On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).

Union with Christ in American Theology

It is not difficult to find the rich teaching of union with Christ so beautifully displayed in John Calvin’s writings, but the theme is suspiciously absent in so much American reformed theology. Even where the phrase “union with Christ” has been used in the past it often refers to something quite a lot different (ie less) than Calvin intended.

But why?

This is the question behind William Evan’s book Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).

For Calvin, union with Christ was “a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories” (39). For him, “union with Christ may be described as the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification.” In other words, “both justification and sanctification are subsumed under a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ. In this way Calvin avoids the problems of making justification dependent upon sanctification (and this robbing justification of its synthetic character) or of making sanctification a mere response to justification (thus rendering sanctification ultimately superfluous).”

However, for his unity of thought about the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin really never explained how the realistic, person, and forensic categories work together. More specifically, how is forensic justification mediated to the believer through personal/ontological union with Christ? Confusion over this point led to varying developments throughout the centuries.

Evans traces out the evolution of union with Christ in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Increasingly union with Christ was split into two separate categories of legal/federal union (justification) and a spiritual/vital union (sanctification). The blame for the breaking apart of impartation and imputation from a cohesive union with Christ seems gets laid at the feet of a hardening ordo salutes. “Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated” (265). In other words, by viewing justification singularly as a historical point in past history in the life of the Christian, a present tense dynamic of our present justification in Christ is lost.

On this point Evans commends Richard Gaffin’s argument in Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987), 114–127. There Gaffin argues in part from Romans 8:34 and writes that “justification depends not simply on an action in the past experience of the believer but on his present relation to the person of the resurrected Christ” (133). Thus, for Gaffin, forensic justification is a present reality via the believer’s personal/ontological union with Christ.

This union of the union contradicts Berkof and the federal trajectory in reformed thought, writes Evans.

The federal trajectory reaches its logical conclusion in Berkhof. Justification and sanctification are completely separated from each other, even in the mind of God. The gratuity of justification has been preserved, but at a great cost, for the integration of Christian life and experience has been sacrificed. The linchpin of the Christian’s relationship with God—justification—has been wholly abstracted from the life of faith and from union with Christ.

Second, as the bifurcation of union with Christ became complete, the theme itself also became superfluous as an umbrella concept unifying justification and sanctification. To speak of a federal or legal union with Christ is simply to describe justification without remainder. Likewise, to speak of a vital union is to speak of sanctification. To the extent that the theme of union with Christ remains present in the successors of the Hodges and Berkof, it is largely vestigial.

The religious implications of this federal trajectory should also be carefully noted. There is, on this soteriological model, no real and complete forgiveness of sins, only an attenuated justification involving the satisfaction of a liability to punishment. The Christian can have no confidence that he or she really enjoys the favor of God, because the culpability and demerit of sin remain. Furthermore, with justification almost completely abstracted from the life of the church and from the ongoing economy of faith, the problem of assurance is only heightened. Finally, the bifurcation of forensic and transformatory categories made it virtually impossible to grasp the essential unity of salvation, and the Christian is left with an unstable dialectic tending toward legalism one moment, and antinomianism the next. (237)

The bottom line: “If justification is viewed as an ongoing participation, through the life of faith and the Spirit, in Christ’s justification, then the importance of the life of faith and all that relates to it is heightened, and it becomes possible to move beyond a preoccupation with the puncticular. What is important is not so much the initial act of faith, but the life of faith in Christ” (266).

In his book, Evans shows rather conclusively that the theme of union with Christ was split in American theological development, and there justification, a truth of inestimable importance and value, became abstracted from union with Christ.

Glory Display

John Calvin on Psalm 135:13,

The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra, as it were—the most conspicuous part of it; and the nearer the approaches are that God makes to us, the more intimate and condescending the communication of his benefits, the more attentively are we called to consider them.


John Newton (Works 6:151):

I remember that, three or four years ago, I mentioned some part of the gospel truth to a gentleman who called on me here, and he answered, “If it is a truth, you are indebted for it to Calvin.” As well might he have said, because Calvin had seen the sun, and has mentioned it in his writings, we build our knowledge of its light and influence upon his testimony.

New Reading Guide to Calvin’s Institutes

You’re a nerd when you read with two books open at the same time and just for fun and not because you have a class paper due. That’s me. When I read Scripture I keep a commentary open at my side. When I read poetry like John Donne’s Holy Sonnets I keep this commentary at hand. Even when I read The Lord of the Rings I keep this commentary at arms reach. I’ve come to appreciate commentaries, summaries, annotated guides, really any secondary literature by scholars more familiar with the original source before me. And over the years this practice has been deeply rewarding.

Few original sources are more enriching than John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s a very important work in the history of the reformed church, but it’s also old (first published in 1536), it’s foreign-born (written originally in Latin and French), and it’s quite long (1,600 pages). A good companion guide is essential. In the past I’ve used competent guides like T.H.L. Parker’s Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought.

But no guide summarizes Calvin’s points more concisely or more clearly than J. Mark Beach in his new book Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (RHB, 2010). This 352-page summary can be read as a stand-alone introduction to the life and theology of Calvin or it can be read as a chapter-by-chapter summary guide for readers committed to reading the entire Institutes.

Beach is a seminary professor but this book originated from pastoral convictions, a desire to connect the Christians of his congregation to the riches of Calvin. This was a high task—and a very difficult one—but a task Beach masterfully fulfills. The work oozes with theological conviction, biblical references, and pastoral sensitivities. I would say it surpasses other guides in its field but I’m not sure there are other guides written specifically to benefit the local church.

In the preface Beach explains the origin of the book:

Some years ago when I was serving as pastor to a congregation of believers in Pella, Iowa, I proposed to the adult study group that we study Calvin’s Institutes. I was encouraged by how many were interested in the project. But I also saw furrowed brows. Some asked, “You’re not expecting us to read all the way through the Institutes, are you?” At that moment I tasked myself with writing a synopsis of Calvin’s two big volumes.

He goes on to detail the purpose of his work:

This book does not aim to be a book for Calvin scholars. I am not trying to present a fresh vision on Calvin or his works. Nor am I seeking to commandeer Calvin to win some modern, theological fight. The goal of this synopsis is more modest in the academic sense but no less important in the churchly sense, namely, to present Calvin as a teacher of biblical truth and thus to instruct believers today in the faith they profess. This book therefore is directed to all persons who want to read Calvin’s theology but find themselves short on time and too overwhelmed to study the bulky volumes that comprise the Institutes.

Any pastor who wants his church to benefit from the Institutes should take a look at Piety’s Wisdom. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the endorsement from a leading authority on reformation-era theology, Richard A. Muller:

Mark Beach’s Piety’s Wisdom provides a finely done summary and analysis of Calvin’s Institutes that should be of considerable service to Christian laity, pastors, and students in coming to terms with the thought of the Genevan Reformer. Beach writes clearly and concisely, and with considerable insight into Calvin’s thought. The book includes a short biographical sketch and a contextual introduction to the Institutes. It stands as one of the best and most trustworthy introductions to Calvin presently available.

You can preview the first 32 pages here (PDF).

Currently the book can be purchased only through the publisher’s website. It sells for $15. UPDATE: It will be available from Westminster soonly ($15).

Highly recommended.