[from my new series of posts entitled, “Calvin & Coffee”…]
Hazardous occupations: firefighting, police work, soldiering, espionage, high-rise construction, mining…
When we think of dangerous job profiles, “theologian” usually does not come to mind. The stereotypical theologian wears tweed, smokes an occasional pipe, avoids manual labor, and haunts locally-owned coffee shops when not holed up in some office off the university quad.
But in reading John Calvin, I am reminded that Christian theology has been an exceptionally dangerous profession throughout the history of the church. Many of the great works we read so casually in locally-owned coffee shops or debate so flippantly in seminary classrooms or teach so dispassionately from the lectern were written by trembling hands, the threat of death and exile ever looming over the open page.
Calvin completed and published the Institutes as an exile. France was terribly unsafe for a young man writing a book that premised the theological enterprise on the Word of God as revealed in Scripture. His theology is penned in the hope of eternal life in the face of possible death. As he wrote to King Francis,
For the sake of this hope some of us are shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders and treated in most shameful ways .
Calvin’s writing is the result of sustained theological thinking under the ominous vigilance of the ruling ecclesiastical and political authorities. His work was in some ways squeezed out of him, perhaps, by such frightful pressures.
In addition to those external conflicts, Calvin did much of his writing while seriously ill. Though first published in 1536, multiple editions of the Institutes appeared over the next two decades, the final version not leaving the printer’s office until 1559. While completing his final revision, Calvin suffered dreadfully from a form of malaria. He somehow muscled through the sickness in the hopes of bequeathing a worthy work to his readers:
Last winter when I thought the quartan fever was summoning me to my death, the more the disease pressed upon me the less I spared myself, until I could leave a book behind me that might, in some measure, repay the generous invitation of godly men .
Danger has attended Christian theology from its inception. Calvin was not the first to write under the threat of death or to labor in the midst of personal sickness and pain. Much of the theology of the New Testament was produced in such anxious and dreadful circumstances. The Apostle Paul would surely have struggled to imagine his vocation as a theologian in a serene and gentle context!
So much of the entire Bible, in fact, was penned under great conflict. The theology of Scripture is exile theology, the theology of those who cannot forget their near-death escape from Pharaoh (the Torah), the theology of those who anticipate not escaping from Assyria or Babylon (the Prophets), the theology of those who feel the breath of their enemies on their necks and hear the howling of dogs in the distant hills (the Psalms). The theology of the Gospels is the theology of those who face the threat of synagogue expulsion, who have the claim “Caesar is Lord” ringing raucously in their ears when they know Another is Lord.
Theology is a hazardous vocation.
So how does this heritage of danger affect how we do theology today while the leaves gently fall on green university lawns or while we preach to respectable citizens in the pews amidst their yawns?
Even if the contemporary context in which we work provides safe haven for theological labor, we must refuse to forget the high price paid by the theologians and pastors who have written in darker times. And we must remember that the times are still quite dark for so many even today. Though I myself study theology in the shadow of a 1000-year old Norman cathedral in a charming English town, some men and women are doing theology in dirty, humid megacities, breathing in the dust and fumes from busy streets below and sweating on books written only in English which they struggle to understand. What do these theologians have to teach us, many of whom work in settings much more similar to those of our theological forbears in both biblical and ecclesiastical history?
Theology is always a bit suspect (who among us can truly know the Triune God and write sufficiently about His beauty and power?). And bad theology can certainly come out of bad circumstances. But it is also quite possible that Christian theologians writing in favorable circumstances will misperceive or even distort the theological writings of the Scriptures, so many of which were penned in pain.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 14.
 Ibid., 3.