Saturday, July 12, 2008

If You Survive . . . You'll Leave Thinking Like a Lawyer

The Influence of Calvin’s Legal Education

In early sixteenth century France, a legal education had become a practical necessity for anyone aspiring to a career in the administrative affairs of either church or state. (Jones 15) It was also highly valued by those who sought only the prestige of a law degree though never intending to enter the practice. (Jones) For Calvin, though, neither of these aspirations led him to study law. Instead, after beginning his classical studies at the University of Paris, he heeded the advice of his father, who was a notary himself, and traveled to Orleans where he commenced his legal training. Such a change in direction was not at all unusual for a young student of that day (or our own day for that matter) who upon completing their legal studies turned away from the courts and followed a more scholarly vocation that often led them further into the exciting fray of the broad educational movement afoot at that time – humanism. (Jones)

Lawyers who followed along this path often would engage the theological questions that gave rise to and advanced the Reformation. Some scholars have even contended that lawyers had as substantial an impact on the Reformation as they did the Renaissance. (W.S. Reid 57) “From the new legal exegetical and expository methods, the Protestant theologians learned much to assist their study and interpretation of Holy Writ as well as in organization of new churches. Among Reformers no one owed his legal training a greater debt than did John Calvin.” (W.S. Reid)

At Orleans, Calvin studied under Pierre Taisan de l’Estoile, who was well known throughout France as an able exponent of Roman law. (W.S. Reid 59) Pierre Taisan, however, followed the older technique in teaching the law “basing his exposition on the medieval glossators, Bartolus and Accurius.” (W.S. Reid) Having already been introduced to the humanists, however, Calvin along with some of his fellow like-minded legal scholars left Taisan’s lectures in Orleans after a year and traveled to the University of Bourges where, they learned, the Italian jurist Andrea Alicati had recently begun lecturing. (W.S. Reid)

“Heralded as the premier reformer of juridical science, Alicati was trained, as were most Italian humanists, in the art of classical rhetoric.” (Jones 16) With his wide knowledge of both the Greek and Latin classics, Alicati was able to come to the Roman law with a profound historical understanding of it. The law, as expounded by Alicati, was not “a dead series of principles, but a living social phenomenon.” (W.S. Reid 59) He encouraged his students to read Roman law by placing it in its original rhetorical framework. (Jones 16)

Since Calvin had already received a good humanist education during his initial years of study at the University of Paris, he found that Alicati’s humanist method approach to exegesis of Roman law was consistent with his prior training. Consequently, Calvin was “able to combine both his legal and classical studies to gain a sound historical understanding of the law’s growth and development as a means of social control.” (W.S. Reid 60)

It was during this period of Calvin’s legal training that his first published writing appeared – his Antapologia, a prefatory letter to the treatise of Nicolas Duchemin defending their first law professor, Pierre Taisan, against a violent attack by Alicati on Taisan’s “old-fashioned” teaching techniques. (W.S. Reid) Thus, Calvin demonstrated an independent and critical analysis of his own renowned law professor at Bourges. Calvin’s skill as a legal rhetorician was gaining him some additional recognition as he was asked to deliver lectures on rhetoric at a local Augustinian convent. (Jones 16)

About this same time, Calvin began to work on what would become his first scholarly publication, a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia. Though it received no popular scholarly acclaim at the time, Calvin’s commentary has been described by a recent scholar as a “perfect specimen of sixteenth-century scholarship” in that it exhibits the well-honed skills of a writer “practiced in the arts of philology, textual criticism, and translation, the three hallmarks of humanist scholarship.” (Jones) Furthermore, this commentary serves as perhaps the best evidence that by 1532, Calvin had become an accomplished master in the art of classical rhetoric and in its reconceptualization in the world of Renaissance humanism. (Jones)

Although he was the object of Calvin’s critique, Alicati did provide the young scholar with the rhetorical methods that he used in the preparation of his commentary on Seneca, and Calvin would go on to employ those same methods in all of his later works, particularly his commentaries on the Bible. It was also Alicati who stimulated Calvin to obtain a greater knowledge of the Greek classics, which required him to intensify his efforts to master the Greek language. (W.S. Reid 60)

In addition to the substantial influence from his law professor Alicati, two other humanist scholars shaped Calvin’s thinking during his legal training. Bude, a contemporary, fortified the historical method and use of evidence that Calvin had learned from Alicati. Both Bude and Alicati had inherited their approach from Lorenzo Valla, a fifteenth-century humanist scholar. (W.S. Reid 61) The other writer, from a previous generation of scholars, who influenced Calvin concerning the method of proper exegesis was Desiderius Erasmus. Calvin called Bude the first pillar and Erasmus the second pillar of humanist literature. (W.S. Reid 61)

“No one can appreciate the character of Calvin’s writings unless he recognizes his legal education, which trained him in the art of definitions, divisions, the asking of questions, the dealing with arguments effectively and the taking out of a text all that it was susceptible of giving.” (W.S. Reid 57; quoting A. Lefranc, Calvin et l’Eloquence Francaise, Paris, 1934) From his legal training in rhetorical skills of analysis and exposition, Calvin “understood how to establish the historical context as the essential first step in the process and then to identify the personality of the author himself.” (Wilcox 310) What has been said of Calvin’s writings is equally applicable to his discourses. But, as we shall see through an analysis of his discourses at the Lausanne Disputation, Calvin’s use of rhetoric was much more creative than the rules of evidence and argumentation he had been taught in law school. (Jones 25)

In fact, as one scholar has noted, Calvin’s preference for a lucid and concise style in both Latin and French, void of unnecessary rhetorical flourishes or distracting ornamentation, constituted a certain “sober literary aesthetic” that differed significantly from the style adopted by his French contemporaries. (Jones 26; citing Higman, Calvin the Writer) Thus, the training in law that Calvin had received in Orleans and more so in Bourges provided the essential preparation that would enable him to argue the question at Lausanne. What remained, however, was the urging of his friend and mentor Farel to prompt Calvin to rise to his feet on that fateful fifth day of the Disputation.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Forming of Calvin's Theological Mind

Historical Background for the Use of Public Disputation

Public disputation has served a vital role in the formation of civilized societies throughout recorded history. Plutarch, in his De sollertia animaliaum, recounts one the earliest disputations between two Greeks on the pressing issue of whether animals living on land possessed superior intelligence to those living in water. (Lim 2) While the question under review by the ancients may seem trifling, the significance of Plutarch’s account is found in his description of the format and procedure by which the issue was joined.

First and foremost, a disputation was a ritualized verbal contest in which antagonists debated each other while adhering to the rules of a language game, whether of rhetoric or of dialectic. In Plutarch’s example, the debate entailed an exchange of reasoned arguments in successive continuous speeches rather than a mutual cross fire, or dialectical interrogation, by the two adversaries. Both forms of debate were common in antiquity. (Lim 3)

Public disputation also appears in a form in Luke’s record of the early church’s development as her apostles, elders and leaders met and addressed themselves to the question of the salvation of the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem. (Acts 15) A few short centuries later, at least one of the Church Fathers, Ambrose, warned of the dangers of relying upon dialectic in resolving doctrinal disputes when he wrote: “Let the empty questions regarding speech cease now, for the Kingdom of God, as it is written, consists not in the persuasion of words, but in the exhibition of virtuous deeds.” (Lim 216; quoting Ambrose) Emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian were heeding Ambrose’s admonition when they convened the Council of Ephesus in 431 with these words of instruction:

With patience each shall hear whatsoever is said and each shall be ready to reply or for reply to be made to him and thus by questions and by replies and by solution the inquiry touching the true faith shall be judged without any dispute and by common examination of our Saintliness it will reach a happy agreement without dispute. (Lim 221; quoting Candidianus sent as comes domesticorum by the emperors to the Council of Ephesus)
While recognizing the dangers and the weaknesses of relying solely upon public disputation as a means of resolving doctrinal disputes, there is evidence, however, that church leaders continued to use disputation as a successful forum for the resolution of disputes as well as the promulgation of the truth. Eusebius chronicles the experience of Dionysius of Alexandria who convened an open disputation in Arsinoe. Dionysius reported, “I called together presbyters and teachers of the brethren in the villages (there were present also such of the brethren as wished), and I urged them to hold the examination of the question publicly.” (Lim 21; quoting Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.24.6-7 (Oulton, ed. 2:194-95)) This “public examination” extended for three full days “from morn till night.” Dionysius would later describe the procedures and the attitudes displayed by the participants during the disputation in these words:

On that occasion I conceived the greatest admiration for the brethren, their firmness, love of truth, facility in following an argument, and intelligence as we propounded in order and with forbearance the questions, the difficulties raised and the points of agreement; on the one hand refusing to cling obstinately and at all costs (even though they were manifestly wrong) to opinions once held; and on the other hand not shirking the counter-arguments, but as far as possible attempting to grapple with the questions in hand and master them. Nor, if convinced by reason, were we ashamed to change our opinions and give our assent; but conscientiously and unfeignedly and with hearts laid open to God we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the holy Scriptures. (Lim 21; quoting Eusebius, Hist. eccl.
7.24.8 (Oulton, ed., 2:194-95))
This same pattern of “public examination” where the participants “propounded in order and with forbearance the questions” would continue as a principal vehicle for the contesting of truth down through the centuries. Indeed, it became of the chief means by which the propositions advanced by Luther, Calvin and their colleagues would endeavor to reform the Church. The vital and effective function of public disputation was concisely confirmed by Calvin in his personal correspondence commenting upon the proceedings at Lausanne when he wrote: “The Senate of Berne has declared that everyone is at liberty to state his objections freely, without need to fear being disturbed in consequence of it. That is the fittest means of exposing the ignorance of those who set themselves against the Gospel.” (Merle 236; quoting Calvin, Letter to F. Daniel, Lausanne, October 13, 1536)

Thus, the forum was opened at Lausanne for a full and free public debate of the issues of the day. But, was Calvin up to the task of rising to the question? We will find that the answer is a resounding yes as we now turn our consideration to his preparation for the task through his training at Orleans and Bourges and his prompting to the task by his encounters with his friend and, in some respects, mentor Guillaume Farel.