Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Editor's note: We are pleased to present the second essay in our occasional series entitled "Ecumenical Partners." In this series, the Reformed Tradition is explored from the point of view of theologians outside the tradition.
My first exposure to the Reformed tradition came while I was a student at Yale Divinity School. Two friends and I had convinced George Lindbeck to do a reading course with us on the theology of Martin Luther, and the next semester, a group of students convinced David Kelsey to teach a seminar on Calvin’s Institutes. I had been completely swept away by the volcanic force of Luther’s theology, especially in his lectures on Galatians of 1535. Luther’s insight that Christ became sin and a curse for us to set us free from sin and the curse has shaped my theological outlook to this day. I was prepared to be similarly impressed by Calvin, but I am afraid to say that I was not nearly as moved by Calvin as I was by Luther. However, the more I read him, the more I realized that my expectation that they would be radically different was very much disappointed. Instead, I was set on a track leading to my dissertation and first book, in which I argued that Luther and Calvin are much more similar than is usually acknowledged. I think that part of the reason I was able to see these similarities was due to the fact that I had nothing at stake confessionally in comparing the two great teachers of the Church, since as an Episcopalian I was not expected to be all that interested in either one of them!
Despite my initial disappointment upon first reading the Institutes, I have come to find a whole treasure trove of theological insights in Calvin’s theology, and have spent a great deal of my time researching his theology, as well as that of Reformed theologians after him, especially Edwards, Schleiermacher, and Barth. I have also discovered that I was prepared from an early age to be especially receptive to the concerns of Calvin’s theology, due to my life-long exposure to the Book of Common Prayer. I had been initiated into the basic dynamic of Calvin’s understanding of piety by the encouragement to lift my heart up unto the Lord in thanksgiving at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. I had also been introduced to Calvin’s rejection of the Mass as a sacrifice in the introductory paragraph to the same prayer, in which we thank God for offering his Son to die on the Cross for us, “who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” I had been shaped by Calvin’s concern for union with and participation in Christ by the repeated request made during the Eucharist that we be “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” Finally, I had come to see the essential conjunction of God’s work as creator and redeemer in the prayer of General Thanksgiving, in which we give God most humble and hearty thanks for “our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;” but above all for God’s “inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” I of course did not know at the time that these prayers reflected the theological influence of Calvin and Reformed theology, as Calvin was not seen to be one of the major influences on Episcopalian or Anglican worship. I have only subsequently come to learn for myself that the via media of the English Reformation lay not between Wittenberg and Rome, but between Wittenberg and Geneva (as well as Zurich).
It is therefore perhaps not as odd as it once seemed to find myself theologically at home in the Reformed tradition even as I am liturgically at home in the Episcopal Church. Be that as it may, in what follows I would like to highlight several foci from the Reformed tradition that have shaped my own understanding of God and Christ, over and above the shaping that had already been done by the Book of Common Prayer, in the hope of illuminating the contribution that might be made by the witness of the Reformed tradition to the larger Christian community.
The Generosity of God
The central insight that the Reformed tradition holds before all other Christians for their serious consideration has to do with what I shall call the generosity of God. This was the central theological motif of Zwingli’s theology, and it has remained central to the Reformed tradition to this day. Zwingli appears to have been completely captivated by the self-giving goodness of God, which far surpasses anything human beings may mean by generosity. According to Zwingli, God is not only goodness itself, but God is freely self-giving goodness, who gives only for the benefit of those to whom God gives, seeking nothing in return. Nor does God have a limit to what God gives; rather “this good is so exuberantly abundant that it is more than sufficient for the needs of all; for it is limitless and loves to impart itself.”1 According to Zwingli, God’s generosity means that God always takes the initiative, so that all human beings may do is to respond with trust, gratitude and love. Zwingli was especially vexed by the idea that human beings would try to take the initiative in their relationship with God by performed sacramental rites, in the anxious hope that God might give us grace in exchange for our efforts. Since God “desires to impart himself freely,” and is indeed “eager to impart himself freely,” our concern to control and manipulate God by binding God to the sacramental life of the Church reflects more our own selfish desires than it does the free self-giving generosity of God.2 As an Episcopalian, I agree with Calvin that God can use sacraments as instruments of God’s self-giving goodness. However, I have found Zwingli’s insight into the self-giving goodness of God to be one of the most powerful insights of the Reformed tradition. At the heart of this self-giving goodness is the giving of the Son of God for sinners, as Paul states in one of Zwingli’s favorite passages: “In Rom. 8:32 Paul says that God ‘spared not his only Son, but delivered him up for us all,’ and immediately argues in this way: ‘How shall he not also with him freely give us all things?’ ”3
The Beauty of God
It may seem deeply ironic that a tradition known for its iconoclasm might contribute to our understanding of the beauty of God. However, the beauty of God is a direct outgrowth of the Reformed interest in the self-giving goodness of God. Calvin adopted Zwingli’s insight that “God is the fountain-source of all good,” describing God as the “author and source of every good thing.” According to Calvin, the goodness of God manifests itself in all of the works that God does, in the very beauty of these works. “You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.”4 Calvin enhances the appeal to the beauty of God’s works by describing these works as a painting or a living image which represent the goodness of God to us. Calvin was especially impressed by “the most beautiful form of the universe,”5 and encouraged the godly to contemplate it as often as they could. Calvin’s attention to the beauty of God is further developed by Jonathan Edwards, who described the primary effect of faith as being the ability to see the beauty of God in all of God’s works, in creation, in Christ, in the work of redemption, and in holiness of life. “But the saints and angels behold that glory of God which consists in the beauty of his holiness; and it is this sight only that will melt and humble human hearts, wean them from the world, draw them to God, and effectually change them.”6 Whereas theological discussions of beauty tend to devolve immediately to the use of the fine arts in worship, Calvin and Edwards direct our attention to the magnificent beauty of the artistry of God, which should be more than enough to capture our attention and admiration. “Have we ever known what that glorious excellency of God is, that is so much spoken of in the Word of God? Have we seen the majesty and beauty in him, whereby he has appeared to us the greatest good? Have we ever seen the excellency of a Saviour, and the sufficiency and gloriousness of the way of salvation, which are the great subjects of the gospel?”7
God the Creator
We have already seen how for Calvin the goodness of God is seen primarily in the beauty of God’s works in creation, whereas for Zwingli, the first way we come to know the self-giving goodness of God is in the creation of heaven and earth. In his autobiographical writings, Jonathan Edwards describes his own experience of beholding the beauty of God in creation as being an integral part of the development of his piety. “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.”8 The Reformed tradition has consistently affirmed the importance of attending to the work of God in creation, and of placing human life in the context of the cosmos created and cared for by God. According to Zwingli, “not even the mosquito has its sharp sting and musical hum without God’s wisdom, knowledge, and foresight.”9 The same might be said about a grape leafif we examined it completely, we would find “just as much complexity as you will find when you consider man as a whole or the entire universe. Yet the workmanship in this little leaf will force you to give up before you have learned it all.”10 Calvin also encouraged the godly to contemplate God’s works in the universe, beginning with the image of God in the heavens. “When a man, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will also learn to reflect upon and admire his wisdom and power as displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants.”11 Calvin was especially drawn to astronomy, which he called “the alphabet of theology.”12 Edwards himself was ravished by the beauty of God in all of nature, but especially in the force of thunderstorms. “I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunderstorm; and used to take the opportunity at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunders, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.”13 These voices confirmed my own sense of wonder when contemplating the beauty of creation around me, and my own sense that human life must be seen in the context of all of life, indeed of the whole cosmos, all of which is created and cared for by God. This aspect of the Reformed tradition is even more necessary today, in light of the degradation of the environment by human development. We need once again to hear Calvin’s insistence that God “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow [cf. Matt. 10:29],” so that we might image God by caring for the world in the same way.14
The God of Israel
The Reformed tradition has consistently held before all of us the need to think of God’s self-revelation in Christ in light of God’s self-disclosure to Israel, from Abram through the Second Temple period. Driven in part by the desire to defend infant baptism as the covenantal sign analogous to circumcision, the Reformed tradition sees the whole people of Israel, from Seth through John the Baptizer, as being members of the one true Church with them. Calvin developed a highly sophisticated understanding of the developmental nature of God’s self-disclosure to Israel, drawing on Paul and Irenaeus’s insights into God’s accommodation to the growing maturation of humanity in Israel. Calvin understood the worship life of Israelits priests, sacrifices, tabernacle or templeto be types and images of Christ, and also to be signs of God’s presence among the people. As types and shadows of Christ, Calvin thought that the rites of the Law came to an end when the reality they depicted appeared, even though Calvin exhorted the godly constantly to relate the symbols of the Law to the disclosure of Christ in the Gospel, so that we might come to a fuller understanding of the grace of God. “From this we are to learn what benefit the reading of the Law brings us in this respect . . . it greatly assists our faith to compare the reality with the types, so that we may seek in the one what the other contains.”15 However, as signs of the presence of God, Calvin appears to be willing at times to concede the efficacy of such forms of worship even after the coming of Christ, due to God’s faithfulness to the promise to dwell among the people forever. “Yet, despite the great obstinacy with which they continue to wage war against the gospel, we must not despise them, while we consider that, for the sake of the promise, God’s blessing still rests among them.”16 This means that the Reformed tradition not only holds before us the need to see the same God at work in Israel who is at work in Christ, over against the latent Marcionite tendencies of all Christian traditions; but it also requires us to think about the theological meaning of the presence of the Jews among us since the time of Christ, over against the supersessionist tendencies of all Christian traditions. Karl Barth linked the witness of the synagogue with the witness of the Church, claiming that only together would the witness to Christ be complete. However, unlike Calvin, Barth consistently understands the witness of Israel and the Jews in terms of the way they reflect the human rejection of the self-giving love of God, bringing upon themselves the wrath of God’s love. The hope is that we could see the faithfulness and the sin of both the synagogue and the Church as bearing witness to the faithfulness and love of God, even amidst their deep and often painful differences.
Christ and Adam
Perhaps due to its focus on the free generosity of God, the Reformed tradition has offered to the rest of the Church a unique and powerful understanding of the relationship of Christ to Adam, by which it sees the place of Adam usurped by the more powerful person of Christ. Ulrich Zwingli was deeply critical of the way the Church of his day seemed to make the sacrament of Baptism the way of redemption from the sin of Adam. According to his reading of Romans 5:12ff., Zwingli claimed that the sin of Adam was overcome by the death of Christ, not only for the children of Christian parents, but for all children throughout the world. “In a word, as Adam’s sin so corrupted our birth that nothing is born but what is vitiated, so Christ’s righteousness has renewed it so thoroughly that the corruption does not harm us unless when we have grown up we again become faithless and ruin ourselves by our own guilt, acting in contravention of the law.”17 This insight led Zwingli to consider whether Christ had redeemed all the heirs of Adam and not just those who have faith in Christ in the Church. “Though I might have answered this question in a few words to the effect that Christ benefited by his healing power exactly as much as Adam injured by sinning; that, further, Adam infected the whole lump with original sin, therefore Christ restored the whole, I have preferred not to put forth this opinion, both because some things seem to contradict it, and because I do not know whether anybody has held it.”18 This possibility, which Zwingli did not fully follow, was emphatically embraced by Karl Barth, in harmony with the deepest impulse of the Reformed tradition regarding the generosity of God. According to Barth, Christ has replaced Adam, so that we must see all of humanity in Christ, and no longer in Adam. “True human nature, therefore, can only be understood by Christians who look to Christ to discover the essential nature of [humanity]. Vv. 12-21 are revolutionary in their insistence that what is true of Christians must also be true of all [people]. That is a principle that has incalculable significance for all our action and thought.”19 By focussing on the self-giving goodness of God both in the beauty of creation and in the sending of the Son to die for us, the Reformed tradition summons us to take the generosity of God more seriously than anything else, including our own sinful rejection of that generosity. “For he who has given his Son has given his all. For the Father has nothing which the Son also has not. This will, perhaps, be enough to show the untaught that as God is the fountain-source of all good, so he is bountiful and by no means niggardly or inexorable, but is so lavish and prodigal of himself for the benefit of those who enjoy him that he delights to be taken, and held, and possessed by all.”20
1 Ulrich Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, translated by Samuel Jackson (Durham, North Carolina: The Labyrinth Press, 1981), 71.
2 Ibid., 70, 75.
3 Ibid., 73.
4 Institutio 1539 I.11, CO 1:286C.
5 Inst. I.VI.3, LCC 72.
6 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), 190.
7 Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1723-1729, edited by Kenneth Minkema (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 262.
8 Jonathan Edwards, Memoirs, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), I:xiii.
9 Zwingli, Commentary, 66.
10 Ibid., 68.
12 Comm. Jeremiah 10:1-2, CO 38:59A; CTS 18:8.
13 Edwards, Memoirs, xiii.
14 Inst. I.xvi.1, LCC 197-198.
15 Comm. 1 Peter 1:19, CO 55:225B; CNTC 12:248.
16 Inst. IV.xvi.14, LCC 1337.
17 Ulrich Zwingli, On Original Sin, in On Providence and other Essays, translated by Samuel Jackson (Durham, North Carolina: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), 23.
19 Karl Barth, Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5, translated by T. A. Small (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 90.
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