Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Muller: “Was Calvin a Calvinist?”

Today is the anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, and so I decided to take the advice of co-contributors Jordan Ballor and Eric Parker and read Richard Muller’s “Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or,  Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the ‘TULIP’?”.

In it, Muller examines various meanings such a question could have: 1. “Calvinism” as Calvin’s own position; 2. “Calvinism as the approach of Calvin’s followers”; 3. “Calvinism as a name for the Reformed tradition. He then examines particular theological issues that show the difficulty of posing the question in this way at all: the acrostic TULIP and limited atonement; predestination, Christocentrism, and central dogmas; humanism vs. scholasticism (the “vs.” there is is mine and is specious, which is Muller’s point); and covenant theology. I’ll leave it to readers to see how he sorts all of this out. Here are a few passages to whet your appetite.

First, on Calvin’s distinctiveness:

The identification of Calvinism with Calvin’s own distinctive doctrines, encounters the extreme difficulty of actually finding distinctive doctrines in Calvin….We need to remind ourselves that the one truly unique theologian who entered Geneva in the sixteenth century, Michael Servetus, did not exit Geneva alive….If, for example, there is anything unique in his doctrine of predestination, it arose from the way in which he gathered elements from past thinkers in the tradition and blended them into his own formulation. But the fact is that his formulation is strikingly similar to those of Bucer, Viret, Musculus, and Vermigli…..If one were to…focus only on the truly distinctive elements one would not have a theology remaining nor would one have a series of related motifs sufficient to the construction of a theology–and even if one attempted to do this, one would not have a theology of Calvin, but rather a kind of dogmatic Julia Childs concoction made up out of a pile of chopped-up ingredients, varying in taste from cook to cook. (2-3)

Next, on the term “Calvinist” and its polemical use as a sign of the rift in evangelical consensus:

Calvin himself viewed the term Calvinist as an insult and thought of his own theology as an expression of catholic truth. It has been quite well documented that the terms Calvinism and Calvinist arose among opponents of Calvin, notably among Lutheran critics of Calvin’s work on the doctrine of the Lord’s supper, and the beginning of the usage marks not a distinct tradition flowing from Calvin but the identification of a rift among the reformers who had initially understood themselves as “evangelical” and only after the middle of the sixteenth century began consciously to separated themselves into distinct confessional groups, namely Lutheran and Reformed….Later theologians in the tradition of which Calvin was a part typically identified themselves as Reformed Catholics, members and teachers in the reformed and therefore true Catholic Church, as distinct from the un-reformed Roman branch of the catholic or universal church. (4)

Finally, on broad continuities in the Reformed tradition:

[I]n the case of the Reformed confessional tradition, there is a common theological ground enunciated in the major confessional works of the mid-sixteenth century, namely the Gallican, Belgic, and Scots confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, all which were written in circles either in dialogue with or in one way or another indebted to Calvin and which, more importantly, represent the international community of Reformed belief to which Calvin belonged. In both of these cases, there is clear continuity between Calvin and his contemporaries as well as between Calvin and the later Reformed tradition not, of course, because of the individuality of Calvin’s thought but because of its catholicity. (16)

In other words: no patron saints, folks. That seems to be a fitting sentiment to mark the birth of the man who at his death wished to be buried in an umarked grave.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.