Covenant Obedience The Reformed Tradition

Luther and Calvin disagreed about christology, among other things; and this disagreement may help to illuminate the differences in emphasis between Lutheran and Reformed concepts and images of the holy life. Calvin (like Knox and some other non-Lutheran thinkers in the Protestant camp) laid a good deal of stress on the way in which Christ's human life 'recapitulates' the human condition, fulfilling at every stage what is required from us by the holiness and justice of God. Christ as man must in every way pay the human debt to God, enacting the obedience that God's covenant demands, even to the point of death and forsakenness. The dereliction of Christ on the cross is as important to Calvin as to Luther, but for significantly different reasons. Christ's faithfulness to God, for Calvin, has to be realized in the most extreme point of the human condition, the point at which God's justice exacts the full punishment for disobedience. Rather, as for Irenaeus, Christ's cross represents the performance of Adam's duty in the very heart of the consequence of Adam's disobedience. Calvin believed that the relation between the divine Word and the human individuality of Jesus was a relation between conceptually distinct agents (even though their action is inseparable in fact), so that the life of God the Word was not exhausted by the identity of Jesus (this is the doctrine of the so-called extra calvinisticuni); and this allows him to give a creative role to the free human decision of Jesus that is commonly absent in Luther, who made strong claims for the practical identity of Jesus and the divine Word. Thus it would not be possible for Calvin to say, with Luther, that Christ's holiness is simply 'timeless', not achieved through his actions. Certainly Jesus does not become divine as a result of or as a reward for his actions; but this holiness must be (as we might say) constructed in the course of a biography. On this rests much of Calvin's theology of the centrality of the priestly humanity of Christ, standing for all human agents and giving them a share in the character of his own active humanity—i.e. making obedience possible for them, not as a way of earning grace, nor (as in Luther) as a way of expressing a given and immutable interior reality, but as the manifestation of the continuity between Christ's glorified humanity and our own in the acts of obedience that are done by Christ in or through us (Torrance 1965).

Calvinism thus does have a doctrine of sanctification, an account of the processes and disciplines by which the Christian life is to be brought to maturity; and this is shown in the typical Reformed concern for the purification of outward things, whether images in churches or inequity in the state. The Reformed polity allows far less to the de facto authorities in society than Luther's teaching: the elders of the Church are governors of a people who display in their life together the sovereignty of God's law, and they therefore possess a real independence of the 'magistrate' or 'prince'—though the latter may be called in to enforce the true discipline of the Church in a society where the Church is corrupted or deprived of real power to reform itself.

Calvinism thus produces, not so much a 'spirituality' in the usual sense, but a comprehensive discipline of living, scrupulous about fidelity to the law of Christ the King of the nations. This produced a high degree of sexual rigorism and what we should now see as patriarchalism in family affairs, and an intense sense of the imperative for stewardship of God's gifts in the economic sphere. No less significantly, it led to an intelligent interest in biography, in the ways in which God's direction shaped a life of faith by guidance, providence and answers to prayer. The result of this in second-generation Calvinism—not least in English Puritanism at the end of the sixteenth century—was to lead Christian thinking back towards what Calvin had struggled to lead it away from, towards what some Reformed theologians considered (and still consider) the weakness of vulgarized Lutheranism—a concern with the experience of assurance, and introspection devoted to uncovering evidences within as well as without of God's favour.

Calvin's doctrine of predestination had entailed a belief in the necessary victory of God's grace in whomever God might choose to receive it (the 'irresistibility' of grace, in the technical phrase). This was increasingly interpreted as meaning that a falling-off of the sense of security in faith, the sense of the lively favour of God, indicated that grace had never taken root in the soul—and so that the soul had never been chosen by God at all. This curiously subjective account of the workings of grace is alien to the concerns of Calvin himself, but became widely prevalent. Something of it is reflected in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563), though these take care not to endorse the notion that those predestined for damnation could know this fact for sure. At the crudest level, this might lead to an assumption that material success was an index of divine favour (and its absence a sign of the opposite). Among the more sophisticated and morally sensitive, it led to the emergence of new genres of religious literature—the journal and the religious autobiography (whose only real precedent is Augustine's Confessions). In such works, the Puritan consciousness explored its own awareness of its history and its responses to and interpretations of apparently chance circumstances. Living under grace came to mean, for many, striving to make a continuous story of their lives, each occurrence being carefully and systematically related to the purposes of God, mysterious but not completely obscure, so as to exclude the sense of the absolutely contingent, events or thoughts or experiences that failed to carry the meaning rooted in God's will and calling for this particular life. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the European novel owes an enormous debt to this kind of literary Calvinism—as becomes very evident in the later seventeenth century.

The theological and pastoral problems that could arise in connection with the doctrine of assurance and its corollary, the final perseverance of the elect in their Godliness, were discussed a good deal in the England of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Richard Hooker, in a very lengthy sermon of 1585 (Sermon I, Hooker 1841; 1989), argued against the usual form of popular Calvinist belief in assurance, on the grounds that faith, like other aspects of Christian righteousness, was always subjectively incomplete; if it were otherwise, we should have no continuing need of Christ. Assurance comes, not through a particular kind of emotional experience, but through the perpetual awareness of one's need and desire for God's favour; and in this sense, assurance is compatible with varying states of worldly success and varying states of subjective conviction or devotion. Some of this looks back (though not in conscious dependence) to an approach more like Luther's. It is echoed unforgettably in the poetry of George Herbert a few decades later. Herbert, undoubtedly Calvinist in the broad outlines of his theology, explores, with a fullness not previously found in English religious verse (and seldom equalled since), the brick wall encountered when the 'inner life' is experienced as stale, useless or meaningless, and God appears absent or even hostile. In such a light, 'assurance' is found only when the poetry itself allows the prior reality of God to emerge, overriding, silencing or rewriting the uninhibited expression of rebellion and suffering. In other words, the poetry works religiously by pursuing the interiority of faith only to dismantle it so as to make room for the interruptions of God.

Mention of Herbert requires us to note two other features in Reformed spiritual writing of the time. Herbert's treatise on the duties of the pastor (Herbert 1941) represents a Protestant adaptation of the new Catholic concern with the spiritual discipline and formation of the secular (non-monastic) clergy. The pastor's duties in relation to his people in terms of prayer and pastoral guidance are spelled out, and there is a careful discussion of the appropriate style and idiom for preaching. The issues raised here relate to a continuing Protestant debate about the use of rhetoric in religious discourse, in sermons and poetry alike. Herbert follows the Erasmian tradition in being suspicious of rhetorical elaboration: the more work is put into techniques of persuasion, the less honour is given to the power of God to touch and move the hearer or reader; thus the appropriate language for the Christian orator is always plain and unadorned.

In seeking a style that is transparent to the (inner) working of God in Christian speech, poetic or homiletic, this concern reflects the humanist preoccupation with honesty and with the critique of misleading appearances. It is of a piece with the Reformed hostility to visual art designed to move or stir religious emotion. Thus any kind of programme designed to elicit particular responses of feeling towards God—the visual and auditory art of the Counter-Reformation or the sophisticated meditational techniques of Catholic writers, from the early Jesuits to Francis de Sales—is unacceptable (Clarke 1993). It is essential to note that this is not a characteristic of what is usually called 'Puritanism' alone: it is not a hostility to skill or beauty or the aesthetic as such, but a coherent theory of how human activity makes itself a vehicle for God's. There is an appropriate 'beauty' for Christian art and utterance, but it is to be judged by how far it draws attention away from the 'real' agent, the divine agent.

Herbert, like earlier Protestant theorists of religious speech such as the humanist Valdes (whom Herbert translated), Sir Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville, is not a political Puritan, an opponent of forms and ceremonies as such in the Church and a critic of the existing order in the name of a primitivist programme of Christian reconstruction; but, although he is a loyal Anglican, he speaks for a view by no means universal in the Reformed Church of England. The sermons of John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes show the high levels of rhetorical skill deployed in preaching, whether to prompt intellectual exercise or emotional intensity or both. The early seventeenth century also saw the beginning of a diffusion of English adaptations of continental (especially French) works of devotion. But there was already a native literature of devotional reflection, going back to the Middle Ages. Some of this survived here and there, and there was a fresh outpouring of comparable material designed for the Reformed faith, books setting out patterns of daily prayer and reading, counsel on matters of behaviour, and forms of preparation and self-examination before receiving Holy Communion (Stranks 1961). It is a literature almost without exception directed at the leisured classes. With the disappearance of the popular devotions of the Middle Ages—pilgrimage, the cultus of the Eucharist and the saints, the rosary, the commemorations of the dead—piety had become largely a matter for the literate in Britain. Only in the eighteenth century did Britain catch up with the Continent in developing (mostly in the Methodist movement) a vehicle of mass piety and theological education by way of popular hymnody.

One further factor should not be ignored. Alongside the evolution of the 'magisterial' Reformation, the styles of thought and piety associated with Luther and Calvin and their immediate followers, there were also far more radical movements, normally emphasizing high requirements of personal purity or holiness, intense communal life, and—a sharp contrast to the generally affirmative attitude of the 'mainstream' Reformation towards civic and social involvement—separation from the compromised life of society around. Some such groups exhibited vivid apocalyptic beliefs, and the most extreme sometimes defended or promoted these with violence. But by the end of the sixteenth century, most had settled down into stable sectarian forms. These were characterized by pacifism, rejection of infant baptism, strong corporate discipline and, often, a stress on simplicity of life-style. In some respects, they represent a style or ethos close to classical monasticism; and in the eyes of the 'mainstream', their emphasis on tangible and disciplined holiness as essential to the Christian life posed exactly the same threat as monasticism had—a weakening of the radicality of grace. The strongest resistance to Calvinist views on predestination often came from sectarian milieux such as these. The modern Baptist churches are the heirs of such of these groups as became more assimilated to a denominational or connectional pattern. But modern Mennonite and Hutterite communities represent a closer approximation to their ancestors in their continuing stress on pacifism and purity of corporate life. They have always exercised an indirect but powerful influence on a good many non-Calvinist Protestant churches, in standing for a sharp, 'separatist' approach to sanctification, by way of a distinctive lifestyle.

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