Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Perspective dominates hermeneutics - Nicole on Heshusius

One wishes for the bullet-proof quote. Against a determined opponent, the quote almost never is. When the quote is questionable or controversial to the least degree, the interpreter's biases nearly always determine the ultimate interpretation.

I thought of this (with, I must confess, a great deal of aggravation) when I read this analysis by Roger Nicole of the famous Heshusius quote:

Cunningham appears to be the first who referred to the following text of Calvin as reflecting a presumption of definite atonement. “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.”

This passage, found in a treatise on the Lord’s Supper destined to refute the fiery Lutheran Tilemann Heshusius, is rendered stronger by the fact that Heshusius, in good Lutheran fashion, did believe in universal atonement and therefore would not find Calvin’s argument persuasive at this point. But Calvin was so strongly oriented here that he appears to have forgotten that Heshusius would not share his presuppositions!

(Emphasis added.) In my previous analysis, I gave this as a reason not to read the quote as more strongly particularistic, but as a reason not to read it as particularistic at all! (I'm willing to match Nicole exclamation point for exclamation point.) It strikes me as extremely odd that a scholar would believe in his thesis so strongly that he would be inclined to think that Calvin forgot (!) the views of his opponent. But that's what Nicole does in order to see Calvin as using limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius.

It just goes to show you — our prejudices often color our interpretations so strongly that we will go to any plausible lengths to sustain those prejudices — even should it be at the expense of good hermeneutics.

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