Calvin and the Irony: An historiographical victim

The wonderful thing about Calvin is how lucid and succinct he is.  Yes, the Institutes is quite long, but with a few exceptions in Book IV, it is rather focused and on-topic.  This means, whether you love him or hate him, he is very easy to read.  Almost too easy, I think.  To his credit he avoids most metaphysical speculation and anchors our attention (most of the time) in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  Here is where the problem arises: first because of the Federal Vision and later in certain attacks on the Reformed tradition, since Calvin is easy to read and there is a moniker floating around known as Calvinist, people draw the logical conclusion that Calvin is the universal representative of this thought.    Such a claim would have been historically impossible, not to mention laughable, prior to the 19th century.

As I’ve mentioned routinely, would it be fair to call Martin Bucer, a Thomist who operated independently of Calvin, who was older than Calvin, a man to whom Calvin looked up and considered the finest exegete in the world, does it really make sense to call Bucer a “Calvinist”?

William Perkins disagreed with Calvin on election and nearly the entirety of Book IV of the Institutes (Perkins was episcopalian; there’s your apostolic succession if you want it).  Does it make sense to call him a “Calvinist”?

Peter Martyr Vermigli disagreed with Calvin on double-election and whose Hebrew skills far surpassed Calvin’s.    Does it make any historical sense to say he “followed” Calvin?

A Challenge:  Can you find the Calvin Hiding in this Passage?

It would be an interesting exercise, though I have neither the time nor resources for it, to examine where Protestant scholastics do not rely on Calvin in their writings overly much.  I reject the Barthian narrative that the Scholastics ruined Calvin’s dynamic reformation, but it is interesting that one of the most important topics in the WCF is the Covenant of Works, something on which Calvin is rather silent (explicitly, anyway).   If the Westminster tradition is mindlessly copying Calvin and should be known as Calvinists, they are jumping way ahead of the evidence.  As Carl Trueman has argued, John Owen really couldn’t fit this description since his library, if such reflected his own learning and interests, far exceeded anything a parochial Calvinist would read.  As Rutherford’s biographer notes (Coffey: Cambridge University Press) he rarely quoted Calvin at all, and aside from a broad agreement on presbyterian government, election, and justification, he really doesn’t look much like a “Calvinist” at all.

If anything, the Westminster Confession, which is the authoritative document for Anglo-American Reformed, draws much more heavily upon Archbishop James Ussher’s Irish Articles than it does on Calvin.  If anything, we should be called….”Ussherites”!  (I actually like that name).

Theonomy Files: No. 6: Theological Studies and the Steroid Effect

One of the dangers in taking steroids while lifting weights is that despite all the gains, the level you reach is likely the highest you will ever reach.   Once you get off steroids, and even the biggest “user” won’t take them perpetually (No one does steroids, or even creatine, during the regular season for risk of dehydration), it is unlikely you will ever reach those levels naturally again.

We see something similar in theological studies.   Deciding which area to major in will determine how deep one’s theological knowledge can get.   Here was my (and many others; and for what it’s worth, throughout this post substitute any Federal Vision term in place of a theonomy term and the point is largely the same) problem in institutional learning:  I immediately jumped on how important apologetics was for the Christian life to the extent that I made apologetical concerns overwhelm theological concerns.  While I believe Greg Bahnsen died entirely orthodox, and I do not believe theonomy is a heresy (only an error), focusing on Bahnsen’s method to such an extent, both in apologetics and ethics, warped the rest of theology.   I essentially made theology proper (and soteriology and ecclesiology) subsets of apologetics/ethics, instead of the other way around.

I won’t deny:  I became very good at apologetics and ethics, but I didn’t know jack about theology outside of a basic outline of Berkhof.   Studying Reformed theology among sources, and worse, movements, who are only barely Reformed (Bahnsen excluded), limited how deep I could go in Reformed theology.

I’ll say it another way:  when I was taking covenant theology we had to read sections of Gisbertus Voetius and Cocceius in class.  I got frustrated thinking, “These guys are tying in the covenant of works with natural law.  Don’t they know how un-reformed natural law is?”  Problem was, I was wrong.  But if you read the standard theonomic (or FV; by the way, the FV fully adopts the Barthian, and now historically falsified, Calvin vs. Calvinist paradigm) historiography, there is no way to avoid such misreadings.  Even worse, said historiography fully prevents one from learning at the feet of these high Reformed masters.

By the grace of God I’ve repented of that misreading.  I spent this spring finding as many Richard Muller journal articles and taking copious notes.