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By Roger Salter
February 10, 2017

The French Connection

To refer to the genius of Geneva, the great Reformer Calvin, as "Jean" is to remind ourselves of his exotic background, culture, and character as being French. His nationality and its influence upon his nature must cause us to look at him, as a person and not simply as a theologian, with more than a cursory glance. It is good to be able to differentiate the minds of men, and their moods, according to the typical propensities of their native country and the fellow members of their race. Generally speaking, France is associated with finesse, and there is refinement and subtlety in the personality of Monsieur Chauvin that is even discernible in the English translation of his work. We attune to the teutonic tone in Luther, and sense the sound of Cremona violins in the Italian lilt of Peter Martyr Vermigli. There is a rugged Scottish brogue in John Knox and raw Anglo-Saxon in Latimer. We need to appreciate who it is that is addressing us.

These little hints of individuality and distinctiveness counter our tendency to read all authors in a routine way devoid of empathy. There is music and meaning in great authors who take us into their confidence and society through the privacy of turning the pages of their books, and Ford Lewis Battles describes Calvin as a poet even in the English prose through which we receive him: "We must regard Calvin as a poet because his prose, compared with ours is poetry . . .Faith for Calvin is as much a matter of the heart as of the mind, as much affective as intellectual (Interpreting John Calvin, Baker, 1996, Page 286). For Battles, Calvin's literary expression is implicit not explicit poetry.

Theologians, to the glory of God, may be, should be, artists also - to allure us to God, and elevate our minds as well as inform them. A little effort will accustom us to their style, and perhaps cultivate our taste; but we are entitled to like it or lump it, however we feel disposed to the matter of gaining true understanding in a world accustomed to skimming over issues of profundity. Not everyone will suit our palate or purposes. Bernard of Clairvaux, the last of the church fathers, whom Calvin loved to quote, also wrote with immense charm that possibly exceeded even that of his distinguished fellow Frenchman and admirer who eventually influenced the English Church so greatly.

Richard Hooker's appreciation of Calvin was huge: "He was incomparably the wisest man that ever the French Church enjoyed."

This "wise man" played a beneficial role in the development and future effectiveness (the 18th century Awakening) of the established Church in England. Thomas Cranmer exchanged letters with Calvin, received his advice (greater emphasis on preaching in the English church), and agreed with his theology of salvation, the sacraments, and the Frenchman's aspirations for more thorough reform in the Ecclesia Anglicana. "His, Calvin's, decisions were received among Protestants of that age with incredible submission" (Rolt's Lives of the Reformers). Diarmaid MacCulloch records that Cranmer's son-in-law Thomas Norton produced the first English translation of the Institutes. It is an endearing fact that a thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Tudor performed the exercise of translating a selected portion from Calvin's Institution De La Vie Christienne and presented it to Catherine Parr, Henry's sixth and surviving wife, as an affectionate gift - the piece was entitled How We Ought To Know God.

However, Elizabeth did not seem to favor Calvin throughout the course of her reign. The queen suspected that his ardent followers could destabilize the monarchy and the settlement of the Church when she became keenly aware of the volume of "academic young turks of the clergy who flocked to embrace the fashionable doctrines of Calvin" (David Starkey, Elizabeth: The Struggle For The Throne, Page 286).

Edmund Grindal as Bishop of London corresponded with Calvin in a spirit of amity and exact doctrinal agreement. The heroic ministry and suffering of this godly and kindly man, abominably treated by Elizabeth, needs to be more emphatically recognized in our comprehension of Anglican history (see Archbishop Grindal 1519-1583: The Struggle For a Reformed Church, Patrick Collinson, University of California Press, 1979. Also "Algrind", remembered fondly by the poet Edmund Spenser: The Shepherd's Calendar).

The evidence of Calvin's growing influence in the life of Reformation Anglicanism, and its continuing salutary effects, is super-abundant. It is not the man who is to be exalted but the Gospel of Grace that he represented and commended. It took hold in England in a major fashion once and is resurgent to varying degrees within the Communion from time to time. In the first seven decades of the English Church's transformation Calvinism was dominant. Its strong opponent Peter Heylin had to concede this: "It was safer for any man in those times to have been looked upon as a heathen or publican than an anti-Calvinist" - and this is no reference to Calvinist ill-will as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes' comment proves. Andrewes baulked at Calvin's doctrine of predestination but he opined concerning Calvin, "an illustrious person and never to be mentioned without a preface of the highest honour".

Anglicanism has been robustly biblical and Reformational, and rare examples of this trend still remain. But our collective memory needs to be refreshed, and who better to undertake this task than the admirable Bishop Ryle in the selection of quotes that follow. They pertain to international Anglicanism as much as to the Church of England to which he wrote:

There are few subjects about which English people are so ignorant as they are about the real doctrines of the Church of England. Many persons know nothing of the theological opinions of the English Reformers, and all the leading English Divines for nearly a century after the Protestant Reformation. . . That the vast majority of all Churchmen in that day held the doctrines which are now called Calvinistic and Evangelical is to my mind as clear as noon-day. . . is it not a historical fact, that all the leading Archbishops and Bishops in the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First, were thorough Calvinists in matters of doctrine? . . . I would counsel all clergyman who are persecuted for holding evangelical opinion, to arm themselves with a thorough knowledge of old Church of England divinity, and to take comfort in the thought that they have the truth on their side. They, at all events, are explaining the Thirty-nine articles according to the intention of those who composed them. Their opponents are either neglecting the Articles, or attaching to them a new meaning. . . those who are persecuted may take comfort in the reflection that if they err, they err in good company. . . they suffer because they agree with Latimer, and Hooper, and Jewel, and Whitgift, and Carleton, and Davenant, and Ussher and Leighton, and Hooker, and Hall. He that suffers in company with these good men has no cause to be ashamed (Old Paths, pages 518 - 521).

Especially concerned about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints which he stoutly defends, Ryle speaks truly with regard to all teaching upholding the fact of electing love,"The Seventeenth Article of the Church of England is one of the keys of our position".

A bold return to the Articles of Religion might give some credibility to Anglicanism in an age of languishing uncertainty.

To be continued...

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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