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Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety.

By Serene Jones. Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. Louisville: Westminster/Knox, 1995. Pp. + 238. $18.

This interesting and provocative book paints a new portrait of John Calvin: Calvin as artist. Jones turns to Calvin's Institutes as theological art and finds there "carefully detailed and rich language, wrought by the pen of one of early modem Europe's most powerful rhetoricians." Calvin's purpose is not simply to persuade the intellect, but also to "affect the emotions and will of its audience." In this, Calvin showed such an immense talent for shaping both written and spoken word, that his work did "not simply meet Renaissance standards but itself became a new standard by which the artistry of rhetoric was measured (2)."

J. examines how the "rhetorical tools of his trade, namely, words, are used." Her purpose is "to attend to the subtleties and nuances of the linguistic texture of his prized work, the Institutes, and subsequently to develop a deeper appreciation of the rhetorical mechanisms that drive his theological/artistic project." This focus on Calvin's rhetoric leads her to ask questions about Calvin's "word choice and the play of various tropes while simultaneously charting the text's argument in all its twists, turns, and inconsistencies" (2).

J. begins by placing Calvin within the context of humanist rhetoricians in 16th-century France. A central theme is that for those humanist rhetoricians, truly eloquent written prose had "the capacity to transform the disposition of its reading audience by inducing a `play of mind' that leads to specific actions that the author intends to elicit" (6).

Chapter 2 analyzes the proposed audiences to whom the Institutes was addressed: Calvin's students, whom he wished to instruct; friends and followers in French parishes whom he wished to strengthen and console in the Christian faith; humanistically-minded scholars and aristocrats whom he wished to convert to the Protestant reform; and his various "enemies," including those whom he wished to attack and marginalize. These groupings hold keys to the various rhetorical functions Calvin sought to carry out. A "rhetorical map" of the Institutes would include pedagogical, consolatory, apologetic, and polemical rhetorics. These rhetorics also serve social functions, depending on to whom they are addressed. J. wants to indicate the ways by which all of Calvin's agendas, audiences, and social functions are "simultaneously negotiated, often in the same paragraph or sentence and sometimes even in the same turn of phrase or figurative image" (74). The three following chapters demonstrate this approach in Book 1, chaps. 1-3.

J. provides a nontraditional way of reading Calvin. She indicates that Calvin's purposes are to "take the reader through an educative process of reflection" rather than "to present a set of propositional truth claims about where one should begin the theological enterprise." His texts aim at "dispositional reorientation" rather than to convey hard and fast doctrine. Misguided notions of textual meaning have located Calvin's "meaning" in texts, "somewhere beneath or beyond the images and the rhetorical play that move across the surface of the text." This has led to the assumption (mistaken, according to J.) that "the text's rhetorical play can be interpretively bypassed in the theologian's search for the true meaning of the Institutes" (112).

J. challenges such assumptions, claiming instead that "one of the text's principal functions is to move the reader through a series of rhetorical strategies designed to convert and redispose him or her." When the text is "read in this manner, one comes to see that it is precisely through the play of these images that the text's functional meaning is constituted." For it is "through the reader's engagement with these rhetorical mechanisms," that "the truth of the text--the reorientation of the reader toward God--is enacted" (112). J.'s final chapter, "Calvin and the Rhetorics of Contemporary Theology," discusses this understanding of Calvin in relation to postliberal, pragmatic, and other contemporary theological views.

Traditional approaches to Calvin must now engage J.'s work. Her portrayal of Calvin as rhetorician and crafter of rhetorical strategies raises issues about Calvin's views of truth--and here dialogue must go on. Also, how did Calvin see himself as an interpreter of Holy Scripture who stood within an historical exegetical tradition? J. does not address this, but it has been a dimension highlighted by other Calvin scholars as a basic perception. What effect would this insight have on how Calvin functioned rhetorically? J.'s fresh approach will certainly stimulate Calvin studies and provide needed dialogue points for further discussions.
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Author:McKim, Donald K.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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