Calvin and the Resignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology in the 1559 Institutes by Michelle Chaplin Sanchez: Cambridge University Press, 2019, $105, pp. 378
At the opening of the final Latin edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that his purpose is to “persuade” his readers. Language can be deceptive. He certainly did not mean that his intention was merely to convince the students for whom he wrote of fixed theological affirmations–he was not writing a textbook. “Persuasio,” as Calvin employed the classical term, meant a conversion of the whole person, body and soul, to a new form of life, that is, to the sanctified life. The oft-rehearsed clichés that have Calvin as the progenitor of a cerebral, intellective form of Christianity have wholly overlooked his deeply incarnational assumptions. The Genevan Reformer did not like the term “theologia”; he preferred “doctrina”, that is, teaching for the Church, rather than just the God-talk of theologians. For Calvin, the work of interpretation revolved wholly around making the Word manifest in the world. Interpretation was about shaping lives. Although he was a careful reader of the Scholastics, he flatly rejected speculative theology as being like Icarus flying too close to the sun–it could not answer the questions it posed and the effort was hubris. All that men and women need to know has been revealed in Scripture and creation. They required only spectacles to see.
Historians of early modern religion have often been as far from the mark in understanding Calvin as Calvin felt the Scholastic were in understanding God. Much of the recent, and welcome, attention to the study of emotions and imagination has assumed that Calvin and his followers lacked both. Unlike Lutherans and Catholics, Calvinists, or, better, the Reformed, are held to have had no aesthetic of beauty, no place for visual culture. Scholars such as William Dyrness have argued otherwise, but until now we have not had a full theological/historical account of the signified world in which Calvin lived and which he sought to reorient.
In Calvin and the Resignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology in the 1559 Institutes, Michelle Chaplin Sanchez does much more than deconstruct old orthodoxies such as this. She provides a fresh way of understanding Calvin on his own terms, as well as in conversation with modernity. In so doing, she dislodges the assumption of many (including students of theology): that premodern texts such as the Institutes express a world from which we have been (thank goodness) emancipated. Through a brilliant reading of the 1559 Institutes, Chaplin Sanchez provides us with a text that is alive, protean, and often ambiguous. Its tensions are not simply inconsistencies of the author, but reflections of the enormity of the questions being addressed and the contingency of their answers. Theology exists not in the abstract, but in material, contextual and embodied forms that ebb and flow.
Calvin was both a liminal and a central figure in his world. In his native Noyon and in Paris and Bourges he received a superb education in the arts and law; his teachers were among the luminaries of the French Renaissance. Yet the payment for his religious convictions was exile, ending up for more than twenty years in Geneva, where he never felt wholly welcome or at home. He was at once an embodiment of elite and privileged culture as well as a man who spoke to exiles and refugees as one of their own, and the appeal of his sermons and writings for the dislocated of the sixteenth century is well known. Chaplin Sanchez provides us, however, with a deeper understanding of exile in his thought and his life. In particular, she focuses on providence and incarnation as expressed from the margins.
The book takes us away from the stolid image of Calvin carved in the Reformation Wall in Geneva. Calvin inherited from his beloved Augustine an understanding both of the world as signified and of our need to be oriented through it. Humans, in spirit and in body, are taught through signs and are active in that formation. Therefore, for both Augustine and Calvin, writing is both learning and teaching, a crucial part of the path to wisdom, which is knowledge of God and self. The Institutes, therefore, is a living and, above all, participatory text. Not only is Calvin active as author, but the reader participates in the resignifying of the world through the text and its effect on the body, and the divine is encountered through the materialization of signs in the world.
The interpretation of the Word, for Calvin, was precisely about how to relate to creation. The Institutes are performative, but so are the readers, who inhabit a world described by the Reformer as the theater of God’s glory. The daily lives of those who are transformed are played out on its stage, suffering depredations just as Calvin was wracked with bodily pain. In many respects, Calvin’s own diseased body was the location of his theological beliefs; he made no distinction between them. Just as, in his 2017 biography, Lyndal Roper has given us Martin Luther the embodied theologian, Chaplin Sanchez directs our eyes to much the same in Geneva.
When Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation appeared in 2012, much of the ensuing debate coalesced around the question of how to read pre-modern authors. Should we, as Gregory maintained, only seek to understand them on their own terms? Or, as his critics countered, do modern theorists offer us a better way to understand the past? Chaplin Sanchez undoes this binary in her book by demonstrating its harmfulness. In her chapters on the Institutes she offers a lucid and compelling analysis of the work in its theological, literary, and historical aspects, offering a persuasive guide to navigating the four books. At the same time, and not simply afterwards, she keeps us in dialogue with a broad range of contemporary thinkers, demonstrating that a brilliant text like the Institutes is fully capable of sustaining readings far from the worldview of the early modern author. Indeed, Calvin wove together the writings of the ancients with the pressing concerns of his audience. We learn much about the strategies of language and the porous boundaries between words and things that are so central to Calvin’s writing. Chaplin Sanchez enables us to understand the multiple means by which theological writings can shape the lives of people through attention to the details in which they exist. They create intimate connections between the self and those particularities. The Word is not simply imposed in a formulaic manner; rather, it creates selves in the world that are responsive to its dynamic force, opening possibilities for action in the form of resistance, or, in our time, activism and protest.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this beautifully argued and powerfully written book is the radicalness of Calvin. The “tyrant of Geneva” of popular imagination gazed far beyond the walls of his adopted home. Calvin the lawyer well understood institutions and their legal frameworks, but that is not where the story ends. The true site of God’s work and human response is in creation, not in structures of authority, whether temporal or ecclesiastical. The true measure of all things is creation, God’s self-manifestation. As Chaplin Sanchez tells us, Calvin is a profound critic of forms of sovereignty: they are legitimate only when measured against the reality of creation. Sovereign powers have no independent authority or entitlement. When found in error they can be resisted. We are reminded of Allan Boesak’s account of reading John Calvin in the context of resistance to Apartheid: the man he thought a foundation for racial segregation turned out to be its most radical opponent.
To see Calvin in this way through Chaplin Sachez’s book is not to indulge in nostalgia for the sixteenth century. Much in Calvin is genuinely troubling, such as his views on suffering. But the French refugee, writing from “the site of the inglorious”, espoused an embodied resignification that offers much for a world desperately in need of redirection.
Dr. Bruce Gordon is Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books, including John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton 2016) Calvin (Yale, 2009), The Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002), and most recently Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (Yale, 2021).