Thomas vs. the Calvinists

Michael Lynch
Friday, July 23rd 2021

Richard Muller’s attack on the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis—a thesis which claims that Calvin’s theology was more biblical and unencumbered with the rationalism of later scholastic Reformed theology—has led some to conclude that the very suggestion that later Calvinists disagreed with Calvin is to fall into the very thesis that Muller has already disproven. Such an understanding is a misinterpretation of Muller’s dismissal of the Calvin vs. the Calvinist thesis. Muller has always recognized diversity among the various early modern Reformed theologians. His attack on the aforementioned thesis can be summarized as twofold. First, Calvin was not (in his own time) nor ought not be treated as the paragon of the Reformed theology. He might perhaps represent a particular version of Reformed theology, but not the whole of it. Second, methodological differences do not necessarily entail theological ones. Just because Theodore Beza employed a different theological method than Calvin, does not ipso facto mean that they disagreed theologically. More evidence would be necessary to come to such a conclusion.

The fact that there are some differences in the way that later Calvinists theologized as compared to Calvin is quite obvious and was increasingly obvious even in the early modern period. One recent book has ably demonstrated this. My favorite story on this point has to do with the interaction of two theologians, the Roman Catholic Martin Becanus and the Reformed theologian David Pareus. The former, known to be a polemicist against all things Protestant, claimed that Calvin taught heresies such as God being the author of sin and that God had created some for death and eternal damnation. Indeed, Becanus, on account of what he interpreted to be Calvin’s teaching, concluded that Becanus and Calvin believed in different gods. Pareus believed Becanus was misinterpreting Calvin and, subsequent to this exchange, we are told of this amusing story related by Becanus:

Last fall, our own Nicolaus Serarius and I were at the mineral fountains of Schwalbach. There we randomly ran into David Pareus, a Calvinist and a professor at Heidelberg. We greeted the man very politely and he did so in turn. As we walked, he amicably and modestly objected to me that, I […] wrote that “the God of the Calvinists is the author of sin.” I responded that I had solidly proved that proposition from the words and opinions of Calvin. In response, he said, “Let it be that this is the opinion of Calvin but not of the Calvinists.” At this point, smiling, Serarius proposed the following: “Lord Pareus, this quarrel between us will be settled once that ‘ists’ [in ‘Calvinists’] is removed and all will be well?” Pareus was pleased […]

I do not wish to adjudicate whose interpretation of Calvin was right. Yet, an observation is worth making. It is worth noting that by the seventeenth century, it could be argued some of the Reformed were less Calvinistic than Thomas Aquinas himself was. Take, for example, the decree of reprobation. One debated question relative to the doctrine is how to enumerate its effects. Reformed in the 17th century (in distinction from those in the prior century), claimed that reprobation had two proper effects. One is that the reprobate would be permitted to remain in their sin, and denied that efficacious grace which works faith and repentance in the elect. Second, that the reprobate would be damned on the final day on account of such sin. Now listen to how Thomas discusses the effects of sin. He claims, consonant with the standard 17th century Reformed position, that “reprobation includes the will (voluntatem) to permit someone to fall into sin and to impose the punishment of damnation for that sin” (ST Iª q. 23 a. 3 co.). Most Reformed would have been quite happy with such a claim. In fact, it seems to me, this was the majority position among the later Reformed orthodox.

Yet, there is at least one well-known Reformed theologian who was uncomfortable even allowing the permission of sin to fall under the decree of predestination. Pierre Du Moulin, a well-published French Reformed theologian who was invited to attend the Synod of Dordt (but prohibited along with his fellow Frenchman by the King of France), thought that God’s will to permit sin more appropriately fit under God’s general providence, rather than under the specific decree of predestination. He specifically disagrees with Thomas on this point in his famous Anatomy of Arminianism. After defining reprobation as “the decree of God, by which from eternity he decreed, not to give to certaine men his grace, by which they might be freed from their engrafted depravation, from the curse due to them, and appointed them to just and deserved punishments for their sinnes,” he writes:

The definition of Thomas doth not please me, who saith that the decree of Reprobation is the will of permitting one to fall into sinne, and of laying upon the punishment of damnation for his sinne: For the permission whereby God doth permit, doth not belong to predestination, but to his providence, although it serve to predestination.

In other words, for Du Moulin, in God’s decree of predestination and reprobation, God did not decree to permit a sinner to sin. That permission is only found in God’s general providence.

Among nearly all theologians of the period, there was a general movement towards distancing God from any direct relationship to sin. A similar move can be seen with regard to the Báñezian notion of physical premotion. Although many Reformed theologians held to it, a good number of Reformed theologians denied it precisely on the grounds that they believed it posited too close of a causal relationship between God and sin.

In conclusion, while there is an accurate narrative that many later Reformed theologians distanced themselves from Calvin’s language, there is a lesser-known story. It is the story that some Reformed theologians were distancing themselves not just from Dominicans such as Domingo Báñez, but even from Thomas, who they thought went too far. We might even say that Du Moulin thought Thomas too Calvinistic when it came to his definition of reprobation. Who would have thought?

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Friday, July 23rd 2021

“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
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology