Matthew Myer Boulton is professor of theology and president at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. In this excerpt from his latest book, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology, he discusses what he considers the true goal of John Calvin’s famous anticlericalism: not that the monastic disciplines would be eradicated, but, rather, that these spiritual treasures would be democratized and made freely available to the entire church.
Sometime near 1483 in Nuremberg, church leaders faced an intriguing question: What work of art should grace the prestigious Krell altar in Saint Lawrence Church, the city’s signature, twin-towered colossus?
Their decision, as it turned out, was an unlikely herald of things to come. In 1525, just a few years after Martin Luther’s excommunication, the people of Nuremberg declared themselves allied with the emerging reform movement. And when they did, the picture hanging over the Krell altar, as it had by then for over forty years, was a portrait not of Christ’s crucifixion, or the last judgment, or the feeding of the five thousand, or indeed any other scene found anywhere in Christian Scripture.
It was a portrait of Nuremberg itself. It is a sunny, ordinary day. Nestled into the surrounding hills, shops and houses huddle together, and rising up out of their midst, the two spires of Saint Lawrence point toward heaven. In the heart of a landscape, a city; in the heart of the city, a church; in the heart of the church, an altar; and over the altar, a picture of — that very landscape, and that very city. Hanging in what was arguably the most extraordinary, exceptional, holy setting in all of Nuremberg, a most ordinary, familiar, earthly sight.
Which was, no doubt, the point. As one historian has put it, the picture portrayed “the sacred city,” a vista meant to remind disciples that “their worship had to do with the whole of their life,” and that “the life of the city was accountable to God.” Accountable to God, to be sure, but also shot through with God’s presence and power, related to God in every respect, even and especially the workaday details of ordinary life. The Christian church had its central, indispensable role to play, but the essence of that role, on this view, was not to arrogate the status of “sacred” to itself alone, that is, to ecclesial holy things and holy men. Rather, the church’s role was to call attention to the fact that in everything we do, as John Calvin would later put it, we have to do with God. Not the sacred church alone, then, but rather “the sacred city.” Not a special spiritual precinct, class of experts, or set of operations, but rather an integral world, in all its variety and ruin, divinely called to both holiness and wholeness.
The sixteenth-century European reformations did not invent this basic idea, but many of their driving principles represent attempts to recapture it anew. Those movements were spirited battles over beliefs, but even more, they were battles over embodied disciplines, social patterns, and ways of life. In this sense, they were battles over Christian discipleship and formation, over who properly had access to the church’s key formative practices, and on what terms those practices were properly carried out.
The monastery, the cathedral, the clerical class — each institution in its own way drew a kind of sacred circle on the late medieval landscape, a privileged sphere in which certain spiritual goods were widely supposed to be especially or exclusively available. Many Protestants variously argued, to the contrary, that in fact there are no such spheres — or, rather, that creation as a whole is the single, unbroken sphere of human life with God, and that every faithful disciple in the Christian church, ordinary and extraordinary alike, is equally a beneficiary of divine gifts through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Whatever sanctifying, formative exercises marked and edified monks and clergy, then, to the extent that those practices were grounded in Scripture, they should be made available to all Christians everywhere, mutatis mutandis. In other words, these reformers insisted that, properly understood, religious disciplines are not rarefied recommendations for cloistered or ordained virtuosos in training. Instead, they are the disciplines of discipleship itself, divinely and apostolically bequeathed to the whole church, and in that sense, to the whole human family. To the extent that reformers declared a “priesthood of all believers,” then, they thereby undertook two tasks at once. They sought, on one hand, to demote supposedly superior priests to a level on par with the laity, and on the other hand, to promote the supposedly inferior laity to the holy office of priesthood — a role that in late medieval Europe was by no means abstract, but rather was quite tangibly constituted in and through particular practices and patterns of life.
Scriptural study is an iconic case in point. In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe, say, Bibles were typically housed behind ecclesial, monastic, or academic walls, written in Latin, and so read almost exclusively by trained specialists. By the dawn of the sixteenth century, however, scattered vernacular translations had already begun to appear (the Koberger Bible, for example, was published in Nuremberg in 1483, roughly contemporary with the Krell altarpiece), and a common reformed motif — in woodcuts, pamphlets, and other polemic material — was the image of a layperson outwitting a religious official in a debate over biblical interpretation. Thus an eminently prized Christian practice was, at least in the ideal pictures promoted by Protestant propagandists, wrested back into lay hands.
Indeed, such images were not only expressions of anticlericalism, or emblems of the idea that the Word of God is meant for the whole people of God — though each of these sentiments surely played its part. The image of a cobbler interpreting the Bible more adeptly than a clergyman also made the vivid, compact case that laypeople were in fact fully capable of being formed in and through the Holy Spirit’s scriptural curriculum and illuminating pedagogy. The point was not merely to expose and upstage the allegedly corrupt monk, the arrogant bishop, or the hapless priest; the point was also to cast the cobbler, and with him the seamstress, the peasant, and people of all other trades and types as intelligent, educable disciples in their own right.
Even the history of the term “clergy” (from the Old French, clergié, “learned men,” and clergie, “learning, knowledge, erudition”) indicates something of the ground on which this battle was joined. Reformers argued, in effect, that ordinary disciples, too, could become “learned” men and women — if not in the academic arts and sciences, then certainly in the art of knowing God. They too could gain, demonstrate, and convey religious knowledge. They too could live in and with God, day in and day out. The church’s pedagogical apparatus, then, its distinctive practical repertoire handed down since the earliest disciples and apostles, properly belongs to the church universal, not to any elite group within it. Formative disciplines often associated with monastic or clerical life — scriptural and theological study, daily prayer and worship, regular psalm singing, frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper, renunciation of “the world,” rigorous moral accountability, and so on — are in fact, reformers claimed, divine gifts meant for the church in general, and for each child of God in particular. If the monk’s organizing vocational goal was union with God, so too was the cobbler’s. In short, if the whole city was sacred, so too was each disciple’s whole life. And accordingly, to live into such a life, each and every Christian required this training, this sacred instruction, this program of embodied, regular, formative practice.
In this book, I read John Calvin’s theology — and in particular, his most well-known and influential text, the so-called Institutes of the Christian Religion — as a framework of ideas designed to serve precisely this sort of practical program. I argue that for Calvin, Christian doctrine is properly conceived and articulated in the first place for the sake of Christian formation, particularly the immersive, embodied, restorative training that may take place, God willing, by way of the church’s disciplinary treasury. At every turn in Calvin’s work, he sought to clarify the intellectual conditions of this pedagogical, practical life in God, and today’s Protestant theologians, I contend, should do the same.