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Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

Calvinism, Coherence, and Clarity

Over at The Gospel Coalition, the self-professed “Calvinist Baptist” Joe Carter helpfully surveys the intriguing recent discussions about the possibilities of various forms of hyphenated Baptistry. In a brief note on Twitter, the SBC’s Russell Moore noted the possibility of “small ‘l'” Lutheran Baptists focusing on the question of the relationship of law/gospel, which raises the intriguing prospect of potential Lutheran Calvinist Baptists being a real thing!

More seriously, David Koyzis’ original post is worthwhile on a number of fronts, as Steven Wedgeworth has already observed, but I’d like to highlight one response in particular from Greg Forster. One of the reasons Greg posits for the popularity of “Calvinist” as a reference to a theological system, or perhaps a particular construal of soteriology, is Calvinism’s coherence and clarity.

I write this as one who is Reformed in part because of my dissatisfaction with the constructions of the Formula of Concord. But I wonder if Greg’s connection between coherence and clarity, and (taking some liberties) connecting this with Calvin himself, the reality might in fact be precisely the reverse. That is to say that Calvin was selected as a kind of representative figure for a position in the context of polemical debates not simply because his theology was so clear and coherent, but because it was taken to be so clearly wrong. To assume that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversants selected as dialogue partners the best or most coherent representatives from other parties with which to engage would be deeply mistaken. I like to say that Luther and Calvin were on many points at the “polemical edge” rather than the carefully considered middle of doctrinal formulations, or at least rhetorical construal.

Calvin, in fact, would prove to be so popular a target for anti-Reformed polemics precisely because his views and articulations were considered to be so open to critique. To the extent that the Reformed cause could be construed as identical with Calvin’s theology, so much the better for opponents who thought they could easily undermine the coherence of Calvin’s doctrinal constructions. There’s a very illuminating exchange between Martin Becanus and David Pareus that gets right at this.

One of the takeaways from Richard Muller’s important work on Calvin is that he was one among a number of significant Reformed figures at the time, and in some important ways not the most sophisticated of his predecessors or contemporaries. So “Calvinism” sounds better in the ears than “Vermiglianism,” perhaps, but it might also make for an easier target for effective polemical attack. Examples of this might be multiplied many times over, but consider this very recent evaluation from Paul Helm of Peter Martyr Vermigli: “There is considerable merit in the care with which he discusses voluntariness, and Calvin’s short statements on the matter, could certainly have benefited from the discussions of his friend.”

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.