popular lay apologetic level are exactly what I claimed in the introduction:
Calvin, of course, has the big advantage going in, in such a "debate." He's the famous and extremely influential theologian and scholar, with tons of education, rhetorical and literary ability in droves, and a remarkable encyclopedic knowledge in many areas. I'm just a lay Catholic apologist with a degree in sociology, and no formal theological education (but with lots of informal theological education for over thirty years). I rather like that. I love to play David over against a "Goliath." I relish the challenge, and this will assuredly be one that will take a lot of effort and very hard work on my part: with intense research often required.

If it is concluded that I prevail here and there in my replies, then it will bring (all the more) the point home that Calvin is wrong in his arguments, where he opposes the Catholic Church. I'm confident that he can very often plainly be shown to be in error. I have no doubt about that, from what I have seen of his work thus far. I've often noted that one can be the greatest genius of all time, but if the facts and the truth are not on their side, they can be defeated by an infant who knows the truth. So I'll give it my best shot.
Unlike King David, you don’t have any stones in your slingshot. Just cotton balls.

Why should it bother you whether I respond to Calvin or not? Who cares?

It doesn’t bother me when you go wading into waters which are way out of your depth.

Of course, you object because you are both elitists who don't understand the distinction between academics and the general public (whom I write for). But on another level, why are you concerned?

Well, that’s one thing we agree on. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there.

think I am an imbecile and a dolt. So why not encourage me to go ahead?

If I am as stupid as you continually make out, then I'll get my butt kicked by Calvin, and everyone can witness it, and it'll be a spectacular triumph for good ol' Calvinism over against the wicked Catholic interlocutor, sophist, etc. I quote all of Calvin's words, so the reader gets his complete "side."

If, on the other hand, I hold my own or prevail, then indeed, I must have been qualified, in which case the criticism that I ought not be doing it, is irrelevant and beside the point. But by your presuppositions, I'll fall flat on my face because I am so dumb, and Calvin will make mincemeat of me. Why not let the reader decide who has the better case?

Since you lack the background to even interpret Calvin, the entire exercise is vacuous.

In any event, I do this because:
1) Calvin is a supremely important figure in the history of Protestantism (and Calvinism.

2) He is a fair arguer (though, in my opinion, far less brilliant than I thought he was, previous to this effort).

3) Calvinists who are considering Catholicism might like to consider both sides in this fashion, to see which is more plausible and biblical and historical.

Since you’re hardly competent to even write a commentary on the Institutes, they’d scarcely be getting “both sides” of the argument.

4) Catholics who encounter Calvinist friends might like to consult this for reference purposes.

So Catholics who are incompetent to evaluate Calvin should consult a Catholic epologist who is equally incompetent to evaluate Calvin. Richard Muller might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. Roger Nicole might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. Paul Helm might be qualified to write a commentary on the Institutes. There are probably some Catholic scholars who would be qualified to do so as well. You are not. Your commentary on the Institutes is an exercise in self-conceited charlatanry.

5) Since anti-Catholics today are so unwilling to engage in true dialogues, I have to go to the past and famous works such as this, to get some content to grapple with in a dialogical way.
All that said, in my opinion, you try to fight against such an effort on my part, primarily because you don't like what I am arguing, and Calvin is your sacred cow, so that the prospect of someone picking him apart in this fashion, is a spectre too dreadful to countenance for even a moment.

We mustn't have a free, systematic, substantive exchange between a Calvinist and a Catholic! No! Readers must only read the true, Calvinist perspective, not the wicked Catholic one too. That is a naughty no-no.

Just relax. I'll be done in by my profound idiocy, if y'all are right about me. If you truly think that, it should be of no concern whatever to you. But if you think I am not a clueless dolt, then you've been lying about that all along.

i) A 20C American with a degree in sociology can’t simply jump into a 16C document. Imagine if Armstrong were to write a commentary on the Divina Commedia by Dante or the Quaestiones Quodlibetales by Duns Scotus.

ii) I’ve posted very little on Calvin over the years. And other Reformed theologians like Owen, Turretin, Cunningham, and Warfield are equally worthwhile.

iii) If you were serious about having a dialogue with a literary representative of Calvinism, you’d at least choose someone who’s closer to your own cultural frame of reference.

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The above critiques are all the more absurd in light of the way that Calvin describes his own work. It is not a dense theological tract for other scholars, and scholars only, but an introductory training manual for the "multitudes" (beginners in theology):

My intention was only to furnish a kind of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness. And I toiled at the task chiefly for the sake of my countrymen the French, multitudes of whom I perceived to be hungering and thirsting after Christ, while very few seemed to have been duly imbued with even a slender knowledge of him. That this was the object which I had in view is apparent from the work itself, which is written in a simple and elementary form adapted for instruction. . . . what I have here given may be regarded as a summary . . .

(Prefatory Address, Basle, 1536)

. . . my object in this work was to prepare and train students of theology for the study of the Sacred Volume, so that they might both have an easy introduction to it, and be able to proceed in it, with unfaltering step, seeing I have endeavoured to give such a summary of religion in all its parts, and have digested it into such an order as may make it not difficult for any one, who is rightly acquainted with it, to ascertain both what he ought principally to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it.

(Prefatory Epistle to the Reader, 2nd edition, Strasbourg, 1539)

. . . it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were, lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word. . . .
Seeing, then, how necessary it was in this manner to aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation, I have endeavoured, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book. And first I wrote it in Latin, that it might be serviceable to all studious persons, of what nation soever they might be; afterwards, desiring to communicate any fruit which might be in it to my French countrymen, I translated it into our own tongue. . . . it will be a kind of key opening up to all the children of God a right and ready access to the understanding of the sacred volume. . . . a summary of Christian doctrine, . . . an introduction to the profitable reading both of the Old and New Testament.

(Subject of the Present Work, French edition, Geneva, 1545)

In the first edition of this work, having not the least expectation of the success which God, in his boundless goodness, has been pleased to give it, I had, for the greater part, performed my task in a perfunctory manner (as is usual in trivial undertakings) . . . my object in this work has been, so to prepare and train candidates for the sacred office, for the study of the sacred volume, that they may both have an easy introduction to it, . . . I have given a summary of religion in all its parts, and digested it in an order which will make it easy for any one, who rightly comprehends it, to ascertain both what he ought chiefly to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it.

(Epistle to the Reader, last edition, Geneva, 1559)
John T. McNeill and Ford Lewis Battles, the editor and translator of the 1960 edition of the Institutes (Philadephia: Westminster Press) state the same:
In the "Argument" prefaced to it [the French edition of 1541], no reference is made to its academic use . . . the new prefaces and the added materials indicate that instruction, whether of theological students or of a lay public, is increasingly the author's conscious aim.

(Introduction, p. xxxvi)
So does Calvin biographer Williston Walker:
Calvin's work follows the ancient popular order of religious instruction which had served Luther for an outline in drafting his short Catechism of 1529, and was determined in its sequence by the elementary teachings which every Christian child had long been expected to learn by heart.

(John Calvin, New York: Schocken Books, 1969; originally 1906, pp. 136-137)
Now, if we are dealing with an introductory work written to the masses (not scholars and academics): for folks just starting to get acquainted with Scripture ("not difficult for any one" / "rudiments" / "written in a simple and elementary form" / "easy introduction" / "perfunctory" / "trivial" / "assist the simple," etc.), then certainly it is not out of bounds for a non-scholar apologist like myself, with over 30 years of experience of intense study of theology and Scripture, to undertake a popular-level critique of the popular level introductory work. There is no law or rule written down somewhere that would forbid me from doing this, or entail what I am doing to be defined in essence as "an exercise in self-conceited charlatanry." But this is how the academic snob views most such efforts. That's the problem: arrogant intellectual snobbery from a teacher's assistant and a graduate student who seem to believe that the only people who can think and analyze and critique and do apologetics, are academics / scholars.

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Tom H said...

Come now, Dave. If only you had an advanced degree from, let's say, a back-room or strip-mall University, these online champions of Reformed theology would have no choice but to bask in your intellectual glow.

I got mine. I'm now going for dental hygienist & air conditioning repair double-major. I'll be a triple threat!

Dave Armstrong said...

LOL I forgot about that. Yeah, I think I'll do my doctoral dissertation on "the Trinity" like Bishop White did, and then I'll be accepted and admired by these naysayers.

Note: I added at the end Calvin's own descriptions of his work as introductory-level material for the masses: pretty much a training manual.

Michael Wilson said...

I thought I would provide some help for the definition impaired people you are arguing with:
Apologist: A person who uses rational arguments to defend a cause.
Professional,: A person who receives payment for work performed in a chosen profession.
Catholic:A member of the Catholic Church also know as a Roman Catholic.
Putting them all together we come up with the definition for, Professional Catholic Apologist: A Catholic who uses rational arguments to defend Catholocism and receives income from this work.
Now lets see who can fit this description here;could it be D.A.? Yes, I believe D.A. Would be a good guess, unless he is doing this for free, then he would be called an "Amateur Catholic Apologist."
I really don't see what's so hard about this, especially given that your adversaries are very intelligent men.
Nice job per usual Dave.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks, Michael.

One would think it is a very simple thing, but once again it shows the depth of extreme derision that anti-Catholics have for the Church (and these particular ones, for me personally, as they have exhibited 100 times).

That's really all this is about. But for that, the discussion wouldn't have even gotten off the ground. And I think there are more than likely aspects of petty jealousy involved too.

Nelson said...

It would appear that “Prof.” Hays feels that no one can read an academics work and gain anything out of it or be able to understand it at all unless they are as educated as an academic. Since academics rarely agree on anything that they write anyway, that would mean that the work becomes useless to anyone that really matters.

I would really be interested in Jesus’ credentials to criticise the Jewish faith and higher echelon of “academics” of his time. Or was carpentry enough to qualify him to be a worthy critic. Is it possible Jesus just didn’t understand them because he didn’t have their broad range of education?

It seems to me that if we understand the English language and have a fair meaning of the words we can surely form an opinion as to whether or not some “academic” who writes in that language is right or wrong. If the opinion is considered incorrect by the “academic” it remains for him or another academic to debate the issue as to that persons understanding. It is not a question of whether that person has the right to critique the academics work or not, or if he/she is educated enough to do so. Let the chips fall where they may. If the academic is wrong he/she is wrong no matter who determines it.

Maureen said...

No, Dave, you're obviously claiming to be only the 58th Socrates.

Also, a cat can look at a king, but a Catholic can't question a Calvin.

The funny thing is that, whenever I've met someone who's really great in his field, he's usually eager to get into discussions with pretty much anyone interested in his topic. He'll put a great deal of effort into taking a child's question seriously, even.

It's the people who really aren't all that good and often, who aren't all that interested in their own field of choice, who get sniffy about only deigning to discuss these matters with properly qualified persons. And they usually also find excuses not to talk with even the most qualified folks. It's a joyless sort of life to live, really, because academia's great joy is finding stuff out, telling people about it, and then thrashing out the connected issues; or in getting people interested and then teaching them to find stuff out and tell people about it, and in thrashing stuff out with them. Everything else is just grading papers and faculty meeting purgatory.

If you're not planning to stay in academia, the only reason to get a degree is to gain more experience in finding stuff out and telling people about it and thrashing it out -- on the principle that you intend to bring that sort of thing into your paying work, and want your brain awoken to it first.

So far, yon man is only interested in pontificating. He seems to spend all his time avoiding finding things out or thrashing things out, and it doesn't sound like he's actually interested in telling people information so much as non-information.

But maybe it's just a bad day for him.