Monday, May 22, 2017

Anna's Change of Heart: Bookish Reformed Ladies, History, and God's Use of Means

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of writing a short piece for the women of my church on Anna Maria van Schurman, a seventeenth-century Dutchwoman who was renowned throughout Europe for her learning. (Because “van Schurman” is a lot to type each time, I hope she wouldn’t be offended if I call her “Anna” from now on.) Anna’s parents saw to it that she received a well-rounded education in the arts, languages, and theology; by early adulthood, she had even begun corresponding with theologians such as AndrĂ© Rivet. Out of this correspondence came her best-known treatise, Whether a Christian Woman Should be Educated.

In the past, I’ve shared quotes from this essay that could make a bookish Reformed girl cry:

“…[T]he goal of studies is presumed not to be vainglory and show or idle curiosity, but rather the general goal of the glory of God and the salvation of one’s soul, in order that she may also emerge the better and happier, and may educate and guide her family (if that duty falls to her) and even be useful to her whole sex, to the extent that that is possible.”

“Let us define the phrase 'fitting' or 'expedient' not as whether the study of letters is appropriate, requisite, or precisely necessary to eternal salvation […] but as an occupation or means that can contribute to our integrity in this same life and, to a degree, through the contemplation of very beautiful things, move us that much more easily to love of God and to eternal salvation.”

“…[A]s the great Erasmus says, nothing so occupies the whole mind of a girl as does study: to which, as to a place of refuge, she may be allowed to flee on any occasion.”

The parts of her life I didn’t write about came later. After Anna’s mother died, she was consumed with household responsibilities and the care of elderly aunts. Although these things drew her away from study and intellectual companionship, she found deep spiritual solace in the daily work of nursing her kin. In her twilight years, she became a disciple (and avid apologist) of Jean de Labadie, an excommunicated, sectarian, proto-Pietist who emphasized a more immediate, mystically inflected knowledge of God. In the process, Anna came close to repudiating her youthful learning as being effectively spiritually dead. She also stepped outside of the traditional church as she had known it all her life. She describes this shift in a lesser-known work called Eukleria.

I don’t think Anna ever explicitly repudiated confessional Reformed theology. She also makes a few caveats to the effect that learning shouldn’t be summarily rejected, and that, in moderation, it can still be useful to the godly. Still, as one who’s been inspired by this one-time champion of women’s learning, it’s easy to feel shaken when this same woman, who sparred with Descartes and was visited by queens, all but retracts those views as an older woman.

And when she accuses the “worldly” of “[dislodging] the Holy Spirit from his throne and [turning] the weapons of erudition against the simplicity of faith…[erecting] a theater pleasing to the devil,” one naturally wonders just who she has in mind. These are not mild critiques. She further blasts “worldly theologians” as being completely fruitless preachers: 

“no one could easily persuade me…that the words of life that are dead in the mouth of a dead preacher…bring life to dead listeners. For the preacher can indeed say the words but not grasp and give voice to the meaning and life or Spirit of Scripture; the listeners, moreover, have not the ears to hear spiritual things in a spiritual manner or to grasp them inwardly. But how would the Holy Spirit plausibly attach himself to a dead person as a tool of his grace for bringing souls to life? Certainly not more, indeed less than to the crowing of the cock, which our Savior wanted to be a reminder to the turncoat Peter of his words in order to call him back from his special sin. In such a preacher the rule of sin stands in the way” (Eukleria II.XI, emphasis mine).

I read this passage several times, trying to think of a way in which it avoids being sheer Donatism. Indeed, a lack of obvious fruit in a preacher’s life is to be lamented, and open sin can be utterly devastating to one’s gospel witness; but surely that’s different from saying that the Holy Spirit is thereby prevented from kindling life in souls when the Word is proclaimed? If that were the case, what possible hope could there be for any of us? The Word of life itself cannot be “dead.”

Anna goes on to deprecate formal theological learning for clergy:

“If…teachers are truly taught by God and are instructed and led by the strength of his Spirit, three books are more than sufficient for them, namely the book of Scripture, the book of Nature, and the book of inward grace, in order to know God and themselves—and thus also humankind—thoroughly; in this knowledge all true wisdom is located. On the point history supplies us with examples of the martyrs, the Albigensians and, in the last century, of simple people—the unlearned, so to speak—who in one talk convert more people to God, or discover those already converted, than most of today’s preachers with a thousand of their learned and well-prepared sermons. Those who lack this inward Teacher can only borrow a kind of barren and false knowledge from a human school, which the Apostle elegantly calls ‘the form of knowledge’; this they also transmit and inflict upon their students.” (Eukleria II.XVII)

Again, there is a kernel of truth here, that an uneducated preacher who truly proclaims the gospel may be used far more effectually by the Lord than a man with a doctorate who lacks grace. (Though, it’s worth noting in the above that she refers to the converting power of “simple people,” not even necessarily ordained preachers.) This might have needed earnest restating in Anna’s context. But her statement also has an uncomfortable ring of anticlericalism, to least to my ears—a reluctance to embrace God’s ordinary use of means, even means which are glaringly marked by the Fall.

She also quotes her earlier correspondent, the theologian Rivet, who in his dying days experienced what Anna calls “the light and power of divinely imprinted experiential knowledge,” and is said to have broken out in prayer, saying, “I have learned more theology in these ten days in which you have visited me than in the space of fifty years…” I find it interesting that Anna uses this deathbed experience—one not unique, after all, in the biographies of theological giants—in support of a general downplaying of the value of theological scholarship for the Christian. Surely, what we’ve learned during our several decades of life will be a speck of dust in comparison to the unimaginable riches of eternity. This glorious truth should always be kept in mind, especially by those of us who take special delight in study, and encourage us to keep our intellectual attainments in their proper perspective! However, it seems to me that it should rather encourage us to pursue deeper learning (as long as it is properly oriented toward love of God and neighbor), rather than discourage us.

Reading Michael Horton’s systematic theology, I recently learned about a distinction that was important to many early Reformed theologians, that between ectypal and archetypal knowledge of God. Briefly (correct me if I’m wrong), archetypal knowledge is the truth as only God can perfectly know it, while ectypal knowledge is just as true, yet accommodated to our finite human capacity. Because we are creatures, we can know God only insofar as He reveals Himself to us—ordinarily, through such means as the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. This distinction has many implications for how we approach theology and journey through the ordinary Christian life. While God can reveal himself in any way he chooses, Anna seems to assume that “divinely imprinted experiential knowledge” is God’s typical way of working among his people, or a better way unknown to the average churchgoer.

To apply this distinction to theological pursuits: As plodding and frustrating as it often feels, it seems that the intellectual rigor of truth-seeking by means of history, languages, ideas, and arguments is a struggle that God intends for us during our earthly pilgrimage. The temptation to seek shortcuts to archetypal (immediate) knowledge is perennial; perhaps every era and movement within the church, and many individual believers, has faced it. Of course we also have to engage in the spiritual rigor of continually trying, failing, and trying again to live out our beliefs in a consistent, concrete way. But just because we’re often going to fail—and just because the intellectual struggle can become an idol unto itself (just as emotions and experiences can!)— doesn’t dismiss us from the vocation of wrestling.

I have not made an exhaustive study of Anna’s later writings, so my reflections must be taken with a grain of salt. To look at these questions as they deserve, I’d have to do much more research, and undertake something more indepth than a blog post (and I guess I might). I don’t know everything that led to Anna’s dramatic theological shift, or how her ideas, fully realized, shaped her views of Scripture and the church.

However, two takeaways have stuck with me: first, anti-intellectualism can take many forms, and it certainly isn’t new in the history of the church. As I read the above passages from Eukleria, I felt as if I could have been reading something from (much later) American frontier revivalism. It turns out that, too, has a history.

Second, I already knew that before enlisting them in support of a pet issue, you have to consider figures within their historical context. But this reminded me that you also have to consider a person’s ideas within the trajectory of her life. I don’t think Anna’s later change of heart should take away from our admiration of and learning from her earlier achievements. But it points to the limitations of a “Look at this exemplary person” way of using history, or of appealing to such figures for evidence regarding, e.g., women’s roles in the church.

Honestly, though, my most humbling takeaway is that even an intellectually gifted woman, lovingly nurtured as a covenant child, granted the best scholarly opportunities that could be afforded to a woman of her day (heck, better than many get today),  who pursues that learning with all sincerity and earnestness, can fall into grave error. This should be zero surprise to me, but it’s still giving me food for thought.