After Calvin : A Wee History

Here is a little paper/article I put together (rather quickly — a couple years ago) on the history surrounding the debate between understanding Calvin as either 1) a Calvinist, or 2) not a Calvinist. I wanted to put this up again, because I think it still, at least, illustrates some of things at stake in this rather technical/sticky issue. It’s probably an issue that most could care less about (and to be honest I don’t care as much about it either anymore, but I still think it’s important).

The following represents a mini-paper I just wrote on the issue of Calvin vs. the Calvinists. What I want to provide for you all is what is at stake for Evangelical Calvinism and her place in the complex known as “Calvinism” or “Reformed” theology. The following is just an introduction to the major approaches to how we understand and frame this issue. I will be following this up with later posts, providing more flesh to the bones that this post present us with. The reason this is important is because if we follow the reading provided exclusively by Richard Muller, Evangelical Calvinism cannot be fitted into the framework known as “Calvinism,” in general. That is problem, 1) because it is not accurate relative to the history, but more importantly 2) because it mutes a rich conceptual and “doctrinal” heritage from being considered ‘orthodox’ by the broader body of people known as “Reformed orthodox.” What I will ultimately seek to demonstrate, of which this paper is only an introduction to, is that Muller does indeed provide a helpful corrective to some of what has been said by the “older scholarship;” but that he is inconsistent with his own thesis of “continuity,” because he in fact fails to include strains of Calvinism within the “Reformed orthodox” tradition. He says that he is only really concerned with methodology, and that he just wants to give us the real “history” around this issue; but upon further reading (which I’ll bring out later), he actually smuggles the conceptual back into his project — the very thing he accuses the “older scholarship” of doing. In other words, Muller demonstrates that his motivation is as much “theological” as those he accuses this of, and seeks to correct through his historizing. Anyway, here’s what I have thus far:

Introduction: Stating the Problem, Complexity and Conceptuality in the Readings of the ‘Reformed Tradition’

Engaging the period of Protestant history known as the ‘Reformed period’ has many and complex issues involved with it. Not least of which is how we should understand the relationship between what Richard Muller has called the ‘early’, ‘high’, and ‘late’ eras of this broader category that makes up the ‘Reformed period’. In other words, in the literature there has been reconstruction of this period, and the inter-relationship that inheres between the “three eras” just noted, that is in competition.

The “competition” revolves around how we should understand the continuity or discontinuity between the earlier Reformers and the high and later Reformers (the latter two classifications known as the ‘post-Reformed orthodox’). The so called older school of interpretation made up by folks like Thomas Torrance and Brian Armstrong (and even Karl Barth) are caricatured to have interpreted this issue in overly simplistic form, and through a biased dogmatic appropriation of the “history.” Muller says,

The older scholarship, exemplified by the writings of Ernst Bizer, Walter Kickel, Brian Armstrong, Thomas Torrance, and others has typically modified the term “orthodoxy” with the pejorative terms “rigid” and “dead,” and modified references to “scholasticism” with the equally pejorative terms “dry” or “arid.” Such assessment bespeaks bias, but it also reflects a rather curious sequence of metaphors. The implied alternative to such a phenomenon as “scholastic orthodoxy” would, perhaps, be a flexible and lively methodological muddle of slightly damp heterodoxy. . . .[1]

Muller takes issue with these “older approaches,” and seeks to clarify this issue by revisiting and sharpening how the key language of “scholastic” and “orthodox” should be understood within their historical context. He believes that the “older scholarship” has too quickly and anachronistically read their respective theological agendas into the history, thus subverting the history for their own usage; in the end what they give us, according to Muller is a revisionist reconstrual of the actual history.

Carl Trueman along the lines provided by Muller forwards the same thesis in regards to the way this issue has been framed and interpreted by the “older” school. He believes that people like Torrance and Armstrong have co-opted the “history” to provide credibility to their own theological constructive work; he seeks to correct this paradigm,

In the last twenty-five years many scholars . . . have moved away from the traditional models whereby Protestant scholasticism was judged by the standards of later theology, whether Barthian, neo-Calvinist or whatever, to developmental models which attempt to set the movement within the context of its own times and within the ongoing Western theological tradition. . . .[2]

It is this problematic that Muller, Trueman, and company seek to “revise” through providing, what they believe is the proper way to frame and understand this oversimplified approach that the older school has bequeathed upon us.

I will seek to elucidate how Muller, specifically, seeks to reify the understanding provided by the “old school,” and what in fact he believes is the proper way for moving forward. But, before we get there we should visit, for a moment, how this “older scholarship” sought to appropriate the “history” represented by the “Reformed period.” What is it that Muller and others are protesting in regards to the ways that these elder “theologians” and “church historians” approached this salient issue?

Answering this question is really not that difficult, at least not for Muller; he holds that the oversimplification provided by the “old school” was both a definitional and methodological quagmire. That is that the “old way” of interpretation was shaped by over-simply framing the issue by a misunderstanding of what “scholasticism” actually was, and by trying to orientate all of their reconstruction around how the “post-Reformed orthodox” (the ‘high and late’ reformers) related, or not, to John Calvin. In other words, their error, according to Muller is that they tried to correlate Calvin’s theology and methodology with the ‘reformers’ who followed him; and insofar as the post-Calvin reformers failed to cohere with Calvin’s “apparent” theological approach, this became the point of departure that served to disrupt and in fact thwart the “doctrinal” focus set by the early Reformers (e.g. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al.). In short, the early Reformers were focused on confessional and christological concerns; while the latter Reformers became embroiled with rationalistic and speculative concerns that were not in continuity with the trajectory that was seminally set early on. Here’s Muller,

Scholarly perspectives on the phenomenon of post-Reformation Protestantism have altered dramatically in the last three decades. Studies of the Reformed or Calvinistic theology of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries written before 1970 or even 1975 tended to pose the Reformation against Protestant orthodoxy or, in the phraseology then common to the discussion, “Calvin against the Calvinists.” This rather radical dichotomy between the thought of the great Reformer and even his most immediate successors — notably, Theodore Beza — was constructed around a particular set of highly theologized assumptions, concerning the Reformation and Protestant orthodoxy, humanism and scholasticism, piety and dogma. At the heart of the dichotomizing argument was a contrast between the “biblical humanism” and christological piety of John Calvin and the Aristotelian scholasticism and predestinarian dogmatizing of nearly all of the later Reformed theologians, the sole exceptions being those who followed out the humanistic patterns of Calvin’s thought into fundamentally antischolastic modes of thought.[3]

Thomas Torrance, in line, somewhat, with Muller’s characterization certainly held that people like Muller (or the view that he represents) were the ones who have revised the “history” around this pivotal period; and in fact for the same reasons that Muller says that people like Torrance tried to revise this period — viz. for theological purposes. Torrance says in the context of his “Scottish church”,

. . . It was the imposition of a rigidly logicalised federal system of thought upon Reformed theology that gave rise to many of the problems which have afflicted Scottish theology, and thereby made central doctrines of predestination, the limited or unlimited range of the atoning death of Christ, the problem of assurance, and the nature of what was called ‘the Gospel-offer’ to sinners. This meant that relatively little attention after the middle of the seventeenth century was given to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and to a trinitarian understanding of redemption and worship. Basic to this change was the conception of the nature and character of God. It is in relation to that issue that one must understand the divisions which have kept troubling the Kirk [church] after its hard-line commitment to the so-called ‘orthodox Calvinism’ of the Westminster Standards, and the damaging effect that had upon the understanding of the World of God and the message of the Gospel. . . .[4]

We see Torrance exemplifies exactly what Muller charges him, and others like him with; and that is the notion that Torrance believes that the “federal system of thought” (or the post-Reformed orthodox) placed the “Reformed church” on a problematic trajectory, a trajectory discontinuous with the original shape set by John Calvin.

This is too simple according to Muller. Similarly, Brian Armstrong — another “historian” in Muller and Trueman’s cross-hairs — follows suit with Torrance’s conception, and in fact up until Muller came along represents the scholarship which articulated a view that placed Calvin against the later “Calvinists.” His basic thesis, and the one that Muller seeks to problematize and correct is that once Calvin went off the scene, his successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza reintroduced Aristotelian scholasticism into the “Reformed” project, at odds with Calvin the Humanist (which was a method which sought to go back to the “sources” ad fontes or scripture and the Church Fathers), and schematized Reformed theology by what has been called the centraldogma. This was the idea that we could construe God through a rigid and deductive system of thought oriented and shaped around a deterministic supralapsarianism (or double-predestination) which was incompatible with his predecessor’s (Calvin’s) own understanding. Furthermore, Armstrong believes that Beza’s orientation was motivated by his devotion to Aristotle. Let me quote Armstrong at length:

This brief look at Calvin’s religious thought [which Armstrong just sketched] should make it clear that his whole theological program is at odds with the orientation of scholasticism as it has been characterized above. In general we must say, however, that scholasticism, not Calvin’s theology, prevailed in Reformed Protestantism. We are not here prepared to judge why Reformed theology developed as it did but only to recognize the phenomenon itself. Men like Martyr, Zanchi, Beza, Antoine de Chandieu, and Lambert Danaeus represent this divergence from a theology which had been carefully constructed by Calvin to represent faithfully the scriptural teaching and so usually presented a certain tension or balance of doctrines. . . . Of these men it was probably Beza who was most influential, and for this reason one may lay much of the blame for scholasticism at his feet. His very influential position as professor of theology at, and unquestioned supervisor of, the Genevan Academy gave him uncommon opportunity to direct the theological program of the Reformed Church. It was he who was responsible for the return to Aristotelian philosophy as the basis of the Genevan curriculum in logic and moral philosophy. As is well known, it was Beza who refused the humanist Peter Ramus a teaching post at the Genevan Academy because of Ramus’ anti-Aristotelian program.[5]

It is clear from Armstrong’s assertion that Muller has understood both of his interlocuters correctly in regards to their view of the Calvin and the Calvinists. Both Torrance and Armstrong believed that Calvin, conceptual-doctrinally, presented a different flavor and emphasis when juxtaposed with those who have come to be known as the “Calvinists.”

What I will argue later is that Muller is right to highlight the fact that the precision that folks like Torrance and Armstrong use in articulating their thoughts on this is probably too precise, and in fact comes short in doing justice to how this whole complex should be understood. Nevertheless, what I will point out, relative to Muller, is that even though he will try and argue that the issue of discontinuity that supposedly is present between Calvin and the Calvinists is simply one of different methodology and not one of conceptuality. More than that though, he wants us to believe that even though there is discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists on methodological concerns (e.g. Calvin being ‘confessional’ and the Calvinists being “dogmatic”); that when this issue is broadened what becomes apparent is that even method (between all of the early Reformers [not just Calvin] and the high and later Reformers) should be construed as continuous, and that the context for understanding this needs to be placed back into the late medieval period, and not simply from the ‘early Reformed era’ (as Torrance and Armstrong have done). When we do this we will see a thread of methodological concern that weaves all the way through the whole period; starting with the appropriation of Aristotelian method, which is consonant with both Agricolan and Ramist place logic and dialectical methodology. What is interesting about Muller’s argument, as I have already alluded to, is that he wants to say that all of this discontinuity talk — between Calvin and the Calvinists — should be jettisoned because of what I just mentioned (that the “old school” thesis faltered because they are short-sighted in their thinking, and they believe that the issue revolves around the “apparent” conceptual and material difference that obtains between Calvin and the Calvinists). Yet, what comes later in his book After Calvin is that Muller says that, in fact, by-and-large Aristotelian philosophy of some appropriation or form is present in most of the “later Reformers” who supposedly merely developed Calvin’s thinking (which of course the difference, previously, according to Muller was just a methodological one given the different historical concerns they were faced with). What this tells me is that Muller is playing fast and loose here. I think, and I’ll argue some of this later, that he is right in noting that there is more complexity and background than Torrance and/or Armstrong allowed into their interpretation of this issue; but that he is inconsistent because he actually smuggles “conceptual” stuff back into the criteria for adjudicating the question of continuity or discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists.

An aside: It is rather strange to me, when I first started this blog I had some very knowledgeable guys on this stuff reading here; they informed me that I was naive, and needed to read more of Muller (and now I have read all of the books they said I should of Muller, and in fact more — like many of his journal essays). The assumption was, that once I read more of him I would repent, and see it their way on this issue; yet, what is becoming more and more clear to me is that Muller, in some ways, plays fast and loose with his framing of this rather daunting historical conundrum. In short, I can appreciate, quite a bit more relative to the past, some of Muller’s more general themes that he helps to correct in this area; but I can now also more critically see where his thinking is flawed, and not sustainable at certain points (which I will have to get to later).


[1] Richard A. Muller, “After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition,” 25.

[2] Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, “Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,” xviii.

[3] Richard A. Muller, “After Calvin,” 3.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” x-xi)

[5] Brian Armstrong, “Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy,” 37-8 (Brackets and emphasis mine).