Friday, June 24, 2011

Calvin Had a Sweet Tooth

"This article is based on two theses: one general, one more specific. The general one is that one's vocabulary reflects one's character. Or, to put it a little differently, the words we choose to describe our ideas and our emotions reveal more about our personality than we usually realize. The second, more specific, thesis is this: Calvin's fondness for and frequent use of the noun sweetness and its cognates reveal not only something about Calvin's style and personality, but it also has theological ramifications.

For those enemies and detractors of Calvin who allege that he knew little or nothing about the love and grace of God, this will come as a shock. However, even for Calvin's admirers and those who are familiar with his theology this may come as a surprise. Much has been made by Calvin scholars of his favorite metaphor, the mirror and his frequent references to a labyrinth and abyss, but as far as I know, no one has noted how frequently the Reformer uses words such as sweet, sweetly, and sweetness to depict fundamental theological themes. This is surprising in view of the fact that such words occur approximately sixty-seven times in the McNeill-Battles edition of the Institutes. Battles is far more consistent in his translation of the two key words dulcêdo and suavitas and their verbal and adjectival forms as sweet and sweetness than were Beveridge and Allen, the earlier English translators. Further research has discovered hundreds of occurrences of these words in Calvin's commentaries, sermons, and treatises. Granted, these words are sometimes used in a more literal sense of taste, e.g., when Calvin contrasts something that is sweet with that which is bitter. In the majority of cases, however, Calvin uses these words to designate a quality of God's goodness or the believer's experience thereof. Here we see a side of Calvin's personality and theology that I believe deserves special attention.

We may not gain any new theological insights from Calvin's use of these words, but this investigation will, I submit, show an affective or emotive dimension of Calvin's theology thus far overlooked and will also fill out and complement his treatment of certain doctrines in a particularly delightful way." (I. John Hesselink, Calvin, Theologian of Sweetness)

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