THL Parker on Calvin, the Reformation, and Justification
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 29 Apr 2016
The great Calvin scholar, THL Parker, has died aged 99. Lee Gatiss looks at three great quotes, and three articles he wrote for our journal, Churchman.
I was saddened to learn that Thomas Henry Louis Parker died on Monday just short of his century. Born in 1916, he was a student here in Cambridge at Emmanuel College, was ordained into the Church of England in 1939 after training in London, and served a number of churches as curate and rector, including a spell at Christ Church Cambridge (my own church) during the war. He became a lecturer at Durham University in 1971 and retired ten years later. He was a prolific and brilliant scholar, particularly of the great Genevan Reformer, John Calvin.
I have many of his books on my shelves, including superb studies of Calvin’s Old Testament and New Testament commentaries, Calvin’s preaching, and a biography of Calvin—all of which I have greedily devoured. I never met him, unfortunately, but those that did speak very warmly of him as a person and as a lecturer. Three of my favourite quotes from the book on Calvin’s preaching are these. First, he laments the nature of modern theological training:
“The modern school-university-theological college course cannot compare in excellence with the training for preachers in Geneva… There was none of the pernicious concentration on literary problems which has so bedevilled theological training in our own century—so that a bewildered student might well have conceived that the Pentateuch and the Synoptic Gospels had been composed solely to provide entertainment for minds left idle by a too-quick solution of The Times crossword.” (THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, pages 38-39).
Second, he points out that it’s not just all down to the preacher, if the preaching in your church is bad:
“The congregation no less than the preacher have a responsibility towards what is taught. But this goes further than their own response to it. They, no less than the preacher, have a duty to see to it, so far as they can, that the message of the Bible shall alone be heard in their pulpit (for the pulpit is the pulpit of the whole Church, not merely of one member, the preacher). As most Churches are constituted, this will be a matter of encouragement or discouragement rather than command, for the power of congregations is both limited and indirect. What Calvin has in mind is that the congregation shall look for and be pleased to receive God’s message and not make the preacher’s task harder by asking for this or that alien fancy.” (THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, pages 51-52)
Third, what should that preaching be like? Clearly it ought to be expositional. When we set ourselves to preach and listen to sermons:
“The specific purpose will be determined by the particular passage of Scripture; so that in this respect preacher and congregation might be termed chameleons, taking their colour from whichever passage they are perched on.” (Calvin’s Preaching, page 52).
Clearly, these are things we must all bear in mind. But I was also heartened to discover that Dr Parker contributed on several occasions to our journal, Churchman.
His first article was on the Doctrine of Justification in the Continental Reformers, in 1950 (the year that Church Association merged with the National Church League and others to be renamed Church Society). This looks, naturally, at both Luther and Calvin, in the context of their main interlocutors such as Melanchthon, Osiander, and the Council of Trent. It’s a wonderful reminder of the main contours of this most wholesome and comfortable of doctrines, upon which our Reformation was built. As he concludes concerning justification by faith alone (sola fide), “Hence we must say that the word alone in this formula is to be regarded as the dividing point between the true and the apparent Church—and that not only historically but permanently.”
Second, Dr Parker was back in Churchman in 1964 with an article on Calvin the Biblical Expositor. He took as his “text” for this essay a judicious comment by the Anglican divine, Richard Hooker, who said, “Two things of principal moment there are which have deservedly procured [Calvin] honour throughout the world: the one his exceeding pains in composing the Institutions of the Christian religion; the other his no less industrious travails for exposition of holy Scripture according unto the same Institutions.” He shows how important Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible are for understanding what he was about and what he taught: “Calvin saw himself primarily, not as a systematic but a biblical theologian.”
Third, Parker returned to the pages of Churchman in 1973 with a timely article on The Reformation and the Church Today. He talks in this of union with Christ, “Christ takes my sin and ungodliness and gives me his righteousness and grace,” he wrote, and speaks about the marks of the church—“Luther, prodigal as mother nature, could on occasion enumerate as many as thirteen” of such marks (so much for only 9!). It is a thought-provoking article, concluding that “Where the pure Gospel is declared and where the Sacraments are duly administered, then there is the church. Where these things do not take place, then, however impressive all the other associated phenomena, there is not the church.”
So, we thank God for the life, faith, and work of his servant T.H.L. Parker, who lucidly expounded and lavishly explored the works of other theologians, for the sake of the health of the church. And let us pray for more believing scholars like him to minister to us in the century ahead.
P.S. For those who are digitally-minded, the electronic edition of Churchman, currently covering 1886-2012, is on SALE at the moment over at Logos. It’s extremely useful for all sorts of searches, for in-depth study, or just dipping into.
Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.
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