The problem with simply reading Calvin…

Most do not realize that John Calvin’s Institutes, while a fine read, were originally meant for beginners in the ministry.  It is merely a guidebook for young pastors navigating through Scripture.  Yes, Calvin made important breakthroughs in epistemology and political theory, but even as incisive and advanced as they are, they are still elementary and surface-level.  This raises a problem with those who “convert” out of the Reformed faith to some other tradition.  Does simply reading Calvin make you an expert on the pros and cons of Reformed theology (this assumes that the interlocutor has even read through the Institutes; I know for a fact that this is rarely the case)?

One might reply, “Surely you can’t expect everyone to read everything before making a life-changing, heaven-and-hell decision?”   True, I don’t expect Aunt Lula May to read through all of Reformed scholasticism before evaluating whether the Reformed faith is true.   But admittedly, Aunt Lula May doesn’t consider herself an apologist and theologian. She doesn’t spend all day on the internet picking fights on blogs (and I rarely comment on other blogs myself).  She is held to a different standard.  For the convertskii who begins to attack Reformed theology, I do hold him to a different standard. It’s only fair.  If someone wants to “convert” out of Reformed theology because he finds inner peace or whatever in another system, I have no comment. That’s between him and God.  Every man stands or falls before his own master.  But if someone posits that the Reformed faith is categorically wrong and begins to offer what he thinks are systemic reasons, then I expect him to have read the best Reformed faith has to offer.  Let’s begin:

  1. If Protestantism is simply nominalism ala Gabriel Biel, then how come Biel’s system of salvation is virtually identical with the congruent merit schemes of Rome?
  2. If Protestantism is simply nominalism, then how do we account for the fact that Vermigli and Bucer were Thomistic realists?
  3. Are you familiar with Muller’s thesis? Which Muller works have you read? 1/3 of these articles can be found online; another five can be found on EBSCO. This is an important point, for once I started reading Muller, I realized my entire narrative about Reformation theology was wrong.
  4. Have you read Turretin?   Turretin’s genius is in precisely identifying the question at stake.  I wager few people have read Turretin (part of the blame lies with the seminary system).  You don’t even have to read all three volumes. Just read volume 1.
  5. Briefly discuss Aristotle’s causality scheme and how the Reformed modified and utilized it on the question of justification.  Explain why that is important.
  6. What do the Reformed mean by principium essendi and principium cognoscendi?
  7. What is the distinction between necessity of consequence and the necessity of the consequent thing?
  8. (Advanced) If the Scotist view of synchronic contingency was used by the Reformed, which essentially admits a free will (of sorts), then how can the charge of mono-energism stick?

8 comments on “The problem with simply reading Calvin…

  1. Justin says:

    While I am by no means looking to leave the Reformed faith, this will serve as an excellent bit of “homework” for me. I don’t yet have Turretin, but I will at some point. I have heard nothing but good of his works.

    I’ve copied your questions down, and now it’s time to study. Thank you!

  2. Friend for Life says:

    I’m more at the level of Aunt Lula May and admit I haven’t read Calvin’s Institutes yet… I have a copy and need to get to it. But more importantly (IMO) I have been studying the Scottish Covenanters, history of Presbyterianism, Martin Luther, Henry Bullinger and other reformers, plus the 16th Century Protestant Confessions. From this post, it looks like I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg and have much to learn. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Terry says:

    Should a layman start with Muller or Turretin? Or something else. I have read the Institutes cover to cover. Angela, you would enjoy the Institutes. I was surprised at how pastoral they are.

    • Friend for Life says:

      Thanks Terry! I am looking forward to digging into them and storing up their precious jewels in my heart. 🙂

      • Calvin’s actually a fairly straightfoward writer; (I am not a proponent of the classical model of education, but Calvin’s prose, being classically trained, is fairly straightfoward). Book I of the Institutes is very easy reading. Book II is simple covenant theology. Books III and IV are where the money is.

      • Friend for Life says:

        Thank you! I feel very blessed to have your help in this matter and thank the good Lord for you. 🙂

  4. Probably Muller, but it’s a trick getting the four volume PRRD. I would find Muller’s interview with Scott Clark. That’s a good place to start.

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