Hiding in Plain Sight

mullerSometimes things are too obvious to notice at first glance. Whether it’s your keys, or a key feature of a film you’ve watched a half-dozen times, we’ve all had moments where we finally notice something that was hiding in plain sight.

The same thing happens in theology from time to time.

In his short article, “The Myth of Decretal Theology,” Richard Muller sets about doing what he’s known for–exploding myths about the nature and development of the theology of the Reformation tradition. In this piece, among other points, he tackles the notion that the Reformed Orthodox ‘systems’ of theology begin with the “decree” as an architectonic principle and then “rather than follow a biblical, historical order of doctrine or a cognitive order, ‘abstract decretalism’ moves deductively through the topics of theological system from God, to Creation, human nature, sin, covenant, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.”

Muller first shows that, in point of fact, the systems never actually began with the decree as an architectonic or fundamental cognitive principle. In which point, it might be wondered,  “why the Reformed systems follow a ‘deductive’ rather than a ‘biblical’ order.”

The answer to this query is quite simple: The order of system that runs from God and creation, to human nature and sin, promise and covenant, law and gospel, Christ and salvation, church and last things, looks suspiciously like the order of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation [my emphasis]. If there are deductive elements to this order, the predominant model is the biblical and historical order. Indeed, those sixteenth-century theologians who discussed the order of theology, notably Melanchthon and Hyperius, emphasized the historical order of the theological topics. This order, by the way, is also mirrored to a certain extent in the Apostles’ Creed — which also accounts for the shape of theological systems like Lombard’s Sentences and Calvin’s Institutes in which there are variations away from a strictly historical order. In other words, not only is the order of orthodox Reformed theological system not governed by a process of deduction from the decree, in addition, it is not an order devised by the Reformed orthodox. It is a traditional order of theological system, basic to Western Christianity and followed in fact by monergist and synergist alike. The Reformed system is biblical and historical not purely deductive.

Muller is exactly right. There are various possible ways to order and organize one’s exposition of doctrine, but there’s nothing particularly surprising (or deficient) about the way the theological tradition has typically done so. The reason has been hiding in plain sight between the pages of Scripture.

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

Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.