Christian conflict resolution 101 (lessons from the school of John Calvin) — part two

Let me try and pick up from where I left off yesterday. Remember, we’re learning about conflict resolution by tracing the example of Calvin’s efforts to resolve the dispute between the German and Swiss branches of the Continental Reformation over the Lord’s Supper.

Here are the first two lessons very briefly as a reminder, before I deal in more detail with the final four:

  1. While we cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend about the reality of conflict, pursuing resolution is not an optional extra for Christian people.
  2. Although it’s right to recognise that there’s probably at least something to be said for the perspective of both sides, truth really matters in the search for resolution.
  3. Nevertheless, you’ve got to be prepared to take ‘baby steps’ towards the goal — even embracing the political (without settling for the merely expedient). This was certainly true of Calvin’s efforts to engineer a consensus between the various Swiss strongholds of Protestantism, a project which had a very sharp political point: in a way we late moderns struggle to understand, doctrinal agreement was a prerequisite for the kind of joint political and military action that was fast becoming a necessity. The crucial document — the Consensus Tigurinus (1549) — issued jointly by Calvin and Zwingli’s successors in Zurich, quite clearly represents a compromise position. As Calvin scholar Paul Rorem points out, ‘they achieved a consensus statement principally because Calvin agreed to omit a crucial component of his position, to omit it for the moment but not for long’. The Consensus was to act as a bridgehead in the attempt to reunite Protestantism. It was never meant to be the final statement of anyone’s position. Instead, it was simply an indication — aimed squarely at the Lutherans — that the Swiss were willing to move and adjust their initial understand in light of evidence and argument.
  4. When it comes to conflict resolution, relationship building — especially face to face time — is indispensable. Calvin’s overall commitment to maintaining a relational context in which he sought to win doctrinal agreement puts most of us to shame. He didn’t just release treatises and co-author documents. He wrote countless personal letters. Turning up in person if possible. Again, the production of the Consensus Tigurinus is a case in point. Calvin was tireless in carrying out this project — even to the point of risking his health and safety as he travelled back and forth to Zurich. 
  5. Realise that some differences of perspective run much deeper than mere opinion. While the scholarly consensus (as represented e.g., by Ronald Wallace’s magisterial study, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament) suggests that Calvin’s position was not without its complexities and apparent inconsistencies — thus making its own contribution to the ultimate failure of his efforts to orchestrate reconciliation — the differences between the Swiss and the German branches of the reformation had very deep roots. Theologically, there were issues of Christology underpinning the differences over the Lord’s Supper which many of the Reformers failed to follow through (one scholar argues that this was a result of their ‘exegetical optimism’ — let that be a warning to us biblicists!). Hermeneutically, the Swiss had a more rationalistic approach than the Germans — possibly reflecting the precarious political position of the Reformation in the Swiss cantons (a broad-based consensus needed to be built and maintained since Swiss citizens had a much more direct role in determining the affairs of the cantons than the German people did in their country).
  6. For better or worse, changing circumstances always affect the form that resolution will take. The differing paces and ‘styles’ of the reformations in Switzerland and Germany dramatically affected the pursuit of Protestant reunion. The Lutherans were keen not to be seen to break with Rome, longing to see the church reformed not fractured. The reformation in Switzerland, on the other hand, actually needed to carve itself out much more obviously — and rapidly — in opposition to the church of Rome. Ultimately, changing political circumstances turned the gap into an unbridgeable chasm. Even if moves towards doctrinal agreement could still be made, division on other grounds meant that the form resolution might take could never be clear-cut. Thus, the Council of Trent solidified the opposition between Roman and Protestant camps, the settlement of the war between Catholic and Protestant princes in Germany in 1555 — which effectively ‘legalised’ Lutheranism — removed a major stimulus towards pan-Protestant reunion, and the internal struggle for identity within Lutheranism that played out after Luther’s death resulted in a hardening and rejection of conciliating positions.


    1. I knew someone would pick up on that gap. Thanks, Matt. Let me have a go (David Steinmetz is really great on this):

      Luther’s ease with the real presence of Christ in the Supper (although not the doctrine of transubstantiation) was sustained not just by his literalism when it came to the words ‘This is my body’, but also by his understanding of the ‘communication of the properties’ between Christ’s two natures: in a mysterious way Christ’s body (part of his human nature) was ubiquitous and accessible (by faith) from anywhere because omnipresence is a divine attribute ‘communicated’ from Christ’s divine to his human nature.

      Zwingli and the Swiss felt that this was all a bit too mysterious and ran counter to the language of Christ’s ascended ‘absence’ — since he is seated in heaven and thus limited/located there by his human nature (I’m not sure that they’d put it quite this way). In their eyes this undermined Christ’s genuine humanness. Thus, they were even cagey about Calvin’s formulation — which pushes towards the very important christological recognition that we need to think of Christ’s presence personally rather than in terms of natures (natures don’t act, persons do). Calvin emphasised both Christ’s location in heaven seated at the Father’s right hand, and his genuine presence in the Spirit in the Supper.

      Does that help?

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