Marilynne Robinson: Calvinian

In Part One of this essay I explored “Marilynne Robinson: Distinctive Calvinist.” Here the focus shifts to Marilynne Robinson as a Calvinian. Calvinians are those people who specialize in Calvin–experts and scholars who read Calvin closely, although they may not personally follow Calvin. In contrast, there are many Calvinists who admire and are shaped in a general way by Calvin, even if they actually know little about him, and what they know may be secondhand.

ORIGINS

It is not clear when Robinson first discovered Calvin. She explains that she was prompted to read Calvin as a result of teaching a course on Moby Dick at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was intrigued by Melville’s Calvinist leanings and decided she ought to read Calvin himself. Hesselink and Robinson So she began reading Calvin’s Institutes and purchased Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. That, she says, “was my first direct encounter with Calvin. I was astonished to realize how utterly different Calvin is from anything I had ever heard or read about him. It was really moving to discover such a vast and lucid and gracious spirit.”1

This “conversion” must have happened when Robinson was close to fifty years old. But then, like a new convert, she not only began to immerse herself in Calvin’s works but also began to promote Calvin in a variety of venues. She proceeded to teach a course on Calvin in her Congregational church in Iowa City and also preached there occasionally. In one of the sermons, “Vision,” based on the lectionary passages for the day (February 4, 2001) she quoted Calvin six times.

The public at large, however, did not become aware of her love of Calvin until the publication of a collection of essays titled The Death of Adam2 in 1998. Five of the eleven essays dealt with Calvin and Calvinism, sometimes only in passing, sometimes at length, particularly in the two chapters on Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the French king Francois I and supporter of religious reformers in France. In these essays Robinson invariably defended Calvin against his detractors and their various caricatures and slanders. When this book was reviewed, very favorably in the Sunday supplement of the New York Times, the lead title in bold print read “Calvin Got a Bad Rap.”

From this time on Marilynne Robinson was recognized as something of a Calvin scholar and started to receive invitations to write prefaces to collections of Calvin’s writings: a very brief one in John Calvin: Selections from His Writings,3 and a longer one in John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant. Selected Writings.4

GILEAD

While the impact of The Death of Adam and its defense of Calvin/ism was considerable, ironically it was the novel Gilead that did more than anything else to call Calvin to the attention of the wider world. This was Robinson’s second novel, published in 2004, twenty-four years after her first novel. It featured the musings of John Ames, an old small town Congregational minister who was fond of Calvin and Barth in particular (along with John Donne and George Herbert). There are only five references to Calvin in the novel (and an equal number to Barth) but they occur in such a natural, winsome way that many readers, some for the first time, began to see the Genevan reformer in a new light. No polemics here, just delightful anecdotes.

In pondering the possibility of death with his young son (by a second marriage), Ames suggests in a light-hearted manner that when he dies he would like be found clutching books by some of his favorite authors: “Donne and Herbert and Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s Institutes.” And then he adds, “Which is by no means to slight Volume I.”5

There are two places where Ames cites Calvin making points that are dear to Robinson’s heart. In the one case Ames is reflecting on how we should respond to people who are nasty and may insult us. He concedes that he hasn’t always responded in a Christian manner and then says,

Calvin says somewhere that each of us in an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us.6

Later, as Ames recalls his feelings about his namesake (the son of his Presbyterian minister friend) who was to plague him most of his life, he recalls another passage in Calvin’s Institutes:

I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them. I have probably preached on that a hundred times.7

Gilead was a huge success. It won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and was reviewed favorably in countless journals. It was widely read in England and the Netherlands and was soon translated into several languages. For some reason, the few references to Calvin, more than those to Barth, elicited a remarkable response, and soon Robinson was invited to lecture on Calvin to university and seminary audiences including not only Reformed-Presbyterian groups but also Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Unitarians!

This one novel did more to awaken interest in Calvin in the general public than all of the fine studies by Calvin scholars published during the quincentennial celebration of Calvin’s birth in 2009.

FAVORITE THEMES IN CALVIN’S THEOLOGY

Calvin’s negative image is often the result of two historical situations: the governance of Geneva and the execution of Servetus. On both scores Robinson becomes very defensive and is quick to defend Calvin–or, more specifically, put these things in their historical context and thereby undercut the “black legend of Geneva.”

In her Introduction to the Death of Adam Robinson takes on the famous British historian Lord Acton (a Roman Catholic) who accuses Protestants in general, and Calvin in particular, of being guilty of a theology of persecution. Robinson exposes Acton’s shoddy scholarship as he misconstrues the role of the magistrates in Calvin’s Geneva.8 To the contrary, avers Robinson, “Geneva became the model of Reform civilization . . . . This same experiment, the creation of a new social order, has been tried repeatedly in our century, usually with horrific consequences, beside which Genevan rigors and excesses are surely very mild indeed.”9

When it comes to the execution of Servetus, Robinson points out that the Genevans were hardly the first to execute a heretic. The decision to execute Servetus by burning him at the stake was by the City Council. Calvin approved of the execution but not by burning. Robinson concedes that this was a deplorable act but points out that it was approved by all the major reformers of that time. Moreover, says Robinson, it is unfair to blacken Calvin’s name by this single act while thousands of French Protestants were being tortured and killed by Roman Catholics into the seventeenth century. Robinson likes to compare Calvin and the revered Thomas More in this connection. The latter called for the death of William Tyndale who was also burned at the stake. His heresy: translating the Bible into English. Robinson concludes, “Any opprobrium that attaches to Calvin for failing to rise above his time should attach to More also”–and countless others who followed.10

More important is the way Robinson highlights certain motifs in Calvin’s theology. Some I have referred to in my previous article, “Marilynne Robinson, Distinctive Calvinist.”11 These include her defense of Calvin’s view of predestination and so-called total depravity and its correlate the dignity of humanity. Two more points should be added: Robinson’s affinity with Calvin in her sense of the majesty and mystery of God, and the beauty and wonder of creation.

Robinson refers to Calvin’s great commentary on Genesis, which was completed the year before his death, and describes it as “a joyful and effusive work” and then adds, “It is touching to find this sick and weary man eager to call Creation good.”12 Despite our sinfulness, “the human attributes that, according to Calvin make us an image of God [mind, memory, senses] are attuned to experiencing creation as in effect addressed to us, moment by moment . . . . Perception is flawed by our Adamic sinfulness. But it is brilliant all the same and, by the grace of God, flooded with the beauty of the world God has made for us.”13

Surprisingly, Robinson does not refer in these passages to Calvin’s famous description of the creation as a “theater of God’s glory,”14 but she does cite a passage in the Institutes that shows Calvin’s awe in regard to the created order. “Wherever you cast your eyes,” Calvin writes,

there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his [God’s] glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe . . . without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.15

Robinson has a similar appreciation of the beauty and glory of the universe. Note how she concludes her meditation on Psalm 8:

So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, which is plainly before my eyes. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here among us.16

While alluding often to God’s glory. Robinson does not speak very often of the sovereignty of God (nor does Calvin, surprisingly), nor of the majesty of God (which Calvin does frequently). She does, however, employ equivalent terms such as “the grandeur” and the “freedom and mystery of God,”17 and “holiness.”18 Such language is consonant with Calvin’s exalted view of God’s majesty and glory.

MYSTERIOUS GAPS

Robinson’s appreciation of these and other areas of Calvin’s work (such as his use of the Old Testament and polemic against idolatry) clearly evidence she is a Calvinian, indeed a very enthusiastic one and a fierce “defender of the faith.” At the same time however, any discerning Calvin scholar familiar with Robinson’s writings will notice some glaring gaps.

Robinson is very selective in the doctrines of Calvin she chooses to cite or discuss. One is hard pressed to find references to, let alone discussions of, such primary Christian doctrines as the cross and resurrection of Christ, justification by grace through faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit. These themes are hallmarks of Calvin, yet they are conspicuously absent from Robinson’s theology. Granted Robinson has nowhere attempted to write a comprehensive theology of Calvin, but in several places she gives a summary of the reformer’s life and work.

One such summary is the Preface to the “Heritage Spiritual Classics” edition of Calvin’s works. Here, after referring to Calvin on the Fall, Robinson interjects, “But our restoration is effected in Christ” and then quotes Calvin: “His [Christ’s] excellence and heavenly dignity . . . are extended to us also, seeing it is for our sake he is enriched with them.”19 Such references are, however, extremely rare. I find only one other place in her published writings of a comparable nature. It reveals that Robinson does indeed have a high Christology. The key sentence occurs in a reference to Calvin’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper. She quotes Calvin’s famous statement, the Lord’s Supper “is a mystery too sublime for me to be able to express, or even to comprehend, and to be more explicit, I rather experience it than understand it . . . (Inst. IV.17.32), then she comments,

It is interesting how fully God and Christ become indistinguishable in passages like this . . . . This is the consequence of a very high Christology, which cannot subordinate Christ to God in matters of eternity and creative efficacy, nor God to Christ in matters of compassion and redemption. Toward us the divine will is one and consistent. Through it God is known to us. Through it Christ is known to us.20

That Christology is not central to Robinson’s thought is obvious not only in her depictions of Calvin’s theology, but it is also shockingly absent in her “Credo.” Composed apparently at the request of the Houston Baptist University and later published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, it is a long meandering piece in which Robinson expounds on predestination and original sin, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, her own indebtedness to Jonathan Edwards as well as Calvin, her interest in science and quantum physics, the limits of language to express faith and reality, the importance of reverence and awe in dealing with things religious, a defense of American democracy and the importance of loving our neighbors, “these images of God.” She closes her “Credo” with a lament about “the consequences of a progressive loss of awareness of the richness of human experience over time through history.” This she follows, not surprisingly, with a reference to Calvin. “The loss of awareness is a loss of the sense of reverence toward ourselves and toward humankind, who are in the words of Jean Calvin, ‘the loftiest proof of divine wisdom.'”21

These are all familiar themes of Robinson, so there is nothing too surprising here. What is new is her affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed, which she accepts except for the phrase, “descended into hell.” Moreover, in spite of her independent spirit, here she speaks a good word for the importance of creeds. “The creeds seem to be, all in all, an elegant solution to the problems of volatility and syncretism all religious deal with.” However, she adds, “I do not consider it either necessary or meritorious in me or anyone else to be able to affirm it.”22 Robinson giveth and Robinson taketh away!

The real problem, the shocker for me, was the minimal role Jesus Christ plays in this “Credo.” In the Apostles’ Creed, indeed all creeds, Jesus Christ is the center. In Robinson’s “Credo” Christ is at the periphery. There are a total of three references to Jesus or Christ, all of them incidental. Reverence for God is the major motif of this “Credo,” not the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After reading her “Credo” I fired off a missive to Marilynne Robinson expressing my dismay. I conjectured that Karl Barth, whom Robinson admires, would have exclaimed, “What kind of a credo is that!” Her response was that “the problem is the name of Christ has been abused and exploited to the point that reverence for it ought to be restored, first of all in care and restraint in its use.”23

I am not persuaded. Robinson justifies her approach by pointing out that her audience is largely secular and hence requires a different type of apologetic for the faith. In this letter she continues, “I suspect I may be a Christian apologist for the secular world rather than to it. The abuse of Christ and the church is the abuse of everyone who yearns for Christ and for a meaningful church, and there are millions of them all over the secular map.”24

Maybe so. I’ll leave it up to the sociologists and religious pollsters to determine whether that is true. In any case, Robinson often is speaking to religious groups and sometimes Calvin scholars. Even then she does not move very far beyond Book I of the Institutes. To be a “classic Calvinian,” as she claims to be, she has to move on to God the Redeemer and the work of the Spirit in the life of believers and the church (Books II-IV). Or, to put the matter more simply and bluntly, for Calvin (and Karl Barth) the object of faith is Jesus Christ. For Marilynne Robinson it seems to be God the Creator.

For Robinson the notion of “perception” is the key to Calvin’s theology. In her “Credo” she recalls that when she was in college, a footnote in an assigned text (Jonathan Edwards’ Doctrine of Original Sin Defended) was her “first, best introduction to epistemology and ontology . . . “Then, by grace of that footnote, I should think of God as present and intentional, and of reality as essentially addressed to human perception–perception being then as now my greatest interest and pleasure in life.”25 Many years later she concluded it was also the key to Calvin’s theology. Unfortunately, she never defines the term or points out where it is found explicitly in Calvin’s works. One can only surmise from its usage in various contexts what she has in mind. It seems to be related to such notions as intuition, mind, memory, sense, and understanding. For example, she writes,

The crucial role of perception in Calvin, who bases so much of his definition of the divine in humanity on the brilliance of the human capacity for perception, is evident in the consistency with which he associate “election” with the radical understanding of the presence of God, and of his nature as manifest in Christ.26

In the same essay, she writes, “Nothing in Calvin’s thought is more striking than his evocation of perception, which has the potency and the splendor of a true apprehension of God.”27 Even though “Perception is flawed by our Adamic sinfulness, it is brilliant all the same and, by the grace of God, flooded with the beauty of the world God made for us.”28 In a recent interview with Thomas Gardner in Christianity Today she repeats that “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology”29

If so, it is strange that one can find only one reference to the word in Calvin’s Institutes. Nor is it discussed in the latest and largest theology of Calvin by Charles Partee,30 or in the monumental study of Calvin’s epistemology by Cornelis van der Kooi.31

APPRECIATION

Having raised several questions concerning Marilynne Robinson as an “authentic Calvinian,” it is my hope that her further explorations of Calvin will do justice to his Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and the Holy Spirit.

At the same time, I am indebted to Robinson for several insights and motifs often ignored in Calvin scholarship. I maintain that Robinson has done more to rehabilitate Calvin’s reputation in the public arena, at least in North America, than all the rest of recent Calvin scholars combined. Moreover, no Calvin scholar I know of has so eloquently born testimony to the power and beauty of Calvin’s theology. She writes majestically and persuasively, “Any reader of the Institutes must be struck by the great elegance, the gallantry, of its moral vision, which is more beautiful for the resolution with which its theology embraces sorrow and darkness.”32 And also a passage that speaks glowingly of Calvin’s vision in language with a distinctly Robinsonian voice:

His theology is compelled and enthralled by an overwhelming awareness of the grandeur of God, and this is the source of the aesthetic coherency of his religious vision, which is neither mysticism nor metaphysics, but mysticism as a method of rigorous inquiry, and metaphysics as an impassioned flight of the soul.”33
I. John Hesselink is the Albertus C. Van Raalte Professor emeritus of systematic theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.