Thursday, December 13, 2018

Reading Notes from Niesel's Theology of Calvin: Part One of Three

A few months ago I finished reading Wilhelm Niesel’s The Theology of John Calvin (Lutterworth Press, 1956; trans. Harold Knight; German original published, 1938).

The work has 16 chapters offering a survey of Calvin’s theology under various heads. 

Here are some select notes:

Chapter 1: The present state of critical studies:

Niesel offers a survey of opinion of the times on the center of Calvin's thought:

Bauke: “The theology of Calvin has in fact no basic principle” (11).

Pannier: “Calvin’s spirit is essentially the spirit of the French race” (11).

Weber: The key to Calvin is “the honor of God” (13). Calvin reflected “the primitive character of the soul and life peculiar to the Latin people” (13).

Mülhaupt: The foundation of Calvin’s theology: “the idea of the gracious will” (16).

Niesel: “in Calvin’s doctrine it is a question of the content of all contents—the living God” (19).

Chapter 2: The knowledge of God:

The aim of Calvin in the Institutes is “to attain and expound a synthesis of the contents of Scripture” (23).

“Hence the aim of Calvin’s theology seems to be not an unfolding of “philosophia humana” but an exposition of “philosophia christiana” which God gives us in the Bible (24).

According to Niesel, Calvin takes a “literal” view of the Bible but “did not understand inspiration in any mechanical fashion” (31).

Niesel: Nothing in Calvin’s exegesis suggests a belief in “literal inerrancy” (31).

“That the God of majesty speaks to us to-day in the word of Scripture and babbles with us, as it were, in this book, is a token of His condescension. Because that is so, Calvin so frequently utters the word of command: Ad verbum est veniendum [You must come to the Word”; Inst. 1.7.1]” (35).

Note: Niesel’s analysis of Calvin’s bibliology reflects the dialectical theology of his day.

Chapter 7: The Old and New Testaments:

Niesel: “In Calvin’s opinion the Old Testament does not reflect a primitive form of religion lower in degree than that of the New” (105).

For Calvin “the New Testament is like a colorful picture whereas the Old presents the appearance of a shadowy outline” (107).

Chapter 8: The Mediator:

“[Calvin] says that when we are thinking of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ we must not be understood to mean ‘that the Godhead left the heavens in order to confine itself to the chamber of Christ’s body, but that although it filled all things yet it dwelt corporeally precisely in the humanity of Christ, i.e., dwelt therein both naturally and ineffably’ [Inst. 4.17.30]. The Godhead of Christ fills all things and while not being restricted to the manhood of Christ yet dwells within it” (118).

“The paradoxical principle: God wholly within Jesus of Nazareth and yet wholly outside Him, was later termed the Extra Calvinisticum” (118).

“It is not the case that the Extra constitutes the centre of Calvinistic Christology. Calvin does not teach that God is to be found in Jesus Christ but is also to be fully encountered fully apart from Him. No; according to Calvin, God has disclosed Himself only in Jesus Christ and we must therefore hold fast to this One and not attempt to seek God outside the Mediator. But as a critical distinction the Extra has its value. In Jesus Christ we are faced not merely by enhanced nature, but the fact is that there God Himself stands revealed to us” (119).

Calvin: “The Word chose the body of the Virgin as a temple in which to dwell” [Inst. 2.14.1].


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