The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy (A Bit on the Peterson Thing)

athanasisu“Not again.”

That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.

Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.

I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.

What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.

A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”

To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

You can read the rest of this piece over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

Don’t Underestimate the Scholastics (Or, Gleanings from Richard Muller’s PRRD)

MullerThis last year I embarked on a journey of reading through Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, much as I did with Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics last year. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down posting Turretin of late, though. There’s a few of reasons for that. First, I simply hit a wall. Turretin’s good, but dense. Sometimes you have to put a book down to pick it up again. Second, I’ve been prepping for Ph.D. work and other reading and studying has gotten in the way. Finally, though, I also sort of got distracted from Turretin when I acquired the four volumes of Richard Muller’s magisterial series Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. 

The title describes the project clearly enough. While Muller is not canvassing all of the theology of that period, he does aim to set the record straight about the Reformed school theologians following the age of the Reformers on issues like theological method, Scripture, and the doctrine of God (Attributes, Trinity). He does so by an extensive review of primary sources, as well as setting them against their context of the prior medieval tradition, the Reformation, and the intellectual currents of their own day.

If I could sum up my gleanings from Muller’s volumes in one sentence, it would be: “Don’t underestimate the scholastics.” Which is something people have apparently done all too often. According to many theologians in the late 19th and 20th Century, especially under the later influence of Barth and the Neo-Orthodox, this was allegedly a period of relative darkness, where theology fell into “causal”, “rationalist” metaphysics and philosophical obscurity, after a brief period of pure gospel light shining from the pens of Calvin and Luther. According to Muller, that’s a rather neat “just-so” story that crumbles upon inspection of the actual sources. The Reformed Orthodox scholastics actually had a bit more going for them than that.

While I haven’t finished the four volumes (I’ve got about a third of volume 3 left and volume 4 to go), and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize even one, I figured I could list a few Mullerian points to keep in mind when encountering the scholastics themselves, or critical historiography on them. I’ll proceed in no particular order.

“Scholasticism.” The first point that Muller beats into your head is that “scholasticism” is a method of study and organization, not a theology on its own. Quite often you’ll see general references to the teaching of “scholastic” theology of the Reformed, Lutherans, or whoever as if simply in virtue of being scholastics they’re all saying the same thing. That’s not the case. To put it crudely, scholastic theology was “school” theology or theology done according to the methods of organization and argumentation and logic that was prevalent in the academies of the time.

That said, scholastic methodology was practiced by the Reformed, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics, and even some of the Radical theologians of the time. But while they may have all used the same form of syllogistic argument, the quaestio form, or so forth, they often came to radically different conclusions on theological judgments about Scripture, justification, the will and knowledge of God, and any number of other issues. So, again, when someone talks about “scholasticism”, it makes sense to ask, “Whose scholasticism?”

Method/Genre Matters. There are a lot of different issues that could be shoved under the question of method and genre, but one is the way it shapes how we think of the piety and spirituality of the period. The theology of the Orthodox period has been accused of being “dry”, “arid”, and devoid of the vitality of earlier Reformation preaching. This is allegedly a result of its rationalism and divorce from the earlier spiritual concerns of its forebears. Muller points out that much of this is, in fact, an issue of style.

First off, much of the actual material is not dry and is quite concerned with the life of piety. Even in the most technical works, you’ll usually get a section on the pastoral “use” of even the most abstruse doctrines. All the same, in their systems, the Orthodox were often writing for the academy, in an institutional setting for the training of students, and so their systems are not always reflective of their popular works or preaching. Even today textbooks are very often more technical and boring than sermons.

Reading Turretin and Thomas Watson this year has been instructive for me in this regard. Watson’s work a Body of Practical Divinity is a work of “homiletical” theology, sermons commenting on the catechism. Turretin’s is an apologetic, technical work. While I’d be hard-pressed to find major theological differences between them–indeed, Watson’s distinctions can be quite scholastic–their styles can seem far apart. Watson sings and Turretin, with a few exceptions, lectures. One lively and pietistic, the other dry and academic, but the difference here is one of method and genre, not theology.

Exegetically-Focused. One of the major criticisms of the Scholastics is that much of their theology is just Aristotle or some other metaphysician baptized. It’s the “Greek” charge in a lot of ways, simply applied a thousand years later. Instead of the “biblical” theology of Calvin and Luther, the scholastics abandoned their principled, textual basis and returned to abstract speculation to construct their doctrines of God and the decree. The problem with that is the actual texts of the scholastics. While it’s true that many did return to retrieve certain categories from the medievals in order to sharpen up some doctrines that the Reformers didn’t do as much work with, it’s hardly the case that we’ve got just a bunch of metaphysical logic-chopping.

As Muller points out, before they wrote their systems, most of the Reformed scholastics taught Scripture, wrote commentaries, preached, and trained heavily in the humanistic study of languages and rhetoric. Read one of Turretin’s questions and you’ll see references to texts in their historic contexts, typology, Rabbinic exegesis, and knotty linguistic issues. Or on the issue of God’s attributes, it is true that there are a number that can be treated by some theologians in a more philosophical mode, but many are packed to the gills with careful discussions of Scripture references. Beyond that, most systems began with a discussion of the biblical “names” of God as the source of reflection on God’s nature before they even touched the more abstract “attributes.”

Philosophically-Eclectic. Muller has pointed out that while there was a generalized sort of “Aristotelianism” in the intellectual air at the time, that hardly means that the Reformed scholastics were a monolith in this area. In fact, it seems that the Reformed were “eclectic” in philosophical matters. This is true on a number of levels. Some, for instance, were far more skeptical than others of the place that philosophy could play in the formulation of Christian doctrine in subordination to Scripture.

On another level, different types of Reformed theologians drew on different theo-philosophical streams for their reflections. Some drew on Thomas, while others reflected certain emphases found in Duns Scotus or Ockham, and even later, some flirted with Cartesian philosophy. And it was hardly ever a matter of simply taking over distinctions uncritically, but adopting them and adapting them in line with their own reading of Scripture in order to expound the truth of the Scriptures.

Continuity and Discontinuity. Finally, there’s the big issue Muller is concerned to discuss, which is whether or not the Reformed Orthodox systems represented a radical break with the early Reformers or stand in essential continuity, and why that did or didn’t happen.  There are a number of factors that go into answering this question but the answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

First, we need to grapple with getting the past right. You have to get it clear in your head that Calvin isn’t the sole benchmark for pure, Reformation theology. He had plenty of colleagues like Musculus, Vermigli, Hyperius, Bucer, Viret, and others, who were also respected, Reformed theologians who played a role in laying the foundation for the Reformed tradition. So continuity can’t just be measured by “What did Calvin say? And did they say the same, exact thing in the same, exact style?” You need to take into account the broader, Reformed context.

Also, it helps to know where and how the Reformers themselves actually differed or didn’t differ from their Medieval forebears. On many questions, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, so they simply don’t address the issue at length. Then the Reformed Scholastics come along and say something that sounds kind of like the Medievals and they get accused of diverging from the Reformers, when it’s more simply a matter of saying louder when the Reformers had basically assumed.

Second, we need to take into account that history happens and new situations call for new responses that aren’t necessarily in opposition to what came before, but may represent a legitimate development. So, when Calvin and Luther were writing, you had the challenges of a new movement fighting for its life with all the vitality, fire, and eclecticism that goes with that. With the Post-Reformation period came the phase of institutionalization needed to preserve and protect the gains made in the Reformation. Hence the rise of the schools and the appropriateness of scholastic development of Reformation theology.

Not only that, many of the arguments shifted over time. In the Post-Reformation period you get a lot more distinctions in certain areas of theology that weren’t treated by the Reformers, mostly because they weren’t up for grabs. So when the Socinian heretics come along and start arguing for a finite God, limited knowledge, rationalist metaphysics and epistemology, and so forth, the Reformed scholastics find themselves with new challenges to be treated. The same thing is true with the growing sophistication of Roman Catholic counter-arguments, as well as certain areas of dispute with the Lutherans such as the sacraments. Things got more complicated, so the theology expanded to match it.

There’s more to get into here, but time and again Muller shows that in the early and high periods of Post-Reformation Orthodoxy the scholastics developed the theology of the Reformers in a new context in ways that are both continuous and discontinuous with what came before. Along the way, he shows that there are riches to be mined in the mountains of those dusty, old tomes. Over and over again, I keep thinking to myself that certain contemporary “advances” are only beginning to catch up to the clarity and sophistication of the old masters.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rules for Reading Calvin After Reading Muller

unaccommodated CalvinStudent of Calvin that I am, I was very excited to receive Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. It’s supposed to be the book when it comes to Calvin that you have to reckon with, if you’re going to get an accurate and adequate picture of Calvin. As soon as I got it, I broke down and put it the front of the list and began reading. Soon, though, I realized that this was not the book I expected, but maybe the one I needed. 

In his work, Muller points out that Calvin has been accommodated over the years to any number of widely diverging portraits designed, intentionally or not, to fit him into their own current theological program or grid. Depending on the theologian, Calvin comes out as the rigid systematician, or the scornful humanist who wouldn’t approach anything like a scholastic system. The problem is that most have done so without any serious care to set him deeply within his 16th-Century historical and intellectual context, or dealt properly with the variety of source material when it comes to Calvin’s works. Muller wants to set the record to straight and do the kind of historical work necessary to set Calvin in his proper context and trace out the shape of Calvin’s program. It’s not so much a study in Calvin’s theology (for that, I’d recommend Billings or Horton), so much as a study in Calvin the theologian; his method, more than his results; how to read him, not so much what you’ll find when you do.

So what should we learn about Calvin the theologian? What should we avoid and what should we expect? Well, I can’t give you everything because that would take the couple of hundred pages, plus the eighty pages of endnotes (yes, endnotes) to do what Muller did. Still, I’ll try to summarize a few highlight takeaways. As always, this is rough.

Yes, Calvin was trained as a humanist. Does that make him “anti-scholastic”? Well, yes and no. Muller makes a very convincing case that Calvin was mostly directly acquainted with the ‘scholastic’ theologians of the Sorbonne of his day and that most of his harsh polemics is aimed at them. Indeed, the French translation of the Institutes especially makes the case as the term scholastic is often translated “Sorbonnist theologians.” Beyond that, he probably wasn’t deeply as acquainted with scholastic theology personally as some have imagined. Calvin learned theology as he studied and taught, in the thick of ministry. That said, there are strong evidences of its influences in his theology in terms of classical distinctions he used, and argument forms he deployed.

The same thing is true, apparently, of Aristotle. While most of his references to Aristotle are negative, Aristotelian thought-forms and categories are still present in his work, because they were shared by a lot of the common intellectual culture at the time. Actually, a lot of what you see in Calvin is a shift in his form of argument influenced by Agricolan logic, and the greater emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion that the humanists had. When you compare him to what came before and what followed, he actually makes a lot of sense as something of an in-between figure, because really, it’s historically anachronistic to separate out ‘humanism’ as a theology and method too cleanly from ‘scholasticism’ as a theology and method at the time.

Does that make him anti-systematic? We should also scrap any idea that Calvin was, therefore, as a humanist, totally anti-systematic. Muller makes the case that Institutes are something in-between a full-blown, modern system, and something else. Instead, they are arranged as a set of loci communes, or commonplaces. In other words, it’s a work where special topics addressed and arranged to provide a gateway into Scripture. It’s not supposed to be a total system of doctrine, or Calvin’s final or only word on any issue. This was the place where Calvin wanted to address key topics, issues, arguments, and disputed doctrines so that he wouldn’t have to clutter up his commentaries with lengthy appendices or sections devoted to them. He wanted his commentaries to be marked by ‘clarity’ and brevity, following the logic of the text, unlike some of his contemporaries. Also, we should know that our modern translations kind of muck with the work a bit. A lot of the technical theological terms of argument that scholastically and humanistically trained types would have picked up on are no longer there, making it feel less systematic than it would have to an early reader.  So yes, it’s clearly a system, but maybe not the kind of system that many of us are used to now.

How to Read The Institutes. Here are a few tips on how to read the Institutes, or, well–you’ll see.

Read Him With Paul in Mind. There’s been a lot of argument about how Calvin organized his Institutes, or whether there is some correct order that makes sense of the way Calvin placed the topics, especially since he rearranged it a few times through various editions. After a lot of very detailed reading and argumentation, Muller basically comes out saying there are three noted organizing themes. First, and most important, Calvin, influenced by Philip Melancthon and his own reading, organized along the Pauline order of salvation as it is found in the book of Romans. If you look at the two books, there’s a generally recognizable flow and similarity to structure. So, if you want to understand Calvin’s logic in presenting the subjects in the order he does, go read Romans a few times and it will start to make more sense.

Second, yes, there is a bit of a credal structure as Calvin does base a lot of his exposition on the Apostles’ Creed, but that is broken up a lot over the course of the editions. Finally, you can see the structural theme of the duplex cognitio Dei, or the twofold knowledge of God. This is not so much the knowledge of God as Creator and then as Redeemer, although that’s there. It’s the “knowledge of God and ourselves”, insofar as we can only know our nature and our sin in light God’s nature and revelation.

Read the Commentaries too. I’ve talked a bit about this before over at The Gospel Coalition, but Calvin never wanted the Institutes to be read alone. Calvin’s magnum opus was developed through various editions, starting from a brief exposition of the creed, the commandments, etc. into the work we currently have through his life-long conversation with Scripture, churchly theological disputes, and so forth. Again, if you recognize that it was supposed to be a collection of topics in order to leave his commentaries uncluttered, then you realize that you really need to read the commentaries on relevant texts in order to get Calvin’s “theology” on a given subject.

In that sense, you have to read the Institutes knowing that Calvin’s many “proof-texts” are more like footnotes. Calvin wrote commentaries on over 2/3 of the books of the Bible. So when he cites a text, odds are, tucked away somewhere is a discussion on the subject in his commentary, or, also, the commentaries of contemporary or classical exegetes like Chrystostom. He’s kind of like the Westminster divines that way. One more tidbit there. You need to know that not all the proof-texts cited in modern editions are his but have been added by editors. So, if you do go check the commentary and there’s nothing there on the subject, Calvin may not be to blame.

Point is, read the Institutes, but don’t read them alone.

Read the Sermons. On a similar note, we need to remember to read Calvin’s sermons. Calvin preached multiple sermons per week through various books of the Bible for years. Often the commentaries are the fruit of his labor in the sermons. What’s more, the sermons are usually thicker and more theologically developed than the commentaries, at least the early ones (Calvin got a bit more long-winded in his later, post-1559 Institutes commentaries).

Read Developmentally. Calvin almost never cut stuff out, but he did a heck of a lot of re-organizing of his Institutes, and often that did change the shape of his exposition enough. Also, you have to know that while Calvin was fairly solid throughout his career, he was human, so his thought did develop. In which case, comparing commentaries and Institutes without respect for when the commentary was written might skew your perception.


My big conclusion when it comes to reading Calvin after Muller? Well, it’s something I sort of already knew, but now begin to grasp in a way I couldn’t before: Calvin was a complex, historically-situated theologian, pastor, and commentator. In other words, before you go making sweeping claims about Calvin’s work, do your homework. As an example, Muller read William J. Bousma the riot act for his reading of Calvin as being some unsystematic thinker driven by anxieties based on his (misreading) of Calvin’s use of few phrases like “abyss” and “labyrinth.” Muller goes on to show that Calvin wasn’t suffering some grave anxiety–at least, you can’t come to that conclusion based on those texts. Instead, he was using common literary tropes as they were appropriate to discussing the texts he was commenting on, and they served specific polemical purposes in his writing. Indeed, words like “way” and “order” were far more common in his work, indicating a mind concerned to illustrate the sure, comforting path offered by the light of Scripture. But it takes more than quick, cursory, or even broad readings of Calvin to see that. It needs the patience to set Calvin in his proper historical and theological context, to appreciate him for the thinker he was, instead the accommodated intellectual prop we’d like him to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria