research interests

My research interest is Calvin’s understanding and use of Scripture and Patristic sources in the development of his ecclesiology in The Institutes of the Christian Religion. A representative example is Calvin’s approval of the metaphor of mother to describe the church.[1] The church is, according to the head of the chapter, “mother of all the Godly.”[2] In so doing Calvin mirrors Cyprian of Carthage who affirmed, in De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.”[3]

The biblical support provided for this discussion of the Church as mother appears limited. Calvin refers to the ministry of pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) as helps provided by God for the nurturance and practice of true faith. These pastors and teachers are placed within an authority structure—the visible church—that is a means by which God sustains and develops Christians.

Calvin then turns to biblical examples of marriage and motherhood as analogs to the church. God has joined us to himself through the church, therefore “let not man separate” the one from the other.[4]

The theological and hermeneutical approach used by Calvin has become unfamiliar to Reformed Christians who are often unaware of the extent to which he was shaped by both the Early Church and Medieval Church.

Reformed Christians today (both mainline and evangelical) might balk at Calvin’s use of the mother metaphor, which he appropriated from one of the Fathers of the Church. At places contemporary Reformed Christianity seems to be working with a truncated understanding of the place of Scripture and tradition in the life of the church.

In his 2014 article “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition,” Todd Billings argues that theological renewal within Reformed and evangelical churches will likely come as the result of a retrieval of older ways of engaging the church’s faith and practice—a biblical and Christ-centered catholicity.[5]

The fact that Calvin appeals to the Church Fathers as well as the Scriptures themselves need not be viewed as an affront to sola Scriptura. In fact, current understandings of sola Scriptura have produced a reductionist approach that errs toward either Biblicism or correlationism, terms employed by Billings, which I find helpful.[6] These approaches distort the theological interpretation of the Bible as Scripture by ignoring interpretive tradition altogether.

Biblicism leaps over the history of interpretation in order to attempt to excavate the “original meaning.” On the other hand, the correlation approach ignores the original context altogether and connects biblical passages directly to cultural felt needs.[7] The result has been like a carnival mirror, which produces a distorted reflection, such that Christians today struggle to use Scripture well.

A solution to this impasse has been proposed by the intellectual project commonly called the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Scholars in this stream suggest that the church may move beyond the alternates of Biblicism and correlationism by learning to read the Bible with the ancient church.

Billings’ approach is echoed by Michael Allen and Scott Swain in their 2015 book Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, which invites the theological academy and church to reacquaint themselves with attitudes that marked prior generations of scholarship, such as “receptivity toward the church’s past, particularly its normative creedal and confessional deliverances,” as well as “ a willingness to engage in self-consciously theological and spiritual patterns of biblical interpretation.”[8]

Calvin’s understanding and use of Scripture and Patristic sources provides a helpful case study to further contemplate the ways in which contemporary Reformed theology can retrieve and reengage with the catholic tradition in a way that is Christ-centered and Bible-focused. This is an important scholarly project in its own right, and also important for the continuation of a robust

[1] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cyprian of Carthage, De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 6.

[4] Appealing to Mark 10:9, Calvin, 4.1.1.

[5] J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition,” Pro Ecclesia 23:2 (2014) 135-137.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015) 17-18.

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