Crossing Traditions: Essays on the Reformation and Intellectual History in Honour of Irena Backus

Irena Backus’ scholarship has been characterised by profound historical learning and philological acumen, extraordinary mastery of a wide range of languages, and broad-ranging interests. From the history of historiography to the story of Biblical exegesis and the reception of the Church Fathers, her research on the long sixteenth century stands as a point of reference for both historians of ideas and church historians alike. She also explored late medieval theology before turning her attention to the interplay of religion and philosophy in the seventeenth century, the focus of her late research. This volume assembles contributions from 35 international specialists that reflect the breadth of her interests and both illustrate and extend her path-breaking legacy as a scholar, teacher and colleague.

Brill provided a review copy back in December and I’ve worked my way through it, delightedly.  Let me say, then, that Backus really deserves this wonderful Festschrift.  She has done so much for the field of Church History and what she has done has been so sharp that it’s hard to argue with her well deserved recognition.

The volume is comprised of the following:

À la croisée des traditions et des savoirs : notes introductives sur l’historiographie d’Irena Backus– Maria-Cristina Pitassi

Part 1. The Reformed Churches: Institutions, Policies, and Society

  • Conflict and Dissidence within the Early French Reformed Churches- Philip Benedict and Nicolas Fornerod
  • Calvin’s Creative Revision of Liturgical Time- Elsie McKee
  • Jean Calvin au miroir de l’Interim d’Augsbourg. Réactions polémiques, discours consolatoire et genèse d’un nouveau projet de réforme (1548–1550)- Nathalie Szczech
  • Les raisons d’un Bannissement (1562) : Antoine Froment, une Figure de l’implantation de la réforme à Genève, entre intégration et éviction- Geneviève Gross
  • Bèze raconte sa rencontre avec Henri Iv à l’Eluiset- Alain Dufour
  • A Quarrel between St. Rocco, a Chestnut Tree, and a Church Bell: Popularising Calvin for the Italian Reformed in the Grisons- Federico Zuliani
  • Les registres des consistoires réformés. « Lieux de mémoire » et récit collectif- Christian Grosse

Part 2. Looking over the Past: The Reception of the Church Fathers and the History of Biblical Hermeneutics

  • Erasmus (1515) between the Bible and the Fathers: Threshold of a Hermeneutic- Mark Vessey
  • Voix sans vertu. Complément à l’histoire des théologies de la Parole- Philippe Büttgen
  • Calvin’s Commentary on Psalm 1 and Providential Faith: Reformed Influences on the Psalms in English – Barbara Pitkin
  • Ésaïe 11 dans l’Esaiae prophetia d’Augustin Marlorat (1564) : quelques remarques exégétiques- Annie Noblesse-Rocher
  • Pierre Pithou, Théodore de Bèze et la chronologie des traités de Tertullien- Pierre Petitmengin-
  • Les pratiques de la lecture érudite de la Bible avant 1630- Ian Maclean
  • Le triomphe de l’église anglicane ? Johann Ernst Grabe éditeur d’Irénée- Jean-Louis Quantin
  • Notes on the Use of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr in Isaac Newton’s Of the Church- Pablo Toribio Pérez
  • The Contribution of the History of Exegesis to the History of Ideas- Mark W. Elliott

Part 3. The Reformers: Theological Views and Religious Struggles

  • Charles Quint, la peur, le sang …- Denis Crouzet
  • Huldrych Zwingli’s Dream of the Lord’s Supper- Bruce Gordon
  • Les auteurs païens dans les Colloques d’Érasme et de Maturin Cordier- Karine Crousaz
  • Le discours de Pierre Viret sur la pauvreté. Quelques réflexions sur ses influences- Claire Moutengou Barats
  • « Mieulx vault essuyvre la verité en petit nombre … » Choisir le bon côté et définir les adversaires dans l’Epistre très utile de Marie Dentière- Daniela Solfaroli Camillocci
  • Tolerant Humanists? Nikolaus Zurkinden and the Debate between Calvin, Castellio, and Beza – Ueli Zahnd
  • “Flowers Wrought in Carpets”: Looking Afresh at the Homily against Peril of Idolatrie- Antoinina Bevan Zlatar
  • The Critique of Calvin in Jansenius’s Augustinus – Ralph Keen
  • Femme qui prêche : une figure de la polémique confessionnelle au crible de Bayle- Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard
  • Who is Actually Catholic? How Our Traditional Categories Keep Us from Understanding the Evangelical Reformations- Randall C. Zachman

Part 4. Theology and Philosophy in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Arguments, Challenges, and Encounters

  • Palinodiam Canere: Rhetoric, Philosophy, & Theology in Erasmus- Brian Cummings
  • Melanchthon et l’éthique réformée. Le probleme du statut du droit naturel – Christoph Strohm
  • L’assujettissement du fils selon Calvin – Marc Vial
  • Was It Really Viral? Natural Theology in the Early Modern Reformed Tradition- Richard A. Muller
  • Leibniz’s References to St. Paul – Hartmut Rudolph
  • Houtteville et les Modernes – Carlo Borghero
  • Aux origines des Lumières. Les manuscrits philosophiques clandestins et l’histoire des idées – Gianni Paganini
  • Bibliographie d’Irena Backus
  • Index of Names

As wide ranging as the topics are, so too are the insights gained from them.  Regular readers, though, will know that my eyes were immediately drawn to the essay by Bruce Gordon on Zwingli so naturally I read it first (and I confess, I read all the English essays first and only then dove into the French, which took considerably more effort and which also deserve wider discussion than I can offer).  Gordon observes

In the story of Zwingli’s dream we find the confluence of medieval and early modern perceptions of sleep and dreaming with Reformation claims for prophetic authority.

And then

Fear, pedagogy, the cultivation of exemplary conduct, echoes of humanist vitae, and preaching were interwoven in a dream story intended to justify the reform movement and confirm Zwingli’s status.

And a bit further on

The Zwingli account, one of the first Reformation dream stories, resonates strongly with medieval hagiography: every detail of the story was carefully constructed to be interpreted in light of the final resolution, the revelation of true doctrine.

And then

True preaching, by which Zwingli’s own authority was confirmed, immediately resulted in the establishment of certainty: those students who did not understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper or the parable had the mist lifted from their eyes.

And finally

Zwingli was also making a claim against his opponent Luther, who had declared himself a prophet. The Zurich reformer was locked in battle over the interpretation of scripture, and he had to take a stand. None of this is to suggest the dream did not happen, but rather it forces us to consider how the text, which was written to make sense of the event in a way that would form the community, reflected a potent mixture of traditional beliefs and radical new ideas.

Is Gordon’s analysis correct?  Was the dream an effort to legitimize Zwngli’s understanding of the Supper and thus to legitimize his Reformation?  Probably so.  Does that mean that the dream never happened?  That we shall never know, although it has to be said that Zwingli was an honest person and it is highly unlikely that he would have simply made up such a story for manipulative purposes.  He probably had a dream and he probably felt like it accorded with his already developing understanding of the Supper.

Gordon’s analysis is superb, as is the case with the essays enclosed between these covers as a whole.   Elsie McKee and Ralph Keen do a very good job with their topics (as one would expect of such stellar thinkers).  But so do Zuliani, Vessey, Elliott (whose essay is very, very interesting indeed), and Zachmann (who has also constructed an incredibly engaging piece).  Strohm and Muller also give readers lots to consider and several things to reconsider.

Readers should also be sure to visit Backus’s bibliography.  It’s an exercise in humility for anyone who has accomplished less, and to be fair, that’s most of us.  Be sure to read this volume as a part of your own intellectual pilgrimage, and you’ll be inspired to think more deeply and write more intelligently than you ever have before.

The FS opens with a photo of the recipient/ celebrant, and so I end this brief review with the same image.  Congratulations, Professor, and congratulations to the editors and contributors of this volume:  well done, thou good and faithful servants-

irena backus

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