Earlier in the year as I was reading history for my doctoral research with King's College, London, I was struck again and again by just how Gnostic so much of the Calvinist tradition is, especially Calvinism of the Puritan variety. In this post I would like to consider four areas where the imprint of Gnosticism can be felt within the Puritan strain of the Calvinist tradition before going on to consider the Gnostic tendencies of Calvin himself.
1 Puritan Gnostics Expunge Church Year
By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans left a vacuum that would ultimately be filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering would help to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world which functions separately from religious categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell and retell the story of redemption, the Puritans helped to underscore the sense of evangelical religion as disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in the culture that emerged in their wake, especially in North America. Of course, it should not be overlooked that the Puritan antipathy to the church calendar was not initially motivated by a dualistic impulse. In fact, quite the contrary: their rejection of Christmas and all other religious holidays was rooted in the notion that the entire year was sanctified, not particular days merely. Even so, by relinquishing the Christian narrative from the calendar, they created the template for a culture evacuated of its religious moorings. This would eventually manifest itself first in a sense that culture is an autonomous institution running parallel to the church, thus creating the sociological coordinates for culture eventually being a rival system in actual competition to the church.
As the sacred migrated from its particular concentration in holy places, holy times and holy people to be applied more generally to all places, times and persons, the result would eventually include a certain disenchantment of the spatial-temporal dimension together with the elimination of mystery that came as a corollary to the rationalistic clarity with which the world was now approached. One of the areas where this Platonism played out was the approach that Calvin and his followers took towards the church building. For Calvin, who did not recognize physical spaces as being sacred apart from the use, there was no point in a lay person coming into a church to pray during the week since the action he is performing can be conducted just as efficiently anywhere. Calvin thus urged that places of worship be locked during the week, only to be opened during times of public worship. He wrote, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished…” (Calvin, cited in William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, p. 192.) Charles Taylor captured this new mood when discussing the effects of the Protestant reformation in A Secular Age:
“We feel a new freedom in a world shorn of the sacred and the limits it set for us, to re-order things as seems best. We take the crucial stance, for faith and glory of God. Acting out of this, we order things for the best. We are not deterred by the older tabus, or supposedly sacred orderings. So we can rationalize the world, expel the mystery from it (because it is all now concentrated in the will of God). A great energy is released to re-order affairs in secular time.” (Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 80.)
2 Puritan Gnostics Capitulate With Docetism
Secondly, in their polemics against the proliferation of images within Roman Catholic worship, both the English Puritans and the Continental Calvinists had a tendency to veer towards the type of Docetism they would have discountenanced in any other context. For example, when the English Bishop Gervase Babington (1549/1550 - 1610) took up the subject of images, he “stressed the incorporeal nature of God – a ‘spirit incomprehensible’ – and argued not only that he could not be seen but that he did not have a body in the human sense. Where the scripture spoke of Christ having parts such as feet, hands and face, these were merely temporary forms in which he appeared to men and in which ‘he lay hid even when he was seen’…Ultimately, worship of God must be either spiritual (rightful) or material (false), it could not be both.” (Julie Spraggon, Puritan iconoclasm during the English Civil War, p. 12.
Leo Jud’s 1541 catechism also emphasized the invisibility of God without making any qualification to take into account the incarnation. Puritan iconoclasm of the 1640s was often marked by a similar character. Even John Calvin, though generally more measured than the English puritans, tended to separate the spiritual from the material when dealing with this topic, in a way quite distinct from, if not at odds with, his treatment of the incarnation.
For example, in the chapter of the Institutes titled, “It is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God”, Calvin itemizes the various times God appeared in material form (when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove) yet omits to even mention the incarnation. Had the revelation of Christ itself been included as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that while God “from time to time showed the presence of his divine majesty by definite signs, so that he might be said to be looked upon face to face” yet “all the signs that he ever gave forth aptly conformed to his plan of teaching and at the same time clearly told men of his incomprehensible essence.” (Institutes, I.XI.III, p. 102) Or again, when Calvin writes that “God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him” (Institutes, 1.11.1, p. 100) it is difficult to imagine what Calvin thought the incarnation was, if not form being attached to God. Later in the same chapter Calvin writes that “the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues but that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty.” (Institutes, I.XI.IV, pp. 104-105) Again this is difficult to reconcile with Calvin’s understanding of the incarnation, for if a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would have been insulting since Christ was a visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Similarly, Calvin’s Geneva Catechism contains statements about God that are false, even heretical if applied to the incarnate Son. Master. - Why is it unlawful to represent God by a visible shape? / Scholar. - Because there is no resemblance between him who is an eternal Spirit and incomprehensible, and a corporeal, corruptible, and lifeless figure. (Deut. iv. 15; Acts xvii. 29; Rom. i. 23.) / Master. - You think then that an insult is offered to his majesty when he is represented in this way? /Scholar. - Such is my belief. However, earlier in the catechism Calvin had allowed that the Second Commandment does not prohibit “sculpturing or painting any resemblance” outside of worship. But if representations of God are insulting to God’s majesty since He is an incomprehensible Spirit with no resemblance to corporeal objects, then why would this reason stop applying outside of worship? But is it even true what Calvin says here about God? If Calvin is talking about God the Father, then his argument is a straw man since no one argues for images of God the Father. On the other hand, if he is talking about God the Son, then he has embraced a position of Docetism, for it fails to reckon with Christ’s human nature to say that Christ is an incomprehensible Spirit.
3 Puritan Gnostics Capitulate to Emphasize Intellect over Body
Thirdly, both English-speaking and Continental Calvinism were not untouched by a type of rationalism manifesting itself in a heightened premium on the minutia of theology at the expense of the more holistic type of anthropology so ably outlined by James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.
The diagnosis of Puritanism as ‘rationalistic’ comes from Philip Schaff’s 1845 publication The Principle of Protestantism, in which he criticized what has been called the “theological or moral reductionism in which Protestants boiled down the Christian faith to its doctrinal or ethical core.” Under the template set by Calvin’s Geneva, prayers, singing and even the Eucharist itself, were treated as adjuncts to the preaching of the Word.Speaking of the reforms that Calvin brought to Geneva, William Dyrness pointed out that
“These reforms made possible a new way of experiencing both worship and the broader world. In Calvin’s Geneva the instruction in the catechism, the prayers even the singing, all were a dramatic elaboration of the preached word (which itself rested on the structure outlined in the Institutes).... While there is great beauty in St. Peter’s church [where Calvin preached], which is visible to this day, the sapce and environment of worship did not play a major role in the thinking of Calvin.” Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, p. 81.
This rationalism was amplified by a type of attention given to God’s utter transcendence which tended to mitigate against those tangible gestures of piety embedded in materiality. This de-materialization involved investing the sacred with what Mellor and Shilling describe as “a linguistic and textual character” resulting in “the ‘discursive symbolisation’ of religion.” (Philip A Mellor, Re-Forming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity p., 101.)
Brachlow suggests that it was under Beza that Calvinism was not only mediated to the larger Protestant world, but that it also underwent “a serious though subtle transformation under the impact of the rationalizing process of protestant scholasticism.” (Brachlow, The Communion of Saints: radical puritan and separatist ecclesiology, 1570-1625, 30. However, even in Calvin we see the seeds of the types of cognitivism that would later come to dominate the radical puritans. This can best be appreciated by contrasting the modes of worship in the Protestant lands influenced by Calvin vs. those who fell under Luther’s influence. Luther’s own crisis of faith had led to an experience of divine favour that would propel him to always emphasize the immediacy of God’s supernatural grace. For Luther, God’s presence could be mediated in physical objects used in worship no less than the natural world, while the keen interest he took in music would assure that art would always retain a special place in mediating to man something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe (this, of course, reached fruition in the creative output of J.S. Bach).
By contrast, the dispassionate and logical Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed Lutheran physicality, avoided creativity wherever possible, denied the mediating function of material objects and remained closely tethered to those things which could be formulated in didactic and cognitive terms. If for Luther the fundamental dichotomy was between faith and works, and Zwingly it was between the visible and the invisible, for Calvin it seems to have been between the material and the immaterial.
The nascent hostility to physicality in worship led Calvin to include the use of musical instruments in worship as among the shadows that were dispelled “when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated.” I discuss this further in my post, 'Luther, Calvin and Music.'
The churches that followed in Calvin’s wake would be marked by this de-physicalising influence and the corollary tendency for the cerebral to swallow up the sacramental, for the invisible to absorb the incarnational. Sermons became the de facto “ordinary means of salvation,” with longer and more didactic preaching needed to convince the Puritans that their faith was really genuine. As Diarmaid MacCulloch pointed out in The Reformation in his discussion of the Puritans:
Observations of the way in which the Prayer Book was used had increasingly disenchanted Puritans with liturgical approaches to God. They became convinced that preaching was the only way in which Christians should in normal circumstances receive God’s truth: Calvin said similar things, but had never been so categorical in asserting that a sermon was ‘the ordinary means of salvation’. Now they felt it a matter of scandal that there were not enough sermons in England – a major proof of the Church’s corruption.
The result of this disenchantment with liturgical approaches, together with the notion that worship was first and foremost a matter of instruction in the Word of God, dovetailed with the assumption among reformed communities (though not among those of the Lutheran and Anglican traditions) that for worship to be ‘spiritual’ it must be what they called ‘simple’ in the sense of being disencumbered with the trappings of materiality. In his defence of reformed worship, Terry Johnson articulated this antithesis between the spiritual and the material in terms that the original Puritans might easily have concurred:
“the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic.” (Johnson, Reformed Worship, pp. 38 & 47.)
This anti-material posturing was so important to the Puritans that they easily made the move from “the single-issue crusade against clerical vestments that dominated puritan polemics of the 1560s to what the erudite puritan theologian, Dudley Fenner, now declared was ‘the great and weighty cause…of the whole discipline of the church of Christ’.” (Cited in Brachlow, The Communion of Saints: radical puritan and separatist ecclesiology, 1570-1625, 21–22.)
4. Gnostic Puritans' Elitist Ecclesiology
Fourthly, contemporary scholarship has done a pretty good job in showing that the Puritans tended to see themselves as an inner group within the church or, in the words of Benedict, “a godly minority of true believers set amid a sluggardly mass of unredeemed and benighted sinners.” (Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, p. 246.) This notion was amplified as matters of church order migrated from being matters of ecclesiastical concerns to occupying a place of soteriological significance, as it did among the more radical puritans like Cartwright who held that failure to follow the Biblical blueprints of church polity led to eternal damnation. Among him and many of the more radical Puritans, ecclesial practice became in instrument of soteriological assurance among those who agonized over the question of their own salvation. (Brachlow, The Communion of Saints: radical puritan and separatist ecclesiology, 1570-1625, chap. 1.)
The self-understanding of being an inner group within the apostate institutional church would ultimately lead to an elitism that would tend to downplay the importance of visible ecclesial communities in a way not dissimilar to the 3rd and 4th century Gnostics. The church as a body abstracted from visible apparatuses has a pedigree within the magisterial reformers though it is true that the notion was amplified among the Puritans. “Luther” noted Cameron “redefined the ‘Communion of Saints’ (communion sanctorum) referred to in the creeds, simply as those people, living or dead, who belonged to the elect.” The European Reformation (Clarendon, 1991), 145 This definition of the church was shared by Melanchthon, Zwingly, Bucer, Bullinger, and Calvin, though its roots go back as far as Augustine.
In this regard, Mellor and Shilling are right to insist that the prioritization of “the cognitive commitment of individuals…rendered profane those embodied social bonds the Catholic Church had sacralised”, resulting in “an altogether more abstract” conception of religion. (Mellor, Re-Forming the Body, p. 102.) The cadences wrought by this cognitivism and the reciprocal preoccupation with invisibility would ultimately bring a hue of disembodiment to the larger theological narrative told by the theological descendants of the Puritans, as well as to create the plausibility structures in which new substratas of spiritual individualism could thrive.
Was John Calvin a Gnostic?
So much for the Puritans, but what about John Calvin himself? In the above discussion I have already had occasion to refer to Calvin at numerous points, suggesting that the Puritans got many of their Gnostic impulses from the Geneva reformer.
In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee suggests that that at the time of the Reformation certain trends were put in place that eventually resulted in the dialectical balance being lost that had previously kept the Gnostic tendencies of the church in check. He pointed out that in the theology of the magisterial reformers, the role of the Eucharist (the very thing that had tethered mediaeval spirituality to the material world) began to be subservient to the preaching of the Word. That this was true in the case of Ulrich Zwingli (1484 –1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504 –1575) has been well established. However, Lee also finds Calvin occasionally colluding with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper as well as the Gnostic devaluing of the material realm. The Eucharist, as important as it was within Calvin’s system, remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write,
“since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.”
Calvin thus made himself vulnerable for later generations to suggest that he “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.” As Philip Lee writes in Against the Protestant Gnostics,
“In maintaining a distinct dualism between...spirit and flesh, he would always be on guard against awarding too much dignity to the visible Church as Church, and he would always be suspicious of the externals of religion….
It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology. Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace….
Lee’s concerns about Calvin’s spiritualized approach to the Eucharist were echoed more recently by William Dyrness in his Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life. Dyrness discussed Calvin’s conviction that God’s word could only flourish in an environment that was first emptied of materiality. “Calvin” he writes, “wanted to…empty the worship space, so that it could be filled with God’s word…. Although in his understanding of signs Calvin sought to counter the minimalism of Zwingly, in the end nothing external can be essential to this process.... As a result, though Calvin probably did not intend this, over time it became the case that people, especially in the Pietist stream of this tradition, had no way of finding any substantial theological meaning in any external object or act." "The objects of the sacraments have no intrinsic importance, either aesthetically or theologically - these aspects have been stripped away. Rather the performance of the preached word enacted in the sacraments becomes a unique mediation of grace, and it is the theological center of Calvin's cultural-aesthetic identity.”
It was not only in the theology of the Eucharist that we find this dephysicalizing impulse. The Swiss reformer had no hesitation invoking the distinctly Platonic idea of the body being a prison. In his Institutes, he had written “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father and Stephen his to Christ they meant only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian.” In the same section he writes, “It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull…” Elsewhere Calvin makes a particular point of pointing out that “it is not necessary that Christ or for that matter his word be received through the organs of the body”, thus giving a degree of credence to those scholars who have identified a Platonic drift to Calvin’s approach to the material world. It will be worthwhile to quote from some of these scholars just to show that I am not alone in discerning a Gnostic drift within Calvin's thought. People who know me well know that once I start to perceive a pattern I can easily begin to read the data in light of that pattern. Hence, it will be helpful to show that the Gnostic tendencies of Calvin's thought is well attested by other scholars.
In his book Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought François Wendel wrote that “…throughout his teaching he insisted upon the secondary and supplementary character of the sacraments, whereas the Gospel could be sufficient of itself in case of need, and ought normally to be so, were it not for our weakness which makes us dependent upon cruder kinds of assistance.”
In Further Papers on Dante, Dorothy Sayers included “hatred of the flesh” as one of the “four certain marks” of Calvinism.
In The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, Carlos Eire noted that “The central focus of Reformed Protestantism was its interpretation of worship – more specifically, of the relationship between the spiritual and the material…. Calvin systematically juxtaposed…the spiritual and the material… Calvin’s attack on Roman Catholic ‘idolatry’ is a condemnation of the improper mixing of spiritual and material worship…”
William Bouwsma suggested similarly in John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Commenting on Calvin’s sermons on Job and Deuteronomy , Bouwsma wrote that
“Calvin suggested that God had displayed his own disdain for [the body] by creating it from the dust in order to keep us humble. …the body seemed to him not only the prison of the soul but worse: ‘carrion, dirt, and corruption,’ full of a ‘stinking infection’ that defiles the rest of the personality…. Thoughts of the body, especially when associated with sexuality, could produce in his rhetoric sudden reversals in which he would switch within a single paragraph from wonder at the miracle of human procreation to a sense of the body as ‘ordure and contagion’ and of the procreative act as ‘a shameful thing one dares not mention.’”
Suzanne Selinger had been even more blunt in urging that a body/spirit dualism lay at the heart of Calvin’s systematics. In Calvin Against Himself Selinger referred to the “unmistakably Platonic imagery and phraseology that Calvin uses in his writings…” Selinger was unsatisfied with the tendency among Calvinist historians to put this down to merely “a spiritualizing tendency in Calvin, and nothing more than that.” Instead, she suggests, the theme of dualism should actually be seen as one of the central unifying motifs in Calvin’s thought. “The unifying theme running through Calvin’s censoriousness at every level of communal life is…the constant presence of a bodily life pitted against the spirit and threatening contamination and contagion. This extreme attitude in thought, and action has often evoked the suspicion of dualism, an inherently troubling issue in studies of Calvin’s theology because it is heretical to Christianity….” While acknowledging the existence of “an orthodox position on dualism and an unorthodox one” Selinger suggests that it is the latter which “runs through his theology,” leading to “a psychologically engendered disjunction that colors and modulates that theology rather than producing contradictions.” Later in the work she suggests that Calvin
seems to have had a horror of the flesh in itself and as sheer matter, in a Platonic sense, as Luther did not. …. Abstraction in Calvin the introverted intellectual was above all a dephysicalizing. The physical was, first, symbolic of an individualism that had to be depotentiated and, secondly, a determining constituent of it. Calvin’s mind opposed itself to matter. He expressed his detachment in a loathing of the body, but he could never escape ‘this prison-house’; he expressed his total distrust of the body in detachment. The alienness of the body, and because of it the alienness of God, in this introverted intellectual, seems the basis of the tension that runs through his writings…. With words, Calvin also scourged his body. It was an attempt to control it; indeed, as it were, to annihilate it.”
The Illusion of Immediacy
Echoing the anti-creational orientation of the classical Gnostics, much of the later Presbyterian tradition has fed off theassumption that the created order is spiritually ineffectual, and consequently that secondary, mediating causes are at best unnecessary and at worst deeply problematic, especially when such mediating causes are embedded in materiality, as in the sacraments. This is the standpoint adopted by the great Calvinist theologian B. B. Warfield. In his book, The Plan of Salvation Warfield asserted that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation.” He is critical of any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit. . . .”
One sees this antipathy to means again in Warfield’s discussion of sacerdotalism, where Warfield happily separates the work of instrumentalities with the work of God’s Spirit. In their discussion of Warfield, Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson write that the key question separating sacerdotalism and evangelicalism is the question of divine grace comes to us "immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities - the church and sacraments.” (Fred G. Zaspel and Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, p. 415)
What is puzzling is that these authors fail to recognize that faith in the evangelical view is also an instrumentality. Thus, Zaspel and Ferguson ask, “Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?” Their answer to their own question is that evangelicalism “sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace.” In practice, this sweeping away of every intermediary would include not only a rejection of sacramentally-mediated grace, but also a rejection of parental and ecclesial nurture as instruments of saving grace. As Zaspel and Ferguson note, “The point at issue is the immediacy of God’s saving activity…The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation, to look to God himself for grace rather than to any means of grace.”
The key word here is “immediacy.” Taking this Zwinglian idea to its logical extension, Zaspel and Ferguson follow Warfield in arguing that if salvation is dependent on the ministry of the church then it depends on man. However, we might equally say that if salvation depends on faith then it is dependent on man. If someone replies that this is not the case with faith because faith is a gift, then one could certainly ask: is not the church and her ministry also a gift? Moreover, while Zaspel and Ferguson write that “This ‘evangelicalism’ is, simply, Protestantism”, their position can be contrasted with that of Calvin who, for all his Gnostic leanings, did put a premium on secondary means in a way that Zaspel and Ferguson, following Warfield, oppose. For example, Calvin wrote that “There is no other means of entering life unless she [the Church] conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at the breast, and watch over us with her protection and guidance...Outside her bosom no forgiveness of sins, no salvation can be hoped for.”
Review of Against the Protestant Gnostics
Is Charles Hodge Also Among the Gnostics?
Is Jonathan Edwards a Gnostic?
Eight Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed
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