Christ and the Decree

Part of this post is a book review of Muller’s Christ and the Decree.  The other part is a critique of Calvinist Christology.

Richard Muller’s work begins on a promising note:  he refuses to view election in any way apart from the Person of Christ, specifically regarding the role of the mediator.   Part of the difficulty in this review is noting what is Muller’s own view and what is John Calvin’s.    Assuming Muller wants to identify his position with Calvin’s, I will use “Muller” and “Calvin/Calvin’s contemporaries” interchangeably.   One of the so-called caricatures of Reformed theology is that it posits an angry Father making an arbitrary decision on who gets to go to hell and to heaven.   Muller reconstructs Calvin’s work to show that Calvin spoke of election in the context of Christology; therefore, election and the saving work of Christ can never be separated.  By the end of the review one will see how successful Muller was.

This review will examine the historical development of Reformed perspectives on predestination as they relate to a specifically Reformed approach to Christology.   The reviewer intends to offer a critical evaluation at the end of the review, documenting shortcomings in Reformed Christology.   Until then it is the reviewer’s intent to use a fairly appreciative tone and highlight some very important arguments Calvinists have made on this topic.  Also, whether or not the doctrine of unconditional election is true or false is independent of Muller’s historical thesis.   If election is false, that in no way validates whether Muller’s reconstruction of these Reformers is true or false.

Muller begins his book with a review and reconstruction of Calvin’s Christology.  There are some difficulties in evaluating Muller’s line of argument on Calvin.   When Muller speaks of the “church fathers,” it is not always clear to whom he is referring.   Sometimes by “fathers” he means simply Augustine.    Occasionally he will contrast Calvin and Augustine with “the Eastern Fathers,” but then he arbitrarily divides “the Eastern Fathers” from “Hilary of Poitiers,” who did his most formative work in the East.

As to the Christology itself, Calvin distinguishes the Person of the Son from the Son as God, which leads to the Reformed doctrine of aseity and autotheos (Muller 29).  Much of the book will hinge on the connections between aseity, autotheos, and extra calvinisticum. This leads to Calvin’s important doctrine of mediation, which is framed according to the Son’s two natures.   Muller claims that Calvin’s Christology is a historical Christology that focuses on the covenant-keeping God who acts in history to save man.   Muller claims this is a genuine innovation.  In fact, it is the covenant-keeping Christology that sets Calvin apart from the Eastern and Chalcedonian Christology (33).  Presumably, the East is more interested in a Divine Person who assumes a human nature to himself, whereas Calvin is more interested in the mediator who acts in history to save his people.  (By the end of the review one will see if this claim can be substantiated.)

The rest of Muller’s book tracing the development from Peter Martyr Vermigli to William Perkins documents how these writers viewed election “in Christ.”   There is no such thing as a nude Deos absconditus who makes deals “behind the back” of the Son.   Starting with Vermigli, we see an emphasis on grace as mediated (57), putting a Reformed slant on a very Roman Catholic doctrine and structure (showing how much a child of Rome Protestantism truly is). One side-note related to this, and important for Muller’s thesis, is that election is mediated by Christ while reprobation is im-mediate (80).   In other words, Christ actively saves the elect while no person actively damns the reprobate.   Obviously, Muller is putting a very infralapsarian spin on the matter.

Criticisms of Calvin’s Christology

It is curious that Muller thinks Calvin’s Christology is robustly historical, while the Eastern Christology is more concerned with abstract speculations.  Is it true that the East does not focus on the “historical dimension” of Christology?    In his landmark study on Cyril of Alexandria, John McGuckin notes concerning the Alexandrian tradition, “It began its consideration of all theology in terms of the narrative of the eternal Lord’s acts of salvation towards his people” (McGuckin, 176, emphasis added).   Elsewhere Brian Daley notes, commenting on the pre-Nicene and Nicene theological method, that the Fathers did speak of the work of Christ in a historical manner, “he [Eusebius of Caesarea] distinguishes such language from the narrative of what God has done in history through Jesus, the plan that he calls ‘the economy’” (Daley 42, emphasis added).   One could object that McGuckin and Daley are offering reconstructions of older Christologies in newer terminologies.   Fair enough, though if that is true then Muller is doing the same thing with Calvin.
Joseph P. Farrell writes concerning what he calls “First Europe” (Eastern and Western Patristic Orthodoxy), that the God they speak of is this God who does these things for His people.   Concerning St Ambrose Farrell writes, “For him, the ultimate reference in this passage is to God the Son, Christ in his Incarnation.  This fact gives the context an historical specificity” (Farrell 3-4, emphasis author’s).  Therefore, one must conclude that Muller’s assertion that the Fathers were not concerned with the historical dimension of Christology is simply false.

The Problems of Triadology and Christology are Inter-connected

One of the more common complaints against Calvinist Christology is the specifically Nestorian structure it takes.   In other words, Reformed Christology has a tendency to speak of the separate natures of Christ as ultimately (and logically and temporally) prior to the Person of the Son.    The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter eight, paragraph six, speaks of the Person of the Son as both “divine and human.” It says this because it sees the two natures constituting the Person, rather than simply the divine person assuming a human nature.

Calvin gives this specifically Antiochene Christology a more rigid structure.   Starting with Calvin we see the office of mediator replacing, if only in emphasis but likely exceeding that, the Person of the Son.  In other words, as Muller hints, “Office has replaced person” (180-181).  This is not accidental.  If the extra-calvinisticum be true, if there is the divine nature still outside of the Person of the Son, then there has to be, for Muller, priority on the office of the Mediator.  But more importantly, this goes back to the Reformed emphasis on the finite non capax infiniti:  the finiti cannot contain the infinite.

The most Nestorian moment in Reformed Christology is the idea that the two natures constitute the Person.    This is seen specifically in the Westminster Confession of Faith, but also in the Reformed Scholastics.  Peter Martyr Vermigli says “Christ is constituted out of both natures” (Muller 59).   Theodore Beza calls Christ a medius, a mean between the two natures (92).   Ursinus will go even further and assert that the Logos is not the whole Person of the Mediator (102).   Interestingly, although Muller does not draw this out, we see here a connection between the doctrine of autotheos—the Son as fully God in and of himself—a Nestorian structure of the hypostasis, and the extra-Calvinisticum.  Anglican John Milbank summarizes this admirably by noting that Calvin’s Christology “…has a somewhat Antiochean dynamic interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ, as if this were some kind of schizophrenic interplayof different persons” (Milbank 33).

With the heavy emphasis on the extra-Calvinisticum and the doctrine of autotheos, it is questionable if Reformed Christology can remain faithful to Nicea.  Nicea said Christ was “God of God,” emphasizing that Christ does derive his divinity from the Father.  In fact, it is precisely this that the Niceans meant by “God.”  God was ho theos kai pater tou Iesou Christou.   We call upon God as Father, not as simplicity itself.  The doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum falls prey to the same problems that St Gregory of Nazianzus noted of earlier, problematic doctrines of the Trinity:  it lacks a personal principle of unity.   True, the Reformers do want to confess that the Son is of the Father, but they immediately confess that he is also God of himself.    At best this is very confusing.  Somewhat worse, and more likely, it is simply contradictory, at worst…

St Gregory notes, and his argument is worth quoting in full,

“The three most ancient opinions concerning God are anarchia, polyarchia, and monarchia.   The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so.  For anarchy is a thing without order, and the rule of many [polyarchia ] is factios, and thus disorderly, and thus anarchia.  For both of these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution.
But monarchia is what we hold in order…” (Gregory of Nazianzus 301).

One would think Gregory is simply discussing different political systems.  While that is in the background, and Gregory’s presentation of sacerdotal monarchy is certainly to be preferred, he is primarily talking about the doctrine of God.  It is true that he defines monarchia as the Holy Trinity in one sense, but in another Gregory is simply restating the traditional view that the Father is the monarchia of the Son and Spirit.

Finally, given the doctrine of autotheos, one is reminded of the often standard confusion of person and nature.   Given Calvin’s construal of the Son of God per his autotheotic divinity and the Son of God the Father, it is often difficult to know concerning which “Son” Calvin is speaking.  The charges of Nestorianism are not groundless.

On a side note, Muller does admit that Calvinism has a Scotist and nominalist structure:  God’s will is prior to his goodness (89).


The problems in Reformed Christology notwithstanding, Muller’s book deserves high praise.   He has done yeoman’s work synthesizing a large amount of material, the nature of which is prohibitive to the average layman.   On the other hand, many will have trouble with Muller’s turgid prose.   There are a few problems, however.   In the background of the book is the recent “Calvin vs. the Calvinist Debates,” which posits that the later Reformed scholastics warped Calvin’s pure message.   I am not competent to discuss the ins and outs of the debate, nor is it relevant to the current review.  Muller wants to posit a clear continuum between Calvin and the scholastics, and he makes a convincing case.  On the other hand, every time he comes across contrary material which seems to posit election within the arbitrary decrees of God, Muller simply brushes it aside, often with no more than a few words of argument, if that much.

Secondly, while Muller highlights the interconnections between various Reformed loci, and he rightly places the Reformers in their Anselmic and Augustinian contexts, he does not seem to be aware of some the main implications of an Augustinian ontology.   Augustine was famous for saying that God is his attributes. He writes, “The Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is then the same as to be wise” (Augustine 106).   Therefore, if God’s attributes = his essence, and his essence is immutable, then an attribute such as “will” is also immutable. Consider the argument, understanding “simplicity” to be a great “=” sign.  If A = B, and B = C, then A =D.    Further, per this Augustinian gloss, then one must come to the conclusion that “to foreknow = to predestine.”   If foreknow then equals predestine, and God foreknew the damned to reprobation, then given Augustinian simplicity one must conclude that God also predestined the damned to hell.  This forces a reevaluation of the earlier claim that election is mediate while reprobation is immediate.
Future Reformed historical theologians need to come to grips with a number of questions:   given Augustinian simplicity entails the filioque, and given that Reformed Christological and soteriological distinctives stem from said simplicity, how then does the filioque impact Reformed soteriology.    I do not fault Muller for not dealing with these questions.  The scope of his work is simple (no pun intended) enough.   Further, it is to his credit that he notes the connections between simplicity, extra-calvinisticum, and autotheos.  It remains to future Reformed historians to face the challenges to Augustinian simplicity.

Works Cited

Augustine.  “On the Trinity.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (First Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

Daley, Brian.  Gregory of Nazianzus.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Farrell, Joseph P.  God, History and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes, no publisher, 1995.

Gregory of Nazianzus.  “The Five Theological Orations.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volume 7. (Second Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

McGuckin, John.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Milbank, John.   “Alternative Protestantism.”  Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Traditon. eds. Smith, James K. A. and Olthuis, James H.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Muller, Richard.  Christ and the Decree:   Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 1986 [2008].


4 comments on “Christ and the Decree

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  2. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    I’m not a Vermigli scholar, but reading Vermigli yesterday, it seemed he was distinguishing between the Son of Man and the Logos. A significant portion of his book on the Incarnation is on google books.

  3. […] Christ and Decree review […]

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