Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An immoral theologian?

There was some discussion on Radio 4 this morning about whether Fidel Castro was a good man or a bad man, a good thing for the people of Cuba and the world or not. The speaker argued that, like us all, though in a much more extreme way, he was both bad and good.

Orwell's famous statement was quoted:

"One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being."

(Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali available here:

But can the same be said of a theologian? Could one say that someone is a good theologian but a bad person?

Of course, none of us is perfect; we are all a mixture of good and bad. Our theology will inevitably be mixed and contaminated with error.

But theology is a uniquely experimental science. The truth leads to Godliness. If it does not do so, it has not really been embraced.

Of course, an unbelieving theologian might give a brilliant analysis of some doctrine, but is not theology faith seeking understanding rather than unbelief seeking clarity?

If the scandal around Karl Barth's relationship with his secretary was justified, is that relevant to how we read his theology?

Friday, November 04, 2016

Calvin's staff meeting / chapter

Calvin was in the habit of meeting with the pastors of Geneva and the surrounding district every Friday morning to examine candidates for the ministry and discuss theological and practical matters of local or international concern.

see Scott M. Manetsch,  Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, OUP Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, 2013, p2

Don't change a thing!

It is disappointing, it seems to me, that amongst Calvin's dying words to the pastors of Geneva was a charge not to change anything. For good or ill it was not advice that they were able to follow exactly.

(see Scott M. Manetsch,  Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, OUP Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, 2013, p1)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016


As it's Reformation time of year, and I have just finished and enjoyed a biography of Luther, I have been reading a tiny bit of Calvin biography for fun.

One of the issues in reading any writer is what degree of unity and consistency we expect.

Did the writer's ideas develop over time?

Did they change to such a degree that what he wrote later contradicted what he wrote before?

To what extent did the writer realise that some of his views were in tension or were contradictory?

With a great writer, perhaps especially one given to logical thought and systemisation, we should assume a high level of consistency. Self-awareness is a different issue. It would be a mistake to say that even a great writer can't contradict himself, sometimes without knowing it.

In reading anyone else, we need to wonder to what extent we might understand him better than he understood himself. Or better than his contemporaries did.

And if these issues arise when reading any writer, they also apply to reading Scripture. Since God is the ultimate author of the Bible, all his words are consistent but there is certainly development and change (not least between the Testaments). We must not flatten out the different contributions of the human authors. Perhaps they could not see the tensions or the unity. Perhaps we can't. But with the Bible we do know that we have one united symphony.

With other writers, there will be some wrong notes. Some themes will be discordant. But which ones?