This book bristles with creativity. It is structured as a careful interpretation of a single work—John Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis—but Sanchez’s ambition is broader. She shows that Calvin is extraordinarily sensitive to the power of writing, the wonder of the world, and the danger of sovereign authority. By tracing her own way through the text, Sanchez develops a fresh contribution to debates over religion, politics, and our post-secular age.
The book’s key interpretive claim is that Calvin reoccupies an Augustinian understanding of signification. As Sanchez describes, Calvin insists on the difference between the signs that constitute Christian sacraments and the divine object they signify. Calvin develops this Augustinian idea by arguing that signs mediate between God and the world, tying all creation into God’s signifying action.
Sanchez sees Calvin as a pedagogue more than an ideologue. She argues that, much as God reorients human bodies through signs, Calvin seeks to shape his readers’ dispositions. Rather than seeing the Institutes as a series of abstracted theological claims, Sanchez attends to what Calvin’s writing does as well as what it says. She shows that Calvin’s Institutes is performative rather than flatly declarative, and in this way she expands the reader’s sense of what writing can do.
By drawing Calvin into conversation with ancient and contemporary interlocutors—from Seneca and the Stoics to Nietzsche and Agamben—Sanchez situates Calvin in context and clarifies his significance today. In contrast to some readers, she refuses any arbiters for what the text might mean other than the text itself. This results in an interpretation that allows the tensions present in the Institutes to persist. With Sanchez we discover a Calvin who is all the more compelling because he reckons with questions that can’t be cleanly resolved.
In response to Calvinists who take the doctrine of providence to guarantee churchly authority, Sanchez argues that the Institutes refuses to distinguish the reprobate from the elect. Since Calvin insists that the ecclesial signifier remains radically distinct from the divine signified, Christians possess no special authority. On this reading, every assertion of sovereignty is idolatrous, and so all of us are left to reckon with the ambiguous meaning of worldly life.
Given my own preoccupation with the peril and potential of political theology, this dimension of the book drew me most deeply. In describing the importance of theological humility, Sanchez describes a politics that is boldly self-critical. Since Calvin destabilizes the superiority of theology itself, one could even call this a negative political theology—one that opens the affirmation of particular projects by relativizing every claim to authority.
As Sanchez performs it, this critical gesture is clearly expansive. (Among its other virtues, this book is dense with ideas.) The five responses that follow reflect this imaginative potential by tracing a diverse set of themes.
Noreen Khawaja explores the book’s counterintuitive claim that Calvin writes theology in a fictive mode. Amaryah Shaye Armstrong asks how resignification, as Sanchez describes it, might address the resignification of bodies through racialization. Constance Furey probes Sanchez’s reading of Calvin as a refugee who unsettles modern sovereignty, imagining alternative models of embodied life. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez reads the book as a model of non-totalitarian theology. And Ted Vial reflects on the pedagogy recommended by Sanchez’s Calvin, a practice of affirmation and joy beyond church and state.
Early in the book Sanchez observes that many ancient texts (and modern ones as well) operate on the body as well as the mind, preparing for action in a given domain. This symposium suggests that Sanchez’s book should be read with this insight in mind. The responses ask what Sanchez’s work allows us to see but also what it helps us to do. This book is worth reading for many reasons, but here is another: by sharing her honest curiosity, Sanchez invites us to attend more closely to the world and our work in it.