Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Did Calvin Actually “Found” A Theology?

Donald Macleod has posted a helpful reflection on the problem of the term “Calvinism.” Dr. Macleod’s concerns nicely compliment my own qualifications regarding the term. Basically, it is a mistake to identify what now goes by the name “Calvinism” as an actual product of the life and theological contributions of the historical John Calvin. The nomenclature, however confusing it continues to be, is here for the long haul, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s pretty far removed from the real history. Dr. Macleod explains:

What really bugs me is that scarcely a day passes but the phrase ‘a narrow Calvinism’ walks across my computer-screen.

I have two problems with this.  One is that Calvin never saw himself as the founder of an -ism.  In his own lifetime, there is only one single instance of the word “Calvinism” being used, and that was as an insult, as if we today were to call someone a Nazi.  In this respect things aren’t much better in 2013.

Yet the man himself was never an innovator, and even less was he an iconoclast bent on destroying all that had gone before.  He was a re-former, and by that he meant that his one great concern was to restore the church to the form it had in the New Testament and in the first four Christian centuries.

The result is that it is hard to find in Calvin a single idea that had not been part of Christian tradition from time immemorial.  He shunned originality, and if his -ism has any one distinctive it is that it has no distinctives at all.  It is simply, as one great 19th century scholar put it, “Christianity come into its own”.

Nor did Calvin ever demand personal loyalty.  It never occurred to him, for example, that his “Institutes” should become the creed of a church in the way that Wesley’s Sermons became the creed of Methodism, or a papal encyclical commands the loyalty of all the Catholic faithful.

One curious result of this is that in the decades after his death Protestant theologians felt no need to back up their views with quotations from Calvin.  His own age didn’t see him as a giant, and even in the 19th century a classic, four-volume work from a Scottish theologian quotes him only once.

But what bugs me even more is that whatever “Calvinism” was, it wasn’t narrow.  The lazy modern mind, of course, reduces it to one thing: predestination, and I’m certainly  not going to disown that doctrine.  It affords gives us a magnificent view of a world which was carefully and lovingly planned, and which runs on schedule despite the fact that every sub-atomic particle behaves randomly and every human being makes her own free decisions; and it helps us understand why some people accept the Christian message even though it cuts across every prejudice with which they were born.

But in Calvin’s own teaching, predestination is but one subject among many, the sixty-seven pages he devotes to it in his “Institutes” dwarfed by the five-hundred devoted to the doctrine of the church and by the many others devoted to the foundations of knowledge, the value of pagan writings, the humanity of Christ, self-denial, and the freedom of the individual Christian conscience.

Dr Macleod’s entire post is excellent.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.