Two Traditions

Years ago I read a thought-provoking article by Heiko Oberman: “Calvin’s Critique of Calvinism” [in The Dawn of the Reformation, ch. 11, see p. 265]. There he noted Lucien Richard’s The Spirituality of John Calvin that demonstrated that Calvin turned from a spirituality of devotio (spiritual devotion) to a spirituality of pietas (spiritual piety). Devotio was a spirituality of rejection—a denial of the world through personal discipline. Pietas was a spirituality of engagement with the world—grounded in Christ’s life and love. According to Oberman, Richard’s research offered “a major advance” in Calvinist studies and highlighted a divide between Calvin himself and the later Calvinism. The latter had “relapsed”—Oberman’s term—into the themes of spiritual devotion. I once presented this theme in a formal academic setting. Here I’ll discard most of the academic references (while still noting some key figures) and summarize some of what I learned.

We all live within a web of traditions. By that I mean that each of us has a complex set of beliefs and values that we’ve inherited from earlier generations and have then arranged in our own particular ways. So each person’s tradition will at the same moment be derivative and unique. Derivative in the sense that we’ve drawn our view of life—our tradition—from church, family, societal values, and academic training. And unique in the sense that the particular set of cords that form our personal tradition will differ from the collective cords that form the rope of life for anyone else.

Before I move to my main consideration let me offer an example of how a given tradition can shape us. Consider the notion of “progress”. For many people the idea of progress is a life-defining faith—a metanarrative—usually formed in alignment with Darwinian evolution. For others the tradition of progress is much more limited: merely a nod to the increasing human ability to collect, to process, and to distribute information; and with that information to be able to manipulate the physical world more effectively.

What are some of the differences?

In the former view anything new is necessarily superior to anything old since progress is implicitly good. Even human spirituality is always improving, so that today’s expressions of faith are superior to older versions.

For the latter group, progress is limited to external matters—to changes in technology. That means progress is properly linked to things like the printing press and to the more recent benefits of computing and digital processing devices. Such progress, however, doesn’t define humanity or involve moral or spiritual development. Even more than that, an overstated view of progress sets up an idolatry of change that damages our confidence in anything historical, including the viability and value of the Bible.

So each of us will see the world in separate ways, depending on where we stand in our view of progress. So a secular naturalist will dismiss the viewpoint of a Christian, and vice versa. Those who deify evolution will treat the past as largely irrelevant; while those who treat progress as merely material and external—of making cars that have better mileage and reliability; of flying faster and higher; of increased processing speeds in computers; and so on—will enjoy those benefits but will still view the past as important. Why? Because the past gives meaning to the present era in matters of life and value because God’s self disclosures through creation, revelation, and the life & ministry of Christ are historical realities. In other words, God alone defines meaning, while discussions of progress are merely descriptive and lack any sort of innate meaning.

With this reminder of what constitutes a tradition and why it make a practical difference to us, let’s now turn to the topic of this post: to two competing traditions of spirituality.

First, there is a spirituality of Devotion that featured the duties of faith that prospered in the century before the 16th century Reformation. It portrayed faith as a synthesis of Christian teachings and certain axioms of classical Greek philosophy. Thomas Aquinas, of the 13th century, was a leader here, along with some others who held somewhat varied alternatives—Duns Scotus for one. I mention these figures to help students who want some particulars. That said, let’s move on.

The other tradition of Piety featured inward transformation and was employed by the early reformers: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and, later, Calvin. This tradition was affective—meaning that it stirs an immediate sense of God’s presence and love (as in Paul’s reference to the Spirit offering believers a sense of God as “Abba—Father”). It has been labeled by some as “mystical” but it must be distinguished from the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius who emphasized God’s ultimate unknowability and who promoted non-discursive encounters with God—a uniting with him as One who dwells in the ineffable “darkness” of pure being.

The Devotion tradition sought to balance the role of God and the human role in the spiritual life—wrestling to identify whose initiative is prior and critical in forming spiritual transformation. With that tension there was also a second feature: a profound reliance on dialectical process. This reflected a heritage of the classical Greek era and was expressed through the priority of human rationality as explained by Aristotle. A third feature is their shared confidence in the relative reliability of the human mind. The reliability of the human will, however, was questioned because of it can be distorted by sinful passions.

The chief feature of Piety, by contrast, was a confidence that the passions are both the cause and cure of sin. Furthermore, the will and the mind are held to have been stricken by the Fall, remaining deeply flawed even after regeneration. In their anthropology the Pious mystics held that the affections—the “heart”—ultimately guide one’s conduct. Jean Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris, summarized this divide at the beginning of the fifteenth century. “Mystical theology” he wrote, “begins in the doctrine gathered from the internalized experiences lived in the hearts of devout souls, just as the other half of theology proceeds from those matters that operate extrinsically” [On Mystical Theology in Gerson: Early Works, 1:266].

Historian Steven Ozment comments on Gerson’s point: “Scholastic [i.e. the Devotio promoters] and mystical [i.e. Pietas] theologians were seen to differ, first of all, in their basic sources.” That is, “they studied the Bible, church history and read theological commentaries” while the mystics looked to “evidence of divine presence” in direct experience and in historical reports. Secondly, “scholastics relied on reason and distrusted the emotions, while mystical theologians trusted the affections—provided they had been disciplined by true doctrine—and believed that the reasons of the heart were closer to God than the speculations of the mind” [Ozment, The Age of Reform, 74].

This division was evident throughout the heritage of Christianity as in the separate trajectories of Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas that developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Here we return to Richard who comments on this conflict in the opposed definitions of key terms being used by the two approaches:

The medieval period may be regarded as a period dominated by two opposing tendencies manifested in the schools of St. Bernard and of Thomas Aquinas. Their opposition lay in the dominantly affective character and spiritual teachings of the one versus the dominantly speculative character and dogmatic teaching of the other. Thomas spoke of devotio as an act of the virtue of religion. Bernard and his followers spoke of devotio as an affective state [Richard, Spirituality, 84].

The differences were obvious to medieval believers as illustrated by Gerson’s account. Both the ‘head’ and ‘heart’ were seen to play a part in identifying orthodoxy, but in practice one or the other tended to dominate the approach of a given theologian. Gerson, in fact, specifically applauded the Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, for attempting to find a balance.

Bonaventura inflames the affections while at the same time instructing the mind. Where so many others only confuse the mind and burden it with [scholastic] “qualifications,” “prior and posterior arguments,” “signs,” and “contingencies,” Bonaventura unites one with God in ecstatic love [cited by Ozment, 77].

By the coming of the sixteenth century there was in place in northern Europe a clear distaste for the methods and outcomes of the scholastic tradition. The activism of the Christian humanists, including Gerson, Francesco Petrarch, and Desiderius Erasmus; and the simple biblicism of English Lollards, all reflect a broad reaction to the fruit of the late medieval scholastics. The systemic speculations that were at the heart of Thomistic theology began to face increasing opposition by the time of the Reformation.

On the other hand more affective expressions of spirituality were offered in popular writings such as The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, and others. Luther’s first effort in publication was his 1516 edition of the anonymous Theologia Germanica, reflecting his own early engagement with the tradition of mystical piety.

Oberman summarizes the goal of Luther’s theology:

He [Luther] can place Bernard before Augustine as the preacher of Christ but refers to Bonaventure as “the highest among the scholastic doctores [academics].” It is exactly where Bonaventure straddles the two schools and combines the theologia speculativa [speculative theology] with the theologia affectiva [affective theology] that Luther deviates from him and testifies: “he almost drove me out of my mind, because I wanted to feel the union of God with my soul, as a union of both the intellect and the will” [Dawn, 136].

Thus, the theologians of the sixteenth century were well aware of two broad traditions, one affective and the other scholastic. And Calvin, in his conversion to the faith of the Reformation, moved from his heritage in scholastic Devotion to his enduring commitment to the affective spirituality of Piety. “Calvinism”, on the other hand—as Oberman noted above—reverted to the values of scholastic Devotion after Calvin’s passing.

Why is this significant to us today? Because much of the current tradition of academic Christianity has followed the path of Calvinism back into a spirituality that the early reformers dismissed. For those of us who have, on the other hand, found the scholastic theology of duty and devotion to be empty of the Spirit’s life, we have an alternative and more biblical tradition to embrace—one that this blog site seeks to represent and promote.

So we can, indeed, “taste and see that God is good” without needing to gain the approval of those who prefer an arid faith that even Calvin dismissed. Two traditions, but only one is captured by God’s heart. His heart is what makes all the difference.



  1. Dave K

    You inspired me to read the essay in Oberman. Perhaps I’m reading him/you wrong, but what he said seems in tension with your post.

    He seems to me to be saying that Calvin’s spirituality differed from that of the Devotio, not because one was arid and one affective, because actually they were united in “inwardness and personalism” provided by the Spirit.

    What distinguished the two was actually that Calvin’s spirituality was objective, grounded in the Word of God, dealt with the whole man (ala Bonaventura in your quotation).

    In this post you seem to recognise the need for “unity of Christian life and theology” that Oberman sees in Calvin, but some of your article seems to contradict that. In parts you seem to characterise Devotio with external religion, in contrast to Peity’s internal religion. This seems to a be a different contrast that Oberman draws.

    I’m confused.


    Hi Ron,

    Your message that everyone follows a faith tradition, whether they know it or not, reminds me of Bobby, whom we continue to pray for, and hope to hear from soon.


  3. Ron

    Thanks for the two responses here. Let me take up Dave’s good question.

    Oberman’s article, including his comments on Richard’s book, is tightly argued and rooted in the items he references. It’s Richard’s book that sets out the case I’m making (though I’m adding to it from my own work). And Oberman’s points only make sense in light of Richard’s thesis.

    Richard’s theme is that Calvin is vastly different to the Devotio of his day. The Devotio Moderna is moralistic, although personalistic, because of its inward and individualistic bent. Calvin had learned of the world of moralistic spirituality before he was converted. The Stoicism of Seneca was a study of his youth. After his conversion he rejected any form of moralism: it is fundamentally self-concerned.

    Richard tells us that Calvin’s new epistemology was Augustinian: he looked to God in a faith of affective response to the objective realities offered in the Word. This proper epistemology was achieved only by the Spirit’s active presence. It was certainly not a matter of looking within so as to fulfill self-correcting duties. Thus he adopted “pietas” as the proper expression of faith in place of the “devotio” of Erasmus and many others.

    Oberman noted the matter of Stoicism earlier in our cited chapter [p.263]. In the brief two paragraphs he gives to Richard’s thesis, his heading is instructive: “Piety between Theology and Moralism”. I.e. the battle is in avoiding moralistic duty while remaining grounded in God’s Word.

    The key statement in Oberman’s commentary on Richard’s work is that “Calvin’s pietas stands for a new spirituality which is grounded in his understanding of the knowledge of God.” It is a sense of personal and affective encounter that Calvin’s “knowledge of God” consists. Thus Oberman goes on, “Piety is derived simultaneously from the Word of God [i.e. the “objective” element] and the internal testimony of the Spirit” [the affective element]. So while the Devotio tradition had a “fundamental disposition towards God” it lacked the living reality of Calvin’s Augustinian piety: “Thus Calvin’s spirituality differs radically from that of the Devotio Moderna…” [p.266]

    So it’s Richard’s book that should be read in order to make sense of Oberman’s tight commentary. And Richard is well worth pursuing. Oberman only points us in his direction and affirms his outcome.

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