The Many Faces of Calvin

R. Scott Clark
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, Modern Reformation editors have solicited essays from a number of authorities on Calvin's life and work. Not all of our writers are "Calvinists" (that is, they would not all necessarily agree with him or follow in his theological footsteps), but each has identified a particular point of Calvin's thought that helps contribute to an overall perspective of Calvin's influence in his time and ours. We're grateful to these writers, some of whom might not normally appear in our pages, for lending us their own words as we contemplate the many faces of John Calvin.

Was John Calvin a warm, biblical, humanist, evangelical, Christ-centered Reformer, and were the Reformed theologians (e.g., Theodore Beza), churches, and confessions (e.g., the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession) that succeeded him unfaithful to his theology, piety, and practice? Did they corrupt his biblical theology and heartfelt piety by replacing them with human reason? This was the argument of Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913), who claimed "the successors of the Reformers in the seventeenth century" replaced Calvin's emphasis on the Word and Spirit with "Aristotelian philosophy." In the early 1950s, Perry Miller repeated a version of this argument. Indeed, for most of the twentieth century it was held widely in the Protestant mainline that the only way to understand John Calvin was by distinguishing him sharply from "the Calvinists" who had corrupted his thought and work. Two of the most influential books arguing this case were Brian G. Armstrong, Calvin and the Amyraut Heresy (1969), and R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (1979). About the same time that Armstrong and Kendall were restating the majority view, scholars such as W. Robert Godfrey, Jill Raitt, and Richard Muller began to raise questions about the "Calvin vs. the Calvinists" approach to the history of Reformed theology. Their questions arose from their careful research not only into the writings of John Calvin but also those of his successors, something that has been frequently missing in the older approach. They found that the caricature of Calvinists such as Theodore Beza, which portrayed their theology as cold, dry, and rationalist, was simply untrue. In 1982, Paul Helm replied to Kendall in Calvin and the Calvinists, and in 1986 Richard Muller published Christ and the Decree. Muller has summed up much of his research in the four-volume work, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (2003).

This reinterpretation of Reformed orthodoxy is reflected in: Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism (1999); Mark Dever and Richard Sibbes, Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2000); Willem J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) (2001); Richard A. Muller, After Calvin (2003); and Carl R. Trueman, John Owen (2007).

In my course on Reformed orthodoxy, I begin by describing the Calvin versus the Calvinists approach and then students read a primary source from the period, Theodore Beza. Grove City College professor Paul Schaefer observes that for many advocates of this approach, Beza is the "bad boy" of Reformed theology. Every year, the Calvin vs. the Calvinist rhetoric ringing in their ears, the students find a great discontinuity between their experience of Beza as a pastoral, passionate, Christ-centered writer and their expectations. So edifying is Beza's book The Christian Faith that it sometimes seems to them that their professor must be misrepresenting the earlier approaches. He isn't.

What our students and many other readers are finding is that the Calvinists-some of whom were Calvin's colleagues (e.g. Beza), and students and who heard him preach and lecture and who spent time with him-understood his theology, piety, and practice. They understood how he read the Scriptures (i.e., his hermeneutic) and they understood the principles on which he operated (e.g., his approach to worship). After his death they took what they learned and applied it to new circumstances and questions. Thus, when Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) rejected basic Reformation theology, the Reformed Churches of Europe and England applied the hermeneutic and principles they inherited from Calvin and replied with Canons of the Synod of Dort. In the middle of the seventeenth century in England, the Westminster Assembly did the same.

More than thirty years after the revolution in Calvin studies began, the old Calvin versus the Calvinists approach has been entirely discredited. Today, thanks to the pioneering work of earlier writers, there is a growing appreciation of primary texts from the period of Reformed orthodoxy. For example, Reformation Heritage Books is publishing a new series of texts as Classic Reformed Theology. The first volume, a collection of sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism by William Ames, has just been released. Also, a growing movement to recapture and apply the insights of earlier Reformed theology to contemporary questions is evident in the Confessional Presbyterian journal and in the work of D. G. Hart. Where most scholars analyze American Christianity as either "conservative" or "liberal," in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2002), Hart suggests a third category, "confessional," to account for writers and movements such as J. Gresham Machen (1881-1936) and the confessional Presbyterians who followed him.

Thoughtful readers of Calvin know him to have been a Protestant, evangelical, biblical theologian who knew the difference between law and gospel and who saw Christ at the center of the history of redemption. Careful readers of the Calvinist tradition are finding that the same adjectives to be true of his followers and of most of the rest of the Reformed tradition beyond Calvin. What he taught and practiced, however, was nothing less than the Reformed faith and piety, and it was that faith that the Reformed churches, pastors, and theologians practiced in their own time and in their own circumstances.

Thursday, June 11th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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