Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Calvin’s spirituality has attracted few writers. Among the reasons for this inattention on the part of scholars a leading place must be assigned to a widely perceived difficulty in fitting Calvin into traditional or commonplace paradigms of spirituality. Elsie McKee recognizes the problem (the Latin spiritualitas is alien to Calvin’s vocabulary, for example) and overcomes it by fastening on “piety”, of which she offers “a kind of descriptive definition”:
This is, of course, correlated with Calvin’s own definition of pietas in Institutes 1:2:1. The qualification “Pastoral” means that the book deals very largely with piety as inculcated and exemplified by Calvin the pastor-teacher, and only minimally with his own personal piety. However, the first of the five sections into which the work is divided contains the few familiar autobiographical essays by Calvin.
After a second part, similarly brief, providing theological orientation on piety, faith and the church from the Institutes, the bulk of the volume is devoted to “Liturgical and Sacramental Practices”, “Prayer,” and “Piety in the Christian Life, Ethics, and Pastoral Care”. The whole is an invaluable addition to English literature on Calvin. Its usefulness will be enhanced for sure when McKee’s The Pastoral Ministry in Calvin’s Geneva, here announced, comes from the press. The present compilation is marked by judicious organization, the helpfulness and perspicua brevitas of the introductions, the accessibility of the translations themselves, which include a good proportion by the author herself, especially from the sermons, and the unobtrusive appearance here and there of her original research, for example, on the timing of baptisms in Geneva. The section on the weekly Day of Prayer will be new to many seasoned Calvin scholars.
The piety Calvin advocated was largely communal, churchly. There is much here about “frequenting the sermons” and sharing in the Lord’s supper, but very little about individual devotional reading of the Bible of daily routines of person prayer, let alone group Bible studies or prayer groups. (How truly open and participatory was the pastors’ weekly “congregation” for scriptural exposition remains uncertain.) One consequence of the absence of anything akin to “spiritual exercises” is the difficulty of knowing where to draw the line in delimiting what counts for piety in Calvin’s world. One misses here, for example, the dimension of discipline that the current publication of the Consistory minutes is so richly illuminating. A sufficiently high proportion of Geneva’s population appeared before the Consistory for confession, admonition, and restoration to seem almost standard experience! I was also left wondering whether some of the other harsher notes in Calvin’s pastoral repertoire are not somewhat muted here, such as the chilling counsel he gave to battered wives to stay with their husbands until their very lives were at risk. This required pietas of the highest order.
Finally, however, this is a timely publication for reformed churches. If Scotland is typical, the rise of interest in “spirituality”, especially riding on the back of a romanticized Celtic renaissance, advances pari passu with the declension of a Reformed identity and praxis. A rediscovery of the tempered rigour of Calvinian piety is urgent. By this important primer Elsie McKee has served both church and academy with distinction.
David F. Wright
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, FALL 2004, VOL. 4, #2
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