Monday, January 19, 2009

A good year for a classic

2009 is a good year to read a classic or three.

For those who pay some attention to the people whose books moulded Western history, you may know this year commemorates the five-hundredth birthday of John Calvin.

Sadly, Calvin is not present to celebrate with us (he has a prior engagement he is attending to), but he has left us with many books which - like him or loathe him - have contributed to the moulding of Western society.

None of Calvin's works does this more so than Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have read probably half this work before, and have decided that 2009 is a good year to reimmerse myself in this classic. I'm following this reading plan, and finding it very manageable.

Every evening - like a toddy before bed - I imbibe in a little Calvin. That is normally followed by a page of two of Darrel Martin's The Fly Fisher's Craft: the Art and History (see my previous post).

During lunchtime at work, I share a salami sandwich with Luther. Many years ago I digested quite a good chunk of that work he regarded most highly himself: On the Bondage of the Will (1525). And now I'm plodding my way through it again.

If you ever want to encounter passion in a writer, you'll meet it in Martin Luther. He's so bold, so brash, so rude. He gets away with a lot - probably as much as Jerome who referred to Pelagius as 'that fat, bloated alpine dog'. Yeah.

On the Bondage of the Will is incisive, careful writing, but so jolly entertaining too. Seeing as I was dipping back into Calvin again, it seemed only fair to let Luther in on some of the action too.

As Luther writes in response to Desiderius Erasmus' On Free Will (1524), he drops you straight into the action in the introduction. If you know even a little about Reformation history, you'll note his outrageous sense of humour:

"[I and others long before me have refuted your assertions on free will such] that it seems even superfluous to reply to these your arguments, which have been indeed often refuted by me; but trodden down, and trampled under foot, by the incontrovertible Book of Philip Melancthon "Concerning Theological Questions:" a book, in my judgment, worthy not only of being immortalized, but of being included in the ecclesiastical canon: in comparison of which, your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should be carried in vessels of gold and silver. And this you yourself seem to have felt, who were so unwilling to undertake this work of writing; because your conscience told you, that you would of necessity have to try the point with all the powers of eloquence; and that, after all, you would not be able so to blind me by your colouring, but that I should, having torn off the deceptions of language, discover the real dregs beneath. For, although I am rude in speech, yet, by the grace of God, I am not rude in understanding. And, with Paul, I dare arrogate to myself understanding and with confidence derogate it from you; although I willingly, and deservedly, arrogate eloquence and genius to you, and derogate it from myself."

Tell us what you really think, Luther!

So it's a good year for a classic. Which means when I'm done with Luther, I'm going to have to hunt down another classic ... any suggestions? Some Shakespeare? Plutarch? Gibbon? Wordsworth?

What recommend ye?


Matthew said...

I read that book about 10-12 years ago, and the one thing that has stuck with me more than the theological arguments was the verbal tongue-lashing that Luther gave Erasmus . . . still, don't remember it being this brutal. I think it's a German thing.

Adriaan said...

Yes, it is incredible to think that Erasmus and Luther, who apparently held each other in quite high regard in many respects, learned a way of dialoguing that was, shall we say, robust.

We think of Aussies as being brash, but Luther really takes the cake. Calvin could dish it out as well, but Luther is the master. "Vile trash", "dung" ... not the sort of wording you see much in book reviews these days.

John McClean said...

Adriaan, this year PTC is running a series of evening presentations called "Get to know the Classics" - introducing people to classic from Athanasius "on the Incarnation" to Lewis "Mere Christianity". It is 1st Monday of month 7:30-9:30pm, no cost. More details at

Oberman's wonderful biography of Luther (the best church history book I've ever read) has a good discussion of his crude language and the background to it.

Adriaan said...

Hey John.

Thanks for the note. I had this post brewing in my head for a few days, and during that time, I saw an email come through about the work you guys are doing in some of the classics this year - wonderful. I will check out the website.

The crudeness of Luther's language doesn't irk me too much; after all, compared to most of the people I work with, he's pretty tame. :-)

What I am gripped by is his strength of conviction. For all that is mystery, there IS a place for asserting, defending & maintaining.