Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism — Was Calvin a Calvinist?

The debate on Calvinism that just happened in Chicago last week continues to be the source of some discussion online, so I thought I would say at least one more thing.

During the debate the non- Calvinist side, particularly Brian Zahand continuously made the charge that John Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. The reality is though, that Calvin did not found Calvinism, while he was an important teacher within the then burgeoning Reformed ground swell, he himself never founded Calvinism. Instead, Calvinism developed post-Calvin, particularly among the scholastic post Reformed orthodox theologians (like Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevieanus, even Beza, and then of course culminating later at the Westminster Assembly).

In order to discuss this continuity/discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists, let me refer to a post I wrote about 5 years ago. In this post there is a quote from Richard Muller that helps to develop my points further.

Sharing this post of mine from the past will also illustrate how I think Calvin’s relationship to Calvinism actually helps to provide more instances of Calvinism that go beyond what most people think of Calvinism today.

Primarily I simply want to drive home the point that Calvin was not the founder of Calvinism, which runs counter to what Brian Zahand continuously appealed to throughout his debate with the Calvinists. Here’s that post:

Here Muller confirms what I have been asserting all the while; that he sees an organic thread between Calvin and the “orthodox, Calvinists.” He says:

In the early years of the Reformation emphasis on the faith of the individual and stress on a new found sense of Christus pro me placed atonement at the center of theological concern. Even so, the work of Christ as mediator occupies the center of Calvin’s thought. The following essay will argue in similar terms that Protestant orthodoxy did not depart from this emphasis, that it developed a doctrinal structure more formal in definition and more scholastic in method but nevertheless concerned to maintain a doctrinal continuity with the soteriological emphasis and christological center of the theology of Calvin and his contemporaries. In this development, orthodoxy completed the transition (already evident in the work of Calvin) from piety and the preaching of reform to the system of Reformed doctrine. New structures, like the threefold office and the two states of Christ were integrated into systems of doctrine as formal principles, indeed, as new doctrinal contexts elicited from scripture, in terms of which dogmas received from the traditions — the Chalcedonian christological definition, for example — would be understood and, to a certain extent, reinterpreted. In this context also, the doctrine of the atonement, because it manifested the gracious will of God, moved into close relation with the doctrine of election. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, 10)

Like I said, a “seamless whole.” Muller represents, as one of the “Reformed’s” best scholars (and let me just say, he is exceedingly brilliant, an amazing scholar), the atttitude that I’ve been trying to engage here. That is, what Muller calls “orthodoxy” is the only “live” option for what it means to consistently and coherently appropriate the thought of Calvin — thus the exclusive claim (by Federal theology) to the name “Calvinist.” It is this thesis that becomes the a priori force that shapes the sectarianism that is now evinced by Calvinists, today. That is, if someone says that there are other, even historic, ways to appropriate Calvin (much more in line with his Evangelicalism); these folks are considered heterodox.

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