Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Helm and Duncan on Reformed Breadth

In a recent post, Paul Helm, after the fashion of Richard Muller, argues for, or at least urges, a broad view of what it means to be “Reformed” and “Calvinist.” The post is worth a read. But I’d like to focus attention for a moment on the bit that isn’t by him.

He uses as his epigraph part of a passage from the Colloquia Peripatetica of John “Rabbi” Duncan, an irenic Scottish theologian, professor, and Free Church minister. Since he doesn’t include quite the whole thing, I thought I’d do so here for any interested readers:

I think I’m a high Calvinist. I have no objection to the height of the Calvinists; but I have objections to the miserable narrowness of some, the miserable narrowness. As Calvinism rises to the infinite, it can’t be too high. But it must not be like a single pillar rising up to heaven, not even like a steeple, but a church. And I have no objection to the crypts below. There is a subterranean region underneath our creeds; only I’m satisfied if they rise up to the light. (p. 10)

This passage comes after another, more famous aphorism on “The Creed within the Creed.” The images of height, breadth, and narrowness occur here as well. It is evident from what he says that he both values breadth in charity, and nevertheless that, pardoxically, the higher one ascends on the narrower towers, the more widely one can see:

I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.

[Some one suggested that these were like circles within each other, the first the widest and the best.]

I like better to think of them as towers rising one above the other, though narrowing as they rise. The first is the broadest, and is the foundation laid by Christ; but we are to build on that foundation, and, as we ascend, our outlook widens. (p. 8)

In between the above two passages comes this gem, on “Calvinism”:

There’s no such thing as Calvinism. The teachings of Augustine, Remigius, Anselm, and Luther, were just pieced together by one remarkable man, and the result baptized with his name. Augustine taught and developed the doctrine of salvation by grace and the Divine election; Remigius, particular redemption; Anselm, the doctrine of vicarious atonement; and Luther, that of justification by faith. (p. 9)

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

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