[John Calvin’s words will be in blue; Tim Staples’ in green; anti-Catholic Reformed polemicist James Swan’s in brown]
Catholic apologist and friend Tim Staples has a new book out about Mariology, entitled, Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines. On 10 October 2014 at the Catholic Answers blog, he wrote a related post, entitled, “Apologists Make Mistakes, Too!” Well, of course we do (as far as that goes)! No argument there. I am questioning, however, whether we have been (hugely) mistaken on this particular point.
First of all: I’m not trying to make this some big stink between Tim and I. Not at all! It’s a friendly dispute about a fascinating question. Tim’s a great guy. I like his stuff; he likes my writing, too. We first met in 2011 at the Catholic Answers office in California.
I think it is important to respond to this article, in particular, because it’s already (quite predictably) being exploited by anti-Catholic Reformed apologist James Swan. I wrote on the Catholic Answers thread about that:
Some Protestants have argued that these texts are insufficient to determine what Calvin believed, or that he himself was agnostic and took no position on this issue, or in fact, opposed the notion that she was a perpetual virgin. Tim wrote in his recent post:
I also point out some errors going in the other direction. Well-intentioned Catholics—even some Catholic apologists—have presented things concerning Protestant beliefs that are just plain wrong.
And error is error no matter the source.
. . . Calvin Did NOT Believe in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary
This second myth is even more widespread. . .
The error seems to have stemmed from misunderstanding some few comments from John Calvin’s 3-volume set, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Transl. by Rev. William Pringle (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009). In his commentaries on Matt. 13:55 and Matt. 1:25, in volume 1, he takes Helvidius to task for assuming Mary had other children because of the mention of the “brothers of the Lord,” in Matthew 13:55, and for assuming “Joseph knew her not until…” meant that Joseph then was being said to have known Mary conjugally after Christ was born.
Calvin correctly and sternly (in good Calvin fashion) teaches the “brothers” of the Lord may well be a Hebrew idiom representing “cousins” or some other extended relative. And he also points out that the “until” of Matt. 1:25 really says nothing about what happened after Mary gave birth. It was used there to emphasize the virginity of Mary up “until” that point.
. . . unfortunately, many Catholics have taken these two sections of Calvin’s commentary out of context and claim it to mean he agreed with the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But in fact, he never says that. He simply concludes these Scriptures to be silent on the matter. They prove neither yeah nor nay when it comes to Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Tim produces as evidence for his claim, Calvin’s commentary on Luke 1:34:
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage . . .
Notice here, he not only denies this text could be used to prove the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, but he denies the doctrine itself as a possible consideration.
Now, at first glance, this evidence did seem fairly compelling for Tim’s position. But I knew (because I had documented it previously) that many Calvinist scholars and other Protestant experts on Calvin agree that he did accept the perpetual virginity, and so I wondered why that is, if Tim is correct, and I started digging for more information. I found another related citation, that I think affirms what I and others have been arguing, lo, these many years.
Max Thurian, in his Mary: Mother of All Christians (translated by Nevill B. Cryer, New York: Herder & Herder, 1963, pp. 39-40) — I have a hard copy in my library — notes a sermon of Calvin’s on Matthew 1:22-25, published in 1562 in the shorthand notes of Denys Ragueneau. Here is his citation:
There have been certain strange folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matt 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! for the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show also that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company. There we see that he had never known her person for he was separated from his wife. He could marry another all the more because he could not enjoy the woman to whom he was betrothed; but he rather desired to forfeit his rights and abstain from marriage, being yet always married: he preferred, I say, to remain thus in the service of God rather than to consider what he might still feel that he could come to. He had forsaken everything in order that he might subject himself fully to the will of God.
And besides this, our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second. Thus we see the intention of the Holy Spirit. This is why to lend ourselves to foolish subtleties would be to abuse Holy Scripture, which is, as St. Paul says, “to be used for our edification.”
From this we learn several things:
1. It serves as a further interpretation or clarification of his allegedly “agnostic” commentary on Matthew 1:25, as actually affirming perpetual virginity.
2. It shows that his denial of a vow of perpetual virginity from Mary is not necessarily and not in fact the same as a denial of her perpetual virginity.
3. Calvin does indeed believe in the traditional doctrine, as we see in his statement: “not because there was a second or a third” and his assertion that Joseph never dwelt with Mary. Mary had no further children. This is why he habitually refers to her as “the virgin” in his writings, much like Catholics have through the centuries. It implies perpetual virginity.
4. Since they never lived together, according to Calvin, obviously they had no children together. Thus, Mary was perpetually a virgin.
5. Moreover, it wasn’t a question of corrupting marriage, per his comment on Lk 1:34, since for him, they never lived together and thus were not “united.” Thus, the difficulty for the belief that he held to the PVM, suggested prima facie by his comment on Luke 1:34 vanishes. For Calvin, both things are true: Mary didn’t make such a vow and they didn’t live together in a chaste fashion, since he thinks they didn’t live together at all.
This 1562 sermon may be one reason why many Protestant (including Calvinist) scholars agree that Calvin adhered to Mary’s perpetual virginity, as I noted in my paper (alluded to and linked above) over four years ago now:
David F. Wright, in his book, Chosen by God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989, pp. 173, 175), stated:
[H]is more careful biblicism could insist on only Mary’s refraining from intercourse before the birth of Jesus (i.e., her virginity ante partum). On the other hand, he never excluded as untenable the other elements in her perpetual virginity, and may be said to have believed it himself without claiming that Scripture taught it. . . . [Calvin] commonly speaks of Mary as “the holy Virgin” (and rarely as simply as “Mary” preferring “the Virgin”, etc.).
Thomas Henry Louis Parker, in his Calvin: an Introduction to his Thought (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), concurs:
. . . the Virgin Birth, which Calvin holds, together with the perpetual virginity of Mary. (p. 66)
He is the author of several books about Calvin, such as John Calvin: A Biography (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), and Oracles Of God: An Introduction To The Preaching Of John Calvin (Lutterworth Press, 2002), Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (S.C.M. Press, 1971), Calvin’s Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), and several other Calvin-related volumes, and translator of Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels in its 1995 Eerdmans edition.
Presumably, he knows enough about Calvin to have a basis for his beliefs about this matter and Calvin’s own position.
The article “Mary” (by David F. Wright) in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (edited by Donald K. McKim, Westminster John Knox Press,1992, p. 237), proclaims:
Calvin was likewise less clear-cut than Luther on Mary’s perpetual virginity but undoubtedly favored it. Notes in the Geneva Bible (Matt. 1:18, 25; Jesus’ “brothers”) defend it, as did Zwingli and the English reformers . . .
Donald G. Bloesch, in his Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006, p. 87), joins the crowd:
Protestantism . . . remained remarkably open to the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Among others, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wollebius, Bullinger and Wesley claimed that Mary was ever-virgin (semper virgo). The Second Helvetic Confession and the Geneva Bible of the Reformed faith and the Schmalkald Articles of the Lutheran churches affirm it.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley in his article, “Mary the Mother of Jesus” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P (edited by Bromiley, revised edition of 1994 published by Eerdmans [Grand Rapids, Michigan], p. 269), wrote:
The post-partum or perpetual virginity concept is held by some Protestants and was held by many Reformers (e.g., Calvin in his sermon on Mt. 1:22-25) . . .
Note that this refers to the sermon I cited above, not just Calvin’s Commentaries. And this is from the revised ISBE: not a source one can easily dismiss.
Derek W. H. Thomas, writing in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (edited by David W. Hall & Peter A. Lillback; Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing [Calvin 500 series]: 2008, p. 212), makes a casual reference: “a perpetual virgin in Calvin’s view!”
He is a professor of systematic and pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to Calvin’s preaching on the book of Job.
Timothy George concurs, with slight qualification:
To be sure, there is nothing theologically problematic about affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity. This venerable tradition, first given dogmatic sanction at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, was affirmed by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin during the Reformation, though Calvin was more agnostic about this belief than the other two reformers. (in Mary, Mother of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co.: 2004; p. 109)
Dr. George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, teaches Church history and serves as executive editor for Christianity Today. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written more than twenty books, and regularly contributes to scholarly journals. His book Theology of the Reformers is used as a textbook in many schools and seminaries.
J. A. Ross MacKenzie wrote: “Calvin, like Luther and Zwingli, taught the perpetual virginity of Mary” (in Alberic Stacpoole, editor, Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1982, 35-36). Dr. Mackenzie was a professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, and has translated or written more than twenty theological books.
Robert H. Stein, professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also agrees:
If one believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary, a teaching held not only by Roman Catholicism but also by Greek Orthodoxy, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, then the Helvidian view must be rejected. (Mark [Commentary], Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic: 2008, p. 187)
Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza argued that Catholics and Protestants agreed on the perpetual virginity of Mary, at the Colloquy of Poissy in 1561 (see William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: the Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards, [Cambridge University Press, 2004], pp. 86-87).
* * * * *
Tim Staples gave a long reply in the combox that I don’t think (with all due respect) refuted the heart of my objection at all: what Calvin flat-out stated in his sermon. Nor did he explain why so many Protestant and/or Calvinist scholars hold that he accepted the perpetual virginity of Mary. It’s one thing for us as Catholics to look at a few texts and render our opinions. The Calvinist or the Calvinist or otherwise Protestant Calvin scholar who has an opinion on such a matter will be far more informed, as both a specialist and an advocate of Calvinism, as the case may be, than we would be (generally speaking).He would also know a lot more than a quack Reformed polemicist like James Swan who regularly makes pronouncements on such matters as if he is some sort of scholarly expert who should be trusted as much as actual scholars. I back up my contentions with scholars, as much as possible. Swan makes his (often quite dogmatic) contentions (complete with the ubiquitous mocking of Catholics and Catholicism that is his stock-in-trade) whether scholars agree with him or not.
Such Protestant scholars also would generally disbelieve in many of the Marian doctrines, so if they assert that Calvin believed this, chances are he did, since their bias would be towards a stance that he did not. In that sense, they are sort of “hostile witnesses.”
James Swan then chimed in with his usual one-note tune, first writing on his blog about my comment in the thread:
A comment was left for Mr. Staples giving (among other things) a Calvin citation from a secondary source (that is, no original or complete context) documenting a sermon from Calvin (a citation from Calvin in English which was translated from the French, originally from shorthand notes), taken from a French journal, not the original sermon (that is- the secondary source utilized a Calvin quote from a journal).
Then on the thread itself, he replied:
If I recall, Max Thurian wrote his book in French. It was then translated to English. If one checks Thurian’s documentation for his Calvin quote, it doesn’t appear to me that he actually utilized a primary source, but rather took his citation from La Revue réformée 1956/4, pp. 63-64. In other words, the Calvin quote in question that is presented in English came from the French, and was taken from a French journal. Where did the French journal get it? Did the journal article use the primary source? These are the questions I would ask immediately. Without reading something in context, making pronouncements on what Calvin did or did not believe may not be the best thing to do.
. . . These are the basic things I ask when looking into texts. It may indeed be the case that there was not any distortion from what Calvin originally said to the presentation from Thurian. A careful person though should make sure to examine the trail of evidence before making dogmatic conclusions.
Once again, for those not familiar with Swan’s modus operandi (which I’ve observed and interacted with for over twelve years), he appears objective and without an ax to grind. To act with his usual stripes would not be to his purpose, so he “behaves.” His insinuation is that Tim Staples is “careful” whereas the vast majority of Catholic apologists are not. And that is what Swan has been contending for years, with particular animus against my views of Martin Luther’s Mariology. It’s the “divide and conquer” routine. He’s simply cynically using Tim Staples’ views as a means to make the same anti-Catholic and anti-Catholic apologist point he always tries to make.
The fact remains that Swan can talk about “context” all he wants, and make out that even non-scholars must always read the original context in the original language (which he doesn’t do himself) to decide anything at all. He’s no scholar. The men I cite are scholars, and for some odd reason they conclude (over against mere blogger Swan) that Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.
This is why scholars exist in the first place: to specialize in things that most of us have neither the ability nor the desire to specialize in. We consult them for the answers to such things. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (unlike Swan) is such a scholar, and in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (edited by himself: revised edition of 1994) he stated:
The post-partum or perpetual virginity concept is held by some Protestants and was held by many Reformers (e.g., Calvin in his sermon on Mt. 1:22-25) . . .
Somehow he thinks this sermon is solid evidence that Calvin believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Somehow another scholar like Thomas Henry Louis Parker, the very editor of Calvin’s Commentaries, and author of some ten works about him, agrees with Bromiley. Why is that? Did they, too, take things out of context, or lack “care” with the primary sources? Did they jump to dogmatic conclusions, when they would be inclined by predisposition not do? I think not.
In such disputes about historical fact, one should consult the scholars who are most familiar with the person whose opinions are being discussed. Tim Staples is not a Calvin scholar and not an historian. Neither is James Swan. Neither am I. But I consult the scholars who are in a position to decide such things, whereas both Tim and Swan have (regarding this question) thus far ignored that relevant evidence, for some inexplicable reason.
Another internal argument based on Calvin’s own commentaries can be produced. I alluded to it in on page 60 of my 2010 book, “The Catholic Mary”: Quite Contrary to the Bible? In his Harmony of the Gospels (Vol. II, p. 65; “translated from the original Latin and collated with the author’s French version, by William Pringle), Calvin is commenting on Luke 8:19 (“And his mother and his brethren came to him”), and casually mentions that the parallel passages of “the other two Evangelists . . . represent Christ’s mother and cousins as having come . . .” (my italics). The other two passages are the following (RSV):
Matthew 12:46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.
Mark 3:31 And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him.
This is fascinating. Calvin is not being neutral or agnostic here at all, as to the specific meaning of adelphos in these instances. He has taken a definite position: it means “cousins.” He believes that Jesus doesn’t have siblings and that these instances of adelphos / adelphe / “brothers” / “brethren” do not prove otherwise (as countless contrary arguments against perpetual virginity falsely assume is the case). Calvin adopted the classic “cousins” theory as to the meaning of “Jesus’ brothers” in Scripture (which is the usual view that Catholic commentators take).
This directly contradicts what Tim Staples claimed (above) about Calvin’s views. He wrote:
Calvin correctly and sternly (in good Calvin fashion) teaches the “brothers” of the Lord may well be a Hebrew idiom representing “cousins” or some other extended relative. . . . But unfortunately, many Catholics have taken these two sections of Calvin’s commentary out of context and claim it to mean he agreed with the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But in fact, he never says that. He simply concludes these Scriptures to be silent on the matter. They prove neither yeah nor nay when it comes to Mary’s perpetual virginity.
This has now been shown to be untrue, by both the 1562 sermon and the Harmony of the Gospels, at Luke 8:19, where Calvin definitely opts for the meaning of “cousins.” Therefore, he does indeed “say that” in this other place in his corpus of Bible commentary. He’s either taking the position of perpetual virginity or at the very least a view perfectly consistent with it (Jesus’ described “brothers” were his cousins / He had no siblings). But what it clearly is not, is an agnostic or neutral position (at least regarding these uses of adelphos / adelphe), as Tim claims it is. Later, he wrote in comments (replying to me):
I believe Calvin rejected the Perpetual Virginity of Mary in his commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke and that I think many of us have taken this work out of context over the years. . . . the use of his commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, specific to his comments on Matt. 13:55 and especially Matt. 1:25 is misguided, in my opinion.
When you consider that Calvin explicitly takes a position in between Helvidius and Jerome in his commentary on Matt. 1:25 and he says as much, he says the text does not conclude either way, and then he footnotes his own work in Matt. 1:25 when he comments on Matt. 13:55 that the “brothers of the Lord” could be a Hebrew idiom for some other extended relation, that seems to me to be more agnostic than declaratory of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.
It’s no longer agnostic, when Calvin interprets both the passages in Matthew and Mark (and by strong implication, also in Luke) as meaning “cousins.” Again, I’m sure this data is part of the reasoning for why so many Protestant, and specifically Calvinist scholars believe that Calvin held to the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Nor is there any hint of “waffling” on Calvin’s part, as far as I can tell, in all of this information, taken together. My take is a perfectly plausible and self-consistent explanation for all of it, in line with what the Calvin scholars also say: he believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He didn’t “waffle” on it; he didn’t appear to change his view over time, He simply wasn’t quite as explicit as Luther and others were, on this question. It requires a little digging to ascertain his position (which we have done).
I also don’t think that Calvin was “neutral” or “agnostic” regarding Matthew 1:25 and the notorious “until” argument of those who deny perpetual virginity. That text neither asserts nor denies perpetual virginity in and of itself. That far, we all agree, I think. What detractors of the doctrine do is insinuate that “until” implies sexual activity on Mary’s part after the birth of Jesus. Calvin firmly responds that it does no such thing. He shoots down this very common argument, made by Protestants all the time today. He responds precisely as a Catholic apologist would: arguing that the text doesn’t in any fashion prove what it is claimed that it supposedly proves.
To me, that is not an agnostic or uncommitted position at all. It is in favor of perpetual virginity (or if we want to nitpick) totally consistent with it, and inconsistent with one of the most common biblical arguments made against it. The “brothers” argument is the other most common (and thoroughly fallacious) argument made. Calvin points out that the word doesn’t have to always mean “siblings.” He’s exactly right.
But if that sounds neutral or agnostic at his commentary on Matthew 13:55, it ain’t when he comments on Luke 8:19 (and also on Mathew and Mark) and says that the meaning of “brothers” in the parallel passages is “cousins”. He is no longer neutral or undecided or uncommitted or agnostic. He has taken a position. And it is exactly what we would expect him to argue, if indeed he holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary, as I believe he did.
I think Tim’s argument collapses in all respects (sorry, Tim!). The 1562 sermon was one decisive blow. It explained that Calvin’s objection to a vow of virginity did not mean he denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, as explained above. He blew that off by saying that Calvin’s commentary is much more to be trusted than the sermon. Very well, then: if we (rightly or wrongly) want to give some “priority” to the Commentaries, now the comment on Luke 8:19 has to be dealt with, and it does not favor Tim’s position. It has undermined the very essence of it (repeated over and over by Tim): that Calvin allegedly took no stand and merely discussed a range of possibilities.
In another instance of Calvin interpreting a “brother of Jesus” as a cousin, we have his commentary on Galatians 1:19 (“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”):
Except James. Who this James was, deserves inquiry. Almost all the ancients are agreed that he was one of the disciples, whose surname was “Oblias” and “The Just,” and that he presided over the church at Jerusalem. (33) Yet others think that he was the son of Joseph by another wife, and others (which is more probable) that he was the cousin of Christ by the mother’s side: (34) but as he is here mentioned among the apostles, I do not hold that opinion. Nor is there any force in the defense offered by Jerome, that the word Apostle is sometimes applied to others besides the twelve; for the subject under consideration is the highest rank of apostleship, and we shall presently see that he was considered one of the chief pillars. (Galatians 2:9.) It appears to me, therefore, far more probable, that the person of whom he is speaking is the son of Alpheus. (35)
Footnote 35 elaborates:
This is fully consistent with the opinion commonly held, that Alpheus or Cleopas was the husband of the sister of Mary, the mother of our Lord, and consequently that James, the son of Alpheus, was our Lord’s cousin-german.
All of this is perfectly consistent with, if not direct evidence of, Calvin’s belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Tim made another reply in the thread, consisting mostly of reiterations of what he has already said (which is never a good sign of the vigor and strength of an argument: it should be able to defend itself against critiques). He replied:
In fact, if you want to add to your case file, I would recommend Calvin’s commentary on Gal. 1:19,
I already made that argument in comment #26 [right above his comment where he stated this]. But glad to see that you found that, too.
All of these are great for Catholic apologetics, but I don’t believe they are definitive proof that Calvin believed in the PVBVM.
Again, you completely ignore the opinions of Calvin scholars: that he did believe in it. Why? Why do they think that? Why are you so sure that they are wrong? So you really think that a guy like Thomas Henry Lewis Parker is completely out to sea when he affirms this; that he is not familiar with all the relevant texts in Calvin, and his understanding of all that is inferior to yours? He is the author of:
Calvin: an Introduction to his Thought (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).
John Calvin: A Biography (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
Oracles Of God: An Introduction To The Preaching Of John Calvin (Lutterworth Press, 2002).
Calvin’s Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).
Editor of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (S.C.M. Press, 1971),
Editor of Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Translator of Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels (1995 Eerdmans edition).
He translated Calvin’s commentaries on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians in 1965 and his Commentary on John (1959-61).
According to you, The Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith is dead-wrong. Donald G. Bloesch is wrong. Geoffrey W. Bromiley in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is wrong.
Derek W. H. Thomas, writing in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (edited by David W. Hall & Peter A. Lillback; Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing [Calvin 500 series]: 2008, p. 212), makes a casual reference: “a perpetual virgin in Calvin’s view!” He is a professor of systematic and pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to Calvin’s preaching on the book of Job. But he’s wrong, too.
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, and executive editor for Christianity Today is wrong. Robert H. Stein, professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is dead-wrong. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, was wrong in asserting that Calvinists accepted the doctrine, in an attempted ecumenical council in 1561, during Calvin’s lifetime.
You ignore all this. All these scholars are incompetent in their own field of expertise. I guess you think they have been quoting Calvin out-of-context, too, just as (if you are right) dozens of Catholic apologists have been doing (such as Jimmy Akin, Scott Hahn, Fr. Stravinskas, various EWTN articles, etc.). The Catholic Answers tract Mary: Ever Virgin agrees with my take:
Today most Protestants are unaware of these early beliefs regarding Mary’s virginity and the proper interpretation of “the brethren of the Lord.” And yet, the Protestant Reformers themselves—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—honored the perpetual virginity of Mary and recognized it as the teaching of the Bible, as have other, more modern Protestants.
So now that has to be revised, too?
Your argument (that you merely repeat here; nothing new) from Calvin’s commentary on Luke 1:34 was refuted by the sermon of 1562. Calvin thought Mary and Joseph didn’t even live together. Thus, the “difficulty” you find compelling, vanishes.
You dismiss the sermon on inadequate grounds (therefore you make no attempt to counter-reply to that relevant additional consideration). How is it, then, that Geoffrey Bromiley, in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, seems to think that it is strong evidence?: “The post-partum or perpetual virginity concept is held by some Protestants and was held by many Reformers (e.g., Calvin in his sermon on Mt. 1:22-25)”.
You can ignore this relevant data from Calvin scholars a third or fourth time if you wish, but it won’t help your case. Every doctoral dissertation reviews the literature, to see what the consensus of scholars on a particular question is. It’s not considered the fallacy of “appeal to authority” when they do that. And it isn’t, because that’s not all they produce. They also make the argument in their dissertation, just as I am making various arguments from primary Calvin texts, but also noting the consensus of the Calvin scholars and professors of history, etc. who have examined the matter. This is not insignificant at all. Yet when it comes to what the scholarly experts say, you want to completely ignore and dismiss that.
You certainly don’t have a consensus of scholars on that contention.
I’m the only one in this discussion who has actually cited scholars! I don’t think you have cited a single one (I may have missed it, and it may be in your book; just not here). At best, some of them note that Calvin was less explicit than Luther (which I agree with in the first place). Thus, David F. Wright says: “Calvin was likewise less clear-cut than Luther on Mary’s perpetual virginity but undoubtedly favored it.”
That’s not saying that the opinion is tentative, or that he waffled, or was agnostic, or only open to the possibility, or changed his mind in later years, etc. It says what it says: “undoubtedly favored it.” Timothy George wrote: “affirmed by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin during the Reformation, though Calvin was more agnostic about this belief than the other two reformers.” Yep; I agree. He was less direct than Luther (most people are!), but he still, according to Dr. George, “affirmed” it.
They’re all looking at the same evidence that you and I have seen. This is the conclusion they come to. I think they’re right, and that Catholic apologists have been right about this, and anti-Catholic polemicists like James Swan wrong.
I have no problem noting when Protestant “reformers” get things wrong, or when they change their minds later on. Hence, I modified my view of Luther’s view of the Immaculate Conception, which he changed later on in life. I call his position “immaculate purification,” because he no longer placed it at her conception. I changed my mind in part because of some arguments produced by anti-Catholics. Truth is truth, wherever it is found.
But I changed my mind, and wrote about it almost exactly four years ago. So you’re not the only Catholic apologist who can change their mind if the facts warrant it (lest the enemies of the faith like James Swan start saying that you are a “lone voice” in this regard). I’ve done it many times.
But as I mentioned at first, anti-Catholics like Swan are only going to exploit your article (he already has), since it says that almost all Catholic apologists have been wrong about this for years, and you become in effect the “whistleblower” for integrity and truth.
That’s a shame; especially when I don’t see that your argument succeeds.
Tim replied at length again in the thread. Here is our exchange:
* * * *
I then went searching for the sermon in question. I had an idea where it might be found, and wrote in the thread:
I think the sermon would likely be part of the Corpus Reformatorum, since volumes 29-87 are devoted to his works. It’s in Latin (unless some stuff is French). We just have to figure out what volume it’s in. Many volumes are available in Google Books.
I started looking through online volumes; went to the index volume and found “Sermons on the Nativity” in Volume 46. I then wrote:
I’m almost certain I found it. Go to this link and download the pdf of vol. 46 (“Tome 46”) of the Corpus Reformatorum. It’s called “Sermon 22” on the Harmony of the Gospels, dealing with Matthew 1:22-25, and runs from pp. 259-272. It’s in French.
I did that, and cut-and-pasted the entire sermon. Google and Babylon translation pages revealed that it was indeed the sermon in question, based on a comparison to the Thurian version (above). I then posted it on a separate web page, and asked on Facebook if anyone could translate the last portion of it. Gregory Fast did so.
Now fortunately, we are incredibly blessed to have James Swan, an anti-Catholic blogger, who does not know French, as far as I know, to announce (on the CA thread) that he also ran across the sermon and that “The translation from Thurian’s book is accurate.” Whew! That settles that! Now we can all rest easy at night, knowing that a non-French speaker and non-credentialed blogger with a penchant for classifying professional Catholic apologists as “psychotic” — has authoritatively proclaimed that the portion of a Calvin sermon conveyed by native French speaker Max Thurian, who was born in Geneva, the city of Calvin, is “accurate.” Thurian’s citation wasn’t good enough for Swan. He had to make a judgment, himself, in all his wisdom, before he trusted it. Now he does, and so we can all go through the day with a spring in our step, knowing that Swan has confirmed a citation as authentic.
Swan is the one always harping on and on with his one-note tune about going to the original sources and doing “ad fontes” research, endlessly mocking Catholic apologists (or those who pass themselves off as such). He talks a good game (man, he sure does talk it!), but he doesn’t follow his own advice. He only applies it selectively to Catholic apologists, whom he despises and detests. He wrote in the thread:
I have located the sermon, as well as the place in the text Thurian’s quote is from. The translation from Thurian’s book is accurate. . . . The sermon itself was not all that difficult to locate, and the place in the French text is easy to spot.
Uh huh. Is that so? I just found out about the sermon a few days ago, and already, last night, I located it in its primary source, with no help from Swan, who alluded to having found it in the thread, but didn’t post the reference, as I did. Swan, however, has known about at least a portion of this sermon for over seven years. Why, then, has he not dug it up until now, since, as he said last night, that it “was not all that difficult to locate”? He goes on and on about going to the original sources, and takes almost eight years to find this one, amidst his eight or so articles about Calvin’s Mariology?
On 17 January 2007, Swan wrote an article on his blog entitled, “Bibliographic Tedium on the Reformers and Perpetual Virginity.” In it he rails (as he has 39,584 times) about how stupid Catholic apologists are. He cited a portion of this sermon that one of them posted on the anti-Catholic CARM discussion board:
Calvin: “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matt 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what a folly this is! [Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25, Published 1562]
Alongside this were ostensible citations from Luther and Zwingli. Swan goes into deep detail about the sources of those, but ignores the Calvin quote. He then condescendingly lectures and insults in his usual boorish fashion:
Normally when I interact with someone on this topic, the person quoting this stuff becomes silent when ask for a little more bibliographic information. I do so to find out if the person putting forth the information has actually read Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli, or if the information is a cut-and-paste job taken from Catholic apologetic web sites. . . . it’s the Internet, and anything goes. I strongly doubt I’ll get the bibliographic material I asked for. I only point out tedium like this to show that many times, people are putting forth information as if they’ve actually studied a subject, and made an informed decision. For most people though, it seems one makes a conclusion and then looks for information to support it. Such is the normal folly of the defenders of Rome.
Why, then, didn’t Swan follow his own advice and show that the quote from Calvin’s sermon was not authentic? It took him over seven years to do so, in the context of Tim Staples writing about the topic and my disagreement with him (and his attempted exploitation of same for purely polemical and slanderous purposes). All of a sudden, now Swan can figure out how to find the original primary source. If it “was not all that difficult to locate,” why did it take him almost eight years? It took me two days. I guess that is one of the many profound differences between the Inimitable Mr. Swan and meself.
In his article, he mocks the Catholic who produced these quotes because he said it might be a couple of weeks to find further sources, because he was moving and his materials were in boxes (“It will be [a] long couple of weeks. Now this takes guts, . . .”). Almost eight years later, Swan looks up the same source, and pronounces the Thurian portion of it (that the Catholic he chided, cited) as “accurate.”
How could we all make it through the day without such a profoundly intelligent, wise, nuanced, always thoughtful, always eminently fair and charitable and “scholarly” fellow brother in Christ, who thinks we are all in spiritual darkness and an inch away from hell, being lowly “Romanists?”
* * *
After posting the translation of a portion of the sermon onto the CA thread, I wrote:
So where does that leave the friendly discussion and debate now, Tim? Do you agree (first of all) that it is an “authentic” source, to be duly considered in the overall mix? Does it change anything? Does it make it more plausible for those of us who think Calvin accepted the PVM to believe it, even if you remain unpersuaded? Can we now move from a status of being classified as those who cite Calvin “out of context” in order to promulgate a “myth” to ones who hold a respectable position that can be solidly believed in good faith (equally reasonable and thoughtful folks honestly disagreeing), given the evidence we have produced?
I think it leaves the discussion friendly, but perhaps it makes the title of my blog post all the more appropriate, but for a different reason. I stand corrected. I think this leaves no doubt that Calvin, at least at the point of writing this sermon, believe[d] in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. I can now say definitively that Calvin waffled on this. And this is reasonable. The PVBVM was believed universally for 1,500 years in the Church. It was believed by men like St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Bernard, all of whom Calvin respected. I will modify my post to include the “waffling” part. I appreciate the back-and-forth and all involved. We live and learn.
I’ll take note of Tim’s modifications of his post when he changes that. It’s been a great discussion. Kudos to Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers, for being able to be partially persuaded of a different view. He now thinks Calvin “waffled” on the perpetual virginity of Mary and believed it at least in the last years of his life. I think Calvin believed it consistently all along, and that nothing in his statements that we have found is inconsistent with that interpretation. He merely became more explicit, so as to leave no room for doubt, in the late sermon.
And for these reasons (I submit), the numerous Protestant scholars and Calvin scholars I have cited take the position that he did indeed believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. The ones who think he did not believe it are folks like, well . . . . noncredentialed anti-Catholic polemicist and blogger James Swan . . . . Not very impressive . . . .
* * *
Tim revised his initial post as follows:
This second myth is even more widespread, but I must qualify it. There can be no doubt that John Calvin, at least at some point in his career, believed in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But to place him on the same level of Luther, Zwingli and Wesley is misguided. It is not to paint the entire picture accurately. And this is why. . . .
My thanks to Dave Armstrong for pointing out to me something I did not know. There is a sermon that John Calvin preached on the Harmony of the Gospels (sermon 22) where he explicitly defends the PVBVM, but this occurred earlier in his career [?: my understanding is that it is from 1562: two years before his death]. So again, there is no doubt that Calvin at least earlier in his career believe[d] this Catholic dogma.
Swan continued to comment in the thread. I disputed one thing he stated:
If one really wanted to give Calvin’s opinion on this issue, it is to simply say that Calvin did not think it correct to speculate. This isn’t the answer polemicists want to hear, but it is letting Calvin be Calvin.
Nor is it the answer numerous Calvin scholars (including T. H. L. Parker, mentioned above [by Swan himself], who appears to be the leading Calvin scholar in the world, judging by his books) want to hear. They are letting Calvin be Calvin and they think he held to the PVM. Period. Some temper it a bit in terms of emphasis and explicitness (and I agree, as I have said; Calvin is not Luther), but they still say he held it. I could hardly find anyone who said what Tim believes about him. I’m open to hearing about those. I didn’t find them myself, in some very intense and laborious searches.
That’s not proof, of course, but it does prove that one can hold that Calvin believed in the PVM for non-“polemical” purposes. These guys think he did because they think he did. DUH! No other motives other than arriving at historical fact: just as are my motives and Tim’s alike (despite being ignorant, lowly, Pelagian, half-pagan, unregenerate papists who don’t know what the gospel is). Folks can honestly disagree on some things.
Calvin already did “speculate” about the issue at hand by stating that there were no second and third sons besides Jesus, and by interpreting adelphos / adelphe as “cousins” in at least two instances. That is taking a stand (of some sort), whereas most of those arguing against PVM today almost automatically use the tired, dumb “brothers” argument and also the “till” argument of Matthew 1:25 that Calvin also says proves not a whit of what they casually assume it proves.
To me, that’s taking a stand on it. I don’t think it’s neutral or noncommittal at all. Technically, Jesus being an only child and Mary being a perpetual virgin are different, but it works out basically the same, in terms (specifically) of the arguments commonly used. One party says these “brothers” are siblings and the other denies it. Calvin is in the latter camp. Seems to me, anyway. And all these scholars I have cited somehow come to the same conclusion.
I remain the only person who has cited scholars that back up what my position is, as a non-scholar and non-historian. If someone thinks otherwise, then please produce the scholars that agree, and say that Calvin either denied or waffled on the PVM. I’m all for it. That would make the “agnostic” case stronger and more respectable. As it is now, I truly believe that my position is the most plausible to interpret in harmonious fashion all of the data I am aware of.
“Why Bring Up the Marian Views of the Early Protestant Leaders At All? Of What Relevance is It?”
This is a question often raised by Protestant apologists, who misunderstand the reason why Catholics note these historical facts about the Protestant founders’ beliefs and aspects of “distinctive Catholicism” that they retain.
Primarily, it is a matter of historical fact or absence of evidence for same. Hence I wrote in the thread at CA:
In this instance, no dogma is involved. It’s purely a matter of historical fact: did Calvin believe in the PVM or not? Whether he did or not has nothing to do with Catholic belief. We do hold to it in any event, as dogma.
If one is interested in the history of theology, development of doctrine, and history of ideas (as I am, very much so), these sorts of questions are interesting, in and of themselves, wholly apart from apologetics or personal adherence one way or the other. Along these lines, it’s fascinating to see how the earliest Protestants differ from present-day ones, which is a matter of internal Protestant development (or departure, as the case may be). These approaches are as much sociological as they are historical, but not directly related to apologetics or “partisanship.”
I also think, however, that such questions are tangentially or potentially also apologetical ones in some respects. If a Protestant founder like Luther or Calvin believes in the PVM and at the same time believes in sola Scriptura, then (assuming self-consistency) they obviously think they have biblical rationale to believe it, rather than merely Catholic authority or an argument from extrascriptural tradition.
This then becomes a question in apologetics, insofar as a Protestant tries to claim that Catholics believe in it (as they habitually claim) only due to extrascriptural tradition. At that point we say that it is entirely possible to accept it within a sola Scriptura rule of faith, since Luther or Calvin or Zwingli or whoever, did the same. This undercuts the argument against such-and-such detested Catholic doctrines based on thinking they are “traditions of men” or corruptions. And that is undoubtedly apologetics and/or “polemics.” Anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan understands this, since he wrote on his Boors All blog, on 10-15-14:
What I’ve found is that the alleged Mariology of the Reformers has been used by the defenders of Rome to show that the Reformers practiced sola scriptura and held to distinctly Roman doctrines.
Having gotten this right (this is partially what we are attempting to do, per the above explanations), he then goes on to draw conclusions from that, that we do not use in our arguments in this respect. But kudos to Swan for getting part of his analysis right. He has consistently shown himself to be equally clueless about both Catholicism and Catholic apologetics over the dozen years I have observed his pathetic antics.
Anti-Catholic polemicist Steve Hays, writing on his Tribalblogue site on 10-13-14, demonstrates, on the other hand, that he doesn’t get all of this at all (which is not an infrequent occurrence for him), in writing (after referring to the discussion with Tim Staples on the CA blog):
Suppose the Protestant Reformers agree with Rome on this issue. If that’s an argument from authority in support of Rome, then by converse logic, when they disagree with Rome, that’s an argument from authority in opposition to Rome. The argument from authority cuts both ways.
He’s completely out to sea here, and about to drown. It never was an argument from “authority” in the first place (what non-Catholics believe has no bearing at all on what the Catholic Church teaches as binding doctrine: zero, zip, nada, zilch). He only thinks it is because he doesn’t analyze Catholic thinking and apologetics deeply enough: not even as deeply as James Swan does (and that’s setting the bar very low indeed!).
And he does not do so because it is a general rule that what one utterly despises, one doesn’t accord enough respect to study and research and present accurately. Therefore, when such a person sets out to battle against the dreaded Beast that he detests so deeply, he inevitably ends up fighting a straw man. Hays has virtually made a “career” (insofar as one can say that at all about a mere blogger, as he is) out of such foolish activities.
Protestant apologists typically claim that such beliefs among their founders are mere unfortunate remnants of their former Catholic affiliation, which they haven’t yet managed to shake off because they were still early in the game of Protestant history, and this is “understandable,” etc., etc. This is the “spin” that indicates, I think, a definite measure of embarrassment that the heroes and founders of the Protestant Revolt continued to believe a fair amount of “Catholic stuff” that now your average Protestant “Tom, Dick, or Harry” immediately “knows” from Scripture Alone, are abominable false doctrines. Luther and Calvin hadn’t yet arrived at that basic state of “Bible knowledge” (a ridiculous contention if there ever was one, once one sees how learned and “soaked in the Bible” both men were).
The “remnant” explanation is possible; however, it’s an entirely subjective argument, very difficult to prove. It’s a distinction without a difference. How would one prove that so-called “Reformer X” believed in the PVM because of the continuance of arbitrary Catholic tradition, or because he truly thought it was warranted from the Bible? I don’t see any way to do it. So the claim is arbitrary and made based on wishful thinking and special pleading, rather than solid ascertainable fact. It’s an interpretation superimposed on the facts as can be determined, to “explain away” what is thought to be anomalous or embarrassing or inconvenient in the course of anti-Catholic and/or pro-Protestant apologetics and polemics.
In any event, all parties are responsible to try to determine the historical facts of any given matter, whichever way they turn out. I think I’ve shown that I am trying my best to be objective as to these sorts of facts, by changing my mind about some aspects of Luther’s opinion of the Immaculate Conception. He later placed this act of grace at the time of Jesus’ conception rather than Mary’s, so, accordingly, I have renamed his belief, “Immaculate Purification.”
This showed that I am perfectly willing to go where the facts lead, even if the persuasive evidence was partially provided by anti-Catholic sources, as it was in that instance, because truth is truth wherever it is found. Tim Staples has also shown that he is willing to retract some things and modify his position, as more facts become available. That’s what it’s all about: we ought to go to wherever the truth leads us, as can best be determined by diligent study. It was that pursuit of truth that led both Tim and I into the Catholic Church, which entailed changing our minds on a host of matters.
(originally posted on 6-5-14)
Photo credit: Portrait of John Calvin (1509–1564), c. 1550 by an anonymous French painter [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]