Jean-Marc Berthoud: Magisterial Christian Scholar in Our Time of Need
When I first met him in the autumn of 1982 on a trip to two scholarly conferences in Europe, it did not take me long to grasp the depth and breadth of the immense reading Jean-Marc Berthoud had done, and the fervent determination of his heart to give his all to the cause of Christ in our declining Western society. Since that time, we have stayed in touch, and his understanding of the issues that have shaped our culture across the world has never ceased to amaze me, and to help me negotiate the world of both high and low intellect, good and bad religion, and healthy and death-dealing politics.
The scope of his reading and comprehension compares to that of his contemporaries, such Pierre Courthial and R. J. Rushdoony, and from a different perspective, T. F. Torrance. All of these unusually gifted men (and not always from the same point of view) bring into immediate contact very diverse fields of reality and seek to think them through together under thorough commitment to the Word of God written.
While Jean-Marc makes no pretension to high intellectual, academic, or ecclesiastical standing (how he comes across has never been his interest), I have at times wondered if later centuries will not consider him to have been in something like the category of the Church Fathers, sixteenth-century Reformers, or some of the Puritans. Of course, I cannot be sure of that: only time will tell, and he will have no concern one way or the other in the meantime.
This article of appreciation is to be about Jean-Marc, not myself, but even so, I will have to make some personal references in hopes of shining light on the combined Patristic/Medieval/Reformational and post-Enlightenment magisterial quality of the thought and almost universal grasp of all the issues that matter most for the well-being of humanity and the glory of God.
On the other hand, time and space would fail me to relate in even cursory detail the countless times I have telephoned him to ask his (always informed) opinion on Gnosticism (ancient and modern), Irenaeus, Lombard and Aquinas, Anselm, Bullinger, Viret, Calvin, Lancelot Andrewes, as well as controversies across the church ages, such as the Iconoclastic, the Filioque, etc.
It is a characteristic of this deep and fair thinker that he is never narrowly denominational in his assessments of theologians and churches. For instance, his keen appreciation of Thomas Aquinas (especially in light of some of Thomas’s Biblical commentaries) shows careful reading, comprehension, and impartiality, without any anxious regard to widely received opinions. His appreciation is not without critique of areas where he thinks the great thinker was less than Biblical. But weak points do not keep him from lauding strong points, and from using those strong points himself!
Also, Jean-Marc is not without awareness of the peculiarities and limited perspectives of some of the good Reformed theologians, much as he seeks to stand in their company appreciatively. It is never enough with him to rely merely on widely received academic or ecclesiastical authorities. He respects them, but puts them all under the same transcendent authority that controls his own thought and practice: the Holy Scriptures, interpreted according to the rules of such as Tychonius, Augustine, Calvin, and Owen.
For that reason, I have always felt a certain confidence in asking what he thinks in various matters where I have been lecturing or writing. It is not that he could possibly get everything right (who could?), or that he is never without prejudice or animus (who is?), but that his heart is deeply committed to pleasing Christ, by going on his knees before the Lord who speaks in the Scriptures, in order to edify the church and begin to restore a healthy culture.
You would not wish to keep reading long enough for me to give a representative sample of issues and questions where I have sought Jean-Marc’s advice on thinkers and issues across the last two thousand years! (I have kept a daily diary for well over forty years, and in looking at that, I could count it all up; but that is certainly not called for at this time!) He has helped me as I wrote the two volumes of Systematic Theology, also Creation and Change, and many an article on challenging subjects (some rather arcane—yet always, he knew more than I did).
His well-read assessment of politics since the Middle Ages is directly based upon his understanding of Holy Scripture. He is always what we would traditionally term “a realist”: that is, he deals with what is there, without imposing a structure of preconceived opinion upon it (based on over-attention to “names”—i.e. “nominalism”). Though neither Jean-Marc Berthoud nor T. F. Torrance might exactly agree on my comparison here, I think Jean-Marc’s approach in this sense of humble openness to what is there, is not unlike what T. F. Torrance calls “truly scientific methodology.”
All of us humans are necessarily limited, and therefore cannot entirely see beyond our own starting point and intellectual structure, yet Jean-Marc has been found trying, though not always with complete success—and who could cast the first stone here? He is not sold out to conspiracy theory, but is willing to consider some aspects of it as being potentially relevant to politics since the Enlightenment.
Whether he is right in any of this, I do not know, but to say the least, it has been most interesting to go over with him his views of why the world is like it is for the last three centuries. But whether any of this is the case or not, I am always humbled, uplifted, and instructed by the way he takes everything back to the gospel, the law of God, and to the covenant of grace that runs through the Bible and encompasses all our cultural and political life to this hour. That going back to the Scriptures is what really matters, for by definition, much that lies behind current and historical events is always beyond our ken, and does not matter like Scripture matters. (R. J. Rushdoony’s discussion of conspiracy in light of Psalm 2 is of great relevance here.)
Jean-Marc reminds me of the great nineteenth-century Reformed theologian of Virginia, Robert L. Dabney, in that his transparent sincerity and burning fervency of faith can at times lead him to speak, not only very directly, but also without necessary tact and consideration of the feelings of those who argue on the other side. For both of these good Reformed men, in a very real sense, their strong point is at times their weak point. Once again, who of us does not have to fight against various elements of our own self-life?
The multiple volumes written by Berthoud continue to appear, demonstrating erudition, lucidity, and practicality. They will make ever stronger the applicatory theology of this prolific author. I believe many of these volumes and articles are truly magisterial, in conveying in a lucid and penetrating manner the great theological and political issues that have shaped our world for the last two thousand years. Thus, I would predict that they will eventually bring a large element of healing to our sickened, largely apostate culture.
But that will take some time, for one of the reasons is, as Dr. Rushdoony pointed out to me when I gave him a report of my time with Berthoud upon my return to USA in 1982 from Europe: “Jean-Marc has chosen to work outside the academy.”
Another reason why time will be required to make Jean-Marc seriously available to the wider Christian culture is that he is—in the best and truest sense of the word—“radical.” That is, he takes issues down to their roots, and critiques them by assuming that Holy Scripture is ever true and ever relevant. That often means violating things that are widely received by Christian people, at any one time, as “politically correct.”
Yet history shows that great thinkers usually offend the public for many years—often until the paradigm changes—and then, long after their deaths, they become part of the mainstream.
I believe that the massive printed corpus of Jean-Marc Berthoud will eventually become a constituent element of the great Christian Western tradition. If I am any judge of the matter, his eagle-eye insight into the root causes of all our malaises, and his equally frank application of God’s evangelical and covenantal mode of healing and restoration, will—in God’s good time—overwhelm the current resistance against his God-honoring realism, and his work will be seen as truly magisterial, though like all of the finest human work, never perfect. That time is coming!
The poem/hymn of James Russell Lowell states the certainty of its coming well:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
(Once to Every Man a Nation)
Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
‘Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit,
Till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue,
Of the faith they had denied.
(This Present Crisis)
Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Biography, Reformed Thought, Theology