Introduction à la traduction anglaise du Jour des petits recommencements de Pierre Courthial

Introduction à la traduction anglaise du
Jour des petits recommencements

de Pierre Courthial

Douglas F. KELLY*


Erasmus, the eminent Renaissance scholar and all-European man, once wrote that France was the envy of the other kingdoms of Europe at that time. With its ancient royal dynasty, and King Francis I, who called himself ‘the most Christian King of France’, the Roman Church styled France as ‘the eldest daughter of the Church.’ The premier University of Europe was in Paris : the Sorbonne, which had boasted the leading theological faculty of the Catholic world for a good three centuries by the time of the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s. This very conservative bastion of traditional Roman Catholicism was not amused when the Reformation began in neighboring Germany, and began spilling over into the French kingdom. And the theologians of the Sorbonne had behind them the police power of the strong French state, which they readily used to stop the Protestant Reform movement among their people.

It cannot be our purpose here to follow the complex history of the Reformation in France, with the religious wars that ensued, showing both the remarkable spread of Reformation concepts and worship (perhaps as many as one fourth of the population was in one way or another, at one time or another, touched by the Reformation), as well as large scale suppression of the French Protestants. I cannot say whether Robert L. Dabney of 19th century Virginia was right about post-Reformation French history (in his essay on ‘The Uses and Results of Church History’), but having lived in France in my student days, and always having immensely admired its language and culture, I have often wondered about what he said. Dabney suggests that the terrible mistreatment of the French Huguenots by the royal government in the 17th century was visited in a sort of divine retribution by the atheistic revolution in 1789, which violently toppled the very throne that had killed or driven out the Calvinists after 1685.

I cannot say, and will not attempt to judge such a matter, but it was interesting to note a not dissimilar suggestion from a rather different perspective; a widely read book by a former official of the government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Alain Peyrefitte, Le mal français (1976). Peyrefitte (without entering into questions of divine providence) states that a possible reason why ‘the Anglo-Saxons’ arrived on the moon first, was because the French government had driven out the very talented, creative Huguenots in the 17th century, who then went and offered their talents to Switzerland, Prussia, Holland, Britain, and America after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (which had up to that time given religious toleration to the Calvinist Protestants).

What must be noted by anyone familiar with the history of the French culture is its brilliance, beauty and creativity in multifarious realms over countless centuries. The part it played in the ‘Revival of Letters’ (such as the ground-breaking classical linguistic and Patristic publications of Guillaume Budé), its superb poetry (such as that of the members of ‘the Pléiade’[1]) its architecture, music, and its 16th century advancements in nearly every realm leaves one in awe.

Out of this brilliant and creative context came that giant of the 16th century Reformation, John Calvin; a man of immense culture, linguistic erudition, self-sacrificing diligence, and a natural teacher (although personally a shy man). John Calvin seems to have been converted to the Reformation cause about 1532, at age 23. A logo frequently printed in his post-conversion works shows a burning heart, and under it these words: Prompte et sincere in opere Domini (‘prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord’). This is an accurate representation of his Christian life till its earthly end some 32 years later: a fervent piety, joined to profound integrity, intellectual brilliance, and tireless, selfless labor in the good cause. Not long after his conversion to Christ, he found refuge from persecution by the French government (strongly loyal to the papacy at that period) in the city of Geneva which, by the time of Calvin’s arrival, had been won for the Reformation by the labors of fellow Reformers, Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret[2]. There he literally poured out his life expounding the Word of God written: preaching several sermons a week, writing various tracts and treatises and Biblical commentaries, and especially that summary of how most faithfully to interpret the Bible, L’Institution de la religion chrétienne not to mention his voluminous number of letters, and his work as Christian statesman, missionary leader, educator and social reformer, and active pastor and counselor. He died in 1564, worn out at age 55.

But his mighty influence waxed ever stronger over centuries to come in many a nation. There can be no doubt that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ liberties to a significant degree owe much of their development (though not all of it) to the powerful stream of Calvin’s Biblical teaching (generally known as ‘Calvinism’). The beneficent influence of ‘Calvinism’ as a whole upon culture was perhaps best set forth by the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, in his 1898 ‘Stone Lectures’ at Princeton in New Jersey, best known under the simple title – Lectures on Calvinism.

Calvin cannot fairly be summarized under any particular doctrine, as best I can tell (a procedure that was so popular among 19th century German historians of doctrine). Reading his sermons and other writings leaves one with the main impression that above all else he wishes to be faithful to all parts of Holy Scripture ; to set all of it forth in orderly fashion, so that the transforming truth of God’s inspired revelation can shine out into the minds and hearts of ordinary men and women, as well as the most educated and privileged. He sought to bring all of human life and every aspect of culture under the holy light of the written Word of God in every part of it. He believed that (as the 20th century Scottish expositor, William Still, used to say) ‘the whole Christ is in the whole Word,’ and thus to find His fullness, one must range through the whole Word to be impacted by every angle and attribute of His divine/human character and grace in the larger bearing of all the truths of God in all sixty-six books of the Bible. That is precisely why Calvin preached so many thousands of sermons and wrote commentaries on most of the Bible. And that is how his influence pushed northern Europe heavenwards.

And of course he taught that the written Word must always be accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to make it effective. Indeed, he is the one who originated the practice of the Wednesday night prayer meeting at the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Geneva, early on in his ministry there (as one will see from vol. I of The Registers of the Consistory of Geneva, published only in 1996). He knew that the Spirit is given in answer to obedient [3] prayer (Luke 11.13), and thus, that ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’ and ‘the weapon of all prayer’ (cf. Ep 6.12 ff.) together would transform broken, self-centered human lives, and push towards the Living God the culture and nations themselves in due time.

Although I would resist the encapsulization of Calvin under any one theological topic (for he is too thoroughly biblical, and too ‘catholic’ – in the best sense of that good word, submission to the « totality of Scripture »[4], for such a limitation), it does appear from years of reading his material, that they have a way of bringing one into the very presence of God. I know of one talented Calvin translator who was actually converted while translating some of his important writings! And I know of many more whose eyes and hearts have been opened to see all aspects of the created order (and of their place in it) as God’s marvelous creation, well worth the best creative efforts of their short earthly lives, whether in theology, science, agriculture, politics, literature or whatever. From this perspective, certainly it is not an exaggeration to say that Calvin’s life and the body of writings he left to the next five hundred years have been peculiarly ‘theocentric’. Those who ‘follow in his train’ have a way thereafter of viewing all of life in terms of what David wrote in Psalm 16. 8: ‘I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.’

For all of these reasons, particularly because the Sovereign God in Christ is ever gracious and all-powerful to bless, transform and deliver those who ‘seek his face’ (cf. Psalm 27) in the written Word and in the Holy Spirit (who originally inspired it and now illumines it to seeking hearts), I suspect that the influence of John Calvin can only grow stronger in the next five hundred years than it has in the last five hundred years since his home-going. It is because our faces are turned towards God’s victorious work in the future expansion of Christianity that we most appreciate the epoch-making work of Pierre Courthial of France during the now concluded 20th century. He has proven one of the truest heirs and most fruitful and perceptive interpreters, and evangelistic conveyors of the entire legacy of John Calvin for the last hundred years in Calvin’s native land (and indeed, for the entire half millennium since Calvin’s birth). Thereby, Monsieur Courthial points the entire Christian Church towards a bright future. (…)[5] 

I am particularly pleased that Monsieur Courthial (who helped re-start the Faculté libre de théologie réformée in Aix-en-Provence in France in the 1970s, and served for many years as its dean, thus lending it considerable credibility among Reformed Protestants in France) has written Le jour des petits recommencements. This book should help make available the God-centered witness flowing in a living stream from John Calvin’s theology, in a vital, intelligible and far-reaching manner to future generations of many branches of the Christian Church. He makes sense of the grand, overarching story of redemption both in Holy Scripture and in the two thousand years of Church history since the Apostolic Age, and above all else, he applies the broad range of divine truth (tota Scriptura, the whole of Scripture) to the whole of human life and duty. This volume robustly follows the witness of John Calvin: it presents the whole Christ in the whole Word, in the context of the one Covenant of Grace, and all of this in the bosom of the historic Christian Church. Its firm grasp of historical Biblical truth is why it is so alive with confident hope for the present and future.

Monsieur Courthial traces all the covenants of Holy Scripture under the one over-arching Covenant of Grace: from Adam and Noah, through Abraham, David and Moses, down to the New Covenant, which is based on ‘better promises’ (He 8.6), carried out in ‘a greater and more perfect tabernacle’ (He 9.11); that is to say, the human nature of the God/man, who fulfilled in perfection all of the OT types, and carried through in letter and spirit all aspects of the divine law, so that after His ‘once-for-all’ sacrifice was acclaimed by the Father, the Holy Spirit was sent down in fullness to inhabit the Church, so that it immediately from the inside out ‘knows the Lord’ (cf. Je 31.34; He 8.11), and makes others to know Him to their eternal salvation (cf. Mt 28.18-20).

In Part I, he discusses in this way the grace and requisite (and yet graciously provided) obligation of the various covenants in historic-redemptive order. While grace is the theme in every one of them (especially the central covenant promise: ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’), he constantly includes the personal response of faith and obedience, required of and given to all of the elect people of God across the long ages. Throughout, he shows that God deals with us as persons, created in His image, and not as mere machines of whom no response is required. On the contrary, we have been created and redeemed to function in terms of His holy character. Grace does not cut out that response, but makes possible a substantial fulfillment of it by means of the written Word and the present power of the Holy Spirit in the communion of the saints.

Part II summarizes perceptively the great moments of the history of redemption from sin and rebellion to grace and glory by means of focusing upon ‘the mountains of God’: Eden (where we ‘sinned in Adam’), Ararat (where the Ark of Noah landed, and the human race made a new beginning), Moriah (where Isaac was to be sacrificed before a substitute was provided), Sinai (where the holy law was revealed through Moses, and atoning sacrifice and representative priesthood were established) and Zion (or Calvary, where Christ paid the supreme sacrifice, upon which the veil of the Temple was rent in twain, giving all the people of God immediate access to the Lord Himself). Thus, the whole of Scripture is drawn together in light of the eternal plan of God to redeem a people for Himself, and to renew the entire cosmos.

Part III opens ‘the new order of the world’, running from the apostolic age to the return of Christ in glory. Here you will find one of the most luminous discussions of the proper place of ‘dogma’ in the Church and in the life of every true believer. His wide and deep reading in Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, and Reformation sources (both ancient and modern) is brought to bear here. Like Calvin and other Reformers and later Puritans (such as John Owen), he cordially accepts and incorporates the ecumenical councils and creeds of the first five centuries (from Nicea to Chalcedon), but definitely rejects (as unfaithful to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture) the seventh ecumenical council : the Second Council of Nicea (with its approval of the cult of images). He makes these assessments in accord with chapter 2 of the ‘Second Helvetic Confession’ of 1566, taken over into the French Confession of La Rochelle (1571). It speaks of the Protestant Reformational relationship to the doctrines of the ancient Church Fathers and the Medieval theologians as follows : “We modestly refrain from agreement with them whenever we find that they propose something far removed from the Scriptures, or contrary to them.”

He rejoices in the clear discovery and powerful exposition of justification by grace through faith in the sixteenth century Reformation (a discovery that led to widespread revival in Northern Europe, and opened the way for a new missionary expansion of the apostolic faith throughout the world). He believes that a certain intuitive grasp of salvation by grace had always been somewhere in the heart of the Church, but its coherent explication by the Reformers (distinguishing plainly justification from regeneration and sanctification) opened the way for a renewed preaching of the Gospel, accompanied by the joy of assurance of salvation, and a life set free from fear to be ‘zealous of good works’, and reach out as never before to lost men and women of all nations. In this regard, he lays all due emphasis on the necessity of the doctrine of ‘imputation’ (a doctrine now criticized by many in ‘the New Perspective on Paul’).

In the latter part of this third section, M. Courthial takes us through the declining faith of the Middle Ages, and into the secularistic humanism of the 18th and 19th centuries, which is what we have faced for the last hundred years, and into which context we must preach and live out the changeless Gospel. A central issue here is the setting of the human mind above God and His Word ; a mind that is supposedly not fallen, and a Word that is not a thoroughly true revelation of God. Courthial demonstrates the philosophical, anti-theistic program of so much of the liberal ‘historical criticism’ of the Scriptures, as having been a prime way the followers of the humanistic Enlightenment emasculated the final authority of Holy Scripture within the churches of the West, in order to facilitate its functional replacement by the statist word of liberated mankind (or rather, the elite who claim to represent them). One of the values of this book is that its author does far more than offer criticism of heresy and rank unbelief: he lucidly provides a coherent response of faith concerning the authority, canonicity and sound interpretation of the Bible. On this subject of the true history of the text of Scripture and of how it should be faithfully interpreted, Courthial makes as much sense as anything I have ever read. That is characteristic of his book : he is at points negative in order to set forth a gloriously positive alternative. Probably, that is why the book (unlike some conservative writing) is so free from bitterness, rancour and hopelessness. It lifts you up rather than depresses you.

With this clash of authorities in mind, we can see that since the French Revolution of 1789, the general approach of the rich Western nations has been to turn its back on its own sin, and the remedy for it in Christ ; to reject God’s holy law and the assistance of His Holy Spirit to walk in its light, in favor of multifarious statute legislation, concocted by humanistic legislatures in regimes that are taking more and more control over every aspect of the lives of their citizens. All of this – since the French Revolution of 1789, and the Marxist Revolution of 1917 – was supposed to lead the nations of the world into a sort of statist paradise by virtue of total planning by the omnicompetent state. The Marxist dream (or nightmare) was largely cast off after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991. But as the great Christian philosopher of atheism, A. Del Noce, pointed out near the end of the 20th century, although Marxism has failed, secularistic atheism is still the reigning philosophy of our opulent Western society. He suggested that neither the ‘religious aspects’ of Marxism, nor historic Christianity were acceptable to maintain our wealthy self-centeredness: only atheism is desired as the basis of life and law by our multinational elites. Anything else – any higher authority – might restrain them from their projects. One sees here the reappearance of the tempter to our first parents: ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’

It is one of the great virtues of The Day of Small Beginnings that it faces with eyes wide open the atheism and statism characterizing the societies in which we live. He takes no joy in merely denouncing it ; he points a better way forward in company with the ancient and ever-living Christian tradition. In place of man pretending to be as god, he would have us bow to and live our lives in the presence of the only true and living God : the Holy Trinity, our Creator, Redeemer and Lord ; a Sovereign Lord who has revealed the whole range of His will through law, prophets and apostles : and supremely, in the Incarnation and Gospel of His only-begotten Son. In his lucid ranging through the many constituent parts of the Holy Scriptures, Dr. Courthial reminds us of the divinely given interconnection in all of these parts between the Gospel of free salvation and the all-encompassing disciplines of life lived in the paths of God’s holy law and in the power of the Holy Spirit. He is the unseen One who writes that law in our hearts and brings forth the fruit of the character of the God who gave it, as we abide in vital union with the risen Christ whom He supernaturally makes present to us. The author has traced in an intriguing manner this interconnection between Gospel and law through the various Biblical covenants in the earlier section of his book, and in his concluding section shows how it is manifested in Christian life today in a fallen and rebellious world; and how it is the solution to the corroding ‘acids of modernity’ that are eating away the face and very heart of our secularized culture.

He proposes that the contemporary Church may be on the verge of a fuller development of its theological tradition. He calls it the development of a ‘theonomic dogma’. There is no doubt that this word (‘theonomy’) bitterly divided many good, Reformed Christians in the USA during the 1970s and 80s, especially in response to the writings of R.J. Rushdoony. As a general rule, the vast majority of Reformed Christians in the USA rejected theonomy as being a harsh imposition of OT civil law onto modern states, which would signal the return of all sorts of capital crimes in a kind of politically imposed modern theocracy, and also as failing adequately to consider the changes entailed by the historico-redemptive development of law and Gospel, and of theocracy to the Kingdom of God, from Old to New Testament, upon the Incarnation of Christ and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But if I have read Courthial aright, that does not appear to be what he is really advocating. A very close reading of R.J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen also does not seem to teach a forcible imposition of Christianity upon modern states[6]. But some questions remain in my mind as to their adequate consideration of the changes entailed in law codes as they pass through the coming of Christ, Pentecost, establishment of the universal Church, and writing of the New Testament.

He states what he thinks this theonomic dogma would be : “God alone, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is the Lord and Saviour, and there is no other than He.[7]” Courthial believes that the Swiss Reformer, Pierre Viret, more than Calvin, set this forward (in his Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la Loi et de l’Evangile of 1564). Courthial, in the line of XIXth Reformed Century Christian thinkers : Friedrich Julius Stahl (from Prussia), J.H. Merle d’Aubigné (from Switzerland) and Groen van Prinsterer (from the Netherlands), summarizes it : “The Word of God is the sole source of morality and of law.” Referring to Calvin’s Commentary on Deuteronomy (CR 52, 49,131), he quotes : “God is not submitted to laws, because He Himself is the law for Himself and for all others.” Hence, Courthial writes that ‘Holy Scripture is the moral law revealed by God to Israel, the covenant people, and is normative for all mankind and all nations.[8]

He clearly admits important discontinuity between Israel and the nations[9], and in that spirit appears to accept what Chapter XIX, 4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says about the application of OT civil laws to modern states: “To them also [i.e. Israel], as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” I assume that this is what he means when he states (after affirming the threefold division of the law in the Reformed Confessions between moral, ceremonial, and civil), concerning socio-political and ceremonial laws: “If… these laws are not to be directly and literally applied, they ought to be kept nonetheless as having an indirect and typical authority, which is not to be eliminated.”[10] And in this regard he makes helpful reference to the first eight chapters of The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern S. Poythress (1991). Courthial is seeking to work out ‘the general equity of the law’. He makes it very clear that he is not seeking a state run by the church, but rather a state and church that acknowledge in their own different ways the source of all law and right in the holy character of God[11]. Yet in his section on the penal law, he does seem to me to go much further than Calvin and most of the Reformed have gone[12].

But apart from significant details such as this one, I believe that most will be able to agree with his main point, which should be both clear and convincing for all who hold to the authority of God speaking in Holy Scripture. It is this : the Word of God written, with its saving Gospel, Holy Spirit power in the Church, and with the guidance of its moral law and the general equity of all of its other types of law, is the light in which we are universally to walk : both in Church and in state, at home and abroad. Humanistic law, if and when it is contrary to the divinely revealed principles of the Word, is to be resisted and, where possible, replaced. That is what Courthial sees as the continuing issue between humanist revolution and Christian Reformation :

“While the humanly originated Revolutions on the one hand, forcibly animated by ‘the religion of power’, openly violated the laws of God, trampled down liberty, and concluded by setting up dictatorships which did not hesitate to carry out multitudes of bloody human sacrifices, and to install veritable forms of slavery, as if they hated God in his human images; divinely originated Reformations on the other hand, peaceably and patiently following the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth and the deepening application of His Law, in seeking to keep and practice it, progressively liberated men from all kinds of slavery, developing cultural renewal by undertaking all kinds of works of education and assistance for their neighbors; works which were both necessary in the short run, and capable of much fuller effects over a longer period. This Reformational approach was to bring about a Christianization of society: a new Christianity. Its progress would be founded upon multiple conversions, multiple turnings, brought about by the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit, by the faithful communication of the Law-Gospel-Word of God.[13]

Here we see the two different streams that flow from the gigantic, creative influence of France : the atheistic ‘mother’ revolution and the humanistic socialism that still flows from it, versus the theocentric godliness of such Reformers as John Calvin, Pierre Viret and Theodore Beza, and their spiritual heir, Pierre Courthial. Both of these streams still water the nations of our world and have much to do with the fruit they bear. One leads to humanistic bondage, and the other to Christian freedom and renewal. If we follow the right stream, the one so beautifully channeled with such ready accessibility to our contemporary culture by Pierre Courthial, our future can be as bright as the promises of God, and many of us may yet live to give (in the words of one of Jonathan Edwards titles of his reports on the New England revival) : A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, and after that a renewed and updated History of the Work of Redemption. Dr. Courthial would be ‘surprised’ should it not be so, for he knows that in due season ‘we shall reap if we faint not’ (Gal 6.9), as by Gospel faith we go forth in loving obedience, invisibly united to the Lord of the harvest; the revealer of all truth, the Savior of our souls, the renewer of our cultures, and the sovereign dispenser of the Holy Spirit, who has long been in the business of ‘making all things new’ (2 Co 5.17).

If reading Courthial’s book affects you the way it did me, it will cause you ‘to lift up your eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh your help : from the Lord which made heaven and earth’ (Ps 121.1,2). You will be in good company as you follow the author along the hills of God, from Eden to Zion, until you find yourself gazing by faith upon ‘that city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (He 11.10). Those who look most to their citizenship in that city, have a way of making the greatest beneficial differences in the cities and cultures here below.

May 2008

* Douglas Kelly est professeur de Théologie systématique à Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, Caroline du Nord. Il est auteur d’une Systematic Theology dont le premier volume est apparu en 2008 (Fearn, Ecosse : Christian Focus Publications)

[1] La Pléiade constituted an innovatory humanist aesthetic (of great talent) of the Renaissance tradition. By contrast, the Protestant poetic tradition De Bèze, d’Aubigné, Du Bartas, etc, rejoins the great classic tradition of Drelincourt, Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, Saint-Simon, Boileau, Bossuet, Saurin in indirect continuity with the Christian Medieval French literary tradition broken by the humanist esthetic of the Pléiade.

[2] John Calvin was in close fellowship with earlier Reformers, such as Bucer of Strasbourg, Bullinger of Zurich, Melanchthon of Wittenburg, and – more closely in his work in Geneva – Pierre Viret (mostly of Lausanne) and Guillaume Farel, whose imperious voice called the young Calvin to his ministry in Geneva at the beginning.

[3] Cf. the promise of definite answer to prayer given in I John 5.14,15 is in the context of vital union with Christ, so that we ask in accordance with his will, as it is in John 15.16, where those who ‘abide in the vine’ (vs. 1) are given of the Father that which they ask in the Name of the Son in whom they dwell.

[4] The famous fifth century ‘Vincentian Canon’ of Catholicity : ‘Quod ubique, semper, et ab omnibus creditum est’ (‘That which everywhere, always, and by everyone is believed’) was clearly based on a full acceptance of the fullness of the Holy Scriptures, without any heretical or schismatic deviation from any part of them. Vincent of Lerins held that the truly Catholic Church had always believed that the totality of the Scriptures ‘is sufficient and more than sufficient for all purposes’ (Common. 2). In the Justinian and Theodosian Christianization of the law codes of early Medieval Europe, this Catholicity was summarized in faith in the Holy Trinity, and this continued to be the legal basis of the various European kingdoms till the secularistic Enlightenment.

[5] Nous avons éliminé une section, ici, qui reprend ce qu’on peut lire de la jeunesse de P.C. dans les autres contributions (ndlr).

[6] See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Wohlgemuth & Hyatt: Brentwood, TN, 1991), Appendix B, 311-361.

[7] Courthial, Le jour des petits recommencements (my translation of the French original), 217.

[8] Ibid, 229.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 230, 231.

[11] Ibid., 238.

[12] Ibid., 237-240.

[13] Ibid., 254, 255.

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