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Calvinism: A History

D.G. Hart
Calvinism: A History
Yale University Press, 2013

Hart-Calvinism-A-History-300x435 Usually the reader beginning a book by D.G. Hart can expect a good deal of polemic and a rather narrow historical narrative. The introductory section to his latest work, Calvinism: A History, might give the same impression, as Dr. Hart says that “Reformed Protestantism” greatly impacted the world, “not by underwriting the political and economic forces of the modern West or by preaching humanitarian ideals, but through the ordinary– and often accidental– efforts of average pastors and lay people” (xii). Instead of the Red Cross, the Spirit of Capitalism, or the City on a Hill, Dr. Hart views the Reformed cultural as something more like The Front Porch Republic, simple people being themselves and keeping to a local and modest tradition. Indeed he says of his book, “This is not a narrative abounding with episodes of power, heroism, and genius. Their absence makes the history of Calvinism all the more remarkable” (xii). It would seem that we are in for another predictable apologia of secularism and confessionalism from Dr. Hart. But thankfully Calvinism: A History is the work of the academic kingdom. Though possessing the occasional mild expressions of Dr. Hart’s theological hobby-horses, this book is, for the most part, a dispassionate history, spanning the sociology of the Reformed churches from Zwingli to Barth. As such, it is good read, packing a comprehensive survey of “Calvinism” into a succinct 339 pages. There is no new material in this book, but it does succeed in presenting a moderate overview of a very broad theological subject in a way that nearly all readers should benefit from and find enjoyable.

Dr. Hart uses the terms “Calvinism” and “Reformed Theology” interchangeably, admitting that the latter is the more accurate term. He never does attempt to define “Reformed Theology,” being content rather to deal with the various churches which applied the label to themselves, starting, as one would expect, with Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers. As the history unfolds, however, Dr. Hart does seem to prefer a certain sort of Reformed theology and ecclesiology to the others, usually making it a sort of standard of ordinary or true Reformed identity. Unsurprisingly for those who have followed Dr. Hart’s work, the most dependably Reformed churches are those who are Presbyterian in polity, free from entanglement with the civil magistrate, formal in liturgy, uniformly ordered in ecclesiastical or denominational organization, and churchly rather than experiential in piety. And so in what might surprise new readers, Calvinism: A History often contrasts the later English Puritans, the New England Puritans, and especially a figure like Jonathan Edwards against “Reformed” churches. So too, Episcopalian church polity and the Church of England often appear in contrast to the “Reformed” thinkers and churchmen. The closest Dr. Hart comes to a definition of “Reformed” is when he says that Westminster Confession of Faith “along with Dort constituted the highpoint of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy” (87). A few pages later we are told that the Helvetic Consensus was “the highest statement of high Reformed orthodoxy ever adopted by a major ecclesiastical gathering” (90). Perhaps these three documents form the matrix of “Reformed orthodoxy” in its truest form. To his credit, Dr. Hart never actually makes such a claim, though it seems to be implied throughout, and he certainly treats the wide variety of churches and theologians which laid claim to the name “Reformed” who nonetheless differed from those standards and each other in important ways. Indeed, one line is telling from Dr. Hart, “The majority of delegates to the [Westminster] assembly, which along with Dort constituted the high point of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy, adhered to a presbyterian form of church government, but English politics prevented them from prevailing” (87). Here we see that the individual men who drafted the high point of Reformed orthodox held to a position which the document which would function as the standard for that orthodox neither affirmed nor required. Such an irony is reflective of Calvinism: A History‘s burden: a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which could never (ever?) fully emerge, yet one which nevertheless left an indelible footprint on world history.

Still, even if such a primary and questionable assumption is at work in Calvinism: A History, it doesn’t take away from the book’s value as a history. There is an impressive geographical breadth to the presentation, even highlighting less-known Reformed regions such as Transylvania and Hungary. Especially interesting was the mention of the “Harmony of Confessions” from 1581 Geneva (75). This harmony, meant to be a Reformed answer to the Lutheran Formula Concord, included the Augsburg Confession, Tetrapolitan Confession, Confession of Basel, 1st and 2nd Helvetic Confessions, Confession of Saxony, Confession of Wirtemberg, the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Bohemian Confession (75). While Dr. Hart believes that this attempt at ecumenism was partially hollow, he nevertheless admits it as an example of true Reformed irenicism.

As one might expect from a Presbyterian narrative, particularly those readers familiar with some of Dr. Hart’s past statements on the subject (see here and here for starters), the Anglican communion is portrayed as only partially Reformed. Most regrettably, Richard Hooker is described as having “justified the Church of England as a golden mean between the extremes of Rome and Geneva (in contrast to Reformed Protestant leaders, who saw Geneva and Zurich as a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptists)” (40). We would argue, as we have in the past (see here, here, here, and here), that Richard Hooker is unquestionably Reformed, being in essential agreement with Geneva, though differing in externals and certain practices, and being in near-full agreement with Zurich. Hooker believed that the Puritans claiming the name of Geneva were, in actuality, promoting Anabaptist ideology, and as such, he was preserving the “golden mean” of the very Reformed middle ground Dr. Hart himself points to. Still, Dr. Hart does highlight the presence of Reformed stalwarts Peter Martyr Vermigli, Martin Bucer, and Jan Laski in Edwardian England (37), and he lists the 39 Articles as a Reformed confession (75). Most surprising was Dr. Hart’s summation of James VI and I, writing that he was “not opposed to Reformed zeal in the way the Formalists were” and that he “steered a moderate course between the extremes of personal religion and sacramentalism, and the politics of the two national churches” (85). Perhaps this kind description owes something to Dr. Hart’s own preference for uniformity; he criticizes Oliver Cromwell for allowing the ecclesiastical landscape to devolve into “religious chaos” (88). In the end, however, Calvinism: A History manages to itself give a moderate portrayal of the English Reformation, noting its original intent and its tumultuous history. While he certainly praises the Westminster Assembly for its role in “Reformed orthodoxy,” Dr. Hart actually does not make 17th cent. England out to be the climax of Reformed theology.

The book moves to European exploration, rightly noting that this is where Calvinism most fully becomes a global force. Dr. Hart notes that the New England Puritans were almost always of the more radical sort, preferring congregationalism and practical divinity. Calvinism: A History also treats the Reformed churches in South Africa, Australia, and New Headland, highlighting the relationship between exploration, colonialism, and Reformed theology. A noticeable reluctance to interact with the more controversial racial history of this Reformed colonial presence does mark the book, as there is little-to-no discussion of the connection between Reformed churches and African slavery or Apartheid. This too would likely undermine Dr. Hart’s  humble apolitical Calvinism, and he seems to drop off that particular narrative as a whole, not highlighting the potential contradictions, but also not pushing his argument very much either. Following the treatment of expansions and missionary journeys, Calvinism: A History also helpfully explains the reemergence of Reformed piety in Scotland, as well as the Nadere Reformatie and the rise of Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism.

Old Princeton does not actually factor very large in Dr. Hart’s book. He does mention the Old School/New School division, and Machen and the “fundamentalism” of the 20th century earns an entire chapter, but there is not much of a “golden age” presentation of 19th century America. Also missing is John Williamson Nevin, strange in light of Dr. Hart’s previous work. The American treatment is more of a prequel to Machen, and perhaps this too sheds light on Dr. Hart’s own narrative. Still, there is a helpful summary of the theological developments, challenges, and changes.

There is a substantial exploration of Germany throughout Calvinism: A History, as Dr. Hart notes the importance of Heidelberg, as well as the Prussian Union, and then finally the Weimar Republic leading up to the person of Barth. The reader is treated to a fair presentation of the back-and-forth relationship between Reformed and Lutheran churches, with those times of union typically coinciding with theological latitudinarianism and political ascendancy. The German project ultimately collapses, however, and Barth’s neo-orthodox Confessing Church assumes the climactic prophetic role.

Taken as a whole, Calvinism: A History is a rewarding read. It strikes a fair balance between a comprehensive presentation and a succinct and accessible read. And while there are certain points of idiosyncrasy and veiled-polemic, these are actually insignificant on the whole, not obscuring the main point of presenting a historical portrait. We recommend this book to those readers looking for an introduction to Reformed theology, and we also feel that experienced readers will find much of interest in Dr. Hart’s work. It is a very worthwhile read.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. 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 Director for the Davenant Institute.