Evangelical Calvinism: The History that Allows for Appropriation of Calvin[ian]

For many years here at The Evangelical Calvinist I’ve tried to carve out historical space for what we are doing as evangelical Calvinists. Not that the work we are doing (me and Myk et al) is purely of a historical nature, indeed, we are largely a constructive retrieving mood within the Reformed faith, but what we do fits within a mood of the historic stream of Reformed theology. That said, this youngcalvin‘work’, in my mind, has changed a bit; I used to be quite idealist about who I was going to reach, and even challenge, within the walls of the Reformed faith. And it was this idealism that drove me to write posts where I was attempting to attach what evangelical Calvinism was about into an eddy within the Reformed tributary of the Protestant faith.

I still believe that we do have historical precedent and location in the history of Reformed theology and ideas, but I don’t feel as burdened to challenge my classically Reformed cousins the way I used to. My blog has been around long enough, our first Evangelical Calvinism book (we have a second volume currently at the publishers) has been out and about since 2012; indeed our book has actually been engaged by various Reformed thinkers (i.e. Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, et al.). The novelty it once had, if it ever did, at least in my mind, has worn off; Reformed people who have been exposed to EC at whatever level have basically cornered and pigeon-holed us as Barthians (or they’ve “converted”). In that sense these thinkers, I perceive, have placed us tidily into the Barthian category, and thus feel, ultimately, that they don’t really need to deal with our ideas. My sense is that these thinkers basically believe that any critique of Barth by their classically Reformed brethren applies to us; as such we are marginalized in their minds, and don’t need to be dealt with any further.  That said, the guys who have engaged with us (those I just mentioned), have actually engaged us on more materially theological grounds; which is nice.

So I say all of the above to lead into a post that is going to sound like one of my old ones; when I was naïve and idealist. All I want to accomplish with this is to once again point up the fact that evangelical Calvinism as a mood of theological engagement within the Reformed faith has the room it needs to retrieve and constructively engage with the Reformed fathers just as much as any other contemporary Reformed thinker does.

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy. In this book, as a matter of course, Muller sketches the history of the post Reformation Reformed orthodox period, of which Arminius was a contemporary. What I want to share has nothing to do with Arminius, and everything to do with a distinction between the magisterial Reformers (including John Calvin as a late bloomer among that crowd), and those who would follow later in their wake: the Post Reformed orthodox theologians. I am not going to be pressing the so called Calvin against the Calvinist thesis, instead my observation is going to be more minimal than that.

So there was this ‘space’ between the magisterial Reformers and those who lay claim to their theology later (i.e. the Post Reformed orthodox). Muller comments on this space:

A few paragraphs must suffice on the nature and character of Protestant scholasticism and its relation to the teaching of the Reformers. It is very clear that Protestant theology at the beginning of the sixteenth century was different from Protestant theology at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and that the difference can be identified in part by the adoption of scholastic method by the Protestant theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The method itself, however, does not account for all of the differences—inasmuch as they relate to the thematic development of ideas as well as to patterns of exposition. Specifically, Protestant theology at the end of the sixteenth century had become a confessional orthodoxy more strictly defined in its doctrinal boundaries than the theology of the early Reformers but, at the same time, broader and more diverse in its use of the materials of the Christian tradition, particularly the materials provided by the medieval doctors.[1]

Muller writes further:

The development of this Protestant scholasticism, like the related development of Protestant theological system, took several generations. Second- and third-generation Protestant codifiers produced works that were more systematic than the works of the first Reformers both in their organization and in their coverage of theological topics. Several of these third-generation writers, notably Ursinus, Daneau, and Zanchi, adopted fully scholastic methods of quaestio and disputatio and, in the cases of Daneau and Zanchi, drew explicitly on the more remote scholastics of the Middle Ages, like Aquinas, in the attempt to claim that part of the tradition for Protestantism. By the time of Arminius, the theological style is that of a fourth or fifth generation and the scholastic method together with aspects of the thought of the medieval teachers had become an integral part of the theology of the Protestant universities. The contrast between the style and method of these thinkers and the style and method of the Reformers is obvious, indeed striking.[2]

The Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, who basically were the English Puritans (with Scots, Dutch, French, Italian, etc.), have every right to continue  in what they perceived as the heritage left to them by the early Reformers (inclusive of John Calvin), but as Muller notes: the Reformer’s method and aspects of their theology, consequently, were different from what developed in the flowering of Reformed theology in the hands of the scholastics Reformed.

What we as evangelical Calvinists are doing, in many respects, is going back directly to one of these early Reformers (who were according to Muller, different than the scholastically Reformed), in particular, John Calvin. Muller as the historian of this period, par excellence, notes that there is this type of space even historically; us evangelical Calvinists are taking that reality in a certain way and engaging with Calvinian themes that we believe are very fruitful for the continuing flowering of the Reformed faith for the church catholic and Reformed. It is just that we believe instead of following the ‘orthodox’ in absolute ways, there are better ways to develop Calvinian themes; ways, of course, that take into consideration the way Reformed theology did indeed develop, particularly in the theologies of Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (remembering that they both were part of a broader Reformed faith themselves).

We are interested in semper Reformanda (always reforming) per Holy Scripture and its reality in Christ. This is what we consider to be the best that the Reformed faith has to offer, and so we hope to continue to develop Reformed themes and theology in ways that we believe Scripture and its reality dictates. We agree with Muller that there is a distinction between the early Reformers’ theology and the way it developed later among the Post Reformed Orthodox; and so we feel free within that space to constructively appropriate the rich themes say someone like Calvin left for the picking.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 31-2.

[2] Ibid., 32-3.

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8 Responses to Evangelical Calvinism: The History that Allows for Appropriation of Calvin[ian]

  1. Pingback: Evangelical Calvinism: The History that Allows for Appropriation of Calvin[ian] — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. Great post Bobby. As I continue to read Muller, I find it interesting that while he would not be particularly appreciative of our development of EC, he often proves to be very helpful to us, especially in carving out the historical space for EC that you highlight here.

    As an aside, am I correct in assuming that the link between Calvin’s ‘wax nose’ and what he ‘left for the picking’ was intentional? I had a good chuckle. I actually think it could make a great subtitle for EC Vol. 3: “Picking Calvin’s Wax Nose” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Yeah, it was intentional :). I have another post that says it explicitly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bobby, I forgot to mention that while you may not do many posts like this any more, they are among my favorites. I recently read one that you did back in 2013 on EC being more ‘scholastic’ than the contemporary defenders of Reformed scholasticism. It was utterly fascinating. I’m sure we all go through phases in our blogging, but this genre of posts is, at least for me personally, extremely helpful and one of which I do hope to see more in the future!

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  5. Bobby Grow says:

    That post on scholasticism and EC is what, in modified form, I contributed to our Introduction for our next EC book. I’m going to start posting more posts like this again; you’ve inspired me 🙂 .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Glad to hear it! I thought that post was dynamite (even though you prefaced it as possibly boring!), and I think it will make a great introduction, especially regarding methodology, to EC2.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks, Jonathan! It is just part of the intro, Myk offers some really good stuff in there too!

    Liked by 1 person

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